nao1I asked my coworkers if they thought kissing was like washing the dishes. A few of us looked away, including myself, over a strewn pile of essays. The question hung in the air like a fish pinned to the room’s low ceiling. Some stared at the cheap posters hung precariously on the walls; abruptly, like a broken necklace, their eyes slithered away into any open crevices, their pearl-like gaze scattered over the floor. Others diverted their attention elsewhere, readily reading other test booklets, and humbly, sotto voce, muttering gibberish. But one brave soul, who had a mouth that looked like a moose — equally mellow and dramatic, nodded towards me in exhortation. Tongue tied, I uttered no words. My point. What was my point? Apparently, I had no point. Today was just another day of work, and I sat at one table among twenty others, reading essay after essay. Starved essays with hollow content. Famished essays scored by famished readers. It was tedious work. One never quite knows the inner working of a reader’s mind. What appeared as a monotonous, modest exterior, in reality behaved nothing quite like its reader’s refulgent interior.

This room, an awkward corner of a large admissions essay scoring center situated at the bottom of a lopsided hill, had consumed a quarter of my adult life. An institution that, by the extreme circumstance of its insipidness, motivated others to enact all types of awkward social conduct, including, but not exclusive to, the cultivation of… well… strange visions. To my left were twelve pairs of heads, bobbing like mad corks on a sea of essays. To my right, twelve more pairs of nodding heads. To my back existed twelve more. So I was surrounded by bovines, who sat around dumbly as though they were bucolically constipated. Although scorers appeared like cows amongst many cows, their sole purpose there was merely to execute higher orders. But each one had their very own quirky mannerisms, singular behavior patterns that made you question whether they were ethically fitted to do what they do. One scorer flossed his teeth right at the table. Another scorer hardly ever bathed. All with bachelor degrees and more. My favorite was the scorer who sat adjacent to my table. In one hand she held the essay, with the other she furtively cupped her C-cup breast. At first I thought she was sensitive and protective. Perhaps she feared that in the midst of reading, the paper was going to molest her; fondling her breast seemed like the only decent thing to do. Perhaps, I thought, it was an involuntary response to the strict regulations at work that forbade uncovered containers. Later it got annoying. I didn’t care what her motives were. I thought, why doesn’t she just squirt the whole milky contents right into her black coffee mug, and leave the poor breast alone.

In the early days of this scoring profession, when I got to work in the new building across the street, the tables, even the essays themselves, new and shiny like a salesman’s oily fingers, glittered before our eyes with a crisp glare. We adjusted our reading glasses and looked down at the essays, noticing not only the students’ straggly penmanship, but our own very distorted reflections. I don’t know what it was like for others, but in that faint rendering, my image often seemed as that of a myopic, simpleton shrimp. My sorry soul was so remarkably pathetic that even when I departed from work, I trudged home looking down, and craning my mechanical 8-5 neck to see the environs of the dinky college town in which I resided. I couldn’t get much or far from life perpetually looking that way. Looking for something on the dirty ground to see a glitter of hope that would spark me to wonder if there was more to life than basking under a field of fluorescent tubes, papers stacked as high as Princess Pea’s mattresses, reading away my life. Sometimes when I walked that 4 miles home from work, a tattered piece of paper, wedged between grasses and dirt, seized my attention. I thought: should I pick it up, and put a score on it?

We retrogressed to these old, exploited tables made in the early ‘80s whose corners chipped off like crooked teeth, and found their jagged texture and angular posture overwhelming. Their serrated edges could be assuaged with time, and often had to be ignored, but their dullness was another matter altogether. The faces of the tables, like the essays themselves, were stern and always harbored mechanical expressions of bovine consternation. Now we saw our reflections and read the essays differently. We read them in light of their boredom and in light of their vexation. A duality that controlled the matter of our universe, but ultimately could not control the facility of our imagination. I recalled that, not two weeks ago, at the very beginning of their scoring existence, they held the essay a foot away from their foreheads. They read the essays at first attentively and then later casually. Now they slouched, and their heads, stiff like a penis, listlessly poked at the papers, gagging the air with their snoring. Occasionally they woke up, looked around suspiciously, and dotted in a score that they vaguely recalled two hours ago. Some others, though, spent two hours circling in one scan-tron dot. Their intense fixation was mesmerizing, and at the same time terrifying.

