Plain China

Burrows

by Molly Zimetbaum · Tufts University
Bambi, Annika Stridh Bambi, Annika Stridh · Oberlin College

Jimmy calls me on Friday night. "If you’re not busy," he begins, "would you like to play some tennis with me?" Even through my shitty phone, I can hear the pitch of his voice rising. He always calls, never texts. He’s one of those "old soul" types. I don’t particularly like to play, but I accept, because I want to get out of the room. Weekend nights here have been uneventful. Mostly I’ve just stayed in my dorm, taking bong hits and blowing them out the window. My roommate’s getting ready to go out, standing naked in front of the mirror.

My roommate always walks around naked. After a while I stopped thinking twice about it. She scrutinizes her own bare reflection while I’m slumped on my bed, marble-eyed, with the weird feeling of watching her as a piece of dorm furniture. When she walks around naked I pretend not to notice. She ignores or forgets my presence as she wriggles into a skintight skirt that requires her—like who’d be inspecting?—to study herself from the side and suck in her gut a little. At this point it’s like what’s the point in hiding, when already we’re numbed to each other. I know every inch of her body; she knows that I choke on bong hits and sit around watching the Discovery channel.

At this point, as my night winds down, her night is only beginning. So when Jimmy calls I decide for once I’ll force myself to seize the opportunity. Neither Jimmy nor I like parties. We met on a Friday night in the laundry room, which, of course, was otherwise empty. Jimmy didn’t know how to do his own laundry. He was kneeling at the dryer, practically teary eyed, over a white, now pink-mottled sweater. He also didn’t know how to pack a bowl, or even how to use a lighter. I taught him in the empty laundry room, our voices drowned by the rumble of the machines.

 

By ten o’clock, the main streets of campus are swarming with sparkly, teetering young people. Jimmy and I walk to the courts, which are isolated; we can hear our own footsteps. "How was your day?" he asks, somewhat formally. His top lip is thin and crooked, curling into his face shyly.

"Woke up, went to class, did work, came home. You?"

"Pretty much same. I only had my pseudo-astronomy class today."

"Oh, yeah. What kind of stuff do you learn in that class, again?"

"Some soft science, some astrology. A good deal of bullshit, honestly. Like for example, people’s age-old beliefs about lunar effects on human behavior. The word lunacy comes from luna: it’s the mythical power of the moon to make us erratic. But apparently, records actually show that during full moons, domestic pets become wilder and more mischievous. And animals also become more driven to mating and nocturnal activity."

When Jimmy speaks about something excitedly, his crooked lip gets covered in spit. I’ve succeeded in starting him off on a lecture, and buying some time to retreat back into myself. I like listening to just a voice: not the words, but a texture. Jimmy’s is not like a man’s sandpaper but more like a wet yolk on your skin, slipping down your arm gradually. When he finishes, we walk in silence. I listen for the rustle of animals in the bushes. I look up and locate the moon; it isn’t full tonight, only a quiet sliver between night clouds.

 

The dark, empty rectangle of courts is surrounded by a fence, which is lit up by sports lights. Jimmy put on jaunty tennis whites, which seem overdressed for the sober night and compared to his usual sweater and jeans. He’s one of those boys who wear squeaky white sneakers, and jeans just a little too short. I think there’s something endearing about this—jeans that these boys have outgrown without noticing, probably bought by their mothers a long time ago. You can see a slice of sparsely haired ankle peeking out above the ridge of their socks. I’m touched by that little peek. It’s sweet.

There are three courts contained by the fence. Jimmy and I walk to the middle one. There’s a slight chill in the air now, and the darkness makes the court seem larger. Jimmy produces a few balls from his backpack, glaring neon, and bounces one gamely. He underhand serves, and we attempt to rally. As we play, I’m surprised to feel the sudden stir of something predatory; I’m ready to pounce, eyes trained on the ball expectantly. Each stroke sounds like thunder, though his body opposite the darkened court is the size of a toy doll, far away from me. Usually we are close together: crouching with a joint in the nearby playground, inhaling each other’s fumes inside a cave of yellow plastic. Or like the one time we went to a party: Jimmy never learned to hold his liquor and we ended up close, in the sallow bathroom; I pushed aside his sweaty bangs as he heaved, and the pipes churned on loudly.

My roommate once rolled her eyes and told me that Jimmy would probably marry me. I denied this, but I somewhat believe it. He would take me to museums and orchestras, and every repeated sober night we’d drive home in our minivan, side by side, quietly. But now we are here, trying to find a rhythm. Our tempo is lopsided and out of balance. Jimmy refuses to hit the ball hard enough, but I’m swinging with all my energy. In the dark his body looks like it’s receding. He makes his strokes gentle so he’ll never beat me. And his softness does something to spark a little fire; I’m slamming the ball at him, hard and wild, until I’m practically bent over, laughing breathlessly.

After about an hour of playing, I smash a ball into the court’s farthest corner. Jimmy doesn’t bother to run for it. He stands there with his knees sagging and watches it dribble slowly into stillness. The night has shifted a grade colder, and the air now stings to breath.

