by CHRISTINA RAY HENRY
Alpacas by Diane Hamilton | Flickr
Perhaps it was the gummy knobble that protruded where the fighting teeth had been filed down that drove Verna to the alpaca convention every year. Or maybe it was that the dopey-looking animals had teeth intended for scrotal ripping that piqued her curiosity. But after that first winter, when she had fled to the arena to break up the monotony of another frigid day, she’d returned to the convention three times more. Usually, she came alone, but this year Aaron was with her.
Aaron had been her personal trainer for four months prior to asking her on a date. This outing counted as their third. He had agreed to attend the convention if she would join him for dinner at his apartment. The plan made for their best date yet. Out of the gym, new conversations could arise and an intimate shared meal sounded nice.
Aaron had first invited her to attend the local women’s figure competition. His competitor, Shayla, performed her quarter turns with precision. Unfortunately, her back lat spread had left the judges underwhelmed. “In a year or two that’s going to be you up there,” he had told Verna as he pulled her close and kissed her forehead.
The second date had been spontaneous, an evening sitting on Aaron’s tailgate in the gym parking lot. He’d talked about the benefits of branched-chain amino acids for muscle development. They’d laughed about her terrible push-up form. And when the sun set, he’d kissed her on the cheek, and she had wished it had been her lips.
After a particularly strenuous workout, she had invited him to the convention, and now they sat together. His over-developed biceps strained the turnback hem of his polo. Verna worried that her shorts left her legs too exposed, but the way he held her hand gave her momentary comfort. The judge fawned over the crimp of La Bella Luna’s dense fibers. Aaron shifted on the unforgiving metal bleacher. Verna started to say they could go, but her favorite part of the assessment began: alpaca knees. She was enraptured.
Three years of watching and she was still unable to decipher what constituted a proportionate knee. She loved the words upright pasterns but how did the judge determine which ones were properly upright? He walked methodically along the row of dams, gazing from their withers to their two padded toes.
Magdalene’s Marcella of Maple Hacienda was awarded first prize. Tomorrow she’d be given an opportunity to win the championship. Marcella was a balanced beauty with stunning fleece, according to the judge. Marcella’s handler beamed with joy. The prize-winning alpaca’s ear twitched in an attempt to displace a persistent fly.
Aaron nudged Verna and asked if she wanted to grab a drink before dinner. Studs were being paraded into the ring as Marcella led the processional of dams out. Verna considered how the tail length and testicle size of each new contestant would be examined. A beverage might more successfully ease her into the evening.
They made their way through booths filled with lustrous yarn and stalls of waiting alpacas. One breeder monotonously brushed his dam’s fleece, removing strands of hay, fluffing her mahogany coat. As he stroked the hair, she wrapped her jaws around the metal bar of the stall and chomped, her bulging gum tissue on display.
While Aaron ordered drinks at the bar, Verna chose a table beneath a photograph of a portly woman she presumed to be Jane.
“You ever been to Fatty Jane’s before?” Aaron asked as he set a Tom Collins before her. She shook her head and took a sip. “Your squat form has really improved the last few weeks.” She wanted to avoid gym talk but it was their common point of interest. “Your glute activation is going to change your gains game!”
Verna took a bigger swig and examined Jane’s gently rolling thighs. Aaron’s gaze followed hers.
“Thank heavens you came to me before you reached that point. Can you imagine?”
She could. As she noted the wide smile revealing Jane’s magnificent incisors, she thought that Fatty Jane had found fulfillment that Verna’s constrictive living had not allowed.
“What did you think of the alpacas?” Verna asked.
“Weird animals,” Aaron said. “You know, we should have you doing barbell rows. If we start now, your lat spread could be killer.”
“If you showed animals, which one do you think you’d choose?” she asked.
“Shayna put in the hours.” Aaron continued. “But she wasn’t committed to the process. She’d lift heavy, but if it hurt, she’d pull back. I never could push her through the plateaus.”
Verna threw back her drink. “I’m going to go get ready for dinner,” she said. She regarded Jane once more before turning to leave.
