Plain China

Arsenic Possibilities

by Aleah Goldin · University of Pittsburgh
Man in Striped Chair, Sierra Barela · Rhode Island School of Design

Ipaid 20 dollars for a box of blueberries. I never ate them.

They sat in a cupboard for a week, until Susan pitched them in the garbage at 4 a.m. She said she could smell them in her dreams. The smell could have been the black mold growing in the bathroom. The mold looked just like the cap Mama’s Boy had been wearing the first day I meet him. It grew above the shower spout. I didn’t rinse the shampoo out of my hair when I saw it. The thought of Mama’s Boy made me wrap myself in a towel, rock back and forth, eat six Kit-Kat bars from the medicine cabinet, and bite my lip until it bled juice.

“Just forget about it,” Susan said.

“I know.” I folded my laundry and counted the colors.

“Grow up.” Susan leaned against the windowsill and looked out toward Washington Square. The street vendors had a fight last week. The ones on either end weren’t speaking to each other. Both sold Hebrew National hot dogs. Sometimes their soft pretzels smelled like smoked salmon. Those days, I wanted to feed the dough to stray one-eared cats. “You could tell the police.”

“Yeah.”

“Or carry pepper spray.” My Barbies never had to use pepper spray. Police didn’t exist in their society. When Mom was cooking onions and my door was shut, I used to have my Barbies kiss each other. They were two girls. I never had a Ken. One wore a miniskirt, the other a tutu. They would go to the miniature grocery store together and pick plastic grapes from the scale. (The same ones my brother stuck up his nose and couldn’t get out for five hours.) Their necks weren’t bendable. When they leaned towards each other in the cashier line, their whole bodies touched.

“I might buy some spray.”

“It’s always handy.”

I wouldn’t. I didn’t have enough money that summer. I had given my extra cash to the dreadlocked hobo who looked like a girl I once knew. The hobo was from Colorado and hitchhiked the way over. She smelled liked grapefruit. The boy I took to Prom junior year would have liked her. I once told him he belonged in a cardboard box. He had smiled, and his teeth reminded me of the decade-old marker caps my grandma kept in her basement. The duct tape on his shoes and a safety pin in his left ear made him look like a homemade Valentine’s card, pieced together on February 13th.

“You’re lucky, you know.” Susan picked up her watch. It had fallen into her 75 percent-off, fake-suede boots. She kept them in the corner by the radiator. I crossed my fingers every Tuesday that it would leak. Then we’d have an excuse not to do laundry, and the facilities would give us a reimbursement for the damaged goods.

“Lucky?” My mouth felt acidic.

Luck was a Salvation Army shirt with a hole in the armpit instead of the chest. Luck was a social construction, used to express admiration. It was left for possible goodnight kisses, Coke caps with a winning code, or pickled rabbits’ feet worn around the throat. Luck did not belong in a discussion about Mama’s Boy.

 

Icalled him Mama’s Boy because he lived at home with his Mama. I never learned his name. Later, I would find out he liked brunette women who wore thick-rimmed glasses. They were always jeans-wearing Caucasian twenties want-to-be-hip hazel-eyed girls.

I hated being called Caucasian. On standardized tests, I always filled in the Other circle. It used to be Jews couldn’t fill the Caucasian bubble. In the 19th century, we did not yet have the privilege. We were flooding into the United States unwanted. We accepted then that Judaism was an ethnicity not just a religion. Who was I to dismiss that legacy with a causal filled-in bubble? I don’t think Mama’s Boy knew that. I don’t think he would have cared.

Scanned up and down, Mama’s Boy looked like a serial killer. He always wore a newsie hat, button down starched shirt, and pressed navy slacks. His cheeks were shaped like avocados. Pinched between thumb and index finger, they would have looked like long open-bar darts. Peeled, the muscles would have seemed robotic. His eyes were wide and blue. Bags weighed them to the ground. His nose was puffed with powdered sugar. A half sneeze, every once in a while, would spray the dust.

With Mama’s Boy, I was afraid.

“I bet they were fermented.”

“The blueberries?”

