Do We Have to Talk About Kevin?
Do We Have to Talk About Kevin?
An Essay by Matthew Hawkins
I love going to grocery stores. I love everything about them: the florescent lights that incubate all of the food and patrons like little baby chickens, the tired people behind the registers that probably fantasize about bagging up the bodies of the customers in their line, the other customers who are lost and confused amongst the aisles, like they are Lewis and Clark or something. Grocery stores are the watering holes of the city; you see everyone there. Once, someone looked at my basket for too long and I growled. I don’t know why I did this. It was completely instinctual, but I certainly do not regret it. I really enjoy looking at all of the brands and there are so many brands. I take my time when I go grocery shopping, but not as much time as I used to.
I used to count calories, all of them, even the handfuls of granola that I snuck from the pantry that no one even knew about. I had an app on my phone that kept track of it all for me. I fastened a band around my wrist that counted my steps. I only took it off at night when I remembered to, like a dog with its collar. I had it on when I met Kevin.
Kevin ate a lot on our first date. He looked thicker in person than on the Internet. His hair was short and thin. His face was plump. His skin was the same hue as un-risen dough. I pretended that he looked like he did on the Internet. He told me that I looked the same as I did online, as if he were congratulating me for my honesty. He told me I was more Italian in-person, and shorter, which was weird because I was still a good three inches taller than him. We went to a shitty Mexican place by my house, Buena Vista. This translates to “Good View” for all of you right-wingers. It’s BYOB and it was summer, so we ate outside. Throughout the entire meal, compact cars attempted to parallel park on the street just a few inches from us. None of them successfully got in. They would ding a bumper of one of the parked cars and then speed off down the street.
Kevin was, of course, sweating profusely. He had enchiladas with beef in them. The meat was cheap. He had to chew it 20-30 times before swallowing. It was covered in this viscous, red sauce that looked like sour road kill. Kevin’s food came out quick, and so I ran across the street to a liquor store. An old Russian man named Vadim ran the store. We are on a first name basis, Vadim and I. I told him I was on a date and he high-fived me and wished me luck. I jaywalked back across the street, dodging cars like Frogger, if Frogger had been armed with a bottle of red wine he did not plan to share. Kevin told me that my lips and mouth turned purple as I drank it. This made me laugh. Kevin laughed because I laughed. And it was a date; he did what he was supposed to do. You’re supposed to laugh. His stomach shook while he did it. He acted like he couldn’t finish his meal. I finished the wine with no problem.
We had sex that night. He was nervous to take his shirt off in front of me. He told me that he hadn’t worked out in a while. And, he hadn’t. He insisted that we close the blinds, even though we were both consenting adults, in the city. I lived on the sixth floor of a high-rise, a few miles north of The Loop. I looked out past the other buildings and the windows and the lights and the people to the lake. The blinds crashed down to the windowsill and the room was completely black. He got on top of me. He sweat so much that it pooled in my mouth. It was salty as he rocked my body back and forth. I felt like someone who had just fallen overboard from a Carnival cruise ship, somewhere in the Caribbean. We fell asleep in a puddle of his juice afterward.
The next morning we went to a diner by my house. He got a lox omelet and I got a bagel. The diner had mirrors on all of the walls. I watched him eat the whole thing from the reflection in the mirror next to our booth. It was greasy and he chewed it with his mouth completely open. I could smell the salmon from across the table. It was like I was in Alaska or something. I pictured a school of them swimming around in his stomach. He burped a piece of lox up into his napkin. I imagined that this was because one of the fish attempted to jump out of the acid in his stomach. I stared at his plate and started to space out. We were silent as I spread the cream cheese cautiously around my bagel and he folded the omelet with a tiny fork, into his mouth, over and over again.
