by Robert Brian Mulder
My ex-boyfriend’s name is Tripp Pham, but I recently learned that for the past year or so a group of people have been referring to him as Mr. Wonderfull. As in Full of Wonder. When an almost-friend at work showed me the website on her phone in the bathroom, I leaned forward, squinting, though it was obviously him. “That’s Tripp,” I confirmed, perversely proud. Then I scrolled down. There were photos of Mr. Wonderfull standing in front of palm trees with strangers—mainly attractive young women—their heads tilted together like happily conjoined twins. There were weekend retreats: Metaphysically Cure Yourself through Chakra Work and Transformational Energy Vortexes. There were testimonials: “It’s amazing!!! You free yourself from aging by dynamically reinterpreting your body and by consciously grasping the subtle link between the soul and biology.” There were inspirational precepts: “It is the nature of babies to reside in WONDER and BLISS!!! Remember to practice Baby Talk and Baby Presence!”
The TV is on. Channel 12. Evening news. Des Moines. A contestant at the county fair crams hot dogs into his sunburned face. His Adam’s Apple moves like a mouse trapped beneath a blanket. Then a reporter interviews a teenage boy with chemical-green hair. He mumbles that his python, Julius Squeezer, is still missing. “He’s about eighteen-feet,” the boy says, stretching his skeletal arms out wide. “Grew up in the wild, so you might keep an eye on your dogs and kids.” When I first saw coverage of this story, I recognized the John Deere sign from the store two blocks up the street. Somebody tossed a rock through it that left a ragged hole where the deer’s heart should be. That night, I watched videos of pythons on YouTube. One showed a female devouring an adult antelope. Head first. “Always head first,” the snake expert said. “Easier to swallow the limbs that way.” The most popular clip had over 120 million views. It was footage of a Burmese constricting and then swallowing an alligator that was eight feet long. I’d always thought pythons suffocate their prey to death before eating, but this gator’s hind legs were still paddling uselessly, as if searching for a mudbank, when the snake began to stretch the wide hoop of its mouth around them.
I probably fell for my ex because he reminded me of Thich Nhat Hanh. Shaved head, boyishly slight frame. The dorky ears, the gap between his front teeth, the habit of frequent blinking, as if warding off flies. And the stillness, the apparent goodness. Everywhere we went, he picked up people’s litter without curse or complaint. Once, when a cockroach skittered across the kitchen counter, I grabbed a saucepan, but he barely reacted, just bent down to its level and studied the creature with a kind of childlike curiosity. Yes, with wonder, I suppose. He told me that he liked Thich Nhat Hanh, too. After I moved into his apartment, we even talked about getting married in Plum Village. The wedding party, all smiling and bald as the moon, dressed in plum-colored robes. Maybe a little girl—like the one he said we’d have one day—holding a bowl of water with a floating white lotus. And me, a freckle-cheeked farm girl from Iowa, in a traditional Vietnamese wedding dress, the áo dài—silk-ribbon red, with long sleeves of lace.
I cleaned the entire apartment today. Now it smells like bleach and pine. I left them in every room. On bookshelves, in kitchen cupboards, tucked in corners where the baseboards don’t quite meet. Roach tablets. White as aspirin. I bought a 4 oz. pack last week. On the front of the bright yellow box, a single cockroach is standing on a large white tablet above the words “Mata Cucaracha.” I don’t think cockroaches are capable of facial expressions, or if it’s even correct to think of them as having faces, but this one on the front of the box is visibly eager. He seems to be very pleased with himself, and with his find.
It’s hot. Muggy. Highs statewide in the low 90’s all week. But I switched off the AC a few hours ago. I pick at a chipped nail, get up and go to the kitchen, grab a glass, fill it with cold tap water, turn off the TV, return to the sofa. There’s a photograph on the wall, the only one in the entire apartment. After staring at it for a while, I stand up, lift it off the screw, rotate the little metal hooks on the back of the frame till the picture slips out. It’s an old Vietnamese man and woman. They’re wearing cone-shaped bamboo hats and standing in a forest by a tree with roots jutting out of the ground like a giant skeleton’s hand lifting the trunk into the sky. They look alike. Maybe they’re brother and sister. Or maybe they’re one of those lucky couples that lives together so long they start to resemble each other. Tripp told me they’re his parents. I look at the bottom of the photograph, the border no longer hidden by the frame: Getty Images, Inc. Two weeks ago, Tripp came home late one night, the tangy odor of hard liquor on his breath. “You’ve never told me anything about your family,” I said, folding my legs up on the couch, arms crossed at my chest, a little surprised by the injury in my voice. “Tell me something about your parents.” He stood there for a moment, then pointed to this photo. He started talking about the terrors of the Khmer Rouge and how his parents hadn’t been so lucky. Soon he joined me on the couch and cried a little before we made love. After Katie, my almost-friend at work, showed me that website, I Googled “Khmer Rouge.” The Communist Party. In Cambodia.
