Issue 2: Confession Vs. Mask
A Publication of the USF MFA in Writing Program


Holes in the Ozone

Josh Mohr

She lets me live in her shadow. Temporarily. I don't want to live that way, but it's better than never seeing her again.

"You can live in it rent free," she says. "Until you get up on your feet again."

"Thanks," I say, the way you thank someone for spraying pesticides on vegetables.

"It's the least I can do," Susie says.

_____

Susie's shadow is so cold that sometimes I can see my breath. So cold I look around for penguins, snowdrifts, check the sky for holes in the ozone. I wear winter sweaters even though it's July.

I had been pretty tan before I spent my days scurrying behind her on all fours, rotating around her body to follow the shadow. Trying to hold up my end of the deal. But now, after a month without sun, my skin looks like papier-mache. My hands, feet, and knees are torn up, bloodied from navigating the different dangers of the city: tiny rocks, broken glass, dirty needles. I've built up huge calluses like hooves.

_____

"Are you even looking for a place?" Susie says. She's working at the kitchen table, scouring spreadsheet results from focus groups, what the masses say have mass appeal. I'm sitting on the floor next to her. "What about a job?" She looks down at me.

"Not yet," I say. "I'm not ready."

"I am ready. I'm quite ready. I've got living to do."

"What about us?" I ask.

_____

Living in her shadow is the worst when she goes to work. You'd think it would be worse when I follow her into the bathroom and have to huddle next to the toilet. But at least then it's just the two of us.

At the office, Susie walks down the hall at a harsh gait, and I have to canter-crawl just to keep up with her.

"Susie," her coworkers say, bustling by, breaking her name into two harsh syllables, like someone swearing: Jee-suss.

She's the head of the ad agency's creative department.

Today, I follow her into a meeting, barely making it inside the thick door before it slams. Ten people stare at me, and I look away because there's sleep in my eyes and I haven't showered since I've been in her shadow. While Susie showers, she lets me get in with her and take off my clothes, but I have to stand with my back to her, just out of the water's reach, shivering.

Now Susie sits down at the head of the table. "Does everyone remember my husband? My ex-husband?"

They all give me the once-over and shake their heads.

"It's nice to see you all again," I say, sitting Indian-style on the floor behind Susie. With the room's faint overhead lighting, her shadow seems small, incarcerating.

I should've brought a sandwich.

During the meeting, they talk about marketing, about how to make people want things.

"People want to feel important. Exclusive. They want to fit in," Susie says.

"Fit into what?" a woman asks.

"Whatever they can," I say.

Susie turns around and stares at me. "Don't."

"Really," I say, "people just want to have a place."

"Stop it," Susie says.

_____

It's almost noon when we leave her office, running out for lunch with a client. It's eighty degrees. We're waiting for a light to turn green.

"You need to move on," she says.

"I will."

"When?" The light changes, and she walks across the street, but I don't see her start to move, so momentarily, I'm out of her shadow's protection. The back of my neck smokes in the sun.

"Wait, Susie!" I say.

She looks back and sees me searing. She just stands there. I crawl into her shadow.

"You're trying my patience," she says.

_____

After lunch, we're in the ladies' room, freshening up.

"You shouldn't beg," she says to me. "That's an important client."

I hadn't begged. The client fed me flecks of tuna under the table. I hadn't asked her to do me any favors.

"One more night," Susie says, reapplying powders and colors to her face. "Then you have to go."

"Why'd we get divorced?"

"You have no ambition," she says, drawing black lines under her eyes, then tracing her lips with burgundy. She makes a kissing noise. She uses a piece of Kleenex to blot what isn't needed and throws it away. "No goals. What do you want to do with your life?"

"I don't know," I say, "but I don't want to be divorced."

She puts her contraband of cosmetics back in her purse. "Let's go."

_____

Outside, she's telling me to keep up. I'm scurrying as fast as I can, galloping on all fours, but it isn't fast enough and parts of my body keep slipping out of her shadow, and the sun singes me.

"This hurts," I say.

"I don't have time for this," she says.

"Where am I supposed to go?"

She checks her watch and tells me we're going to take a cab back to the office, but the thought of being back there is too awful. The thought of Susie throwing me out of her life feels too awful, and she's wrong, I do have goals: I want to make her protect me, I want to make her miss me, I want to make her hurt. So I jump out of her shadow, out of its shield, and into the blaze of sunlight, and my clothes cook away, and I look like a vampire--skin bubbling and popping from the scorch--and Susie says, "What are you doing?" and I say, "Moving on," and I fall to the ground and she stands over me, trying to fit me back into her shadow, but I roll around evasively and watch her worry, my skin smoldering and soon there's fire all over me, I can smell the hair burning and my skin tears and disappears, huge holes forming and I can see my ribcage, can see the matter and organs bake and burn and turn to ash. I watch my heart lose its rhythm and codes of love. I watch my heart cave in. My pancreas and liver hurtle toward the ground, and then my eyes coat with a chalky film and seconds later, they pop, and I'm totally falling to pieces: my teeth drop out, my ears melt and drip down my neck, nose closing in on itself. An arm falls off. The soles of my feet get glued to the sidewalk. My cock disappears like a bomb's fuse.

A crowd gathers, standing around me, gasping in awe, like I'm a monk burning myself in protest. I try to say one last thing to Susie, but there are no lungs to swell with air, no throat to funnel my message, no noise from my voice, no words in my mouth, no dialogue meandering over my lips, and I can't see Susie and I can't hear her, but I know she's crying. I know she's got her hands covering her face in horror. I know she sees my cremation and feels sorry, guilty. She knows she made a mistake.

My charred spine sits on the sidewalk.

There's something beautiful to feel here, but I'm already gone.

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