Once the Queen Is Gone
The idea was to drive to Louisiana overnight and show up at Petra’s doorstep and tell her things about love and fulfillment and mistakes and forgiveness. Whether or not I actually meant any of these things, I couldn’t say, but it didn’t seem to matter; it was the spectacle I was going for. I had this image of her grabbing me by the collar and pulling me inside her apartment where we would whip off our clothes and work ourselves into a sweaty tangle right there on the floor.
It was just before noon when I crossed the Mississippi River into Baton Rouge. From the bridge, the city appeared as a modest assortment of hotels and office buildings nestled primly against the banks of the river. Petra’s neighborhood was near the university, a few minutes south of the city proper, and was predominated by unassuming little apartment complexes with names like Cedar Creek and Pinecrest and, in her case, Oak Terrace.
“Oh, for God’s sake,” she said, scowling, when she answered the door.
I smiled nervously. “I brought you some taffy,” I said, holding up the small pink box I had purchased at a truck stop in Chattanooga. It hadn’t occurred to me until several hours into the trip that it might be in my best interest to show up with a gift. The woman working the counter had said that the taffy was handmade on a farm somewhere in Tennessee. I didn’t know how Petra felt about taffy, but I figured she’d appreciate the idea of supporting a small business.
Petra crossed her arms and stepped out onto the small stoop. She was wearing jeans and a purple Louisiana State University sweatshirt. Her thick auburn hair was pinned into a haphazard bun on the back of her head. She didn’t have on any makeup, and her complexion was wan and ashy. “Gabe, please tell me you didn’t just drive all the way from Virginia for this.”
“You tell me. What are you doing here?”
I looked down at the steps, the weathered LSU mat: Go Tigers!
“I had some vacation time,” I blurted, caught off guard. It’s a problem: when there’s pressure, I lose my nerve.
She narrowed her eyes. “Vacation time?”
“Yeah, well, I mean, I didn’t really have a plan or anything. I just wanted to go somewhere, you know? Get out of town for a while. Like New Orleans maybe, thought I’d do some gambling or something. But then I figured if I had come all this way to Louisiana, maybe I’d come see you.”
She coughed heavily and ran a hand across her forehead. She didn’t look too good; I wondered if maybe I’d woken her up from a nap. “You have the worst fucking timing,” she said. There was another coughing spasm, punctuated by a brief moan. “I’m sick and I have a midterm on Monday and I just wish you had called or something.”
“Well, I wanted it to be a surprise, you know?”
“Mission accomplished.” She pointed to my duffel bag at my feet. “I take it you’ll be staying here?”
I shrugged and shuffled uncomfortably. With Petra the trick was to appear as clueless as possible, like someone who needed her guidance. “Like I said, I didn’t really have a plan. It’s not a big deal. I mean, I can get a hotel room or something.”
It was clear that she wasn’t buying it, but we both knew she wasn’t going to turn me away. Petra’s biggest handicap had always been her own good nature, the predictability of it. She got this from her parents, both of them history teachers, these nervous intellectual types, disarmingly kind, incapable of being rude.
After a moment she ushered me inside. The place was small and poorly lit and smelled vaguely of vanilla. There was a tattered leather armchair that I remembered from our old place in Richmond, a coffee table covered with biology textbooks, and a small TV situated precariously on a plant stand on the other side of the room. It was, I considered, the kind of place one might live in for a year or two while trying to figure some things out.
Petra was working toward a PhD in biochemistry. She studied honeybees, or more specifically, their olfactory senses. The project she’d been working on for her dissertation involved introducing various synthetic pheromones into a colony and recording the changes in the bees’ behavior. She’d tried to explain it to me over the phone one night shortly after she’d moved to Louisiana, how the colony is stratified by smell. “I mean, everything—reproduction, locating food sources, entry into the hive—it’s all regulated by pheromones,” she’d said with this crisp, scholarly inflection that I had found both endearing and a bit showy. “But when you start messing with those pheromones, it’s like, man. The physiological changes are amazing. Sometimes they don’t even recognize the queen anymore. The workers will stop providing for her. She might fly off to find another hive, but more often than not she just dies, which pretty much means the death of whole colony. It’s like, once the queen is gone, everyone is sort of screwed.”
Now she took a seat on the futon sofa and plucked a cough drop out of a bag on the coffee table. “You’ve put on weight,” she said, placing the small white lozenge on her tongue.
“I quit smoking.”
“Good for you.”
“Thanks,” I replied, trying to appear proud. This wasn’t entirely true—I had tried nicotine patches for a while, but had quickly discovered that it’s just more cost-effective to smoke—but I needed for Petra to believe that I had grown up in all the ways she never thought I would.
