Full version of Karina Jha’s excerpt in Aura’s Vol. 48 Issue No. 2
I get off my morning shift at half past noon and when I come out from the back room with my coat, she’s standing at the counter with a pastry box again. This time her hair is box-dye black and a bruise the size of my palm hugs her left cheekbone.
“Blueberry with lemon icing,” she says, and smiles with her teeth. “Your favorite.”
Any other day. If she had picked any other day, I might have let the coat drop to the floor and rushed over to press her to my chest. I might have run a thumb over her cheek, let myself fall back into that flesh-stripping orbital pull. But today, the sight of her is sickening.
“Thanks.” I take the box and push past her.
“You know,” she says, hurrying ahead to swing open the glass door for me, “I was thinking we could drive over to the lake this afternoon. Like we used to? I know you love the ducks.”
It’s cold in the parking lot. I flip up the collar of my coat and bury my nose in it. The wool scratches against my chin, steeped in the earthy smell of the bookstore’s back room. I unlock the car and walk over to the driver’s side. Wrap my numbed fingers around the door handle. She’s standing next to me, so close that I can see the puffs of her breath mist the frigid air. I always hated the way she breathed through her mouth instead of her nose.
“You don’t have a ride?” I ask. It’s a stupid question. I know she can’t drive.
She perks up. “No, I walked. I thought we could go to the lake?”
I open the car door, duck my head down to slide behind the wheel, and double over to stuff the cupcake box under the passenger seat alongside the others: cherry with chocolate icing, raspberry with mint icing. The sweet smell of sugary rot wafts up in a cloud and I crank the heat. Cold air blasts from the vents and for a moment I’m frozen in last night again—curled with my knees against my chest on the beer-sticky cushions of a basement couch, my underwear on the floor. I see his mouth moving. Fucking dyke. Sick bitch I’ll show you some—
I start. She’s still standing there, shifting from one ratty sneaker to the other, sucking on a piece of her hair. I wonder how fresh the hair dye is. If her mouth tastes like ammonia.
“Hey, chef. It’s one teaspoon of baking soda, not four.”
“Fuck.” Aylin peers into the mixing bowl and bites her lip. “Do we start over?” she asks. Her voice is small.
I lean over from my perch on the counter and squint at the recipe book. “I think it’s a little late for that. You think you can scoop some of it back out?”
“They’re going to hate me.” She sniffs and a tear drops onto the counter.
“Hey…” I hop down and pull her head under my chin. “Don’t say that. They’ll love you.”
She looks up at me. “How can you know that?”
“Because I know my parents. And I know you.” I press a kiss to her forehead.
“But we didn’t even finish the brownies. What do I bring to the dinner? They’re going to think I’m cheap, Katya!” Aylin begins to cry.
“You know what? I think we can still fix it.”
She looks up again, dragging a sweater sleeve across her eyes. “Really?”
“Yeah,” I say, and smear a handful of flour across her face. For a moment, she just stands there, mouth slightly open, flour clinging to her tear-damp cheeks. But then her eyes narrow the way they do whenever she makes a bet she knows she’ll win and suddenly there’s flour everywhere—in my nose, through my hair, down my shirt, across my arms. We’re half-laughing half-choking on the thick cloud in the air, toppling over each other until we’re sitting on the floor of my apartment’s tiny kitchen, still laughing and trading floury kisses between each sneeze.
On the way to meet my parents, we stop by the grocery store, pick up a box of brownies, and arrange them on a paper plate.
“There’s no way they won’t notice—” Aylin begins, but I kiss her mid-sentence. She pulls away to smile and tap her mouth with a finger. “You taste like flour,” she tells me.
“So,” she says, shrugging off her pink parka and tossing it into the backseat. “Do you remember how to get there or am I looking up directions?” She leans over for the phone in my coat pocket and I jerk away instinctually, but not before I smell the spearmint and nicotine on her breath.
She pauses for a moment, her hand hovering over my pocket, then sits back to enter the address into her own phone instead. Her nails click against the glass screen. “Just one.” She doesn’t look at me. “I was nervous about seeing you.”
I picture her in that basement, bent over the plastic table with a credit card. I picture her turning to look at me lying there, her pupils swallowing the whites of her eyes. I fight the urge to vomit. “You said you would stop.”
“Huh, it’s only a fifteen minute drive — a lot closer than I remember. Do you want to stop anywhere else on the way?” She drops the phone in the cup holder and rolls down the window. “Smells like winter. We could get coffee? I’ll pay. I remember what you like: iced Americano—”
“I don’t want coffee.”
She smiles at me again, but I feel her tense in her seat. “Of course. Can’t keep the ducks waiting. I’m sure they’ve missed you.”
The GPS on her phone spits out a series of instructions as I pull out of the parking lot, but I let the crunch of the gravel under the tires drown it out. I don’t need directions.
As I’m pulling into the dirt lot by the lake, the passenger-side door swings open without warning. I slam on the brakes.
“Jesus, Aylin! At least wait for the car to fucking stop. Jesus.”
“Sorry, sorry.” She laughs and twists to grab her parka from the back. “Just excited, that’s all. Sorry.” The door shuts and I’m left for a moment with the ticking of the cooling engine. Through the windshield, I watch her stuff her arms through the sleeves of the coat and skip over the patchy grass to the shore. I hate you, I want to shout. I hate you I hate you I hate you. Instead, I get out of the car and slide the keys into my pocket where they nestle against the drugstore lighter I haven’t lit since spring.