“Don’t be late,” Aaron said, smiling at her.
Verna tried on several outfits before settling on a cobalt blue wrap dress. She cinched the belt around her waist, her thumb pushing into the squishy layer that veiled her ribs. She brushed her hair and pinned unruly stragglers into compliance. A subtle peach shade of gloss added a smidge of vibrancy to her lip.
She quietly knocked on the door of Aaron’s apartment, hoping that if she knocked softly enough, he might forget to answer. Raucous cheering broke out on the other side of the door. Deep cries of “goal!” floated through the hall. Verna turned to leave. She could call Aaron when she got home and let him know she wasn’t feeling well. Before she stepped away, the door opened.
Aaron enveloped her in his arms, smashing her face into his pectorals. Stepping back, he admired her. “You are looking so much better!” he said, and she wished she had worn the olive- green slacks.
His apartment was tastefully decorated, not too cluttered, a respectable number of books on the shelves. A tobacco and bourbon scented candle flickered on the coffee table.
“Guys, this Verna,” he said ushering her into the room. “Verna. Travis and Caleb.” She shook their hands and plopped on the leather sofa, swallowing the sting of disappointment. This wasn’t the romantic dinner she had envisioned.
“Food should be ready in fifteen,” Aaron told her.
The skirt of her dress had ridden up, and she fixated on the cellulite dimples that formed where her thigh met the cushion. She looked to Aaron for reassurance, but all she found in his slate-colored eyes was the reflection of the flashing television. Without ever looking away from the game, he pulled her garment to her knees, covering the unsightliness. Aaron threw his arm over her shoulder, and she felt the weight of his affection. She noticed the unevenness of the skin on her knees. They were too bony and simultaneously grotesquely spongey.
Aaron tucked Verna’s hair behind her ear and whispered, “I’m glad you’re here.” But Verna kept thinking about her ankles and how her sandals accentuated them.
The oven timer buzzed, startling her. Aaron stood, and Verna followed, not wanting to be left alone with his roommates. He looked at her with admiration and grabbed her hand.
“Look at those legs!” he said as he spun her around.
Travis and Caleb grinned uncomfortably, not quite sure where to look. “Damn, we’ve done some good work!” Aaron exclaimed. As he reached to smooth the baby hairs that refused to be tamed, she thought he might kiss her. Strangers on the couch were spectating as Aaron leaned in closer. Verna tried to back away. His hand near the crown of her head, and she yielded to her impulse. She bit his forearm.
She was shocked at the immediate relief she felt as her teeth sank into his flesh. Then horrified as a ferric flavor hit her tongue.
“What the hell!” he yelled as he yanked his arm away.
Travis covered his mouth stifling his laughter. “I am out, Man,” he said as he made his way to his room. “This chick is too much for me.” As soon as Caleb had processed what had occurred, he rushed to the kitchen.
Aaron traced the burgeoning bite marks with his forefinger. “You need to leave!” he commanded, and Verna agreed. A trickle of blood ran down his wrist and pooled in the palm of his hand. Caleb returned from the kitchen with an ice pack and towel. He gently wrapped Aaron’s arm.
“That’s messed up, Dude,” he said as he doctored the wound. Aaron ripped his arm away, choosing to nurse his own injury. “I’ll get peroxide,” Caleb said. Aaron nodded in gratitude.
Verna stopped at the door to apologize.
“Get out of my house!” Aaron yelled, so she did.
That night Verna stood stoically before her floor-length mirror. Rising on the balls of her feet, she examined her joints. Her tongue ran across the smooth enamel of her teeth. Sharp mint now replaced the taste of iron. She found pride in her hardy dentin and the liberation she felt in no longer being handled.
Christina Ray Henry is a native Midwesterner. She is a sufficient handbell ringer, adequate second soprano, and former potter. An admirer of many art disciplines, she has added wrestling with words to the long list of skills she is struggling to develop. She loves croissants, elephant nose shrews, and the decision paralysis that arises from ethical decision-making. Her work can be found or is forthcoming in New Feathers Anthology and Anti-Heroin Chic.