Travis used to pronounce salmon all wrong. He said it like, “sal-moun.” He was my ex-boyfriend, who had left me two years prior to move to the desert. It was some suburb in Tucson metro area. We used to go to this small school on the edge of Lake Michigan, in a forest an hour north of Chicago. We would walk out to the lake at night and lay on the dock while it swayed on top of the water. He’d always point out to the landmass, in the distance. Travis had long, thick hair, and it would flow in the Chicago-land wind, like a god, or a warrior, or a leader of some ancient civilization. He claimed that the land across the water was Canada. I told him that it was Wisconsin or maybe Michigan, but he assured me that it was Canada. We both laughed into each other’s mouths while we kissed. His lips felt permanent on mine. His cheekbones felt solid and high like a statue’s, against my face. The steam would roll out of our throats as we fooled around on the dock like two dragons jousting. Later that year, I told him that I loved him at the lake. The dock underneath us was swaying with the wind. Our limbs were turning purple. We were both looking into the water and he grabbed my hand and he told me that he loved me too. We both kept looking out, squinting hard enough, so we could see all the way to Canada.
I worshiped Travis. We had sex so often that we regularly missed dinner at the one cafeteria on campus. I began to get slimmer and so did he. Our bones were visible on our diaphragms. They were prisoners attempting to escape from our bodies. Our ribs would tangle together like a man and a woman holding hands, when we laid on top of each other. When Kevin was on top of me, I felt nothing. Holding his hand was like holding the hand of a deceased person at their funeral. It was pointless, but I did it because I felt like it was what I was supposed to do. I held Kevin’s hand on the short walk from the diner back to my bed. He squeezed my palm and I squeezed back.
“It’s Ke-vin. You called me Travis. You called me Travis, again,” Kevin said to me when we were back in my bed.
This, of course, made me think more about Travis. Everything makes me think about Travis. And I mean everything; the word salmon even when it’s pronounced correctly, hair, wind, any two-syllable word, food, calories, drugs, kissing, mouths, Canada, water—every neuron in my brain sparks and flows back to him.
“You’re out of condoms.” Kevin said after foreplay, topless and rifling through my underwear drawer.
Kevin insisted we use condoms. Travis and I never used condoms.
Kevin and I threw our clothes back on and went to the grocery store right by my house. His shirt was on backwards, but I didn’t notice until we were inside. It was really bright in there, like the light you see right before you die. We walked past the produce, which was getting spritzed by its hourly shower coming from overhead. I looked at the bell peppers longingly; the red, the yellow, and the green. They were a renaissance painting just waiting to happen. We walked past the lobsters too. They were all crawling all over each other like people in an orgy. This little girl with thick pigtails started tapping on the glass of the tank. They all perked up and began swishing around the bottom. Kevin laughed as the mother scolded her and sat her in the little seat in the shopping cart. She fastened the belt extra tight and the metallic bars separated her legs. The girl shook the cart back and forth with her body and screamed louder than the sounds of the intercom calling a manager to register nine. The mother ordered thinly sliced salmon from the guy behind the fish counter. He slid the knife through the fish delicately, like it was flesh, like he really knew what he was doing. He got salmon juice all over his hands and rinsed it off in the sink. He moaned when the warm water hit his hands.
Travis and I used to hold hands at frat parties. We went to all of the parties. No one really invited us, but we would go. Some people thought it was weird that two guys were holding hands at frat parties. A few straight white girls overcompensated their acceptance by approaching us to tell us how cute we were together. We would fill up empty Gatorade bottles with straight SVEDKA and take shots of it on our way to Moore Hall. (the party dorm, it was plagued with holes from drunken punches in the hallways and vomit stains on the carpet in the elevators). It was only four floors, so Travis and I would take the stairs, gulping a swig from the Gatorade bottle at the landing on each floor. I was better at drinking than Travis. I had a higher tolerance than him. He had a tendency of throwing up in other people’s bathrooms. I had a tendency of holding his hair back while he did it.
At one of these parties, Travis surprised me by pulling his pet turtle out of his pocket. He loved that turtle. He had a heat lamp on his desk beside his twin XL bed and he regularly stole crisp arugula from the cafeteria to feed it. I’m not sure if turtles are supposed to consume arugula but Travis’ turtle always did.
