Wholes | Rebecca McKee
his thumbnails, creased with ridges like ravines;
a seatbelt and the feeling of falling.
His first car was a hatchback with holes rusted in the floor and a frame that rattled on the
freeways. The key had gone missing ages ago by the fault of no one, and while he scrambled
beneath the front end to wire-start the engine I watched the cuffs of his blue jeans through
scattershot holes and wondered what it would be like to reach through those fist-sized openings and grasp his ankles, no warning, just contact.
While we drove I kept my feet on the dash to avoid falling through the floor and hummed
along to The Goonies soundtrack on cassette, jammed in the player for as long as anyone could remember. Open space blurred below my legs, dizzying. I imagined our children in this car, laughing as they tossed rocks and wrappers onto the rushing road below, gone as fast as if they had never existed at all.
I wondered when I had begun thinking of children. Of our children, of an us and a we.
We met eyes at a stoplight and hummed loud, together, equally out of tune. The
passenger-side seatbelt was not exactly safe, but we didn’t worry about it — with the hole in the floor, we joked, we had an immediate escape hatch.
and bitter winter air rush.
His eyes were framed by a curtain of eyelashes so dark I was convinced he saw nothing
beyond them, but when he closed his eyes he could still describe the color of his mother’s dining room walls (baby blue floral print, now a tobacco-tinted yellow), so I was sure he knew what I looked like. His hands drummed on the table and because he had never cracked a knuckle in his life his fingers were slimmer than mine, delicate. His thumbnails grew in strange ridges, and I had memorized the shapes of them more thoroughly than I knew his face.
I had come to his mother’s house to meet the woman that raised him, in this place, her
place — his temporary space — some 1500 miles away. I tried not to think of this place as a cage, his mother a captor.
“I want to own a cat,” he said. He addressed this to the wallpaper.
I informed him he already owned a cat.
“But another one,” he said. “So the first doesn’t get lonely.”
I told him he should consider minding the holes in his car before he went searching for
cats, in part because of the shifting winter weather, and in part because I was not a cat person — I had not yet received enough attention in all my years to feel like I could share.
phone calls kept too short.
He was seven years older than I was, and when he asked where I had been all his life I
said, “Middle school.”
Now when I craned my head in search of where he might be, his answer arrived swaddled
in cracking static, from Denver, from Phoenix, from Boston.
I kept pictures of him around my room, but they were not enough to jog my memory of
his true image. I could picture his collarbones, and thumbnails creased like ridges, but nothing
else. I had nightmares in which I lost track of him.
My neck ached from mapping his movements. The rest of me ached louder.
tiny lies (harmless);
a series of very small itches, everywhere.
We had once spent warm spring evenings in Midwestern purpled dusk, and while the
growing dark had blued our sunburns he would murmur to the insects that skittered past, offering greetings, well-wishes. Now people sprawled across the spring-warmed lawns in pairs, tipped their faces toward the breeze. The grass that had once been a comfort was now an itch along my bare thighs. My tailbone protested, pined for chairs.
There’s a particular kind of itch that forms beneath the skin when left unattended for too
long. I tried to remember his face in wholes and could only picture pieces. My body was one
Wind blew from the south, created northbound whitecaps on a southbound river, arrows
pointing in his direction. The city rang hollow, echoed his name.
I tried not to count the minutes between now and the future, like infinite blades of grass,
told myself it was okay to lie about time, to pretend seconds were as swift as a hatchback on
highways and that if I didn’t look down I wouldn’t feel I was falling. Sometimes, when I told
myself these kinds of stories, I could almost believe they were true.
“I miss you,” I told him.
“I miss you, too.”
I always said it first, but he always said it back.
hydrogen peroxide on the tongue;
and the mystery of my own mouth.
It had been months since I’d seen him last, and I was trying to remove coffee stains from
my mouth. Hydrogen peroxide and baking soda, but never together—I felt I was trying to hide
evidence of loneliness.
