Corn Snakes No Longer Eat Mice

Today’s the day I tell Taylor. I know it. I know it because I woke up to a text from Mom saying Flame the corn snake is still missing. And that the high’s 80 in Lubbock. Eighty in January? That’s freakishly abnormal for my hometown. Which is a sign. Warm weather augers warm reception to unwelcome news, right? 

Other signs: after we got ourselves out of bed, Taylor fed the cats. He also cleaned out their box, and then offered to make breakfast. Now he’s slicing bread against the Texas-shaped cutting board. Eggs boil on the stove. 

I’m sitting on the futon. You could call it “meditating” but really my mind’s just trapeze swinging back to the same thought, that I’m going to tell Taylor both how Dylan’s coming back to town soon, and when I see Dylan next I want to tell him how I feel. 

January’s already arrived in Moscow, Idaho, with more snow than my north Texas hometown’s ever seen. Snow on the sidewalks, the downtown grain silos, the banks of Paradise Creek. The firs and spruces hoarfrost their branches so that Moscow blooms into an oneiric landscape whose cousin I’d only seen in the dust storms that blew through Lubbock when the sky turned red as menstrual blood. 

So far this morning, no clouds unfurl the sky like snake skin. Rather the window’s all sun, and it’s the kind of yellow we could sauté with butter and fry over-hard.

As Taylor starts to chop kale, I think about Mom’s missing snake. Mom coordinates an animal program at my old elementary school with over a hundred different animals including tarantulas, parakeets, and guinea pigs. The corn snake’s been missing since last week when a fourth grader forgot to secure the lid with the bungee cords. I remember the corn snakes. Growing up, Mom sometimes kept one in an aquarium on the piano bench. Mom fed the corn snake mice. Live. I never watched the mice die, but I stole glances after, when their paws were limp, their heads dangling back. 

When I watched porn in seventh grade for the first time, my stomach felt like those mice. I knew I shouldn’t wander onto whitehouse.com, nasa.com, dirtbag.com, but my curiosity deepened with my ache. I clicked from one picture to another: the women were all boobs, spread legs, and shaved. I knew I shouldn’t. What if what if MomDadKristin walked in? It was the same time I had a crush on both Zach and my best friend Ashley. I thought that if my parents and sister found any of this out, my dad wouldn’t talk to me for a day, and Mom and Kristin would cry.

Finally, I turned off the computer. I put my head in my hands and felt the quivering between my legs. From then on if desire’s a mouse, there’s always a snake waiting nearby.

Or maybe desire’s the snake. And the snake can’t live long without swallowing a mouse. 

 In the kitchen, Taylor sings to himself. He’s slender. His smile leans to the right in an endearing way, and he has a crooked front tooth. Next week he’ll turn thirty.

“Laurelle, breakfast is ready,” he says. He sets two plates on the table, their contents the muted greens, yellows, and browns of Lubbock. The table was the first furniture we’d bought when we moved to Moscow: Goodwill, ten dollars. Taylor found it. Someone had painted the table half crescent moon, half earth. 

I eat on the moon’s face. Taylor butters three pieces of toast.

“What do you think of the new knives?” Taylor holds one up.

I take the knife from him. It’s slender with raspberries on the handles. Against my thumb, the knife’s ridges have the same naked smoothness as Taylor’s pockmarks. “I didn’t even notice them,” I say. “Not bad for Goodwill.”

“I like this one best,” he says, pulling another out from the Mason jar on the table. “The plants remind me of all the cotton fields back in Lubbock.”

Taylor and I moved from Texas back to Idaho a year and a half ago. We left Lubbock with its Applebee’s and cumulonimbus clouds and billboard signs that read “I called them Commandments, not Suggestions—God.” We moved to Moscow with its independent restaurants and stratus clouds and billboards that said “Come say High at Mary’s.” One panhandle to another. My parents gave us their extra wedding silverware. They married thirty years ago. Shortly after, Dad got a job at Texas Tech and moved Mom from Las Cruces to Lubbock. No mountains or hills or curves in the road. No zoo. No neighborhood bible study after Tim-across-the-street refused to let Mom lead the prayer service at our house.

Now most of the knives they gave us are gone. Lost to where? We couldn’t say.

 “Tell me a secret,” Taylor says. He’s cracked an egg on the table and grins so that his front tooth hangs out.

“I’m usually the one who asks you that.”

