My friend introduced us. She knew him from somewhere, around, just like i knew her from somewhere, around.  It was my first or second semester of college and I was fairly bad at social stuff, at making new friends.  Instead I just hung around the edges of things and waited for people to implicitly include me in their plans.  I followed the people who had somewhere to go.

She took me and a 12 pack of Milwaukee’s Best to his house one night.  I actually wasn’t impressed – his red hair was just a little on the greasy side, and his Welsh complexion just a little spotty, and while he knew my favorite poets and could talk Dylan Thomas and Anne Sexton and Yeats, he wasn’t all that intellectually impressive.  His name was a fucking stereotype, and at first I didn’t think it was really his name. Who the fuck names their kid Byron?  But he had his own place that wasn’t the dorms, and he was old enough to buy beer – a feat I was still more than three years away from – and there was something about him that seemed… malleable.

I knew I could call some shots here; I knew there was no danger of my falling under his undue influence.  I knew if I sat on his sofa writing in my journal, with my edgy haircut and my sharp features and my cigarette dangling, sitting crosslegged wearing nothing but a black bra and panties, he’d write a poem about me.  He did too, but I never knew about it until later.  Within a night or two we were fucking all over his living room. He lived in a basement apartment with only the tiniest little rectangular windows set high, close to the ceiling – kept the light out, good for sleeping late after nights of working late our various little crappy off-campus restaurant jobs.

I liked these malleable guys.  Guys like that, guys with just the tiniest little self-esteem problems, who fancied themselves artists and romantics and/or writers, were easy to get into bed, easy to shape into audiences.  I never fell very hard for them, not really.  I fell for the big, strong, silent types, the ones that were dangerous and probably a little stupid.  Like that summer in high school when I ditched home and got thrown in juvie, and then ditched juvie and spent a few weeks living in a drainage ditch with some other delinquents, runaways, and rejects – a scattered few.  Like Jason.  He was so pretty, in that kind of big, dumb, brutal way.

He said all of twelve words to me in the first few days we were together.  He communicated mostly in the imperative, and some of the imperative was purely nonverbal.  He had all the arrogance of youth and beauty and muscle, all the self-assurance of someone who’d not wasted much time reading books and getting confused about finer points of ethics or politics or other people.  His dingy t-shirt, that cheap, thin kind that will spring holes within months even if you take care of it, and he didn’t, sported the emblem of some hardcore band or another.  It clung to his chest and arms and smelled a little, but by then so did I, so I didn’t mind.

We’d run out of food a few days earlier, and were running out of cigarettes – that was bad.  We got a friend to pick us up and drive us to his apartment so we could shower and make plans – I had an APB out on me and was fifteen, so crossing state lines had to be handled carefully.  I had a brand new mohawk and was wearing hand me downs – I looked like a twelve year old boy in my denim cutoffs and my Converse high tops and my baggy t-shirt with my long bangs flopping down into my face.  When Jason wasn’t ignoring me, he treated me like a twelve year old boy, or a puppy.  Sometimes he’d stroke me absently on the head.  Sometimes he told me to get things for him.  Sometimes he told me not to listen – to shit about drug deals, or plans that he said I shouldn’t hear and couldn’t understand anyway.  Sometimes he pulled me onto his lap.  Sometimes he pushed me away and told me to get lost, I was bugging him.  At night it got cold, and he would pull me against him in the woods, under the thin wool army surplus blanket we had to share, and fuck me like I was a boy, hissing at me between his teeth to shut the fuck up, I was making too much noise.

It was nice to take a shower after a few days of this.  It was nice to sleep on a living room carpet instead of on pine straw, or cement.  It was nice to smoke cigarettes and weed and eat hot food out of the microwave at our friends’ apartment.  I sat in the tub and washed a weeks’ worth of gray shit and leaves off of me, probably a couple of ticks, and I shaved my legs.  Kate let me borrow clean clothes and use her shaving cream and makeup.  I couldn’t smell myself for the first time in weeks.  Lydia went off to the store with her trenchcoat and came back with a loaf of bread, a summer sausage, and some Grape Mad Dog. We ate stolen food and got gloriously drunk and planned our next move.  The apartment had a pool; we lounged poolside at midnight and got thoroughly baked on schwag pot and felt invincible and laughed and figured out how we were going to get to New Orleans the next day with the weed we were going to move.  The others trickled inside to variously throw up, fuck, or pass out.  Jason stared at the moon for a while.  I started to think about puking and tried to figure the best place to do it. The pool was easiest but I didn’t want to get up off the plastic lounge chair – but I didn’t want to puke on these clothes as I might not get any clean ones for a while.  Choices.

