You're Going to be Totally Fine by Matt Pelkey
A week after I cheated on Rachel, we set up her laptop and watched a movie in bed. She lay beside me, her shoulder away from mine. The bottom of the computer rested on my legs and it made them hot.
The movie was a good excuse not to talk and we let it play. About halfway through, a moth flew past my shoulder and bounced from the screen. It tumbled through the air and when I swatted at it, I felt its body hit my palm. I arched my fingers to form a cage but nothing squirmed in my fist.
I realized I didn’t have it and I thought about getting up, going to the window, waving my hand and telling Rachel that it was gone. I wanted to laugh but I knew she was serious. The sheet was at her chest and she was pinching her lip. She got out of bed and turned on the light.
“Where is it?” she asked.
“Gone,” I said.
“Is it on me?”
“It's not on you.”
“I can feel it on my back.”
She spun in circles so I could look at her, hunching her shoulders and pointing her elbows at the floor.
“It’s here,” she said.
“Go to the bathroom,” I said.
“What if it’s there?”
“Close your eyes.”
“Don’t be stupid.”
Rachel wasn’t what you would call delicate, not with her posters of horror films on the walls, with her hair dyed pitch black and buzzed on one side, like a punk rock vampire. She liked spiders because they killed mosquitos, and her Facebook page had a picture of her from high school kissing a friend’s rat. But with moths it was different.
I was never the type to take anything too seriously, and when we first started dating, I’d always joke around. I’d swat at an imaginary moth on her shoulder and nibble at her skin. But now, whenever I came over to her apartment way out in Garfield Park, I closed the windows before the sun went down. If we stepped outside to smoke at night, we stayed away from the street lights. I liked that I could make her feel safe, and as she kept spinning beside the bed, I closed the laptop to stop the movie we were watching. I kicked the sheet from my legs and got up from the mattress.
“If it’s on me don’t tell me,” she said. “Just get it off very quickly.”
She was wearing a tank top and underwear, so there weren’t many places for a moth to hide.
“It’s not on you,” I said, running my hands down her back.
“But where is it?”
“Somewhere but not here.”
We had been through this before and I knew there was a trick to flushing out a moth. I hit the light switch on the wall. I opened the window. If the moth was there it would fly into the street, attracted by the lights. I waited for it to stumble past me but the air was still.
“It must have flown away,” I said.
Rachel picked up a dirty shirt by her feet and shook it with her thumb and forefinger.
“If I don't see it leave I'll always worry it’s here.”
Rachel and I started dating about three years ago, after she came into the bar where I worked. It was one of the nights we had a special on pints and even though it was the middle of the week, it brought in all the college students.
“Looking forward to graduating?” I asked because it was May.
“Not for another few years,” she said.
I jokingly checked her ID and she told me she should be a lot farther along than she was. She had taken some time off and moved to New Orleans, worked at a café that sold fried alligator to tourists. I had a few friends who went down there and knew that it was one of those places where you could drop out and never look back. But after a couple years she came back to Chicago, because she wanted to finish classes.
I didn’t ask for her number but I told her what nights I worked, and the next week she came in and said she needed guys to model a line of shirts she was making. She was studying fashion and needed to get some pictures. She paid in whiskey, she said, and we’d do it at her place.
But now Rachel was a month away from graduating and most nights she stayed home to work on her thesis. A stack of plates had accumulated on the floor beside her desk.
As we looked for the moth, I moved the plates toward the wall. Rachel shut the window and turned on the lamp beside her desk. It cast spotlights across her drawings, and I picked up a tin of colored pencils. I dug my finger into them and there I saw it. The moth was upside down. Its legs crawled through the air.
I could have squashed it right there, or scooped it up and taken it to the window, but it was like when I used to tease Rachel when we first started dating. I didn’t want the game to end, so I snapped the lid onto the tin and placed it on the nightstand.
“It's gone,” I said, opening her laptop and hitting the space button to wake it up.
She kicked another pile of clothes and I turned off the lamp.