He peels the egg, putting the pieces on the table rather than his plate. “I’m a wild-card this morning.”

I hmmm and press the knife’s handle to my finger, wondering it it’ll leave an imprint. 

It does.

 “Okay, once in Lubbock, during undergrad, I started Facebooking with this student Jose in a class I was mentoring.”

“Were you their guru?” he asks, popping the egg into his mouth. All of it. 

I look at him. It’s the same look my face made yesterday when I saw squashed mouse on the sidewalk. “Did you even taste that?”

He makes some muffled noise that sounds like “yeshh.”

I go back to my knife handle so he can chew the egg. “No, I wasn’t their guru, Taylor, I was just a year older than them. Anyway, I don’t remember if I messaged Jose first or what we said. But I do remember that the messages were really long. And that I didn’t tell my boyfriend at the time, even though we’d been dating for over a year.”

“Is that the secret?” Taylor picks up another egg. Same snap of bones on the table. 

“No. The secret is that I told my sister about it once. Can you guess what she said?”

“To ask the student out to a movie?”

I grin and fidget with the knife. “You’re funny. She said I’d fuck things up with the boyfriend if I kept getting into Jose.”

Taylor bites into the second hardboiled. Bits of the yellow stick in his beard. “How did

that make you feel?”

“Pretty stupid. And that I might be a total creeper.” I look at my fingernails. They’re more yellow and brittle than I’d like. “I didn’t stop talking to Jose and I didn’t act on the attraction either.”

Taylor reaches over the table. He touches my hand, tracing my fingers then my wrist. This is how he tells me he understands. I wonder what he understands. I wonder if he knows that back then I wouldn’t have thought I could date both the boyfriend and Jose because I didn’t know such relationships even existed. After I graduated, I interned with a nonprofit aimed at keeping kids in their hometowns: Lubbock, Tulia, Littlefield, Nazareth, Brownfield. The nonprofit never asked, what if staying here meant you’d coil pieces of yourself around until they died. Then what are you left with?

The heater comes on. It sputters like the downstairs neighbor’s truck warming up in the mornings. I know there’s nothing like a new flame story to follow one about an old love interest. I could just open my mouth and say: Dylan’s coming back and I’m going to tell him how I feel. Instead, I butter my crusty piece of sourdough, seeing just how long the rubber band can stretch before it breaks. What a habit. It took me twenty-eight years to leave Lubbock for good. Yesterday, I started planning the Comp course I’ll be teaching next week when school starts and overnight Moscow’s downtown will do the rise and swell thing with students, most of them back from their small towns like Rathdrum or Rigby, Priest River, Teton, and then Boise. No more open tables at One World, the coffee shop. Our neighborhood of rental duplexes and split-up-homes will become a hot bed of parties, bass, and unintelligible shouts that’ll be either joy or anger. Maybe our neighbor will even butcher another deer on his porch like he did last fall.

Taylor moves on to the third egg. He picks at the shell and tells me he wants to meet someone who peels them like oranges—thumbnail under the rind, loosening it all in one pretty twirl. 

I set the knife on the table. There aren’t perfect windows to say things, so I just say it. “Dylan’s coming back to town next week.” 

Taylor puts his half-chewed egg on the plate. All he says is, “Oh.”

“Oh” was what Taylor said last fall when I told him “I think I’m into Dylan.” Earlier that day, Dylan had dropped by my office. He was twenty-three, five years younger than I was. He asked if I’d look at one of his writing prompts. It was nonfiction. The essay went that after Dylan’s father came out, his parents got divorced and his dad married a man named Tony. One night, Tony shot himself dead in a sedan. Dylan, his siblings, and father all went the funeral and no one from Tony’s family acknowledged them.

Dylan called the piece “Idaho.”

 We talked more. I don’t remember what about. Maybe how I defined feminism or why Mary Karr wrote Cherry in second person. At one point, I saw a moth crawl across Dylan’s shoulder, and without thinking, I flicked it off, grazed his shirt. Felt the air between us crack. Snap. My face got hot. 

  I thought so this is real. No more pretending. I needed to tell Taylor, even if it would hurt him. He knew I fell for people easily, many people, all at once, and this wasn’t my first time getting swoony over another man. In the beginning, Taylor and I tried an open relationship and so I had a short thing with an old friend. Taylor thought he could handle it but he couldn’t. He fell into a river of utter despair. So there are rules Taylor and I have made. We can both date other women, but for now, I’m not dating other men.

