Literary Orphans

Clean
by Elly Zupko

Dia-Takaacsova-Lissuin-Deliverance

Before the second time we had sex Josh asked me if I was clean. I told him I couldn’t guarantee anything, and he gave me the strangest look. I thought hey, maybe you shouldn’t be so concerned about getting your dick bloody because you’re about to get laid. See, that second time we decided not to use a condom. He decided actually, and I went along because I was on my period. Figured I’d have luck on my side like I always did. Anyway, so he’s about to put it in and he says, “Are you clean?” He had to ask me three times before I finally got what he meant and said, “Oooooooh. Yeah, of course I am! What do you think of me anyway?” and there we went. Turned out it wasn’t that messy after all, and we did it twice more before I never saw him again.

When Amy told me she’d gotten HIV from what’s-his-name the first thing that popped in my head was Josh asking me if I was clean. I guessed Amy didn’t ask what’s-his-name if he was clean, and then I guessed maybe she did and he lied. Then I decided to stop guessing and just ask her.

“Did you ask what’s-his-name if he was clean?” I said to her. We were in her house (her mom’s house actually—she still lived at home) and I remember thinking that the high white walls in the dining room where we sat seemed higher and whiter than they’d ever seemed on any other day.

“What the fuck is wrong with you?” she said to me.

“What?” I said.

“His name was Chuck. Is Chuck. His name is Chuck.” Her eyes were red and

puffy just like the day we had our chemistry exam senior year after never going to sleep. I think we were still drunk during that test. Those were good times.

“I’m sorry,” I said. I was about to ask her the question again but instead just repeated, “Sorry.”

Amy sat at the other end of the glass and wood formal table, and I just looked at her. If I reached out and she reached out I probably could have held her hand—about six feet was all it was. The length of a man as my Pop would say. I always used to think, Pop, I know a lot more about the length of men than you ever will. I wondered what kind of lover Chuck was, and I wondered if I should reach out my hand. I decided not to because Amy was all scrunched up on her chair like a kitten, and she’d have to move too much to hold my hand. I didn’t know what to say anymore, so I shut up.

“No, I didn’t ask him,” she said so quietly I almost couldn’t hear her. A couple more tears rolled down her cheek following the already wet path. I could feel my face tightening, all the muscles moving toward some central axis near my nose. It hurt. The walls rose higher and higher, but my eyes were still dry. “He told me—yesterday when I called him—he told me he didn’t know. He was crying. I was pretty much the one who told him actually.”

I pulled my knees up to my chest and rested my chin in the hollow above the kneecap. I felt unbalanced and thought if I sat like that too long I might fall. The phone rang suddenly and neither of us moved. It rang five times before the machine answered for us, and thankfully the volume was turned down. Beep. Whir. Long Beep. Another whir and a click. Then silence again.

“Where is everyone?” I said it in my head three times before I said it out loud.

“Work, school, you know,” Amy said.

“Yeah,” I said.

“You’re the first one I called.”

I snorted air out my nostrils. “Good thing I was home.”

“Yeah,” she said.

I looked at her and she was a ball of person. She looked like she might fall off her chair too. She looked like she might fall and never land. I felt unbalanced again so I unfolded myself and sat down on the floor next to Amy’s chair. I let myself lean to one side until I was laying down, cheek pressing into the soft loops of Berber. The carpet was white, smelling like it was freshly vacuumed, but near me, half-hidden beneath a strategically placed cabinet, was a grape juice stain that had been there since we were five and still pretty clumsy. Amy’s dad said we must have been wearing our invisible clown shoes as he’d squatted down and dabbed the purple with a paper towel. I had cried then.

“Oh my God,” said Amy suddenly, and then she rolled off her chair. She rolled like a ball right next to me and I reached out my arms to catch her. She embraced me and pressed her forehead against mine. I felt like we were a boulder, lying like that, wrapped in each other, and I didn’t think we would ever move from that spot. I wanted to hold her until it was all over.

I wondered if our tears would stain the carpet and whether they would last as long as the grape juice. Whether someday another cabinet would be where we were now.

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[This piece first appeared in The Baltimore Writer’s Project for a few weeks before that market went defunct. -ED]

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Elly Zupko is a professional writer living in the Station North Arts District of Baltimore, Maryland. She grew up in rural Harford County on a four-acre property and now doesn’t even own a plant. Studying under acclaimed novelist and National Book Award finalist Madison Smartt Bell, she graduated Goucher College in 2003 with a degree in English and writing. She has had both her fiction and non-fiction published in a variety of outlets, including Preface, The Eloquent Atheist, The Baltimore Writer’s Project, Why Vandalism? and APMP’s Executive Summary. Her first novel, The War Master’s Daughter, was released in 2011 and is available in paperback and e-book from all major outlets. You can follow her on Twitter, @SMLXist.

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–Art by Dia Takácsová