BORROWED WORDS • by Sarah Prentice

This is the danger of sleeping by my cell phone: on the one hand, the alarm will wake me up, but on the other hand I might write a text message to my upstairs neighbor/maybe soulmate/token school maybe lesbo/dream spirit animal guide, as I did in this case and worse, I hit send and went back to sleep.

A pounding at the front door of the apartment jolted me up off the couch. Waking up fully I remembered the text message that I had just sent, and realized I sent it not seconds ago, but long enough for Alex (the aforementioned riddle, wrapped in a vocabulary quiz) to walk leisurely down three stories and try to knock my door out of its frame.

I grabbed the book she lent me, so I could give it back to her if I was at a loss for words.

I actually read it cover to cover, without using a dictionary — which is of course something I can never prove. Knowing Alex has taught me that I can be intelligent in a way she would respect, but only in circumstances where there is no way of her knowing about it, ever.

I opened the door and she stepped into my personal space.

“Hello! I’d like the fifteen cents your laziness just cost me.”

She backed off, maybe to better display her angry, toothpaste commercial smile, or maybe because she somehow knew I couldn’t speak otherwise.

“Absolutely” I said. “Absolutely… and your book back too! I… finished reading it.” I said.

She walked past me and flopped down on the still warm couch.

I sat next to her and just looked at her, then handed her the book.

“Thanks,” she said, and produced  a new (or not new, but different) paperback book for me.

“This one’s a really great size because you can just back-pocket it and be a stealth intellectual,” she explained.

“Oh, I am,” I said, and she smiled at me, so I said, “I am a black ops covert intellectual. I am James Bond, and you never saw me… reading.”

She laughed, too hard, but I laughed with her.

Then I remembered the text message, inviting her to go on this road trip to New Orleans.

“It’s carnivale season” I said, with as much careful pronunciation as I had in me, but she looked at me with less than approval.

“Carni-val-e means ‘farewell the flesh’ like, letting to of this world,” I said profoundly.

She forced a smile.

“Eh…” She thought about it. “Not really. It means Goodbye Meat.”

“I mean… uh, that’s kind of like…”

“No. Like meat for eating,” she said mercilessly. “Goodbye meat is about giving up meat for Lent.”

“Is Lent also like… pagan?”

Half her face fell slack, like she’d had a stroke while I was speaking, but shook it off.

“It’s Catholic — carnival is the start of the Lent season and Fat Tuesday, Mardi Gras, refers to food also, rooted in the same tradition. No matter what certain fantasy franchises try to sell you, Latin is a dead language outside of the Catholic Church, so if you hear ‘carne levare!’ don’t think pagan wizards in big pointy hats, think popes and cardinals.”

“In big, pointy hats.”

“There you go.”

“Okay, but… then it’s a coincidence that…”

But I didn’t have anything to add. Carne-val and the Mardi Gras voodoo was going the way of the tooth fairy, fast.

“That they wind up being so carnal. But like I said, it’s lunch meat, not our ephemeral bodies, and such a foresaking of flesh is just… popular etymology,” she said, spitting ‘popular etymology’ like she would say “buzz words” or “fuck-tard”.

“So, is everyone at Mardi Gras Catholic?” I asked, only because I knew it couldn’t be true.

“No, some of them are with Girls Gone Wild,” she said, and it hit me less like a joke and more like an accusation. Soft core in conversation makes me panic, because I can never remember if I’m supposed to pretend I’m offended or pretend I’m not. Sometimes I overcompensate and do something stupid, like telling my idiot friends I’d go on their road trip, or like trying to convince Alex I’m not that crude and carnal, and I’m not, but just barely.

“Look, okay,” she said, “I’m not… saying that I’m better than anybody else, I’m not. I only recognize the problem with indulging in what you want to abstain from… because — because I’ve made the same mistake. I just wouldn’t feel safe in the place they all go to make that mistake at once. You know?”

She was trying to be reasonable, she looked at me and smiled (God bless her) patiently, but I really wasn’t paying attention. I was remembering something we’d said.

“Remember one time,” I tried, “I asked you why there isn’t a Straight Pride Parade, and I didn’t mean anything by it” — which she wasn’t buying if she got one free —  “And you said ‘it’s called Mardi Gras‘.”

She didn’t remember. Her joke caught her off guard and she almost giggled, which made her, for the moment, less scary.

I said, “Alex…” and the moment had passed.

She didn’t look at me, but was fixed on me, turning her head away, but her ear toward me, like cats do.

“Alex, are you gay?”

For a terrible moment, nothing happened, then she laughed, got up and smiled at me like she’d tell me what was funny and I’d laugh too, but instead, she walked out and closed the door behind her. I thought it was a joke and I waited for her to jump in, to talk about it, or change the subject, anything. I went to the door — to do what exactly? I reached towards the doorknob but felt this creeping uncertainty, and I locked it, like I could keep it out.

Sarah Prentice is a graduate at the University of Minnesota’s College of Food, Agriculture and Natural Sciences. She writes and makes art in Saint Paul, Minnesota.

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