What was it with the men in my life? There were simple solutions to their problems, but they never thought of them. My boyfriend slept on a sleeping bag he’d had since Scouts. He had no other blankets. He lived by the highway in an uninsulated attic studio because it was cheap. He got a handyman discount.
I refused to stay at his place. It was frigid and his pillows were bullshit—all the cotton balled up in the corners of the shams, rendering them useless.
“They’re fine,” he said. “You just have to wrap the pillow around your head like a hot dog bun.”
“So, my head is the hot dog?”
And then there was Timothy, my roommate. Timothy, who at forty-two still bragged about his undergraduate GPA, made a big show of sweeping the stairs with a bandana tied around his face and sneezed loudly all day, punishing me for my dogs instead of just moving out. He complained they kept him up at night. “They bark at a fart,” was how he put it. I didn’t buy it. Sure, sometimes they needed to go out in the middle of the night, and they’d get antsy if I didn’t wake up right away, and romp around, their claws click-clacking on the wood laminate, but overall, they were good boys.
We lived on the shitty side of a fancy neighborhood that flanked the city park—me, Timothy, my dogs. I tutored rich kids who went to schools that didn’t use letter grades. The work came and went. My pupils graduated with glowing performance reviews and no longer needed me. I supplemented my income by writing human interest pieces for the local paper for ten cents a word and a yearly pistachio allotment. I was twenty-eight and spent a lot of time daydreaming. I wanted to be a famous biographer, to live off the writing and awaken with a clear purpose each day—to unravel someone’s life question by question, to create an in-depth record of every dalliance and heartbreak, every death, figurative or literal.
My column, “On the Record,” appeared in the weekly City Paper on Thursdays. I’d written profiles on all kinds of local weirdos: a geriatric who ran a tantric sex workshop, a woman who ate with plasticware because she thought real flatware caused cancer. One of my favorites was on this homeless guy who blasted 90’s R&B from a gigantic boombox. People called him Radio Raheem. He claimed he made $300 a month playing songs for passersby, which was enough at the time for an apartment in Pittsburgh, if you knew where to look. He seemed to know something I didn’t about satisfaction, how to limit my expectations and get more out of life.
One day that fall, I found myself at the door of a man who was rumored to have many exotic snakes, some even poisonous. I was always skeptical of snake people. Much like fish, snakes were pets for lazy people, for chumps. All you had to do was feed them and clean their cages periodically. And what did snakes offer in return? Nothing, from what I could tell. They didn’t cuddle in your lap or greet you when you came home.
As it turned out, Blaise lived in my neighborhood, but on the Parkside—the fancy area. All of the houses––Victorians and Cape Cods—sat atop a ravine that bordered Frick Park. But Blaise’s house stuck out: a brown and white Dutch Colonial in serious disrepair. The shutters were falling from their hinges, like meat sliding from the bone; a diseased looking elm grew in the front yard and a lopsided swing hung from the largest branch. The landscaping hadn’t been kept up either. Gnarled vines choked out the hedges. One of the second-floor windows was patched up with cardboard and duct tape. It looked nothing like my house: a Victorian, the clapboard painted peach, a garden of perennials and wild strawberries that took over the front yard in summer. It had its quirks on the inside, of course—the toilet wasn’t bolted to the floor, but to a block of wood, and the kitchen floor was lopsided, so nothing ever cooked evenly on the stove—but from the outside it was inviting. A charming shithole. For this same reason, Blaise’s house attracted me. I was drawn to things I thought I could fix.
I smoothed down my velvet blazer and rang the doorbell. The door swung open immediately.
The man before me had long black hair swept into a ponytail. He wore black mall-goth pants, a black shirt, and a leather wrist cuff. Despite all of this he was not unattractive. I imagined he’d be a sensual lover, the kind who would still fondle you long after he’d finished.
“Ah, the news woman,” he said and waved me into the house. I had been called worse things. I liked “news woman” because it simultaneously legitimized what I did and patronized me. I liked when something could be two things at once.
Blaise’s house was even colder than my boyfriend’s. There was a dusty pellet stove propped up on cinder blocks opposite the couch.
“Doesn’t work,” he said.