Even with my wool coat, it’s too cold. The wintry lake water seeps up through the sand, through the torn soles of my sneakers, through my socks. The air is stale here. Sour and stifling. You think you’re too good for me, huh? His cold hands press my face into the cushions and I try to suck in air through them. Maybe I’ll die like this, I’d thought. Maybe I’ll die here.
I shake my head. Blink away the crawling feeling and walk, shivering, to Aylin’s side at the water’s edge.
“No ducks,” she says. “That’s too bad.”
We stand in silence for a while, listening to the lakewater lick the sand at our feet. After a few minutes, it becomes unbearable.
“Where did you go?” I ask her.
“What do you mean?”
She sighs. Picks a pebble out of the sand and tosses it into the water with a plink. I watch the ripples ooze out from the spot the pebble sank and feel something like anger begin to knot itself in my stomach. She looks back out at the water and her expression melts into something darker.
“I had to leave home. It was getting bad—he would beat me and Emir every night.”
My anger unwinds instantly, traded for guilt. “He beat a five-year-old?”
“Six. Emir turned six in May.” She smiles again but it’s an awful, twisted thing. “I left him,” she says. “There was nothing else I could do.”
I reach out and fumble for her hand. Her fingers lace through mine and my heart wrenches from the hatred and the fear and the worry and the hatred again.
She pulls away suddenly. “You ever swim here? It’s not so bad in the summer. Crowded, though. All the grade school kids from town come swarming.” She kicks off her shoes and begins to undress.
“Aylin. What are you doing?”
She shucks off her pants and drops them in the sand beside her shirt. All that’s left on her is a fraying sports bra and a pair of pink underwear. “Going for a swim,” she says, and walks into the water.
“Is cold!” Emir squeals, and runs back to wrap his arms around Aylin’s leg. It’s late July and I’m spread out on the sand, eating chopped watermelon out of a plastic container from the cooler. Aylin is rubbing sunscreen into her shoulders, her brown hair pulled up into a messy knot at the top of her head.
“Kuzum benim!” she laughs, and ruffles his dark curls. “I’ll come with you then, tamam?”
“Kaya too?” He points to me with a tiny finger.
“Yeah, Kaya,” Aylin says, “aren’t you coming?” She leans over and takes the piece of watermelon out of my hand with her teeth. I flush.
Silence. Aylin’s face drains.
“Baba. What are you doing here? I told you I would be back with Emir—”
I feel a hand on my shoulder, and suddenly I am wrenched onto my back, staring up at Aylin’s father against the blinding sun. “I told you to stay away from my daughter.”
“Baba, stop.” Aylin bends to help me up, but is struck to the ground in the space of a breath. Emir begins to cry.
“Come, Emir. Your sister has not learned how to behave.” Aylin’s father takes Emir’s hand. “Aylin, come.”
I wrap an arm around Aylin, who is doubled over in the sand, shaking.
Stay, I want to tell her. Just stay here with me. Don’t go back. But she rises to her feet and gathers her and Emir’s things, her shoulders caved in like her father had hit her in the stomach, not the face.
“Aylin…” I whisper, still kneeling in the sand. “Please.”
She doesn’t look at me when she leaves.
“Aylin, get out of the water. Don’t be stupid. It’s January—you’ll freeze to death.” I pick up her parka and hold it out. “Come on, put your clothes back on. Let’s get in the car.” Aylin disappears under the water and the parka nearly slips from my fingers. She resurfaces again and spits out a stream of water, laughing. Her lips are blue.
“It feels great, Katya. Come swim with me. We don’t need the ducks to have a good time.”
Something right between my lungs twists and I throw her jacket back into the sand. “Fuck you,” I say, and storm back across the grass to the car. When I turn the key in the ignition, the heating vents cough out a blast of cold air, so I pull the keys back out, drop my head against the steering wheel, and cry. Of course, this time would be no different from the rest. Usually she’d show up at the counter with a half-squashed cupcake and a half-assed apology a few days after a bad night. A night where she’d stumble through my door wasted and bruised, or high as shit on something she shouldn’t even know the name of. This time she’d disappeared for three weeks. Not one call or text. As the days passed, the terror in my gut had curdled into anger and I’d let it stay. It felt better than the fear.
Then, last night. Terror wormed its way back into my gut and I downed three-quarters of a bottle of liquor and stumbled into a party where everyone looked wrong. I don’t think I know you, he’d said, walking me into the wall. Why don’t I show you around? I know the place. I wish I’d drank enough to forget it all. Maybe enough to forget her, too.
I lift my head and watch Aylin wade out of the water, her arms wrapped around her chest. She stands in front of the pile of clothes for a few moments, dripping cold lakewater onto them, then sits in the sand and hugs her skinny knees.
That sweet rotting smell fills the car again, strong enough to force a gag, and my fingers wrap around the driver’s side door handle. I meet my own eyes in the rearview mirror. “I hate you.” The engine ticks quietly and I can taste the lemon icing in my mouth. “I hate you I hate you I hate you,” I whisper, and open the car door.
Aylin has pulled the parka over her shoulders and is staring out at the water again. Her wet hair has stained the pink of her jacket a gloomy magenta, and in her hands she holds a pack of cigarettes dampened by the moisture from her skin. When I sit down next to her, she leans her head against my shoulder without a word. Her hair soaks through the wool of my coat instantly. I glance down at the cigarette pack and the lighter in my pocket grows heavier, seems to pull me down into the earth.
“Do you see the ducks?” she asks me.
I look out at the water. Rings of ripples from Aylin’s swim cut through each other and wrinkle the smooth skin of the lake’s surface. I smell the ammonia on her wet hair and feel myself sink.
“Yes,” I tell her. “I see them.”