FICTION: Red Light

They say that red light is more calming for safari animals. The exit signs are red.


 The conductor came by to take my ticket. He said Where you goin’? and I said Boston and he said Bahston and I said Yes and he said I’m from Boston I’m just teasin’ ya and he kept going but not unkindly.

I always used to wonder what it meant when books said Not Unkindly because something is kind or not kind, one of the two. Whenever I say this to Christine, Christine says It’s A Spectrum and laughs in that way she has, where her throat bulges. Christine has been texting me Steph where r u but I have not responded. I am sitting on the train. I turn the pages of my book to make it look like I am reading. I shake a little. A Home Depot blares by in an orange blur of aisles and ladders.  I am going to see my father. He will know what to do.


When I was three or four, my father shaved his beard. When he came home, I cried. Or at least I’m told I cried. My father tells me I cried. He found it amusing. He says I “burst into tears.” As if water sprang out of me, a clear bubble popping and suddenly the little three-year-old red-haired girl is gone and there’s just a spray of spherical droplets where she was standing in her striped jumper. I imagine the puddle left on the floor. I imagine myself as water soaking through fine-grained wooden floorboards and spilling down slanted broken concrete and sinking into the earth.


Matt’s bed had those blue-and-gray striped flannel sheets that boys’ moms buy them for college. There was more blood than I was expecting. It stained the sheets in dark pools, thick and wet.


I must have fallen asleep because I wake up as the conductor passes by again. “New London will be next — New London, Connecticut will be next.” The train is almost empty. No one takes the 12:46 Amtrak. Maybe that’s why the tickets were so cheap, why they were available at 11:38 p.m. on a Friday as I ran panting towards the street. The woman behind me snores a little.


 When I fall asleep again, halfway through the book I am not really reading, I dream of his face. Not the eyes. Christine always talks about boys’ eyes, her preference for long lashes, but I dream of the curve between his jawbone and his neck. In my dream he is tilting his head to the side, again and again, reaching his arms towards me with a smile.


I went on a night safari once, with my father, on a trip. We sat in the grumbling truck as it bounced along dirt roads. My father was quiet. Night hunting is more difficult, he told me. His breath puffed in the cold air. He held his gun in gloved hands. Look, Stephanie, he said. Don’t look at the bush, look through the bush.


Nothing, and nothing, nothing but dark bushes and stars for miles, until we puttered to a stop near the inky outline of acacia trees, and the driver turned on the night lights. The eyes were white gleams at first, and then there were bodies slung low to the ground, taut muscles and bulging loins. Hyena, the guide said in a low voice. Their snouts were dark, wet. The sound of fabric being ripped, sheared with wet scissors. Funny they would rip fabric with their teeth, I remember thinking. On their snouts the blood looked black in the red light.


I wake sweating. The woman behind me is awake, too. I am filled with the fear that she saw my dream through the back of my skull, saw Matt reaching for me again and again, and saw the red on his covers, and disapproved. But this is stupid, because she is reading a James Patterson novel and seems engrossed. The font on the cover is big, bold, raised. Audacious, Professor K would say, and point to the chunky serifs that he likes so much. I picture Professor K’s face: the crow’s feet at the corners of his eyes and the mottled skin of his neck and the way it trembles slightly as he speaks to the lecture hall, clutching his Bic pen in one hand. Graphic design is a science and an art, he says to us, and I face forward, forward, refusing to look at Matt and his sheen of auburn stubble, sitting in the red-upholstered lecture hall seat beside me, because if I look at him, I will blush.


My father will know what to do.


We said we would work on our project but really did we? Matt’s room had a bare floor. I liked it. Classy, I said as we came in and he turned on the lights. I breathed in. We had never been alone.

Yeah, was all he said. He arranged the paper squares on the floor. We knelt and moved them around, talking about how weird it was that graphic design involved so much Canson paper and cutting with X-acto knives instead of playing with Adobe Photoshop. Do you want some Maker’s Mark, he said. Um sure. Yeah. The burble of liquid in glasses. Then we drank from the bottle. We talked about how dumb group projects usually were. This X-acto knife is mad sharp, he said. I can do the cutting if you want. It’s mad sharp. 

His room smelled like cedar. 

It’s too bad the library study rooms weren’t open, I said.

Is it? he said.

Not really, I said.