It’s strange to see the door to the bedroom closed. I remember closing it, but still. I’ve been living here for five months now, and I don’t think we ever closed that door. For a few moments it feels like maybe I’m in the wrong apartment. I almost knock or say, “Hello?” When I open the door, I see what I expect to see. A python stretched out on the floor, its midsection massively swollen, the bulge almost comically large, like that of a cartoon snake. At the far wall, the door to the bathroom stands open. A powder blue shower curtain and a metal rod lie in a heap on the floor, along with a busted towel rack and green bottles of shampoo—still and silent as grenades. My ex liked to take a shower every day after work. He always took these long, hot showers. Thirty minutes. Sometimes close to an hour. There isn’t a circulation fan in the bathroom, but he refused to open the window, so everything—the toilet seat, my flat iron, even the mirror in the bedroom—got all foggy and damp. “But it reminds me of being a little boy in Vietnam,” he told me, his eyes suddenly wet with nostalgia.
Five maybe six times this week, I put on my purple slippers and snuck in and opened the window as he was taking a shower. “What are you doing!” he said once, but I didn’t answer—just walked out as if I hadn’t heard him. Besides, I wasn’t entirely sure myself. Today, I opened the bedroom window, too. A little while later, sitting at the kitchen table, I heard the shower rod clank against the tub. I lassoed a wet tea bag with its little white string and squeezed. Sipped my tea. Then I stood and set my cup in the sink. I walked to the bedroom door, looked in. I shut the door firmly but gently, as though not to disturb, then went out the front door, waved to a neighbor, walked around to the back of the apartment where I wrestled the warped bedroom window shut. Then I stepped laterally over a series of black mole hills to the bathroom window, a movement that reminded me of tennis drills in high school. The python’s tail was dangling out a few feet, writhing like a blind worm at the tip of a spear of grass. When I reached to toss the tail inside, it coiled rapidly around my wrist, exerting a firm, precisely calibrated pressure, like the inflatable cuff on one of those blood-pressure gauges. A few seconds later, the tail relaxed its grip and disappeared inside. As I stretched up to shut the window, I could see that the snake’s jaws had already worked their way down to Tripp’s hips, the front third of its body like an overstuffed Christmas stocking. There was an eerie sound, a reedy, rhythmic whistling noise, faint as the breath of a seashell, coming from a fleshy tube—wet, pink—sticking out one side of the snake’s mouth. Its windpipe, I later discovered. “Pythons are able to temporarily externalize this organ,” the website said, “to do what they need to do to survive.” As I stood there in my slippers, watching, I realized that the last thing I would ever see of Tripp Pham were the pale, perfectly smooth bottoms of his tiny feet, which, I knew, had never touched the soil of a village in Vietnam.
And now—late evening of the same day—standing in the open doorway, I look at the python once more, close the bedroom door, double-check to make sure the AC is off. Then I flip the porchlight switch, remove my clothes and stretch out naked and sweaty on the sofa.
That morning, I call in sick. “Herpes-zoster virus,” I say. “Shingles. It might be a few days.” I close all the blinds in the living room and kitchen. It seems I’m always walking by houses shut up like that, all the curtains or blinds closed. It makes me wonder what’s going on inside.
At the kitchen sink, I run cold water over a hand towel. Wash my face, arms, legs. Then I sit at the table, open my laptop. I learn that this python, with its red eyes and its geometric pattern of yellow and white skin, is an albino. I learn that it takes a python six days to completely digest its meal, and that during digestion, a python’s heart grows by forty percent.
I need to pee.
When I push the door open, it’s in the far corner, coiled in a rectangle of sunlight. I step into the room, crawl across the bed, reach to twirl the rod to half-shut the blinds, then walk along the near wall to the bathroom. Closing the door, I sit on the toilet. Turn to stare out the window. The window frames a cloudless blue sky. Once, standing in a dimly lit room with a clear blue tank the size of a swimming pool, I saw a tiger shark—idling, perfectly still. I walked up close to the glass. The near eye was a cold black planet against the shark’s moon-colored skin. It seemed to be staring at nothing and everything—at me, and at the totality of space around me. I leaned forward, turning my face to one side. I opened my left eye as wide as it would go, pressing it right up close so that the lens could feel the coolness of the glass. My eye—directly opposite that magnificent black eye. The shark didn’t blink. I didn’t blink. As a schoolgirl, I’d always won those contests. But this was different. This wasn’t about winning or losing. It was more beautiful than that.
