By Kathryn Bratt-Pfotenhauer
“Whose is that long white box in the grove, what have they
accomplished, why am I cold?”
- Sylvia Plath, The Bee Meeting
I was delirious by the time the plane touched down in New Orleans. As the plane descended over Lake Pontchartrain, I had the uncanny sensation that I would die here. The water was so close to the underbelly of the airplane that it wasn’t an unreasonable leap. It wouldn’t have taken much to glide downwards, to crash, to disappear under the swells. I wondered what they would say to my family, to the man I was meeting at the other end of this journey. I could imagine their faces collapsing into grief, even the man, who I hadn’t known for very long at all. There would be a kind of grief there, if only in passing. I would become a sad dinner party anecdote, or a reason to explain standoffishness to future girlfriends: The last time I let someone into my heart, she died in a plane crash. Maybe I was giving him too much credit. He wasn’t a poet. He was a scientist. More than likely, he would shrug it off, chalk it up to the nature of freak accidents. These things happen. He’d get over it. The dinner party would go on without mention of me. It would be like I never existed at all.
You might have thought me an impulsive creature: here I was, heading 1,400 odd miles south from Central New York, to have a second date with a man I had no knowledge of a month prior. But it was not purely impulsiveness: it was the summer after my first year of graduate school, and I was bored and hot, and the prospect of sex excited me. I liked it. I had liked it enough with the entomologist, in the area to visit family, and the entomologist had liked it enough with me to cover half my plane ticket. My mother had been understandably concerned. No parent wants to hear their child is traipsing across the country to hook up with a strange man, no matter how genteel. In response, I had talked him up to my father, getting him on my side. The entomologist was family oriented. I saw a long, happy future in the relationship. I wouldn’t do this without caution, I’d get myself a hotel a respectable distance away if things seemed off, or strange. Indeed, the man had offered to pay for half a hotel room if that would make me more comfortable. He was a good man, studying urban entomology at the local university, a university that paid him to go to conferences and talks, and do outreach and extension work. He talked to seniors about the social behaviors of butterflies. He was a good man.
And I was delirious. I hadn’t slept the night before the flight, terrified of waking up hours past the 3 a.m. alarm, missing my flight, and having to buy another plane ticket. I had savings, but the summer had blown a hole in them with rent and utilities, and a frosty silence from my own university, which did not provide a stipend for its students during the summer months. I barely slept; I barely ate. I went on dates, had unsatisfying sex, and then went back to my place to write poems about it. Everything was content. Everything was craft. And when the entomologist came into the picture, he did so as an inspiration, dinners, coffee, toast with blackberry walnut jam after a night wrapped in each other’s skins. He prompted a flood of new, bold work in celebration of that which I had rejected: the vulnerable body, the body enamored. Everything he did became a metaphor. Desire for him painted my world in shades of gold. And so, when, after weeks of talking, he invited me to come down to him, I didn’t hesitate. I bought the tickets and resigned myself to instant ramen for the rest of August. It was an equal trade.
He met me at arrivals, sticking a tongue down my throat and swallowing the words I had rehearsed the whole way down in greeting, making them superfluous. In my mind, I thought it was something romantic: being silenced. I was so used to being the one with all the words, it was a relief to know I didn’t have to speak. In his car, he kissed me at every stoplight, lectured me about the stunted bald cypress trees lining the route from New Orleans to Baton Rouge; I listened as one bewitched, my blood up, redding my face, sweat pooling under my arms. The heat outside was already swampy, an itch in constant need of scratching. His fingers massaged the back of my neck. I thought this was romantic, too, something that spoke to a type of possession: this person is mine, for a time, at least. I didn’t buy into jealousy, but there was something delicious in the gesture, something I couldn’t pinpoint other than in the locus of exclusivity. Yes, I was his, and he knew this. There wasn’t anywhere else for me to go.
In the hour that it took to reach Baton Rouge, I realized something: every landscape looked similar to me. The differences were imperceptible, minute: the gas cost less here than in New York, the restaurants differed, but the highways had the same monotonous drudgery. All that existed in that world was the blacktop and the mechanical bodies of cars. The exception was him: everything around him shimmered, grew marvelous. I couldn’t parse it. One of my friends, seeing his picture, had asked me why I found him so attractive. I couldn’t explain it, the way I couldn’t explain why I found certain English celebrities attractive. It wasn’t the appearance so much as the charisma, the magnetism of speech.
He brought me to the university, to the old musty buildings where the entomology department was housed. I noticed everything: the wood laced through with termite tracks, the gray clotted nests of mud daubers dotting the underbelly of the building’s awnings, the roaches scuttling the ground around his feet as he smoked a joint in the parking lot. He offered it to me. I took it. I sucked in and held it, held it as close to my chest as I could before expelling the smoke. He looked impressed. I wanted him desperately to be impressed. He finished it off, tossed it into the dirt, and we went inside.
