Shenzhen, China, 2020
Jun’s lips were shiny, and her shirt was printed with hundreds of horses. The horses distracted YouPeng who had a desire to calculate the exact number and began counting by twos from button to shoulder. If he knew how many horses on each row and could likely guess where the shirt ended on Jun’s body, he could easily approximate the total number of equine creatures.
“YouPeng,” Jun said, waving her hand in the air. “My face is up here.”
And yes, there, above her navy shirt with the tiny horses in red and green and yellow, was Jun’s pixel face in its Facetime square. She stuck her tongue out at him, playfully. She looked younger, a bit more like a child.
“So…” she said. “How was your birthday?”
He’d of course need to calculate for the sleeves as well, and what if the back of the shirt wasn’t printed? What if it was just an expanse of navy? How could one really know?
“Turn around, Jun,” YouPeng said.
“What?” Jun laughed. She held her phone into the air and did a little spin. He saw her clothes littering the floor, thought of her mother coming in to admonish her, kicked his own shoe under the bed, felt, for a split second, terribly lucky that his own mother was dead, that his room could be as messy as he wanted, that he might die by asphyxiation under the pile of collared Polos she’d bought him on their last outing.
“No,” he said. “Put your phone down and turn around for me.”
Jun did as she was told.
YouPeng took a pencil from the jar on his desk. Twenty-four times sixty times two plus whatever was on the sleeves.
Jun laughed. “Are you trying to look at my butt?”
“You are such a strange boy, YouPeng.”
He didn’t like the word boy. It seemed a habit of Jun’s to make him feel lesser than he was. He hit “End Call.”
YouPeng, she texted. LOL. You WERE trying to look at my butt
He went into the kitchen and noticed the moon outside the window. It was low and almost full, or maybe it was low and had just been full. A call came in from Jun. He texted her. Sorry, he wrote. I’m not feeling IRT
And he wasn’t. Real time felt oppressive. His professor had written him recently, telling him a story that had taken place in the last century, something about a professor of her own, a poet who YouPeng’d barely been able to find on the internet, how the poet would bring biscuits—that’s what they call cookies in England, she told YouPeng, condescendingly—to class, biscuits with tiny currants—have you ever tasted currants? she asked—and how suddenly, when everything felt like it was on the cusp of everything else—the cusp, she’d written, and YouPeng inhaled sharply as he read it—suddenly, the poet professor had died of a brain aneurysm.
A photo popped up on YouPeng’s phone. The inside of Jun’s wrist. He wondered how things might have turned out differently had he, the one night they’d met, when they’d left the others because they needed air, brought that wrist to his mouth and kissed it. He tried to take a photo of the moon, and failing, snapped instead a photo of the electrical outlet and sent it.
After a minute or two, Jun wrote back. I don’t think this is working
My god, YouPeng, you are so FUCKING CLUELESS
The ellipsis bounced in its little window, as if Jun had more to say. He waited; it stopped. It started again; he waited; it stopped. He inserted the charger and put his phone facedown on the counter.
YouPeng opened the faucet of the sink, filled a cup with water, drank it quickly, and wiped his mouth though it was still dry. When he returned to his desk, he looked down at the numbers he’d penciled on the page and realized how wrong he had been. There weren’t hundreds of horses on Jun’s blouse; there were thousands.
Nicole Callihan writes poems and stories. Her books include SuperLoop and the poetry chapbooks A Study in Spring (with Zoe Ryder White 2015), The Deeply Flawed Human (2016), Downtown (2017), Aging (2018), and ELSEWHERE (with Zoe Ryder White 2020). Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Tin House, Kenyon Review, Conduit, The American Poetry Review, and as a Poem-a-Day selection from the Academy of American Poets. Her novella, The Couples, was published by Mason Jar Press in summer 2019.
Image: “Closed” by Alexis Bhagat