Lately, I had tried to take advantage of every sliver of sunlight I could find. I’d read
many years ago that baring your teeth to the sun was a sure way to collect sunlight in the mouth, and that eventually your teeth would glow. I wanted my smile to be seen in the dark. I wanted it to be seen across continents.
I didn’t have prosopagnosia but I had never been able to remember faces, not even his,
not even if I tried to remember it in pieces. I could not picture his smile, or if he had ever smiled. His image was full of holes, a warm rush of air, the blur of a moving road just out of reach.
While he was away I honed my skill of finding truths in false realities. I often convinced
myself that the twist in my gut was a byproduct of cancer, and then re-believed I was fine.
Sometimes I chose to believe he never existed, to trick my limbs into feeling lighter.
Peroxide fizzled along the perimeter of my gums, burned away germs, stain. I tried to
smile and could only snarl. I held baking soda on the tongue, a bitter salt burn, and prayed to
God he recognized my mouth when he saw it again, because frankly (and I’m lying, of course) I had begun to believe this mouth was not mine.
Wind in empty spaces;
clean air and spittle-flecked straws.
My body’s caffeine tolerance was a cosine curve, easily graphed, full of gentle
vacillations. Lately my tolerance had been cos(), less than zero. Any drop of caffeine was a bolt
to the body, shock of adrenaline, feeling that my atoms would burst apart into nothing if I could
not calm my raging pulse.
“What does less than zero caffeine look like?” he asked.
“Carbs,” I said. “Lots of bread, for counterweights.”
My head was a dandelion, falling apart, lacking substance. Good coffee was not a
substitute for glue, and it went down the drain after two swallows, my head between my knees,
seeking air, relief, the color of his eyes. I wondered what he did all day, what his apartment
looked like, how his back arced over his computer as he worked nine to five. Sometimes, when
bitter coffee taste burned through my mouth, I was tricked into missing his spittle on the edge of
my coffee cup, sharper in my memory than the features of his face.
He lived 1100 miles away. It was difficult to picture the existence of a life I had not seen,
and that was not yet mine. My smile mapped the days he had been gone in shades of coffee-
stain—yellowed to yellowing to nothing at all—and I tried (and failed) to remember if my mouth
had looked this way before we parted. I tried to remember anything about his mouth, but I could
anger in the chest;
a lingering chill of regret.
Sometimes I hated him, when he was gone and I was here. Sometimes I convinced
myself that it would be better if we weren’t together at all. I didn’t want to be unhappy when he
was not. I didn’t want to need him.
I was an empty alleyway while he was gone, scattered with wind-driven trash. The
scattershot rust holes of that old hatchback drifted through my mind, tiny escape hatches,
bleeding trash and laughter. I was responsible for my own littering.
“I thought I hated you today,” I never told him.
If I was truthful (and was I?), there was nothing I could truly hate him for.
slick summer sweat;
the color of his irises, which were blue, but also not.
I tried to imagine this next summer would be like the last, when each of us had worn a
ring on our left hand and pretended to be married, and we had celebrated the Sabbath by bathing
in shafts of sunlight at three in the afternoon, thirty-degree angles that fell from the west. In the
mornings we had bought watermelon and bright bell peppers and fistfuls of dianthus to live on
our narrow windowsills, and fresh air washed over us as we slept, and sunlight lived in our bones
long after dark. Everything smelled of sunscreen. We were sticky with watermelon.
Last year, on the way home from the farmer’s market we had seen a painting through a
gallery window, a canvas rendered all in blues and greens and yellows that morphed into hands
the color of summer-dusk sky. I had never seen a more accurate way to describe an eye color.
“Let’s name our watermelon,” I had suggested.
He called it Hieronimo.
Indoors we had hidden our bodies beneath blankets and held hands even as sweat
collected between our palms. I’d dreamt fever dreams of chlorine and cool aqua blue. Beneath
the blankets, back aching from futon cushions, I was convinced his eyes were green—a carbon
Or at least, that’s how I thought the story had gone. It was so long ago—I couldn’t be
trusted to remember.
