Tag Archives: prose

Happiness by Maegan Clearwood

I’m happy when I look at my handwriting, the way my jays swoop across a line and curve into a yawning oh. I’m happy when I fish an ant out of my morning coffee and remember that I’m in college and pests are a necessary evil. I smile when I wriggle my head through the head of a just-tumble-dried turtle neck.

Sometimes, when it looks like I’m burrowed in a worry, even when my forehead is wrinkled and my mouth is pouched in a frown, I’m actually happy. Sometimes I’m as worried as I look, but sometimes I like people to worry that I’m worried.

I’m happy when I know I don’t have to be, when I’m alone and no one is around to appreciate my selfish grin. I’m happy when I’m alone and have every right to be unhappy. I’m happy when it’s just me in my room and I’m folded over on my bed and all I can see are my knees. I’m even happier when someone interrupts my muted happiness with a knock on the door and I have to uncurl myself to answer and say hello. I’m happy when my happiness reaches the door before I do.

Hunger makes me happy, the anticipation of food and conversation. Sleepiness makes me happy, too.

I’m happy when someone notices a stray hair or fuzzy on my sweater and takes the time to flick it off for me. I’m even happier when I do the same for someone else.

I smile when I highlight a word document and watch it swell from single to double space and my lost Sunday afternoon suddenly seems worthwhile. I smile when I close my eyes and I smile when I open them and nothing’s changed. I smile when I have nothing better to do.

I’m happy when it’s a contracted happiness, one that’s leeched onto me because I was too close to a contagiously wide-smiled stranger. I’m happy when I touch a doorknob and know that I’ve let some of my own happy germs behind.

I’m happy when I’m about to be sad, when I’m teetering between laughing and crying and I know that I’ll have to settle on one sooner or later, but I can still taste the guilty sweetness of joy on my tongue. Part of me stays happy and watches and smiles while the rest of me slips out of happiness for a little while, and that part of me smiles even wider when that little while is over.

 

 

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Project Runway by Maegan Clearwood

My waist was tiny, but not quite tiny enough.

In fact, according to Kate, few of the numbers she meticulously noted managed to meet the requirements of high fashion modeling. My bust, my hips, my height; my body was suddenly reduced to a handful of numbers, figures which apparently held far more meaning than I ever gave them credit for.

“You’re the closest to fitting the measurements we have so far, though, so you’re probably in,” she said.

I hadn’t wanted to model for the event in the first place. It was called Poetry and Project Runway, and from the sounds of it, it was a desperate attempt to integrate academics with reality television in hopes of convincing a pseudo-celebrity to visit campus. No matter how many times Kate tried to explain its purpose to me, the whole affair sounded like a stretch. But maybe that’s why I’d never considered a career in the fashion industry.

I certainly hadn’t been considering it when I pressed delete on the numerous campus-wide emails Kate had issued about auditioning for the event. At 5’8”, I knew I probably fit the height requirement, but I in no way wanted to enter the world of modeling, even on the amateurish college level. My feminist side reared at the idea of being objectified for the sake of something as petty as fashion. Although I wasn’t willing to admit it, a part of me, my secretly-girly, shoe-loving, rom-com-watching side, was enticed.

Everyone was thrilled for me; my mom demanded I post pictures from the event on Facebook as soon as possible, and Kate was elated that she’d managed to find someone even remotely close to Andrae’s stick-figure measurements. My girl friends congratulated me, as if being of above-average height was the highest achievement of my college career.

I detested the good wishes. I have always been ardently opposed to the fashion world and all the superficial ideals it presents. I even wrote an editorial about beauty pageants for my high school newspaper, criticizing the concept of “annually crowning a bleached-blonde stick figure and claiming that she is the perfect representation of America.” My girl-power ideals hadn’t shifted since high school. With every, “Wow, congrats!” I got from a friend, my amateur journalistic words rang true: “It is demeaning towards young women in today’s society to present an airbrushed beauty queen and claim that the most they can do to change the world is smile and wave.”

But I couldn’t suppress my inexplicably and embarrassingly girly alter-ego. She reminded me of all the “Project Runway” episodes I’d eagerly (and yes, hypocritically) watched. She reminded me of my overflowing collection of scarves and cheap jewelry, the guilty rush I felt when I found a cute sweater on sale. She imagined being pampered, having my hair and makeup professionally styled, feeling like a diva and showing it all off.