Travis was especially drunk at the party. Too drunk. He was hanging onto me like I had just been drafted, or like I was transferring or something. He kept putting his hands down my skinny jeans and the people close to us pretended like he wasn’t. The room was small and everyone was sweaty. There were over 100 people in the dorm. The walls were covered by a montage of vintage band posters and parking tickets distributed by public safety to the occupants of the room. Halfway through the party, Travis realized that he had lost his turtle and grew frantic. He let go of my hand or he was never holding it, I was too drunk to remember correctly. He flipped the overhead light of the room on. Everyone yelled at him. He started crying. The frat boys kicked him out of the party. I muscled my way to the door and left after him. Travis never found his turtle. He mourned it for a few weeks and then he forgot about it. Whenever I’d stay over in his room, I’d fall asleep looking at the empty turtle cage.
Kevin wanted Trojan, but I wasn’t so sure. I wanted to take my time with deciding. I looked at the wall of condoms, all in their different colored boxes, picking up each box and holding it to the light, like a housewife picking out a new color for her living room. Kevin was embarrassed, and he started sweating again. He told me that it wasn’t classy to put your sex life on display like that. I blushed. We ended up getting the Trojans. He paid for them. I paid for the Astroglide.
They had condoms in the Resident’s Office. I thought about grabbing some so Travis and I could try something different. I had been written up for having alcohol and paraphernalia in my apartment (a.k.a. ping-pong balls and a surplus of PBR). I told the Dean of Residence I was sorry and I said it convincingly so he let me off easy. He sentenced me to alchohol.edu. For those who do not know what alchohol.edu is, it is the young-adult, online version of D.A.R.E. for troubled adolescents and in-coming freshmen. It doesn’t work and it’s really boring. I wanted to make a game out of it, so Travis came over and helped me take it the night before it was due. We dug the frozen bottle of alcohol out of the back of my freezer.
It asked me how many drinks I had a week. I was drinking while I was answering the question. I looked over at Travis across the bed. His hair was up in a bun and he had so many hickeys on his neck that he looked diseased. I asked him how many drinks we had a week. He said not enough. He laughed and the marks on his neck shook like they were breathing, spreading. We each took a shot of whatever we took a shot of, before we moved onto the next question. He threw up that night and I held his hair. I kissed him anyway. We fell asleep with arms tangled. I’m pretty sure I failed the test at the end of alchohol.edu. Statistics show alcohol.edu has little success in preventing students from heavy drinking or drug use. I guess Travis and I were just two of the statistics.
After Kevin and I had sex, I felt drunk. I hadn’t been drinking, but everything felt hazy and weird. I put up the blinds; it was already dark and Kevin fell asleep hard, like a bear, mid-hibernation. His arms were wrapped around me tight. I flopped around so I could look out the window. I looked as far and as long as I could. I looked past the grocery store, past the other buildings, and the blurring lights of the city, into the dark. I watched the waves roll straight in from Canada.
Travis and I stopped eating for different reasons. He forgot to eat and I couldn’t stop thinking about food. Once we stopped, we never really started again. We would go to the small town’s Jewel-Osco, so he could buy drugs from his dealer that sat on the bench outside. We never went inside. I’d always watch the customers checking out through the big window, while the transaction was going on. People bought the weirdest stuff. Sometimes I think people don’t understand what they’re putting into their bodies. Or maybe they just don’t care. Once, I saw this jock, wearing his high school letter jacket, rip open a box of brown cinnamon-sugar Pop-Tarts as soon as he swiped his credit card. I watched him swallow one of the pastries. Crumbs studded his face like piercings and fell like glass onto the floor when he brushed them off. I looked at him disapprovingly when the automatic doors slid open for him to leave. Travis yelled at me for staring at the boy. He slapped me hard enough that I fell to the concrete. He yelled at me. His eyes were glossed like a Polaroid photo. He told me I was fat and that I didn’t deserve him. He made me repeat his words back to him, that I didn’t deserve him. And I believed him. This is when I knew that I’d never eat another Pop-Tart again.
