Dustin reached an arm around her as the walls absorbed the warm, red glow of the screen. Carly was forced to feign surprise and fear throughout each scene of the horror movie, because she had already watched it with a guy from Tinder the night before. Dustin had rain-checked her to go catfishing with his brother.
She could feel him floating away.
It was her little act of defiance, whisking in the first match she had that day. Carly would have loved to say she forgot the guy’s name, but she had probably never known it to begin with. Names were only a nuisance on a thing like Tinder; just a useless fun fact to remember, before another name came along. There were so many names, but she could only recall a few. She remembered the faces. Always.
She could see that Dustin had finally let go of even just the idea of love. Or, at least, love as he could imagine it with her. Perhaps he imagined it with someone else. Maybe it was something else. She didn’t suspect him of cheating. She combed through his phone whenever she found the opportunity. He took abnormally long showers. Not a single blemish. A virtual infinitude of opportunities for the eyes to wander, but not Dustin’s. The perfect boyfriend. She hadn’t told herself why she hated him yet. She hadn’t learned, and she never would. All she knew for sure was that he was always a fingernail away from fulfilling her needs. She wanted scars in her self-made skin, like the others had left. The desperation in the grasps of their greedy fingers. She wanted First Date Dustin. She could no longer sense the discomfort in him, the man who used to worry that he wouldn’t be enough. He’d twist himself into a pretzel just to prove that he could, and she was running out of shapes to request. A clown with its latex balloons, sweating over the pouting face of a birthday girl.
She was retaliating for an offense that hadn’t yet occurred, but one that she knew was coming. Vengeance in reverse. Someday, he was going to notice someone else. He was going to smile back at some girl, and the warmth from that fireplace-smile of his was going to collapse into his stomach. It was going to slide into his stomach and fester there, like a hot whirl of delicious guilt. Sticky. It was going to revive him, and he might even fuck Carly like he used to, but his eyes would be in another girl’s bedroom. She was sure of it. If she could find it in herself, she could see it in him. Unfolding.
He ran his middle finger up and down her neck, freezing every now and then during the suspenseful scenes. What had started as “Netflix and chill” had slowly evolved into Netflix. The canines receding slightly. I don’t want you to kiss me. Bite me. Her eyes carved the words into his skin. He squinted at the screen. She turned, and watched as a man threw his cellphone off a bridge. Oh my God why would you do that, Dustin said to a popcorn ceiling.
You would know if you were here last night. If you didn’t have peripheral vision. She pictured herself hanging from one of his eyelashes. In the blink of an eye, she’d be gone.
The buzz of her phone brought her back to her body. She saw the red flame in the notification bar. The name she didn’t recognize. She swiped it back into the shadows; back where it came from.
She felt it kindling in her stomach, and she shared a smile with herself as she leaned against the arm of the couch, just outside of Dustin’s interest. Another flame, followed by another quick flick into limbo. She uninstalled the app, all the while marveling at the delicacy of our digital footprints. The heat in her stomach intensified as she recalled the sterility of Dustin’s phone, shower steam dancing through the crack in the bathroom door as she interrogated her own eyes. When we finally discover the worst in ourselves, that same stigma becomes blatant in the skin of everyone else. Or maybe the others helped Carly find herself. She didn’t know, because she couldn’t see it; she could only feel it, and she hadn’t given the thing a name or discerned what its limbs looked like. How it moved, morphing as it passed from host to host.
Dustin’s face twisted when the doorbell rang.
“Did you order food? This late?” he asked, swatting at the controller. The scene froze and the room glowed red.
The white walls. Blushing.
“No?” she said. “But it’s not gonna answer itself.”
Dustin stood and made his way to the door.
She remembered his name as soon as she heard his voice.
Zack. With a ‘k’, she had messaged back. A rare breed!
A symphony ensued between her ears, and she tasted blood on her lip. The two stood there, staring at each other. The truth trying to find itself.
“Is, uh, Carly here?”
The words left his throat like they had just realized that they regretted making the decision to go skydiving.
“Yeah?” Dustin responded. He turned and made a face at Carly, as though he was the one that needed saving.
Wide-eyed and paralyzed, she framed the words but nothing came out. Zack poked his head through the door and forced an uncomfortable smile.
“I just left my hoodie here last night.” He took a step into the doorway, and then immediately retreated. “I’m sorry to drop in like this. I messaged you twice but didn’t hear back.”
Carly was upstairs before he could finish the sentence. She knew that her clothes weren’t on fire but she spotted his hoodie through the suffocating haze that she had created. It was balled up beneath the bed like the monster from her childhood and she felt it biting at her hands as she brought it down the stairs.
Dustin’s face had already found its way to the floor. She raised the jacket weakly to its owner like a peace offering, but the rage in his eyes made him blind and he shook his head as he swooped through the door, vanishing back into the shadows.
She knelt next to Dustin and said nothing.
She watched him, whimpering there, beneath a streak of blood that glowed against the white of the ottoman, and of all the things, she thought about how much she cared for dogs. Loyal and dependable. Submissive. They were concrete evidence that altruism really does exist.
Just not in humans.