I was twenty-nine years old, but like most people that age, I felt much older. I was living in Richmond, Virginia, where I had spent the past six months working for a fencing company. I was at a point where things seemed to be happening way too fast for me to keep up. My body had begun to sag in unfortunate places. All of a sudden I had friends who were getting pregnant and joining book clubs and having tattoos removed. I would look around and think: Did I miss something here?
And so now here I was in Petra’s apartment, like she was supposed to somehow fix all this, like I’d never tried to convince myself that I would be better off without her.
Petra, looking to salvage a little civility from the situation, made some tea, and the two of us sat around the living room filling each other in on the past couple of years. I told her about my job with the fence company, how we’d recently put in eight hundred feet of electrical wire at the governor’s mansion, and about our friends back in Richmond, which ones had gotten married, which ones were having kids, that kind of thing. Somehow I’d convinced myself that the two of us would instinctively fall back into our old familiar patterns of communication. But as we sat around her tiny living room trading our stories, I found myself growing more and more uncomfortable. It had been almost two years since we’d spoken face to face, and the conversation had a forced, hollow feeling to it, like two strangers left alone at a party.
“How’s school?” I said, sipping my tea.
Petra rolled her eyes and groaned. “Just put me out of my misery.” She coughed into her fist.
“That bad, huh?”
“Well, maybe ‘bad’ isn’t the right word. I mean, I like what I’m doing. Just busy, I guess. But like, super busy. Some days I’m lucky if I have time to pee.”
I laughed a little. I’d heard this spiel before, back when we were living in Richmond. This was four years earlier, while she was trying to finish up her bachelor’s degree. We had a little un-air-conditioned apartment that overlooked the lacrosse field on the edge of campus. Everything was lovely and terrifying, thrumming with a sensual charge. At night we would lie together in our single armchair and watch sitcoms, and then we would crawl into bed and make love with the sort of self-indulgent recklessness that tends to define one’s early twenties.
But this was precisely the problem, you see, the desperation of it all. What did we know? We were too young to appreciate the enormous weight of one another’s needs, and so we argued frequently and often under the most ludicrous of pretexts—water on the bathroom floor, a jar of mayonnaise left out overnight. It was, I think, a way of punishing each other for our inability to live up to the other’s expectations.
Then one day she announced that she was moving to Louisiana to pursue a doctorate, and I knew it was partly a test of my devotion: would I risk everything and go with her, or would I be practical and just stay there? Looking back, I’m pretty sure that Petra had an inkling of which option I would pick, which was probably why she only nodded and grinned sadly when I told her I wasn’t going.
There followed a period of dumb dry longing and late-night phone conversations, during which time our voices would take on the same whispery lilt that in my mind seemed to characterize the very beginning of our relationship. I would ask her if she was seeing anyone and she would make this little sighing noise and say no, and she would ask me if I was seeing anyone, and I would also say no—a lie that I managed to rationalize on the grounds that she and I had vastly different interpretations for the word “seeing.” And that’s how it went for several months, until Petra, vexed by the sudden industry of encroaching adulthood, decided that it would be in both our best interests to cease communication. “We’re only fooling ourselves,” she said over the phone one night. “It’s just going to end with one of us getting hurt. Maybe both of us.”
Later that afternoon Petra told me she had to go to the library for a while. “There’s food in the fridge,” she said, “and if you could take the trash out for me, that’d be super. I should be back in a few hours.”
I felt like I should do something nice for her, so after she left I decided to walk down to the ValuMart in the small Tudor-style strip mall at the end of her street to buy her some cold medicine. It was late October and the air was cool and dry and had a slight smoky odor to it. The gutters were choked with dead pine needles, small piles of them, swept hastily from the walkways of the drab brick apartment buildings.
At the store I grabbed a box of Comtrex from the pharmacy and headed up front to the registers. I got in line behind a young man who was struggling to unload items from his cart while wrangling with a couple of red-face little boys, both of whom I put at about four. I watched them scurry around the cart, chirping away in these high excited voices, pleading for candy, or a toy, something. I was ready to go find another line to stand in when the father, who couldn’t have been much older than me, crouched down and grabbed either kid by the arm and, clenching his teeth, hissed at them to be quiet and behave. His face was red, except for his mouth, which was stretched into a thin whitish arc, and in his voice I could hear the faint reedy strain of hysteria. I looked on with a disquieting sense of satisfaction as the boys’ chubby little faces folded up like crumpled sheets of paper, and they began to wail. Deflated, the man let go of their arms and stood. He flashed me a look: I didn’t sign on for this.
