VIRGIN SUNNING ON ARTIFICIAL ROCK by Kate Busatto

VIRGIN SUNNING ON ARTIFICIAL ROCK by Kate Busatto

Long before I was eye-to-eye—an approximation, dorsolateral to frontal eyes don’t quite align—with Valerie, she was Troubled. Difficult to parse out the root of the Trouble. I don’t like to pathologize, it puts me in the position of being pathologized. Which, as a Crocodile, is already an inherent risk. But if I had to guess—and like I said I really wouldn’t care to—the Trouble likely had something to do with the slight mustache Valerie developed as a teenager and couldn’t shake (shave?) despite depilatories, razors, laser treatments, waxing, sugaring, friction hair removal, plucking, epilation, thermo-kinectic selectivity, and the application of homemade papaya pastes to the upper lip area. Unsurprising that the feeling of always having something on her face developed into a complex. Mammalia, what a racket.

A complete lack of self-esteem compounded by the urge to cover her mouth compounded by people instructing her not to cover her mouth compounded by people staring at the buccal area. Lack of self-esteem does not annihilate longing. Social drive is a stronger instinct than shame. But Valerie, in winter balaclavas and phone operator jobs and internet-only affairs, had made herself so sequestered that she lacked company almost entirely. 

A year or so back, Valerie’s condominium acquired significant value suddenly. A large tech company opened its second office nearby, and the People in Patagonias would soon be overtaking the area. Valerie received a phone call from a chipper, and fecund voice, that of Len Shi, local realtor and television commercial star. He had bought up all the commercial slots sandwiching the game show, the one everyone likes, and his face had become as recognizable locally as any of the game show’s hosts. There was something uncanny about Len Shi, like with all realtors, something that emulsified him from the rest of humanity—the grit and slick of the body—a sheen of mediation, a negotiation of the oils he produced and wit of his belches and his inexplicably low resting heart rate. . Len could catch on fire and he would still be smiling, shimmering. In the End Times, Len Shi will survive as the simulacra of a realtor, the distorted yet modulated ideal, still with access to halogen teeth whitening and the word escrow while the other survivors derangedly scrounge for water, infant formula. In a word, Len was perfect. 

Valerie let out a small involuntary gasp when Len introduced himself over the telephone. He paused. She could hear him smiling. He explained the rising value of her property, that if she was interested in selling, she could make quite (and he really hit that voiceless alveolar stop) a profit. Valerie glanced around the condominium which was replete with a personal array of impersonal décor, long shots of serene places she had never been, gold vermeiled baubles and statuettes, and a couch, which no one else had ever sat on, but that she hoped someday, someone might. It all fit so perfectly, to her, in the condominium which she had bought with the money willed to her by her mother (who was taken out by an unfortunately persistent UTI). It felt a shame to her to box up her whole life, the coffee table books with uncracked spines, and move it to some other condominium whose quirks and crevices were yet unfamiliar. Valerie admired the smallness of the condominium’s windows, a feature that would be a minus to anyone else. But Valerie, she liked the privacy, the freedom to be without someone catching sight of her and her upper lip from the street. 

But to have Len Shi on the line? To expose herself to him by allowing him to save her phone number (how did he get her phone number? She imagined him dogged for her). This situation was aphrodisiac. She wished for the curling cord of halcyon days’ home phones, to coyly twist in her fingers, flirtation with object as surrogate for subject. She told Len she would “think about selling, really go over other options.” And here’s the kicker: in an uncharacteristic moment of bravery, she said, “I’m also in talks with a few of your competitors at the moment. The condo, it turns out, is really desirable.”

To which, that devil, he said, “I assure you, Valerie, that I have no competitors.” 

Be still her heart, goddamn! To hear her own name passed through such mouth…electrifying. When the call concluded, Valerie was awash with grief. The highs are high, and the lows are low, for humanity— not the case for Reptiles, we’re moderate beings.

Valerie could not reveal herself, in fullness, to Len. And yet, in that short phone call, her heart had progressed from passive crushing to lovestruckness. Excruciating. No one on television loves women with mustaches, she thought, other kinds of strange women have happy endings, but not hirsute femmes, no one romanticizes more than peach fuzz. Of course, you and I know the truth: there is nothing more unattractive than the self-anthem that one is unattractive, a fruit vendor advertising rotten pears. 

