Miles’ scars were his saving grace. He told Maria the stories one at a time, starting the night they met. They introduced their bodies right away, and, after the urgency of sex, as they came to and found that it was morning, there emerged between them an expectation like a drum that needed sounding.
“When I was ten I was riding on a dune buggy with my friend who was forty. He let me drive and I just took off,” Miles said, his voice rising in excitement. “We were racing over this patch of dirt and all of a sudden there was this barbwire fence. He told me to slow down but it was too late—neither of us had seen it. I tried to slow down but we crashed into it. My friend went sideways but I catapulted all the way over the fence, and the barbwire snagged my throat. I was hanging down against the chain links, and I remember choking on the blood in my throat and hearing it pouring on the ground. My friend grabbed me from the top of the fence and I felt his hand slip inside my neck. He pinched the vein shut and threw me in the back of the dune buggy, and he drove to the house and took me in his truck to the hospital, the whole time with his hand in my neck. I remember when they loaded me onto the hospital bed, seeing the blood bubbles pop under my chin. Next thing I woke up in the hospital after a blood transfusion.”
He turned his head from side to side so Maria could rub the length of white scar scrawled from a spot three inches below the left ear to a spot two inches below the right. It was uneven in thickness, punctuated by hills and jags. Maria pictured him hooked up to the heart monitor and how the line on the display must have looked as his heart tried to circulate what little blood he had left in his body.
Maria liked that Miles was an odd kid. He had a light, high voice and an unusually erect posture. Once at a party, in the middle of explaining how people mistakenly assumed he was gay because of his too-straight spine, he ripped off his fancy summer suit, the trousers of which appeared to be held together at the sides with Velcro. Underneath he wore Ralph Lauren boxer briefs, a bow tie at his throat. In retrospect, she thought, that should have been her first sign of his avocation, a summer job in which the women sometimes attacked him bodily, he told her, his eyes sparkling.
But she loved that he showed up at her door on his tiny BMX bike, unashamed to ride a toy. That he took her biking in the woods at dusk, squeezing through the neck of the boulder forest to shoot out onto Snowbowl Road just as the sun fell and the mountains threw their arms around the night. That he flung wide her second-story window while they were making love on Parents’ Day at the university, and they silently agreed to perform like porn stars for the benefit of the beehives and raked comb overs milling in the courtyard below. She liked that afterward he cooked her breakfast and took the trash out with his shirt off, winking at the mother who peeked in for a glimpse of the stud almost as soon as the door was open, and she liked that he put a finger in the chest of the frat boy who cheeped up at her window like a baby bird, open mouth mocking her sex cries, Miles’ thick finger dimpling the boy’s soft breast, his cheeks flushed pink with excitement.
Miles was self-disciplined in bed, at times refusing to come at all. A show of control she disliked, particularly as, being nineteen and gorgeous, he didn’t seem to think he needed to engage in any foreplay beyond whipping off his shirt to reveal his perfect body.
Maria knew that Miles considered himself a thoughtful lover, putting aside his own pleasure. But so many of the men she’d had sex with had approached the act this same mechanical way. She would watch them looking down at her body, at what they were doing to her body, seeing her but not seeing her. The ones who came too fast and hung their heads in shame were, she felt, more honest. “There, there,” she would say, cradling them to her breast. “There are techniques. We can practice.” But the men hung up on their own performance—gym bunnies, egomaniacs—that was no different to her than the men who wanted to use her and go. In her opinion the only difference between a bad lover who came too soon and a bad lover who took too long was the period of time required to endure it.
With Miles, Maria was determined to be the one to objectify him. How fast can I make him change his mind this time? She would ask herself. The next time his hand went between her legs, she stopped him and bit him on the neck.
After, as they lay in bed talking, he parted his hair to show her the precision-curved line along the top of his scalp. “This one,” he said, “happened when I was BMX biking. I was trying to do a jump that landed me on the top of this boulder and I biffed it and landed on my head. I got right up again and kept doing jumps, and my friends asked me if I felt okay because I hit my head pretty hard, they said—they could hear it smacking—but I felt fine. We went back down to the parking lot and I said bye to them and got in my truck, and I was just sitting there in my truck, staring straight ahead, and I must’ve blacked out. I guess I sat there for almost sixteen hours, sitting up with my eyes open, before one of my friends found out I never made it back home. When we got to the hospital there was so much swelling they had to remove a piece of my brain to relieve the pressure.”