“There’s no way we didn’t see it go,” she said.
I got into bed and leaned over the side of the mattress. With one hand on the floor, I tugged Rachel down next to me.
“I can’t,” she said, elbowing me away as I covered us with the sheet.
“The moth’s gone,” I said.
“I have to work.”
“I thought you were going to take the night off.”
“I can’t get comfortable.”
She turned away from me but I found her hip and pulled myself against her.
“We could go to my place,” I said.
“I have class tomorrow.”
“So we’ll stay here.”
“But the moth’s here.”
“It won’t bother us,” I said.
Before I moved to Chicago I lived in D.C., where I grew up. My mom worked for the government and my dad was a history professor. It would be fancy except that in D.C. circles it was par for the course, or even less than that. I always did OK in school but never as well as I wanted.
When I got to college I enrolled at the university where my dad taught. I went to more shows than I wrote papers, and that would have been fine elsewhere, but I felt bad for fucking up in front of him. I lasted a year and then told my parents I wanted some time off. They flipped their shit and after the semester ended, I took a duffel bag to my friend’s place.
That summer I crashed on couches and picked up work as a bike messenger. Things got busy in the fall, when Congress was back in session and the summer hires left. I saved up some money, moved into a house with some friends from school.
I was proud of having grown up in D.C.—I have a tattoo of the flag on my wrist—but as I biked packages from mail room to mail room, saw people my age in suits, I started to feel out of place. I always earned points for being from the city that all the transplants called home, but it started to seem like the ones who were there for a summer internship, who worked on the Hill and got in everybody’s way on the Metro escalators, belonged there more than I did.
Eventually my roommates graduated and found jobs or left. One of the guys I knew from work was a musician, and when his band went on tour I went with them. We drove through the South and strung together college towns in the Midwest. They played a house show in Chicago and when the band left I stayed.
I got a job bussing tables at a restaurant. I paid month-to-month rent. Everyone else in my life had moved on, and I decided it was time for me to move on too.
That night, Rachel wasn’t in the mood to watch one of her horror movies. She bought them at a comic book store and they had home-printed covers. The monsters and ghosts genuinely scared her, and she had a masochistic enjoyment of the endings, when the surviving characters escaped and everybody else was simply gone.
Sometimes we would go with whatever Netflix suggested, but tonight we chose a film that one of her friends recommended. It was about a seaplane pilot in the Caribbean who lost his family in a car accident. Some drug smugglers hired him to fly a load of cocaine to Miami, and they offered him $20,000, set up a job for him in the U.S. to start a new life.
When we restarted the movie the plane took off from a runway next to the beach. I watched from behind Rachel, looking over her shoulder. The pilot rattled through the clouds and the laptop cast light on Rachel’s face. It showed the divot that formed in her cheek whenever she was nervous, when she pursed her lips and pulled them to the side.
The plane hit a storm and a bolt of lightning fried the controls. The engine shut off and it floated lower and lower. When it crashed, water filled the cabin and the pilot kicked open the door and swam out.
The nose of the plane bobbed in the water but started to sink. Waves washed over the pilot’s head as he tried to gather the plastic-wrapped packages that floated on the surface. He looked at the churning ocean and the black clouds above him. The skyline of Miami sparkled in the distance. He buried his face in the water and swam toward shore, leaving everything behind.
The music played and the credits scrolled down the screen. Rachel hit stop and without the movie, the room was quiet except for the cars on the street. There were a lot of things we weren’t talking about, but two of them we tripped over in conversations. We avoided them, but in doing so, only brought more attention to them. Like New York, which neither of us had mentioned since Rachel got back, taking a late flight home the same day she flew out there.
Rachel was almost done with school and she was looking for jobs. She said she wanted to stay in Chicago but apparently she applied in New York too.
A company offered her an interview out there, and she didn’t tell me about it until she called from the airport on her way out. It was a long shot she said, but she had a chance.
That was two weeks ago and I figured she should’ve heard back by now. I wanted to ask about it, but I couldn’t bring it up without risking a conversation about the other thing that we weren’t talking about, which was Ashley.
