by Roxane Gay


When they were in bed, always in different bedrooms, none their own, what he loved most was the smooth pitch of her voice as she laughed and oh, how she laughed so much, exhaling in perfect bursts of air. Whether they were lazily stretched across the bed watching television or pressed together, there would come a moment when she would stop laughing and she’d gently place her palms, warm and soft, against his bare shoulders and she would push him down and he would kiss between her breasts and he would kiss the soft, barely noticeable rise of her stomach and the wide stretch of her hips that curved into his hands so perfectly and as he opened his mouth between her thighs, she’d coo, “There, there, John. Be a good boy,” and he loved the way those words sounded coming from the heat of her mouth. Her every sound was the only sound he wanted to hear. After they made love, she draped her damp body over his and he enjoyed the way the weight of her held him down. He’d listen to her breathing as it slowed and marvel at how she filled the air around them with the most gorgeous quality of light.

When they were in bed, in their bedroom, which never felt like their bedroom, as they tried to ignore the strange pictures on the wall that weren’t their pictures, the walls that weren’t their walls, as they considered the strangers lurking just beyond, he’d turn to her, he’d say, “Let’s run away, baby, just you and me.” She’d set her reading down — she was fond of reading in bed — and pull her long, dark hair out of her face. She’d trace the edges of his face and rub her thumb across his lips. He’d try to nip at her thumb with his teeth but she’d wag a finger in his face, say, “Tsk,” but then she’d relent and slide her thumb between his lips into the warm wet of his mouth. She’d slip out of her nightgown, always something silk, often dark blue and she’d lay back, always on her back and he would lie over her and kiss the bare of her shoulders and the thin line of her lips and they would make soft, quiet but satisfying love. After, he’d lie on his side, propping himself on one elbow longing for their bodies to still be joined. He’d rest his hand on her stomach, flat, not enough softness and again, he’d say, “Let’s run away, baby, just you and me,” and there would be such a mournful tone in his voice. She never flinched. She would just cover his hand with hers. She’d say, “There, there, Jack. Be a good boy,” a hard edge to her voice that made his entire body tense. She’d resume her reading while he stared at the ceiling, silently breathing in the darkness hovering over them.

When he was a boy, or as he likes to say, when he was younger, for he feels he was never truly a boy, he and his brothers and sisters would stand in a straight line in the order of their birth at the same time every evening. Their father, sipping from a glass of whiskey, would pace back and forth in front of them. He never smiled or spoke loudly. He’d speak of the greatness he had endowed to them, the responsibility of it. Their mother stood nearby, often shaking her head. When this nightly soliloquy was finished, he’d rest his heavy hand on the top of each child’s head, with such gravity, it felt like he meant to push them through the floor and into the ground. He’d say, “There, there, be a good girl,” or “There, there, be a good boy.”  Jack was the only one who ever spoke. Night after night he would look up at his father, the pale white length of him and say, “I’m never going to be a good boy,” and his father would smile, widely. His father would say, “My boy, the choice was never yours,”  and Jack would close his eyes and when he opened them, all he would see was the world around him, awash in muted tones of gray.




Roxane Gay’s work has appeared in Best American Short Stories 2012, NOON, American Short Fiction, West Branch, Oxford American, The Wall Street Journal, The Rumpus, and many others. She is a columnist for Salon, edits various publications, teaches, and lives in the Midwest.

* thanks to Amber Sparks and Brian Carr for their editorial work on this project.