“Heel to Lung, Ear to Ear” is a short story from Strays Like Us, a collection of ten standalone stories exploring life as a kid growing up in America.

ODELL ISN'T FUCKING you the way you told him to. Not once have you requested these slow thrusts, nor have you asked for his eyes to hover over yours and stare—stare until his thin orange brows angle with concern, embers misled by the night. You want to tell him is that he doesn’t need to do that, that there is no camera, to stop propping himself on one elbow and grazing your nipple with his calloused thumb. You want to tell him not to press his windburnt lips to your collarbone. You want to tell him that this is no time or place for attempts at love.

What you think you want—have wanted since Rex, have wanted for months, well before you unbuttoned Odell’s pants, stroked, then guided his small dick inside of you and said, not whispered, “Fuck me like you hate me.”—what you think you need is for Odell to look away, at the snow-dusted pines, at the last breaths of the bonfire, at the stars, at the goddamn moons of Jupiter. You need that calloused thumb not on your nipple, but on your windpipe, and you need that thumb to squeeze, to squeeze like hell, to roll the bliss of this out of you as if it were the last gobs of Crest in its tube. Because this, you have learned, whatever this is, whatever this mutates into, no matter how near paradise stretches of this could be, this will end in pain.

Instead, you lie. You tell him how great this feels. You tell him how big he is. You moan. You nod. You writhe on the pickup’s bed to get him deeper, to motivate him to go faster. Your right shin bashes Odell’s stray belt buckle, its sound tinny, hollow. A cup clanged along prison bars. You shuffle the lies, you shuffle all that roams inside, heel to lung, ear to ear.

And you conjure an image of you and Odell months from now, walking beneath the glitter-and-sequined PROM arch, he in a tux and you in that strapless green dress your mother promised she’d work doubles for. You grin at the way the strobe lights glint off of your grandmother’s emerald earrings. You laugh at how he spills spiked punch on his crooked bowtie. You lick a piece of cloth and dab the stain out. You grab his drunk hands and wrap them around your waist so that the two of you can sway like willow branches. Sway and think of—

—you and Odell in a crowded movie theater showing for one night only some horror flick he’d has been dying to see. You hate horror movies but haven’t told him that yet. You haven’t told him that it doesn’t matter how unbelievable the plot is, or how dumb the characters are, when you’re anywhere near imagery like that you could go days without sleep. On screen, a bare-breasted twenty-something sprints through a dense forest, screaming for something, for a paved road, for a lover, for civilization, for something nobody cares about. You decide to keep your hands busy. You fan your jacket over Odell’s lap and search for his zipper beneath. Odell starts tonguing the tip of her ear once you have his dick out and hard. Stroke it. Stroke, and grin, at how loud he’s being, at how far he tilts his head back, at the vascularity of his neck.

This is all you do: grin, stroke.

It’s all you’ll do when you eat dinner with Odell’s family. You’ll see the stress of the day, of the week, of the decade, in his mother’s eyes, and you’ll smell the pig shit on the folds of his father’s jeans, but you’ll grin because later Odell will lead you to his bedroom, unbutton his plaid shirt, and sit in his office chair, hoping that you’ll follow, that you’ll fling your thong at the closet door and fuck him there. And you will. You’ll straddle him. You’ll guide it in. You’ll graze his chest with your fingernails and you’ll arch your back and you—

—don’t listen. Don’t. You never do. Ignorant, that’s what you are. Of just how cold it really is tonight, in the bed of this truck. Ignorant of the sound the aluminum beer cans eek when punctured by flame, of yet another four-wheel-drive crunching over unpacked snow and parking alongside the corn silo, of the open hand slaps on the pickup’s quarter panels, of your classmates’ slurred squeals of “Atta boy!” and “Fuck her harder, you bitch!”

Fuck her harder. You bitch.

Listen to that. Slow that down. Speed that up. Fuck-her-harder-you-bitch. Slow it down again. Turn your mind into a scalpel and separate vowel from consonant. Dig for meaning but extract only wonder. Wonder why you liken the dead tree branches above to deer antlers. Wonder what your little brother is doing, whether at this very moment he is jerking off into yet another one of your ankle socks, or if he, like last week, and the week before, is sitting up in bed on a Saturday night, waiting to hear your footsteps before he turns out his light. Think of your remaining grandfather, his khaki fedora that he still tilts so his age-puffed eyes can rest in shade. Wonder if he knows what you do. Wonder if he knows more about who you are than you ever will. Wonder what brought you here. Not the shots of cheap vodka you slammed, not the two beers Odell gave you, not Kaila’s chained Escort tires, not even her elegant, “Fucking come on already, Carin. We need us some man.”