My mind traced back to my recent encounter with my friend Hawk, who took me to this farewell party at a quaint bar situated inside a hotel. It had been raining that evening, and before getting there I was already drowsy. I thought, oh yes, it’s a party. I ought to at least be semi-conscious, enough to indulge myself in the inebriated world. For two stinking hours, I sat there and did none of the above. Even the swimming pool seemed intoxicated with smoke. It was awfully dreadful and dreary. While my mind swam in this cloud of hebetude, my body slithered down the curvy chair. Every now and then I dragged myself up, hoping for a fire to ignite. On the edge of the bar’s formica counter, Hawk was swooning over a couple of corpulent white college girls who looked like jittering ivory torpedoes. He seemed to be doing quite marvelously fine. I sat there watching them purge their youth and liver with nocturnal binging, and what became of such sophomoric poisoning I would never know. I could see, however, the dimmed florescent light casting oval tattoos on their white exposed skin. The way they moved and glided, flesh against flesh, in and out of each other told me that this gluttonous sensuality was caked with hunger. Famished college girls wanting to have lots of fun.

I stared out the window. A crowd gathered at the entrance. More famished girls, truly in anorexic stature, truly famished, in 30-degree weather in mini-skirts, in tank tops, in high heels. They filed in as the bartenders prepared their drinks. I shifted my gaze elsewhere, shifting my eyes between the high ceiling and the swimming pool. Two men walked out of the pool, heading down the hall with white towels wrapped around their procreation toys and I wished then that they would “accidentally drop” so that I could view and gasp at their lovely bulky balls. But none of that happened. I remember resorting, not so unceremoniously, to just sitting there, tapping my fingernails on the wooden table, shifting around the cold glass drink sweating profusely from the melting ice, and looking left and right.

A fire did ignite. It materialized in the glamorous form of a woman. With her dark hair down and robed in a mystic dress, she infused the desiccated air with a misty rapture. One moment she was not here, another moment she was. Standing there, white as a liliaceous plant, in that vast, crowded room with her face so close to mine and the tangled aspect of her hair teasing my shoulder, I sensed a tremor, from her presence to mine. With her sudden appearance, I thought she must have just lit her dress like a candle. The flame and its incense had me half-drowsy, half-soporific. Between her body’s space and mine, a web—clear, steaming strings of some grandness spiraled our emotional dimensions up and down their imaginary vertical line, like translucent plates stacked like steps on the tips of one’s fingers. I was so pleased with her presence—so majestic, so potent—I couldn’t stop smiling. I recalled my lips and cheeks being stretched, extending my lips’ horizon beyond their falcate expansion. She intoxicated me! Oh! Her energy was so soft, so erotic, so deep! I felt like bursting. I would have liked to fall into her arms, to feel the sultry warmth of her bosoms beneath the etamine dress. To be embedded there, and watch as the sky falls, as the earth, with her eyelids closed, lubricates the air with her moist lips. But I stood there blankly gazing and gawking at her like a true social retard.

Unable to snore like others while sitting up, I resorted to drumming a HB 2 pencil on the table, and stared at the ceiling. With the slanted angle at which the fluorescent light penetrated the air, I could see elongated trapezoid shapes laced with dust suspended a few inches off the table. They exuded a redolent necrosis of chalk, moths, and crushed boxelder bugs. I stared back down; first, at my glass water bottle and the tumescent persimmon sitting right next to it; then shifted my gaze to the essay whose contents I couldn’t make out, scribbles of convoluted verbs, pathetic punctuation, made-up words; beside the fact that they were dull, they were also messy, and I wondered where I could squeeze this into the scoring rubric; then back at the scoring sheet; and tapped my fingernails on the table.

