FICTION ISSUE #40

Kohrs_Lift
Image: “Lift” by Sarah Kohrs, digital photography, 11×17, July 2018.

 
 

Vernix

By Joe Baumann

 
 
The neonatal nurses couldn’t remove the vernix from Evan’s skin. They tried hot water, scrubbing with their hands through the squeaky latex of their gloves; they soaked washcloths, scratching them against his pink baby body, at first with a delicacy reserved for afternoon tea and then increased gusto when the cheesy substance wouldn’t budge. They bathed him like a grease-caked pan in need of soaking, smearing him with antibacterial soap and then hydrogen peroxide and even squirts from a tube of iodine borrowed from the surgical ward, all to no avail.

His mother rolled the word vernix around in her mouth, foreign and snooty like the kinds of wine she never bought—Beaujolais, Syrah, Malbec. She was in a cloudy state, having been jammed in the arm with an IV immediately after Evan finally squirmed out because her uterus had followed suit, prolapsing and squelching out with the placenta that wouldn’t detach, and in order to relax her enough to reposition her fundus inside her, Marione’s doctor had called for a drug too many syllables long for her to follow in the haze of post-pushing. She was sweaty and hollow, her grip on her husband’s hand limp like a cooked noodle. When the nurses passed Evan to her, she took in his waxy visage only momentarily, then pressed him to her chest. The vernix clung to his skin and didn’t smear against her hands or sternum or breasts at all, as if it was nestled deep into Evan, a protective coating or a candy shell.

*

They never called it vernix after that. When he could talk, Evan referred to it as the goo; his parents simply didn’t speak of it, like he had impetigo or eczema, one of those conditions that blares out on the surface but adults make no mention of, like kids with lisps or Down Syndrome. When Evan was old enough to be teased for it, the vernix became this white junk, a dismissive exhalation he used to diffuse the pointing fingers, the stares, the snickers, the outright laughter, the girlish screams when he came too close to his classmates. And once he knew curse words, it became this sick fucking joke the world is playing on me. Evan didn’t believe in God, although Marione and Carl went to church on Sundays. By the time he was fourteen, they’d stopped waking him up or giving him ties for his birthdays or demanding he go to confirmation class, and although Marione lamented her son’s lack of faith, she felt her own tremors of disbelief when she stared at him across the dinner table and saw the sorrow pooling in his eyes, their downward cast revealing the hate burrowed deep inside him. She wondered the age-old question—how could any god do this to my boy?

They’d considered homeschool, if for no other reason than to protect Evan from the rampant bullying and teasing the vernix would cause. Marione had seen it coming; the little sleep she could muster in that first year of his infanthood was plagued by nightmares of her teary-eyed son and the mounting insults that would batter him. As he grew, the dreams multiplied like replicating cells. Pre-school was all right; though the boys and girls tottering around gawked at him, they were quickly distracted by finger paints and wooden blocks they built into towers and then destroyed. In kindergarten, the laughter began, followed by the horrible nicknames in elementary (Slimer, Rotface, The Stinky Cheese). But contrary to what she’d expected, Evan didn’t cry. He didn’t slam the door behind him after school, throw his books across the living room in a rage, stomp into his bedroom; his anger was quiet, simmering instead of boiling. He did lament the vernix, cursing it under his breath, constantly asking that his parents take him for yet another consultation with a dermatologist or a surgeon (the former had always gawked at his skin and shrugged, offering the same super-powered acne medications that never did a thing; the latter, after tugging at the vernix and then scheduling biopsies, always came back with the same prognosis that the vernix was far too attached to the dermis for removal to be safe). Evan lambasted his skin but never his classmates, and in public, he embraced his nicknames.

He played sports, excelling at soccer. Defenders, convinced Evan was contagious and sticky, gave him just enough room to dribble the ball past with ease and when he came barging down the field in the striker’s position, lumbering toward the goalie. They winced at the waxy blobs stuttering across Evan’s face just long enough for him to send the ball thumping against the rear of the net, his teammates hooting and chanting, “The Stinky Cheese! The Stinky Cheese!” over and over between pulls of water and slices of orange. They raised their hands in celebratory fist pumps but never clapped against him or piled around him in a raucous circle like the other offensive linesmen when they netted the ball. They wouldn’t even touch his sweat-slick uniform. He considered wrestling and all the championships he could win by default when opponents gawked and shook their heads and refused to initiate contact, but he didn’t like the exposure of the singlets.