Travis did a lot of acid that year. His brain started to mush. He would crawl around, all over me in bed while he was tripping, like one of those lobsters at the store. I started doing all of his biology assignments to the best of my ability, so he wouldn’t flunk out. One time when he was tripping, I was crying. We were in a study hall alone at 5 am. The sun was rising and Travis told me he wanted to dance. So we danced. In the middle of our rendition, he apologized for the way he treated me sometimes. He told me that he didn’t mean it. I told him that I knew he didn’t mean it. He cried into my shoulder. There was no music, but we danced. Later that day he was still tripping in class and he thought his organic chemistry professor was Hillary Clinton. He asked for her autograph and she asked him to leave. I told him it was okay, that we all fuck up sometimes.
Travis wanted to be a pharmacist. He was going to be a pharmacist. I was an English major; I had no idea what I was going to do with my life until I met him. That’s when I knew—it was him. I would be doing Travis for the remainder of my life. I was sure of it, until he broke up with me, in the spring of that year. He told me he had hurt me too much. That hurt me even more. He said the world didn’t want us to be together. And he was right; the world did not want us to be together, and neither did he. But I did. And I still do. Often, I think about how we will grow up and marry other people; how we will have children that are not a product of our relationship; how we will be buried next to different bodies. He will shop at Whole Foods and I will shop at Trader Joes. I pretend like I am okay with this. I eat three meals a day now. But the truth—I don’t want to.
Travis and I both transferred schools after that year: me, to the city with skyscrapers, and him to the desert with cacti. He went to rehab outside of Flagstaff for a while, but I heard he still smokes weed occasionally. This is how I know that he still loves me. He knows that I still love him because of all of the calories that I count.
I went to the store the next morning to buy pancake mix to make Kevin breakfast. I hate pancakes. They make me feel lumpy and slow, but I like to watch other people eat them. It makes me feel better about myself. There were 230 calories per pancake. It said it on the back of the box. I checked it, twice. I bought low-fat maple syrup.
I told Kevin I had already eaten mine when he strolled out of the bedroom, still shirtless. He ate five of the six. He put peanut butter, that he stole from my roommate’s side of the pantry, and low-fat syrup on the pancakes: like an animal. I watched the particles of food travel down his throat, through his esophagus. I saw his waist expand as they plopped into his stomach, one by one, like pollution being dumped into the water supply. Kevin was disgusting. He was just a mass of germs and acne, walking around. He looked like a loaf of bread gone stale.
I told Kevin I loved him that morning, even though I didn’t. He told me he loved me too. I pretended the last pancake was Travis and I drowned it in syrup, until I couldn’t see it anymore. I cut it up into little, tiny pieces with my knife, so forcefully that you could see scars in the ceramic of the plate. I swallowed the miniature pieces quickly, like I was taking a hit from a bowl or a shot from a glass.
Kevin and I went to the lake that day and he started crying. He opened up to me about his friend in high school who did so much acid that he committed suicide. It was overcast and rain was misting us lightly, every once in a while, like the produce in grocery stores. He told me that he didn’t like to talk about it and hadn’t in years. I kissed him because I didn’t know what to say. His lips were limp on the other end. I pushed my tongue in his mouth forcefully, as if my tongue were giving his CPR. We walked back to my apartment without speaking. When we crawled back into my bed that night, I checked my watch and I had accumulated 20,000 steps throughout the day. I thought about pacing around my apartment for a little bit, really swinging my arms so I could get at least 30,000, but Kevin looked so peaceful. His eyes were still wet. I wondered how much acid I would have to take to have the confidence to go through with committing suicide.