Eventually, romance won. There I was, a few weeks later, shaking hands with a former Project Runway contestant.

Andrae was wiry, gregarious, and flamboyantly gay enough pull off any style of facial hair without looking like a porn star. Actually, for someone who was about to adjust measuring tape around my crotch and boobs, he made me feel quite at-ease.

Until I saw his designs, at least.

I was anticipating something glamorous, something couture, maybe an asymmetrical dress or a skirt with a billowing train. Instead, Andrae decided to be creative. I think he was taking advantage of our amateurism to display his guilty-pleasure designs, those sketches he’d scrawled in the margins of his design books but knew would never make it on an actual runway.

His concept was vague at best. According to his official website, “one of the organizing principles of this work involves the use of mobius bands. Criticism and response are inexplicably conjoined in the process of making art, and neither can survive without the other. As it is in this relationship, it is in these garments, where sleeve edge is joined to hem, or neckline to armhole in a continuous, mysterious loop.”

In layman’s terms: A bunch of gauzy fabric styled in the most hip-widening way possible.

And it was all lime green.

I quickly transformed from a nervous college student into Andrae’s newest canvas. I stood at attention as he eyeballed me, terrified that he would wave me off, underwhelmed by the averageness of his newest model. To my surprise and relief, however, Andrae squealed with delight as his eyes traveled from my shoulders to toes. My legs, he told me, were the longest of any of the amateur models’, which meant I could display the jewel of his collection: a pair of mile-long, mint-green pants. He handed me a set of emerald tights to wear under them and one of his circular-themed, pouchy tops, then shooed me to the bathroom to change.

From Andrae’s reaction when I came out, I could have won America’s Next Top Model; I felt more like Kermit the Frog with balloon thighs.

He was so ecstatic that I was tall enough to wear his beloved pants, in fact, that I was given the honor of modeling twice, once with the smock-style shirt, another with a sleeveless sheath on top.

I was unfortunately a long way from being allowed to change back into my embarrassingly generic-brand clothes. The fitting took an eternity longer than those on the hour-long Runway episodes. Andrae was in no rush as he tucked and trimmed, measured and re-measured his creation. Initially, I felt like Andrae was a sculptor and I was his block of marble, being chipped away at to discover the masterpiece within. As the fitting continued, however, I began to feel more like a mannequin than a work of art. My arms were lifted and lowered; I walked across the room and turned on his command; I tensed my legs and held my breath while he was prodding the pants’ fabric with a needle.

From the major readjustments he was making, I regretted not being taller, skinnier, something closer to what he wanted his art modeled on. My anxiety must have shown.

“Don’t worry when I get frustrated or I’m not happy with how it looks,” he reassured me.

“You look gorgeous; it’s the garment I’m critiquing, not you.”

Finally, I was released. My homework: To procure a strapless bra and a pair of brown or black heels.

~

I’d always hated the Gibson theater dressing room. One of the unofficial traits of a good drama major is immodesty; before a performance, there are usually scads of girls traipsing around the changing room in nylons and bras, crooning showtunes while jokingly groping and teasing each other . I, on the other hand, aim to spend as little time as possible in the dressing room. I usually arrive earlier than any of the other actors, hair and make-up already done, and scurry to a bathroom stall to change and rush to the green room. I’m not sure where my consistent discomfort with dressing room rituals comes from, but as I settled onto my stool hours before the runway show, I tried to convince myself that this time would be different. This time, I would enjoy, not simply endure, being pampered. After all, the models on Project Runway always seemed to look forward to the L’Oreal hair and makeup session; why shouldn’t I feel the same?

As I arranged my makeup on the dressing table, I was struck by how woefully limited my cosmetic collection appeared. I usually only went lipstick or eye shadow shopping when I had a play coming up, and even then, I just bought whatever happened to be on sale at CVS. My nerves were hardly relieved when Kate wheeled in her towering makeup supply cart. It looked more like she was preparing for surgery than for a makeover from the precision she exacted in setting up her endless supply of hair gels, lip glosses, and eyeliners.

