The game is cruel to the point of being a little boring. It started when Gemini pointed out that their kitchen tap’s water flow was slowing down. It’s not like their taps ever gushed. But this was a noticeable slowing. It took longer to get a full cup of water for a drink, took forever to fill the pot to boil their dinners. Gemini noticed, and said, without thinking, that they should probably try to get it fixed.
That was her mistake. After that comment, Jeremy suggested the game, in that way of his that meant it wasn’t really a suggestion, and Gemini said yes, as she always did.
Jeremy and Gemini live in a cluttered one-bedder full of things Jeremy has accumulated through the years. You have to pick your way through the kitchen to access the only bathroom. Now, every time Gemini needs to pee, Jeremy sets his Batman mug in the kitchen sink, and turns the tap on. Gemini has to finish up and turn off the tap before it overflows. The tap really has slowed down, she can usually make it out with a second or two to spare. But it’s the urgency of what might happen if she doesn’t, that hangs over her head, causing her to pull up her panties too early a couple of times, and wet herself slightly, something over which Jeremy mocks her endlessly.
You can tell a lot about a person by the way they react to this story. One time, a girl said, Well, she should just leave. Have some self-respect. No man is worth being treated like that. The thing is, it takes a certain kind of person to never question their right to self-respect. The girl listened to the end of the story, and it was fine, but she didn’t really get it. Nothing against her. But you could just tell.
There are many plausible reasons as to why Gemini stays with Jeremy. For example, circumstance. She has nowhere else to go. That her parents named her Gemini tells you all you need to know about the kind of people they are. When Gemini was three, they tried to wean her off human food and feed her protein exclusively in the form of crickets. They’re in a yurt, now, somewhere, dancing naked under the moon.
Also, love. A sense of owing, and being owed. Four months ago, Jeremy picked her up outside a 7-Eleven, where she’d fallen asleep still on her knees. She wasn’t begging per se. She was contemplating. The scrawny boy who worked the graveyard shift at 7-Eleven had made it clear in various ways that he’d be willing to trade some microwaveable meals for a quick feel. He’d snuck her a bag of Calbee prawn crackers as a show of goodwill. Something like a deposit. Gemini hadn’t said yes or no, she just stayed outside the 7-Eleven. The line between reality and hunger blurring. That’s how Jeremy found her, breathing low and slow. It was a Tuesday night. He went into the 7-Eleven, bought a microwavable biryani, grabbed the chilled hanjuku eggs, and a couple of clearance beers. When Gemini opened her eyes again, he was sitting cross legged across her on the pavement, finishing the first of his beers. The biryani waiting, unopened, between them. That night, Gemini followed him home, away from the eyes of that pervy 7-Eleven boy. They’ve been living together ever since.
The arrangement is straightforward. He works, she cleans. They share a bed, but he never touches her, not like that. Mainly, they just lie there. It’s not clear what Jeremy wants from her. Gemini thinks he enjoys her companionship, but she isn’t sure. It might be easier if he had tried to sleep with her, even once. But no. All Jeremy wants to do is talk, and play these games.
You could give either of the above reasons, and most people would nod, understanding them to be regular, if unfortunate, reasons to stay in a situation like this. But they’re not the real reason Gemini stays. The real reason is because Jeremy’s mother is a witch.
Even though Gemini has never met Jeremy’s mother, she doesn’t doubt that he’s telling the truth. Jeremy’s mother lives on a different time zone and dotes on him excessively. Every Tuesday and Thursday, gifts from her appear at their doorstep by magic. Sliced pumpkins. Kiwano. Two sprigs of rosemary. Crushed dandelions. A ziplock of shimmering, translucent fly wings. Not the bodies. One time, a boar’s head. Jeremy sorts through the gifts and cooks with them, even the inedible bits. If Gemini refuses a meal, he gets mad. So she doesn’t. She sits across from him every Tuesday and Thursday, spooning questionable mui fan or lasagne into her mouth, chewing, and swallowing, maintaining eye contact the entire time. When the bowls are scraped clean, Jeremy smiles.