I heard him call me: “Come here.”  I rolled my eyes but got up anyway.  He was standing against the wooden privacy fence surrounding the pool, leaning back, thumbs in his pockets, thin, too-tight t-shirt and clean denim jeans over the same old Doc Martens.  I stepped towards him.  He actually looked me in the eye for a minute.  He pulled me to him and kissed me, and that was something kinda new.  I bit him a little on the lips; I liked to bite, back then.  Guess I still do.  He bit back, a little, and lifted me, a little – I was a tiny thing then and a good bit shorter than he was.  And then he turned us both and pressed me against the fence.  I had no idea how I’d suddenly gotten his attention, but I didn’t mind.  He was stupid, and brutal, but self-possessed, and hot, and he seemed to find my new skirt – or what was under it, anyway — the novelty of the year.  That was ok with me.  I was high, I was going to New Orleans the next day, and I was thinking it might be nice to have sex face to face for once.  Hell, the lack of pinestraw was itself exhilirating.

He pushed me to my knees and I was only a little surprised. We’d done this before too.  I’d just thought maybe we were doing something else for a change, but whatever.  The pavement hurt, but not as bad as the sex in the woods had hurt.  He wrapped his fingers in my hair, and I wasn’t really surprised.  We’d done this before, too. Sometimes he pulled it idly, absent-mindedly, his thoughts – what there were of them – somewhere else.  I actually kind of liked it, it felt good sometimes, like having your scalp massaged.  I was used to avoiding his zipper so I didn’t cut my lips; he hated to be too naked but he hated me making too much noise worse, so I guess he let it go.   I was used to the rhythm of his hands on my head, and I was used to the noises he made when he was about to come.  So except for the pot and the Mad Dog and the recent baths, this was pretty much business as usual.

Until he pulled a gun out of his pocket and pressed the barrel into that little spot of flesh right under my jaw and about two inches away from my ear.  I froze; he swatted me on the side of the head.  I choked; he said, “Goddamit, move!”  I started crying a little; he shoved me  away and I felt the sensation coming back into my knees just as some skin scraped off my palms.  I curled up.  He uncurled me and finished what he’d started.  When he got off me, I curled up again, and tried  not to heave.  I heard him say, “Jesus, it was just a game.”  I didnt’ move.  I heard him zip his pants, and say, almost under his breath, “It wasn’t loaded.”  I tried very very hard to stop leaking tears and making noise.  As he was walking away, I thought I heard him mutter, “What a fucking bitch.”

I didn’t go to New Orleans with him the next day.  In fact, I turned myself in within a week, went back to juvie, and eventually graduated from high school and went to college.  I didn’t stop liking the big, strong, silent, probably dangerous types, but I made sure I always knew where the handcuff keys were and that my friends knew where I was.  I never drank grape Mad Dog again.  And I had developed a taste for thin, pale, poetic types too – they were just the thing to refresh the palate after my own idea of fun had me choking on my own bile for a while.

So, you see, with the redhead I was on familiar territory.  Comfortable territory.  He wasn’t terribly worldly, probably not that sexually experienced, just diffident and awkward enough for me – diffident and awkward sometimes myself — to wrap around my little finger.  It was kinda heady there for a while.  I told him I wanted beer; he bought it.  I told him to shut up because I had homework to do; he’d go make himself useful in the kitchen for a while while I read Plato.  I told him to shave his pubic hair because it was annoying me; he did it.  I told him to get on his knees and suck my toes; he did it.  All very amusing, and we were having fun. Enough fun, anyway.

There was a snowstorm one weekend – in Alabama, for fuck’s sake.  We got stuck inside that afternoon.  I started getting a little twitchy after a while, feeling like my skin didn’t quite fit.  I poked at some books on the shelves.  I was drunk, I was tired of listening to his poetry, and I was tired of eating his spaghetti.  I walked to the wall, tapped on it, sat on the sofa.  He sat down  next to me and I told him to get away.  He got away and put on some fucking hippie guitar music.  Suddenly I had to get out of there. I went for the door but he grabbed me and told me to calm down.  I shoved him away and he shoved me back. I pulled back to slap him — I’d done it before — but this time he caught my wrist.  This was new.

I stopped, stilled – curious.  He looked at me with those bruised lips and those blue eyes and that curl of red hair in his face and he looked kind of sad under the patina of intoxication.  I lifted my chin and whispered, “Grab the other one.”  He did.

“Push me down.”  He did.

