Chomping at the Bit
by Zach Burke
Wonderful! Wonderful. Ecstasy. Are there words beyond euphoria? Can I buy them? Make them? What are words when nothing describes what I’ve just done, just seen. Michael, darling, I understand now. You’re in love with the present. Life pulses beneath your fingertips. How could I believe you to be so shallow as to just cut and carve, tear and twirl? Sweetheart.
I have been a fool.
The straps connected to a horse’s head. The kind, in movies, you know, they always pull on? To make them rear. The reins, obviously, but the wood in its mouth? I don’t know what they’re called, I’ve never owned a horse.
I’m getting ahead of myself.
When the sun began to set I showered. I painted my nails (a kind of auburn). I straightened my hair. So airy! Scalp cleansed of those abominable curls. I put on more mascara than usual, but it seemed appropriate given the occasion. Little wing tips (still there!) at the edges of my eyes, like a cat. Festive. And of course the dress. Ji Cheng, if you could see me now! For a moment, I felt as grateful as I would have in that miserable studio apartment, pre-Michael, staring at those clippings, trying to imagine myself sheathed under every layer. Those dresses bought my silence. What’s a little human suffering compared to unconsummated want?
God, don’t I look gorgeous?
“Gorgeous,” Michael says. I barely believe he’s said it myself. I don’t think he’s ever said a word about my looks. “Of course, tonight will render it defunct beyond a second use, you understand.”
Descending that staircase, taking in my froggy knight, beaming, repeating “I understand.” One doesn’t normally think of gas masks as sexy, but I felt myself purr knowing it was him, my Michael, beneath that dark glass.
“Are we honeymooning in Chernobyl?” God love him, Michael laughed! What has always been the face of a sour statue became electric with life. Were his mother still alive, this time she’d be proud to see us married, instead of all that sniveling at my age.
Are you smiling up in heaven, you old cunt?
When I reached the bottom, Michael gave me his arm. “Shall we?” Fairytale romance. I swear I swooned! Linked, we glided to the stables. That’s how I remember it, at least, very graceful, elegant. Floating downstream on a current of expectation.
“I forgot we had a stable,” I whispered. I am such a silly woman, sometimes.
“Yes, my sweet, and a horse for every taste.”
The empty stalls received fresh hay daily, Michael told me. He did it himself. If anyone ever asked, the horses were out being trained. This was true, Michael continued. Each horse has a trainer in a different part of the world. Each horse will learn tricks, servility, and respect. Eventually, each horse will die. Then their remains will be sold for scrap or glue, because selling is always timelier than disposal. The important thing, Michael says, is justifying the structure, horses or no.
“Of course, our stables are downstairs” slipped out of Michael’s breather like a kiss. I can still feel myself tingle with the warmth of those words. Two days ago the man was a credit card. Now? Now I am starting to breathe him in, heavy and deep. I want him in my lungs. Our horses. How thrilling it must be to make that transaction! To give money edges again, sharp and ready to gash palms as it slips from the hand. And buyer’s remorse – what does that feel like? I can’t even remember. What is there to regret when no purchase reshapes your checking account? A seed of glee sticks in my throat when I go shopping. I choke on it all day. Handing over Michael’s card is hysterical. It’s not even money, anymore. I’m basically stealing.
Gentleman that he is, Michael brushes a path through the straw so my heels are no encumbrance. My liege holds the floor paneling up for me. This allows his doting Katherine to descend another staircase to her prize. It doesn’t feel real, does it? Like it happened to someone else. But it didn’t. I’m the lucky one. Me!
Michael followed me down the stairs. Normally, I do not think of Michael as ‘graceful.’ ‘Smooth,’ maybe. ‘Rehearsed’ sounds right. But he moves so lithely in those leathers as to strike me dumb. Michael is graceful. And we hadn’t even cracked a soul, yet! Michael calls it that: “soul cracking.” Seeing my face when the words came together, the smooth, beautiful lines of curiosity, Michael immediately launched into exposition. You see, I didn’t know Michael’s father earned his fortune in the mining business, which eventually became oil. “Much of the jargon lingers,” Michael told me. “A personal quirk.” But I can forgive him his strange slang. His nicknames, his curiosities.
Because Michael is a marvelous teacher.
For instance, how could I have known that the same effort in biting through a carrot (front teeth only!) would have the same effect applied to human fingers? Or, more interestingly, that the human eye doesn’t need to remain inside the skull to observe our “material world?” How can one expect to know these things without experience? Without living. Without Michael!
Never again without Michael.