She styled and primped one model at a time. While we waited, Andrae tried to keep us entertained with tales of the glamorous life of the somewhat rich and moderately famous. I was far too nervous to participate in the conversations, and my anxiety infuriated me ; I’d performed in front of an audience more than anyone else in the room. I had clamoroued to be on stage since my second grade debut as a monkey in “Wackadoo Zoo.” I’d been onstage in a purple tutu, sang and danced in a wig and showgirl costume, even orated a commencement speech for a gymnasium of thousands.

Tonight, I had no lines to memorize or steps to remember, but it was the first time my pre-show anxiety was miserable enough to confuse with nausea. For some embarrassingly irrational reason, walking in a circle in heels terrified me more than even the most exhaustive of lead roles.

I avoided as many of the looming mirrors as possible while Kate attacked my hair with a curling iron and colored my face. Instead, I imagined the stoic, composed faces of the Project Runway models as professionals painted their lips and eyelids. I thought there was something almost magical about that part of the show, the way the models disappeared under a cloud of powder and sprays and miraculously reemerged magazine-cover perfect. I hovered in this fantastical mindset while Kate busied herself in the real world. When she was finally finished, a mirror was thrust in front of my face.

“What do you think?” she asked.

I thought I looked fine.

I certainly didn’t look like I’d just stepped out of the L’Oreal makeup room, but I looked fine. Despite Kate’s meticulousness, my skin hadn’t become flawlessly alabaster. My eyes were the same brown they’d always been, even with the mascara and eyeshadow. I was still recognizably and undeniably me.

The transformation was far less dramatic than I’d hoped it would be

After looking at the impossibly endless copies of myself in the wall-to-wall mirrors, I found myself dreading the actual catwalk more than ever, but it was far too late to back out now.

~

Andrae herded us into the blackbox theater to practice The Walk.

There is something eerily stoic about walking into an empty theater right before show time. The blaringly silent space feels as strange as a fresh blanket of snow, and the five of us huddled together, each unwilling to disturb the tranquility.

It was Andrae who made the first leap. He lined us up in order of our appearance, then moved center stage to exemplify The Walk. He swaggered from the curtain to the edge of the stage, paused, struck a lopsided, unnatural pose, then swaggered back.

One at a time, we wobbled across the catwalk for an imaginary audience. Andrae’s notes were as convoluted and deceptively simple as his beloved mobius loops: he told us to slow down, but stay deliberate; our arms could move, but not distractingly so; our pose was supposed to be elegant, yet firm.

It was humiliating. Here I was, a sophomore liberal arts student, being told how to walk. I was in Tawes Theater, a space where I was supposed to feel at ease, where I’d confidently performed monologues, laughed and cried, and used art to tell stories. This time, I had no story to tell.

Despite our wobbliness, Andrae continued to drill us. Apparently, The Walk isn’t something one learns; it is something a true model is born with. He coaxed us through practice walk after practice walk but eventually gave up any hope of bringing out our inner beauty queens. Instead, he gathered us backstage for the pep talk of a lifetime.

“Now girls, you look beautiful, you look sexy. I want you to feel it. You need to show the audience,” he said. “Here’s what I want you to be thinking while you’re walking down that catwalk: ‘You wanna fuck me? Well you can’t.’ That’s the face you need to have.”

That did it. I knew the face he was describing, the elusive “look” that the models are supposed to replicate on the runway. Apparently, they’re not supposed to be daydreaming about their next shopping spree or trying to remember how many calories were in their last meal; they’re supposed to tell a story. Admittedly, “Fuck me now” wasn’t a story I wanted to tell, but at least it was just another role. The Runway Model was no Blanche Dubois, but she was my character, and I was already cast.

I never remember much from performances. Show nights blur together in my memory, and the most I can usually recall are cloudy stage lights and dark faces looking back at me. Project Runway turned out to be just another play. I know I attempted The Walk and Fuck Me face, but that’s only because I’ve seen pictures since. If it weren’t for the photographic evidence, I don’t think I would believe I’d pulled off that role.

The Runway Model is a character I never want to play again. She is supposed to look sassy, sexy and sure, but she’s more three-dimensional than that. Like any complex role, she has her secrets. The model knows The Walk, but no one sees her after she scrubs off her foundation and combs out the hair-spray snarls. In the dressing room, the model has a very different story to tell .