That night, she dipped her hand into her pajama bottoms. She touched the jungled pubic hair. She parted her labia. She got no further, but this was the furthest she had allowed herself in a long time. She woke late to the knock of a census worker at the door. The woman, whose face had hardened into an eternal sneer of hope’s dispossession, pried Valerie for information about her racial makeup (complicated), her age (disdainfully 37), and how many people lived in her home (just one). She resented the census worker. She was still wearing her pajamas, and she hated that even the the behemoth government could crouch, like a sadistic adult with cigarette breath talking to a child, and chasten her for her troubles. 

When she received an advertisement in the mail for Len’s firm a few days later, Valerie was struck all over again with the debilitating infatuation. His face, in 2”x2” format, struck her to the core, blitzed and wasted her judgment, sent her into an unfamiliar desperation. Grifter mode. Was he, this twist of information age fate, the solution? When had someone so desperately coveted something she possessed? Valerie called up Len in her pink and lachrymator vision. She offered him a walkthrough of the condominium, the offer to represent heras the buyer. 

Crocodiles, in all of our complexity, do not experience sexual pleasure in the way that humans do. But we do understand notions of courtship: males slap their snouts against the water, produce low infrasound rumbles. Len Shi wore aftershave and took his sparkling shoes off in the entryway. He ran two fingers over the crown molding. Valerie yearned to rub her snout and back against him. To blow bubbles for him. To show him her cloaca, uniorifice of waste and mating. She covered her lips with a modest hand. He asked her to repeat herself when describing the upgrades she had made to the cabinet pulls. I cannot relate the qualia  of the human woman, but I tell you, Valerie felt the infrasound rumble! To have him in her home, examining her toilet and the energy ratings of her windows. She imagined him appraising her spirit in the same way through the course of their business dealings, perhaps even noticing her hidden curb appeal, the Carrara navel and arcuate spine.   

She listed her home at Len’s staggering recommendation. He sent in his photography team. He staged the home his way, exchanging her baubles for his tchotchkes. Valerie watched him transform the condominium by charisma alone. She stood, readying, in the corners, where dirt from prospective buyers’ shoes collected. She watched his tricks—the candles and linzer cookies and champagne in plastic flutes—and grew in love. Len placated her with dazzling smiles. Len reassured her that she would make quite a profit. And together? Should they take their earnings to an overwater bungalow in Vanuatu? She could only fantasize, and endlessly she did. 

What are the stakes for our Valerie, unvaliant? No reason to end up on the skids the first time the croupier spins in favor of the house. But this metaphor assumes that capital is plentiful, or at least abundant enough to keep the lights on. For Valerie, the confidence capital, her exposure to social risk, her margins for vulnerability: all slim. One bet, the bet she made on Len Shi, predicated on the seduction of the condominium, was all she had in her. And brainwashed by Hollywood, Valerie believed that one braveness was enough to make up for a lifetime of fear, that she would lift herself out of Trouble with one fell enticement. 

At an open house, Len charoned couples through the condominium as they envisioned small, mutual eternities. This bedroom could be ours! We can put your grandmother’s hutch in this corner! A breakfast nook! (As a being who does not require three meals per day, I am chronically confused by humans’ obsession with breakfast nooks). Valerie observed the mated pairs, feels some kind of itch under the skin. Grief? Yearning: an alchemy of grief and longing. Len as the showboat, she as the wallflower, blossoming like an O’Keefe. Could Len not see this vision coming to fruition? Can he not imagine, she wondered, their own condominium? 

Len laughed at the jokes of a woman in cheetah print and purple frames. Her husband remained staunch and dry but stared at her uvula quivering as she laughed. Valerie wilted in the corner, though Len had explained it was not standard practice for the seller to be at the open houses. But he allowed her to remain, given she was quiet and wine-sipping. Easy! Perhaps his exception had been a bid.  

“Well the nice thing about the two bedroom,” Len shined, “Is that the second bedroom can be a bitty office or a nursery.” 

The cheetah woman stopped her howling: “It’s unethical to have children in this environment. What with the erosion of—”

“Oh I didn’t mean.” 

“We’re part of the Child Free movement.” 

“Right, well, an office then.” 

“Do you have children?” 

“NO,” Valerie piped up from the shadows. The cheetah woman had not noticed her before. She continued, “We don’t. My, um—”

“Right. My wife and I,” Len glowed, “are also Child Free. We just didn’t want to assume. Most people don’t understand.” 

The cheetah woman and her wildebeest husband (I’m hungry) put an offer in for the condominium from the car. Len was triumphant. It was cash, at asking price. They felt an urgency to be near the large tech company office, they felt a kinship to Len and his radiant(!) wife. Len, the victor, guzzled the last of the Costco wine. He paced circles around the kitchen. He raved about profit and closing and inspections. Valerie took her hands from her mouth. 