There was a moment, as Michael readied the harness, where I spoke to myself like a ‘little girl.’ What was it? Oh. “I think I’m in love,” I said. Out loud! Fool. Thankfully, Michael didn’t hear. Or didn’t seem to. He was busy fastening all those straps, Surely his mind was elsewhere. I hope he didn’t hear. Could he have? Stop! You’re ruining it again. Think of the moment. How strong he looked, how... Imposing, wearing that mask, standing over that man. Especially then! The man-boy looked so small, even spread eagle, theoretically at his biggest. Michael was clearly superior, and there I was, all goosebumps, biting my lip, taking him in.
My Michael. Maybe I can love him. Or what he does.
Is there a difference?
Shopping again, for me and Michael. He said he could just have it all ordered, “like usual,” but I insisted. “It makes me feel closer to you,” I said. I don’t think the man can blush, but it’s as close as I’ve seen. So now he leaves me notes while he’s out procuring “horses.” Horses. Still amusing.
I run my hand over the list.
• Long, extended handle shears (1)
• Thick, yellow gardening gloves (4) [spare each]
• Zip ties, black, 100 count (3) [if not store, just Amazon]
• Thick black apron (1)
• Thick “ ” apron (1) [know how you like your colors, don’t want to presume]
• Portable flood lights (2) [may not carry these, will take care of if no]
At the bottom, And of course, anything else you desire. Signed, Michael.
“Signed” bothers me. Already a month since our union. A month! Surely we can proffer love. But so far the word is mum. Too much pressure to say it first. Only for me, it seems, but I do! I love him. The man is God, triumphant. We just needed a connection for me to see it. How blind I must have been. Think, just last month I was fucking strangers in dressing rooms. I was so angry. I thought my life was over, that he was my death sentence. Katherine, do you remember the things you said about Michael while they thrusted? Vile, childish slurs, where now I’m wondering how to let sweet Michael know to touch me. Are all marriages loveless until the couple shares a secret? Love is absurd. Will he touch me? Can I touch him? In front of the horses? My Michael. His love makes life tender, beaten down and soft. For once, I’ve been diagnosed with optimism. Can you die from that? Of course you can. Everything kills you. You just choose the way you go. I choose Michael, and now everything warms me with a secret pulse of light. I can’t see it, but I feel it. Michael has me at just the right temperature. Loving him is like standing out in the sun. That’s it!
Love is like standing in the sun.
What to do about Michael. His notes are sweet, affectionate things. His face, hands, and manner are another. Stiff and arrogant. Rigid. Mean. Where is the Michael of our wedding day?
Stupid, stupid Katherine. “Idiot girl.” Making problems where there are none. Let your lover alone. He is a special man. But we aren’t lovers. We don’t touch. We don’t play. No “horsing around,” even if we only connect in those stables. Example. I got all of the items on the list as Michael asked. Every one. But when Michael came in from the stables, when I showed him our new aprons, not even a single spark of excitement. One word. “Lovely.” Everything is lovely to Michael. Lovely means nothing. Lovely is glue. How much does love cost, and where do I sign? What am I saying? I love Michael. I do. Maybe he just can’t feel it. Maybe he doesn’t know it. Does he think I dislike him?
Tomorrow. Or the day after? Next time in the stables. This weekend. This weekend I will show Michael I love him, all in the language of our shared passion.
The horse rears when I sit behind Michael. Michael gets it under control. Quickly. So firm. In control. Wrap my arms around his leathered waist. Flick at the zipper across his nipple. He turns to me. Warmth escapes from his breather in small bursts. Michael stares at me through the mask.
“Don’t,” he says. I flick it again, playfully trace my finger along his chest, where the zipper begins. I follow the teeth down to the folds of his groin, the seam’s black terminus. “Don’t,” Michael repeats. He peels the gas mask off his face. With the sweat and the latex, it looks like the skin will come unstitched. For a few seconds I wonder whether blood and meat and muscle really exist below the pale surface. Maybe just another face. Like the one he has now, only pink and raw. Vulnerable. One not yet sculpted into a wall. He doesn’t look away as he puts his fingers in the horse’s eyes and ears and mouth and nose. Eyes on me all the time, I watch him feel, pop and prod. When it’s over, I shift my legs once, then back again, biting my lip.
“I won’t,” I say.
Which means another night Katherine has to trap the warmth inside her.
Stupid, to imagine Michael happy. I thought he’d kiss me, here, on the lips. I imagined my frog king would whisper, tender, “Sweetheart, I love you, too.” Bookend his hug. But no! Those eyes. God! His eyes, like wrenching a slug from its shell. Slime black interior. No recognition. Like I’d pressed a knife between the eyes, the fucking vegetable. Men and affection. Why does articulating feeling mutilate it at the tips?
“Michael,” I said. Again that grunt. I’d almost forgotten how it sounded. To be so lucky. “Michael, I said I love you.”