I followed him up the steep stairs and down a long hallway that ended in his bedroom. It had a large window overlooking the park. There was a California king bed, unmade, with red sheets. Above the bed was a framed poster from Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. The actresses, seven of them, lay in post-coital ecstasy, dreamily clutching fur pelts. On either side of the bed were two massive dressers. I couldn’t imagine that he had many clothes, but perhaps he used one of them for storage. An overflowing ashtray sat on the window ledge. Beneath, a bare window seat. There was so much potential in the room, in the house, and he had wasted it. If it had been my room, I would’ve put down cushions on the window seat. A fleece throw. I would’ve written my articles there on days when the sun pushed through the clouds.
He showed me to the snake room, a repurposed walk-in closet. Terrariums were stacked on top of each other all the way to the ceiling. There were at least a dozen snakes of varying colors and sizes.
I asked if it wouldn’t be more cost effective to keep them all in a few large terrariums, but he told me they’d kill each other. I couldn’t imagine how he slept at night, all those slithering psychopaths, the only thing preventing them from murder a thin pane of glass.
I clicked on my tape recorder. “So, why snakes?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean what attracts you to them?”
“They’re badass.” He pulled a black snake out of its cage and draped it around his neck like a scarf.
“Do you make money off of the snakes or are they more of a hobby?”
“I used to do the expos, sure. I brought them into schools, did feeding demos. That sort of thing.”
“But you stopped?”
Blaise let out a long sigh. His shoulders rounded forward as if the weight of what he was about to say was too great to hold himself upright. He put the black snack back in the cage.
“Cornelius, man. He just flew off the handle.”
Blaise pointed to a gigantic rust colored snake in one of the bottom tanks.
It took a while for Blaise to spit out the story and his eyes welled with tears as he explained. On a school trip the past summer, Cornelius, his prized boa constrictor, had wrapped around a star basketball player’s neck, momentarily cutting off his oxygen supply. Though Blaise apprehended the boa quickly, before any tracheal damage could be done, it was too late: the school board and PTA blacklisted him.
“They wanted to put him down, but eventually I talked them out of it, agreeing that I wouldn’t bring him to anymore schools or expos. He’s retired. In the prime of his life and stuck in an enclosure.”
I hate to admit it now, but I was touched despite myself. I’d always counted myself lucky that my dogs were docile and hadn’t bit anyone. I couldn’t imagine the shame, the indignity of having to kill what you loved most because it reacted carnally.
He removed a mouse, a white one with red eyes, from a separate terrarium in the corner.
“Would you like to see a feeding?”
“Sure,” I said. I did not like watching animals eat other animals but told myself it was for the good of my career. I’d render the spectacle of the feeding in vivid detail. I’d profile the shit out of this weirdo, become the Diane Arbus of my mid-size city weekly. My boyfriend would be proud. I’d take the money and buy him a space heater to celebrate.
Blaise dropped the mouse into a cage with a white and orange snake, a Corn Snake he told me. Its jaw unhinged and seized on the mouse swiftly, clamping down on its head, deflating it like a pool toy. It was off-putting, not only because of the circumstances of the death, but because I could sense the snake’s longing, its short-sighted goals, how satisfied it seemed when it attained them.
My stomach turned and Blaise directed me toward the bathroom.
At first, I didn’t notice anything strange about it. Naked toilet paper rolls lay around the waste paper basket, carelessly pitched from the toilet. There was a curled crossword book and a stack of mildewed Esquire magazines at my feet. But there was one peculiarity. On the stand next to the sink sat a large plastic test tube rack that held eight toothbrushes. I wondered what would possess someone to have eight toothbrushes. There were no roommates from what I could tell, and even if there were, there couldn’t have been more than four rooms in the house. Most of them were your standard toothbrushes, ones you’d get from the dentist twice a year. There was also one of those eco-friendly wooden ones. Timothy had one of those.
The toothbrushes unsettled me as they were an eccentricity I had not planned for.
I rifled through the drawers under the sink in search of other weird things. The first drawer was standard: razor blades, hair dryer, hand lotion, mini bottles of hotel shampoo. In the second there were condoms and a stack of polaroids, rubber-banded. The first was of a topless woman in tube socks and nude underwear, standing on Blaise’s bed. She was very pale with freckles all over, and long, stringy white-blonde hair. Even her eyelashes were white. The next was of a lithe man with dark curly hair that obscured his eyes. He too was naked, holding a plant in front of his penis. They all seemed to be variations on this theme. Another was of a black woman wearing a bunny mask and gnawing on a big plastic carrot. Below her picture, ‘Gwen’ was scrawled in sharpie. The last picture was faced down. I flipped it over and saw a hand holding a leash. In the very bottom corner of the picture a man was kneeling, a leather collar wrapped around his neck. There were red scratches crisscrossing his back. His face was a bit blurry, like he was writhing around when it was snapped, yet there was no mistaking it. The crew cut red hair, the pinched elf-like ears, the blue and red flame creeping up the shoulder, faded and sun spotted. It was Timothy.