I stand, flush. Bend down, pick up a dark green bottle of herbal shampoo—his, not mine. I flip the cap, squeeze the bottle, take in the scent. Then I look in the mirror. A raised mole on my neck that my senile grandfather, who thought it was dirt, tried to scrub off. Bare shoulders like fins: thin, pale, not quite even. Black eyes. People tell me that I have black eyes. But I don’t agree. I don’t see it that way. Or maybe I just can’t see what it is they’re seeing.
I will turn thirty-three at the end of the month.
He was the first man—the only man—I’ve ever really been with. Unless you count the adjunct professor—of anthropology, I think—who told me to undress slowly and lie back on the bed before he began to rub me with his pinky. He just stood there, at the foot of the bed, fully dressed, looking down at me, rubbing. His gleaming white teeth like elephant tusks. Right as I was about to climax, he stopped—told me he was married, that he didn’t want to be unfaithful. “Could we just do this?” he asked. No, begged. “Could we just meet and do this?”
The toilet makes a leaky hissing noise. I jiggle the handle. Then I reach under the sink, grab a pair of orange gloves, kneel and scrub the rusty toilet ring at the base of the bowl. It fades a bit. Maybe. Kneeling there on the floor, using both index fingers and thumbs, I begin to rub my nipples through the thin cotton of my T-shirt. Two summers ago, as they were driving home from choir practice, my parents died in a tornado that touched down in Pella, the little farm town where I grew up. It ripped the four-paneled blade from the giant windmill in the center of town and dropped it in a cornfield forty miles away. Around that time, I developed the habit of rubbing my nipples to relieve stress, or to arouse myself. I usually did it with a shirt on. After a while, I noticed that the nipple area on some of my shirts was fading, leaving two pale spots, a blurry-edged pair of ghostly eyes. I eventually realized this effect was from the peroxide in my facial cream. Apparently, I wasn’t thoroughly washing it from my fingers.
Lying naked on the sofa, I watch a documentary about storms and snakes. The basic idea is that we bring these non-native snakes into pet stores, mainly in Florida. People buy them as pets, then end up dumping them in a ditch or a field. Or sometimes a hurricane will come and destroy the stores, allowing the snakes to escape and breed. We try to control the populations, but we aren’t doing a good job. There isn’t enough money. There aren’t enough cages. There are too many snakes. The snakes seem to be winning. “Once they’re here,” the old guy with a Florida Gators cap says, “we just have to learn to live with them.”
The next morning, when I open the bedroom door, the snake is still in his corner. Probably waiting for the sun to come through the window. He’s so still that he doesn’t look real. And what if he isn’t? What then?
I walk along the wall to the bathroom, close the door, put up the shower rod, hang the curtain, take a cold shower. Then I dry off, wrap my hair in a towel, lie on my stomach on the bed. I study the snake’s bulge. My ex-boyfriend didn’t like tight spaces. He didn’t like hugs. He refused to use bathrooms on a plane. He couldn’t even wear tight clothes. “Too constricting,” he said.
The day after Katie showed me that website, we stood at a long row of sinks during break, talking to each other’s reflection in the bathroom mirror. As I reapplied my lipstick, she told me about a woman in her building who fell down the trash chute. “Her boyfriend left her. Moved to Seattle with some other girl. Out of the blue. When she found out, she got drunk, then tried to go up on the roof to jump, but the door was locked. So she threw herself down the trash chute instead.” Katie turned. Looked at me. Tilted her head slightly, with concern, like Mom used to do. Then she looked back at my image in the mirror and said that her Holistic Wellness Coach once told her, “If they survive the initial blow, people can usually recover from cancer, hurricanes, any kind of natural tragedy. But betrayal, especially by a loved one, is another matter.” Katie snapped her purse shut, then looked directly at me. “Eighteen floors,” she said. “The paramedics had to come and pull her out of the compactor in the basement. The woman survived, but barely.”
Near dusk, the lump looks a little smaller. It’ll be gone in a few days. Lying back against a pile of pillows, I hear the rapid, muted rumble of footsteps—the little girl who lives upstairs. This is what always happens before she heads out to play in the open space behind the complex. When the noise stops, I wait a couple minutes, then peek out through the blinds. She is wearing a yellow dress with bright red sneakers, standing with her back to a concrete wall, eyes closed, facing the dying sun so that her shadow stretches long and high behind her. She stands on one leg, raises her arms in a graceful circle above her head, like a ballerina. Then, abruptly, as though suddenly possessed, she turns to face the concrete wall and begins to dance—wildly, unpredictably—her magnified shadow mirroring her every movement. And it’s almost like she’s trying to trick it, to outwit it. Trying to unhinge her shadow from her body—like a man, a foolish man, wriggling to free himself from his fate. After a while, the girl collapses onto the pavement in a kind of exhausted puddle.