As we passed, I saw a missing persons poster taped to a pole: a smiling undergrad with mousy brown hair stared out from the paper, which asked in screaming block letters: HAVE YOU SEEN ME? Her name was Claire. She looked wholesome in the way I didn’t know how to be. I looked around, and suddenly, as if in seeing her face the world had shifted, I saw the flyers taped to every pole, the same smiling eyes, the same brown hair. I turned away from them. I followed him into the building, my heels clicking on the cracked linoleum.
Before long, we were in a dusty lab, and he was snapping on a pair of latex gloves, fingering the interior of the glass tanks full of roaches, of beetles. He brought them out for us to examine. The type he studied ate dead things. Inside the tank, the skeletal remains of small, indistinguishable animals. I couldn’t look away from them. He touched my arm, pointing to a jar of termites suspended in liquid. I looked at their frozen, blind eyes, pressed a finger to the glass. It left a print, smudged residue: a declaration, of a kind. I was here once. I was here.
He led me back through the halls. He led me out of the building, stopping to grind a cockroach beneath his boot, and back into the car, and we drove back through the streets of Baton Rouge to his house, which was in the backyard of his landlady’s house on Lily Lane and not his at all. And when we tumbled into bed, we did so like rainwater; we spilled onto the sheets. Around him, full of him, and the lack of sleep, his fingers in my mouth, I lost myself, his mouth, my mouth, we lost ourselves in each other. I lost count of how many hours in the week we passed like this; certainly, it was the majority of them. Everywhere I went in the small house, he seemed to want me: against the kitchen counter with sugar in my hair from baking pie, in the shower, pressed against molding tile, my fingers clutching the curtain, on the sofa as we lay there stoned and naked, his head between my thighs.
The only place we didn’t fuck was in the garden, where he cultivated his precious insects. I had asked, and he had told me no, that it was too delicate to disrupt. It’s a whole ecosystem out there. You can’t imagine the work. I had to admit his garden was a thing of beauty, full of vegetables and flowers: Louisiana Iris mingled with okra, his squash plants butted up against yucca, and hanging over the fence was a beauty of a Southern live oak, shaggy with Spanish moss. The same beetles he had shown me in the lab congregated atop the mounds of dirt that striped the earth. I had asked him what they were, and he had waved me off, claiming flower plots. It fit. Out of more than one of the mounds sprouted heavy bunches of flowers: iris, camellia, Cherokee rose, black-eyed Susans, each marked with a corresponding state flag. I counted them: Louisiana. Alabama, Georgia, Maryland. There was one plot in the corner of the garden, with a rosebush awaiting installation. He told me he had ordered it before I arrived, that he would be planting it next. He took me back to bed. He covered my mouth.
We woke to sewage creeping up the pipes. The rain outside lashed the shutters of the small house, and after moving everything to the counters, off the floors, he kissed me and went to work, back to the university, back to his life. I went to the garden, even though the wind was blowing and the rain was coming down. I had seen something pale and white from the window; the rain had disturbed the dirt, the water sluicing off whatever lay underneath.
Looking closer, I saw sticking out of the soil a white hand with a single golden ring, wrought finely. You might have thought me frightened. But all I could feel was a pervading sense of calm as I took the shovel by the front door and began to dig. There was Claire, her face collapsed, her teeth removed. In the other mounds, once I had ripped apart the flower plots, there were three other women, in various stages of decay. I had no thought as to what I would do when he came back. I hadn’t thought that far. The mind tries to justify what it sees, but there was no justification for the beetle that scurried through one of the women’s eye sockets, no accounting for the smell.
Then, there were footsteps in the garden, and he was upon me, and the shovel was wrenched from my hands. I barely had time to react before it connected with the back of my head. I didn’t cry out. I don’t remember making a sound. A single thought, fleeting, and then nothing. I can’t remember what it was.
All I know is that the landscape sharpened: rain above me.
And I’ve lost count of the hours I’ve been down here. No one has come for me; my only company is the insects, and they have done their work. I am all but gone. But there are new footsteps in the garden now: lighter. Not him. The voice of a girl admiring the rose bushes, full, delicious, and red.
Kathryn Bratt-Pfotenhauer is the author of Bad Animal (Riot in Your Throat, July 2023) and Small Geometries (Ethel Zine & Micro Press, March/April 2023.) The recipient of a Pushcart Prize, their work has been published or is forthcoming in The Missouri Review, The Adroit Journal, Crazyhorse, Poet Lore, Beloit Poetry Journal, and others. They have received awards from the Ledbury Poetry Festival and Bryn Mawr College, as well as support from Tin House and The Seventh Wave. They attend Syracuse University’s MFA program.
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