Once, after we had broken up, Travis was high and asked me to come over. He lived in the basement of a large dorm with two other roommates. The room was always dark, so you couldn’t tell what time it was. The other two roommates were passed out in their beds when I got there. We each took an acid tab, then sat on his bed and waited silently. When it hit, he hit me physically, and told me that I was stupid to keep coming over. My reactions were too slow to do anything about it. He told me I shouldn’t believe in him anymore. He told me he didn’t love me. He told me he wanted to have sex. He said that you didn’t have to be in love to have sex. And I still loved him, so we had sex. Afterward, he looked at me differently, like he didn’t know me. He hit me and told me to get out of his room. I just looked at him, eyes open and still. I’ll never forget his face when he hit me again. He started to cry. He was angry so he hit me hard, but I couldn’t feel it; I couldn’t feel anything. I just looked into his eyes and knew that I would never truly know him. He dragged me outside by my hair and the building’s door locked automatically when he went back inside. I slept by the dumpster and some football player poured beer on me, to impress his teammates. They all laughed. Travis watched me from his window until a public safety officer found me while doing his rounds the next morning.
I still think about that night now, but I remember it all wrong. Travis’ face is blurry and his words are jumbled. The feeling has faded, like a photo that developed badly. Often, I find that when I don’t eat, I can see that night clearly again. Hunger makes it easy to hallucinate. It makes me high. Sometimes, I skip dinner, go to bed early, and relive that night instead. Sometimes, I eat a lot and throw up after. Sometimes, I sleep with random boys, like Kevin. I wonder if Travis is in bed with his own Kevin right now. I wonder if he loves him, like he loved me. I wonder if he fakes it too. I wonder if he ever learned how to correctly pronounce words. I wonder if he’s sober now. I wonder if he wonders.
Later that day, Travis left a box of my stuff outside of my apartment. I watched from my window on the second floor, while he did it. He paused for a minute and just stood there and stared at it. Eventually he turned around and walked away.
After that, I started avoiding the cafeteria altogether. One time my friends made me go for dinner. They got me a plate and they put mac & cheese on it. The room had a complex layout of long rectangular tables and small circular tables. It was loud and people were laughing and kissing and yelling and telling jokes and telling lies and gossiping. I was just consuming it all. I played with the mac & cheese. I stirred it around with a fork until it puréed. It looked like bile someone puked up the morning after a good night. My friends talked to me. They tried to ask me questions that would get my mind off of things, to get my mind off of Travis.
This kind of worked until Travis stumbled in, head down, staring at the checkered design of the carpet. He sat at a table in my line of vision. His hair was all gone. It was completely shaved. He looked like he was a prisoner of war. He was alone at the table. He didn’t even get any food. His back was arched and he was lying with his head on the table, in his arms. I watched him like a parent waiting for their child to wake up from a coma.
Eventually Travis looked up and saw me staring at him. We locked eyes. His were bloodshot and huge. He didn’t look like the same person. His cheeks were hollow and his face was on the verge of concaving. He looked like the remains of a Midwestern town after a tornado. I looked deep into his irises. I started to cry. Big thick tears started drooping down my face and onto my plate. Eventually he got up and left without saying anything to me, like it was nothing, like I was nothing, like he didn’t even remember. And he had taken so many trips without me. Maybe he didn’t even remember.
I wonder what Travis had for dinner, tonight. I wonder if he even had dinner tonight. I wonder if he has a job. A girlfriend? A Boyfriend? I bet he’s still allergic to peanut butter. There are some things that you just can’t get rid of; I think allergies are one of them. Once, I ate a rice bowl with peanut sauce when our small school was compensating for its lack of diversity by sponsoring an aggressively racist “Oriental Cuisine Week.” Afterward, Travis and I had sex and his face blew up like a bomb getting ready to detonate. He yelled at me and shoved his fingers down his throat. He threw up. He hit me in the bathroom after. I watched him do it from the dirty mirror in front of the medicine cabinet. My face collided with the tile. Blood from my nose and mouth splattered on the ground like an abstract painting. I told him that I was sorry. And I was. He hit me again and I hit him back. We hit each other until we were purple. We hit each other until we forgot about why we were hitting each other.
