People Do Not Explain Their Inside Jokes to Me

Sean Noah Noah
In fifth grade, Helen and I performed a ritual to summon Bloody Mary, and she told me what to do but not why. We watched the mirror in the dark, nothing but a series of trick lines shaping a door we couldn’t open because it was on the other side of the room. I asked her what was supposed to happen, after she flipped the light switch and started pouting about how it didn’t work, and she looked down at her elbows and said, “Bloody Mary was supposed to jump out and kill us.”

I didn’t watch a single one of Helen’s horror movies until I was sixteen, partly because my parents wouldn’t let me and partly because I was too scared, so she explained them to me all wrong. I learned that Jason Voorhees was a babysitter who killed children by baking them in their parents’ ovens and that Chucky was an alien doll.

Eventually Helen was my high school girlfriend who snuck me out of my house and into the sets of her college brother’s student films, where we watched twenty-year-olds dressed in real sweat pour gallons of fake blood. She told me she was on the crew but not what she did. One of the cast members, an older guy named Jeff or Steve (Jeve?) started calling her “the oyster” like a pet name and I asked her to either explain what it meant or make him stop until she laughed so hard that I started crying. Years later and for no reason, she emailed me to explain that she put together the film’s original soundtrack (OST), which led to her calling herself “the oster,” which through the alchemy of autocorrect became oyster in the cast and crew Slack, which stuck. Also she was never attracted to Jeve. I didn’t respond or reconnect, but I privately conceded it might have been a dumb reason to break up.

The real reason we stopped talking wasn’t the break up. It was that afterwards, she came out as not into boys and only a month later I came out as not exactly a boy and the last thing she said to me was I couldn’t live my life in reference to hers.

At one of a few dozen interchangeable college parties, I met Dave leaning over someone’s apartment’s shitty balcony. His shirt said “One Man: A Car,” which is apparently a reference to a poor translation of a line in a video game, but he never told me that. Before I worked up the nerve to kiss him the question I asked was, “You’re not straight, are you?” and he laughed and responded, “I’m not straight but I do what I gotta do,” which made it confusing when I learned he was completely gay. I only recently learned that he was quoting Cobra Starship.

I moved with Dave back to Dave’s hometown. I worked as a server in an upscale restaurant where I put on a little bowtie and pretended to be a real boy while Dave worked as a groundskeeper. When he left our apartment at night with no warning or invitation, I knew it wasn’t work related, but I did not know he was meeting with his high school friends to help them hunt down the vengeful ghost haunting the block of low income housing where they all grew up, killing their parents young and trapping their families in an endless cycle of poverty. When Dave introduced me to those friends, they spoke of times they spent together in such nostalgic and indirect terms that I still couldn’t be sure Dave had seen them any time in the last five years.

Sometimes I woke up to Dave oversleeping in our bed and sang, “Rise and shine my sister,” which I took great care to explain was Cardigans lyric. After he broke up with me in the parking lot, I sat on the asphalt and listened to “I Need Some Fine Wine and You, You Need to Be Nicer” while I cried. I went on to describe the breakup to some concerned friends as a long, slow collision instead of a thing Dave did to avoid telling me where he was going after I followed him out of the apartment. I’m still not sure the description fit.

In between moving out of Dave’s apartment and moving back into Dave’s apartment I lived with a guy named Jude who seemed to own a house. I would ask him about it and he would let out a laugh like a coughing fit that always ended with the words “Oh yeah, I ‘own’ this house,” circling “own” in big finger quotes. I never got to the point where I could laugh with him.

I didn’t ask questions because it was nice to live in a house and nice to date another bisexual. Jude wouldn’t get that anxious look that Dave got, like he couldn’t be everything I wanted, if I talked about women, and he was more comfortable with the fact that I am a woman some days. On the only Christmas we spent together Jude gave me a bright red cocktail dress that I loved until I found out it was just a reference to an ex-girlfriend he had no intention of getting over.