“Fuck me.”  He did.

I’d been bored.  My mind raced through several different scenarios and I picked a few options i thought he could handle.  He did very well, my little Welsh poet, a bit clumsy, but quite responsive.  He liked it too, or liked it that I liked it, anyway.  He wasn’t gaunt, but he had no muscle tone, and he had very little sense of self-preservation.  Most guys, you hurt them a little in bed and they either go away fast or hurt you a little back.  This one, I had to tell him what to do.  But he was starting to catch on.  Maybe this was salvageable.

I pushed him a little to see how far he’d go.  I yanked his head back by his hair and bit his jaw.  After a while he growled and pushed my face away, holding my head to the side with a broad palm.  I took this as an encouraging sign, and sprung the deal-breaker on him.

“Hit me.”  He slapped me on the ass.

“No.  Hit me, really.”  He froze.

He wouldn’t.  He stopped, and rolled away, and after a minute, got up and lit a cigarette.  Maybe I was a little disappointed, but I wasn’t really surprised.

In the morning I packed my stuff, shoved at the door ’til I could get through the drift pressed against it, and went back to my dorm room.  Poets, for fuck’s sake.

My daytime routine went back to its original normal, consisting of staying up too late, getting up slightly hungover, going to class, and going to work at the restaurant.  A friend asked me one day if I’d seen Byron – he hadn’t been in to work all week for his evening shift and she knew we knew each other.  Hadn’t seen him, I shrugged, and went back to putting salt in the shakers and wrapping silverware.  Not my problem.  He was probably learning a new song on the guitar.  He probably got another check from his parents and was drinking himself stupid on whiskey.  He was probably writing more mediocre poetry.

But then he showed up.  One afternoon, a Friday, when it was almost deserted in the restaurant.  He walked into the kitchen through the back door and I glanced at him and probably made a slight face as I resumed what I’d been doing.  He stood there for a while and I studiously ignored him.

“Where have you been?”

“Working.”  No eye contact.

He stepped closer.  The sun was going down outside and the room was suddenly a little darker, the light a little redder.

“You haven’t called.”

“Busy.”  No eye contact.

“Look at me!” His voice was somehow a little ragged, a little stretched, a little pained, a little *serious.*  I looked at him, glad the room and hallway were empty because I wanted to avoid a scene.

And he punched me in the face with his fist.

***

He was waiting for me when I left work, lip done bleeding but getting real obviously swollen, and I was preoccupied because I was going to have to think up a story to tell people.  Had I not so completely underestimated him, so totally failed to understand what was going through his head, what was making him tick, I might have been a little more aware, might even have expected him to pull something.

But I didn’t expect him to pull the pistol.  And I didn’t expect what I did to fight him off, which was absolutely nothing.  I decided a cool head would prevail.  But really?  Who in their right mind would fight a guy with a gun?  This was a mantra for later, after the deep bone ache started, when the numbness wore off.  I didn’t fight. I figured if I kept a cool head then I could keep some kind of control of the situation.  I had no idea if he had ever even fired a gun before, but I figured he was close enough to me to have beginner’s luck, even if his hands were shaking.  Wouldn’t take much.  I didn’t want to die, and he was just drunk and crazed enough to do something stupid because right then it seemed poetic, or like something out of a movie.  I put on calm voice. This was real life and he had to realize that somewhere in that head of his.

“Byron.”

“Shut the fuck up.”

Quieter, still steady, “Byron.”

“I will fucking kill you if you don’t shut up.  Don’t make me do this.”  Was he crying just a little?  How much had he had to drink?  Maybe he’d pass out.  Maybe he just wanted to scare me.  Maybe he thought I wanted this.

“Byron, I don’t want this. This isn’t what-.”  The hand on the steering wheel tightens, relaxes.  Then before I can finish, he punctuates my sentence for me with the back of his fist.  My lip starts bleeding again.  It keeps bleeding as he pushes me through the door of his apartment, keeps bleeding as he locks the door, keeps bleeding as he turns around, eyes bloodshot and breath sour, and says, “I love you.” Keeps bleeding as hits me so hard in the head that I can’t quite see, or breathe right.  And then I just tried to be still and small and quiet.  After a while there was nothing I could do about the blood anymore.  I couldn’t keep track of what he was saying or how long we had been there.  He hadn’t wanted to hit me in the face when we were fucking on his living room floor, but now, suddenly, in his windowless bedroom, it was all about my face.  After a while I started crying.  And after a while of that, I guess I must have run out of tears.  I never fought.  I mean, who in their right mind would fight a guy with a gun?