“Should we play house? Er, condominium.”

And Len stopped dead in his tracks, “Oh sweetheart.” 

Valerie’s heart swelled. Len scowled. Was this his look of seduction? It was… acrid. “F-Y-I,” he said with all the salesmanship gone from his voice, “I don’t fuck clients. And even if I did.” 

READER! The floor falls away. Into a cavernous black hole, the condominium complex collapses. The staged tchotchkes swirl like a tornado as they are absorbed into the ether. The stars go dark. Crocodiles, predictably, are the only organisms who survive the journey through the vortex. All is LOST. 

It was her one shot! Had any other organism shown so much interest in her? Could she picture another life, one without Len? One where she did not recite my boyfriend is a realtor  to nail techs and second cousins? What does it mean to be halfless, in the Grecian sense, to know that your other set of limbs, your second nose, are all affixed to an obstinate man? Valerie drowned herself in chocolate Snack Pack pudding singles. She wallowed in late night talk shows with glimmering celebrity guests. She researched her way out of her trouble. Key terms: how to be more attractive; len shi; albany realtors; real love potions; artificial insemination dad doesnt know; len shi facebook; body smell dying alone; one way marriage usa; waiting for lover for decades. She footslogged deep into the rabbit hole. Article, clickbait, detour, documentary video, news byline, academic paper. Dark-eyed and delirious, into the next day’s waking hours, she booked an airplane ticket to Costa Rica: she believed she found a woman who remedied the Trouble. 

And this is where Valerie finds me caged in a zoo in San José Province. Delineation of borders is for your benefit, not mine; I am only concerned with the concrete border that has isolated me for 16 years. Bipedals come and go, but my brethren are elsewhere, a fading memory of musculature and thick beta-keratin. Her eyes, pyroclastic bloodshot on brown irises, blink beyond industrial mesh. She carries the wanting, the expectation of a pilgrim. Could the answer be here, contained in a sacrosanct space, the holy ground under a saint’s feet? Like the divine I lurk in the water, occulted.  She appears, for all of her masochism, no different from any of the other tourists. I offer advice humbly: remember when you’re feeling down, that in the eyes of a Crocodile, you all are prey. 

She fumbles for sunglasses on top of her head. The silicone nose pads are caught in her hair, pulling a few awkward strands from her ponytail. She presses her palms against the mesh. Her hope is roiling, rising. She is packed against the sardined bodies of other tourists, also pressing against the mesh, craning their necks, lifting their children onto their shoulders. Point! Cry! I am exceptional. Your gospel paradigm enlightens you to the miracle of my biological configuration: I, Crocodile, gave virgin birth. 

The history of virgin birth among reptiles is not so exceptional. We are made for miracles. You might have read about me, how it all went down. An egg cell developed inside me, gordian and full of potential, dividing into the perfect half-individual. The mess left? Polar bodies, sacs of chromosomes, which fuse with that mature egg. Formulating: an asexual reproduction for a vertebrate, parthenogenesis. In effect, a reimagining of the self, a solo-exhibition. Animal brilliance, solution to long seasons alone, waiting on the arrival of a someday-mate. A longform joke, punchline being: later alligator, in a while crocodile. 

Parthenogenesis is an adaptation. It is also a remedy to loneliness. What can I say in my case? Heartbreak can endure for years, erosion of the social sphere is pervasive. Think of all the heart broken hikikomori, sequestered in rooms with plastic bottles of piss. And what makes me less susceptible to the feeling of halfness? I conjured the ingenuity of my ancestors, 110-million-year-old wisdom. To moot: none of my eggs survived, the ripest a stillborn: infinite loss in a finite prison, the lifelong isolation of a social Reptile. Valerie’s mouth hangs open at me. There is nothing to see, just the knowledge of my accomplishment, like seeing an Olympian past her prime. 

Valerie comes four days to the zoo. She stands long hours to stare at me. She accepts the crowds and perils of tourism, sunscreen from other skin rubbing into her own, the augury shrill of toddlers past naptime, the relentless banality of my captive existence, barred from predation and companionate love. Nights, she goes back to her resort where she is offered piña colada after piña colada and slips herself into a nauseated ecstasy of possibility. She relishes the all-inclusive resort, she needn’t depend on the false hope of someone buying her a drink, she can be stuffed and impaired by an endless stream of beaming men in floral shirts. She loosens her caftan. 

