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Poetry of the Atomic Bomb

By Shelby Brown From Issue No. 5

The Minnie Mouse sheets we slept on that night are what I remember the most. The renovated garage we stayed in after the dance was stuffy despite the wheezing AC unit and fans. Prom season is technically in spring, but May still brings summer weather in Kentucky. We changed out of our prom attire and the group decided where to sleep: the couch, sleeping bags, or the cot. Cathy and I chose the cot. Despite the heat, Cathy’s fingers ran up and down my arm under the thin blanket, raising goosebumps.    

Everyone else passed out in various stages of undress. My eyes adjusted to the dark and she was watching me, the blues of the TV painting her face. I reached for her.

A ripping snore came from Josh, stretched out on the couch. We startled and peered over; his girlfriend, Morgan, remained motionless on his chest. We stifled our giggles and I hoped that Cathy couldn’t see how badly it had frightened me.

Cathy had a girlfriend, Jane. I had a boyfriend, Connor.

We’d wound up lab partners in chemistry earlier in the year. She had the teacher in stitches because the only way she could remember ion polarity was to draw polar bears in her notes. Cathy charmed everyone with her wild, spirals of coppery hair, her sea-green eyes, her quirky outfits, and her clever tongue. She wrote poetry and so did I. We started writing poetry for each other, then about each other.

One day she returned my notebook after I’d let her read my recent piece. You fascinate me, she had written at the bottom of the page. No one had ever found me fascinating before. Not even me.

After what seemed like hours, I pushed myself across the space between us.

Cathy held my face tightly as we kissed. She smelled like incense and henna. I wondered if she was thinking about Jane. I wasn’t thinking about Connor. She sniffled against my face and that was my answer.

“What does this mean?” she asked, wiping her eyes and holding my hand. I wished the garage was darker; I couldn’t stand to see her cry and I didn’t have an answer. A secret romance seemed a stupid suggestion.

We had entertained the notion before. Our chemistry teacher was showing the class Fat Man, Little Boy. Our eyes stayed focused as we watched atomic bombs detonate and devastate. Our fingers touched only briefly when the note passed between us. I could read her message in the flashes of red and orange light.

“I would get jealous,” her note said. I wanted to believe I wouldn’t, despite the bitter snake that coiled in my stomach whenever I read a poem about her girlfriend.

“You’re too analytical,” I wrote back, brushing her off. The note is still unfinished.

We woke up tangled around each other. The others were beginning to stir. I sat up slowly, careful not to wake Cathy. Dried tears flaked the corners of her eyes. I wondered if she’d cried more after I’d fallen asleep.

Morgan posed primly on the couch, chatting quietly with her mother. Josh was still asleep. A few of the others had woken and were mindlessly scrolling their phones. A tray of bagels and fruit had replaced the booze and junk food from the night before. Morgan must have cleaned the evidence of teenage debauchery while we slept. Mrs. Mason nodded at something Morgan had said but her eyes flashed toward me and Cathy. Her hair was already styled, her face painted on. Morgan kept talking and her mother continued to watch me, her index finger running under her chin, the way one would sharpen a knife.

When Cathy stirred I stopped counting the religious icons on the walls. She smiled sleepily then seemed to remember what we had done.

As morning passed into early afternoon, everyone began to leave. Mrs. Mason kept a close eye on me and Cathy, orbiting us. Her eyebrows arched suspiciously if we laughed too much or looked too long in the other’s

“How’s Connor?” she asked as I slipped my gown into its garment bag.

“He’s fine,” I replied. In truth, I didn’t know; we hadn’t spoken most of the weekend.

“Why didn’t he take you to prom?” The question snaked into the air, coiling with tension. I scanned the garage as if I’d misplaced something. The blankets from the couch were in a laundry basket; the cot had been stripped.

“He didn’t want to go,” I said, and then more boldly, “and Cathy did.”

Cathy smiled and pulled out her phone. Mrs. Mason made a sound like a fly in your ear and ascended the stairs with the sheets. Morgan moved to my side.

“Sorry about Mom,” she whispered. “She doesn’t understand people like you and Cathy.”

“People like us?” I bristled, cheeks flushing.

She lowered her voice again. “You know, gay.”

I remembered an episode of NCIS that I had seen. Duckie had known a man was lying because he could see his pupils dilate and his pulse increase through the skin of his neck. I didn’t think Morgan would be as astute. Was I lying? I didn’t think I was gay. I had Connor. I had feelings for Connor. My phone buzzed and I fished it from my pocket.

“It’s not like that,” I muttered, turning from Morgan to the message.

I want to kiss you goodbye, but I don’t think that’s going to happen.

Cathy lingered by the door fiddling with her keys, prom dress draped over her arm, zipped into its garment bag, She caught my eye and I followed her out.

It was almost noon. The gravel crunched under our feet as we walked. The air was mercifully cool. It must’ve rained overnight: the sun was drying Mr. Mason’s vinyl-sided toolshed and the fine layer of dust that coated the shells of his gutted muscle cars had been washed away. Somehow the cleanliness made them look sadder.

The Mason’s land stretched out beyond us. We stood side by side were the gravel met the grass. A rooster crowed faintly somewhere. I laughed.

“What?” Cathy asked.

“In cartoons, the rooster always crows in the morning. But, if you actually live in the country, it crows all the damn time. It doesn’t matter when.”

“I know,” she said. The road to Cathy’s house was marked with a sign that said “Nelson County Landfill” which was the most inappropriate place for such an exquisite person to live. For years I would think of her when I passed that sign, long after Cathy had gone.

She grabbed my hand and we wrapped around each other again. We spoke between feverish kisses.

“What happens Monday?” she asked.

Three girls will corner me in the locker room after gym class and ask me how long I’ve been a lesbian. One of them will slap me.

“I don’t know,” I reply.

“What about your parents?” she asks.

I will be outed to my parents seven years later. My mother still doesn’t think bisexuality is real.

“It doesn’t matter right now,” I said, because it didn’t.

“What about us?” She asked. Her lips were pressed against mine, the question muffled.

Cathy doesn’t know I am a coward. I wrote no poems about cowardice. Cowardice isn’t fascinating. I will lie through my split lips and say that Cathy kissed me first. I will let the lie kill the rumor like wildfire and I won’t ask her forgiveness for nearly a decade.

“What about Connor?”

Connor will be the only person to stand by my side.

“Do you want to stay together?” he would ask. A thankful lump rose in my throat at his reaction. He wasn’t hateful nor trying to gather a visual to jerk off later. We would become a strange hybrid between friends and something else. He never asked more of me than I could give.

“What about Jane?” I gathered the courage to look away from the yellow fields to Cathy. She gave me a sad smile.

Jane will find out much like Connor but will be less understanding. She will break up with Cathy.

Cathy would find out I lied by the end of school on Monday. She will gather her books three days before summer vacation and leave the chemistry lab where we wrote the poems, where she drew the polar bears, where she touched my hand.

“You didn’t hurt me,” she will say before disappearing. She won’t know that I could never write afterward, as if the words—her words, our words—had clotted in my veins.

When we learned about atomic bombs in chemistry, our teacher told us people were still affected by the blast. Some people, closest to ground zero, were vaporized. Faded silhouettes of their bodies were burned onto buildings. Others had deformed babies or got strange cancers later on. One decision with a lifetime of consequences.     

Cathy and I stood together staring out over the Mason’s field and its faraway silo, like the ones in movies that house the atomic bombs, preparing for the fallout.

About Shelby Brown More From Issue No. 5