That summer the stink grew and rose through a heat wave that left everyone in the city sticky with sweat. Keith, the guy I was fucking at the time, liked to ask me about women we knew and if I could imagine being with them. He made me feel like, with all the people I’d been with, I was just some splintery board waiting to be rubbed up against. Keith liked to watch me touch myself, and he told me to tell him what I was thinking about. He said it turned him on. Anyway, from this we learned that every day there was something new I found erotic. He told me whatever was sexy to me was sexy to him and we made our fantasies that way, at least until he got sick of me. He’d ask if I was attracted to people we knew. When he said their names, usually I said yes. I found almost everyone on the planet attractive at that time.
One day he said, “Melissa?”
And I said, “I don’t know who that is,” but of course I did.
I got him to describe her to me. He told me she was tall, taller than me by almost a head. He told me what he thought her breast size was and probably exaggerated, but stuff like that didn’t bother me. “I fucked her once,” he said. I could always tell when Keith was lying. Then we made up a scenario about the lingerie store where she worked. It was too expensive for me to go there. I was still bartending at the bar next to the store and people tended to tip me in gossip rather than money. In the lingerie store, according to Keith’s fantasy, the saleswomen had to model the lingerie and customers ended up making out or having full-blown sex with them in the change rooms. I climbed on top of him as he spoke, begged him to keep talking, but even after just hearing the name Melissa I was ready to go.
Really, I couldn’t imagine there was a woman out there who was more perfect than me. I was barely twenty-six, and I swelled with the power of my attractiveness. People started to secretly say I was conceited, but I had ears and I knew what they were chatting about. I knew enough by then to know people liked to think someone who loved their body was vain. It was the same thing they thought about Melissa. To be accepting of yourself gave you power and one of the ways to stomp on someone’s power was by pretending its source was something shameful. I saw it in Melissa and liked it, and I liked it in myself. The others didn’t know anything, they just knew how to move their mouths until they were tired or thirsty and then ordered another drink from me.
Customers complained about the stink. It coated their tongues, so they thought something was off in their drinks. The a.c. was also spotty. I’d journey into the basement and play with the settings, kick at that damn machine. Sometimes it started humming away and everyone clapped as I climbed back up, like I’d fought off a monster down there, delivered everyone from certain doom. But we were already stuck to the roof of a dead dog’s mouth, everything hot and rancid and damp.
Eventually people called my boss about the stink even though it wasn’t just in our bar. The stink was everywhere: under the shade of the trees and along the boardwalk, especially in direct sun, which glowed bright and red and deep. Sunsets and sunrises seemed to stay still and hover all early morning and evening. Time in general slid slowly around the clock. My boss ordered me to take out the garbage on the hour.
The garbage bins had less sludge at the bottom if I took it out often; less time to let shards of beer glass slice the bags open and release the slurry of food and old booze on me. One day, outside in the alley behind all the stores and restaurants, Melissa was there smoking, on break from the lingerie store. I dumped the garbage. “Hi,” I said to her. The stink swelled from the row of garbage cans. My boss kept adding more cans, thinking it would reduce the smell. I stared at her, though I didn’t mean to. I couldn’t get Keith’s sexy scenarios out of my head. She just waved at me and said nothing. Crushed her cigarette against the brick of the building and went inside.
Melissa kept getting creepy messages from different Twitter accounts. Everyone kept talking about it. Keith had an almost photographic memory for language, so he’d recite the tweets to me from memory as we fucked. All I’d say was, “I’m Melissa.” It was a game we played, one last-ditch attempt to excite each other before we both lost interest.
After we had sex three or four times and were both exhausted, Keith fell asleep beside me. His breathing whistled and his hand held my wrist as he slept. I hoped he wouldn’t forget me, after we’d moved on.
“Who’s tweeting at Melissa?” I asked him when he stirred.
“It’s not as surprising as you might think,” he said.
It was dark and the heat held us in such a way that we couldn’t move.
“I think I might be in love with her,” he said. “I talk to her from time to time.”
It was too hot for me to give myself fully over to Keith again.
“Don’t forget to tell me about it later.”