The whole scene registered with me in a weird way. There was a time when Petra and I had talked about having kids. We used to sit around our tiny apartment in Richmond, thinking up names for our unborn children. “I think we’ll have good-looking kids,” she once told me. I couldn’t help wondering how she had arrived at this conclusion, though I didn’t ask. Truth is, I never really wanted kids. It’s just one of those things you talk about when you’re young and want so badly to believe you’re in love, but know in the back of your mind that this isn’t so. You can spot couples like this by the way they always keep an arm around one another’s waist as if the wind might suddenly carry them away, how one might place his chin on the other’s shoulder as they’re scanning titles in the video store. That was Petra and me, and I can’t say I hadn’t missed it. There is a lot to be said for deluding one’s self; the happiest people I’ve ever known have no idea how miserable they really are.
When the man had taken his bags and slumped off with his kids, I handed the medicine to the girl behind the counter. She gave me this conspiratorial half-smile and nodded toward the automated doors where the young father and his two boys had just exited. You could still hear the kids’ wailing. “Poor guy,” the girl said.
“Tell me about it,” I replied. “Kids. I mean, Jesus.”
“You got any?” She swiped the small box over the scanner.
“Me? Uh-uh. No way.”
Sighing, she dropped the medicine into a plastic bag. “I am so getting my tubes tied,” she said. Then, after a pause, “Do you have a ValuMart Plus card?”
Back at Petra’s apartment I rifled through her kitchen drawers until I found an old spool of twine. I tied a rather sad-looking bow around the box of Comtrex and placed it on the cluttered table in the corner and then laid down for a nap. I woke up just before she returned from the library, sniveling and coughing miserably. “This guy kept shushing me,” she said. “Every time I coughed, it was like, ‘Shhh!’. I wanted to punch him.”
I watched her as she dropped her backpack on the table and spotted the box of Comtrex. She picked it up and turned to me, grinning. “You didn’t have to do that.”
“I didn’t have a whole lot else going on.”
“Well, thank you. That was sweet.” She disappeared into the kitchen. Taking a seat on the futon, I grabbed a textbook entitled Queen Rearing and Bee Breeding from the scuffed-up coffee table in front of me and began to flip through it. I remembered the story Petra had told me years earlier, about how her interest in bees had begun. She’d been mowing her back yard one afternoon when she was twelve. There was a small copse of shrubs in the far back corner near the fence that her father had never gotten around to cutting down, which made mowing in these areas somewhat tricky. “You basically had to run the mower up into the bushes,” she’d explained to me. “It was the only way to get the grass. We didn’t have a weed-eater.” On the afternoon in question, however, she happened to have run over a small ground nest hidden at the base of one of the bushes. The bees were sucked up into the mower and then spit out of the exhaust, where they viscously descended upon her bare legs, working their way up into her flimsy running shorts. Swatting blindly at the angry insects, she’d sprung over the small chain-link fence into her neighbor’s back yard, where she had tumbled into an above-ground swimming pool, one of these big round vinyl jobs. By the time she’d made it to a hospital, the swelling was so severe that the doctors had to cut her clothes off. They’d kept her there for nearly a week, pumping her full of cortisone and telling her over and over again how lucky she was not to be allergic.
When she had told me this story years earlier on one of our first dates, over a dinner of unremarkable Mexican food, I had been somewhat baffled by the note of sympathy in her voice, as though she actually felt sorry for the bees, and I couldn’t help thinking of those tales you hear about kidnapped women who fall inexplicably in love with their captors.
“It was a respect thing, I guess, if that makes any sense,” she’d said. “Just, you know, realizing what something is capable of. I mean, those little suckers were in my clothes and in my hair, just going totally nuts, this sort of, I don’t know, collective consciousness, and it just blew me away how, when taken as a unit, these little things could do so much damage. It sounds weird, but if they hadn’t landed me in the hospital, I probably wouldn’t give a damn about bees.”
That night I picked up some Chinese food from a place in the strip mall down the street. We sat around on Petra’s sad little futon, which had been designated as my bed, eating sweet and sour chicken and watching television. Her coughing had subsided a little, which I naturally attributed to the Comtrex, and thus secretly to me. The discomfort I’d felt earlier that day was mostly gone; in its place loomed a sort of breezy anticipation, sanctioned by the offhanded manner in which Petra’s knee would brush against mine whenever she shifted positions.
“By the way,” she said during a commercial, “sorry about earlier, the whole ‘you’ve put on weight’ thing. That wasn’t very nice of me.”
“It’s not a big deal. I have gained weight.”
“Yeah, but for a good reason, you know?”
After a while Petra went to take a shower. She emerged half an hour later, smelling sweet and clean and dressed in polka dotted pajama bottoms and a white t-shirt, and I felt my heart speed up just a little: there’s something about a freshly-showered woman in her pajamas.
“I think I’m turning in,” she said softly.
“Already?” It was barely nine o’clock.
“I’m exhausted. I think it’s the medicine. Will you turn all the lights off before you go to bed?”
With a sleepy smile, she turned and headed into her bedroom. The door closed with an air of finality. I sat there staring at it for a few moments, as though I expected it to somehow vanish into the wall.
