The cow seemed normal on one side. They were milking her when our fourth grade class walked up, pulling at her teats, squirting hot, white milk into the bucket. One pull after another until the container was full and the air smelled like warm cream and manure. Fresh cut grass too, if you tried.
“She’s all done milking,” my teacher said. “Let’s move around to the other side and watch her eat.”
We squished together, puffy fall jackets rubbing against each other, ears centimeters apart. The cow bent down to chew her cud. It looked like grass to me.
“Why are her insides on the outside?” one boy said.
A girl fainted.
“They’re still on the inside,” my teacher said. “The scientists gave her a glass side so we can watch her food digest.” We could see the pink, slimy organs contracting and expanding.
“That’s impossible,” the boy said. “She’d have to die if that happened.”
“Your teacher’s right,” the milking man said. “We removed her side so that we can see what goes on in there. That way, kids can come and learn something, but we don’t have to hurt the cow.”
“But you cut her open and made her part glass,” I said.
“She didn’t feel a thing,” the milking man said. “She doesn’t even notice. This way we can learn more about her. It’s the wave of the future.” He smiled too much. He liked what he’d done to the cow.
I held my stomach. I looked instead at the old blue barn at the edge of the pasture. I bet there were cobwebs in there. Beautiful cobwebs hidden in the dark until someone swung the creaky hinged doors open. I could understand wanting to watch something, spy on something, but I’d rather be watching a spider than the inside of a cow.
The dark is dark. No light. Nothing can be seen until your eyes adjust. On the walk home my keys stay wedged between my fingers. Work is only five blocks from home. Arnold is expecting me for dinner. We’re cooking tonight. Practicing for when we have a family of our own. When we have children laughing and eating at the table. He’s already home, I bet. He’s already setting the table, already winking at the couch.
As I approach the next block I hear footsteps. I turn. There he is. A man. A man just walking his dog. Actually standing at a lamppost as his dog trots around finding a good place to stop and pee. As I pass the dog chooses the hydrant near by. Light drapes the man, his red plaid shirt half untucked, his shoes either scuffed or shadowed.
I clench my keys with one block to go. There’s an alley I have to pass. I wonder if a rapist would drag me by my hair or my arms. I wonder if when I try to scream any sound will come out. That happens to people. They try to scream, but there’s no sound. And the defense attorney will say, “No one heard you scream at all. Did he gag you? Well then, how are we to believe that he really abducted you? Maybe you met in the street. Maybe you wanted it. Maybe you’re ashamed to admit that to your husband. You wanted this other man.” No, I’d plead. I tried. I tried to scream, but nothing came out. Please, how can you not understand what I’m saying?
“I’m home safe,” I say, kissing Arnold hello.
He kisses me, sliding his hand under my shirt, skimming the small of my back. “Of course you are,” he said. “I wouldn’t let anything happen to you.”
“Children, look,” our teacher said. “You can see the food moving through her now. See the intestines bulging. That happens in us too.”
“But how do we know what’s inside?” one boy said. “We can’t see through the intestines, how do we know what’s going on inside?”
“We make a guess based on the other things we know,” the milking man said. “We know that bile will break down the cud as it moves through the chambers of the cow’s stomach, turning it into some sort of mashed—”
“Mrs. Patrick,” the boy said, “Stacey’s throwing up.”
I wiped my mouth, trying to mash the vomit into the manure so it would disappear.
“I’m fine,” I said, wiping away a tear. “Can I sit down somewhere?”
The milking man moved me to a blue chipped bench—as worn, I imagined, as the barn at the edge of the pasture—inside a museum of cow information. A poster at the entrance read, The True Inside of Cows. There was another girl there, holding her stomach in the corner on a rickety chair. She stared at the floor, kicking at the dust on the wood planks, but it didn’t get any cleaner.
“You just sit here until everyone else is done,” he said. He looked at the little girl in the corner and she pulled her knees to her chest. He turned to me. “You understand? No wandering.”
Arnold’s hand brushes against my thigh and he slides on top of me. His stubble scratches my lips. His leg snakes around my foot, pushing it out. He says, “I love you,” as he enters me. I tighten around him. Tighten, release, tighten, release.
