Kaitlyn Greenidge was born in Boston and received her MFA from Hunter College. Her work has appeared in The Believer, American Short Fiction, Guernica, Kweli Journal, The Feminist Wire, and others. She is the recipient of fellowships from Lower Manhattan Community Council’s Workspace Program and Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, among other prizes. Her novel, We Love You, Charlie Freeman, was published by Algonquin in 2016. She lives in Brooklyn.
An excerpt from We Love You, Charlie Freeman:
Dr. Paulsen unlocked the door and we filed behind her into the front room. Our boxes had already been delivered and they were piled in towers all around us, but the furniture belonged to the Toneybee Institute. We’d sold all of ours back in Dorchester. “They’re giving us brand-new furniture,” my mother had crowed. “Can you imagine?”
The couch in the front room was just as saggy and broken down as the one we’d had in Boston. There were also a few wooden end tables that looked rich: dark wood carved with heavy curlicues. But when I stood beside one, I saw that the flourishes were nicked and the tops of the tables were scarred and printed with an infinity of fading water rings. I leaned against the table and it tottered slightly back and forth. One back leg was shorter than the others.
Callie ran ahead of us, deeper into the apartment, throwing doors open as she went. I was slower, making a show of being unimpressed. I trailed my fingers over the freshly painted walls, pressed on the glass in the windowpanes. Behind me, I could hear my mother and Dr. Paulsen. Dr. Paulsen murmured something very low and my mother’s answer back was quick and light and clattering, her new voice here, overly bright.
They’d decided something. My mother called to me and my father, “Dr. Paulsen thinks it’s best we all meet Charlie now.”
Charlie lived behind a door in the living room. He had a large, oval-shaped space with low ceilings and no windows and no furniture. Instead, there were bundles of pastel-colored blankets heaped up on the scarred wooden floor. Even from where I stood, I could tell the blankets were the scratchy kind, cheap wool. The room was full of plants — house ferns and weak African violets and nodding painted ladies. “They’re here to simulate the natural world,” Dr. Paulsen told us, but I thought it was an empty gesture. Charlie had never known any forest and yet Dr. Paulsen assumed some essential part of him pined for them.
Charlie sat beside a fern. A man knelt beside him. “That’s Max, my assistant,” Dr. Paulsen said.
Max was wearing jeans and a red T-shirt, his lab coat balled up on the floor. He was pale, with messy red hair. He was trying to grow a beard, probably just graduated from college a couple years earlier.
In front of us now, Charlie had gotten hold of Max’s glasses and was methodically pressing his tongue against each lens. Max tried to coax the glasses away, but every time he got close, Charlie only bent forward and licked him, too, all the while looking Max in his small brown eyes. Max broke some of the leaves off the fern, ran them around Charlie’s ears and under his chin, distracting him.
“They’re playing,” Dr. Paulsen explained.
But it seemed more like a very gentle disagreement. Charlie shook his head at the leaves but stayed doggedly focused on tonguing Max’s glasses.
“Max,” Dr. Paulsen called, and he squinted and waved. He picked up Charlie and brought him to us.
As he came closer, Charlie let the glasses hang loose in his hands, and he craned his neck toward Dr. Paulsen. Now he looked like a baby. Taped around his waist was a disposable diaper. A few of his stray hairs were caught in the tape’s glue, and he kept dipping his fingers under the rough plastic hem, trying to worry them loose.
My father went to him first. He gently rubbed the top of Charlie’s head, not wanting to scare him. Charlie flinched and my father moved away. Next came Callie, who smiled and smiled, trying to get Charlie to bare his teeth back, but he wouldn’t do it. Then it was my turn.
I reached out my hand to touch him. I thought he would be bristly and sharp, like a cat, but his hair was fine, so soft it was almost unbearable. I could feel, at its downy ends, the heat spreading up from his skin beneath. I pulled my hand away quickly. The scent of him stayed on my fingers, old and sharp, like a bottle of witch hazel.
Charlie yawned. His breath was rancid, like dried, spoiled milk. Later, when he got used to us, he would run his lips up and down our hands so that all of our skin, too, smelled like Charlie’s mouth and the hefty, mournful scent of wild animal.
My mother was the last to hold him. She was crying and she said through her tears, her hands shaking as she reached out to touch him, “Isn’t he beautiful?”
I wanted to say something snide. I wanted to say what I had been telling her since she told us about this experiment: that this was crazy, that she was crazy, that it would never work. I wanted to sign bullshit. But I looked into my mother’s face, wet and wide open with joy, and I couldn’t help myself.
“Yes,” I told her, “he’s beautiful.”