“News woman? You all right?”
I dropped the Polaroids back in the drawer and opened the door.
“Sorry,” I said.
“No worries. You’re not the first to throw up during a feeding.”
“Oh no, I wasn’t—”
He placed his hand on my shoulder and leaned into me. “Don’t be embarrassed.”
I fed him a line about a deadline, and he followed me down the stairs. My shoulder was pulsing; I felt like I was radiating heat. In the living room, a pale, svelte woman was sitting cross-legged on the couch, reading. I recognized her as the woman from the first photograph. She didn’t look up from her book and Blaise didn’t introduce me. In fact, he didn’t even acknowledge her appearance, as if she had been there the whole time, like the couch or the pellet stove, just another object in the room.
On my walk, I tried to talk myself out of what I’d seen. That Timothy, the most uptight person I’d ever met, was secretly kinky mystified me. But then, even the way in which he was kinky was boring and ordinary. Wasn’t being walked around on a leash a mere step above furry handcuffs? Dom-sub lite.
It was only at the pet store on the way home when I dug in my pocket for money for dog food that I realized I had taken the Polaroid of Timothy. I held it like a coin whose odds I didn’t want to see but knew instinctively to be true. It was the same foreboding I felt in the pit of my stomach when I knew I’d bump into an ex. Five years was a long time to live in the same city, especially one like Pittsburgh that felt more like a small town. The degrees of separation were thin, the dating pool incestuous. I was starting to feel like I had befriended, fucked, or betrayed every twenty-something in a ten-mile radius. Or, if I hadn’t, someone I knew had, which meant that I knew about the sexual appetites and genitals of nearly every acquaintance. People talked. People posted on forums. People took pictures that I found when snooping through their belongings at parties or wakes. Or during interviews.
I unlocked my front door and dropped the food bag with a thud. The dogs didn’t greet me as they normally did. The house smelled of blood and onions. For a few excruciating seconds I feared Timothy had killed and cooked my dogs. But there they were in the living room, lying at Timothy’s feet, where he sat eating steak. “Go. Get out of here!” he said, waving the steak knife frantically. They drooled and hunkered down.
“Can’t you do something about this?” he yelled. I thought it stupid to eat steak at eye level with dogs but said nothing. His lips glistened with steak grease. I imagined the leather collar around his neck. Maybe he resented the dogs because he envied them.
“What’re you staring at?” he said.
He stomped off to his room. Though I was still shaken up it was oddly empowering to know such an intimate secret. I thought back to when he first moved in, when we were on friendly terms. The night we shared a bottle of red wine and made spaghetti. After we’d drank the first and started on a second, he disclosed he’d recently gone through a breakup. He wouldn’t tell me much, but his small close-set eyes were tinged with regret. I had since tried to imagine who would date him, someone else who felt similarly maligned by the world. But Blaise? Blaise didn’t seem to feel sorry for himself. After spending a short time with him, it was clear he was perfectly content with his life. Everything was in its place: the snakes, the Polaroids, a girlfriend on the couch.
I put the skillet with the steak juice on the floor. The dogs licked the sucker clean and I placed it neatly back in Timothy’s cupboard.
* * *
I invited my boyfriend over for dinner the next night. I had a digestive issue that heavily restricted my diet to white meats and steamed vegetables, which I would usually mash into a paste like baby food, because in addition to the stomach issues, I also had sensitive teeth. My boyfriend liked my cooking because he liked sick food, bland things like saltines and chamomile tea and instant noodles. He said it reminded him of his mother. Because of my youth, I didn’t see this as a red flag. He loved his mother! He would love me!
He knocked on the door. He always did, though it was never locked, and he knew it. I thought it was probably another commitment issue. Perhaps he wanted to remain a guest in my home forever. He slipped off his shoes and the dogs rushed over, stuffing their noses inside of them, biting and licking the tongues. I stood at the stove, stirring.