Ashley was one of the cocktail waitresses at the bar where I worked. We always drank beers after hours, and she was a friend of sorts, but she was also the girl I slept with when Rachel got back.
I said I didn’t want to do stuff like that anymore, but I always found myself playing the same role in relationships—I was an unruly child, in search of a mother who wanted to pick me up, brush me off, put band-aids on my knees. That’s what it was like with Rachel, but there was a flip side to it. Women could tap into that sense of mischief, and when Ashley followed me into the keg room and closed the door, I knew it was a dare.
As she stood there, blocking my way, I was reminded of those times in D.C., when I would be biking with a bag full of packages and a car door would open right in front of me. I’d have a split second to swerve but in that flash of decision-making, I’d ride straight into it.
A moment. An instinct. I talked to some of the other guys from the messenger service and they said the same thing. Nobody wanted to end up on the pavement, but to ride in traffic every day you couldn’t let yourself fear it. You had to embrace what scared you.
I didn’t tell Rachel what happened but word got around the bar and two days later she heard from a mutual friend. The guy was a barback and decided to do the noble thing, and I couldn’t blame him for it.
I knew it was going to fuck things up but maybe that was the point. Maybe deep down I wanted to show Rachel I still had options if she left.
It had been three years since I went to her apartment for the pictures, since we talked about fashion for her and school for me. I told her I was going to enroll at Harold Washington and maybe transfer if I boosted my GPA. I wanted to teach history, I said. I’d get a certificate. I’d find a job at one of the high schools.
The screen of the laptop flashed to white and Rachel sat up beside me. Her face was calm after the movie and she propped the pillow against the wall behind her. She picked up a drawing pad from the floor. She opened the pages across her lap.
“You have work to do?” I asked.
“I have class tomorrow,” she said.
“You told me I could come over.”
“But I have work.”
She leaned over the side of the bed and started throwing clothes into the corner.
“The moth’s gone,” I said.
“I’m trying to find my pencils.”
She tossed something else across the room and sat back up and turned her head. When she reached past me, I knew exactly what she was going for and I let it happen.
Rachel opened the tin but she didn’t make a sound. She dropped it to the floor and the pencils scattered. The moth wheeled by her face. It flew toward the ceiling and I jumped out of bed and picked up one of the notebooks on her desk.
I hit the light switch on the wall and climbed onto the mattress. As the moth circled the bulbs, I rolled the notebook into a tube. I followed it with my hand, tried to adopt its pace and pattern, but whenever I got close it moved away.
The moth whirled left and right and I swung at it and missed. I swung again and hit the ceiling.
The sheet was at my ankles. Rachel’s knees were at her chest. I kept swinging but I missed every time and the laughs came slowly at first but then I couldn’t stop them. They shook my ribs, took hold of my jaw. I was in my underwear. I was hitting nothing but air. The mattress shifted beneath me and when I looked down, Rachel was crouching on the floor.
I bit my lip to stop laughing but I couldn’t.
“You’re never going to get it,” she said.
Her voice shook like it did when we first started going out, like the first time she saw a moth and told me she couldn’t stand them.
“Just go,” she said. “I’m not going to let you fuck this up for me.”
She picked up the pencils and collected them in her hand. As she put them back in the tin, she turned them so they faced the same direction.
I kept biting my lip but the pain didn’t freeze my mouth.
Just put on your clothes, I told myself. Open the door and leave.
Rachel switched on the lamp and I stepped down from the bed. I pulled on my pants and my shirt. I looked at the door and still I couldn’t stop laughing.
Walk out, I said to myself. Turn the knob. You’ve been through this before. You’re going to be totally fine.
© Matt Pelkey, 2016
Matt Pelkey was born in Washington, D.C. He studied philosophy at Vassar College and completed his MFA in fiction at Notre Dame. He lives in Chicago.
You're Going to be Totally Fine was read by Alex C. Ferrill on 5th October 2016 for Truth & Consequences