Whispers In My Ear

In September, Andre told me there was something going on with him “down there.”

“I think it’s a yeast infection,” he said.

“Men get yeast infections?”

We were on the phone. He paused as if annoyed and said, with the curt of someone who has had to explain this before, “Yes, men get yeast infections.”

Another pause. I scratched my head. Did I have a yeast infection? I didn’t think so.

“But I mean also,” Andre’s voice got low on the phone. I bent my knees, as if leaning down so he could whisper in my ear. “I know I haven’t slept with anyone, but have you?”

“No,” I whispered back. My knees were still bent when I realized it was a lie.

I slept with my ex in April, which was only two months after Andre and I met. Two months after the ex and I had ended. In April, it had seemed irrelevant to Andre. It was probably still irrelevant to a yeast infection in September. Mostly though, I wondered why it was so hard to admit that I had just lied. The lie had only been alive for seconds, already it seemed impossible to figure out how to make it die.

I didn’t know if it was a yeast infection or not. Andre and I didn’t have sex.  I bought Monistat, shot it inside of myself. If I had a yeast infection, it went away. Andre and I didn’t have sex. There was nothing for him to shoot. He said his symptoms stayed. Andre and I didn’t have sex.

“With a condom, maybe,” he said. He was naked, kneeling on my bed. He held his penis in his hand, said, “You don’t see that?” He pulled his penis from side to side, up and down. “See? Dots? Those little red dots. They’re everywhere.”

I was lying on the bed. My face inches from his penis. I loved the shape of him. I really wanted to have sex. I tried hard to see the red dots.

“Maybe,” I said.

“They’re everywhere! You don’t see that?! They’re everywhere?!”

I was starting to think this was all in his head, that the red dots were about something else.

I sat up on my elbows and watched him. He was still holding his penis, examining it. “Are you sure you haven’t been with someone else?” I said.

He fell onto the bed, looked at the wall. Was I thinking about April? Did I just want to get mad?

“It’s okay,” I said. “I won’t be mad.” It was a trap. Of course, I would get mad. He looked at me. His eyebrows are thick and black. The hairs on his right eyebrow combed upwards and splayed out. He bit his lip, looked back at the ceiling.

 “The last time I remember was.” He bit his lip again. “…August, I guess.”

A part of me knew this already. I thought of a friend who used to lie for his best friend. The best friend and his wife cheated on each other so often it seemed like it was just a way for them to pass the time. My friend put hotel rooms on his credit card for the husband. I said, “Why don’t they just get divorced already?”

My friend looked appalled. “They love each other, Emily!”

I said, “Why aren’t they just in an open relationship then?”

My friend looked at me like I was a child and asked if I really didn’t understand? The fantasy was half the thing.

“We fall in love with the lie,” he said.

 I asked Andre, “What does the last time you remember mean?”

“Last time I remember is what it means.” He stared at the wall. His arm was bent at the elbow, his fingers pressing into the sides of his head. He had just gotten his haircut and said the woman had cut it too short. He kept touching his hairline as if wishing something that was gone was still there.

“What if I said, last time I remember, what would you think?” I wanted to touch his hair, trace the outline of what had been. He smiled and the dimple on his right cheek came out. Andre is beautiful to me. I don’t if I feel close to him because he is beautiful or he is beautiful because I feel close to him. I didn’t want to feel close to him then so I pressed my hands to the sheets instead.

 “I would think you were blackout drunk is what I would think.” His hand moved from his hairline to the bed. They inched towards me, within reaching distance before they stopped, spread out, then pulled the sheets in like he was grasping for something there. I couldn’t figure out if this was an admission or not.

I pulled my hands back, turned away from him, and said what I thought I was supposed to say. “I think you should leave.”

And so, he did, and I was left wondering why it is we say we long for connection and then choose moral superiority?

The nurse at the STD clinic was in her mid to late 50s. She had thin lips, a stoic, narrow face, a grey bob, and thick-rimmed, gold-frame glasses. Her scrubs had Care Bears dancing on them. She didn’t smile or ask me how my day was. She sat down at her computer station and sighed.

“Any active symptoms?” she said.

“No,” I said. She did not take her eyes from the screen. I stared at a green Care Bear tripping down her spine. I wondered why I would lie.

 “I don’t have symptoms, but my boyfriend says he does.”

I realized it was just easier to say boyfriend sometimes.

The nurse stared at the screen, lowered her glasses to the bridge of her nose. Her fingers readied on the keyboard. “What are his symptoms?”

I went into a long explanation. I had strep throat. Maybe I had a yeast infection. Maybe the antibiotics gave me one and then I gave it to him. I took medicine, he didn’t. I don’t have symptoms, he says he does still.

She turned her body towards me. She didn’t smile. She held a finger in the air. It was long and thin and wrinkled. There were no rings. “Oh!” she said. “He has to take the pill. Men have to take the pill for yeast infections, but they have to get it prescribed. Tell him that!”

She still didn’t smile, but her eyes were active suggesting solving something was a thrill.

I almost left. I thought maybe she believed the answer was that easy. I wanted to believe the answer was that easy.

The walls of the room were mustard yellow. They looked smooth, but they weren’t. If you looked closer, there were little bumps and blisters everywhere.  

I stared at them at when I said, “He also slept with someone else.”

The wall didn’t make me think about STDs. It made me think of a man I had gone on a date with before Andre. A very nice man who gave me the sensation that I was stuck at the bottom of some well and his body was my only way out, but his body was completely smooth. There were no crevices or holes to dig into, no bumps or lesions to hoist myself out.

I looked at the wall in the clinic. I thought of meeting Andre. I thought of how quickly I wanted to dig my fingers into his skin. I touched the paper sheet on the clinic bed. It slipped beneath my fingers, and I felt the terror of tears I didn’t know were there.

