Breiden shoves his phone in Gigi’s eyes and says “piercing is easy, look.” He’s sweaty from tap tap tapping along on plastic drums to a Van Halen song in a video game. Gigi watches the video on his phone but turns away when needle spikes nipple. She looks back down at the beets she shaves to bake with carrots and Brussels sprouts. “Oh, Breiden, I don’t know if I can do that.”
“Clamp. Stick. That’s it,” he says. “I could do it myself, but I want you to.” He takes off his shirt and rubs his nipple until it stiffens. Gigi pinches it and tells him to take a shower.
Gigi makes dinner for the two of them after their shift at the carton factory. Since her son Kenneth left for U of M’s marching band, Breiden’s been around a lot more. Gigi adores him. Breiden likes Gigi too. He doesn’t like the healthy meals she makes but she makes them so he eats them. Breiden needs his nutrients to practice his plastic drums. At least Gigi lets him put chocolate syrup in his almond drink. That shit tastes like chalk otherwise, Breiden thinks. And Gigi doesn’t drink titty milk, something about cow hormone.
While they eat, TV time is Gigi’s choice. She likes Animal Planet. The narrator explains how a chimpanzee uses her opposable thumbs to pick out the nits and dry skin and dirt in her lover’s coat. The calm British voice describes this daily intimacy ritual as an important part in the chimpanzee’s romantic life. The intimacy ritual deepens the bond between the two chimpanzees. Gigi squeezes Breiden’s hand when the TV says “intimacy ritual.”
When they finish eating and watching, Breiden quick rinses the dishes but leaves them sitting in Gigi’s sink. He hops on her computer and orders a do-it-yourself piercing kit on her Amazon account but has it delivered to his apartment. He knows Gigi likes candles, so he pops a three-wick cake sent in the basket for her.
“All right, Geeg, I ordered the kit,” he says. Gigi sighs but she doesn’t say she won’t do it.
In the morning Gigi makes Breiden walk to the carton factory. She only lives a couple of blocks away but Sturgis is a small town and people love their cars. “But I have a Jeep,” Breiden says. “Why wouldn’t I drive my Jeep? Let me give you a ride in my Jeep.”
“You don’t always get what you want, Breiden,” Gigi says. “And I need my exercise.” Gigi tries her best to live healthy. Breiden follows along, even though he would be just as happy eating Taco Bell every meal. It’s right down the road, a ten-minute trip tops, including drive thru time. But Gigi won’t have that. Gigi is a big woman and people automatically think she’s lazy and unhealthy. They don’t notice she walks to work every day. They don’t notice her shoes with the kangaroos on them. A different pair every day, to match her shirts. They don’t notice her salads at lunch. They just notice her body bigger than others and think every choice and decision she makes is greasy.
There’s other stuff about Gigi that Breiden knows that other people don’t. Like she decorates her house every season. She collected fallen leaves and clothes pinned them to string and tacked the strands to the living room ceiling so when Breiden plays the plastic drums it’s like he’s playing an outdoor show. Most people don’t know she’s a member of the historical society and volunteers there monthly, taking down the memories of senior citizens. She recycles— and not just the Michigan 10 cent deposit bottles and cans. She sorts her aluminums and papers and glasses. But everyone in Sturgis just sees a woman, fat and lazy and old.
Gigi works in quality control. She uses a special lens to look at the ink dots on the cartons, matches them with Pantone strips, makes sure colors are the colors they are supposed to be. She has a checklist. She’s been at the carton factory since after she graduated high school almost 25 years ago and has worked in every department.
Breiden’s only 24 and started a year ago as a waste stripper. He uses a loud, handheld machine to remove excess cardboard from the cartons after they’re printed and cut but before they get packaged up and shipped out. Waste stripping is low rung for new hires. He got the job through a job recruitment center.
Cal is a die cutter. His machine is right by the waste stripping station. Cal’s over ten years older than Breiden but they’ve been tight as titties since Cal came back to the carton factory after his mom died. He was her caretaker for a decade but had to redo his life and he’d worked on the printer before her
accident, so coming back made sense. Breiden and Cal spent a night bonding over their dead moms but now don’t bring it up much. Instead they fuck with each other in their downtime at work. It’s a different kind of bonding.
This morning Breiden uses a whole roll of packaging tape on Cal’s Mountain Dew bottle, a big one liter, and Cal spends his 15-minute break working at it with a utility knife. He gets through but slices into the bottle and pop spurts all over his jeans. From the break room’s corner a voice calls out, “You fucking idiot.”
