Two Excerpt from ‘Aquarium: A Novel’
by K Hank Jost
– 1 –
Hil squinted against the morning’s light. Long night. Fun night. Eventful enough to fill eons. Valleys of forgetfulness, time travel, and glimmering peaks of clarity. Nice to see Bear so happy. In their element.
A weak smile against the vise-grip around her head. Fuzzy recollections of the night’s shenanigans. Didn’t mean to make that Oliver guy cry, if that’s what he’d been doing. A sweaty affair so maybe, but those teeth gritting behind the beard. Hil knows well enough what a man trying to hold it all back looks like. Every one of them she’s ever known, from father to the pathetic cavalcade which paid her rent her first four years in the City, breaks at some point. None of them’ve ever managed it with any grace. Briefs, shirtsleeves, suits, tees, and ties, she’s seen each the one bunched up to hide face and muffle shouts. Backed away from them all before things were thrown and blows leveled. As easy as it is to foretell the shattering of their pride, it’s opposingly difficult to predict what comes next.
The scaries. Invariably after a night like the last, her mind spends the morning unspooling from the tight weft in which she keeps it woven. Thoughts fly away and fray, exposing the cold lack they’d been bundled to blanket over. Headache and that cottony pit. Hungry, but the idea of food feels akin to suicide, obvious and unthinkable. Sweat like sap. Shakes and—
“Ugh…” From the other side of the bed. “Sons of bitches. Swipe me back!”
Frazzle and blue, floaters and “The fuck are the blinds open for?” at Bear steadily materializing.
“Were they open last night?” Rolling her neck, column cracking gunshot.
“Jesus… You know, one day I’m not gonna be the naked neighbor anymore.”
“Oh, don’t say that. It’s hot to be the naked neighbor. Everyone on the block knows who you are. Talk of the town, stoop to stoop.”
“Can hear them all now, Bear. ‘Yo, y’all catch the orgy last night? See those crazy bitches make that boy cry?”
“Oh no! Was he crying?”
“I don’t fucking know. Maybe. He was definitely feeling some way—”
“Pussy.” Bear’d sat up. Pillow against the wall, legs out, ankle hooked over ankle. An obvious flex down their abdomen. Phone held at arms-length and the click to mimic an analog camera’s shutter.
“Personal or post?” Being upright was making Hil dizzy. Breathing like someone’s on her chest. Couldn’t fall back though, had to fight through it. Only way to resist is to pretend like it isn’t happening. Pain, the most normal thing in the world.
“Don’t know yet. Lighting from the window is nice, though. I look good as fuck. Haven’t eaten since lunch yesterday.”
“They’d sell, you think?”
“These fuckers’ll buy anything. Could post a picture of the backs of my knees. My simps are loyal,” and stuck their tongue out, crossed their eyes, snapped another selfie. “Ha! Look!” Turned the phone to Hil, “I post that and next I know I’m getting cum-tributes in my DMs.”
“Crazy.” Hil’s arms up, breathing deep as the gunk in her throat’d allow.
“Eh…” Finger flicking across the glowing screen, Bear checked the quality of the newly snapped shots, “My subs are cheap, sets and clips are as well. Would never actually charge any real money for something other than a one-on-one, and I don’t do many of those.”
“Why not?” Feeling back in Hil’s fingers, edges of the pit in her belly hardening. Needed to eat soon, water, something or it would be hopeless.
“Cowards. Everything’s hidden and like anonymous and one-on-one they’d have to like, I don’t know. Most of them know me, too. They’re like, around and shit.”
“What’re you talking—”
“All my socials are the same, @teddy_themby. It’s not hard to jump from any one of my pages to this shit. No doubt most of my follows are people who know me like that. Most of my subs are those creepy little cum-monkeys at DIY shows or some douche buying us drinks at a bar or a rave or whatever. Sub and forget, you know? They’re all addicts, bet. Every straight dude in this City’s a fucking porn addict.”
“Not worried that they’ll ever—”
“Nah, they’re all scared. Follow and forget or follow and then buy everything I put behind a paywall. I’ve monetized crushes. All scared and ashamed. Scared that I’m more man than they are and ashamed that they wish I had dick.”
A chuckle rose to choke in Hil’s ribs. “Don’t make me laugh, Bear.”