At the table, Taylor raises unibrow, and the effect is more limp than dramatic, like how Paradise Creek sometimes gets in winter. I’ve been with Taylor long enough to know he won’t ask, “Why did you bring Dylan up?” He’ll wait for me.

I tap my egg on the table and say, “Taylor, I want to tell Dylan how I feel.”

 “Why?” Taylor asks, his jaw stiffening. 

 “Because,” I say, picking at the shell, knowing Mom once taught me the trick to peel them in one clean swipe, but I’ve since forgotten. “I want to be honest.” 

 “Can you wait to be honest until right before he leaves Moscow for good?”

 “That’s in April.” I bite into the egg and swallow quick, before I taste the white part. Sometimes Taylor boils them too long and their insides harden like uncapped glue.

 “Why do you want to tell him now?” Taylor asks. I notice his shoulders are up to his neck.

I huff and look out the window at the icicles. After days of melting and freezing, they’re the same yellow of my mother’s teeth. Mom blames the color on fluoride. Once a dentist told me I didn’t need to brush with toothpaste because there was so much fluoride in Lubbock’s water. I took it as one more sign to never move back home.

Mom’s lived in Lubbock thirty years, and for twenty of them, she resented it. She planted lavender, but it died. Fine. She planted Mexican Hat grass instead. No zoo? Fine. She made our living room and then my elementary school into one. We had bird cages of cockatiels alongside aquariums of legless lizards and corn snakes. I grew up with guinea pigs in plastic bins in my rooms and ferrets in the dining room. I didn’t know if all those animals were enough for Mom. I didn’t know if she’d be happier back home in Chicago with the Brookfield Zoo where she had once been a zoo keeper and took care of baby elephants.

Now, there’s an egg chunk caught behind my molar, and I pick at it with my finger. 

“That’s gross,” Taylor says.

I smile so he can see the kale caught in my front teeth too. The day we left Lubbock, Dad gave us six plastic animal plates. Giraffes, lions, elephants. I ate my egg breakfasts on them until they got old. Then I hid the plates underneath the crock pot. This conversation about Dylan also feels old, predictable. The biggest fight of our relationship bloomed across a sepia morning last fall when Taylor said, “Maybe I don’t want you to tell Dylan how you feel after the semester’s over” and back and forth we went, boiling the teapot until I exploded. “I’m going to tell Dylan how I feel even if you don’t want me to.” Taylor got so pissed he took a shower. He went to work. Came home. Crawled under the blankets and looked at me long and hard. He said if we were going to try polyamory there had to be trust, and he couldn’t trust me if I was just going to do what I wanted anyway. 

Now I’m not keen to dust that same argument off. Or eat breakfast on it. I pick at my thumbnail and say, “I want to tell Dylan now because he’s no longer my student.” The thumbnail breaks and I peel it off. “Dylan’s graduated. I can finally say something.” 

 “But why now?” Any expression or emotion from his voice has dried to monotone.

I let out a groan. “Because, Taylor, there were so many moments last semester when I wanted to tell Dylan how I felt and I couldn’t.” 

Like that Friday in October I ran into Dylan outside the library. The moon was obvious, toe-nail shaped. We chit-chatted. I told Dylan if he’d wait for me to hang up a flyer, I’d walk with him wherever he was going. He waited. We walked through the library courtyard and stopped at Dylan’s dorm. The steam from the campus power plant looked like a tornado. Neither of us had plans for the evening. Dylan said, “Well we’re chatting so let’s keep walking.” 

I thought he was hot. I couldn’t say why. His hair was mouse colored and short. He wore glasses and hunched bad when he walked so we stood shoulder to shoulder, a similar height.

But really, for me, it was much more that he laughed at my jokes. It was that he stayed after class just to talk, and when I sent him Audre Lorde’s “Poetry is not a Luxury,” he wanted to meet and discuss the piece more. It was when we started meeting once a week for coffee at One World. It was the meeting when he showed up and started crying and told me why. 

Dylan and I took the less busy path along Paradise Creek. Not a whole lot about the creek lived up to Paradise. It hid behind thick trees whose names I’d never learned. Not-mesquite. Not-desert willow. Not-cottonwood. On the reed banks were Bud Light cans and dark glass bottles. 