Two hours later, right as everyone clocks off for lunch, Breiden hears his name hollered and turns around to catch a nickel rubberbanded straight into his nipple. At least now he knows how the piercing will feel. He flips Cal the bird, rubs his chest, and goes into the break room to share a big Tupperware salad with Gigi.
Twice a week Breiden Jeeps the plastic drum set to Cal’s mom’s house for plastic band practice. Cal still calls it his mom’s house so Breiden goes with it. Most of her stuff is gone but there’s still a Sharpie mark on the shower handle from when Cal had to bathe her but she couldn’t say how hot was too hot. Breiden’s glad his mom never went through dementia or another long and slow decline, just a funnel cloud, a tree branch.
This month, Breiden and Cal are going to enter the Jerk’s Bar competition. Before they got serious and decided they were ready for the stage they spent their nights stoned and battling each other with plastic guitars, seeing who could get a higher score. Cal was the better plastic guitarist, so Breiden picked up the plastic drums. Now they work together on a set list, repeat songs until they get a perfect score on the expert setting.
They need to find one more member though, a singer, for the Jerk’s competition. Accuracy and score are important but so is performance and two guys with plastic instruments is lame, especially when one’s old. There’s a crowd at these things. “Geeg knows all the words to like every song,” Breiden suggests.
Cal asks, “Why do you have a nickname for her?” He sits on his worn couch, plastic guitar strapped high on his chest. He says, “We need someone hot and not old. Gigi is old and not hot.” Breiden flings a drumstick at Cal’s crotch. It nicks his tip. They have to restart the song.
After plastic band practice, Breiden Jeeps the drums back to Gigi’s. Her son Kenneth left the toy behind when he went to college. Breiden never thought about college, just a job and getting out of his uncle’s extra room. Now Breiden thinks about Kenneth in college, wonders how he decided what to take with him and what he decided to leave behind. When Breiden stores the plastic drums, he lingers and explores Kenneth’s room.
The overhead light’s off and just a desk lamp glows and the room’s colder than the rest of the house because Gigi closed the vents to save on heat. As Breiden pulls fat fantasy novels from a low shelf, looks at the covers, and puts them back, Gigi stares from the doorway. She watches him run his hand down the smoothed ‘go blue’ poster tacked into the wall. Breiden sits on the bed and bounces, looks between his feet at what’s collected underneath. When he sits up, he sees Gigi’s silhouette. “Find anything good?” she asks and smiles but Breiden can’t see the details of her face.
“I was just looking,” he says. “I’ll get out.” He stands and steps toward the door.
“Keep looking,” she says. “It’s not like you’re in trouble.” He goes to her at the door anyway, and kisses her. She tells him she’s going to real bed but he stays in her absent son’s room.
On the desk, pushed to the back corner, there’s a maize and blue frame with a picture of Kenneth and Gigi visiting campus. Breiden wonders if Kenneth thinks about his mom, if he wonders what Gigi does while he’s in lecture halls and cafeterias. Breiden thinks he would think about his mom if she was alive and he was in college and across the state. He would call her and they would talk and she would visit during parent’s weekend.
Breiden checks the time on his phone and it’s nearly 1 am. He tells himself he’ll go to bed in a minute but he stays in Kenneth’s room, in the dull and the cold, and keeps looking at Kenneth’s leftovers.
Cal invites Staycee to practice with him and Breiden. She works up front in administration, graduated two years before Breiden. She is hot and not old. She can’t match the pitches right and keeps laughing. They fail songs on the normal setting. Breiden says, “Don’t feel dumb, it’s just a game.” Staycee smiles crooked little canines. Breiden sits straight on the drum stool, plays his best, tightens his chest and arm muscles. Staycee looks over at him during the vocal breaks, bops in place, and dances her eyebrows up and down.
When they finish, Breiden and Staycee walk down Cal’s mom’s driveway together. She touches his sweaty back and asks, “What’s up with you and that old lady at work?”
Breiden says, “Kenny went away to college.” They talk about practicing some more, at Breiden’s place, just vocals and drums. Breiden taps his number into her phone.
Back at Gigi’s, Breiden gets a text from Staycee that’s the microphone emoji, the cat with heart eyes, and the microphone again. Another text that says “sunday?” comes in right after. Gigi asks why he’s smiling and he explains the piercing kit came. Gigi rolls her eyes. “We’ll see about that,” she says.
Gigi and Breiden spend the weekend together. They drive out of Sturgis to a state-highway stand that sells the best local vegetables and fruits. Gigi is into the local stuff. The stand sells jellybeans and other bulk candies too. Breiden mixes a bag of fruit flavored jelly beans and says, “This is my kind of salad.”