“I mean, damn though. I’d pay for this shit!” Again, they tuned the phone to face Hil’s bloodshot, blear-bagged eyes.
The light from the window was, in fact, exquisite: Bear’s form carved from the frame, embossed in tender morning. Six-pack abdomen as rolling foot to the modest hilltops of their chest, morsel more than handful. Delicate cream over the spun iron beneath and down the rivering way, the prettiest blossom. Succulent broken from sandstone, glistening with pearls in the scorch.
“I’ll say,” and Hil tried a smile all to realize that even her face was exhausted.
“Why’re you asking?” Bear put the phone down and scootched across the mattress. A shine in their eye. Never hungover it seemed. Always awake, kicking even in their deepest sleep. An impossible cuddle.
“No, no. It’s nothing like—”
“You want to shoot something?” Glint in their grin.
“No! No! Not this again, Bear. C’mon.” Sent her back to the sheets, down flat to see the stain-smattered ceiling.
Bear straddling her then, perched with the vibrating energy of a lekking jungle bird. “No! You c’mon! You know how much I could sell ten minutes of us for? I mean—”
“No, Bear. I don’t want to do anything like that any—”
“No, listen! It wouldn’t be near as bad as that escort shit! This’d be totally anonymous! You could wear like a mask or blindfold. My God, a blindfold would be—!”
Bear’s thighs viced around Hil’s middle. “Ow! Ow!”
“Sorry, sorry,” came down to level kisses before going on, “look, it’d be so easy. I’d split it with you fifty-fifty, fuck it, sixty-forty and—”
“No! It’s not that!” Hands then on Bear’s shoulders, pushing them off. “It’s just—”
None of Bear’s business, to be frank. It’s nobody’s business. It’s not business at all anymore. That’d been the whole point. Hil was just recently in the process of silencing the dialogue she’d allowed to flourish between business and pleasure. In her late-teens and earlier-twenties commerce and concupiscence made fast friends, but the friendship between them was one born of proximity, the way most of her relationships from childhood were started on the basis of shared desks and cafeteria tables alone. As such, the arguments that cropped up were petty in nature and vicious in method, ultimately requiring compromise that threatened the stability of the losing side’s sovereignty.
She’d been twenty-two years old, four or so years into the City, figuring she’d had it pretty well figured when financial desperation opened its maw to fully subsume sex into its hungry protoplasm:
Renting month-to-month made things easy until her roommate, and assumed leaseholder, Asha, a blast-mouth, drip-nostriled, undisplayed artist in her early thirties, moved out, flying to somewhere on the other side of the Prime Meridian or Equator. To this day Hil’s got no idea where the hell she went or with whom, but Asha said it’d be fine. She was going to rent her room out to tourists or something, said it’d be fun for Hil to have different people over and that she’d get kickbacks for keeping the place clean. Fine. Whatever. Four years and the City was always weird, this was nothing strange, simply baroque. The visitors never came, though. Rent money was wired and little was thought of it. But, at some point during the time Hil’d occupied that third story shotgun alone, hearthing it inch by inch closer to a home, the property had changed hands and there, boom, in the never checked mailbox, addressed to her, was a letter of eviction, claiming $4,500 dollars of back-rent owed and damages totaling another four, heftier, digits. Heartsunk and palmnumb, she called the number she had saved for Asha and was sent to a voicemail with a full inbox.
Days later, the new landlord rang: “This Hilary?”
“Karl Jasper. I own your building.”
She’d had the City-thought to hang up. Tell the motherfucker come talk to my face if you got something to say. But, only four years in, a polite and lardy midwestern heart still pumped alongside any of the sturdier organs the City’d had her growing.
“This is Hilary Richter, right? Leaseholder of—”
“I’m not the leaseholder.” Should have kept her fucking mouth shut. Should have hung up and played it hard, or bailed to Daniel’s for a bit, stayed in his rent-controlled loft downtown until she could get some cash together for something new.
“Well, that certainly changes the conversation, doesn’t it?” His voice was calm, but Hil heard a note of rising impatience, “Is this Hilary Richter?”
Years later, Hil’d come to realize that the guy had no case, that everything that’s followed from this moment was the result of ignorance and empty threats. But, in that moment, she’d said: “Yes, s-sir…”
“Alright. Hilary, you are the leaseholder. According to my documentation—”
That bitch. How? Never answer a number you don’t fucking recognize, but how? How had Asha—?