The way the word “engagement” felt in the mouth;
and rust-marked memories.
He called, sent pictures, shared images of where he lived. The reality was nothing like I
had imagined, those strangely-shaped images I had held in my mind for so long, rust-ruined and
fragile. His life away from mine was a little clearer now. I felt, for an instant, stable ground.
We each drifted through separate galaxies, living individual lives, connected only by
words through spit-crackle static. He seemed aflame in his space across the continent, in
constant, swift evolution.
We had constructed plans for the future but I didn’t know how I would fit into them when
he was growing and I felt fourteen, always.
“Just a little longer,” he said.
Time seemed to move only in spaces that I did not occupy. He would be old by the time I
saw him again. I was convinced he would die if I was not there to ensure he lived.
Waking dreams in sun-warmed wholes;
train-rush in truedark;
maps drawn in steel and grain.
This is the most important part of the story, if you believe stories are not just thinly-
“I tried once,” he told me, “to find a reason to get rid of you.”
A train rumbled past, shook the building.
“Because I think—maybe subconsciously, and selfishly—I didn’t want to give up having
It was a freight train, short and rickety. The storm windows rattled loose in the near-dark,
“And then I realized that if I tried, this could be something really special.”
How often did holes rust into freight cars? I pictured ribbons of loosed grain left along
train tracks, trails of trash and treasure leading from departure to destination.
“And we still are alone sometimes, and we do the same things we would have done if we
were by ourselves,” he said.
Sometimes the train whistled, like the trains back in the Midwest, in the place where
we’d met. This one did not.
“But even though we’re doing the same things we would have done alone, it’s better
knowing you’re still there, just in the next room.”
This place was not the Midwest, but was new and dangerous and full of Atlantic-borne
chill. I had been there only briefly, and tomorrow I would have to leave, back to the place where
the trains called out through the distant night and cornfields shushed even cities. Railcars were
too sturdy, and I had never found grain following train tracks from here to there, or there to here.
I suspected I never would.
He lay beside me, quiet, listening. I didn’t know what to say that hadn’t already been
said, and I reached out, eyes closed, blind faith that I would find his form in the dark.
My head fit perfectly into the space between his neck and shoulder, and I burrowed there,
seeking a warmth that would last the next few months. I stifled tears, then let them go,
shameless. I didn’t want to leave.
Diamonds curved, heavy, around my ring finger, glittering even in the near-dark. I could
forgive him for anything. I already had.
Memories of the future,
and humming highways,
and a promise of time yet to come.
I had been plagued, recently, by dreams of the near-future, and by half-truths:
Hot summer heat and tarmac and wind-rush, we had been on the highway for hours
without speaking and everything felt right. He drove with only one hand on the steering wheel.
The passenger-side seatbelt was snug across my chest, secure.
The music was just a shade too loud, and because this was a borrowed car and not his
hatchback, the music was not from The Goonies. Setting summer sun bleached my periphery as
we drove north. When I closed my eyes, his face drifted along my inner eyelids in negative, a
sun-warmed afterimage witnessed in wholes. We were stuck with one another, bound by
promises and beaten silver, our edges honed to fit one into the other. There were no holes in the
floor to cool my sweating thighs. We didn’t need them.
I can’t remember when this happened, or if it had ever happened—it might have been a
dream, a vision, a mirage over whitecapped rivers. Heat thrummed through my bones when I
remembered, a promise of reality and future and time that moved neither swiftly nor slowly, but
at exactly the right pace.
He was not here now, but would be soon, and I dreamed of his face entire. In these
dreams, his fingernails grew in strange ridges as he reached his free hand
Rebecca McKee is a graduate of the University of Iowa. Her fiction has previously received the Iowa Chapbook Prize and has been featured in apt, and her nonfiction is forthcoming in Prairie Schooner. She lives in Oklahoma where she pretends to be a data analyst by day and herds three-legged cats with her husband by night.