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Never Cold by Will Malkus

After Sean died, he moved to New York City. It made sense, he thought. His parents had always said everyone in the city was dead on the inside, so Sean figured maybe he’d feel at home there. He found a tiny, overpriced apartment, and his cousin managed to get him a job waiting tables at an Indian restaurant in Brooklyn, and between that and the little money his parents had given him he managed to scrape by. At first, it hadn’t been any better. When he moved to the city, it was September, and the streets were packed and smelled strongly of copper. It was hot, so the signs on the bank buildings told him, but of course, Sean couldn’t tell. The people were rude, and they stared at him, singling him out and making it clear that they knew he didn’t belong. A homeless man on the street had once followed him for two blocks, calling him Tom. Tom was his father’s name, but Sean tried not to dwell on that experience. His first two months were miserable, but then winter came, and the looks stopped. He finally belonged.

 

He started going to Central Park every day. He’d hop the number three train up to 96th street, and enjoy every second of it. Sometimes he’d get so absorbed in the train ride that he’d miss his stop, at which point he would have to get out, cross the busy platform, and take the train traveling in the opposite direction back to 96th street. He never minded, though. If he were completely honest with himself, he’d admit that sometimes he missed the stops on purpose, because during those short trips, the subway car shook and rattled and juked in a way that Sean found familiar and comforting. It took him a few days to place it, then one day it hit him. It was like being back on the ice. Sometimes, the train would take a curve in the track in such a way that Sean could almost feel the blades under his feet again. The other passengers gave him odd looks that would have bothered the old Sean, but the new Sean reveled in it. Every skeptical glance was simply a reminder that he was alive.

 

It became a ritual, the only one that he still observed. There’d been a time in his life when rituals consumed him; when nothing seemed random and everything was premeditated. Sean knew, on some hard-to-explain instinctual level, that he could remove the element of chance from his everyday life, provided he repeated a certain set of motions regularly, like wearing the same briefs under his uniform every game, or the way he touched every mirror in his car before starting it. His mom had gotten him evaluated for OCD when he was seven. His dad had introduced him to hockey around the same time.

 

When he started playing, he’d had a ritual for that, too, of course. Kiss the gloves, kiss the stick, and kiss the helmet. The jersey didn’t get kissed, nor did the rest of the pads. The way Sean figured it, if he was good enough, he wouldn’t need them. If no one could touch him, it wouldn’t matter how well-protected he was, and besides, by that point it was too late; it was already a ritual, and changing it could prove to be disastrous. His coaches told his father he flew on the ice, and his father had told them “you ain’t seen nothing yet.” By the time he was lapping adults at the rink, his mom discovered the psychiatrist they’d hired to test him had vanished.

 

“Why would he just up and leave?” she asked Sean’s father one night, long after Sean was supposed to have fallen asleep. He crouched on the fourth stair from the top, not low enough to be seen, but just low enough to be able to overhear their conversations so long as they didn’t whisper.

 

“Maybe Sean was too crazy,” Sean’s dad had joked. “Maybe he drove the guy to jump off a cliff or something.”

 

Sean went back to his room, but didn’t sleep that night. Balding men kept jumping off cliffs every time he shut his eyes.

 

His mom gave up. She decided to leave well enough alone, and Sean got to keep his rituals. He was allowed to run the shower for exactly ten minutes before getting in (the stopwatch became a permanent fixture in the second floor bathroom), he was allowed to eat his dinner in the exact same pattern (in descending chromatic scale, though he was not allowed to eat the same meal every night), and he was even allowed to keep the exact amount of change in his pocket (fifty-five cents) at all times. His parents figured, “it’s Buffalo; what’s normal, anyway?”

 

Now Sean only had the one ritual, and it suited him just fine. Back home, there was a two-stop Amtrak train that ran through downtown Buffalo, but it was a smooth, quick ride, and not at all like the subway he had grown to love since coming to New York. In a lot of ways, Sean thought, the subway was like God. It was impossible to know the intentions of the train, but people still got on every day, trusting their lives to it, praying that it would keep them safe and get them where they were going. He recognized that it was a small thing to care so much about, especially since he lived in a city full of people that took it for granted and talked endlessly about all the ways it could be better, but to Sean it was perfect, absolutely perfect, just the way it was.