Later, when we were on his bed, I noticed again that his room smelled like cedar, and Axe, and hot breath.


Christine told me there would be blood. She whispered it to me that morning freshman year when she came home from Sig Nu wearing a plaid shirt that wasn’t hers. Just a little, she said. She giggled. Steph, she said. Steph.  She didn’t say more, just squeezed my hand. I knew.


We pass through Stonington, and Westerly, and Kingston. The conductor struts up and down the aisle. He gives me patronizing looks.


My father shaved his beard when I was three or four. I cried. I had never seen him without his beard. Even now I cannot imagine him without it, cannot imagine what made my three-year-old self begin to wail. My father is his beard. Sometimes it seems that he doesn’t have a face at all, just the pillowy thick hair parted by his teeth smiling, the balls of his cheeks riding on top, eyes pinched at the edges. It’s bad form for a man to dirty his beard, he would tell me. Even at the cutting table, he wore a flowered scarf around the bottom of his face to prevent the blood drops from flying up onto his chin. As a little girl I would steal the scarf, wrap it around my face, stand at the cutting table when he had gone to get rooibos tea from the lodge. He always cleaned his knives before he left. Don’t want rust on your knives, Stephanie, he said to me.

The guides chuckled at me then, this tiny white girl holding the big skinning knife. Do you know how to use that knife, gehl? they would tease me in their low Tswana voices. Not unkindly. Father showed me, I said in my high voice. Yesterday’s kudu lay heavy on the cutting table, its sides taut and still. I took the knife in both hands and plunged it into the flap between the kudu’s skin and the glistening bulk of its meat. The soft clish of tearing fat as it ripped away from muscle. The guides hooted. And then my father was there, his big gloves turning the knife in my hands, along the curve of the kudu’s loin. Next time you’ll make the first cut, he said. He was proud of me. 

I clench my fists against the seat of this train, see my eyes in the dark window in the night, my eyes in their porcelain shells against the red beams of traffic hurtling by.

Matt whispered in my ear, tilting his head to the side. Stephanie, oh my god. He smelled like cedar and Axe and bourbon and his hands were around my wrists and I melted into water when he kissed me. He kissed me and kissed me and kissed me and I laughed and he kissed me and his arms were around my waist. His tongue. The lights were off. Stephanie, he said. A warm pressure at his pelvis, pushing me. All those days in lecture when I had wondered what his lips would taste like, whether they would be wet or dry, soft — but their taste didn’t matter at all, it was their weight— 

Next stop, Providence, Rhode Island. Providence, Rhode Island, next stop, the conductor says in his sing-song voice. Providence, Rhode Island, next stop, Providence, Rhode Island, next stop. 

His fingers clenched around my wrists. Stephanie, he said. My back pressed against the wooden frame of the bed. His tongue was everywhere, the weight and push and his hands reaching down towards my thighs, his breath and there it was on Matt’s desk mad sharp and I grabbed it and held it to make him stop but he didn’t stop. His breath in my ear and my eyes slid.

My father told me there would be blood. The guides were murmuring about this white hunter, the low-bellied bearded man who was so friendly and carried the checkered flask. Good for business, they said. We had run the kudu hard, that night. It lay panting, the kudu, its mouth fringed with foam. Careful, Stephanie, my father said. Gently, he said. The knife is an instrument, and you are playing it.

My eyes slid and it burst in a crimson spray from the groove between the neck and the jaw, the blood; red flesh sliced in a neat line along the blade of my knife; our knife; warm pulsing as he crumpled to the bed with a muffled cry of surprise; red splashed over the white paper squares abandoned on the floor.

I pulled my skirt down. I cleaned the knife. Don’t want rust on your knives, Stephanie.  I wiped it on the damp towel draped over the desk chair. I put on my coat and my gloves and grabbed my backpack and heaved the door open and ran. Away. The dorm was empty. I hailed a cab. I shook as the blood dried sticky under my coat. I told the driver I needed to see my father. I wanted to fall to the floor. My father is in Boston. I told the driver to take me to the train station.

Boston, Massachusetts, next stop. The exit signs are red. 

Antelopes freeze when cornered, my father told me that time in Africa. They believe if they do not move, they are invisible. He chuckled then, and I remember not knowing why.

 

Originally published in the Yale Daily News Magazine.
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