Although they sang of The Stinky Cheese, no one wanted The Stinky Cheese. While his teammates scored dates to Homecoming and Prom with cheerleaders and girls from the Pom Squad, Evan found himself slumped on creaky folding chairs during slow-dance numbers, watching football players paw at the asses of their dates. Girls with hair tweeled into braided buns reached their corsage-draped hands around tuxedo-clad necks. The only skin-to-skin contact Evan ever mustered came in his dreams—sharp, sparking things in which his pairings were indiscriminate, girls and boys jumping in and out at random, their bodies slim and muscular and naked, radiant and welcoming. He woke up dizzied and dry-mouthed, a haze of confusion pattering his forehead when he was wrenched from illusions of giving blowjobs to movie stars.

The summer after his junior year, which included leading his school to a state championship in which he scored six goals in three games, Marione and Carl took him and two of his favorite teammates on a quiet vacation to the Lake of the Ozarks. Brian and Dean were the only ones who called him by name and didn’t shy away from invitations to come over to his house on Friday nights for dinner and videogames on the big screen in the basement. They rented a too-large house built of redwood and glass that lolled out over the water like a dog’s tongue lapping toward hydration. Evan’s parents spent their hours lazing on the back deck with a sweating bottle of white wine between them, ordering pizza and Chinese food and twice managing to burn burgers and hotdogs that the boys slathered in mustard and relish and ate anyway.

On the third night, when Evan and his friends wandered into a keg party two houses down, he met Marcus.

The lake was a black pearl, its onyx surface reflecting the lights from the house’s back porch and the streaky bonfire in a firepit built out of fresh bricks and beach sand. Teenagers were huddled in insular, unbreakable circles that Evan didn’t bother trying to penetrate. He kept to the shadows; in the dark, the splotches of vernix were less visible or could be taken for simple tricks of the low light as the fire flickered and licked at the sky. His friends brought him a cup filled with dire, nasty beer, and he only took one sip. Brian and Dean hovered with Evan until he sighed and set them free to flirt and play drinking games. He watched them seamlessly throw themselves into the throng of strangers as if they’d known these mysterious people all their lives, and he wondered how anyone could so easily strum up the power to become a part of a group of unknowns.

After surreptitiously pouring his beer into a row of azaleas, Evan slipped down toward the house’s dock, where two plastic chaise lounges pointed out toward the water. It wasn’t until he was about to sit that he realized one of them was already occupied. A duo of tan, squat-leaned thighs were splayed out, covered by pink board shorts etched with stenciled green flowers, a white cord knotted just below an outie bellybutton. The owner of the legs twisted at Evan’s approach and looked up at him. A boyish face, angular nose, eyes set light on a narrow skull. Wide philtrum and teeth that, even in the dark, Evan could tell were perfect and white and straight.

“Sorry,” Evan croaked. “I didn’t know anyone was down here.”

“That’s okay. Seat’s not claimed.” A hand, palm up, gestured toward the chaise.

Not knowing what else to do, Evan sat.

“Marcus,” the boy said, extending his hand. His grip was tight and strong, hands callused below the fingers, and he didn’t flinch when he grabbed Evan’s and crunched his waxy vernix skin. Evan watched, waiting for some response, but Marcus just leaned back, stretching out on the chaise and resting his hands on his thighs. He reposed as if soaking up sun, shirtless, his torso lean and muscled like a basketball player’s, nipples tight and tiny, the size of dimes, and he shut his eyes and sighed, saying nothing else, as if Evan had vanished.

The detritus of party noise cascaded down toward them—boys chanting as their peers attempted keg stands; girls screeching at one another in greeting and drunken rage; at one point, the tizzied howl of the entire party hooting at someone slipping and busting ass on the concrete patio; an argument over the rules of beer pong. Through it all, Marcus remained silent, and Evan wondered if he was asleep. He felt an itch crawling over him as he stared at the lake, silent and unmoving except for the NO WAKE ALLOWED sign buoyed twenty yards out. Along the far shore, oversized homes blazed with lights like parked UFOs.