"You done for the night?" I call to him.

"No–it’s okay–just gimme a minute to catch my breath."

"It’s alright. I’m actually pretty tired. My bed and the Discovery channel sound pretty good right now."

"Wanna smoke and hang out for a bit?"

We exit the bright-lit courts and blink like blind animals, disoriented by darkness. I wrap my arms around myself. We can hear the hot, muffled thrum of Friday night music through the walls of houses. I picture my room with its plain dorm furniture. The view of the moon through my plain dorm window. It’s just past eleven o’clock; my roommate won’t be home for hours.

 

When I fall asleep beside him, I dream of moles. Jimmy and I often get high and watch documentaries about nature. Moles are nocturnal, live in underground burrows, and barely ever see the sunlight. They are solitary creatures. They come together only to mate and live otherwise alone, in their own system of tunnels. I dream that I am trapped underground. I’m a soft creature with small, fragile eyes and a small, round, velvety body. It’s fully dark and cramped in there: my own burrow, but I can’t find my way out. I’m clawing frantically with dry little paws. I can feel the dark soil breathing, like organs, all the while growing blacker and thicker.

When I wake up, it’s still dark and it takes a minute to orient myself. The television is rumbling softly; Jimmy is lying on his side next to me. He’s propped up on his elbow to look at me, eyes gleaming like the eyes of a possum. His head is blocking the spot in my window where I can usually see the moon.

"Did I fall asleep?"

"Yeah. The show’s over. You missed a segment about rabid groundhogs."

His gaze lingers. "What’re you thinking about?" he prods.

I don’t tell him about the moles or the burrows. I’m still too absorbed in the dream. I twist to bury my face in the sheets—little cotton dunes that are drenched in my scent—and all I can feel is the tightening sense of the dark-soiled tunnel walls breathing.

"Not much…just thinking about how if you actually tried at tennis, you could cream me."

"Nah. I’m no good at sports. I went to an athletic camp once and hated it. I have this distinct memory of playing in a field; I think we were probably playing baseball. I was so bad that this kid on my team kept making faces at me, like, twisting his lips hideously. I remember the little shit’s name. Paul Marko."

I purse my lips at him. "I bet you stood up for yourself."

"S’not like I could’ve punched him or anything. I just sulked off to the corner of the field and sat in the shade, playing with ants. I’m sure that’s what I wanted to do anyway. I was too docile and reserved for competition."

"Guess I can’t blame you. I once went to tennis camp–but the main thing I remember is praying to faint. They made us run drill after drill in this huge, over-chilled tennis facility. Afternoons, we ran the stadium. I remember hauling up endless metal bleachers, chasing a line of kids ahead of me. The whole time I’d picture myself fainting—straight collapsing—and waking up with people’s hands all over me. But I’ve always had a strong constitution, so every day I ran the whole damn thing silently."

I am lost in the ringing of feet on bleachers and forget about Jimmy, listening intently to me. I realize I sound like a brat for complaining. I know my body won’t always be so healthy. But in truth: I think growing old will be nice. I’ll live in a pleasant retirement home with hundreds of Jimmys who’ve finally grown into themselves. We’ll sit in floral armchairs playing card games, learn how to watercolor, and drink afternoon tea. Occasionally, my old friends and I will put on our soft velour pants and Velcro sneakers. We’ll gather into a rented van and take a trip to a moderate mountain. We’ll hike up proudly to the moderate peak, guzzle the fresh clean air above the trees, gaze out at a mild sunset, and this will be enough pleasure, enough victory.

 

One o’clock. My roommate isn’t home yet. I wonder what she’s gotten herself into. I try to picture her dancing at a party in some steamy basement, festooned with Christmas lights. Or maybe, at this point in the night, she’s sharing a cramped twin bed like me. My mind comes up against a blank wall; my image of her shell remains empty.

My eyelids are weighing themselves down. Between blinks I can see the furniture, the floor, and Jimmy’s skin in the light of the TV. His face is suddenly close to mine: so close that I can see every pore and freckle, like pixelated squares on a static screen. Without warning, he’s kissing me. He’s closing his eyes and sinking into watery scenes of quiet mornings in bed with me. My mind goes blank, but I don’t stop him. I feel the walls of soil breathing. Jimmy burrows his face in my neck, and I let him; my thoughts hover somewhere near the ceiling. I close my eyes to the shadowed room. I shut out the night: all the moles and the possums outside, a thousand eyes blinking baffled in the dark. Instead, I’m in a field with a clean little boy. Born with a crooked lip, docile and reserved; a comforting childhood photo tinged yellow. Jimmy sinks his body into mine and blocks the trace of moon in my window.

About the Author

Molly Zimetbaum · Tufts University

Molly Zimetbaum attends Tufts University. Her piece was first published in the Canon.

About the Artist

Annika Stridh · Oberlin College

Annika Stridh, from Armonk, New York, earned her B.A. in studio art and art history. Bambi is the result of a series of self-portraits in which Annika photographed herself crying as she watched classic Disney films. Her photograph first appeared in Oberlin’sPlum Creek Review.