No. Go deeper. Dart past the quiche you made for Odell in home-ec., past how grateful he was for you getting him a B+, past how he grabbed your hand and tacked, “I owe you one,” to his awkward announcement of, and invitation to, this barn party. Juke around your memories of Rex. Evade the day he left you for CSU, the day he left CSU for Lakewood Lumber, for the crunchy blonde bitch he hikes the foothills with and feeds wild berries to. Arrive instead at the root of it all. Arrive at what urged you out of your mother’s house, at what drove your ass into that Escort seat, at what laid you down in this truck bed like the dollop of pale, static clay that you are. Arrive at anger.

And stay there. Linger. Inch Odell’s left hand to your throat. Listen—

—to Odell’s side of the argument, listen to him sweat out a marriage proposal he wouldn’t make if not for the news of pregnancy, listen to you crater his proposal, listen to him grow bitter, listen to him lie to his friends about what has made you fat, listen to him hit on Softball Scholarship at the hardware store, twisting pickup lines, tuning them to the offbeat delivery that you once deemed enough reason to advance, that made CUTE and GENUINE gash your brain. Listen to the flopping of skin as Odell fucks Softball Scholarship from behind, listen to him tell her he loves her, listen to her say, I do, listen as their Red Eye lands in San Francisco, or Wilmington, or Seattle, some coastal city promising an opportunity you will never have.

Listen, because this is what you will hear: bile-lathered chunks of granola splashing into toilet water. Your mother screaming as she slaps the shit out of your already blotchy cheeks. The ring-ring-ringing of your last school bell. The glass door of the abortion clinic unlock from the inside. The clunk-clunk of your bicycle’s chain as you pedal off, horrified.


You’ll listen as the only cab driver in town demands his fare before you enter the hospital. You’ll listen to that thing enter the world. You’ll listen to that thing flail in its crib. You’ll listen to that thing cry when you tie your server apron straps tight. You’ll listen to the lawyer from St. Paul say again that he isn’t hungry, and then order his third Tanqueray and tonic. You’ll detect the condescending tone in the majority of his words, spliced only by pity. Somehow, that tone will make you consider—actually consider—fucking the fat line cook after your shift. You’ll do it. You will. You’ll fuck him in the dry storage closet. You’ll fuck him hard. You’ll get him off within two minutes, you’ll go home, you’ll go back to work, you’ll see just how much he grabs your ass now, how a squeeze has been transformed by sex into, at best, an unintentional graze as he sidesteps for more canola oil. Discarded. Again and again and again.

Listen as you open your server book, to that faint creak, the binding on its last legs. You’ll write down an order. You’ll close your server book. You’ll fulfill said order. You’ll open. You’ll close. Open. Close. Open. Close.

Listen to that pain. Find its grooves with your fingers and trace it back to tonight, to this very moment.

And feel. Feel Odell pumping faster now—not deeper, faster. Feel the pickup shake. Feel the brisk wind on your raised hands. Feel your anger tendril its way to your shoulder blades. Acknowledge it. But don’t shout. Don’t whisper. Don’t say a word. Suppress it. Suppress it into something you can sidle your nimble hands around. And squeeze. Choke it into urgency.

Grab Odell’s thighs and pull him deeper. Increase his pace, too, don’t let him resist the strength of your hands. Ignore the synchronicity of his breath and his dick, ignore the two ridges of the pickup bed that are pinching your spine, ignore the, “Odell is fucking some chick over there,” from somewhere near the fire, ignore the strain on Odell’s face, ignore the new creases that have formed—

—look up at the stars. Turn your eyes into lassos and yank them close. And let go. Let them free. Let him slip out of you. Let him spurt onto your pubic hair. Let him catch his breath enough to muster how great that was. Let him, days from now, when you reject his advance in a janitor’s closet, shout, “Slut,” from whichever mountain he chooses, whichever ridge can echo a whisper. It will hurt. Somehow, despite what lies you’ll tell yourself between now and then—how you stood on that night, how you leapt from the truck bed and walked home in the cold, how you grew, how you evolved—it will. And it should. That pain should make you want to run.

End of article

Author Commentary for “Heel to Lung, Ear to Ear”

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