They take turns washing up. Jeremy’s quite fair that way. Whenever it’s his turn, Gemini sits on the orange bean bag that serves as their couch, and watches. She’s particularly fond of seeing Jeremy hunch over the sink. The way his back muscles stretch under his worn cotton shirt makes her think of something kind.
Question: If she’s never met, nor spoken to Jeremy’s mother, how does she know Jeremy’s mother exists? How is she so sure that his mother is a witch?
Answer: Can’t you imagine why a girl like Gemini might want to believe this, wholeheartedly?
One day, on Jeremy’s request, Gemini shaves her head. They seal her stringy brown locks in a manila envelope, and when Jeremy next leaves the house, he drops by the post office to mail it to his mother. That Thursday, a glass bottle containing a preserved gecko corpse arrives. He makes stew. After, she gags, and rushes to the toilet. “I need to pee,” she lies. He smiles and sets the Batman mug in the kitchen sink. The tap drips. This time, she doesn’t make it.
Jeremy is in his early thirties, but eschews traditional employment as a matter of principle. Still, one needs money to live. It’s hard to say what he is doing for work at any point in time. He delivers things on a bike, he cleans windows, he collects old newspapers. It’s enough — barely, but still enough — for the two of them to scrape by. Couldn’t his mother magic up an allowance for him? Sure, but she doesn’t. Gemini wants to work too, but there’s not much she can really do, and besides, to be honest, not many people are jumping to hire a malnourished seventeen year old with no hair. So Gemini mainly stays home and tries to make herself helpful. Avails herself to Jeremy if he’s in the mood for conversation or play, turns invisible if he’s not. Tidies, cleans. Things like that. That’s how she finds the phone, an old blue Nokia, one afternoon. It’s wedged under an unplugged mini fridge where they keep all the disposable utensils Jeremy collects from discarded takeout bags around the city. The Nokia is dusty from disuse, with a fraying wire looped several times around the phone body. When she plugs it in, she finds only one contact saved. Mother. Gemini hits the call button, and holds it to her ear, but no one picks up.
On Tuesday, a charger arrives.
Jeremy turns it over in his hands. “What the hell is this,” he says, but his tone is flat.
He pounds the wire into fine powder in his granite mortar, and blends it into a green juice. They both get sick.
Does Jeremy know she’s found the phone? She can’t tell. She doesn’t think so. When he recovers well enough to leave the house again, she retrieves it from the toilet tank, where the Nokia is floating happily, sealed in a ziplock bag. This time she gets voicemail.
“Thank you,” she whispers into the phone, even though she’s alone in the apartment, “but we ate the new wire. The one I have is fine, I just have to hold it in a particular position for it to keep charging.” Then, afraid she’ll come across as ungrateful, she adds: “It’s no trouble at all. Thank you for your thoughtfulness.” And hangs up.
It’s always the middle aged men who are the most skeptical. One of them, upon hearing this story, scoffed immediately, put up his hand. Please, he said, it’s so obvious. Clearly he’s fucking with her. You can get those Nokias for thirty dollars from the second-hand store. When pressed, he shrugs, he says, I know the type. The type of girl? No, I mean, yes, sure. But also, the type of guy.
The blended Nokia charger marks a turning point for them; their stomachs both get weaker. Looser. I mean, people shouldn’t eat electronics. So it should come as no surprise. But as a result, Gemini misses the mark thrice in the following two weeks, rushing out of the toilet with her underwear still around her ankles, grasping for the tap. The look of disgust Jeremy gives her stains. He still doesn’t touch her, but this time, she feels ashamed.
“Drink,” he says. He hates for anything to go to waste. She brings the scowling Bruce Wayne to her lips, careful not to spill, and then she has to go, again.
She’s worried about Thursday, but thankfully, only vegetables arrive in the following weeks. Safe vegetables too, none of that weird stuff. Carrots, watercress, zucchini. Life is almost normal, for a fashion. Their moods lift.
Correlation isn’t causation, but Jeremy starts getting more work. Someone gets sick and he takes over their paper route. He’s out now, from five in the morning to three in the afternoon. For the first time, they have an inkling of stability. Routine. The promise of regular income, in drips. She knows this is the doing of Jeremy’s mother, she can feel the witch’s eyes on her, day in, day out. “Thank you,” she whispers, into the Nokia. As usual, there’s no reply.