Even if though I’d talked to Dylan a million times, walking with him my teeth still went to boulders. My words came out weird. So I don’t remember if I brought polyamory up or if he did. Either way, I told him I didn’t start calling myself poly until I was living in New Orleans. There, my friends often had multiple sweeties, boyfriends, girlfriends, and lovers. They used words like primary and secondary partner. If my insides were Moscow’s eleven story dormitory, I’d been living in the pitch black three a.m. hour. In New Orleans, with friends where polyamory was the norm, the clock hands moved all the way to morning, the lights came on. I was ablaze.

Did I ask Dylan his thoughts on open relationships or polyamory? Did he bring it up? Either way, his version was much shorter. He said he had been in two relationships. His girlfriend was across the country, and they agreed that “if anything physical came up” they could explore it.

    Then his hands flapped around—quail scared from underbrush—and he said that nothing had come up. If it did, he didn’t think he would do it. 

    Sure, I heard Dylan say, “I don’t think I would do it,” but I latched onto the “if anything physical came up.” And my eyes shimmered like streetlamps in the creek water. My body was aware and rigid and I was ten, sixteen, eighteen, twenty-two all over again. All wrapped in one. Flustered. Earlier that fall, I’d assigned my class to read an essay I’d written for mock-workshop. In the essay, I wrote I could spend an afternoon with some people and whittle the hands of the clock down to their bone and I still wouldn’t get bored. All that time still doesn’t feel like enough because there’s always so much more to say.

Looking at Dylan, his face orange with streetlamp, I wanted to tell him, “I’m really into you. You are one of those people for me.” But I said nothing. There were many things I kept from him. Like the worry about Taylor. I knew Taylor wouldn’t want to hear about the creek, about this walk, even if I felt yellow as the table’s moon face. Taylor was that other side, the blue.

I kept things from Dylan too. How I remembered Andy. How Andy always wanted to read my writing and hear my ideas for new projects. Then he started hitting on me. I’m Dylan’s teacher, and he doesn’t know how I feel about him. I’m not hitting on him. We’re just meeting-with, walking-with, talking-with. Andy read my writing, I read Dylan’s writing. Andy listened to my ideas, I listen now. Am I am I am I being Andy? 

I said nothing as Dylan and I walked along the creek. The moon set. I asked him which tree reflection was his favorite, and Dylan pointed to one which I thought was snake-shaped and strange on the water. I wondered how this moment could be both exactly what I want and still feel lacking.

After I tell Taylor this memory, he hmmms. “Well,” he says, rubbing the pockmarks along his face. “I don’t know if I’m okay with you telling Dylan how you feel.”

I start playing with the egg shells on my plate. With my fingernail I break them into tinier pieces. “Can you help me understand why?”

 “Because I might run into him downtown, and then we’d both know,” Taylor says. The underbelly of frustration starts to turn upright. 

“And you’d feel uncomfortable?”

 He puts his head in his hands and groans. “No, it’s not just that. If I saw Dylan downtown, what would I say to him? Do I acknowledge that I know he knows? Do I say anything at all? And I’d go back and forth and be anxious.”

I put my elbows on the table and my chin in my hands. “I don’t know.”

“I don’t know either,” Taylor says. He starts to trace the painted earth on the table, the land masses in mint green. “You know logically I have no problem that you’re into Dylan. Or with polyamory, open relationships, what have you. But that’s just logically, Laura.” He looks up. I notice his eyes are watery. “My body’s not there. And I just get all these thoughts going across my mind of you and Dylan together. Then it’s all insecurities and hypothetical situations and anxiety from there.”

I reach across the table and hold his hand. His skin is warm as bathroom stream from the shower. Taylor looks at me and blinks once then twice, then again. More times than I’d guess. There’s a quiet snap that comes with understanding. 

 “I think I get it,” I say. “You’re worried that you’d say yes to avoid a fight rather than it being true.”

“Yeah exactly.”

“I’m worried about that too,” I say, my belly the teapots I sometimes forget in the sink until they’re overflowing water. “It’s just, Taylor, I feel I’m already giving up what I really want. If you were totally okay with me being with other men, I’d date Dylan. And so I feel like me telling Dylan is this one thing where I could get some satisfaction and feel like I’m honoring what I want too.”

“I hear you.” Taylor leans over and kisses my mouth’s corner. It’s my favorite place to be kissed. He takes my other hand. 

“What do we do?”

“Maybe we wait until he comes back into town. I’m not sure how I feel about you telling Dylan, maybe then I’ll be okay with it.” 

