“Um, there are flies in my room,” Peter said. He pointed to the floor where my red duffel bag sat, gathering the flies. My bag was stuffed full of sparring gear, gloves, and dirty socks. I couldn’t remember the last time I washed the bag, or the gear inside of it. A week? Two? I wanted to say, I’m planning on washing it this weekend, but, before I could, he said, “It’s no big deal. Don’t worry about it.”
He ran his hands through his cropped black hair and adjusted his t-shirt that hung over his taut upper body. He also liked shadow boxing and hated standing still. We had been dating for three years. This is the longest either of us had ever held a heart. We were at the point of uncharted territory. We both knew this, and knew this conversation wasn’t really about a bag, so much as how to share a space.
Peter’s arms encircled my waist, signaling that we should continue our Sunday plan to read mysteries to each other in bed. Anger flared in me. What did he mean forget it? Why would he tell me about it then? What was I supposed to say, Flies suck. Good luck with that! Or, Maybe it’s because the window is open and it’s 100 degrees F outside and we just ate toffee and left the wrappers on your desk? I curled beside him in bed. He kissed the top of my head. He turned the pages to a new story. As he read, I couldn’t help but stare at the bag like it was splinter pushing, tugging, swelling underneath our skin.
As soon as he finished reading, I grabbed my bag. I rushed to the laundromat. I shoved my gear into the twirling hole, stuffed it with extra detergent–wind-blown scents–and watched with relief as the clear water turned a frothy, bubbling white. When I returned to his home, Peter asked, “Are you ok?”
“I’m fine,” I said, slinging my bag onto the living room floor, huffing. “It’s just hot.” It was a humid day, a day where swallowing air felt like swallowing cotton. This meant that the one block walk to the laundromat with my stupid bag, weighing at least ten pounds, left my arms sore, and my face slick with sweat. Peter was sitting by a window. A light breeze brushed his face as he looked down to another book he was reading. I rolled my eyes at him. I sat on the floor beside my bag. Although the bag was clean, I grabbed a roll of paper towels, a bottle of Febreeze, and wiped the insides of my bag. I wanted Peter to see me cleaning it. I scrubbed louder, ruffling the cotton, scratching the plastic.
“Do you want any help?” Peter asked, putting down his book.
“No,” I said.
“Come here,” Peter said.
Peter held my hand, and walked me back to his bedroom. We sat on the bed. Per usual, I pulled his body on top of mine. I loved lying there with his entire weight on top of me. The feeling of that pressure comforted me, as if his entire body was holding me together, in place, in time.
He stared at me until I mentioned, “Maybe it annoyed me that for months you would joke about my stuff being in your stuff? In a month, we will move in together, and do you know my stuff will be with your stuff? All the time! If you didn’t want my bag here, then you shouldn’t have offered to keep it!”
“How long have you been wanting to talk about this? Months?”
I shrugged. Peter let out a sound somewhere between a laugh and a sigh. “So let me get this straight. You wanted to tell me about your feelings about sharing a home with me for months?”
“Oh, Cassie. It’s like your heart has these baby toads in them,” he said. “You just let them grow until they’re angry, like a horned-toad! We gotta squash the toads in your heart before they grow.”
Those words out of his mouth shattered me. It wasn’t the type of shatter that meant over. It was the kind of shatter that comes when you realize someone just managed to sum up something that you’ve been trying to figure out about yourself for years. You want to kiss them and simultaneously shove them for being able to accomplish this task so effortlessly, without any help of wine or song lyrics or Oprah.
“I have toads in my heart,” I said, starting to laugh and then cry and then unable to tell which is which. “That is, that is,” and I thought that is absolutely true of me, but said, “Ridiculous. Oh my god.”
I kissed his fuzzy eyebrows. I kissed him through my tears that couldn’t stop arriving, that just coming, and coming, like in-laws, and red-lights, and everything else I could not control; and, it felt wonderful. Something unhinged in me. The dam of my heart cracked open. I held onto him tight.
“I didn’t mean to upset you. It’s the worst seeing you this upset.”
I told him, “I think it’s easier to keep quiet. I don’t want to be a burden on anyone, so I think it’s easier to say nothing. Besides, most people make a big deal out of everything. I don’t want that.”
He nodded, a little wistfully, “I think that comes from a good place. But, some things are important to you. And I can’t help but think how much happier you’ll be if you do speak up…at least to me. Will you? Can you do that for me? I don’t want to see you this upset ever, ever again. It hurts me.”