Sometimes I meet new people and I forget about Travis for a while, but then I’ll dream about him, or someone somewhere will order salmon, or I’ll pass the Great Clips on my block and see people getting a haircut, or I’ll go down the wrong aisle at the grocery store and see all the different brands of peanut butter, and I’ll remember. Travis has been allergic to it since birth. He knows it’s not good for him. He doesn’t even see it as an option. He sees it as an enemy, as a threat. I text Travis sometimes. He never texts back. I wonder if he got a new number, or if he’s built up some kind of tolerance to it all and blocked mine. I think about all of it all of the time. I still feel bad about everything that happened. I still feel guilty about poisoning him with peanut butter and hitting him back. I wonder if he ever goes on social media and resists going to my profile or responding to my text. I wonder if he even remembers. I wonder if he ever goes down the peanut butter aisle in grocery stores just to think about what he can’t have. I do it all the time.
After Travis threw up a few more times, he forgave me. He wadded up the thin toilet paper the school provided us and shoved it up my nostrils. He told me he didn’t know why he gets like that sometimes. He told me that he didn’t mean it. I told him that I knew he didn’t mean it. When we got in bed, he thanked me for never giving up on him. Travis and I kept the mattress underneath the tall bed frame to conceal us from my roommate. We layered the top of the frame with blankets for extra privacy. We called it the sex den. I was lying on top of Travis and our bodies were moist. Things got hot in the sex den. I could feel the reverberations of his heart beating through his chest. It was consistent, like a ticking clock. He said I was the only one who had ever believed in him unconditionally like that. We kissed and were quiet for a while.
Eventually he started crying. I could feel his tears wetting my hair. He opened up to me about his parents. He said that they never loved each other. He said they stopped sleeping in the same bed after his little brother was born. He said they hit each other. I didn’t know what to say, so I just kissed him instead of replying. He cried until he fell asleep. I matched my breathing to his, so the rising and falling of our chests were synchronized, like divers in the Olympics. My face bled throughout the night. The bed sheets were stained red. We laughed about it in the morning. I tried to ask Travis more about his parents in the morning but he told me to stop asking about it. He told me to forget that he ever said anything about it. We never talked about his parents again. I tried washing my sheets but the blood stains wouldn’t come out. My mom made me throw them out when we packed up the car at the end of the year. I cried the entire eight-hour car ride back to my hometown in Ohio. My mom said she knew how I felt. She said it was awful to feel like that. She said she felt sorry for me.
I feel bad for Kevin, I really do. I had an aquarium as a child with big fish in it. We would buy smaller fish called “feeder fish” to feed to the bigger ones. I always found it humbling that an entire species exists solely to be consumed by something else. I feel like Kevin is a feeder fish. I don’t love him and he knows it. I know it, he knows it, and Travis knows it. To be honest, I hate talking about Kevin. I hate thinking that I am his Travis; that perhaps he actually does love me. Maybe I was Travis’ Kevin and he never loved me. Did I buy low-fat syrup for Kevin’s pancakes for a reason? Do I love him?
Kevin stupidly interrupted my existentialism by snoring. I put my arms around him and I kissed his neck. It was sunburned, irritated, and pink, like a salmon in season. Every time my lips touched the sunburn it left an imprint for a few minutes before settling into his body. I kept my mouth pressed to his neck for so long that I felt discombobulated. It was like I was living in a different dimension. We’re all kind of living in our own dimensions, if you think about it. Our minds are weird, and complex, and dull. They think the same things repetitively until we die. Kevin’s skin tasted like Travis, so I licked him and swallowed all the bacterium living on him, like a vacuum sucking up the crumbs under the couch. I made a mental note to add 15 calories to my daily total, just to be safe. I continued kissing Kevin’s neck, until I fell asleep, or until I died, or until the world ended. I’m not sure which comes first.