by Wynter Miller
My boyfriend stumbles into bed sometime after 2 a.m. Stories that start with sentences like that usually involve bad people—bad boyfriends who lie or cheat, or both. My sister’s boyfriend drinks too much and yells obnoxious, half-true words over the din of his ugly music that demolish her self-esteem. My boyfriend is careful. He measures his words. My boyfriend tells me that I am talented and stubborn. He says those two qualities are enough but it helps that I am beautiful. He is forever saying nice things I do not understand.
I think: Enough for what?
Enough for you?
Fuck your “enough.”
But I measure my words, too. I don’t say horrible things aloud, they just live inside my head. I am the bad person in our story.
My boyfriend spent the night trapping a skunk in his friend Tyler’s backyard. An explanation like that sounds like a lie, but in this case, it isn’t. Tyler’s text lit up my boyfriend’s phone after we were already in bed watching a show about inmates at a women’s prison. It is an aggravating show with an absurd plot that neither of us like, but my boyfriend cares about being culturally engaged. A woman in the class he teaches convinced him it’s a critical commentary on corruption in the criminal justice system. I think this woman wants to sleep with him but saying so would be petty—so we are watching the show. From it, I have learned that I would not survive in prison. In my dreams now, I disappear into crowded cell blocks and die early in inmate riots. I wake up drenched in sweat and feel so claustrophobic, I sneak out of bed to smoke cigarettes on the porch.
Tyler’s text reads: bro marshmellow worked! skunk in cage MAYDAY come ovr. I have spent full minutes of my life that I will never get back trying to figure out whether Tyler is using the word “bro” ironically. I’m almost sure that he isn’t. Irony seems like a high bar for someone who has otherwise rejected all the usual niceties of communication. Like grammar. And spelling. And a decent hour. I would ignore 90% of Tyler’s texts.
But my boyfriend sees things differently. My boyfriend questions the value of irony. He raises an eyebrow at me and tells me that David Foster Wallace thought irony was destroying sincerity and that sincerity was the soul of art. He tells me that Tyler is sincere, “he has his flaws but at least he’s honest about who he is.” I tell my boyfriend that I sincerely believe David Foster Wallace was an asshole. My boyfriend sees the best in everyone.
And so now, it’s 2:37 a.m. and my boyfriend is stumbling into bed. He climbs under the comforter, he curls himself carefully around me. He does not smell like booze or women or misdeeds. He smells like a man who has spent three hours with a wild animal in someone else’s backyard. He smells like a man who shows up for a friend in the middle of the night. He is exhausted and triumphant and he is the kind of man for whom victory can smell like skunk.
I don’t sleep much anymore. In my head, prison inmates line up for mug shots and the camera flashes again and again. Each time, the picture is of me—my own version of counting sheep. Flash. Flash. Flash. I pretend to be asleep until he is, and then I creep out of bed.
My boyfriend is up before me the next morning. When I walk into the kitchen, he’s humming under his breath and buttering toast. He doesn’t say good morning—not because he doesn’t want to, he is a good morning person. But we’ve been living together long enough that he knows I will hydrogen bomb his good mood if he gives me an opportunity this early in the day. I am the type of person who wakes up slow and hard, a feat I manage on a daily basis only with the aid of strong coffee and minimal interaction. My boyfriend tells me I’m a four o’clock flower. “You just bloom in the late afternoon.”
In the bathroom, I sit on the toilet lid and watch my boyfriend swish his mouthwash and spit into the sink. “I have that evening class tonight,” he tells me.
His spit is the same shade of green as the lycra of his bicycle shorts. “If you don’t mind eating later, I’ll grill up those burgers.”
“Hey,” he says, reaching over and nudging me. “Don’t forget your patch today.”
I nod and try to remember if I hid the Diet Coke can with my cigarette butts back under the stairs.
Later, I look up four o’clock flowers on a gardening website and laugh out loud at the idea of myself as “a low-maintenance bloom in shades of pink, purple, and yellow.” I fall into an internet hole for the next hour, intent on identifying my true spirit flower. I settle on Puya chilensis.
That night, sitting on the porch steps in the dark, I tell my boyfriend about my research while he flips burgers for us on the grill. It’s called the sheep-eating plant, I tell him. It grows spiky flowers that look like medieval maces and animals wander into them and die. It uses their rotting corpses for nutrients.
My boyfriend looks at me then, his spatula in suspended animation above the sizzling beef, and I wonder what he is thinking. I wonder if he is reconsidering. Then he says: “Do you want cheese on your burger, sheep-eater?”
We eat our burgers sitting next to each other on the porch. It occurs to me to ask what happened to the skunk. “Did you kill it?”
“Of course we didn’t kill it,” my boyfriend tells me, shaking his head.
I think there is nothing wrong with killing a wild animal that has been terrorizing your backyard but I don’t say so. My boyfriend is against gratuitous killing. He is against gratuitous anything—violence, anger, wealth—but he is against killing especially. He is forever relocating spiders, releasing fish, gently encouraging the birds nesting in our attic to find new homes. He is not a vegetarian because killing for consumption is not gratuitous, which is lucky for me. I have very low tolerance for vegetarians.