Money makes Jeremy inventive. He gets the tap fixed, but the game doesn’t stop. It just becomes more challenging. Now, Gemini is careful to empty her bladder every day before three in the afternoon. He’s noticed that she doesn’t go anymore when he’s around, but doesn’t comment on it. Instead, he starts making soup. Slow boiled and lovingly brewed for hours on their one stove. Carrot soup one day, pear and potato stew another. She holds and holds it in until she can’t anymore, and then she misses, again.
“It’s not that I don’t like him,” she says, “or that I’m not grateful he’s taken me in. It’s just —” and this is the first time Gemini has vocalized this to another person; even if she has no proof this person exists, “he can be cruel, sometimes.”
She imagines his mother, the witch, in some unnamed location, listening to these voicemails, replaying them hours after they’ve been recorded, like delayed rays of a dying star. She lets herself imagine a face, shrouded in a vague, featureless shadow, with only a pair of thin red lips visible, curling, as the messages play out. Sometimes, in her weaker moments, she imagines the empty room at the other end of the line, her messages accumulating in an abandoned phone box somewhere, unheard, unread, the electricity of their potential slowly, but surely, fizzing out.
That week, candy comes, in all colors, textures, sizes. A shock of delight. Jeremy and Gemini both have fun unwrapping, sucking, making the bag last as long as possible. Starbursts and Mars Bars and Jelly Babies and Sour Powers. Gumballs and Lifesavers and Rainbow Skittles. And so on. Gemini feels guilty for having ever doubted Jeremy’s mother. She imagines the red lips, smiling, affectionate, an unspoken assurance transmitted across universe and time as a Super Sour melts slowly on her tongue: I’m here.
Jeremy names all the candies, explaining each one to Gemini, showing her his childhood favorite (Ring-pops that light up) and his current favorite (Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups). They sample a bit of each, then rate the candy by flavor and texture and durability. When she ranks Cranberry Clusters on top, Jeremy approves. He tells her that not many people know this, but white chocolate cookies with cranberries are Batman’s favorite snack. That’s the best thing about Batman, Jeremy says, not just that he’s determined to be a hero despite having no superpowers, but that these little indulgences show that he’s human, too. The way Jeremy says it, she knows it’s a big deal.
Want to hear a joke? What do you call a grown man who loves candy?
A. A sweetheart, a real mama’s boy.
B. Someone who sugar coats the truth.
C. Doesn’t it depend on who’s asking? And who’s doing the telling?
Regardless, everyone shivers at this point. They know something’s coming. Hey, want to hear another one?
They’re standing in that tiny living room, surrounded by sweet wrappers, their fingers sticky, their smiles loose. Gemini has never indulged like this. Sugar-drunk, she lets herself go, flailing around, laughing at Jeremy’s jokes, nodding at his fun facts, trying not to trip on the fraying corners of that orange bean bag. Jeremy, too, seems to be having a good time.
“She must really like you,” he tells Gemini, later that night, “she never sends candy.” Gemini glows.
Jeremy’s broad, red face lights up as he picks up the candy bag, holding it to his ear like a conch shell, then to his mouth. “Thanks, Mom,” he yells. The bag inflates with air. They laugh so hard that when Gemini wraps both hands around her own stomach, she realizes that it has become a small, hard stone, taut from laughter and the trained tension of holding everything together, keeping her body tight and compact, guarding against leaks. She has to go, she has to go. She stumbles towards the kitchen, and when Jeremy puts the candy bag down and reaches instead for Batman, she knocks it out of his hand.
His reactions are lightning-fast, catching it before it hits the kitchen counter. Her offending hand still hovers in the air, close to the space where the mug was, just a second ago.
Gemini can’t breathe.
Jeremy doesn’t look at her. He sets the Batman mug carefully on the counter beside them, and then turns his gaze to Gemini.
“Sorry,” she whispers. Her stomach a small hard stone.His breath is warm and sweet, and as he leans in, she thinks, unexpectedly, of the shimmering bag of fly wings, the glimmer of a freshly unwrapped candy cane. Jeremy’s hand moves towards her lower abdomen, and finds her stomach, his palm unfurling flat on her body. He presses down hard. She tries to hold it in, but cannot, and when she finally lets go, it’s all over the floor.
