Sugar || Taylor De La Peña



Credit: Onur Senture


by Taylor De La Peña

Every time I think about Mustache, I run a mile. Or do 20 burpees. Or 15 push-ups.

I’m not good at push-ups. Camille says I don’t keep my core tight enough.

“Your back isn’t supposed to look like an S,” she says. In her mouth, the S sounds like raw chicken in a bowl. She takes a video of my belly curving toward the floor, my neck drooping.

Camille is a personal trainer, but she doesn’t train anyone besides me. She doesn’t like training people.

“Too much self-promotion,” she tells me between sets of jump squats. Her dangly earrings swing like bells on a wind chime.


Camille is surprised when I tell her I study physics.

“Took you for a blonde bimbo type.” A bandanna holds her short, curly brown hair out of her face. “So you’re like, really smart?”


“Why physics?”

I tell her I like knowing the reasons behind things. There’s a reason for everything, I say. Most of the reasons are just invisible.

I reach down and pick up the dumbbell we’ve been using for renegade rows.

“We both know I need more force to move this weight than a lighter weight,” I say. “Force equals mass times acceleration.”

She smirks. I can tell she thinks I’m a dweeb. But she doesn’t say anything. Instead, she starts reciting it back to me while we’re training. Up the weight, she yells. Force equals mass times acceleration, right? 

I can’t tell if she’s making fun of me, or if I’m in on the joke.


Mustache opens the door. He’s taller than I expected. Black hair, speckled gray. Soft eyes. Smiles like he’s holding marbles in his mouth.

“Come in,” he says.

Hands shake as I adjust my skirt. Huge apartment. Floor to ceiling windows along two walls. I can see into the adjacent building; a couple embraces next to a stove, a pot spouts steam beside them.

“I’ve never been in an apartment this huge,” I say, idiotic.

He makes me a drink, a French 75.


My mom encouraged me to study physics. She drove me to the regional high school three times a week to take AP physics because my public school didn’t offer it. She helped me apply to the UPenn physics program. She told me I could use the car, since it was a 45-minute drive to campus. She said she would take the bus.

She works as a maid. Sometimes she has to clean out houses of hoarders, people who never throw away receipts. Sometimes she cleans houses of rich people who live on the Main Line, mansions with rooms that sit untouched, deep sinks and glass walls surrounding the showers. Sometimes she cleans houses of people who look at her like she might steal their stuff, who make a point of telling her they have cameras and a security system, who are always in the room adjacent to keep an eye on her.


Mustache is friends with Mole on Cheek.

Camille met Mole on Cheek in a diner parking lot, two months after her father died. The way she tells the story, she was being a “pathetic little bitch,” sitting on the curb, mascara running down her cheeks.

“You okay?” he asked her. He was older, but younger than her dad. Decent smile.

She says she doesn’t know why she told him. But she did. She told him the whole fucking thing. 

Her dad’s sudden heart attack in his sleep. Her nasty stepmother claiming most of his shit, leaving her with nothing. Probably having to drop out of school. Blah blah blah. 


Part of my financial aid package involves working at the school gym. 

Give people towels. Wipe off treadmills and free weights. Rerack dumbbells people leave on the ground. 

Camille always came in late, 11PM, when the gym was empty. I watched her. She wore big headphones, patterned leggings (leopard print, or tie-dye, or galaxy), and frowned at anyone who came within two feet of her.

One Wednesday night, midnight, she came up to me while I was wiping off a spin bike. She asked if I would be interested in training together, after closing time.

“I don’t like people looking at me,” she said, stealing a glance behind her. 

I agreed. Partially because I was intrigued by how hard Camille trained (she sometimes ran so hard she had to bend over, heaving, or lifted a weight that made her groan like an injured horse) and partially because she scared me and I would’ve done anything she said. 

She started running me through circuits, critiquing my squat form, telling me to get the fuck off the elliptical (ellipticals are for pussies.)

During our third session, in between sets, out of breath, she told me she was studying studio art. She liked horoscopes and reading tarot cards. 

“But that shit doesn’t pay the bills,” she said one night while I was locking the gym doors. “Who pays your bills?”

“Student loans,” I said, and she laughed, the sound of coins dropping into a can. 


When I get home from class, the lights are off in the house.

Mom a lump in her bed. Yellowed curtains pulled across windows.

“You have to get up,” I say. I turn on the lamp and see her hair tangled like veins over the pillow. She groans but doesn’t move.


Foot fall foot fall foot fall foot fall. Two miles. Brush of stubble on face. Run faster. 

Heel toe heel toe heel toe heel toe. Camille says not to strike with heel. Itsy bitsy spider fingers creeping. Sprint till you can’t breathe.

Pump your arms. Hands holding down wrists. Rotate torso. Hold still. Push off ball of foot.

Never stop. Only stop when brain stops beating against skull like rain thrumming against window.


In Mustache’s apartment, a Beatles record plays. 

“You have a lovely nose,” he says.

“So do you.” It’s true. His nose is perfectly symmetrical. One of his eyes closes slightly more than the other, but it’s not noticeable.