“We could have made wine.” Susan was looking for a CVS. There was a guy with us. His name was Eli. He was seventeen. She told him she was picking up Plan B. She was really looking for tampons. I had seen Eli before. He lived down the hall from us, liked drugs, and thought New York was shit.

“Blueberries?” His left nostril was smaller than his right.

“Got them one day near Penn Station.” I was wearing a green scarf and henna. It was ninety degrees, and I wanted to be Indie. I was thinking about shaving one side of my head. I had spent the day researching healing practices in Africa. Shaved heads were supposed to ward off disease during the colonial era. They were more effective than the missionary outpost hospitals.

“Come on. Tell him the story.” Susan nudged her elbow into my ribs. “Of Mama’s Boy.” Her voice dropped low, and I wanted to smack her. She was wearing purple eyeliner that washed-out half her eyebrows. Her blond hair was pin-straight and reminded me of undercooked spaghetti.

“Say it.” Eli nodded and fingered his fake ID.

I shivered. “The story? Let’s go home.” This was not to be discussed. It was like my father’s court cases. We, his family—outsiders—were not to know. Besides, he thought our phones and rooms were tapped. We might leak.

“Fine. I’ll tell it.” Susan inched forward. I found her nail polish flakes under my desk at two p.m. They were lime chips. I couldn’t stand her anymore.

I turned away.

 

Mama’s Boy had asked me for the time.

One o’clock.

My name.

Aleah.

Where I lived.

Nearby.

 

When I don’t want to think about things, I picture fingernails. Sometimes they are slightly gold from the woman who decided to ground up her gold jewelry and eat it in raspberry whipped yogurt she got on sale at Giant. Other times, they are a gentle magenta. The kind an eighty-year-old woman who knits wool scarves in Florida would wear when her children visit. Susan thinks it crazy. She thinks about drinks and fake-suede boots.

“My stalker would have a beard.” Susan double-dips her spoon into the ice cream gallon. She doesn’t believe contamination exists. The government made it up as a conspiracy theory so third graders wouldn’t eat French toast off the ground.

“Mine would be hot.” Eli is leaning on her bed. His socks have holes at the big toe.

“I’d meet him at a lotion shop.” Susan offers me the container. “It would be organic.” According to her, the seaweed spreads would be in the back. She would massage them onto her palms. The next morning, a jar would appear outside our door. It would have a note, illegible and graphic. She wouldn’t leave the room for days. Inwardly, she would be pleased. Susan loves attention.

 

Iknow Mama’s Boy’s life. He told it between 54th and 7th.

He lives in Brooklyn, works at a hardwood store with his uncle, and rooms with his mother. One-night stands don’t work well with his financial situation. But the forty-five minute subway ride to Manhattan makes life worth living. He is always less than an hour away from cosmopolitan hypocrisy. “And you?” He must have been thirty. I was eighteen.

It’s ironic. Sometimes, I am on the most bustling street, dozens of high-top walking want-to-be-famous New Yorkers on either side, and I am more alone than ever. Maybe it’s because everyone always averts eyes. When Mama’s Boy was around, I wanted someone to notice. I wanted someone to catch him by the elbow and say, “Stop. Stop following this girl around. Don’t hurt her.” But no one ever did.

I couldn’t say it. I thought about it. I dreamt of pasting my hands to hips, pivoting to face his shaven cheeks, and screaming, “Enough.”

I jaywalked instead. I crossed streets in front of moving taxis. I swung into stores and picked up coffees.

But getaways were getting more difficult.

I was panicking in bathroom stalls.

They say never yell help in New York. Screaming “fire” is the only true means of attention seeking, because the buildings are like toothpicks, all lined up in a row. The triangle shirt factory fire happened seven buildings down from my dorm in 1911. The factory is now a converted building for NYU Arts and Sciences. A single metal plaque discusses the lives that were ended. It doesn’t mention the two men who used their bodies as ladders, so girls could climb out over them. It doesn’t confirm the fact that the policemen held out a picnic tablecloth as a trampoline to cushion the fall, and the bodies fell through it, hitting like pancakes.

 

Eli wasn’t really our friend. “Hire a hitman.”

“And we’d still get blueberry wine.” Susan twirled her hair around her index finger. She hadn’t made it to work that morning. Her boss hadn’t noticed.

