Kevin Tosca

Kevin Tosca's stories have appeared in Spork PressLitroFlash: The International Short-Short Story Magazine and elsewhere. They have recently been included inVine Leaves Literary Journal's and Bartleby Snopes's Best Of anthologies. He lives in Paris. You can find him and his work at www.kevintosca.com. You can also like him on Facebook. He'd like that.

Spoiled Milk (Issue 44)

Strangers (Issue 39)

Spoiled Milk (July, 2014. Issue 44.)

It should have been an uncomplicated two-hour ride from Bucharest to Sinaia, but the train was packed and it was four o’clock and 38 degrees Celsius outside and not much cooler within. Tepid air spewed from the vents, but intensity doesn’t pardon inefficacity.

I found my seat, crammed next to the window and facing a family of five human beings filling three seats. The great-grandfather sat directly across from me. He wore glasses and an olive-colored field cap and had a big bag in his lap made of some kind of synthetic fiber with starched sides, the kind that if I were to have reached out and touched it it would have crinkled and crumpled and moaned, then popped right back into place. His granddaughter, somewhere in her early twenties, sat next to him in a low-cut turquoise nursing dress. She held a baby across her legs. The great-grandmother, in a patterned housedress, sat next to them and steadied an older child on her thigh. They all had dark, mahogany skin.

I kept my shoulder bag in my lap, assuming someone would take the seat with the suitcase on it next to me, which they did: a man wearing gray cotton shorts and a billowy shirt with an exaggerated V that exposed knoll-like pecs and hair. He kept his bag in his lap too, but he didn’t seem pleased about it. Above us, the luggage racks threatened to overflow. The once open space next to the great-grandmother was a mountain of belongings. The words I heard this new man utter between periodic verifications of his smartphone did not sound like happy words—they sounded like complaint and violence—but my Romanian was poor and foreign tone and significance (I had painfully learned) is never easy to decipher, so I tried my best to remain deaf, calm, and neutral, to stare out the window and tell myself it’s only two hours, it’s only two hours.

Twenty minutes later than scheduled, with what little water I had in my plastic bottle already gone, the train left Bucharest’s Gară de Nord. When it got up to speed, the car we were in started to shake. My legs, arms, and torso swung involuntarily. Then stopped. Then swung again. Right-Left-Right-Left-Right-Left. I had never felt such turbulence. Was it just our car, or had the whole train gone epileptic?

Since this was the summer when back-to-back-to-back public transportation tragedies killed dozens in France, Spain, and Italy, all I could think about was death and how stupid it would be to die on a train from Bucharest to Sinaia with strangers, without a hand to be held, without a look to be loved. My mother always said things come in threes, but even though I’m humiliatingly susceptible to superstition, I could draw no comfort from the already achieved number.

About ten minutes after leaving, the conductor made his way down the aisle, verifying tickets. Though sweating, he appeared calm. I had, however, smelled the breath and body of more than one Romanian conductor and their nonchalance did not produce my own. Some homemade pălincă would certainly have disarmed the worry ghettos of my brain, but booze, like space, I did not have.

Not long after the conductor left, I noticed a movement out of the corner of my eye. I turned my head and saw the mother’s breast falling out of the folds of her dress. I saw her big dark areola and the child’s tiny mouth slipping over it. I quickly looked away, but I wondered how breastfeeding in public would be handled in this conservative country.

The train was hot and loud and I felt wet and anxious and my legs and body were being steadily—violently—rocked, and my penis was already half-awakened by this rhythmic jarring and I knew I would look back.

I started with the great-grandfather’s face, saw it alternating from the same scene I wanted to watch to the passing countryside to his teetering luggage stuffed above our heads. When he looked at his granddaughter, I swear his head lingered, angled down and to the right, though I wondered if he was excited at all or if it were only pride or love or nostalgia or the simple act of watching an animal feed her young and being positively moved—or not moved at all—by the commonplace event.

The great-grandmother was busy rationing Fanta shots to the other child and the man (luckily for him with those foolish shorts of his) remained engaged with his phone. I looked at the mother again, not at her face but at her breast, my look not at all innocent, and I saw less than half of the dark circle and the train was shaking me and the sweat was running down my sides and I was cramped in my little seat and getting too turned on—it was ridiculous, how erotic it was, what desire it produced—and I looked away but I wanted to immediately look back—no one seemed aware of what I was doing, how I was feeling, what I was thinking—and when I did I saw that the baby had stopped feeding. The breast was already re-covered, hidden beneath the specially designed folds of its owner’s dress.

As the train kept moving north, I kept glancing over, kept willing that baby to wake up and demand to be fed again, but it slept on and on.