After a while it doesn’t matter anyway, because there’s a place you go that is so small and dark and far away that it finally doesn’t seem like it fucking matters anyway, whatever they’re doing to you, because they can’t realistically keep doing it forever, it has to end eventually, and maybe you’ll pass out, and the worst that can happen is they’ll kill you, and maybe that won’t be so bad, because then it will stop.  In movies, they cut to the pivotal moments, they fade in and fade out and have a nice soundtrack and editing work that gives you the impression of time passing without actually having to be there for it.  You get to see the rehearsed argument, or the posed moments of tension, or the scripted scuffle, or the bullet-hole suddenly there when before it just simply wasn’t.  You don’t have to see the hours strung out on wires of pain so real and thick that you can’t believe you’re still conscious, can’t believe you can’t look straight through your own transparent skin, lit from the inside by nerves alive with fire.  You can’t believe the nerves don’t burn right through and leave you a scarred and monstrous cripple.  In the movies, you don’t have to wonder how it can possibly still hurt, how there isn’t some kind of maximum you can take before you just somehow blink out of existence.

The funny thing is, it’s not really the pain that’s so bad, that you wish like hell would stop with whatever part of you is still left wishing.  It’s not even the humiliation, though that’s pretty bad, or the disgust, though that’s pretty formidable at first and lingers longer than you might think.  It’s what happens, eventually, when the bruises are gone and the abortion is over and the cracked tooth is repaired and you look in the mirror and realize the enormity of the pressure that descends when you’re alone and it’s too quiet.  That’s maybe not even the worst part.

Maybe the worst part – is the rage and the sheer fucking impotence.  It’s not having anywhere to put all that rage and hate.  Gets where you don’t know who you hate anymore – anybody that’ll sit still long enough to be a target for it, maybe.  Anybody foolish enough to show a weak spot, anybody not entirely tactical.  A chink in their armor stops being a temptation and becomes an imperative.

***

I learned to dress my anger up with ballet flats, velvet skirts, and stockings.  I learned to quote Swinburne at a professor after a night class in such a a way as to make him lick his lips.  I learned a more sophisticated way of handling, and manipulating, the pleasure principle.  Thomas was an adjunct English professor who had proposed a course in the Decadent Poets. The class didn’t make enrollment in time and was dropped from the catalogue, but it met anyway in a lounge in the English department hallway.  We kept the lights low in the carpeted room full of overstuffed chairs and legacy furniture and took turns reading Baudelaire, and people came and went, some of them not even enrolled at the college.  We drank wine as the class met though hardly any of us were of legal age.

On my way out the door I would walk past him, too close and too slowly, reciting lines I’d begun to memorize when I was locked up at the age of fifteen.

I could hurt thee – but pain would delight thee;
Or caress thee – but love would repel;
And the lovers whose lips would excite thee
Are serpents in hell.

Thomas held the wine glass in two hands, like it was suddenly larger than it was, and heavier.  He responded, wary but interested, like I was some beautiful train wreck he couldn’t tear his eyes from even though he knew he should.

Bite hard, lest remembrance come after
And press with new lips where you pressed.

I told him plenty of stories, though I’m not sure he believed any of them.  He encouraged me to write them down, but I never did.  When he wasn’t already drunk on bourbon and feeling guilty about cheating on his wife, he would drink red wine and tell me about Swinburne, about his drinking and his madness and the way the meter of his poetry was as disciplined as if it had been trained at the end of a leather whip, his rhythms ordered as if at the hands of a harsh schoolmistress.  I sat straddled across his lap, dressed only in black thigh-high stockings and his light-blue button-down, its slightly frayed cuffs falling far past my small hands as I gently pulled the greying hair at his temples and left tiny bite marks on his jawline.  I would close my eyes and imagine I could smell something feral in him as he talked and think of ways to set it free.  He was not a pretty man, and he often carried himself as if he were older than he was, but there was a certain haunting beauty in the set of his jaw as I circled his cock with a gloved fist, something almost irresistible in the flex of his thigh and the spasm of his throat as I drew blood, mixing every moment of his pleasure with my own little cruelties.

He criticized me one day, saying that I had just spent the last few minutes telling a story instead of getting at what was underneath the story.  He said I was describing eating food out of a dumpster like it was happening to somebody else, that I was talking like it was something out of a book or a movie, something cool and fun, at least for a while, at least the having-done.  Yeah, I thought, giving him a full dose of teenaged contempt from under my furrowed brow, what the hell else was I supposed to say?  What other way is there to tell it?