Stretching myself out on the futon, I took another piece of taffy from the box and flipped through the TV channels, thinking about Petra, fifteen feet away in the other room, nestled in the dark comfort of the bed we’d shared years earlier. I couldn’t help feeling that I belonged in there with her, if only because that bed had played such an elemental role in our relationship. And from this line of thought sprang all these old memories of sex. Early morning romps with our shirts on. Petra’s hair, damp with sweat, grazing my face and neck. Her lovely round rear end angled upward into the air.
The point being, I guess, that there were things to consider, all this history, I mean, which was more or less the reason I was here, and which, consequently, made the idea of sleeping in separate rooms seem cold and unnatural and a little punitive.
I watched the last half of some gloomy cop drama and then crept to the bedroom door. Slowly and quietly, I peeked inside. I could see that Petra was already asleep; in all the time I’d had lived with her, it had never taken more than five minutes from the time her head touched the pillow for her to doze off.
I eased my way into her bed, gently pressing my body against hers, savoring the smells of her shampoo and skin cream, intermixed with the slight sour odor of sleep. I took in the familiar topography of her face, the shadowy configurations of her cheeks and brow line, her long thin nose—Roman, she’d called it—and the tender curve of her ear. She was not an exceedingly beautiful girl, not someone who stood out in a crowd. But there was something about the way she carried herself that had always appealed to me, a practical elegance, like those women you see in fabric softener commercials.
I had positioned myself behind her so that my head was level with her back and so that when I draped my arm over her body, prompting her to awaken with a quick jerk, her left elbow connected solidly with my nose. The pain was exquisite. Stifling a shriek, I covered my face and rolled away from her. I heard her murmur my name as I fell onto the floor, the slight rubbery taste of blood filling my mouth, not entirely unpleasant.
“Gabe, what the hell?” she said with a slight rasp in her voice, squinting down at me from the edge of the bed. “Christ, did I hit you?”
Through my hand, I mumbled, “Yes, you did.”
Clumsily, I followed her to the bathroom, trailing small droplets of blood on the eggshell carpet. “I’ll clean all this up,” I sputtered, only the way I said it, it sounded like, “Uhkeenuhdissop.”
“What did you say?”
I shook my head. Forget it.
She turned on the faucet and had me lean over the sink. Slowly, my focus came back to me, and I could see from Petra’s expression that she wanted to ask me just what in the hell I was doing in her bed, but I knew that she wouldn’t, not just yet, not until the bleeding had stopped. And this was a good thing, because I didn’t have an answer. For some reason, I started thinking about the story she’d told me a couple years earlier, about the swarm of bees that had attacked her when she was a kid, and I wondered, with a kind of distant bewilderment, how it is that our passions tend to arise from the most damaging of instances.
She pressed a wet washcloth to my mouth, her smooth slender face only inches from mine, and I watched as the blood and water swirled together and trickled down the drain. Holding the bloody washcloth over my mouth, I looked up into the mirror and smiled at her. She smiled back in a way that reminded me of how she’d looked when I told her I wasn’t coming to Louisiana with her, and then she did something incredible. Taking my face in her hands like some delicate artifact, she angled my head downward and kissed me between my eyebrows. Her lips lingered there for a few seconds, and I felt her hair brush lightly against my chin.
My first inclination, naturally, was to return it. But when she let go and stepped back, I realized that it was actually nothing more than a consolation gift. I could see it in her face, in the long, mournful pressure of her gaze: this was the only thing she had left to offer me, this pitiful little peck on the forehead, and suddenly I began to feel as though I had lost something priceless.
She flitted into the kitchen and returned moments later with a baggie full of ice. “Here,” she said, taking the washcloth from me and carefully placing the baggie on my swollen nose. I winced. After a minute or so she said, “How is it now?”
I tried to smile, which only amplified the dull throbbing. “A little better,” I replied.
“Is it broken, you think?”
“No, I think it’ll be okay.”
When we’d finally gotten the bleeding under control, we shuffled out into the living room and turned on the TV. I told Petra she should go back to bed, that she needed her rest if she was going to get better, but she just shrugged and said she was too wired up, all that blood. We sat there for a while watching some old black and white gangster film, laughing silently at the hokey dialogue. We didn’t speak; to do so, it seemed, would be to jeopardize some fragile understanding that I wanted to sustain as long as possible, at least until I’d made it back home, out of Petra’s life.
For now, though, we had the television, and we had the taffy, which Petra picked through steadily until pretty soon the box was empty and she had fallen asleep with her head cocked to one side, resting awkwardly against my shoulder, and I knew this was going to do a number on her thin little neck, but I still couldn’t bring myself to wake her, not just yet.
Return to Volume 3.4
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