Eli pulled a sole cigarette from his pocket. “A hitman from Harlem, and Mama’s Boy will never bug you again.” I could imagine Eli taking a girl dumpster-diving on a first date. It would be one behind a candy shop. They’d find a cardboard box of ramen noodles and eat them raw on a park bench. He’d cheat on her with the mailman.

Eli leaned over to give Susan a massage. “I could take care of him.”

He flexed midway through. I winced. He was trying too hard.

“Uh huh.” Susan had a boyfriend in South Carolina. They met during a choir practice party that wasn’t PG-13 rated. The boyfriend planned to work for the church teaching the preschoolers how to sing, and she wanted to go into the corporate world and be a CEO. “Weapon of choice?”

“Gun.” Eli gave me a raised brow. Once, twice, the third time was an unsuccessful twitch. He clearly wanted some alone time.

“Rope.” It reminded me of Clue.

“Arsenic”—my weapon. I would buy it online, have it shipped in a first class package. I’d dole it out in spoonfuls.

Mama’s Boy found me on a crosswalk. “The time?”

I didn’t answer. Not again. Please not again.

Mama’s Boy put his hand on my back, slight pressure.

I shrugged him away and walked into the Whole Foods with the sliding glass door. “I have to grab something.” I didn’t. I pretended Billy Joel was on repeat in my head.

“Me too.” He gave a single shoulder jerk.

I picked up the box of blueberries. They were lined against the front, beside the watermelon and honeydew. As a little girl, I used to freeze the berries and eat them during the month of July. They melted in my mouth as Shanna sang Broadway oldies and Dad discussed planting blueberry bushes in our backyard.

I picked a short cashier line. The woman in front of me was pregnant, had two nose rings, and wore a bandana. Mama’s Boy followed. He wore penny loafers. There was nothing in his hands.

“You needed to buy something?” The words were lumpy.

I swallowed.

He picked up a limeade Popsicle from the in-reach case. “For my mom. She’s at home.” I didn’t remind him that his home was forty-five minutes away. I didn’t mention that the Popsicle would melt on the subway.

I stood.

I closed my eyes.

It was one of those moments when the world crashes down into a single second of anxiety. The watches stop ticking, and all one can smell is breath and sweat. Mama’s Boy was not sane. Mama’s Boy was not right. And I was here, now, next to him.

I wanted to curl into a fetus ball and tuck a felt blanket around my chin.

I wanted to cry.

The cashier opened up to my right.

I gave the woman my twenty, told her to keep the change, and left. I didn’t run until the glass doors slid shut behind me. That night, I locked myself in the bathroom. The mold on the ceiling had Mama’s Boy’s cap. I didn’t look up. I stared at the floor for three hours. Time was sweat stains on my back. I wondered what Mama’s Boy was capable of. I wanted to hurl.

 

Susan got drunk on the subway. I told her to be careful. There were weird men out there. “Don’t get hurt, all right?”

She giggled and gave me the finger.

Eli knocked on our door while she was gone. He was wearing a clean popped collar shirt. He left Susan a sealed envelope. I wondered if it had drugs. I would have opened it, but the seal was glued. “Tell her I stopped by.”

The next morning Susan didn’t come back till five. I called her boss and said Susan was sick. It was a possible outbreak of the flu in June, otherwise known as a hangover. Susan’s remedy was tearing the envelope into twenty-eight pieces. I told her not to. Eli was desperate. A clean shirt was a monthly occasion.

About the Author

Aleah Goldin · University of Pittsburgh

Aleah Sterman Goldin earned her B.A. in interdisciplinary studies from University of Richmond. Her essays and short stories have been published in The Doctor T.J. Eckleburg ReviewHobartGone Lawn,ZeekSouth Loop Review, and the University of Pittsburgh’s Collision, in which this essay first appeared. She is currently on a research Fulbright in Mongolia, where she is studying bone-setting practices.

About the Artist

Sierra Barela · Rhode Island School of Design

A native of Colorado, Sierra Barela has a great love for the mountains. She is a junior at RISD, studying painting. More of her work can be found hereMan in Striped Chair first appeared in the Brown/RISD literary and art journal,Clerestory.