“So what’s your story?”

When Marcus spoke, the break in silence was such a whiplash that Evan flinched, his entire body twitching as though he were freezing, even though the night was tumid—the kind of heat that carried a carrion stench with it, the perspiration and spit of every living creature seeming to gather in a knitted, pressing cloud.

“Sorry?” Evan felt like a frog, voice croaky and slow.

“You from here?”

“No.”

“You know any of them?” Marcus fluttered a hand back toward the party.

“Not really. I’m staying two doors down.”

“Ah.”

“You?”

“I’m from over there.” Another flutter of tan fingertips, nails scalloped and strong, beating with keratin, Marcus’ hand gesturing toward the other side of the lake. “I’m a townie.”

“A townie?”

“I live here year-round.”

“Oh.”

Marcus jerked a thumb over his shoulder, pointed like a heron. “They’re not so nice to townies. Your kind, I mean.”

“I have a kind?”

Marcus peered through the darkness. Evan felt a curdling roil in his midsection. He prepared himself for the shuddering disgust that clapped over strangers when they first noticed the waxy vernix drizzled across his cheeks and elbows. He didn’t breathe while Marcus stared. Then something changed in Marcus’ eyes, like a squall dissipating. Marcus smiled.

“Nah, you’re okay, I think.” He slapped his thighs. “Want to go for a swim?”

Evan looked down at himself. “I’m wearing jeans.”

“Those are removable, you know.”

“But I—”

“Afraid to be naked in the water?”

“I have underwear on.”

“Well that’s just silly. Come on, then.”

Before Evan could object, Marcus had stood, unstrung his swimsuit in a whiplash-quick motion, and now tugged it past his prominent hip bones. Evan forced himself to look away when the fabric pooled on the planks of the deck, then couldn’t help but glance as Marcus’ tanned body trundled toward the dock end and overturned in a smooth dive into the water.

A moment later, Evan heard a, “Well?”

Something wired through his spine, a warm toad hopping along his back, and so Evan stood and started to undress. He paused for a moment when he was in nothing but his underwear, the warm night air skirting across the backs of his knees, licking up at his thighs. He’d stripped in the locker room after soccer games and practices, seen plenty of his teammates in their skivvies and even less.

But this, Evan could see and smell and taste in the back of his mouth, was different.

He pulled the fabric away, kicking everything under the chaise lounge. Without giving himself a chance to reconsider, he threw himself down to the end of the dock and plunged in, feet first. The water was like that left over in a tub, with skin and dirt and seepage stewing. He exhaled through his nose and wallowed beneath the surface, feeling the burn in his lungs. Evan opened his eyes, letting them pinch with the sting of lake water, and tried to glance toward where Marcus’ naked body bobbled, legs whirling, but all he could see was a smudgy shadow, like a barracuda darting through the gloom. When he finally broke the surface, Evan was quick to examine his skin. Slaked with the dim ambient moonlight and the glistening wetness, the vernix shimmered, silver like the back of a blister pack. He ran his fingers over the familiar tangle of tendrils clinging to his skin. They felt like drinking straws.

Where Marcus had been stoic and still on the dock, his body took on a frenetic boyhood in the water. He pedaled his legs and bobbed, grinning toward Evan, and without a word, sent a trio of hearty splashes in his direction. Evan sputtered and splashed back, clapping his hand against the surface and sending dark spumes toward Marcus. Soon they were laughing and pushing waves of water at each other in a churning fury, the darkness boiling into a whirlwind around them. Before Evan knew it, Marcus was right in front of him. He could feel the gravity of their bodies pulling them to each other as the water vacuumed and shifted around them.

A final wave hit Evan, and then Marcus was still, the only motion the sucking of his legs displacing water as he treaded in place. Through the dark, Evan watched Marcus stare at him, and he felt as though his skin had been lit up, like the vernix was highlighter set ablaze in the black light of night.

“You glow,” Marcus said.

“No I don’t.”

“Yes, you do.” A hand pealed out of the water and set itself on Evan’s shoulder. It felt like a dinner plate, freshly washed.

“It’s not very bright.”

“Doesn’t need to be.”