For dinner, Gigi makes a real salad with her fresh ingredients. They go to the movies and watch a cartoon about fish. Two women sit next to Gigi and Breiden watches their hands sneak together in the dark theater. He wonders about the sexy stuff they do. He wonders if they are moms.
On Sunday Breiden wakes up to Gigi clenching and unclenching her hands around his dick. She’s still asleep. He moves to her already wet crotch and Gigi wakes up thinking what a good start to the week. She organizes Sundays as the first not the last day of the week. It helps her to put the week into an order she enjoys, with a day for herself in the beginning and a day at the end. It’s a cycle instead of a reward.
In the afternoon Gigi FaceTimes her son Kenneth. Breiden taps on the plastic drum kit to a System of a Down song. Gigi asks him, “Could you cool it on the drums for a bit?I can’t hear Kenny over tap tap tap.” Breidenis embarrassed. He needs to practice for the Jerk’s competition but he is playing with Kenneth’s toys.
He turns off the game, the TV, everything and yells, “Sup, Ken,” and grabs his jacket. “I gotta go, Geeg.” He kisses her quick and goes for the door.
She pauses the call. “Get back here. Sit down.”
“I told Cal I would hang out with him. I’ll see you later, promise.”
“Fine, but gimme a real kiss.”
Breiden really smooches Gigi. They hold long and he pinches her earlobe, smooths her barely-there downy hairs. When they pull apart there’s a pop that fills the living room. Gigi smiles at him then she goes into her bedroom and closes the door. When Kenneth’s voice comes back through her phone, Breiden unplugs the plastic drum set and goes out the backdoor.
When he gets to his place the piercing kit and candle are sitting in his mailbox. He rips open the package and thinks it’s fucked what you can get for ten bucks on Amazon.
Breiden texts Staycee and asks if she still wants to practice. She texts back, “yeh, lemme finish this ep of survivor lol.” While he waits, Breiden opens the Amazon package. The candle is a bad gift. He lights all three wicks and sits it on his coffee table. There isn’t much else in his apartment: a brick of Ramen on the kitchen counter, one floor lamp, a sofa and a TV and video games. He opens the blinds and the windows to try and let the fall wind mix with the cakey candle.
The piercing kit is hollow needles, jewelry, sanitizer wipes, black latex gloves, and a clamp. A flimsy brochure explains that the process is simple: clamp the flesh to be pierced and stab through with a hollow needle. The jewelry bar fits into the hollow needle but the bead is too big, so when the needle is pulled out, the bar stays in the flesh. Screw the other bead on the jewelry’s exposed end and flesh is properly pierced.
Breiden takes off his shirt and clamps his nipple. Even thinking about a new hole rushes his endorphins. When he hears a knock at the door, he throws everything on the coffee table, pulls on his shirt.
Staycee wears a Western Michigan hoodie with the collar cut and jeans. She sits down and sees the kit spread on the table. She opens a needle without asking. “Do you need help piercing something?” She leans back, pulls up her sweatshirt, and shows Breiden her belly button. Inside her hole floats a rocket held in place by a piercing through her button’s top. “I did it myself,” she says.
Breiden turns on the TV for some noise. It’s Animal Planet. The narrator’s calm and British voice describes how Capuchin monkeys, small monkeys with golden faces and chests, reach their fingers deep into each others eye sockets, dig below the eyelid until two knuckles are hidden. The monkeys sit motionless while the palpation happens. When the monkeys go off to hunt squirrels, one will distract a mother while the other steals a baby. The two monkeys will then share the baby meal. The eye socket bond assures the distraction monkey that even though he doesn’t hold the baby squirrel meal, he will eat some of it, that his eye socket partner will share.
Stacyee fingers Breiden’s nipple, pinches it, then clamps it firm. He wishes he would have shut the window, now that the sun is down and his shirt is off, and he is goose bumped. “On three, okay.” Staycee says. “One, two,” and plunges needle through nipple. She inserts the bar, pulls the needle out, and twists on the second bead. There isn’t much blood.
On the couch, Breiden bends his neck to look at his nipple. He thinks about how he did it, how he actually went through with the piercing. The whole thing was kind of kinky, Staycee and the needle and the nipple. He thinks the piercing will make him cooler but he’s more excited by the experience. Staycee asks, “Do you still wanna practice or are you like conked out?”
There is a lightness in Breiden’s head but he wants the moment to extend. And the drums are still in his Jeep outside. “Let’s finish this show about the monkeys.”
Staycee sits on the couch next to him and looks at her phone for ten minutes while the calm British voice describes chimpanzees picking dirt and dead skin off of one another. Breiden realizes he’s seen this before. When the credits start to scroll, Staycee stands up and heads for the door. “See you around at work. Remember to clean that thing!” she says and leaves.