At Ploieşti, an oil and commuter town I was told no tourist had ever set foot in, the man with the shorts got off the train. Thirty minutes later, with thirty minutes to go, the great-grandmother—the two-liter plastic bottle of Fanta now empty—took the other child in the direction of the toilets. The old man had fallen asleep, his head back, his mouth open, his knees jammed into mine. The mother cradled her baby, one of her hands every so often teasing the folds around the breast she had used to nurse. Was she itchy? Sore? Whatever she was, she seemed ready, and every time I saw that movement I thought, Yes, Now, but she never undid the fold. The baby, displaying an infuriating and impressive unconsciousness, slept. Not me. I wanted that breast. I wanted to touch it, caress it, squeeze it. I wanted to slip my mouth around her nipple and kiss and suck and bite. I wanted milk. I wanted to see it drip down her body like the sweat was dripping down mine.

Do it again, I kept thinking, my brazen looks emboldened by time and the anxiety of this rocking, ridiculous ride, by indifference—hers, her family’s, her country’s—but staring can’t be ignored forever and the mother’s eyes eventually met my own. I didn’t look away.

“Do it again,” I said, but she didn’t understand.

“Again,” I repeated, and I touched my breast and said “vă rog” afterward, which is the formal way to say “please” in her language. I wasn’t being clear, but I was ready to get down on my knees in that jerking hot train and place the baby in the seat where the great-grandmother had been and suck that woman’s breast off while her grandfather snored next to us. I was ready to take her hand and lead her to the disgusting lavatory and prop her on the sink and fuck her and make love to her breasts and bathe in her milk and drink every last drop, but she made no sign of comprehension, just smiled an ambiguous little smile, perhaps embarrassed or flattered to have an English speaker directing words at her, perhaps tired or confused—who knows?—but she looked tenderly at her baby and teased the folds surrounding her breast, wound up holding that breast with her hand.

What did she think I had said? What would she have said and done if she had understood?

Great-grandmother and child returned and great-grandfather awoke and Sinaia arrived, where the Romanian royalty once lived, and I got off the train and walked out into the late and still hot afternoon, relieved to have escaped, but still single, still aging, and still thirsty, feeling as passionate and useless as the vents that surround us.

Table of Contents

Strangers (January 20, 2013. Issue 39.)

A group of Claudia's coworkers stood around the bar watching the Doppler radar and its Fauve, menacing palette on the television screens above their heads while Claudia watched the trees disappearing in the parking lot. She watched the sky, blue-black and tinted a most odd and hideous yellow, as she listened to the older woman describe her weekend. The sky looked angry. The older woman was named Mary.

Mary spoke about how her and her friends—a group of middle-aged, married women—do this a few times every summer, how it's tradition, how they get together at a lake in northern Minnesota and how they take the free bus to the bar each night and drink margaritas and Long Islands and dance to old pop songs from their youth while their husbands stay at home and do diddly-squat.

And they, these women, they flirt and they dance and they drink long into the night with the men that have gathered there, and some kiss, and some even... you know, Mary said.

Do you? Claudia asked, rather shocked by Mary's story. She had said it all so nonchalantly.

It's all right, Mary said, laughing. Don't worry, no, I never go there.

Mary was fifty, fifty-five years old. She was on the short side, a stocky little woman with a booming laugh and a great sense of humor who sold real estate during the day and worked in the restaurant three or four nights a week. She had thin, straw-colored hair and a faint mustache she could never quite erase; she had skin that was in a perpetual state of slow-motioned free fall, falling down around her cheeks and wobbling where her triceps could've been. She wasn't pretty, but Claudia wasn't the type of woman to call an older woman ugly, either. She just wasn't pretty, wouldn't have been the first attraction in a room full of men, no matter how intoxicated or isolated. But what did pretty have to do with it? Pretty didn't even seem appropriate when talking about a fifty-five-year-old woman. Not dignified enough. Simply not right.

I tell Max everything, Mary said. We laugh and laugh and laugh about it.

Mary had been married to this Max for almost thirty years. She had had three boys with him, the youngest starting high school, the oldest twenty-eight, like Claudia. Claudia had asked.

We're just having fun, Mary said, taking it while we can get, while we've still got it.

Claudia tried to smile, tried to put the story into some kind of coherent perspective, but she couldn't. From another coworker, another married woman, she had recently heard about a website for women, created by women, who wanted to have sex with men who are not their husbands. Something like one hundred thousand women were registered on this site. A box tracked and displayed the membership. The number rose daily.

Claudia couldn't understand, yet she believed she had an open mind, believed in privacy and the rights of adults to make adult decisions, believed she'd be considered a liberal on every social issue—homosexuals, for instance, could marry, that wasn't her point about marriage—and she believed women were self-evidently as free as men, but something about this website and what Mary was telling her upset her. It made her angry and judgmental, made her feel like what's it all worth if nothing has value, if there are no limits. It made everything feel tainted.

Though not religious in any organized way, nor a woman prone to invoke the Biblical, she thought of Sodom and Gomorrah, of a species who needed wiping out.