My belly doesn’t feel any lighter. Taylor kisses my forehead. I lift up his shirt, put my hands on his belly. Tell him it’s as flat as cotton fields and kiss his belly button once, then twice. Taylor picks up his dish, then mine, and puts the butter knives on top. He carries them to the sink and soaps up his sponge. 

On the table, next to the mason jar of new knives, is a bubble wand. It’s an old birthday present from Taylor. The wand’s plastic top is a snake’s head that becomes the handle. Its belly is crisscrossed with yellow diamonds. I stand on my chair. I look at Taylor in the kitchen where the sink runs water until it gets hot. I twirl the wand. Round and round. Out stream long lurid bubbles. I grin to myself. I’ve heard stories about giant bendable wands that blow bubbles the size of trucks. So I ordered one of those wands for Taylor. After all it’s his birthday next week. 

My bubbles are coffee cup sized and lilt to the kitchen on their own air current. They wander over Taylor’s head and one pops on his shoulder. Taylor smiles. He opens his mouth wide, jaw seemingly unhinged, and pretends to eat one then the other. 

Last night, in darkness of blankets draped over the bedroom window, Taylor told me he used to hate his pockmarks. He’d marked them high on the list of Why No Girls Want to Date Me next to his skinny build, crooked nose, and that he grew up poor. 

We had turned the box fan on to cover up the downstairs neighbor’s bass. I listened to the hiss, and Taylor asked, “Are you into other guys because you’re not as attracted to me?”

I sat up. I kissed Taylor’s pockmarks and took his face in my hands “Not at all,” I said.

Taylor wormed his way closer. His face buried in my arm pit, and I ran my fingers along his neck. Someone shouted downstairs. I waited for another shout to tell me its nature. Nothing. Taylor rolled to his side. I tucked my arm under his shoulder and slid my legs in with his, the big spoon to his little one. My eyes got drowsy. I could feel myself slink into the upside down dream world where I sometimes made out with my friend Claire, various middle aged men, women I didn’t know in real life, a dog, and then Dylan. Several times I’d dreamed about making out with Dylan. Once in a car while he was driving. Once in my childhood bedroom. A few times on a playground. I liked it. It was the only way kissing him was ever going to happen.

Now I twist the snake head back on its body and put the bubble wand on the table. I need to work more on my Comp course. It’s such a habit. Instead, I watch the icicles melt from yellow to white against a backdrop of sky that sometimes goes red with forest fire smoke. Not dust. In a town where only a handful of churches sit on street corners. Where I can say I’m polyamorous and not be mistaken for polygamist. Where somewhere my parents’ old knives lay lost underneath refrigerators, in gardens, in gutters, fallen from my backpack. 

What will I say to Dylan if Taylor’s okay with it? I like you? That’s so high school, even if it’s the truth. How would the scene even go? Will we be walking again on the path by the creek? At night? Will Dylan start up some story about the high school friends he never talks to? Maybe he’ll say again how he’s afraid he doesn’t know how to form real friendships. Then we’ll pass the bridge with puke still decomposing from last fall? And when his story ends, will that be my sign? That it’s time? Will I say something like so I want to be honest about how I feel about you? Will he be expecting this? No, I think see the surprise in his eyes. An unpeeling. I’ll say what I need to say. 

Everything I kept. 

All of it. 

What will Dylan say? 

Does it matter? 

In the kitchen, the frying pan bumps against plates in the sink. My phone buzzes. A new message from Mom. They found Flame the corn snake. Dad drilled out one of the cabinets and Mom grabbed her by the tail. Whoo hoo! Mom even has a mouse ready to go for her lunch. In the message, Mom says she’s had Flame for ten years and was so worried she’d get trapped in the walls and die. 

I think that my mom’s a mom to snakes and put the phone back on the table. Once I asked Mom how she’s been able to live in Lubbock for so long. I don’t remember exactly what she said. Something about it being a give and take. Living there, she had to let go of some of the things she loved like zoos, growing petunias, hiking paths. But if they’d lived elsewhere—would she have started the animal program? She didn’t know. 

I don’t either. In the kitchen Taylor turns off the sink. I watch him take the yellow sponge and wipe off the counter, catching bread crumbs and garlic peels in his cupped hand. He hums. His voice bounces from one note to the other, and the song’s so familiar it hurts. I stay sitting at the moon-earth table, so round. A snake eating its tail. I feel the bent-backed ache in my stomach, the curiosity, just take this a little further because I want. I want I want I want.