“These dogs are freaks!” he said. He wrapped his arms around me and kissed the top of my head.
“Total perverts,” I said.
He placed a six pack of beer on the counter, though he knew I didn’t like beer. There were things I liked about him, of course: he smelled like cedar, and when he drank, he tasted like peaches. He was dependable, he didn’t play video games. And he had a certain kind of ineffable charisma. When I was around him, I too became more amiable, surer of my words.
“How was the snake guy?” he asked.
“I think I have to go back. I still have some questions.”
After we ate, we made out on the couch. The dogs sat below us, watching. They always watched. They didn’t seem to know the difference between eating food and sucking face. The front door opened, and I heard Timothy sigh and throw our silverware and plates in the sink. I felt my boyfriend pull away from me as Timothy passed to go to his room.
“What the fuck?” I said.
“What?” said my boyfriend.
I peered into his eyes, searching for clues, but they were blank and confirmed nothing.
I took a breath. “Are you embarrassed by me or something?”
“Of course not.”
“Then why’d you stop kissing?”
“I don’t know. I don’t like making out in front of him.”
“Because you’re embarrassed by me.”
“Because it’s rude.”
“Rude? Since when do you care about being rude?”
He looked at me very seriously for a moment, then smiled widely like an adult placating a child.
“Since I earned the Good Manners scout badge!” He kissed me hard and sloppy then, his teeth gnashing against mine.
“Ow. My teeth.”
“Sorry,” he said.
We hadn’t been having much sex, and when we did, I was the one to initiate it. On one of our first dates, he’d told me he could take or leave sex, it didn’t matter like it did when he was younger. I thought of this every time we did it, how sex was an obligation to him, something he had to get through to get to the good stuff: spooning on top of his slippery sleeping bag, slurping down bland soups in front of the TV. We had been together six months and I couldn’t remember what it was like to feel truly wanted, or if I ever had been.
* * *
Later that week, Timothy began a new routine. The routine involved eating his homemade kimchi out of mason jars and using his Neti pot over the kitchen sink. He didn’t use plain water, but some kind of garlic infusion. He claimed the dogs had exacerbated his allergies. I only ever remembered I was missing the middle finger on my left hand—a consequence of a knife slip in freshman Home Ec—when I went to flip Timothy the bird. Each time he pissed me off, I was faced with my limitations and that pissed me off more.
I had barely been sleeping, consumed with thoughts of Blaise and his lifestyle. When I did sleep, I dreamt of a life in that house: me, writing at my place under the window, Blaise serving me meals and typing up my work from the day, like some kind of mall goth Vera Nabokov. What invariably woke me was the appearance of Timothy or one of the Polaroid girls, whisking Blaise off to another room. I couldn’t understand why I was obsessing over him. He appeared to be polyamorous. So what? I’d met poly people before. Hell, I’d done profiles on them. I suspected it had something to do with the excess but couldn’t put my finger on it. Of course, now I know. Blaise was unwittingly rubbing my nose in it. The tooth brushes signaled an alarming tenderness, a willingness to commit—a tooth brush for every partner, regardless of the seriousness of the relationship. My boyfriend was still knocking on my front door and rebuffing my sexual advances out of concern for Timothy.
The fact was I wanted in.
After another restless night, I called Blaise and told him I’d like to get a few photos of the snakes for the article. He asked if he could be in the picture and told me to come over in the afternoon on the following day. That morning I tried on various outfits: a green skirt a bit too short to be considered professional, a blouse that was missing the top two buttons. I settled on a red 90’s pant suit à la Working Girl.
* * *
At Blaise’s house, a young couple answered the door. The man was brushing his teeth and the woman was hanging off of him, her lips swollen and red.
“Hi. Is Blaise here?”
The couple smiled at each other.
“He stepped out for a minute,” said the man. His girlfriend bit his neck. “Are you Gwen?”
“No. I’m Nadine.” I paused, searching their faces for recognition. Perhaps Blaise had spoken of me. “The news woman.”
“Ah. We thought you might be Gwen. She was supposed to be here an hour ago.”
“Do you mind if I wait for him? I’m under a deadline and I’ve got to finish this story today.”
They waved me in and collapsed back on the couch. The woman draped her legs over her boyfriend’s lap.
I excused myself to the bathroom and headed straight for Blaise’s bedroom. I took off my blazer and sat on his unmade bed. To my surprise, it was a pillow top and rather comfortable. I heard the door open downstairs. Footsteps, the rustling of bags, quiet chatter.