 

So on the morning of November 30, in the bitter cold, when all the other New Yorkers were huddled in the warmth of their beds and blankets and loved ones, Sean walked the twenty-two blocks between his apartment and the subway station only to discover that he was the only person in the whole borough trying to go anywhere. That realization made him feel proud, and daring, and he boarded the train same as he always did. He took a seat in one of the hard plastic chairs, one right next to a window, and closed his eyes. He leaned his head against it and enjoyed the cool glass against his skin, but the steamy breath that roiled out of his mouth and fogged up the window made him uncomfortable. He couldn’t feel it on his skin, even though his mind told him he should be able to. Something failed to connect, the same way it always did.

 

He had been surprised to learn that, despite the blizzard, he still had physical therapy at five. Dr. Stanton had called him that morning, to confirm that he was still coming in.

 

“They tell me it’s cold outside,” he’d said, amusement evident in his tone. “So I’ll understand if you can’t make it.”

 

Sean could. The Harwick Institute was fairly new, but was becoming well-known for their advances in the world of nerve damage rehabilitation. Sean’s doctor had recommended it to his parents after the accident, but it was all the way in New York City. His dad had been against it, and for once his mom agreed. The city was too far away, too dangerous, and he was still too weak. Sean disagreed, and finally talked them into letting him put off college until he’d gone through the program. The hockey scholarship was gone by this point, anyway, so it was the only move that really made sense. Get a job, get some experience, save some money, then go to school.

 

An unintelligible voice crackled over the subway’s PA system and then shut off. Sean couldn’t understand what it was saying, but he knew this was his stop.

 

He hiked his old Sabers parka up higher around his shoulders. It was just a formality now, on two counts. One, he didn’t need it, and two, he hadn’t watched a hockey game in almost a year. Instead of having ‘game night’ with his dad, he went to night classes, and besides, watching it hurt more than trying to walk. As thrilling and exciting as the games were to watch, they couldn’t hold a candle to actually being out there, flying down the ice with nothing under his feet. That frictionless glide that he never got tired of, even on the rough ice of the pond near his house, where he would sometimes go to skate when there was no one around. Days like today in New York City.

 

On days like this, days when he felt like he was the only living thing left in the city, he liked to imagine that it was all some big secret between the city and himself. The trees and rocks refused to face the way the world had become, and so instead sulked under their thick blankets. They demanded change, protesting tempestuously in their silence, raging against the seasonal machine that left them tired and dying. Sean remembered that feeling all too well, and when he did his chest ached with phantom pain and memory. He felt the spreading cold that slowly wrapped his mind up in wax paper and sequestered it away from the rest of his body, and the invisible, multitudinous clawed hands that dragged down on his eyelids, and worst of all, the sensation of all of his synapses firing more and more erratically, like a half-loaded pistol, forcing all of his thoughts to stumble through impenetrable fog banks just to reach his frontal lobe.

 

Now Sean always felt cold, so he liked to wander through the city on days when streetlights and storefronts were blotted out by walls of white. All the way down 104th, to Central Park.

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Untitled Story by Maegan Clearwood

Blake hated lying to his mother, but admitting that he’d dropped his phone in the toilet was too much to bear.

He sprawled himself out on the couch, waiting for her to come home. He tried to formulate an excuse, something to explain away his water-logged cell phone, but memories of the day’s events were too vivid; there was no room left in his brain for even the tiniest fib.

His first day at work began slowly. In fact, Blake was so bored during those first few hours at Food Lion that he couldn’t even wait until his half-hour break to investigate the restroom.

There was little to say for the space. Blake was a connoisseur of public restrooms, but the décor and atmosphere there was so bland that even he had a hard time critiquing it. Blake loved grading bathrooms. He made a point of visiting the restroom wherever he was, if only to lock himself in a stall and examine his surroundings. He had a rigorous grading scale; rarely did a bathroom qualify as A-grade, and even for a B, it needed well-stocked toilet paper and soap and an adequate number of urinals.

His most recent undertaking was, thankfully, clean and well-lit, automatically boosting it to C status. From the neutral tile walls to the generic-scented soap, however, Blake couldn’t identify anything in the room that gave it life. There were no amusing Employees Must Wash Hands Signs, no soothing music cooing from above. The bathroom had no character, and until he examined the first stall, Blake was convinced that the restroom s at his new place of employment were as disappointing as the job itself.