His skin is warm against mine, and the sliding, and shifting, and clamping, and thrusting. My teeth sink into his shoulder.
Dinner, I think, looking over the edge of the couch into the kitchen. We never bought a vegetable. Just pasta. You can’t feed children dinner without a vegetable.
His hand reaches around my waist then slides down my back. Kisses on my neck, then his finger, sliding into my asshole. He likes to do this because it makes me laugh. I wiggle.
The tomatoes will go bad tomorrow. If they’re still firm enough I could make some sort of salad. And the onions too. They’re the kind that make you cry when you’re peeling them. But tomato and onion salad seems like a good idea.
His finger pushes in further as he kneels up. Angle shift. Slipping against the top wall. I clench him.
Tomato salad and pasta with tomato sauce. Too much tomato. Children need a balanced diet.
“I love you,” I say, kissing his neck. I pull his hips towards mine. I feel him pulsing as he finishes. One, two, three, pumps. It fills me with happiness. There’s nothing closer. He is literally giving me a part of himself. Placing it in me for safe keeping. Like a secret. But the good kind.
He rolls off me, balancing one leg on the floor, the other knee still on the couch. “Did you just say tomato?” he says.
“That’s crazy,” I say, pulling my skirt down. “I said, I love you.”
“But I still don’t understand why you need the glass,” I said to the milking man, before he left me alone with the girl in the corner. She was chewing the skin next to her nails as she watched him. I could hear his breath when he crouched down to my eye level. I peeled a paint chip from the bench.
“This way we don’t have to cut up all the cows. We know everything inside them is the same. So we look at one cow and understand them all.” The milking man thought I should like the cow. That I shouldn’t question him. He was the adult.
“Will they do that to a person eventually?” I said. “Put glass in her stomach so we don’t have to cut her up?”
“I don’t know about that,” he said, his eyes lighting up at the thought. “But it’d sure make it easier to know what people are like inside.”
“It’s gross though,” I said, gnawing on my lip. “Will they do it to every one? Will we see everyone’s intestines?”
“Science hasn’t come that far,” he said, ruffling his hand through my hair. “I wouldn’t worry about it.” He was saying to me, Just be a good girl and be quiet, let me do my job.
At dinner Arnold asks if I’m having an affair.
“No,” I say. “Of course not.”
“You said tomato tonight.”
“I did not.”
“Are you thinking of someone else? This man you’re seeing?”
“Of course not. There’s no one else. Anyway, ‘tomato’ is not a name.”
“Don’t you like being with me?”
“I’d think you’d stay for it then.”
“I’m here,” I say.
“You’re mind’s someplace else. I can tell.”
“I said ‘I love you.’”
“We need to do something, then,” he said. “You’re so closed off. After five years you still don’t let me in. I can see you’re thinking, Stace.”
“I’m thinking you’re nuts,” I say.
“You’re so secretive,” he says, scooping tomatoes and onions onto my plate. “But I love you anyway.”
“I tell you everything I think.” It’s true. I tell him every thought, let them gush out of me. That way he knows I’m not hiding anything.
“But never how you feel,” he says.
So I say, “Let’s go to the lake. I go there to think, and you can come too. You always want to come.”
I want him to see I am willing. I will let him in.
So right after dinner we fill the trunk with inflatable tubes, and towels, and sun block and water. The next morning, I let Arnold drive. The windows are rolled down and the air smells like trees. Rain. Fresh.
“It’s a perfect day for the lake,” he says, rubbing my knee. “I know how much you love the water.”
The car is hurtling over the highway. Pushing forward. Forcing air, shattering the invisible.
“Aren’t you worried about cops?” I say. I try to smile. “That guy’s a maniac,” I say, pointing to a car flying by us and swerving from lane to lane. I want to say, Slow down, but then he’d know I’m afraid. Then he could choose not to slow down. He could say, No, I’m in control. “There aren’t going to be any cops,” Arnold says, reaching his hand over to mine. With his squeeze I force a smile.
“Do you want to sneak away?” I said to the girl playing in the dust.
The cow poster hung over her head.
“Where would we go? We’ll be in trouble.”
“There’s a barn out there,” I said. “It’d just be for a minute. In here is boring.”
The girl shook her head as I stood.