I don't get it, Claudia said. Not at all.

You'll see, Mary said, reaching into the drawer beneath the computer they were standing next to. After you've been married for as long as we have, you'll understand.

Claudia didn't have a husband, but she wanted one.

I hope not, Claudia said.

Don't worry, Mary said as she deposited a small stack of coasters into her apron's pocket, getting herself ready to greet her first table, you'll come around.

I'm serious, Claudia said.

Mary looked up into Claudia's face and laughed her booming laugh, apparently unconcerned about where she was or who could hear.

I know you are, Mary said.

Claudia watched Mary approach the young and soaked couple. In no time the couple was laughing, too. Mary had a gift. Maybe Mary didn't need pretty.

The rain was horizontal now, but it was six o'clock and the customers flocked in anyway. Claudia saw them dashing in from the parking lot, swarming in in twosomes, threesomes, foursomes, families. As each one entered and shook themselves and smiled the way wet people do in the vestibules of restaurants—sheepishly and with a brand of childlike glee—Claudia stared at them, searched them, needing to know if they were all like Mary and the women on that stupid site. Was she, Claudia Jane Allen, the only one who didn't get how things worked? She wanted to take a survey. Two questions, maybe three.

Have you had sex with someone other than your spouse during your marriage?

Would you, if you could?

Why?

Outside, the yellow had disappeared. Now everything was darker, the summer sky full of what looked like charred metal. Agitated, the clouds turned on each other, gathering and ripping themselves apart, dancing a demonic dance while rain lashed the trees and thunder cracked in the distance and flashes of light burst on both sides of Claudia's vision.

She thought about her parents, married for twenty-nine years. She could ask them. Of course she could ask them. But what if they answered yes? What if they could answer why?

Mary swung by the computer on her way to make drinks for her table. Despite her age and weight, she could move with a surprising grace, a levity Claudia knew she lacked.

Those two are fun, Mary said.

Claudia watched as the host navigated a group of five well-dressed, middle-aged women into her section. She heard a noise, like a gasp, and she turned toward the bar to see that the restaurant's televisions, run by satellite, had gone blank and died. She turned back toward her table and reached down for the coasters in her apron. The host was distributing menus, delivering his spiel.

Mary passed her again, two sodas on her small, round tray.

Looks like a good one, Mary said.

She meant the table and its potential tip.

But Claudia just stared at them, their relaxed faces, their smiles, their white teeth when they smiled, their rings. She heard their laughter and she heard a wave of it tear through the dining room as the rain suddenly stopped. Where were their husbands?

Where were their husbands? Claudia asked herself again, standing there, watching the women and the swirling, furious sky. What was going on in those heads and hearts of theirs? Why were they here?

Claudia continued to stand there, shuffling the five coasters in her hands, unable to approach that table. She had no idea what she was going to say when the inevitable happened, when one of her three managers came over to ask her what she was doing, what she was, in fact, blatantly not doing.

Then she had luck.

Everything got even darker and calmer and then two bolts of lightning zipped down and exploded, not far from the building. It shook, the building did, and then hail started to fall. The assault, despite the ominous foreplay, was sudden and spectacular.

The women, and all the other customers next to windows, fled, giddy in their flight. They gathered at the bar and started to order margaritas and Long Islands from Ben, the middle-aged and handsome bartender. They, like everyone else, looked up and waited for the televisions to start working again, to tell them how bad it had been, to let them know just how close their flirtation had come to disaster.

But the hail, the size of golf balls, didn't stop falling. It started collecting in mounds in the parking lot and on the sparse patches of grass around the concrete-enclosed trees—a surreal, July sight. And they reminded Claudia of the stacks of cannonballs she had seen at various death monuments throughout the South when she had traveled there with a boy she thought she was going to marry. Mississippi, Tennessee, Louisiana: ghost places. Ash names. She could hear windshields breaking and she watched as a baseball-sized rock of hail zoomed in and smashed against the glass in front of her, leaving an enormous crack in the center. The noise of the hail pummeling roof and earth was overwhelming, but Claudia heard the laughter and toasts coming from the bar. She heard the unmistakable pop of a champagne bottle's cork being released. Then another. Everyone was gathered there now, all her managers, all her coworkers, all the customers who had come in out of the storm. It was more than festive, it was urgent, and Claudia couldn't evict the word "orgy" from her head, couldn't move, couldn't stop watching the storm, couldn't stop imagining more. She was envious, and she could not master that envy. It was so powerful, so raw and clean and unambiguous, and yet it would stop, the storm would. She knew that. Nature is not God and God is not angry and neither is the answer. Fine, but what is? What's the next step? Whatever it was, she had no idea, so she couldn't take it. For now, all she could do was stand still, there in her battered shelter, thinking about her survey, her three pathetic questions—her three dull and useless weapons in this sharp world of strangers.

Table of Contents

The Legendary