“What do you want, self-pity? Tears?”

“If they’re real. True. If that’s what makes the heart of the story. You act like you don’t feel anything.”

I had a feeling we were talking about more than my stories.

“Then make me feel,” I challenged, bringing his fingers to my mouth and pressing the handle of the dressage whip into his hand. But his strokes were half-hearted, though I draped myself over the back of his wing chair to make an enticing picture, and we both felt more when he knelt, sweating, at my feet, his lips moving against the black lace of my panties as he murmured feverish lines of poetry.

Who gave thee thy wisdom? what stories
That stung thee, what visions that smote?
Wert thou pure and a maiden, Dolores,
When desire took thee first by the throat?
What bud was the shell of the blossom
That all men may smell to and pluck?
What milk fed thee first at what bosom?
What sins gave thee suck?

But he was essentially a good man, and a tired one, without, ultimately, the courage of his convictions, or perhaps even a clear sense of what they were — and without the will to stay so close to what he always feared would devolve into the worst cliche, into an oft-told academic joke with him at the butt of it.   By the time he was fired for ‘fraternizing with his students,’ the marks I’d left on the back of his thighs with a hairbrush were long faded.

***

I was too restless for college after that, and too tired of being poor, so I took a semester off – or that’s what I  told myself.  When I discovered that I could capitalize on the combo of my feminine curves and androgynous face, that people would pay me to display them and pretend to return their interest, I took a job wearing a sequined bra and g-string and getting sexually harrassed for a living.  At the clubs I started at, the dance of prey and predator was purely mind-fuck – no touching allowed.  So I indulged in my little cruelties during my off hours.

I ended up in New Orleans, where I’d ended up many times before when I had to get the hell away, lose myself for a little while. There’s no better place to die a little than in streets teeming with faces and bodies, full of wild, lost, beautiful children, and the hopeless chasms of walking death, lying in gutters and begging for change.

I’d walk through the Garden District at dangerous hours, dreaming of living in one of the old, airy houses, taking up residence with the ghosts and woodlice and the vines creeping amongst the wrought-iron fences. All the movies of my life I played in my own mind, I played in those imagined rooms.

But the cast of characters always came from the French Quarter. A glimpse of a face would obsess me for weeks. A young girl there, leaning against a filthy brick wall, shoulder bared, framed by a curtain of black velvet, too much eyeliner around her angry little eyes. A drunken boy, brushing hair ineffectually out of eyes with a slender hand, flashing one pale silver band on a pale finger. I watched them, the prey, slumped against bar stools, chattering outside of windows, stumbling in the streets, exchanging laughter and kisses and sips of drinks. And I watched the predators watch them.

I watched and waited. I’d become so much more discriminating since the days when I was one of the little victims, falling desperately and angrily into shadows, into arms, into bedrooms.

I watched for a certain type of smile, a certain shift of glance, a particular gleam in eyes a particular shade of blue. I appeared out of nowhere, your favourite drink in my hand, just enough words on my lips, just enough pressure on your arm from my fingers, just enough distance between your replies and the nearest dark corner, where words become unimportant and coercion unnecessary.

***

Here in my favourite city, I made Jonathan my favourite pasttime. I watched him sleep, the length of his body casting shadows on the wall, a trickle of scarlet staining the field of crisp white cotton beneath his wrist.  He was painfully shy and painfully thin, with hip bones almost sharp enough to bruise myself on, with skin so soft that I could never resist marking it.  In the flare of a cigarette I would watch him breathe, the curve of his shoulders, slick with sweat, the outline of my fingers on his thigh. I tasted salt and blood on my lips, and a breeze made its way into the room, cooling his neck as my breath warmed it. He’d wake, but I stopped his voice from asking questions his eyes could not help asking. The slam of a car door, a shriek of laughter, cascade of a bottle breaking, drifted up from the streets below the window.

I look into him, feeling the pulse of his blood under my fingertips, the thrill of my lips against his throat, my teeth in his skin, twists of pleasure spiked with pain. His nails wrapped burning vines of sweetness into flesh, held motionless by my hand at the small of his back, or between his shoulderblades. I pulled him in tight and breathless, his soul on my lips and the world outside our window.  There was nothing sweeter than the pleasure of his pain, the arching of his back and the pressure of his body, my fingers twisted in his hair and my teeth buried in his throat. I would smile as he opened his eyes, as they flashed with understanding, as he kissed his own soul from my lips while the world drifted in from outside our window.  At work he would make diffident, unconvincing excuses when pressed – a kitchen accident, a drunken fall.

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