“Okay,” I said. “Don’t tell.”
The blue barn was beautiful and dusty when I got near. Pushing the door open spilled light onto the floor. The rest of the structure was dark, but I could see hundreds of shadowed bales of hay. They were easy enough to climb. I crawled all the way to the top and sat there, looking down at the door. I had thought there would be spiders inside, but I couldn’t see any. Instead I pulled strands of hay from the bales.
There were probably a million pieces of hay in one bale. I started counting as I plucked. When I got to two hundred and three the door to the barn opened further, but the light dimmed.
“Stacey,” the milking man’s voice yelled. “I know you’re in here. Your teacher will be very upset.”
I held my breath, dug my legs and back into the hay.
A light swept across the barn from a flashlight. When it lingered on my face, I smiled. I couldn’t see his face.
“You’re trespassing,” he said. “Very bad.”
“Okay,” I said, jumping down.
When I reached him at the entrance he grabbed the back of my shoulder and said, “You could have gotten hurt, you know. You can’t just hide away like that.”
His eyes were nice. He wanted me to understand that he needed to protect me. That everything was for my own good.
“Do you understand?”
“Yes,” I said. His hand was heavy on my shoulder.
“You were bad,” he said. “I have to make sure you don’t do this again.”
He walked with his hand on my shoulder. He walked me over to the shadows of the barn. The door was still open a crack. He said, “Don’t worry, no one will see.”
Then he sat me up on a hay bale. Needles of hay pushed through my pants, under my skin. I made a face that I didn’t think he could see in the dark, but he did because then he took off his shirt and lay it on the hay, and lifted me up and sat me down on it. “Better?” he said.
His fingers were too big for my buttons. He said, “You’re going to have to help me.”
“I can’t,” I said, because I didn’t want to. But his fingers kept poking at my buttons so I did it.
He pressed my back down on his shirt. It smelled like sweat. His body was heavy on top of me. I could hear him in my ear. His face scratched like the hay. His fingers moved around, poking at me.
He stopped breathing then. In my ear. Then he stood up.
“Now let’s go find you’re teacher. The kids are all waiting for you.”
While we walked to the bus he made me pass the cow. Its insides still pulsed at me. It just chewed its cud. He smiled at the cow. He loved how he could see inside.
Floating in the water, liquid tingles at my back, the sun heats my front. I push my legs down and let my body be encased. I wonder if this is what it’s like for Arnold to be inside me. To penetrate something, separating it from itself to fit yourself in.
Then I crawl up to the shore next to Arnold, sand imprinting craters on my knees. His body is hot and sticky from the sun.
“What are you looking at?” I say.
He slides a book below a towel. “Nothing.”
“Oh, and I’m the secretive one,” I say.
“Will you just tell me what his name is? Tell me where you met him.”
“There’s no one,” I say. “You’re completely paranoid.”
He pulls out the book from below the towel, it is my journal. “I’ll read this until I find it,” he says.
It is easy to snatch the journal away from him. His grip is loose. “You’re a bastard,” I say. “That’s private.”
“We’re married,” he says.
“That’s ridiculous,” I say. I wish there were another man. I wish there were another man so I could tell Arnold all about it and make him stop this craziness. I stand up above him and begin to walk off, pounding into the woods.
“What? You’re just going to leave,” he yells. “You’re going to walk home?”
“Fuck you,” I say, as twigs burrow into the soles of my feet.
I find a rock, rest on that, let my mind flatten. The air is cool and warm at the same time. Breathing, I think, is nice.
“I’m sorry,” he calls to me through the trees. He’s close enough for me to hear him, but still far in a way. “I just needed to know. Something.”
“Not good enough,” I say. “It’s an invasion.”
“I didn’t mean it that way. I just wanted to know what you’re hiding from me. If you want to leave me, just say so.”
“This isn’t the way. You could ask.”
“And I say there’s no one else. I’m telling the truth.”
“Okay,” he says. “I won’t do it again.”
I want to yell at him. I want to kick. But I don’t want him to leave. So I pretend things are fine.
I stand up and move towards him, lace his fingers through mine, and move back towards the lake.
“The cow was cool,” the girl next to me said on the bus. “Even though you threw up, you thought it was cool, right?”