“Yes, you love me?”
“Yes, I heard you.”
I’m still cleaning up my heart from where he dashed it on the hardwood.
We were going to be so happy. Now I’ve ruined everything. Katherine, “stupid girl,” what have you done? “It’s all your fault.” My fault. I should have waited. I should have followed Michael’s lead. I should have kept my “dumb mouth shut.” I should be his silent queen, not his vocal whore.
And God, this pain. Can you crucify a uterus? Stop creating, I cannot take it.
Michael has become rough with the horses. How do you explain degrees of violence? Mean becomes cruel becomes sadistic? Hard becomes harsh becomes bone breaking? There’s a swiftness, now. An edge. Momentum. Like, what is it, centripetal force. Isn’t that like momentum, but larger? No, wait, it’s like the way water stays in a cup when you move it quickly upside down. “Right, Katherine?” Keep telling yourself university was worth it. You’re “more than a face.” Whatever. Michael and I are barely in the cup, anymore. We’re spilling everywhere.
Does that mean anything, you tired empty bag?
Exhausting, what we do now. Michael moves too fast. No sport in it. Just opens them up and the game is done. We don’t even dress for the occasion. What did you wear last time, Katherine? A silk nightie! So uninspired. So mechanical, now, like he’s not having any fun. And if it’s not fun for Michael, it’s no fun for Katherine. Why wear Chanel when no one but the horse beneath you notices? Why make a clumsy martyr of my Katalin Varga? Where has the affection gone? The joy? Down the drain, with all that meat and bone. Trapped at the bottom with the scraps of our honeymoon.
What’s happening? All because I said “I love you.” How can love make someone so unhappy? I thought we were married. That gives license to love, doesn’t it? What does he want that I don’t? What do I want that he doesn’t? I finally find passion and he turns it into dust. Every cold word leaves pieces of me across the estate. Flecks. Soon, I will be nothing but a pile of sand and sawdust. Pulp. A heap, because I love him and make it known. That must be it. Michael can’t know I’m pregnant, can he?
We still haven’t touched. I tried, the other night, but Michael swatted my hand. Swatted! Like some disobedient child. But I’m not his child, I’m his wife. And he agreed to my sleeping around. He insisted before we married.
“I will never touch you,” he said.
“I will never want you,” he said.
“Just be my story,” he said.
So what, some back room prick at Neiman Marcus gets one good shot off and I’m saddled with a parasite? The incurable disease of life. Disgusting, wretched miracle. Is it an immaculate conception if you never felt anything? I’d be okay, were it Michael’s seed inside me. Then I could bloom for him. But now I’m just another dark flower waiting to be plucked from between the weeds.
Can I make it up to Michael? Maybe I just need to double my efforts, show enthusiasm, prove to him that I don’t care if he doesn’t love me. That I’ll love him, anyway. What we have. What we shared, unclothed, laughing, red bodies rolling across the straw. I’ll be his saddled queen.
Like every great plan, it starts in the wardrobe.
The dress is tighter than I’d hoped. Same size as always, two, and still it was a struggle. Starting to really show. I have to win Michael tonight. But this dress won’t let me breathe. Claustrophobic, like I’m strapped to a table mid-operation. Tell the surgeon there’s been no anesthetic. I’m awake. I feel everything. Front row seat.
Time to start my show. I put the bit in the horse’s mouth. Skinless mustang. Bucking bronco. Whoop and holler. Grind myself into the small of its back, muster noises I didn’t know humans could make in imitation of the animal. I paint my new Valentino Garavani so thick with arterial kisses its entire tapestry becomes smooth, textureless. I will match his brutality. I will show Michael we are equals. Looking at him, I can tell, even from under the mask, Michael averts his eyes.
Am I not pretty?
I ride harder. I think of the inseminating joke at Neiman Marcus. I think of our wedding night. The real one. I think of all the money I’ve wasted. I think of pleasing Michael. I think of failure. I think of my tiny studio apartment. I think of dresses. Not putting them on. Hung in a closet, instead, strung up like meat, snared in cellophane. I think of one day kissing my king, of seeing what he turns into. I think of everything but the bitter bud of life curdling inside my chest. And then I do. I snap back on the bit.
The twig beneath me splinters. I am on the floor, dazed, feeling almost headless. I know I am holding my stomach but do not know why. I am vomiting into the dead horse’s trough. What is happening to me? What can a baby do after two and a half months? Squirm? Is that you kicking, Christ? No better name for a martyr. I hold my stomach feels like a basket of waste.
What are you doing in there, you little bastard?
When I look up, Michael’s figure stands exactly as it was, stock still.