They churned in the water like that, Marcus’ hand pressed on Evan’s arm, his fingers warm and strong, the calluses on the pads of his palm itching at Evan’s skin. Their ankles knocked once, and Evan felt himself flush, suddenly aware of their nakedness, their closeness, their breathing. The sounds from the party on the shore dipped away. Somewhere nearby, a fish flopped against the surface of the water.

His teeth, Evan realized, were chattering.

“Cold?” Marcus said. He slipped the word out in a whisper. Evan was able to see the curl of his mouth, the flash of teeth, the warm roll of Marcus’ tongue.

“I’m okay,” Evan managed.

Marcus released his grip on Evan’s shoulder, and the spot felt evacuated like an abscess. Evan dipped into the water so it lapped toward his lips, and he sputtered just so. Marcus did the same. Their bodies whirled, and under the surface, their fingertips grazed one another. In the quiet of the dark lake, Evan felt like he and Marcus were the only two in the world, the black water stretching on for eternity.

Suddenly, then, noise on the dock—a cluster of partygoers drunkenly stumbling down the tongue of wood toward its edge, tripping past the chaise lounges and heaped clothes. Evan felt like a railroad spike had been jammed through him, but Marcus’ eyes were lidded and cool.

The kids on the dock were laughing and singing the lyrics to the Journey song blasting from the shore. Evan could make out the whispers of their bodies—four boys and two girls, the latter clinging to one another like they were falling through the sky. One of the boys drank the remainder of whatever was in his plastic cup, which he crumpled and tossed toward the lake. None of them, in their laughter and tumbling gait, had seen Marcus and Evan.

“This way,” Marcus whispered, cutting through the water with a simple breast stroke, heading off to the right of the intruders.

Their bodies sliced through the water in silence. While the kids laughed—the boys dared one another to leap into the lake naked—Evan and Marcus reached a neighboring dock and stationed themselves beneath it, clinging to the wet wood of a post buried in the lake’s sanded bottom. Evan could smell the rot, like an unclean aquarium. Something old, lost, ignored. Marcus’ breathing was shallow and raspy, his hand splayed like a starfish on the post. Evan watched as the boys on the dock unbuckled their belts, letting their cargo shorts fall to their ankles while the girls with them snorted and laughed. One of the boys twisted away from the others, peeling at his socks, and leaned over like a crane so he was staring straight at Evan and Marcus but didn’t register their bodies in the dank underside of the dock.

Marcus’s touch came suddenly, a hand dipping into the water and pressing against the small of Evan’s back, where a particularly knotted clump of vernix marked the hard flare of his sacrum. He said nothing, forced himself not to react to the feel of Marcus’ fingertips except to let his eyes slide from the kids on the dock toward Marcus.

“Huh,” Marcus said, blinking at Evan. Then he gave his attention back to the partiers on the dock. The four boys were stripped down to their boxers.

“Ten bucks,” one of them said.

“Twenty.”

“Twenty bucks just to flash your junk and jump in the lake? No way.”

“Then you do it. Ten bucks.”

“Okay.”

Before long came a splash that sent small ripples of water toward Evan and Marcus. Evan felt invaded, the pulse of liquid like an earthquake turning the world beneath his feet upside-down, sending everything off-center. He hoped, momentarily, that the boy who had dived into the lake wouldn’t breach the surface, that some watery monster would recognize the sin he’d committed and snatch him by the feet, use its powerful jaws to drag him down to be chewed up and shat out into the weedy bottom. Three more splashes followed, then laughter floated through the air, throaty noise with manufactured depth. The boys’ shapes were tangled and blobbing against the surface of the water fifteen feet away, and Evan felt his breath catch when he imagined them discovering him and Marcus huddled beneath the dock.

Marcus’ hand was still pressed against Evan’s back, a burning, sizzling pan of fingers spread against his skin. The fingertips were tracing the line of vernix that cut across him at the hips. The sensation was blurring, an intoxicant that threatened to make his vision go spangly, as if he’d held his breath for too long. He glanced at Marcus, who was still staring down the boys in the water nearby.

“Hey, you fucks,” one of the girls shouted, rattling an empty beer can. “I’m thirsty.”

“Come on, Melissa,” one of the boys crooned from the water. “The water’s fine. You should hop in too.”

