Refrigerator Girl

Truck leaned in for the kiss. Nabi tried not to flinch, but how could she not when her principal stood ten feet away, her fourth graders running to the buses? It was 2:30 on a Wednesday, the air thick with humidity, the branches heavy with leaves. Truck had once again shown up at school, unannounced. On any other occasion Nabi would have thrown her arms around Truck, but her tight tank top and her leopard-spotted hair just screamed need, determined to provoke a reaction. Why was Truck always trying to test her?

 

“Well, hello to you, too,” Truck said. “So much for a little sweetness and light.”

 

“We’re at school, babe. I told you. I have to be careful.”

 

“You wouldn’t even know what love was if it smashed light into your mouth.”

 

What?

 

Truck was already storming off to the car. Now they’d spend the rest of the afternoon in silence, Truck slamming kitchen cabinets, seething, until Nabi gave in with a question. How was Nabi going to survive Truck? The truth was she’d never been attracted to most of her previous girlfriends. They had blonde hair while she was drawn to dark. They were earnest and sincere while she was excited by black humor, irreverence, the possibility of danger and surprise. The refusal of her deepest urges seemed to be the foundation of these relationships. She could have sex, yes, cozy, pleasant sex. And she could take delight in conversation, that gorgeous, underrated thing. But with Truck? In the six months since they’d been together, Nabi had lost sixteen pounds. She’d had to buy all new pants, toss out her old wardrobe, and though she was mesmerized by the sensation of getting to know her body—who knew that the back of her neck wanted to be probed with two fingers?—she honestly hadn’t slept well since the night they’d first fucked. People at school were worried about her. The hollow planes of her shoulder blades—they were always asking if she’d been eating, and what could she say? Oh, I spent the last eight hours fucking, and I should feel like a porn goddess but honestly I’m in this state where I could take four naps a day.

 

How had Nabi become this kind of person? She loved sex; she’d always loved sex. She could not walk by another beautiful woman without sending out a dart of focused intensity through her eyes before the performance of looking straight ahead. The other woman would do the same thing, as if she also knew that a body was trouble, too easy to lose. Occasionally someone pushed through that reserve, through grit and determination. Inevitably that someone turned out to be a person she couldn’t fight with, couldn’t even disagree with—though the two of them had great sex–at least for a while. People threw around words like boundaries. For some, that metaphor had physical, pictorial significance, but not for Nabi. All she knew was that whenever she attempted to fight with Truck, she had the awful suspicion that both of their souls were in danger of implosion, and that implosion would damage them down to their cells until they were done.

 

When Nabi was seven, she spent afternoons with Harris and Lily Carr, the brother and sister who lived just down the street. She did not exactly like Harris and Lily, their finicky taste in sweets, their hands sticky with jam, but their mothers were friends, and there was never any question they’d spend the days after school together. When the mothers were off to the swim club, the children shut the door in the bedroom, where brother and sister put Nabi through various tests. She didn’t know why she agreed to these tests but she was eager to be a good student. First they asked her to take off all her clothes. Then they held a struck match to her skin, not just to her face but down to her private parts—their words not hers. Over the course of an afternoon she took part in a series of tests that went from extension cords to light bulbs. These rituals did not faze her because she could at least see was impressing Harris and Lily—she could see the respect blazing in their hard little eyes. But when they started clearing the top shelves of the refrigerator, she knew it was time to get out of the house. They had already talked about shuttering her up between the bread and the milk, and that was definitely enough. She’d once heard of a girl who had almost suffocated in such a refrigerator, tumbling out on the floor when the door opened, her face ashy and blue.

 

Nabi walked straight out the Carrs’ front door.

 

She still thought of that girl twenty years later, though she wasn’t always sure why. The refrigerator girl was both talisman and warning, and when she looked at her lovers she still saw the faces of that brother and sister—she still knew she could escape them. No one, on the other hand, was better at taking a test than Nabi, and perhaps Truck had intuited this all along. She sensed too well that Nabi hungered too much to succeed and would never let you get a rise out of her as hard as you’d tried.

 

The beach was more crowded than usual, the tide line nearly reaching the lifeguard stand. Nabi and Truck unfolded their blanket up near the dunes. To their left was Maureen Keating, the mother of one of her fourth graders. Closer, to their right, were the Artmans, old friends of her parents. All around them were people she knew, people she had some connection to, either through school or yoga, and maybe that was why Truck stood up, started digging the hole close to the blanket. She looked so gorgeous and strong as she pitched the shovel into the sand, her arms striated, muscular, sleek, tan. Why had she brought along such a serious shovel, the kind you’d use to plant shrubs? The people around them were probably asking a similar question, but they appeared not to be distracted by it, as they ran back and forth to the water or tossed footballs. The hole before her deepened. Every time Nabi asked Truck why she wasn’t going into the ocean, Truck would not answer; she remained silent. Which might have been why Nabi’s stomach was in distress. She pictured herself running up into the dunes and throwing up a little, but when she thought of her fourth-grade class, the faces of her students attuned to her, depending upon her calm to make them feel safe, the feeling passed.

 

Truck stood before the hole in a posture of deep accomplishment. “Get in,” she said, in a voice of purest love. She was playing of course–Truck was always playing–but this time there was something darker beneath the theater.

 

“Truck?”

 

“Get in,” Truck said, more gently now. “It’s for you. I dug this big and beautiful hole for you.”

 

The hole was as wide as it was deep. Too close to people: What was Truck thinking? And how could she get back to the car, leave for home without Truck running after her, wrestling her to the beach, chafing her wrist? Nabi imagined herself on her back, Truck filling in the hole around her until she couldn’t move. She thought of her private parts packed with cool sand until the itch was unbearable, the blazing sun on her face parching her lips, making her woozy with heat. On the other side of the dune, not so very far away, a baby cried. They were over. And as if to prove that to herself, Nabi kicked Truck’s keys down into the hole and waited, just waited.

Paul Lisicky

www.paullisicky.net/

Paul Lisicky is the author of five books: The Narrow Door (a New York Times Editors' Choice), Unbuilt Projects, The Burning House, Famous Builder, and Lawnboy. His work has appeared in The Atlantic, Conjunctions, Fence, The New York Times, The Offing, Ploughshares, Tin House, and in many other magazines and anthologies. His awards include fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, the James Michener/Copernicus Society, and the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, where he was twice a Fellow. He teaches in the MFA Program at Rutgers University-Camden and lives in Brooklyn. In Fall 2018, he will be the visiting writer at University of Texas-Austin.

Author photo by Star Black.

Please also see our interview with Paul Lisicky here on Aquifer.