Sip the French 75. Gulp apprehension. Gut warm.


Newton’s third law says that every force has an equal and opposite reaction.

Mom wasn’t always like this. 

Maybe one day she’d get very excited about zebra print wallpaper and put it up in half the bathroom. Maybe we’d play a Neil Diamond album and scream-sing as we put it up (touching meeeeee, touching youuuuu). Maybe we’d get wallpaper glue stuck on the bathmat and it would stay there for years, until the mat became old and frayed and I had to buy a new one. 

Maybe the next day she’d yell at me for not finishing the wallpaper in the bathroom. Maybe she’d scream until her voice was hoarse. 


Camille says she needs fresh air, so we go on a run. She takes us through campus, east to the river trail. In the dark, every shadow is a pool, a black hole.

 “If we run faster will this be over sooner?” she asks.

“If we were running at a higher altitude,” I say between huffs, “time would pass more quickly.”

Camille runs faster. She hates when I spout physics facts. I swing my arms harder to keep up. She has longer legs than me. A midnight biker whizzes by on our left.

“Maybe we should move to the mountains, then.”

I don’t know how to explain how a higher elevation wouldn’t change our perception of time. I don’t explain relativity.

Instead, I imagine us on a trail, ground soft underfoot, rustling of leaves. I imagine the quiet at the top of a summit, looking out at the trees below, so small we could pinch them between our thumbs and forefingers.


Camille says the way I’m wiping down the treadmills reminds her of how someone might clean a grave. Says my aura is off.

Being out of breath makes you say things you wouldn’t say otherwise. So after she puts me through a Tabata circuit, I tell her about the mortgage.

She sits on one of the workout benches, silent. We start doing Bulgarian split squats, a dumbbell in each hand, which Camille says make your ass look good.

“I can help you,” she says when we finish.


I wasn’t expecting to feel warmth towards Mustache. But I do. Maybe it’s the French 75. 

I watch him measure the gin, top the glass with champagne.

“I want us to be friends,” he says.

He is not bad looking. Old, sure. But he has a good head of hair. His teeth are straight and white. His arms are thick; I imagine him lifting weights at the apartment gym. 

I imagine he is too busy to sustain a relationship. I imagine his chest feels cavernous with loneliness on Friday nights. 

I imagine waking up in his apartment, seeing the sky through those tall windows. 


Burpees are the worst. Push-up, jump squat. Repeat.

When Camille and I started training I could barely do ten without keeling over.

Now I can do fifty. By the end I see white around the edges of my vision. 


The night before I meet Mustache, Camille insists on pulling a card.

“Fine,” I say.

We’re sitting on the gym front desk; all the lights are out except the one overhead. She shuffles, her face serious. She takes a deep breath. Withdraws a card.

A circle that looks like a clock face, clouds behind it.

“Reversed wheel of fortune,” Camille says. “Represents repetitive cycles, loss of control.”

She peers at me through dark eyes, long lashes. Peers at me over her small nose.

“You’re in control of this,” Camille says.


In physics class, we review mass-energy equivalence. E=mc^2. 

The equation says that energy and mass are interchangeable. That they are different forms of the same thing.

I know this isn’t how it works, but I like imagining the energy inside of things. How the right conditions could convert a paperclip into enough energy to blow up Hiroshima.

I imagine the energy within my mother as she wakes in the middle of the night, tells me to pack a bag, says we’re driving to Niagara Falls, her voice high, words spoken so fast they melt.

I imagine the energy within Camille as she pushes the sled across the gym, torso parallel to the ground, teeth gritted.

I imagine the energy within me as I swipe the bills off the kitchen table and tuck them into my backpack, as I sell diamond earrings to the highest bidder, as I deposit hundred-dollar bills into my mom’s account. 

I imagine how much pressure and heat it would take to convert my matter to pure light.


A restaurant called Courgette. Small dining room, dark like a cave, candles on white tablecloths.

“You ever had escargot?” he asks. I tell him I don’t know what that is.

He orders a bottle of wine, then asks me gentle, probing questions. Where are you from? What is your mother like? Do you like school?

Perhaps it is the alcohol, but I feel myself unfurling for him, like I am a slice of cake wrapped in plastic wrap that he slowly peels open.

I tell him about the time my mom forgot about the cake in the oven and almost set our house on fire.

I tell him about the fire in my chemistry lab, and my lab partner who gets mad when I get better scores than him on exams.

I tell him how my lab partner parties all the time. He’s a Sig Chi. He lives on campus. He doesn’t have to work.

Mustache grabs my hand across the table.

“You don’t have to work, either.” 


In bank account: $25.50.

25 push-ups. Only stop when triceps give out.

Make $8.85 per hour at the gym. Work 20 hours a week.

Bench press with bar. Add 20-pound plates. Imagine it falling, crushing chest.

Could go back to working full-time at CVS. But student loans?

Would owe $78,342.33 if I dropped out now. And no fancy physics job to pay it. 

Turn treadmill up to level 11. Run so fast feet barely touch belt. 


“You aren’t a virgin, right?” Camille says in the middle of a lifting pyramid. 