Blake hadn’t earned his BA in German and communications with the intention of becoming general manager of his hometown grocery store. He spent his senior year at school pretending he didn’t care what he did when he graduated, ignoring his mother’s vow to boot him out of their cheery suburban split-level as soon as he got his degree. Not that she was serious, of course. Lynette loved her son in a coddling, bear-hugging way. She knew that, no matter her assertions to the contrary, she wanted Blake near home; Blake knew it, too.

Even now, after Blake had spent the summer staining her couch cushions orange from cheese curls and spending her money on pay-per-view movies, Lynette coddled her only child.

“Morning, Boo Boy,” she’d say, arranging a box of Lucky Charms, milk carton, and cereal bowl out on the kitchen table.

“Yeah, morning,” Blake answered. Before she bustled off to her early-bird Pilates class, Lynette gave him a swift peck on the forehead. Although he only acknowledged it with an eye-roll or grunt, Lynette never forgot to kiss her son goodbye each morning.

Three-and-a-half-months after graduating and moving back in with his mother, Blake started applying for the types of jobs he vowed never to seek upon entering college.

His first day monitoring nine rows of minimum-wage workers was, as anticipated, a droll compared to the bar-hopping fantasies he’d once entertained about adult life. It was a Tuesday afternoon; customers were rare, the looping music constantly interrupted for shameless self-advertising. His employees pretended to stay busy wiping down their registers and rearranging packets of gum whenever he passed, and despite his best efforts to appear cheery and laid-back, he knew he was already labeled the enemy.

He slipped into the bathroom as soon as possible.

He was there for purely recreational purposes; he never used public facilities if he could avoid it, especially at work. As part of his grading system, however, he always tested the toilet paper for appropriate comfort and flushed the toilet for a demo-run. (Automatic toilets immediately downgraded bathrooms a half-level; there was something innately disturbing in technology that determined when he was done taking a shit, Blake thought)

He surveyed the line of stalls, peeking beneath for feet and checking which, if any, locks were broken; he finally settled on the second. After comfortably seating himself on the toilet, he was pleased to see a gallery of tastefully designed obscenities scribbled on the mint-green door.

Blake had a great appreciation for bathroom stall graffiti. He considered it an art form, each a unique signature of the bare asses that had once occupied the space.

Today, he was especially delighted to find a conversation, each line in different hand, volleying insults and vulgarities back and forth.

“RH shat here” it began in a proud, looping hand, followed by “Who the fuck cares,” “dude, gross,” and, to Blake’s disgusted delight, “TL wacked off her.”

Beneath this last boast was, lightly scratched into the thin paint, “555-8459 for more fun TL.”

This was Blake’s second encounter with phone numbers on bathroom walls. The first happened during his sophomore year at a rest stop in Ohio. He’d sat on the toilet, phone in hand, for at least 15 minutes before, terrified of where the call might lead, nerves overcame his curiosity and he left without grading the bathroom.

A few days later, police identified the rest stop as a major sex trafficking area; the potentiality in that missed phone call had haunted Blake ever since.

He checked his watch; it would be at least a few more minutes before anyone would notice the manager had abandoned post. Plenty of time for a phone call.

He entered the jagged numbers into his phone before his common sense took control.

A voice breathed into his ear a brief ring later: “You’ve reached the Hotties Hotline. This is Theresa.”

“Um, hi Theresa.”

“Would you like me to review our pay rates before we begin?”

“I guess not, no.”

“Eager, aren’t we?”

The woman’s voice was at least an octave deeper than Blake’s, and it sounded as if she were dragging the words out and into the phone. The fakeness in her voice didn’t bother Blake in the least; the drawling slowness of her words was comforting in a somewhat homey way.

“Well, I told you my name. You gonna return the favor?”

Blake thought about this. Usually, he enjoyed fibbing, spooling impromptu stories out of his imagination. He loved filling out survey cards at restaurants with made-up names and addresses, and he was often told that, if it weren’t for his paralyzing stage fright, he would make a tremendous actor. But for some reason, today, he didn’t want to lie. He couldn’t bring himself to lie to this smooth, strange voice.

“It’s Blake. My name’s Blake.”

“Well then, Boo Boy, tell me a bit about yourself.”

Blake didn’t have to hang up.

His mother’s voice fizzled into silence as his phone slipped out of his hand, between his knees, and into the toilet water below.

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