Not long after a fulfilling lunch, I became famished. If the essays and the prompt weren’t so boring and dull and dreadful, and the act of reading them wasn’t so boring and dull and dreadful, I doubted that I would be starved and feeling that the essays were, too, starved themselves. A strange twisted world opened up for me in this air of tedious verbosity. Somehow, in that haze of headache and boredom, I found myself deeply concentrated on an essay. So much so that I hardly had any idea what it was about. Sometimes when I stared hard at myself in the mirror, I dissolved completely. I was no longer Narcissus admiring himself on a mythical lake, or a nitwit realizing she was a nitwit. I became a breath that echoed a sound; a sound that perceived a vision; a vision that transcended time and became a river. This befuddled state of mind appeared as though I were peering into labyrinth of the vagina. It got so hairy sometimes. So more often than not, I ended up being or looking lost. Where was the students’ original line of thought? What was their point? Where was their sense of organization? Did they lose it all in their anxiety; in their struggle for success; in their fear of failure; in their inability to construct sentences?

Slowly I teased the essay out of its ordinary circumstance like I would with a persimmon, and found a thread, a river, that led me through its forest and out of its wilderness. I held the persimmon, the color of tangerine, against the room’s unnatural lighting. It glowed like a full moon after the autumnal equinox. An unripe persimmon could easily be seduced into a ripe one. The core of a slice of persimmon radiated softness. Although terribly quiet inside, its shore tasted like the labia of the sea. A sentence, a word, a thought would ignite my mind. And suddenly without knowing why or how, I had a crisp clarity of what the essay constituted and where, in the fuzzy scheme of the rubric, lay its clear, true, and only mark. I sealed its truth by dotting a score, circling it with a lead pencil on the numbers of the hierarchal grid of the scoring sheet. The same black dot that I envisioned as the thought that escaped my fingers, in the midst of taking a shower this morning, as it combed through the hairs, the few that were left, of my pubic providence. I had contemplated sadly if the corporeal state of mortality manifested itself in my pubic hair, and if water was the symbolism for time – that slowly, but remarkably, I was losing my hair, the youthful hirsuteness my body had failed to cultivate, the raw efficacy my body had failed to embrace. I thought of the water that was flowing through the landscape of my torso, moving towards the goatee down below—molding the shape of a brisk line before dripping off with it, pubic particle and all, into the gutter of darkness. A point of penetration. A dot solidified after the foreplay with banality. A mark on the external world that demonstrated that something somewhere was read and was consummated.

Yes, the point was that the bar’s door had been partly opened -at a 45 degree angle, to be precise. The light and cold air were peeking in like the pantomime clamor of the moon.

The exterior world we exited was cold and solid. This was how I felt the woman’s kiss. I didn’t expect us to kiss. And when it happened, she entered me, at first like brushing diffidently on the rim of a gel glass, then immediately she swallowed me, my tongue as if it were cool water. In light of this unexpected diffusion, I fell naturally right into the embrace of her kiss. It felt like washing the dishes, meditative and organic. But being kissed by her was more than water and the clamor of dishes floating, there was something about my tongue balancing on the luscious roundness of its organ’s malleability that drew the thick juice out of the well of my womanhood and into the night’s dream and incense. Some door in me flung open. And I wanted to be penetrated thoroughly as if my body was a pot, a series of pots, and suddenly they clamored greedily for their lids.

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Vi Khi Nao is the author of novel, Fish in Exile, and poetry collection, The Old Philosopher. Vi’s work includes poetry, fiction, film and cross-genre collaboration. She was the winner of 2014 Nightboat Poetry Prize and the 2016 Ronald Sukenick Innovative Fiction Contest.

Author photo credit: Stephen Olsen