I found Bryant when I hadn’t heard from Keith in a week. He was slouched in a chair outside a coffee shop. “Well, hi,” I said to him, kicking at his shoe. He looked at me with these great eyes like someone had taken a mirror and smashed it and tried to put it back together all wrong. I knew exactly who he was and looked to see if Melissa was inside, to see if this might finally give her a reason to talk to me. When he and Melissa had started dating, back when they were twenty, people said they’d never seen a couple so in love. But he was alone now, as he was most times I saw him around. On his wrist, he’d gotten “mel” tattooed in what everyone said was her cursive. I fell down into the chair beside him and introduced myself. Bryant handed me a cigarette.
I got him laughing, telling him about some of the gossip I’d heard behind the bar and told him I had half a bottle of wine at home. We started walking and goofing around. He stopped to bat at my ass every couple of steps. Even though I wasn’t Melissa, he wanted me. After we had sex, he buried his face into my curly hair, and I asked him if we could keep fucking. I’d heard Melissa was more or less done with him.
“Are you sad you’re breaking up?” I asked him.
“Everyone thinks she’s perfect, but she’s not,” he said.
“I was with the woman for five years. It’s totally different if you’re with a woman like that.” His whole face twitched. I wasn’t sure if it was from exhaustion, sadness, disgust.
“It’ll be good. It’ll be good when it’s over.”
I never expected them to patch it up, but they did. Still, I kept fucking Bryant.
Bryant had gotten used to the air conditioning at Melissa’s and couldn’t stand the heat. I set up three fans to be ready for him the next time he came over, one facing the bed, one on a TV table I used as a desk and another beside the hot plate. They created a breeze on their highest settings, even though they stirred up the stink. My apartment above the fruit stand always stank during the summer anyway. Nothing but rot, but the place was a short walk to work and barely cost me anything.
Keith stopped by the bar to return a couple paperbacks I’d given him.
“I dropped one in the bath,” he said. “I hope that’s O.K.”
I asked him if he wanted to fuck in the backroom. The bar was deserted.
“I can’t,” he said and ordered a Dark ’n Stormy.
I was glad to have him stay and chat. I wanted to catch up, but he didn’t have all that much to say. I told him not to tell anyone, but I’d been fucking Bryant even after he’d gotten back with Melissa. That I didn’t really hope he’d leave or really want to be with him, just liked sharing something with her. Keith finished his drink in one quick sip.
“I don’t know. He’s not a good guy from what I hear.”
“Who’d you hear that from? Melissa? That’s not what I’ve heard. And they’re back together, so why’d you think that? What do you know?”
Keith shook his head and put money on the bar.
Most days, Bryant didn’t come close to Keith. There was something about the way all those little shards of mirror in his eyes could flip around that gave him a hardness, especially while we fucked. It was those times that I could most easily slip into the fantasy that I was Melissa. It worked in the moment to send me over the edge, but after he left, I sat on my bed with a book that had both covers torn off. They call a book like that a stripped book because it can’t be sold, I guess. It’s only valuable with its covers. I ran its frayed pages underneath my fingernails. It wasn’t shame I was feeling, more like a troubling stillness. A fear I was destroying myself. In the shower I scrubbed at my skin, the stench growing even heavier with the steam.
My bedsheets were still wet from our sex. I combed my closet, pushing aside old winter coats, looking for the other fan I was sure I had. My hands were slow and clumsy and my wet hair slapped my shoulders as I moved. I picked up a bicycle helmet and garden tools and let them slip from my fingers. I clawed at a windbreaker I’d forgotten I had, and cut the side of my hand on a hammer. Blood gushed over the inside of the closet, onto the extension cords and power bars and instruction manuals. I put my hand to my mouth and sucked. The taste of my blood made me gag. I grabbed a towel and wound it around my hand. It stained quick, but stayed in place, soaking up the mess coming out of me. I decided not to strip the sheets. I was too tired and everything smelled and was surrounded by the damn heat anyway. It didn’t matter what I did. Why strip sheets just to need to strip them again in the morning.