“What a bitch,” the nurse said.

I cut my eyes back to her.

 “Sorry,” she said and then she turned back to the computer and started typing things again.

When she drew my blood, I stared at the wall again. I tried to think of STDs. I tried to be angry. The needle didn’t hurt, but I felt the tears welling up again.

“All done,” the nurse said. I wiped my eyes. She put the sample away, stood in front of me and pulled a pair of blue scissors from her front pocket. She snipped them once in the air and said, “If you need these.”

I laughed while I cried.

“Men,” she said and rolled her eyes. I felt righteous. I felt wronged. It was a lie. I didn’t want to be in love with a lie.

“I slept with someone else too,” I said. The nurse put a finger to her lips. “Sh,” she said and shook her head.

I once had a therapist who was in her 80s. Her office was inside of her apartment on the Upper West Side with a view of Riverside Park. There were framed glamour shots of herself from different ages and times on her windowsill. When she was young and a famous soap opera star in Mexico. Herself then, ballroom dancing beneath a chandelier, a bouquet of roses and a kneeling man, staring down at her glittering stilettos. Sometimes she said things like, “When Carlos and I were together,” and you were supposed to already know she meant Castaneda. When I was still seeing her, I cheated on a boyfriend. I told him I had done it. I thought the admission absolved me of something.

 “Why would you do that?” my therapist said. I thought she meant the cheating. “Why would you tell him?” she said.

I said I felt guilty. She rolled her eyes, said guilt was a fake emotion, just something we say to make ourselves feel better about doing something we think is bad, but are going to do anyways.

It was true. The cheating wasn’t an accident. It was a clear-headed decision. The boyfriend never made me cum. Our sex felt like he had mistaken my vagina for his hand. I had started to think maybe that’s all my vagina was after all. I cheated the first time someone made me remember how absurd it was to think that way.

Looking back, I don’t think I told him I cheated because I felt guilty. I think I told him because I wanted him to know my vagina wasn’t his hand. I had told the therapist this. She told me not to tell him that, to fake an orgasm instead. She said, “Men need to believe silly things like that.”

Sometimes I wonder what would have happened if I’d just told the truth, the original truth, instead.

It is two months later. There was no STD. I don’t know if there was a yeast infection or o it was just guilt in his head. Andre said he was sorry for sleeping with someone else, said he was drunk, said he didn’t know how to tell me. I said it wasn’t that, the sleeping, it was the unprovoked lie. It was his voice getting low on the phone, me bending my knees on the other end, him whispering in my ear, “I know I haven’t slept with anyone else, but have you?”

He doesn’t have an excuse for that. 

“I just didn’t know how to take it back,” he says.

I hear this, think about April and the ex, tell my friends about his unprovoked lie. “Oh yeah, that’s bad,” they all say. I stay righteous and smooth on the outside. I tell my best friend. She says, “He was hoping you would say yes, you had slept with someone else, so if it was an STD, it could be your fault instead of his.”

“I know!” I say. I touch the smoothness of my skin. Her voice goes low on the phone. I bend my knees again. “I mean, I’ve been on both sides.”

“I know,” I say, softer this time. “Me too.”

On the inside, I am alone and cold at the bottom of that well. It is the feeling of moral superiority based on a lie.

I call Andre.

 “You can come get your stuff if you want,” he says.

“You didn’t throw it away?”

“No,” I say, thinking about when I did and then felt bad and pulled it out of the trash. “Of course, I didn’t.”  

“When should I come?” he says.

I fold a pair of his jeans, the knees are facing me. The knees have gone white. I stick my nail into the fabric until right before it tears. “You can come now,” I say.

I am in the kitchen watching him as he stands on my porch, fixing his hair, straightening his shirt, pushing his lips inwards and outwards. He is ducking to look at himself. It is a stance that reminds me of a time we went to Myrtle Beach and we paid 20 dollars each to try to find our way through a maze of mirrors and smoke screens. I gave up. I couldn’t figure out how to tell what was a mirror and what was a door. I wanted to crawl back to the beginning and out. He took my hand and I let him. He kept ducking, said he was looking for the reflection of his feet.

“If I see myself, it isn’t a door.”

It was such an obvious thing.

A problem between us: I believe myself to be smarter than him. I don’t know why such an obvious thing hadn’t occurred to me.

On the porch, he stands straight. He is about to ring the doorbell. I don’t know why I have been hiding, acting as if I haven’t seen him. I don’t know why it is so tempting to act as though I am standing on a perch, righteous and smooth, looking down at him, acting as if I could never do something that he did.

I open the door before he rings the bell. There’s a glass door still between us. I don’t know why it is so hard to say I am stuck in the bottom of the well, wanting to crawl out.

I open the glass door.

“Hey,” he says. We stand for a second, as if there is still a pane of glass between us. He takes a step forward. I don’t take a step back. We don’t hug as much as place our chests next to each other. I place my hand on his back. His skin feels like crevices I can sink my fingers into and I wonder why it is so hard to forgive, to tell the truth, to say that we are the same, and let go of an idea of moral superiority. I don’t know why it is so hard to swim to the other side of the lies we cover ourselves with.

He puts his hand to my back and we say nothing, but we drop our heads, close enough that if one of us whispered, the other could hear.

EMILY MATHIS is a second-year MFA candidate in fiction at UNCG. Her work was a finalist for the Ron Rash Awards and the Chester B. Himes Award and was shortlisted for the 2020 Bridport Prize. Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared, or are forthcoming, in Epiphany, Broad River Review, 5×5, FLARE: The Flagler Review, Cathexis Northwest Press and others. She is working on an auto-fiction project and is on Instagram@twaggamyster.