Gigi, Breiden, and Cal all eat lunch together in the break room. The nipple is swelled and sore. Breiden hunches forward, tries to keep his shirt from rubbing his chest. Even though he stayed at his own apartment last night, Gigi packed a lunch for the two of them to share: hummus and cucumber and carrots and cherry tomatoes. She even brought a small piece of cobbler for him. “Sorry, Geeg, I grabbed a Kroger shrimp cocktail on my way in,” Breiden says.
“I’ll eat some of it,” Cal says and scoots closer. “You coming to the Jerk’s competition this Friday, Gigi?”
Gigi looks at Breiden and asks, “Am I invited?”
“You don’t need my permission!” he says. The fabric snags nipple and his body flinches. Gigi sighs and pops a cherry tomato in her mouth.
Breiden dips his last shrimp in cocktail sauce, rips the body from the tail, swallows the pink curl without chewing. He throws out all the plastic trash and goes to check the nipple. The carton factory’s men’s room is one stall and one urinal and cleaned infrequently. The urine smell is strong, the fan’s hum consistent. Breiden’s nipple oozes yellow on each side. He licks his pinky and wipes at the goo, tries to not irritate it any more. He takes off his shirt and flexes in the mirror. He can’t decide if he should have Staycee do the other one. Or Gigi. Cal comes into the bathroom and see him shirtless, laughs, asks, “the fuck, man?” Breiden points to the punctured nub. Cal comes in close and pokes it. He shakes his head and takes his piss.
The nipple’s pissed. It’s all red and big with pus that’s green. Heat radiates. Breiden Googles shit like crazy but doesn’t have any of the remedies mentioned. No saline solutions or sea salt water. If only he wasn’t so stupid, he thinks. He calls Gigi. She can hear a panic in his voice and tells him to come over.
When Breiden opens the backdoor, Gigi tries to give him a hug but he rears back. She holds his shoulders, asks, “What’s this all about, Breiden?” He lifts his shirt, shows her the angry jellybean of a nipple. Her face puckers and she leads him into the bathroom. She says, “I thought I was gonna do this, our little intimacy ritual, but you went and did it yourself.”
“I had help,” Breiden says.
“Oh, God, not Cal.” Gigi grabs the scentless soap with the God messages all over its label. Breiden winces with expectation but it doesn’t sting. He feels stupid for having Staycee pierce his nipple, and now the burning and the pain. He knows he could lie and tell Gigi that Cal and he went into Cal’s mom’s bathroom and that Cal clamped and poked his little nipple. Gigi would sigh but she wouldn’t be hurt. She might even laugh. Breiden doesn’t want Gigi to laugh at him. Part of him wants Gigi to hurt. She wouldn’t pierce him so he got help and it didn’t work and now he has to crawl back to her.
“Staycee did it the other night,” he says.
Gigi’s quiet. She finishes cleaning him and pulls his shirt back down. She says, “You should be fine, clean it every few hours.” She fills a travel-sized bottle with some scentless soap. “If it gets worse, you can call me. I’ve got to go to bed though.”
It’s only 8 pm. Breiden doesn’t say anything about Gigi going to bed two hours early. He lets himself out the back door.
It’s the morning of the Jerk’s Bar competition and Breiden wakes with a fever. He tried rubbing alcohol after the soap Gigi gave him didn’t work and now the nipple is flakey and dry but bigger and oozes more pus. In his apartment’s bare bathroom, he stands close to the mirror and extracts the metal bar from his nipple. A small swash of relief sweeps. He leaves off his shirt and lies on the couch and dials the carton factory.
He expects to hear Staycee’s voice when he calls in sick but it’s someone he doesn’t recognize. He runs through the administration faces and can’t place the voice with anyone up there. It’s a small factory and the turnover isn’t as high in front so he thinks he should know everyone. The voice says they’ll tell his supervisor. They don’t tell him to feel better or that they’ll see him on Monday. Breiden clicks off the call and dozes on the couch.
It’s past break time when he wakes up but Cal hasn’t texted him anything. Breiden sends him the puking emoji and the needle emoji. The typing bubble flashes for a second then nothing. Maybe he’s swamped with the week ending. Maybe night shift didn’t pull weight again.
Breiden opens up the conversation with Gigi but doesn’t type anything. The last thing she said was ‘lol ok breiden.” He doesn’t remember what they were talking about. He could scroll up but it doesn’t matter. The last few days have been smiles in the break room, them at separate tables, Gigi with her salads and her kangaroo shoes and Breiden with his Taco Bell bag. Kenneth’s drums are still in the back of his Jeep.