“News woman?” Blaise called. I could hear him climbing the stairs.
He leaned in the doorway. He didn’t seem to care one way or the other that I was sitting on his bed. “Get what you came for?”
“The pictures,” he said.
“The snakes?” he asked.
Here I was, a moderately attractive woman, sitting on his bed, and he was talking about snakes.
I leaned back and attempted a sultry pose. I tried to drum up Melanie Griffith’s confidence, the soft seduction of her voice when she cooed, I have a head for business and a bod for sin.
“Actually,” I said, “I was thinking, maybe you’d like to take pictures of me?”
It was clear he wasn’t going to take the bait. I would need to be less subtle. I walked over and kissed him softly on the lips. He didn’t kiss back.
“Uh, you seem cool and all, but I’m involved.”
With several people, I thought. Why not add one more? Why not me? Why wasn’t I good enough? I knew I wasn’t as hot as Gwen or the others, but surely, I was a tier above Timothy.
“Sorry,” I said. I could feel the heat in my face and hoped it didn’t show.
“Oh no need for that.” He patted my shoulder. “Hey! Maybe you could snap a picture of me and Cornelius?”
I looked in my bag as if my camera would be there, as if I hadn’t purposely left it behind. As if I hadn’t assumed things would go differently. He pulled something out of one of his dresser drawers.
“Here, use this one.”
I held the white and rainbow striped Polaroid in my hands.
“Scan ’em in. I bet it’ll look even better in print. Vintage, you know? Like found art?”
Looking back, I should have known my attempt at seduction would end this way, trying not to roll my eyes at his dumb pronouncements. I followed him into the snake room, where he pulled Cornelius from his cage.
“He’s a Blood Boa. When he’s fully grown, he’ll be as tall as—how tall are you?”
“Five foot three.”
“Around your height then.”
I looked through the viewfinder. I felt protected behind the camera—observing him from a distance.
“You know how to deal with a snake bite?” he asked, as Cornelius slithered down his arm, tongue darting.
I glanced up from the shot. “Suck out the venom?”
Blaise smiled. “Guess again.”
“I don’t know. Pee on it.”
He raised his head to the ceiling and held Cornelius above him. I snapped a photo of him then, whites of his eyes glowing, looking like some kind of possessed snake charmer. I caught the picture before it fell to the floor and put it white side up on the bed.
“Go to a hospital,” he said. “That’s all you can do besides keeping the bite below the level of your heart.”
I raised the camera to shoot more, but he turned away from me and placed Cornelius back in his cage.
“People always want to complicate things,” he said.
I plucked the picture from the bed and shook it. “I’ll call when the story goes to print. Should be in the next couple of weeks.”
“Thanks for giving me my fifteen minutes,” he called as I made my way down the stairs.
I tried not to stare at the couple on my way out, in the kitchen, dancing around, unpacking groceries from blue plastic bags, like love was the easiest thing in the world.
At home, I locked myself in my room and listened to the dogs whine at the bottom of the stairs. I laid the pictures of Blaise and Timothy side-by-side on my bed. I would kick Timothy out by winter, unable to weather the embarrassment of being rejected by someone who would choose him and not me. But even if Blaise had gone for it, fucked me on his pillow-top bed, what then? What had I expected to happen? Even then, I suspected if I’d gotten what I wanted, I still wouldn’t have been satisfied. My want would change, shift into something else, become unrecognizable.
When I descended from my room for a glass of water, I found Timothy on his hands and knees, scrubbing the kitchen floor with a brush. The dogs had shit again. He was in the exact same posture as he was in in the picture. I could superimpose his shirtless body over top, the puffy red scratches hatched into his back, white scar tissue visible underneath, the expression on his face: his eyes rolled back in their sockets, tongue lolling out of his mouth, thirsty, as if trying to catch rain.
There was no way around it.
It was a look of pure, unbridled ecstasy that I couldn’t fathom, and wouldn’t, for years to come.
Taylor Grieshober earned her MFA in fiction from Oregon State University in 2018. Her work has appeared in Hobart and Gulf Stream, among others. She is also an occasional book reviewer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Her debut short story collection, Off Days, was published by Low Ghost Press in 2019. She lives in Pittsburgh where she works as a high school fiction teacher. https://www.taylorgrieshober.com/