Still Life with Infidels #1

The interior design of the cabin on the lake has not been updated since the early 1970s or maybe earlier. The carpet is orange shag, and the furniture in the living room is yellow vinyl. Taxidermied creatures inhabit many corners, stare out from every wall, and augment countertops. Ryan and Gabriella are in a bedroom, one of three. Their friend Keener, whose parents own this place, is in another, and Gabriella’s sister Maggie is in the third with her boyfriend Dave. They are all either freshmen or sophomores at the University of Alabama. Ryan and Gabriella are naked in bed, but they are not having sex because neither of them thought to bring condoms on this trip.

Keener is alone in his own room with a bottle of blended scotch, sketching out some Dungeons & Dragons characters that he hopes to use later in the week.

Two weeks earlier, Ryan and Gabriella met when this same group of students drove to Birmingham in Keener’s car to see a rock concert. Ryan and Gabriella ended up making out in the back seat of the car on the drive home. They’ve run into one another on campus a few times since then and taken walks together. Since they both have roommates and live in dorms where visitors of the opposite sex are strictly monitored, this is the first opportunity they’ve had to spend the night together.

As Ryan stares at the ceiling, he is composing a melody in his head. He hasn’t yet thought about the lyrics, but he thinks it will be about shame. Shame and frustration. Gabriella has rolled over with her back to Ryan and is sleeping soundly. In the other rooms of the cabin, Dave and Maggie are having sex. Keener is alone in his own room with a bottle of blended scotch, sketching out some Dungeons & Dragons characters that he hopes to use later in the week. The lake outside is silent and cool.

Later in the week, Ryan and Gabriella will actually have sex for the first time, in Ryan’s dorm room, while his roommate is in class. Ryan will be nervous and ejaculate almost instantly upon penetration. They will try again an hour later, and it will be much better for both of them. Over the next two years, they will both learn a lot more about one another’s bodies and how to give one another pleasure, and then they will sink into a routine that will satisfy their basic urges but will lack the transcendence of the early experimentation. Occasionally, they will try something new, such as incorporating vibrators and other toys, but this will most often bring back the awkwardness of their early relationship without the same level of excitement. They will make no discoveries that improve their overall routine. At the end of their junior year at the university they will break up.

The painting above the bed shows a woodsy landscape and uses thick layers of dark green and brown tempura to capture the texture of the tree-lined mountainside. It was originally created by Keener’s mother many years ago when she audited some art classes at a local community college. Ryan thinks it would look good if it had some neon space monkeys painted among the trees, and perhaps some robots shooting lasers out of their eyes. He has made a mental note to mention this to Keener in the morning.

Earlier tonight, Ryan told Gabriella that the one time he’d had sex before, it was in high school with a girl from the country whom he had pursued explicitly because he thought he had a good chance of losing his virginity with her. He said that he met her at a fast food restaurant where she worked and thought she was pretty. They went on only a few dates and had nothing at all in common. All of this was true except the part where he had sex with her. He’d made that up because he didn’t want to admit to still being a virgin. Gabriella said she had only had sex once before also, the previous year, with a short-term boyfriend whom she said “liked me enough for the two of us.” Her story was true.

Anyway, she told him, she was impressed with the force and volume of what came out of him.

Later, Ryan will write the song that is currently germinating in his head and teach it to his band. Dave is the drummer in the band, and Keener is the bass player. The song will eventually be called “The Ballad of Desire and Shame,” but its first name will be “Faust” because Ryan is an English major, and the lyrics will be about making a deal with the devil that ends badly. Though he normally writes catchy power pop anthems, this song will come out as a slow country waltz, where the chorus changes to double time and takes on a glorious gospel feel. Not having much of a feel for country, Ryan’s band will play the song with heavy power chords, distortion, and delay effects, and it will not sound very good at all.

The cabin has an “atmosphere refreshment system” that pumps an artificial scent—a combination of pine and cinnamon—into the air at regular intervals. Keener’s parents are heavy smokers, and the system does little to mask the stale cigarette stench that over the years has infiltrated every fiber of every piece of furniture in the place. At this point however, it has overtaken the smell of sweat and semen in the bedroom.

Earlier, Gabriella said they couldn’t have intercourse without a condom, but there were other things they could do. After fumbling around for only a few minutes, Ryan sprayed ejaculate across Gabriella’s pert, tan breasts. Ryan confessed that he had lied about his previous experience and then covered his head with a pillow. Gabriella warned him not to lie to her anymore, but also reassured him that he’d get the hang of it. They’d just have to practice more. Anyway, she told him, she was impressed with the force and volume of what came out of him. He must have been really excited she said.

Ryan’s toenails are entirely out of control and are beginning to resemble twisted roots. They remind him of the cypress knees in the shallows of the lake outside. Outside, an owl prepares to swoop down on a deer mouse. A white tailed doe nibbles on some acorns, its fawn drowsing nearby. The pink brilliance of Venus is clearly visible just above the horizon. Ryan thinks that maybe he’ll try to grow out his beard this year.

Later, Ryan will wake up with a stuffed bobcat from the living room staring him in the face, and he will resist the urge to scream. Over breakfast, Dave will admit to sneaking into their room in the middle of the night to pose it there. Dave will think this is much funnier than everyone else does.

M. David Hornbuckle lives between New York City and Birmingham, AL. He is the author of a novel, Zen, Mississippi (Tritone, 2010) and a collection of short stories, The Salvation of Billy Wayne Carter (Tritone, 2009). His short fiction has been published in numerous journals and anthologies. His short story, “The Boy Who Cried Wolves” was published in a previous issue of Fogged Clarity and nominated for a Pushcart Prize. In his spare time, he serves as managing editor of The Birmingham Free Press and founding editor of the online literary journal Steel Toe Review.