Suppose a coming-of-age broke as fuck in the City’ll teach you some things. Shuffles and hustles abound. How to stab someone in the back without them feeling it.
He’d been as reasonable about the whole thing as one could possibly hope a landlord to be. Said, “At this point, Hilary, I’m happy to make a couple bucks over the mortgage, so—” He canceled the charged damages, attributed their inclusion to overzeal on the part of his lawyers, and said he’d agree to payment of the back-rent counting as the initial fees for a renegotiation of the lease.
Hil acquiesced and sunk further. Twenty-two years old. So young and already aging out of her market…
They’d loved her up there in the rafters. Seventeen-years-old, fake ID selling her as recently twenty-one. Praised for all of which she’d previously been punished. As of yet, not so much as a dot of ink in her skin. Fly-over country pale, her bouncing form bright even when the strobe pulsed the whole theater-cum-club to blackest night. Sun already up for hours outside, when the last of everyone took their leave, and she was given a single, handwritten check with more zeroes than she believed her mother and father’s combined monthly earnings could’ve ever matched.
Hil’d arrived in the City with fuck-all nothing, knowing not a soul, and hoping she hadn’t left hers behind. She went to every restaurant, bar, or coffee-shop within walking distance, which, having spent her first three days without room-and-board, turned out to be most of the City all-told. Evening of the third day and she stumbled into a building that looked, from the outside, like a run-down hotel.
In truth she’d only been looking for a bathroom, a place to wash her face and hands and armpits. It’d been hot, late spring, and clear skies when she arrived, but the City is always precipitating. When there’s no rain, it’s vaporized grime that falls to cake on one’s head and shoulders. She peeked in, using the whole of her waning weight to open the heavy wooden door, an arc beveled in ancient tile where the plank’s leading edge dragged. She’d expected a lobby, golden and chandeliered, filled with people enough to slip through unnoticed. Learned by then that most City bathrooms were locked behind a key-code that only the purchase of goods stood to reveal, but also that there was always the possibility of slipping in at an occupant’s exit. Doors’d even be held for you if you looked desperate.
What she found on the other side of the door, however, was no scene of busy opulence, but a ratty foyer that smelled of cigarettes. It was, however, much cooler than the humid muck hanging in the air outside. Hil stepped in, sloughed her overpacked bag from her shoulder, and took a deep breath of A/C. As the sweat cooled, drying to salt and grease, Hil became aware of a muffled sound. Mewling strings, hollow as though miles underground; a roil arpeggiating upward from throaty bass to nothing.
Another breath and a new presence entered the little room. He seemed to have just as much trouble with the door as Hil did, a leather briefcase hanging from his lithe frame, clattering against the wood. Corduroy shoulder bunching to betray the smallness it jacketed. Muttered, “Every time it’s a little fucking humid, whole thing swells and—” but quieted once inside, eyes behind black rims rising to catch Hil all but cowering in the corner.
“Sorry, sorry.” He said, turning away to push the door back flush and closed. “Sorry to be late. Thought Geoff would’ve let you in.”
Hil said nothing. Reached down to pick her bag up off the floor.
But the man’s hand was out for a shake. “Evelyn, right?” His face was ladylike. He looked younger than he must’ve been. He smiled, cheeks peppered with reddish stubble. “I’m Daniel. It’s—”
“—not even that dangerous anymore, Hil.”
“What’re you—?” She’d zoned out. Mind falling to pieces and waste in a morning come too soon. God, her head hurt. “What’re you fucking talking about?”
“This! This! Frendr. Are you even paying attention?”
Phone screen suddenly up in her face, hot rocks in her eyes. “Christ! What is—?”
“It’s an app, like for, you know, sugar daddy type shit.” Phone away, Bear set swiping. “Works like all the others. Johns post profiles and then I get to like swipe through them and—”
“Wait. You’re escorting now?”
“Trying to, that’s what I was just saying, babe. Shit’s too expensive and I can’t justify charging arms and legs for pictures and shit and, unless you’d do some with me or—”
“Out of the question. Completely.”
“See, I gotcha, I understand, but—”
“Even after everything I’ve told you, you still wanna go ahead and—?”
“Yeah, no, but yeah. It’s like tons safer now. Frendr’s got all these, the premium service does anyway, ten a month and I can use all these safety features like look, look.”