When I woke up, I checked my Twitter and then I checked Melissa’s. I don’t know how I knew, lying in my bed with my damp sheets stuck to my legs and my hand wrapped in that bloody towel. Someone had hacked into her account and written, “I will come for you, Melissa. Your family too.” And another: “I will kill you, bitch.” The stink did make me retch that morning, especially as I washed my towel in the sink. The blood clung like rust along the bottom of the drain. I breathed in and out slowly, trying to keep down last night’s wine. I would see Melissa outside at least once a day when I emptied the trash. Sometimes I even bummed a smoke from her. The blood in the sink reminded me of the alley’s brick wall, her crushed cigarettes.
I needed to say something to her. I wondered if she was scared. At work, I poured drinks and deep-fried pickles and chicken wings and counted down until the hour was up and I could see Melissa. When I went out there, she was on break, smoking and crying quietly, staring into the sun that hung there like it hated us.
“I saw everything on-line. You O.K.?”
I dumped the trash.
“I don’t give a shit about that,” she said. “My dad had a heart attack.”
“Oh,” I said and moved closer to her.
She was the only one in this city who didn’t smell. Close to her, I filled my nostrils. I wanted her scent to cover me, but as soon as I stepped away, the stink settled back on me. It was in my pores. Whenever I showered, I waited for the water to be scalding hot to burn away the stench. But it was in the water too. Putrid. Rot. It was like all the water in the world had gone bad somehow and no one had noticed yet. Like Melissa had water stored in her basement while the rest of us washed our bodies with the rank liquid that spewed from our faucets.
“Did you just hear?”
She nodded and glared up at the sky again, sucking on her cigarette.
“I’m out of this fucking place,” she said. And while I was embarrassed about the stink hanging around me, I hugged her with one arm around her waist.
“I’m going to miss you,” I said.
She moved my arm off her, but her fingers took their time as they pushed against my skin.
That night, when Bryant came over, I didn’t pretend I was Melissa. I couldn’t get into it. I lay there like a blow-up doll, like I had before I’d ever started fucking Keith. “What’s the matter with you?” he said and shook me. “Don’t you want to fuck?”
He held his hard dick in his hand and pumped it over me.
“It’s too hot,” I said and rolled over onto my stomach. “Everything stinks.”
“Don’t you have another fan around here?”
The three hummed in unison, waving their heads back and forth.
“In the closet.”
Bryant pulled open the closet door, and he screamed high and long, not like I thought a man would scream, but like a dog, kicked deep in the stomach.
“What the hell?”
I dragged myself from the bed and walked over to the closet, naked. Blood was everywhere. Over the walls and the cords and smeared on the door handle.
“What did you do?” he asked me.
The mirror pieces all flipped to their reflective sides, light glinting everywhere.
“What the fuck did you do?”
I laughed and laughed. I held up my hand.
“I cut myself by accident,” I said. “I must’ve forgot.”
“It stinks. It stinks like blood here. Nasty,” he said. “I’m going home.”
“Don’t you know she’s gone?” I said.
Bryant was pulling on his pants.
“She’s left the city, Bryant.”
“What?” he said.
“She left. Her dad had a heart attack.”
He paused with one arm in his T-shirt before his hand burst through the sleeve.
“Why’d she tell you?”
I just smiled at him and shrugged, like I knew everything that ever would happen in his life and didn’t care much about it.
He slammed his fist into the wall beside my head. I started shaking, but there was nothing he could do to me.
“You’re scared?” he said, rubbing his hand.
I tried calling Keith after Bryant was gone, but a voice said his number was unavailable. I looked for him all over the city. But I was alone.
Keith came back to the city and showed up at the bar where I still worked. He put both elbows on the counter and ordered a Dark ’n Stormy. Nobody drank those anymore. He told me he’d moved with Melissa to her hometown for a while, that the air was cool and clear, but eventually the heat found him there too.
“What was it like being with her?” I asked. “Was it like we imagined?”
He shoved his hands into his hair, which already was sticking to his forehead. They trembled as he put them back around his glass, a habit he’d later learn to conceal.
“It was a complete nightmare,” he said.
I left Keith to watch the bar and descended the steps to the basement to check the a.c. Even down there it was foul and hot. I flicked dials and switches and fuses, kicked and hollered and begged. I wrapped my body around the machine. The more I moved, the more I stank. The cold would never come.