“We trapped it,” he tells me. He is matter-of-fact, very that-is-the-end-of-that.
“Well, you didn’t just trap it and leave it in Tyler’s backyard,” I say. “Jessica would kill him.” Jessica is Tyler’s girlfriend—she is smart and pretty and has her life together. I cannot figure out why she is with Tyler because her self-esteem seems fine.
“Yeah, no, Jessica was pissed,” my boyfriend says. “She wanted to call Animal Control.”
I wait for him to continue but he just goes right on eating.
“And?” I ask.
“And Tyler didn’t want to pay for it.”
“Do they charge for that?”
My boyfriend just shrugs. “Maybe.”
I put my plate down on the step below us and look at my boyfriend until he is forced to make eye contact. I ask him again.
“What happened to the skunk?”
He glances at me and for a moment, I imagine I know the end of this conversation. It becomes something different, a conversation I have had before. I am talking to someone else. Old boyfriends. The things I imagine are never good. But then, the moment passes, and we are just two people again, having dinner on a Tuesday night.
He tells me the skunk is in the garage—our garage, not Tyler’s. We stand in the doorway and I peer into the dark space while my boyfriend explains California law.
“It’s definitely legal to bait and trap skunks,” my boyfriend says, “so we’re fine there.”
I wonder if “we” means him and Tyler, or him and me.
“The problem is, once you’ve trapped a skunk, there are really only two options . . . .”
I am only half listening. There isn’t much to see in the dim light, a metal cage on a concrete floor. But the smell is dirty and insidious. I imagine it unfurling across the concrete, vaporous curls creeping under doorways, climbing up walls, settling deep into the bowels of the house. A permanent stench cloaking us forever.
“—sorry, what?” I’m tuning back in, cutting him off.
“I mean, he’ll be fine in here for now. We’ll feed him marshmallows and—”
“No, I missed the two options. What are the two options?”
“There were two options,” my boyfriend clarifies. He holds up one finger. “Trapped animals may be released on site.” He raises a second finger. “But unless released, trapped animals must be killed.” He grimaces. “Released on site would have been released in Tyler’s backyard and there was no way Jessica was saying yes to that.” He pauses. “So.”
I stare at him blankly. Several seconds pass.
“. . . So, I’m going to find him a good place, and relocate him when I get back. I was thinking maybe in the canyon?”
I remember then that my boyfriend is flying to LA in the morning. He’ll be at a workshop for two days. I will be here—with the skunk—and he will be in LA. He will be in LA, I will be here, and this creature will be in the garage. For two days. Something like panic is rising inside of me.
“No,” I say.
“No . . . ,” my boyfriend repeats. He is looking at me. “No, what?”
No, I think. No, the skunk is not staying here in the garage. No, the plan is not safe harbor and marshmallows. No, thank you, I’ll take option one, please.
“Can’t we just . . . ” I start to say.
But then I see myself, what I look like. Flash. I look back at my boyfriend. Flash. Flash. Instead of no, I tell him something that sounds like yes.
He’s up early the next morning, dressing quietly in the dark. He has exactly one teaching-a-workshop outfit and so I know without looking that he is wearing corduroy and a white shirt. You can’t tell my boyfriend is the nicest person in the world by looking at him. He looks really normal. He is handsome but not too handsome, the kind of face that most people don’t notice, the kind that can be folded down, set aside, forgotten. My boyfriend is the kind of handsome that happens when you refuse to spend more than six dollars on a shirt that you will wear for every workshop for next several years. He is the kind of handsome that does not trigger the asshole alarm bells inside my head. He has a wide smile, but it takes a long time to see it. That was one of the things I liked most about him, at first. You have to earn my boyfriend’s smile. But when he smiles at me now, it feels like an accusation.
My boyfriend leaves behind a bag of marshmallows and detailed instructions. A Girl’s Guide to Skunk Maintenance and Management. I don’t read them. I check the Mammal Hunting
Regulations from California’s Fish and Game Commission and read an article called “Living
with Urban Wildlife.” I learn that it is standard operating procedure in the City of San Francisco to euthanize all captured skunks. I research commercial services. National Wildlife Removal will send a qualified exterminator for $150. Animal Control will do it for free.
I spend some time constructing the defense I will use: Relocation is illegal. Skunks are vectors for disease. I copy a line from a government website into my notebook. Relocation is inhumane and ineffective—wildlife will not know the location of food and water sources and will usually die within two weeks. I scribble over the sentence in black ink until it is unreadable. I tear out the sheet of paper and shred it into tiny pieces. I look up the number for Animal Control.
Then, I spend several hours pretending there is nothing in the garage. I shower and fold laundry and chain-smoke and think about calling my mother. My boyfriend calls and tells me about LA. He says the people are nice and the weather is nice and the hotel is nice. The closest he comes to admitting that LA is not nice is when he says that it is not San Francisco.