I found this out when I came home from a bartending shift to find the ex-girlfriend’s car puncturing a corner of our garage, her busted headlights blinking flickering light like a trash fire through the side window. I found her and Jude in the living room playing tug-of-war with a glazed ceramic box I’d never asked about. Jude was shouting that it didn’t matter and the ex was shouting louder and with more detail about how she was entitled to at least half of their cat’s ashes, maybe three quarters because really she always did more of the work. They both saw me at the same time. Jude started sputtering that he could explain, while more importantly his ex took in my dress with a gaze that quickly broke open into a cascade of homophobic slurs, and most urgently their fight exploded into a cloud of dust that I assumed was once cat. I wondered, stepping back from all the dust and noise, if it was more disrespectful to worry about the cat’s remains getting on my dress or to let it happen. I’ve come to learn now that it was all wood ash, because when Groucho Marx the cat died they never recovered his real remains, so I don’t feel guilty anymore about making Jude vacuum that carpet alone.

I never got back together with Dave, but after Jude’s house got a hole in it and I fell out, Dave had the only couch I felt like I could ask to crash on. By then Dave had gotten back with his high school boyfriend Benjamin, but he let me have an old pillow I’d never taken out of his house and I made his couch into a subtle reference to our old bed. Dave and Benjamin had these tense whisper-fights that leaked through the door like a tire going flat. I assumed it was my fault when they hissed at each other, their voices identical, that things were getting worse, and I half-packed my bags before I learned about the ghost. I think about that knot of guilt that formed in me during those last few weeks, all the sweat that must have gotten into the couch cushions, and I wish I could have just learned about her from them.

Instead, I was washing my face in Dave’s bathroom getting ready to write a note and leave. I kept the light off because the sound of the automatic fan bothered me in the morning, and the whole place was bluish. After I dried off my eyes flicked between the mirror and the sink drain. I said my name three times, failed starts to a pre-homelessness pep talk. Dave and Benjamin were out. They didn’t know she could come here, or that she would want to, and I had no idea who she was when I saw her in the mirror. She stood behind me and to the right in the reflection, but somewhere deep in me I knew that I wouldn’t see her there if I turned my head. Running made sense, leaving the apartment quickly and driving far away and trying not to think about it again. It’s what I thought I wanted to do when I woke up that morning. But seeing her there in the mirror I was stuck. I had no choice but to take her in: her skin that was the same blue-white as the wallpaper in the morning light, all her rows of teeth. Not just inside her mouth—where I expected to see lips, or her eyes, or her hair, there were more teeth. She put her hand on my shoulder and it was all teeth. There was no hunger to them, no motion of any kind. The ghost bared all her teeth with the urgency of someone showing you their collection of dolls. I didn’t understand what it meant.

She didn’t jump out of the mirror and she didn’t kill me. Distantly, I thought about the email from Helen that I had ignored. The ghost asked me what I wanted and her voice was like running tap water, so I said I wanted to turn off the kitchen sink. I’d left it running to rinse off a plate from breakfast. She let me do it, but I felt her hand on my shoulder the whole time and I knew I would need to walk back to the bathroom when it was done. I knew I would have to tell her I wanted something else. All I could think to say was that I wanted to get it, that I was tired of everything I didn’t understand, and somewhere in all her teeth she nodded. She directed me to open the door and walk out again, and this time it didn’t lead to Dave’s kitchen. I walked out into my new home: the front half of a bedroom with the bed taken out and windows that lead to nothing. A television on one side plays blue-white static and a little girl in the center of the room watches it with her eyes closed. Despite the changes, I recognized this immediately as a visual homage. I felt the teeth-hand leave my shoulder and heard the door close behind me and the only words I could think were, “They’re here.”

I’m not dead, here. The door is unlocked, and it leads back to Dave’s bathroom. One day I will come back out, but for now the little girl and I have a system. I can’t see what’s on the TV, but she can watch it and tell me what’s happening, and what’s happening is television, and movies, and music, and folklore, and real life. When she speaks, her mouth stays closed and her eyes open into smaller mouths. I ask her questions and she answers. One day, she’ll run out of things to tell me, and when that happens, I’ll leave, and go back to a world where I know what people are talking about.

Sean Noah Noah is a non-binary writer and comedian living somewhere in the Northeastern United States. Their short fiction has appeared in Plus Literary Magazine, Eunoia Review, Reflex Press, and Bizarro Central. They hold a BA from Hampshire College and are a current MFA candidate at Stony Brook University.