The last day I went to work, I’m walking down the sidewalk and recognize a woman I’ve seen before, though only from a distance. She is always pushing a baby stroller. I notice that she stands off to one side, misaligned, pushing the stroller with just one of the handles—and there is a jerkiness, a clumsiness to her movements, like those of a marionette. As we get closer, I can see and hear one of the plastic wheels dragging sideways, scraping the concrete, and I can hear this woman mumbling something, talking to her baby, it seems, trying to engage or to console it. When we are about to pass each other, the woman’s pinched gaze and clenched jaw are directed up and away. She is addressing some absence, a blank space in the air. “Fucking bastard,” she says, leaning over to spit on a bush. “You goddamned motherfucking bastard.” I hesitate, but then glance at the baby in the stroller. The baby isn’t moving. And it seems too small, this baby. Unnaturally still. Then, as the woman’s shoulder brushes roughly against my own, I look down once more and see that it isn’t a baby. It’s a doll. A plastic doll with one pale blue eye and stiff carrot-colored hair. And then, as my feet carry me unsteadily forward toward the busy intersection, I overhear myself whisper, “You motherfucking bastard.”
Last week, after learning about that website, I admitted to Katie that I’d noticed a pattern—that he only gave spare change to the cute homeless girls. I left work early, came back to the apartment, searched his desk. Eventually, I found it. A list of passwords. For the next two hours, I read his email correspondence with Nelischka, a Kazakhstani woman who’d attended two of the retreats. She’d loved the Circle of Authentic Sharing practice, where everybody had been encouraged to shirk convention, to express their feelings without restraint or inhibition. And she’d been “fricking AMAZED!!!” by his object lesson one morning during breakfast when he’d captured everyone’s attention by simply holding up a hardboiled egg, still encased in its protective shell. After a brief period of silence, he delivered an impromptu homily about the importance of being radically open to the breaking of our own hearts—how we should not resist this breaking, how resisting this inevitable breaking leads to bitterness and resentment, to a shrinking and hardness of the heart. As the emails between Mr. Wonderfull and Nelischka grew more frequent, there was talk of a trip to Plum Village. And there was Baby Talk, nauseating back-and-forth Baby Talk.
Now I flip open my ex’s computer, log in to his website. I type: “All retreats canceled till further notice. Mr. Wonderfull is undergoing a profound transformation.”
Two days pass.
A long, gray morning. Afternoon, the same. Towards dusk, I sit on the edge of the bed. My bare feet don’t quite touch the floor. It’s hot. All I’m wearing is one of his T-shirts. It still has his scent. The scent reminds me of tiger stalls at the zoo—that sharp scent of sawdust. After a while, I get down on my hands and knees and begin to crawl towards the corner where the snake lies, motionless. The stenciled pattern of yellow and white scales like wallpaper. The eyes, red, one slightly clouded, a black vertical slit at its center like the pit of a fruit emerging, breaking through. The forked tongue tests the air.
I reach out, stroke the tail. Cool, familiar. Males have large spurs, bone-like vestiges of hind legs, which they use to stimulate females during sex. Tongue between my teeth, I trace the tip of my nail along the curved edge of one spur. The other.
By now the bulge is barely visible, like the belly of a mother in her first trimester. I slide one hand up so that I can feel the slight swelling. Then I place my other hand on my smooth, flat belly. I cried last week, for three consecutive nights. But not now. Now my eyes are dry.
I awake in the room on my side, facing the window. The morning sun is burning the edges of the half-open blinds. It is the feeling of shipwreck, of being dislodged, hauled by a great net to the surface light.
Robert Brian Mulder lives in Portland, Oregon. His stories have been published in The Sun, Cimarron Review, and Moon City Review. He was longlisted for the 2021 LitMag Anton Chekhov Award for Flash Fiction, was a finalist for the 2020 J.F. Powers Prize for Short Fiction, and was shortlisted for the 2019 Fish Publishing International Short Story Prize. He also received an honorable mention for the 2017 Glimmer Train Press Very Short Fiction Contest, and was a finalist for the 2003 Boston Review Short Story Contest. His flash fiction and poems have appeared in Pennsylvania English, Schuylkill Valley Journal, Evening Street Review, Sky Island Journal, Sandy River Review, and Flash Fiction Magazine.