She feels sexy and falls asleep in her bathing suit. She dreams of a hive pulsating inside her, the development of a nursery and hub for millions of little self-produced sperms, sperms with day jobs and coordinating outfits. Sperms who wear baseball caps and are prepared for the Good Stuff, the end of Troubles. Sperms who shake hands with the eggs they meet, are reverent towards, and take out for many elaborate dinners and send flowers to and eventually forfeit the remote to. These sperms, her own invention, to make another Variant Valerie, with whom she will swell and labor and raise, riskless for horror or distance or abandonment, a mustachioed vanquishing of solitude. 

The Variant Valerie can wait forever, but she will not need to. She is more confident, defter, cleverer. She oozes sensuousness and vivacity. She is a perfect generation leap, unburdened by this defeating and Troubling world, more resilient in the face of rejection, and therefore facing none. The Variant Valerie will have Len Shi under her thumb, wrapped around her finger, fingerbanging her, anything you can do with those grotesque human digits! And yet she won’t need him, she’ll be presented with a selection of perfect men, of realtors and CPAS, actuaries and orthodontists, milkmen and undertakers, growers and showers. Even them, the groomed class, she won’t need. She will be bolstered by selfhood, partnered as Valerie and Variant, maximal compadres. 

On the fifth day, the hotel valet does not ask where Valerie needs a taxi to take her, he already knows. The cab journeys down rainforest roads, city roads, cobblestone streets, and drop-off zones. Valerie buys her ticket to the zoo through a glass. She marches straight to my enclosure. An elderly woman rubs the Virgen de Guadalupe pendant around her neck and tuts. She shuttles her grandson away from me. I think she’s missing the point, that I was here–my deinosuchus riograndensis ancestors were here—since before God was known to this Earth. Valerie harangues a Zookeeper for her attention: 

“Excuse me, this Crocodile did parthenogenesis.” 

“Yes, that’s right,” the Zookeeper says steadily. She is often asked about me, I’m grateful to have a muscular-tongued surrogate on land. 

“Can this happen in mammals. For example can a—”

“Humans can’t do this. But some birds can! And aphids.” 

“I mean, but you’re really more of a reptile expert, right?”

Valerie purses her lips. She looks in my direction, I am sunning on an artificial rock. 

“Well, yes, but there have not been any scientifically recorded instances of parthenogenesis in mammals, including humans. Of course, that’s excluding religious—”

“But it’s not impossible.” 

“I’m certain it’s impossible. Luckily, there are plenty of wonderful humans to choose from as mates!” 

Valerie squints at the Zookeeper. She is self-assured, buoyant, accustomed to dealing with children and belligerent adults. The apex predators she keeps are the least of her worries. 

“Alright. Thanks.” 

Valerie stomps away from the Zookeeper, away from my enclosure. She keeps an eye on me and me on her. It’s not so often I see someone for more than a few minutes. I thought, in my most naïve moments, that the parthenogenesite would be that enduring companion, my own face back at me, another set of conical teeth harbored in a twice-jointed jaw. Sentimentality: this is the inherent risk in having a Crocodile narrate. Returning to Valerie…

Who begins her bender with a few cervezas  (her most confident Spanish word) at the zoo. She sits in the picnic area. She smashes soggy fries with her lips. She sucks down the beers, one after the other, ordered all at once, so the final beer is almost hot as equatorial air. She stews on the families, the couples, all of the people who give plush replicas of the zoo animals to each other, gifting softness. She wishes she could chew up the glass beer bottles and swallow the dust. Crocodiles, we eat rocks for health, keep our prey from decomposing inside our digestive tracts; in humans, pica fantasy is disorder. The old woman with the Virgen de Guadalupe pendant plods by, hand in hand with her grandson. 

When she returns to the all-inclusive, Valerie continues her bender. She indulges in room service. She dirties the freshly cleaned white sheets with strawberry ice cream and pina colada and ketchup and guacamole. She turns on the telenovelas and laughs along, not understanding a word. She takes a long bath in coldish water and lets her makeup run down her face. Valerie is ecstatic, she is an anchoress, sick with empyrean visions. Something, nascent and insidious, swells inside her. Loneliness is unbearable until one is in the last moments of isolation; then, it’s a romp with the best companion, carousal before mixed company. She knows, as surely as is faith, what she must do. 

