Lovers, Carbon Monoxide Poisoning

by Laura Elizabeth Woollett

By greg.chiasson via flickr

‘Will the world end if we come together?’

‘Baby, what kind of question is that?’

*

She is up from California for Christmas and orange-faced above her parka. Fake Californian girl, laughing in the parking lot, toting a bag full of booze for tonight. Leggier than you remember. You cross to the liquor store.

*

‘I hate it here. I always did,’ she tells you, smoke billowing through her puckered lips. ‘How can you stand all this…cold.

*

You have thought about death before tonight. You have even thought about death as something beautiful, crystalline as the frost-coated conifers. You have thought that there is beauty in dying young.

*

‘Do you have to go out tonight?’

‘Deb, I already told you.’

‘I don’t like you going out without me.’

‘I’ll be back before midnight, I promise.’

‘Don’t drink too much. You know how I hate you driving drunk.’

‘Debbie, please. It’s only a party.’

‘I miss you.’

‘I miss you too. How are your parents?’

‘They still think I’m a fool for getting engaged to you.’

*

You arrive at the party in a metallic pea-green painted coffin, with hideous vinyl wood siding. You arrive in the same clothes as this afternoon, with a six-pack of Budweiser. The Californian girl is inside, warming herself by the fondue pot, looking snow-tanned and Scandinavian. Her forest green turtleneck fits her like a second skin. You could get used to this.

*

‘I remember this,’ her hot, alcohol-sweet breath moistens your ear. Later, much later, in the car. Her cold hands scramble below your belt. She clutches you with her talons. ‘Ouch,’ you say.

*

The last night of your life is festive with green tinsel, colored bulbs, plastic snowflakes. A bowl of pink fruit punch, clogged with cranberries and citrus, heavily laced with rum. Cocktail weenies, lewdly devoured by frosted pink lips. Cubes of cheese, pineapple, olives, and bacon-wrapped water chestnuts, skewered by tiny toothpicks.

*

Some names are like chains. Deborah, for example: each syllable heavy, laden with duty. Deb. Or. Ah. You think it best to leave the Californian girl nameless.

*

‘You look good,’ you tell her, when you finally make your way over to the table where she stands. You take some cheese dip, crackers. ‘You don’t. You look beardy,’ she laughs and touches the bristles on your chin, brushing them free of crumbs. ‘Who do you think you are, Fidel Castro?’

*

Of course, there is more beauty in a death that is shared. Like Romeo and Juliet. Paolo and Francesca. Hitler and Eva Braun.

*

You don’t want to tell her how much you remember. Her as a fourteen year-old with brown pigtails, smoking behind a back building. Her aged sixteen, silver-profiled at the cinema. Her at eighteen, five years ago, on what was, hitherto, the luckiest night of your life – unzipping her jeans and settling onto your lap with the cool efficiency of a call girl. You don’t want to tell her; you want her to be the one to tell you.

*

‘So, are you seeing anyone?’ she smiles knowingly over a lipstick-rimmed cup of fruit punch. ‘No,’ you thrust your hands guiltily into your jacket pockets, practicing for the day when you are a married man, with a gold wedding band to conceal. ‘You’re lying,’ she narrows her eyes at you, which are heavily made up with shimmering pastel shadow, clumped mascara, and wings of black liquid liner, ‘Rick Pelham says you’re engaged.’

*

You had no claim on her when she left, all those years ago. It was only that one night and, after all, she had a reputation.

*

You take a swallow of beer. You cough. She stares at you cryptically for a moment and, before you can think of something smart to say, moves away, to talk to Cheryl Callander on the other side of the room.

*

Deborah’s skin is snow-pale, soft. She has let you have her thirty or forty times, on her sagging single mattress with its faded floral sheets. She stifles her cries so that her housemate can’t hear them.

*

‘Your beard is scratching me, you dirty commie,’ she laughs and rubs at her chin. ‘Mmm,’ you say, scraping your bristles over her tender, shadowed face. You drink in the warm, stuffy air inside your coffin.

*

She isn’t beautiful, you tell yourself. She is only long hair, long legs, suntan, sex. Still, you feel the slight. You go into the kitchen in search of something stronger.

*

Once, when you were thirteen, your mother forgot to turn off the gas stove after cooking. You sat at the dining table, eating green peas and mashed potato, and wrinkling your nose at the rotten egg odor that slowly pervaded the room. ‘You stupid woman!’ your father, still in his shirtsleeves and tie, chastised your mother, when you brought the smell to their attention, ‘You could have killed us all!’

*

Wild Turkey whiskey. You pour yourself a nip, and then another, taking it with you back out to the party. ‘Look at all that frost,’ Donna Kendall says to her boyfriend, standing by the crystal-coated window. ‘Oh, god, that can’t be good for the car,’ he groans.

