Sweetness

by
'Arkaya ran her thumb up the inside of Maisy’s bicep, stopping just short of her armpit.'

Sugar and nutmeg. Maisy sniffed again. Not sugar, syrup. The cheap, oleaginous glucose stream of childhood IHOP visits. Nutmeg needled through the cloying scent, sharp as fresh pine.

She pictured a bubbling cauldron, Arkaya, in thermal leggings and Star Wars tee, hair in pigtails, stirring.

Arkaya had arrived last week, dog carrier wedged in the taxi along with a maroon office chair, gilt 70s floor lamp, and half a dozen cardboard boxes wrapped in duct tape. Franq had opened the door then slithered back to his room while Maisy and Arkaya wrestled the goods into the kitchen. With Maisy in the living room and Franq mysteriously incapable of finding a new place, it was the space of last resort.

I’ll be fine, she said, jaw like a spade.

Hobbes, liberated from the carrier, crapped on the floor. After that, the olfactory atmosphere got stranger.

Anise, cardamom, Muscovado, almond, saffron, quince – names as alluring and enigmatic as their scents.

Maisy would never have said it, but the resultant cakes, cookies, muffins and preserves didn’t live up to the tantalizing intermediary stage. They were delicious but conventional. It was impossible to not hope for more.

“What the hell is she doing in there? I’m eating fucking cereal in my room.” Franq waved a Cinnamon Toast Crunch box. Maisy slid away.

He was growing his hair at the request of his fresh-from-Tinder girlfriend. It looked messy rather than intentional. Maisy noted the blue ink stains on his index and middle finger – another broken pen. Small objects didn’t last long around Franq. He was forever fiddling, bending, twisting, flipping, tossing, snapping through their minor supply of resilience.

“Well?”

“Cooking, I guess.”

“Right. I caught that. I’m so fortunate to have a genius ex.”

She flinched.

Franq bore on, voice amplified by the narrow hall. Scraping her together breath, Maisy said: “Gotta get ready for work.”

He threw the cereal box at the kitchen door and vanished into his room.

Now she had to think of a place to go, since she wasn’t due at work for two hours.

“Hey, can I come in?”

They wedged a box against the door and pulled the Ikea barstools to knee-touching distance; stared into their mugs, waiting for the mint to infuse. Arkaya’s hair smelled of sugar glaze but her skin was buttermilk sharp. Maisy had an impulse to lick the pale wrist resting on the counter. Would it be sour or sweet?

“What you making?”

“Nothing. An experiment.”

“Franq’s mad.”

“Then he should move out, like he said he would.”

They had known each other since seventh grade when Franq was a prepubescent nerd, glasses on an elastic strap, and Maisy and Arkaya had competitive One Direction merch collections. He had laser surgery. They got into comics and Christine & the Queens.

“You could tell someone.”

“Like, the police?”

“It’s a crime.”

“He was my boyfriend.”

“Still a crime.”

“Crime of being an asshole.”

“Maze, rape is legit, like, murder-and-robbery style crime.”

“Nobody believes that.”

“I believe it. You believe it.”

“Cops? Lawyers? Judges?”

“He has to go. Say you’re going to report it. That might light a fire under his butt.”

“I could never get him to do stuff he didn’t want to.”

Arkaya ran her thumb up the inside of Maisy’s bicep, stopping just short of her armpit. A pulse from the point of contact rippled through her limbs and reverberated in her pelvis.

They used to sleep over as kids, spooning in Arkaya’s twin bed, or nestled on the pull-out sofa in Maisy’s basement. They practised kissing, for when they had boyfriends. Maisy wasn’t sure what they were practising for when they’d caressed the curious new flesh of each other’s breasts. Her first orgasm happened as Arkaya sucked her left nipple. It was only later, touching herself, that she realized what that hot, sluggish, dizzying rush was.

When Franq asked her to the junior prom Arkaya said, “don’t go with him.”

They were at her house, in the kitchen. Why not?

Maisy was sitting on the counter, knees stabbing from beneath her skirt. Arkaya stepped between them and whispered, I’ll show you.

Blood thrummed in her ears and heat rose in her belly as Arkaya’s hand disappeared between her legs. Maisy remembered wanting to impale herself on her friend’s fingers – and the sudden horror of that wanting. Girls have boyfriends. She slid off the counter and ran. Safe in her room, after changing her sodden panties, she called Franq.

They dated sporadically through abortive attempts at college. When she got back to Philly, after dropping out the last time, he had a job at SEPTA and a double bedroom. Maisy was going to stay for a couple of weeks, till she found something else, but the days – endless in themselves – spun a cotton-candy cocoon of inertia.

Pressure – Arkaya’s fingers on her arm. “I need some stuff at the Asian market. Come with?”

The symphony of garlic-galangal-fish paste-lemon grass-rotisserie duck-soy sauce-mushrooms-five spice-raw meat-green tea rose to a nauseating crescendo in the cramped aisles. “Kaya, I should head to work.”

The green plastic basket dug into her side as Arkaya hugged her: “We’re going figure this out.”

 

Rotting meat and warm rubber. Maisy’s nostrils flared as she stepped into the hall. Eyes stinging, she held her breath till she was safe inside the kitchen. “God. Something die out there?”

Arkaya shrugged, a creamy pop of shoulder emerging from the threadbare Black Widow tee-shirt that didn’t quite cover the Princess Leia boy shorts. “Coffee?”

“No, thanks. I’d rather be somewhere else.”

After her shift, Maisy lingered, sipping Coke Zero. Her phone beeped: “U need 2 come back.”

“Coast clear?”

No response. Irritated but tired, Maisy decided to risk it.

 

Swamp mud. Putrefying corpse.

“What the hell Kaya.”

“You need to be here for this.”

“What, the plague?”

“Fuck. Fuck” – Franq took two strides, right into Arkaya’s face. “What the fuck is this?”

“Excuse you?”

“It smells like the Incredible Hulk took a shit. What gives?”

“What are you talking about?”

Maisy opened her mouth then clammed up as Arkaya sidestepped onto her toes.

“You’re can’t smell that?”

“There’s garlic bread in the oven. Is it bothering you?”

Franq’s pale eyes swelled to cartoon proportions. “Garlic bread? It smells like the municipal dump and garlic bread? Fuck this. I’m done. With you” – glaring at Maisy – “and especially you, Kaya.”

They swiped hunks of butter-dripping garlic bread across their plates, mopping up the remains of ragu. Hobbes snuffled for crumbs. Bumps and scrapes came from the hall.

“Sounds like a haunted house.”

“Not for much longer.”

Maisy looked at the scramble of blankets atop the air mattress: “Can I stay with you?”

The house felt different when they woke: light, empty.

Franq’s door was open, room bare.

Arkaya crossed the wooden floor barefoot, ducked to reach behind the dresser and retrieved a clump of cheesecloth.

“Keep your nose in the mug. It’ll disperse.”

Maisy mumbled a question .

“Durian. It’s a fruit. Gets ripe when it’s ripe.”

Setting down her coffee, Maisy sank into Arkaya’s bruised peach lips and tasted the sweetness.