The cabbie—typical doubter!—chides her for her request. Esta cerrado! Esta cerrado! But he takes the fare, doesn’t he? Follows the directive of the sloshing prophetess in the back seat. He slaps her fingers away when she curls them over the divider, determined to move faster, velociously, careen through the night! The cabbie is suspicious of Valerie, her flaccid sunhat shadowing her face in the dark. When she exits the cab, she nearly rolls out. 

And the way this ends, it’s so inevitable. Isn’t it? It’s all written in the tessellation of my scutes! Osteodermic predetermination. Valerie walks past the empty glass ticket booths. She follows the fence of the zoo until she finds a weakness, a low point, one that she is certain exists without evidence. And, a quarter of a mile to the west, she is correct. A slat is missing in the fence (I once knew of a baboon who attempted escape through this very defect!). She tilts her head to accommodate the sunhat. She slips, undetected, into the zoo. 

Valerie knows the route to my enclosure like the back of her hand. In only five days, she is transformed. The love for Len is all but disappeared. Her illusion that the mustache was her greatest obstacle in finding companionship is dwindling. The answer lies in the DNA, atavistic and wise, of a Crocodile. And if she can receive unto… 

Did she know, upon our nocturnal encounter, that crocodiles are most active at night? Did she predict that I would not be so docile on my artificial rock? That I would be gliding through the water, quicker than a person could swim, without effort? Perhaps Valerie does not even see me, cannot internalize that the object in the water is me indeed. She is unfettered. She kicks off her flip-flops. She begins to climb the industrial mesh. It digs into the balls of her feet, her interdigital pads. She is slow goings. When she reaches the precarious and wavering top of the mesh, she swings a leg over, takes mesh to the groin. She clambers down. I sound a deep gurgle, an antique car starting, a fork caught in the garbage disposal. 

Valerie lands in my enclosure with a self-satisfied thud. She dusts off her legs. She assumes a bow-legged stance, waddles over to the edge of the water, and spots my tetrapsid skull at the meniscus of the pool. Is there any fear in her? None that I can smell, she has the fervor of a zealot. She wades into the water. Her cheap cotton sundress clings, gauzy, to her shins. Reader, can you retain your empathy for both of us? Can you hold both things at once in those hands of yours? I move towards her, rippling the pool. She extends her freckled arms. I generate thrust in the water with the s-shaped motion of my tail, it’s muscle almost all the way through. 

She falls to her knees, her clasped hands drawn to her mouth. Valerie seeks wisdom from me that I can’t speak, couldn’t communicate with a jaw designed for…I growl, groan, try to give her time. She stays stalwart. She lowers one hand to rub her womb, welcoming the possibility of a miracle striking twice on the same soil, that by mere contact with me she will create the Variant Valerie, the solution to the Trouble. I am within a meter of her. 

What does she expect when I increase the rapid movement of my tail to propel myself from the water, too high almost, and clamp down on her shoulder with bone-splintering force? She, through her screams, tries to shake away from me. But reader, the elegant design of my posterior pterygoid makes this impossible for even the most worthy opponents. Never mind a woman who uses an elliptical once a week! She kicks and struggles, presses her heels into the dry dirt. I pull her into the water. 

But before I can swallow, I must disarm her. Rob her of agency and hope. Break the faith that brought her to the enclosure. In the water, I initiate a death roll. I contort my soft palate to cover my larynx to avoid drowning. Then rapid rotation—it’s glorious, barrel roll after barrel roll, pure athleticism and valiance—sub-aquatically. I like to think prey doesn’t suffer; she blacks out after a roll or two, her skull strikes the bottom of the shallow pool. In moments, Valerie comes apart, member by member. She is reduced to digestible pieces. She is consumable. 

In the end, I will swallow her whole, pushing her broken body down my esophagus with my flat tongue. She will slide into my stomach, and a specialized heart valve will shunt blood from the lungs, allowing for the buildup of carbon dioxide in my bloodstream, poisoning myself ever so briefly to concoct the most violent bile, more acidic than any other living animal, and she will be digested into fuel for my next attack, my next parthenogenesis, and what I don’t use of her immediately will be converted into fat pads as reserves, subconscious memories of Valerie embedded in my body. The remainder of her, like a voice in a dream: I should’ve braved this world alone.


Kate Busatto is 25 years old and separates her laundry. She holds a BFA in Drama from Carnegie Mellon and a Master of Divinity from Yale. Her work has been featured in Five Dials, The Moth, Interim: A Journal of Poetry & Poetics, and Tampa Review. Kate joined the San Francisco Writers Grotto in 2023. She is currently at work on her first novel. She has a website: katebusatto.com.

Art by Levi Abadilla

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