Later, we decided to get coffee. We decided to go to the coffee shop that would be a block up from where our new home would be in September. It was a way to test out what our future coffee spot, Three Little Figs, would be like. It would be a sample of our future mornings. Inside, there were small circular tables with wooden patio chairs. There was a handwritten sign announcing: No technology on Saturday or Sunday. There were muffins and cakes that held multiple things like apple cider donut muffins or a lavender walnut biscuit or a chocolate zucchini cake. Peter asked me about one of the baked goods, pointing at the treats on their lacy doilies, but, I didn’t answer him. So, he asked, “Have you heard of cane toads?” This, of course, got my attention. My mind was stuck on my toads. Why not add more?
As we waited in line for two ice-coffees to-go, Peter told me about cane-toads.
In Australia, they have an ecological problem with cane toads. They’re everywhere. Ravenous for crops. They will hump road-kill. They will bark at all hours. The heartbreaking thing about cane toads is that they were brought into Australia in the 1930’s to help solve a beetle problem. At the time, there were too many cane beetles. Scientists decided to mate cane toads in order to eat the pesky beetles. Turns out, the cane toads didn’t share the same life cycle of the grubs. This meant that the grubs were awake while the cane toads slept. This meant that Australia’s beetle problem became nothing compared to the cane toad problem. Today, locals make it a daily ritual to drive off in their humvees to squash the consistently horny toads off the road. Peter told me he studied in Australia, near Queensland. He told me he once drove over a cane toad and when you do they make a popping sound as if you ran over a basketball.
After he spoke, I felt bad for the toads. No one asked them to be released into the wild. They certainly didn’t mate themselves in the lab. Someone else made them, and unleashed them to do nothing but destroy another problem. I wondered if that is what it’s like for me with my own feelings. I wondered if I breed them, let them grow, and wait until I can unleash them onto another problem with carelessness.
“What are you thinking about?” Peter asked.
“I’m wondering what kind of toads I keep in my heart.”
“I know what the first one is…my oldest toad…my mother used to say this thing. One more thing, Cass. And then she would say she had one thing to tell me to do, except, it wouldn’t ever be just one thing, it’d be a litany of flaws.” I tried to do my best impression of what I think an Australian sounds like. “I’m ze oldest and horniest toad of ‘zem all,” I said. Before I realized my mother was a person, I tended to take everything she said about me in those early years as gospel truth. She raised me as a single-parent until I was four. During that time, a lot of her feelings were unleashed, and I clung onto them all. If it wasn’t for you, she’d say, as if I was what stood in front of her doorway to the beckoning world.
Peter asked, “Was that a cajun accent?” I tell him the toad is Australian. He nods, knowing I don’t know what an Australian accent sounds like but knowing better than to mention it, or push me further.
I tell him I can imagine the humvees in Australia, ridding their land of unwanted guests, and I want to do that with my heart. He assures me what’s more important is finding the new fears in me before they burrow into my heart and multiply. He tells me it’s okay to let go of everything all at once, that I don’t have to sort through it or name it. I am not satisfied with this sensible, loving thought. I want to do an inventory of my heart! I want to hear the basketball pop of satisfaction! I want an exorcism!
By now, we are sitting on the curb outside of Three Little Figs, and just laughing. I tell him I will write about this, about the toads. “Please don’t use my last name,” he said, slurping his ice coffee. As we sit there the sun warms our backs. “Write what you need. I’d love to see it,” he added.
“Can we go see our new home?” I asked.
Peter nodded, and as we walk I let my mind drift.
When I was eight years old, I had a horrible lisp. I had so many ear infections growing up that it caused my hearing to be severely delayed, which, as a result, caused my speech to fail me. All A-sounds sounded like O sounds. Happy was Hoppy. Apple was Opple. Rings were Wing. Wings were, thankfully, still wings, but that word seldom came up in conversation. I had speech therapy every day for seven years. I would be stuck in a room, staring at cards with pictures and asked, “What do you see?” When I spoke, there was a translation problem. I didn’t hear hoppy. I heard myself say, happy. They gave me a mirror to look into or handed me stuffed animal puppets shaped like dolphins to use, to motion for words, for feelings, to help me learn how lips, how tongues, how words move through a face and are soaked into ears. Something was always lost on me. When I was four, I didn’t talk for two years. Everyone thought I didn’t know how to talk. Truth was, I did. I just didn’t like that interference, that moment I felt when what I meant to say and what was heard didn’t agree. I was too young to have bigger words to represent that kind of misunderstanding, so, I decided to not talk at all.