“I can’t, baby. Ugh, goddamn, I just—”
“There’s like price setting and date planning, where I can check in at locations, GPS shit, right? Like the app tracks the date phone-to-phone and has emergency services hooked up or something. Super different than when you were out on the street.”
“I wasn’t out on the street, Bear. I was—” Jangling ringtone peal. “My fucking God! Turn that off!”
“It’s not mine, hon. It’s—”
Phone recovered from its place buried beneath the previous night’s tossed clothes, “Sandy! Hello!”
“You on your way, sweetie?”
“Oh! Yeah! Of course, you know just gathering my things! I’ll be there in twenty minutes.”
“Ok, sounds good. I fed the girls breakfast so they should be—”
“See you in a bit! Bye!”
– 2 –
It’s easy to love like this: doubled over laughing, perched on the cold of a closed toilet; hand over her eyes; joy stabbing her stomach; unable to utter a word. She couldn’t possibly have expected him to look like that. Water away from his newly chinless face, embarrassment drooping his cheeks.
“C’mon, Hil… Don’t laugh at me. This is why—”
“No! No, it’s just,” but her breath escaped her. Couldn’t help it.
The beard had always been ridiculous, put-on. Obvious to Hil that he’d never bothered figuring how to take care of it. Uneven, the masses over his cheeks and jaw, long and wiry, chin too short and neck hairs bunching. Mustache trimmed along the top of his lip, unshrouded, shaggily chapped. Artless, but she’d always meant it as an affectionate joke in the past:
“Let’s just trim it up, Ollie! I want to see what you look like.”
“I look like this, Hil! This is what I look like!” Throwing the sheets off. Standing on the mattress. Ever the drama-king. Naked at the end of the bed, arms in the air, turning around and around, springs groaning beneath his heels. “I can’t help it, babe. This is just, look, what you see is what you get! Alright?” Both hands on his belly, gathering the spare tire, flapping the fall of morning wood against each hip. “It’s not much but it’s what I’ve got to offer, and if you—”
“Ollie-bee, hush! Hush!” And she sat up. “Come on. Come back down here. Stop all this. I love the way you look! I just—”
Dropped. Hands and knees. Gray in the morning light, that malnourished pallor. Blinds once again open all night. At least they hadn’t put on a show for the neighbors this time. They’d fought instead, drunk enough to think they were being honest, wore themselves thin and passed to dreamlessness and morning…
“See!” And his arms were fast around her, tackling to the sheets. All the smell of cheesy morning breath, night sweats, cigarettes, and liquor. “I told you! If you’d just be honest about—”
“Told me what?” Best to just let it happen. Rib crushing affection. Last night’s argument had unsettled the ground enough to mark resistance a potential landmine. “What did you tell me, Ollie?”
“That you love me. I know you do.”
Hand then on the back of his head, greasy hair. Beard tickling her neck and his kisses there all gummy from mouth-breathing.
Left him without a response. Remembering, his hands moving down the sides of her torso, what the fight had been about, or where it had started at the very least. She’d said that it was impossible:
“God, I hate that.” An edge in his voice where there had previously been only the soft slip of liquor.
“I do too, baby.” Sat on the bed’s edge, running the zipper down the calf-long length of her boot. “But, it’s just the facts. It’s impossible for me to—”
“But, I love you. You know that, right? You know that, Hil?”
Stretched her toes. Hit from her vape. Stomach soured by well whiskey. “Look, Oliver, I don’t want to—”
“You know I love you, right?” Eyes liquor-locked, looking right through her.
Should have just nodded, kept silent and made some excuse about being tired, too drunk; found some way to make it her fault. Always worked in the past. But, instead, she said: “It’s impossible, and I don’t believe you.”
In the morning, almost as apology for it all, she spread her legs apart before he managed the move himself. Licked her fingertips and guided him. Dry past the entrance and hoping he took her hissing at the sand within as moan. Easier than talking again, easier than loving.
Oliver was a crier. He’d cried during the fight. As he increased the rate of his rhythm against her, Hil thought that maybe some of the wet about her neck might have been tears. That’s what he thinks love is. That’s what everyone thinks love is.
Hil knows that sex has fuck-all nothing to do with love. It’s relationship to the body, the self, is purely incidental and easily separated. Too easily.