A lifting pyramid is when you start with high reps of an exercise with lighter weight, and with every set you add more weight and decrease reps. Good for toning. 

We stand side by side in the mirror, doing bicep curls. 

“No,” I say. She narrows her eyes at me. “Seriously, I’m not.”

I tell her how, in high school, I had sex with a guy who had a tribal tattoo on his upper bicep. He was a wide receiver on the football team. He let me wear his letterman jacket for a couple games.

Camille grimaces. “Well aren’t you a walking cliché.” 


Mustache says he has a gift for me in the apartment.

Elevator, floor 38. Ears pop. Hand catching behind my neck.

He says: “This okay?”

Swallow. Nod. Brace.

Kiss. Warm, gentle pressure. Lips pry mine open. Tongue on teeth. Teeth on lip. Exhale. 

Hands on back, hands on hips, hands on ass. Lift. 

Door pings open. Stumble out, sheepish.


“Maybe you shouldn’t go,” Camille grabs my wrist. We’re in the gym parking lot, cold scrunching shoulders towards ears. I’ve never seen her scared, suddenly I’m scared.

“It doesn’t have to be about sex if I don’t want it to be. Remember?”

Reciting her words back to her pushes down whatever is rising in my throat.

“You can’t go back, once you start,” she says.

I know how much she hates physics platitudes, so I say: “An object in motion will stay in motion,” and give her a teasing smile.

She rolls her eyes and lets go of my wrist.


Mustache kisses my temple. I don’t recoil.

“Send your mother’s bills straight to me,” he says. His hands are cat paws kneading at my back.

We have breakfast together, at his kitchen island. Sesame bagels with jam and flaky sea salt. Sliced pineapple. 


When my mom’s swings started intensifying, I joined my high school’s cheerleading team. I liked tumbling, cartwheeling and handspringing across bright blue mats. There’s something satisfying about being so in control of your body that you can throw it around in beautiful shapes and patterns. There’s bliss in being so focused on the crisp line from shoulder to wrist that you can’t think about anything else.

I was a flyer—one of the people who got hoisted onto shoulders or thrown into the air, twisting and then free falling. That was my favorite part. Catapulting through the air, contorting into shapes and then trusting the thud of crossed arms, someone’s forearm pounding into my back, knocking the air out of me.


Mole on Cheek pays for Camille’s apartment. Mole on Cheek covers Camille’s tuition. Mole on Cheek buys Camille patterned leggings.

“It’s not about sex,” Camille is making me do something called the Manchester United Fitness test. We run 100 yards in 20 seconds, then have 40 seconds to run back. We’re supposed to do it 20 times. “He likes having someone to take care of. And I can focus on my art.”

Camille paints watercolors. She showed me a couple of her paintings. Big, colorful canvases, designs that look like wild weeds infesting a garden.

I imagine her in her apartment, beside the sequined dress Mole on Cheek bought her, sitting on the floor, music filling up the room, brush sliding over canvas, slick as oil on skin. 


Present is a pair of diamond earrings.

“What the fuck,” I say. 

“You like them?”

Camille told me she sells gifts from Mole on Cheek for a little extra cash. I wonder how much I could get for the earrings on eBay.

“You have such small ears,” he says, brushing hair from my face. Hands hot on ears. Ears heavy with diamonds.

Something Camille didn’t have to tell me about: debt.

Kiss again. 

Paying back. 

Stomach churn. 


Knees wobble. 


Head falls.


When I was a kid, I had bad nightmares. I once dreamt that the Raggedy Anne doll in the corner of the room was a ghost with a gun. Just a cloud of black in the corner, a rifle cocking. 

Another time, I dreamt that my mother was climbing the railing of the rotting deck on the back of the house. I dreamt that it split, cracked, my mother tumbling to the ground below. When I tried to get outside, my house turned into a maze.


Camille painted a mural on her apartment wall. On the border, a series of droopy clocks, decorated with multi-colored vines that twist around the minute and hour hands. As the tendrils move towards the center of the wall, they turn darker, until they transform into a circle of deformed faces. Half normal—big eye, long nose, thin lip. The other half melting. In the center of the wall, the mural devolves into clouds of color, of darkness. Then blackness. A black hole.

The first time she invites me over, she makes smoothies out of acai berries and coconut milk and shows me the mural.

“Is it the universe?” I ask.

She frowns. “I imagined it as kind of a kaleidoscope,” she says. “Repetition and expansion of pattern.”

“The center reminds me of a black hole,” I say. “Pulling everything in.”

She cocks her head. “I suppose it kind of is.”

“You know the gravitational pull inside black holes is so strong it basically halts time.”

I wait for her to laugh at me, to tell me to shut up. But she doesn’t. She sips her smoothie, eyes unfocused.

“A second inside a black hole could be millions of years on earth,” I say.

She smiles. “Good thing we’re not in a black hole, then.”

Taylor De La Peña is a mixed Filipina-American author. She has an MFA in fiction from Rutgers University - Camden and lives in Philadelphia. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Southern Humanities Review, Sierra Nevada Review, and miniskirt magazine. You can find her on Twitter at @tdlp17.

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