For a moment, my mind curves down another dark corridor. My cat Jaspers used to capture grasshoppers. Tear their legs off. He wouldn’t kill them, just rend limb from limb. Watch a while. Get bored. Then Jaspers would leave them, let something else, something that could be bothered, end their exoskeletal lives.
The toad shape of Michael’s face sags deeper.
“I just want you to love me,” I say. Michael leaves as my guts empty into the trough. “Even if I am human, after all.”
How long until Michael figures it out? He must already know. I still have to tell him. But Christ has given me an idea. He put his finger to my navel, spelled out my fate in shapes. The point inside a line.
Christ will convince Michael to love me.
Thirty seconds. It has been thirty seconds since I told Michael about Christ and I. You know the sound after a death rattle? It is the same noise after a glass shatters. Or a cue is repeated in a play. That is what our bedroom feels like.
“We’ve accelerated a process neither of us understands,” Michael says.
“Marriage. Look at you. I share the pleasure of severing life, now you think you can give it?” Perched on the corner of the bed, my gargoyle looks at me for the first time. “It’s not the horse’s spawn, is it?” There’s a filthy piece of granite where my tongue should be. He clears his throat as if to spit. “All your prattle over the depth of your feeling. I was happy, Katherine, happy, to have a partner. I never wanted a wife.” Christ leans forward, into the future. His weight tugs at the skin of my belly. All while I hear Michael use the words “love,” “saccharine,” and “remedy.”
“Please,” I whisper.
The words “pestilent,” “canticle,” and “invertebrate.”
“Please,” I say.
The words “viscous,” art,” and “nausea.”
“Please,” I shout.
“Let me prove it.”
“That I can give birth to a heart.”
Michael won’t stop saying “No.” It will only cause problems. I am “only causing problems.”
“But don’t you want to?”
“Of course I want to,” Michael blurts. For a moment, I see blood in his face. “But I refuse.”
“You’re afraid to love me.”
Michael throws up his hands. It’s okay. Katherine has a plan. She calls him a coward.
“What did you say?”
“Coward.” He smiles like it’s our wedding night, then lands a punch that breaks my eye socket. “What’s the point of that,” I say, “if you really care about art?” Katherine wipes her lip, and I pull the string that makes her good eye raise its brow. “Huh?” A long silence. She doesn’t break, just holds her stomach and drops her head. Michael relents and grabs the gurney. He moves in slow motion, made of amber, somehow in transition. She wipes the blood from her face. “Not in the stables,” she calls out. “Not me.”
I wish Katherine could wear a dress for this. Something nice. Soft lines. Smooth. Organic, really, made to accentuate the fullness of her figure. Something unashamed of her obvious pregnancy. The camera moves closer. My pregnancy.
The floodlights I bought point at Katherine now. One hangs suspended over the kitchen table. Over Katherine. Me.
“Have you done this before?”
Michael’s face is a series of lines crumpling inward. “No,” he answers. “No, I have not.”
“I’m your first?”
Michael continues to arrange implements on the tray. What little noise fills the room is metallic. Clattering. “You’re my first.” She balloons with love. Tenderness almost claws its way out of her throat. Hyena affection. Doing this for her! Her toad king. Her Michael.
“Kiss me.” He tenses. “As your wife, please. Just once.” Michael leans over her face. From this angle, he looks like what you’d expect to find beneath your bed as a child, the eyes in the valley of that slow downward crawl. His lips taste hers. Quick and clumsy, somehow perfect. They come off dry. Honest. Michael’s. “Thank you.” His face disappears behind the leather, the glass, the tubes, the mask. Oh, Michael. Why ever take it off at all? She wishes you’d wear it always. She wishes you’d be as lovely as you are now, forever.
You know, she’d never heard of vivisection until their wedding night. Michael admitted he’d always wanted to do it. “To observe the clockwork while the clock works. Perhaps that’s a stupid thing to say.” His words. Quote: “Don’t you want proof of what’s inside us?” And she does. She wants Michael to see her love. She... I.
I want Michael to expose it.
Whatever courses through my blood only lets me move my eyes. Michael props up my head. I look down into myself. There it is. My heart, beating. My soul cracks, pouring light. “I see now,” he says, breaking ribs, “Inside of you is a cathedral. A sacred place.” He detaches the slug, Christ. Michael takes off his mask. Christ looks just like us. Katherine smiles. Oh, she smiles wide. Michael, too. Something softens his eyes, like tea candles pooling. Michael kisses Katherine’s brow, says sweet things with red lips. Gentle language. Michael pours himself into me.
“A work of art,” he kisses. “My beautiful bride,” clearing the matted hair from my eyes. “Dearest Katherine,” says sweet Michael. “I love you.”
My heart breaks.