“Please,” she whispers, into the Nokia, then stops. She doesn’t know what she’s really asking for. Her breathing echoes down the empty line. She hangs up.
What does a seventeen year old know? Only to ask for better, but not what better is. Here are a list of Gemini’s secret wants, unarticulated even to herself. For Jeremy to know that she is thankful. For it to be enough. For Gemini to understand what he’s testing her for. For more candy. For no more dead animals or insects. For her hair to grow back properly. For Jeremy to love her back, though in Gemini’s mind, love is the same as safety, as trust. For his mother to talk to him about her, to reprimand him. Treat Gemini properly. Stop these games. You’re no longer a child. For her to acknowledge Gemini directly, at least once. To send a sign, preferably an indisputable one. For his mother to prove herself the answer Gemini has subconsciously assumed her to be. To Gemini, there is no difference between the witch and the fairy godmother. Any divergence from a reality she has accepted to be true is welcome. She understands what to ask for now, she picks up the Nokia again. “Please,” Gemini whispers. “Come.”
After the incident with the candy, Jeremy shifts. He’s visibly cooler, no longer reaching for the Batman mug every time Gemini heads to the bathroom. He doesn’t say anything about it either, or give any indication about what has changed. Days pass. Gemini is sick with anticipation. When she catches sight of herself in the bathroom mirror, the hollowed cheeks frighten her. She thinks again of the 7-Eleven boy and his straightforward desires. Tit for tat. One and done. But surely there’s an answer that lies between this life and that? Every morning now, when she’s alone, she pleas with Jeremy’s mother, negotiates. She wants to be taken away. When another bag of candy arrives, Jeremy intercepts, boils it into a soup.
It’s either Tuesday or Thursday. He gestures to the foldable kitchen table, and they sit across from each other as he dishes them each a bowl of the pink liquid. He hasn’t been in the mood to talk, to play games, for a while now. As such, she is surprised when he lowers the bowl from his lips and speaks.
“Are you unhappy here?”
Gemini stares at him.
“I’ve tried my best to be fair to you. Maybe it’s not enough.”
“Do you want to leave? I’m not forcing you to stay.”
She shakes her head, tears falling fast from her eyes. “I want to stay.”
“Are you sure?”
Jeremy assesses her. It’s been six months since she’s moved in with him. In the grand scheme of things, six months is nothing. It’s barely a smudge. Yet, the thought of being out on the streets again terrifies her. And what complaint does she really have? That Jeremy’s sullen sometimes? That he has quirks? There are limits to her imagination. She does not know an alternative better than this.
Convinced, he lowers his gaze again, and finishes up his soup. When she follows suit, he smiles, reaches over, and pats her head slowly, his thumb rubbing the sprouting fuzz in a way that’s clearly meant to comfort. There, there. Good girl. Something splinters in her. Her skin prickles, but she doesn’t move. When Gemini finally meets Jeremy’s gaze, what he sees is an unadulterated gratefulness.
It’s her turn to wash up. That night, Gemini watches Jeremy sleep. His eyelids pale and veiny, fluttering lightly in the wake of his dreams. His breathing is deep and restful. Gemini slips out of bed and retrieves the Nokia from the toilet tank. Returns to bed, and sits, cross legged, looking at the phone.
She’s left it in the ziplock bag. She doesn’t turn it on. A girl like Gemini doesn’t even know to be resentful, all she feels is a blank-eyed exhaustion. Does she believe, still? Every morning, she’s appealed, every night, she’s been ignored. There is only so much a bag of boiled sweets can do. Please, she thinks, come. Gemini’s eyes close, as if in prayer. You cannot come between a mother and son, she knows, but can’t she believe that the witch has grown to care for her too? A pair of red lips curl. The game has gone on long enough. Gemini’s eyes are still closed. Please. How much longer can you let a girl like Gemini continue like this? Doesn’t something about her compel you to get up, to shield her, from the cruelties of life, if only for a second longer?
Forgive me, Jeremy. I stretch, I rise. Before Gemini, the Nokia lights up. It rings.
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