You can’t imagine how exhausting it is to talk and have the sum of what you say be defined for its errors, for its inaccurate parts, for its close but not enough. This is my fire-bellied toad. This is the breed that has traveled up from my heart, and lives under my tongue, waiting for me to speak. To predators, fire-bellied toads taste foul. Its taste lingers on the tongue, punishing those for trying to swallow it in the first place like food. Didn’t you see the color of my red-blazoned skin?
Peter and I walk down Willow Street, heading right towards our home on Summer Street. I like that I’d be living on a street called Summer, as if the street is telling me it will always be warm here, as if the location is promising me that Peter and I’s home will always have light, have warmth. My eyes are tearing again. Peter doesn’t ask me what’s wrong, but I feel compelled to tell him. I ask, “What if I can’t stop? What if I start sharing way too much and you just want me to stop talking all together?”
Peter grabbed my hand. “Ribbit,” he said. “Ribbit, ribbit, ribbit.”
I tried to tell him that’s not funny, but it is. Actually, it’s funnier the more I thought about it because toads ribbit when they are trying to sing, or when marking territory, or when the weather is changing, or when attracting a mate. In fact, toads seem to have an instinct to ribbit all the time, to be unashamed of the music that is their voice. They don’t have a need to apologize for ribbiting pre-ribbit. If they did, it’d probably sound the same anyways. It’d still sound like, Still here. Still here. So if I am really, honestly, dedicated to letting all the toads go, then why would I expect less noise from myself?
“We’re a block away from our new home,” he said.
There was a time when I thought I would only share my home with one person.
There’s a toad that is unique beyond any other amphibians. Trickster. Old as the Jurassic period. It’s named: the Mexican burrowing toad. This toad has a call that can be heard 4km away. It’s nicknamed “drunk toad” as researchers claim its ribbit resembles a ship of drunken sailors. If James was to be a toad, he’d be this one. Ancient. Adaptable to any climate. Comically distinct voice that can’t be real, and yet is. Can change its tongue to any shape that’s needed, depending on the food. The toad knows how to close both his eyes, knows how to hide better than most. He was my first love. Now, he’s married. I held onto the thought of him for years, thinking because he was my first love, he must, of course, be the last.
When he came back into my life, I was in college and he was engaged. Still, he called me to visit. He wanted me to come over for beers, and a shitty sci-fi movie and poker (although none of us actually played poker) in the apartment that he shared with his fiancee. His fiancee was on vacation. Our other friends left. He sat next to me on the couch. He pulled me on top of him. For a second, I let him. I let my chest rest on his chest, felt his breath lift me up and drop me. I could smell his Old Spice. My chin still fit in the nape of his neck as if it belong nowhere else. Here, this was my secret, and hidden desire.
Among other things, he said, “If I was smarter then, it could have been you.”
My heart collapsed into itself. Here. Here was the moment that I had once wanted so badly to get? I wanted my, Weren’t we young? And stupid? Didn’t he want to give me back that ring that he gave me when I was seventeen, that only fit on my big thumb, that made me feel as if we were stuck in the 1960’s, that none of his other girlfriends wore, that made me feel promised? Instead, I felt hollow and cold.
“You can stay the night if you want,” he said, with a voice that hinted please.
I could see his eyes wandering. I could feel my cheeks blushing. I could see myself rolling my eyes, swatting him away, and then, ultimately, deciding to burrow back into the cavern that was our love. I could smell the apple cinnamon candles that he burned for me. I could see his blue eyes flicking with a light that even he forgot was there. I could feel my shoulders relax. But, I didn’t stay. I wanted to shout, to shove, to punch his chest, but, I didn’t say a thing to him. I just left. I ran back to my car, and as the moon grew fat and full behind me in the rearview mirror, swallowed each scream. I buried them deep.
Last week, on Facebook, I saw the toad had posted wedding photos, celebrating their four year anniversary. I thought of commenting, “Coulda been me!” Or, “Good thing we didn’t screw!” I don’t.
I clicked onto the photo of the blushing bride. I stared at her face. In the picture she is smiling so much she doesn’t look like she has any lips, just all blinding-white teeth. You won’t see his face, just his grip. See how loose it is? I felt my mouth filling with spit. This toad was angry not because it is so old, but because it has to hide, because it cannot say I am old, and I’ve seen things. If you knew what I knew, would you choose to stay where you are, Darling? Would you still bake him cookies with extra chocolate chips and brownie bits? Would you make him sign a contract to not speak to me for another two years, which, apparently, was what it took for you to stay with him when you heard of my name from his lip, when you thought that just maybe I could be unresolved in his heart? Would you even know how to spell my name? I used to want to be you. I used to want to be kept under his hand too. I see that he has an online app to keep track of how many miles, how many minutes he runs. Honest to God, this toad wants to tell you, blushing bride, if one day he doesn’t return back home, it was never your fault, or mine.