“The cow was fine.”
“It made me want some cookies and milk,” she said. “We tasted the milk after you left and it tasted like normal, just warmer.”
“What did you think about when you drank the milk? Was it strange it came from the glass stomached cow?” Insulation hung from a split of the seat in front of us. I poked it in with my ring finger to where it belonged, letting my finger linger within the darkness.
“I didn’t think about anything,” she laughed. “Anything except this cookie in my bag.” She reached into her bag and pulled out a crushed chocolate chip cookie in a plastic bag.
“Don’t you think it’s weird?” I said pulling my hand from the hole. The fake leather puckered towards me. “Not natural, I mean. Seeing so much.”
“People are better than cows. It’s our job to use them like this.”
“I guess,” I said. “I guess otherwise they’d just be hamburger.”
“Exactly.” She extended the cookie towards me. “Do you want half? I don’t have any milk, but it’ll still be good.”
I nodded and took the cookie from her, popping it into my mouth before I had a chance to think of my intestines. I clutched my belt buckle, chewing and swallowing, feeling the dough spread down my throat, and into my stomach, massaging my intestines so it’d travel through fast, not worth observing. Probably my intestines were pink and bulging too, except for one part that would be bloody and brown. A pile of mud. Of tar.
The milking man would know what I look like inside. He’d seen more of me than anyone.
I chewed my cookie, trying to forget.
If we all had to wear glass panels, I was sure the cookie girl’s intestines and stomach would be beautiful. People would pass her, do a double take, and think that she was a model example of the human digestive system. They would think that what’s inside her is inside everyone.
“Come here,” Arnold says. His hand grabs at my hip and rolls me towards him.
“We shouldn’t,” I say, kissing his cheek. The trees above us, fifty, sixty feet, sway in the breeze. Just the tops.
“There’s no one around. You shouldn’t be scared.” He is never scared.
He pulls me on top of him, sliding his trunks down to his knees.
“You think too much,” he says. “You should feel something.”
So I push my bathing suit to the side.
I rock on top of him, slowly, hot sun sucking the water off my back.
The crunching of sticks to the right. Snapping under feet.
Do you hear that? I think.
He flips me to my back and lowers himself onto me.
Hard rock sticking into my back. Glare in my eyes.
“You’re so wet,” he says. He doesn’t mean like the lake. I can never really understand how he means. I can’t be inside me the same way he can.
I grip his back, bite his shoulder.
There are spots in my eyes from the sun. I don’t like it. His heavy breathing in my ear. I want to scar him, hurt him.
A bird shoots through the sky.
Each thrust moves him closer inside of me. Closer in alignment with my body. Getting to know places I do not know. I bite him as hard as I can. As hard as I can without him telling me to stop.
Twigs snap again in the distance. Snap.
I want him to stop.
He holds himself close as I feel the pulsing. He retracts.
Arnold rolls off me pulling up his trunks. My bathing suit is wedged in my ass. I squirm until it’s free. He stares at the branches above him.
“At least you didn’t say tomato,” he says.
He thinks if I told him everything he would understand me. But I know he would see what’s inside me, and instead of understanding, he’d say, “You’re not who I thought you were. I thought you were good.”
He thinks he wants to understand me, that he could listen to my secret and still love me; people always do. But really, when they see inside you, that it’s black not pink, they are horrified. When they understand, they say, “I’m sorry” and leave.
He would leave.
“Well, that was fun, right?” he says. “Aren’t you glad you gave it a try?” A warm glob rolls down my thigh.
“Tell me the truth, Stace. That’s the point.”
I feel braver. “I don’t know,” I say, because he’s my husband and he says I don’t trust him—that I should tell him more so he can understand me better, “I didn’t feel safe.”
“Don’t you feel safe anywhere?” He pulls his body away from me. The inches of air between us become solid. “I can protect you.” This is old fashioned. It assumes crimes in the future. He tries to smile. “If someone came I’d throw my body on top of you. They wouldn’t see you at all.”
“I guess,” I say.
“No one caught us,” he says, kissing me on the forehead like a child. “There’s no reason to be scared.”
Like the story? Check out the print issue.
Read more about Jena here.
Read more about Charles here.