Eventually, I stop pretending. I go outside and sit on the garage steps and peer into the darkness. I leave the instructions and my notebook and the number for Animal Control on the kitchen table. I take the bag of marshmallows.
It is early evening, and the sun is already setting and the air is warm, but the concrete in the garage is cold. It seeps through my jeans. The smell is still there, like a physical presence, and I stretch my legs out into it and wait. I open the bag of marshmallows and eat one and then another. The skunk has positioned itself in a corner, its black form just visible in the two inches of exposed caging beneath the towel my boyfriend has used to cover its prison.
For a long time, very little happens. I think about whether the skunk can smell me or smell the marshmallows. I decide that whatever its olfactory abilities, it definitely knows that I am here. I carefully pull my legs back under me. I make a small move forward. It is less than a step and more than a crawl, but it is silent and I sit there like that, in my gargoyle crouch, for unknowable minutes, the bag of marshmallows clenched tightly in my hand. I wait. Then I crouch one crouch forward. And then one more. And then another. All the while, the skunk sits in its corner and does not move. It is only when I am finally next to the cage, when I have traversed the concrete desert, that I realize I have no plan. The pungent smell is heavy and dark around me. I have no plan and it smells bad and needles of sleep are beginning to prick in my legs and for a moment the simultaneous experience of all these things is overwhelming and I am trapped.
That night, in bed, the inmates prepare to riot in their black-and-white stripes and I stockpile marshmallows in my cell.
The night I moved in, my boyfriend pulled the comforter off the bed and spread it on the porch. It was August in San Francisco.
“Lay down.” He pointed a finger at the comforter.
I stood in the doorway and shook my head no.
He smiled, sat down, and turned his head up to look at the night sky. “Okay,” he said,
“but you’re going to miss it.”
“Whatever there is to see up there.” He stretched out, bunching the comforter under his head. I watched him watch the sky.
“Where do you think we’ll be a year from now?” he asked.
“Dead,” I told him. “Zombie plague.”
He laughed. “We wouldn’t survive the zombie plague?”
“Definitely not. We’d be some of the first to go.”
“You,” he said, “are always imagining the future apocalypse.”
My boyfriend cannot imagine the apocalypse. Not really. Even when I rig the question—I ask him to imagine a future destroyed by a zombie plague. Burned out cars and highway bonfires.
Your family is dead, I tell him, looters are coming.
He raises an eyebrow. Looters? My boyfriend is skeptical there would be looters.
He tells me about the San Francisco earthquake in 1906, the fires that followed, the 400,000 homeless and 3,000 dead. He tells me about the woman who stitched together blankets in Golden Gate Park, how her tent became the Mizpah Cafe, a soup kitchen and sanctuary for hundreds of refugees. He tells me about the dozens of tiny street kitchens just like it that proliferated across the wreckage.
People behave better in disasters than you’d think, he tells me. He gives me a book about real-life “disaster utopias” and tells me that Hollywood gets it wrong. There would be heroism, he says, not looting—and I can tell that he believes it. He believes the things he says, every word. My boyfriend can find little pockets of hope in every misery I can imagine.
The next evening, I sit on the stoop and wait for my boyfriend to get back from LA, stress-eating what’s left of the jet-puffed marshmallows from the giant plastic bag. I read the ingredient list and marvel at all the different names for sugar. Corn syrup, dextrose, modified corn starch. I think about animals and people in cages, and how easy it is to be imprisoned by nothing more than a little whipped sugar.
When my boyfriend steps off the bus, he walks the half block to our stoop at a slow meander. He looks rumpled and normal. He looks the way he always looks and I feel relief. He looks like himself.
When he sees me waiting, he picks up his pace. He drops his body onto the step, knocks my shoulder with his, tugs gently on my ponytail.
“Wow,” he says. “Marshmallows for dinner.” He reaches a hand into the bag and pushes two into his mouth, talking around them. “Things are really falling apart here without me, huh?” His voice is muffled by puffy sweetness.
I don’t say anything, pop another marshmallow into my mouth.
“How’s our skunk?” he asks.
“I let it go,” I tell him. Sticky marshmallow residue coats my tongue.
He pauses to swallow the wad of marshmallow in his cheek.
“You let him go?”
I nod my head. “Yes.”
I nod again, indicating the street in front of us. “Here,” I say.
“Here?” His eyes widen and his eyebrows go up.
He glances down the street as if he’s expecting to see the skunk, “our skunk,” returning to the scene. He looks back at me.
I tell him something like the truth. And then, suddenly, I feel like I might cry.
He looks at me for a long second, a second that expands until it is the size of our entire future. And then he smiles his wide smile and pulls me into him.
“Okay,” he says, kissing my hair. “Okay.”
I lean into him and eat another marshmallow. It tastes like burned rubber and asphalt.
“Your hair smells like smoke,” he says.
People behave better in disasters, I tell myself. I close my eyes and the camera goes off. Flash.
Wynter K Miller is a writer and editor living in California. She almost never tweets @wynterkm.