I spot our place before Peter does. It’s a red brick building. Three floors. No porches, or decks. Coin-operated laundry. It’s surrounded by a small parking lot fit for four cars. We will live on the ground floor. Inside, the lighting is poor. It reminds me of a burrow. When I tell Peter this, he says, “I’ve already looked into it on the web. We can get lights and mirrors and they say it will make the place look larger, and brighter.” I smiled with his research, with his desire to bring more light into the room, to cast away the shadows that so easily can fall between people. We won’t hide a thing. I began crying again.
“Are you feeling any better?” Peter asked, wiping my cheek.
“Yes,” I said. “I just can’t stop crying.”
“Are you still thinking about toads?”
“Yes. Not toads, but, you know what I mean.”
He stared at me, waiting for me to continue my thought.
“There’s a lot of things I don’t think I say at the time. There’s too much.”
“Do you know that cane toads were used in more places than Australia to solve grub problems near sugarcanes? It’s true. They’ve been introduced into various places in the world, in the Caribbean, Americas, you name it. Funny thing about them is they feed on dead and living matter.”
“How is that funny?” I asked.
“They can’t tell the difference between what’s dead or not. They fuck that way too.”
I was still at a loss to how this new fact about toads would make me feel better about my toads, but his hands were waving around in the air as he spoke, so, I figured I might as well listen to him. It’s hard not to listen to Peter when he speaks because his entire body acts out whatever it is that he’s saying. Listening to him you feel as if you are watching a one-man play, or a private improv act created just for you. He’s louder than I ever am, but isn’t shy about it; I love that verve of him. You stand next to him for five seconds or so, and you can feel your own arms lifting, and your own voice raising itself up to match his pitch, and suddenly, you have become a part of the play too. You become a louder, stronger you.
“What I’m saying is they are mindless,” he said. “They only know how to feed and mate and never get tired. They can’t even tell if they’re mating with something that’s already dead.”
“Yeah, it’s fucked up.”
I laughed. I don’t know why I was expecting him to deliver me a sound answer to why an Australian pest could ever tell me something about my heart, but I was. I loved the idea that he could use a story to illustrate a lesson for me about the workings of my own heart, and I was hungry for that. I was hungry to have something to share with others like me who can look back into their lives and find each and every moment where they didn’t speak up, when it was too hard to do, or, when you knew if you did, you were risking losing too much in the process. Peter is just talking about toads. Not lessons.
No one could give me those lessons, but myself. Maybe it wasn’t just about squashing those toads, smooshing them out of existence, zapping out all feelings. Maybe it was just as much about finding them, in those crawlspaces of my heart, and asking them how they got there, and learning how to let them go, or, as the case might be, which ones want to stay, which ones insist on being good for me to keep.
There used to be a toad called: the golden toad. Now, they’re extinct. Their coats were so golden scientists joked, Those skins can’t be real. They look to be painted orange. They look like shiny jewels! They lived on the forest floor, near puddles. No bigger than your fist. Their lives were dependent on water and thrived or suffered based on the weather. Too much rain and they would float away. Too little rain and these tiny specimens would dry up like plum-pits. In order for these tiny toads to thrive, they needed stability, shade, shelter from the heat. No one exactly knows what happened, but it’s assumed that once Costa Rica started to lose its forests, it lost its gem-like amphibians too. They weren’t brought in to serve some greater purpose like the cane toads. They weren’t the oldest, nor the most adaptable like the Mexican burrowing toad. They weren’t as feisty as the fire-bellied toad. They weren’t brought into creation to get rid of others. They were small things, irrelevant, reverent of shade. They kept company in loving life-long pairs. They kept to their burrows in their pockets of safety in their corner of world.
Looking at Peter, I can think of one toad that I wish to keep in my heart.
Cassandra A. Clarke received her MFA in Fiction from Emerson College. Her work has been previously published (or upcoming) at: Electric Literature, Word Riot, Cartridge Lit, Gone Lawn and other speculative places. She’s the Chief Editor of the new-weird literary magazine, Spectator & Spooks and a proud member of The Pug Squad writing collective. When not writing, Cassandra competes locally in Taekwondo sparring and can be found training in her dojang, Jae H. Kim Taekwondo, in Cambridge, MA.