That morning’s allowance, that performance, wasn’t an act of love. Not remotely. It was something that could be done by anybody to any body. The way is simple to find because it is basal. Abyssal, even. Without substance. He wanted it. There couldn’t be any love in it. Loving has nothing to do with desire. Love is everything desire can’t be. Can’t desire to love. To be loved, sure, but one can only be loved by that which has transcended the desires of the body and the imposition of the self and—
Made her head hurt more than the morning too early. It couldn’t be love. It didn’t matter that it hurt and he finished soon enough and they lazed into early afternoon a puddle with each other.
Hair everywhere. Hooks and corkscrews and his head on her chest, slipping to sleep in a gunk sump of his own making. Snoring. She couldn’t fall back asleep, but she dare not move him.
Hair everywhere. Didn’t believe him until there was hair everywhere and she nearly fell off the toilet seat. Hadn’t laughed that hard in who can say how long but there was hair fucking everywhere and he said, “Knock it off!”
“Oh no! Ollie-bee…” And she rose, hands out to hold up his falling face, mush his cheeks, brace for a kiss despite the flotsam of chopped fiber, mis-shaved patches, and thin tricklings of watery blood along his jaw. “No, no, baby. I love it!”
First chop had been one of the more satisfying experiences of her life. Sprinted off to the kitchen the moment he’d agreed to cut it. Flung open the junk drawer therein and produced a pair of shears. Ran through the narrow hall toward the bathroom and—
“Hey! Hey! Don’t run with those!” But before he could raise his hands, Hil’d made the swipe.
A hunksome handful, brimming curls between her fingers. “Gotcha!”
“Jesus, Hil! Be careful! What the—”
Excitement, adrenaline, and the last of the tequila in the apartment’s liquor cabinet. “Just hold still! Hold still!” And she grabbed his chin again. Twin blades in the bathroom, a flurry of hair, and another mass came away. Close to the skin.
“Hil! Hil! Jesus! You’re going to cut me! Slow down!”
No! That was love! Surrender. That’s what it was and the more his face shone the more she could believe him. The less hidden he was the more he was hers. She’d hidden nothing! Made it clear as polished glass that she wasn’t ever going to belong to someone. Unwanted he still stayed. Couldn’t love him for that, though. It’s easy to stay when the exit is wide open, when there’s no admission fee. None of it’s been love, all just pleasure, and that’s been fine. Pleasure is good, too! The purest use-value and everyone gets what they want! It’s no problem. Want meets want and satisfaction follows. But want meets unwant and the house is suddenly too big for one person alone.
She could love him a little bit once the beard was reduced to patches and tufts and he turned to the sink and washed away what stuck to his scare-slick skin. Could love the fear in his eyes. Doing something one is afraid of for the sake of someone else is what it means to act in love.
Oliver opened the vanity console, produced a razor and a can of shave cream.
“It’s been forever since I’ve done this. Can’t remember the last time.” Lather along his jaw.
“Why do you think that is?” Hil’d sat, the wave of ecstasy subsiding. Boozy-headed exhaustion behind her brow.
“I don’t know. Always just, I remember when I was a kid, like when you first start shaving,” Leaned over the sink to spit a clot of cream from his lip, “and I hated it. Would always break out in acne afterwards so I said that like, once I could grow a beard I would. Apparently, my mother told me, apparently my grandfather had the same thing his whole life. Skin would be raw after he shaved and all that, kept a big beard his whole life and I remember it was crazy, all these colors in it, like gray and orange and black and always thought that maybe mine’ll end up like that one day—”
Skin fresh and soft as the razor brought it all away. The first nick bright, red, and whirling.
A little turn in her gut. Felt bad when he put it like that, but that’s love, right?
Can fall asleep now in his arms. Guilt lessening as his prickly chin sets its annoyance on her neck. It’ll grow back. And now that she knows he’d do it, she’ll never have to ask again.
K Hank Jost is a writer of fiction, poet, and educator born in Texas and raised in Georgia. He is the author of the novel in stories ‘Deselections,’ the novel ‘MadStone,’ and is editor-in-chief of the quarterly literary journal, A Common Well Journal. He is currently seeking representation for his newest novel, ‘Aquarium.’ He has led fiction workshops at the Brooklyn Center for Theatre Research and writes event reviews for the New Haven Independent. He resides in Brooklyn with his partner.
Photo: Karl Muscat/Unsplash