“With your mangy dick flopping in the water? No thanks. I don’t want AIDS.”

The rest of the gaggle guffawed and lowed like a cluster of cows. The boys made for the shore, bodies slicing like silverfish through the dark surface. They looked like monsters as they hauled themselves up into the scutch grass poking toward the bank, skin dripping with rivulets of water like bays of tears. Clutching at their groins and giggling, they dashed up to the dock and wriggled into their clothes while the girls hooted and chided the swimmers’ sudden embarrassment. The group was effervescent, purling out bubbly chuckles while fabric slid up wet thighs and belts clanked like bells.

When they were gone, Marcus pulled his hand from Evan’s back.

“Come on,” he said.

They swam back toward their clothes and the chaise lounges, Marcus in the lead, cutting across the surface of the water in a slow crawl, his skin lit and taut in the shine of moonlight. He had the body of a lacrosse or tennis player, narrow in the trunk and thick on the bottom, shoulders rounded and twitching but not huge, back crenellated like the surface of the moon. Evan watched as Marcus threw himself up onto the lip of the deck, latissimus dorsi muscles stretching like little bird wings. But then, when Marcus had one foot on the dock edge, a pool of water sinking into the cherry red wood, he turned, blinked at Evan, and let himself slip back into the water, bobbing up directly in front of Evan.

The kiss was a warm shock, bludgeoning and spreading through Evan like hot oil. Marcus’ lips were wet and rubbery, shocked cold despite the warmth of the water and the summer night air. His breath was sweet, as if he’d just chewed mint leaves. The kiss lasted only a moment, but neither of them wrenched away with violent terror, revulsion, or regret. They parted, looking one another in the eye, and then kissed again, this time deeper, teeth clicking together like champagne flutes during a toast, and their mouths opened; Evan felt the warm, salty press of Marcus’ tongue, just its bulbed tip. He could feel all of it—the glimmering bumps of taste buds; a strip of flat flesh, burnt from something hot; and the smooth, veined underside. It felt like running his hand along sanded wood.

When they began to sink, the water gurgling up toward their mouths, they separated again, dipping under the water and rising with paired, chimed laughter. Marcus smiled and turned to the dock again and hauled himself out. Evan watched him march toward their piled wet clothes, his hands spreading water out in large ripples like the billowing folds of a cancan dress, legs kicking to keep him afloat.

“Are you coming?” Marcus said. His voice sounded far away, strained, so Evan cut through the water and lifted himself toward the dock.

As he unfurled his wet body on the end of the dock, the vernix, curled around his body like potato vines, began to shimmer. But this was not a combination of water and moonlight; something bright from inside of Evan was glowing across his skin. The wax grew brighter and brighter, taking on first the lumens of a cigarette lighter, then a torch, then a bulb, then a spotlight. It grew and grew—stadium-light strength, eventually, so strong he himself was blinded by the shine emanating from his naked skin. He was sure the partygoers on the grass thirty yards away must be staring at him, their games of circle of death and canoe races interrupted, their attention diverted from keg stands and jello shots, the funk of teenage body spray and vomit cut apart by the slicing light coming from Evan. His whole self tingled with it.

And then, just as quickly, the light faded, vanishing into a pinprick along his chest and then collapsing like a black hole. The party raged on, shrieks of laughter and celebration coursing through the air. Evan looked down at himself and had to paw at his stomach and arms; the vernix was gone, slaked away without a trace, the lines of his body smooth and clear. He looked up, ready to call out to Marcus, but then Evan caught himself and felt a plunge in his throat as if he’d swallowed his tongue. The dock was empty. The chaise lounges were lonely and uninhabited, the only pile of clothes snaked on the wood his own.
 
 
 

Joe Baumann’s fiction and essays have appeared in Barrelhouse, Zone 3, Hawai’i Review, Eleven
Eleven
, and many others. He is the author of Ivory Children, published in 2013 by Red Bird
Chapbooks. He possesses a Ph.D. in English from the University of Louisiana-Lafayette and
teaches composition, creative writing, and literature at St. Charles Community College in
Cottleville, Missouri. He he has been nominated for three Pushcart Prizes and was recently
nominated for inclusion in Best American Short Stories 2016.

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