*

You would like to compare the icicles hanging from the eaves to silver thorns; the blue-black sky to a phosphorescent ocean; the muffled hooting of the owls to wind whooshing through an abandoned farmstead, or the susurrus inside a seashell. Of course, she wouldn’t care for such comparisons. She does not care for the cold.

*

Carbon monoxide (CO) is colorless, odorless, tasteless, lighter than air. A snowflake melting on the tip of your tongue would be more perceptible.

*

Her tongue is long, hot, pointed, stained a deeper pink from the fruit punch. She passes it into the silent conch of your ear.

*

You are drunk by the time that you manage to corner her again, in the narrow hallway, on her way out of the bathroom. A whiff of sweet, alcoholic urine follows her out of the confined space. You press yourself against her, taking her arm and propositioning her, in a whiskey-hot murmur: ‘Let’s go somewhere quiet, huh?’ She smiles, coyly whore-like, freshly painted, a smudge of lipstick on her front tooth. ‘I don’t think so,’ she extricates herself gently, leaving you alone with a full bladder and a thousand insults on your gaping lips.

*

‘Where is Deb?’ It is the eighth time that you’ve been asked this question tonight. ‘She’s in Providence with her parents.’ You see the Californian girl slip outside, from the corner of your eye. ‘When is the wedding?’ You have been asked this question too, countless times. Still, you are delayed in responding: ‘Sorry? Oh, the wedding. April.’ Springtime.

*

You dare not think of bouquets, melting, Deborah’s slow, soft, familiar smile, while it is so cold outside, and the world so crystalline. You dare not think of anything beyond the darkness of the woods at night, the white crunch of snow beneath your boots. Your breath is mist. Her breath is smoke, standing in the slick, salted driveway. If she notices your presence, she does not acknowledge it.

*

Perhaps it would be nobler to die violently, with a gash of pain and a fountain of arterial red. Perhaps it would feel more like death if it was violent, instead of this lovers’ delirium: colorless, painless, weightless, thick and dizzying as a dream.

*

‘I’m sorry,’ you tell her, truthfully enough. She says nothing for a long time. Then: ‘I hate it here. I always did…’

*

When the Californian girl tosses her cigarette butt into the snow, it dies out without so much as a fizzle. She crushes it with her boot for good measure.

*

Last winter, walking arm-in-arm through the woods with Deborah, you came upon the frozen body of a mammal. ‘What is that?’ she asked, as you bent down to inspect the tiny dark corpse. ‘A dead bat,’ you said. You resisted the urge to pick it up, to stretch its folded wings between your fingers, knowing that they would snap as easily as a pair of dry brown leaves. ‘Poor thing. It must have forgotten to hibernate.’

*

She shivers beside you. She exhales a stream of vapor through chattering teeth. Her eyes are dark, alert, phosphorescent. You ask whether you can drive her home.

*

You bought your coffin in the autumn, from a used car yard, impressed by its low mileage and the relative freshness of the pea-green paint job. For all this, sauntering down the driveway with the Californian girl, you wish that you had chosen something larger than a hatchback.

*

The engine takes a lifetime to warm up. At your side, you feel her warming too. You lean across and kiss her softly, coolly, without expectations. She settles back into the passenger seat, dabbing at her lips and staring ahead at the misted windscreen.

*

‘I missed you,’ you tell her, when you are on the road, ‘All those years ago, after you left. I missed you.’

‘You’re crazy. You don’t even know me.’

‘I did. I do. I want to.’

‘Pull over, then.’

*

She has told you that she hates making love in winter; that there are too many clothes to get through. This does not prevent you from undressing her, down to the pale imprint of a swimsuit on her California-brown body, as the car heater whirs in the background. You keep on everything, save your coat, your jacket, your scarf, and your gloves.

*

If the gas that kills you is odorless, the two of you are not. She smells sweet, heady, acrid, as you remember. You smell of whiskey, coiled hair, latex. The backseat smells of leather: the pale, beige kind, to be more specific.

*

It begins with lightheadedness, heart fluttering, congestion, shortness of the breath, a flush that takes over her suntanned features as easily as it does your snow-bleached ones – symptoms that are difficult to distinguish from the usual exertions of love. She may have been the first to go, swooning beneath you, her last breath a subdued sigh of pleasure. You may have shuddered over her warm, lifeless form, without knowing any better – passing effortlessly from climax to the poisonous sleep beyond.

*

Your young bodies are still entangled when dug out the next morning, from their tomb of frost and steel. The fumes of your love disperse in the pure winter air.

*

‘Did the world end when we came together?’

‘Baby, you know better than to ask that.’

 

Laura Elizabeth Woollett is a student and writer from Melbourne, Australia. She is inspired by mythology and eras other than her own, and has a penchant for French literature. Read her story, “Vaucluse.”