Maria saw that no hair grew from the half-moon scar. She parted his hair, and kissed it. Then she bent her head lower, her mouth almost perpendicular to his cock. She would choke on it, she thought. Miles knotted a fist in her hair. His knuckles grazed her scalp. Her fingernails scrabbled for purchase at the checkered pattern that wrapped the back of his forearm.
“You never asked me about this one,” he said. He picked her up and set her down next to him. “I was welding something in my dad’s garage. I knocked a can of paint thinner off the shelf and it spilled down my arm and a splash went onto the flame. I took off my shirt, wrapped it around, and rolled on the ground till it went out. I needed a dozen skin grafts just to get my arm this pretty.”
Maria rubbed the thickened, glazed texture of it. “What do you remember most about the accident?” She asked him.
“Which one?” Miles said with a laugh.
“I don’t know. Any of them.”
“I remember the nurse was hot,” he said. “In the hospital after they took out a piece of my brain. She had a great rack. She used to give me sponge baths.”
Maria tweaked her nipples to perk up her breasts. With Miles she always imagined how she must look during sex. There may as well have been a mirror on the ceiling, the way she would picture his perfect body on top of her, those pulsing scars like living art on his broad neck, his bulging flexor, and her body beneath his, the soft roundness of her belly, large breasts falling sideways toward her armpits.
She knew he was seeing other girls. Theirs was an open relationship. This didn’t bother her. She brought home the occasional guy from the club. What bothered Maria about Miles was how bothered he was by her lackluster interest in a relationship. She’d object to the way he came onto other girls in her presence, telling him, “The only thing I ask is that you give me your full attention while we’re together. I don’t care who you fuck once you walk out my door.” He’d tell her, “If you were my girlfriend I’d treat you better.” She didn’t understand, she told him. He was the one who made his policy clear from the beginning. He would argue that an open relationship was not the same as a booty call, and she would laugh dismissively, as though she knew differently.
Though with other men Maria came easily, with Miles she never approached anything resembling orgasm. With him, as with a few of the others, she’d find herself in the bathroom beforehand with a bout of watery diarrhea, quite literally sick to her stomach, climbing into the tub to wash herself before emerging from the bathroom in lingerie. Where he’d be waiting in a Playgirl pose on the bed, holding his hard dick.
In his approach to sex he reminded her of Eric, the man she’d been seeing before she met Miles. On their first date Eric took her to Olive Garden. He outlined his fiscal and social beliefs in exhaustive detail, pausing only to order for her. The last time she’d had sex with a Republican she’d been sixteen and handcuffed in the desert. He was Mormon. Out loud she said, “That’s so interesting,” turning her water glass around and around, wishing for wine.
What a fool, she had thought after dinner, gazing at him through his fish tank while he explained the function of Plecostumus, the cleaner fish. She nodded as though she didn’t already know, as though she couldn’t see the function of the whiskered, spotted fish from its flat, sucking perch wedged in the corner of the tank. In Eric’s bathroom she vomited silently and then brushed her teeth with a finger before accompanying him to the bedroom.
Eric walked in after her, guided her by her shoulders, set her on the bed and peeled her clothes off without saying a word. He didn’t kiss her. He pushed on her chest to extend her, and when he touched her she’d opened her eyes wide, staring at the ceiling, her pupils sharply dilated. She thought she might throw up again but instead her body betrayed itself in orgasm. The sound—not for him—echoed in the darkness of her own mind. “That’s so hot,” he said, tugging at her foot and ankle, smoothing out her glossy pages. Meet Maria. She’s 24, likes horses, and is an imperfect rendering of a woman in a magazine.
Like Miles, Eric had told her up front he wouldn’t come. “It’s all about you, baby.” Five minutes later he asked permission to pull out and ejaculate on her stomach. He kneeled in front of her in a well-controlled tremble. “I can keep going,” he said.
“It’s okay.” She pulled him down to hug him against her chest. He broke free of her grasp, pinned her wrists to the bed, and latched onto her nipples, one and then the other, his expression one of irritated concentration, an anxious connoisseur, straining for something, anything, an apparition of metaphor, the will to power—hint of oak, undercurrent of blackberry, bittersweet chocolate. “No no no,” she said, pushing his head back. “Let’s just lie here.”
“I want to pleasure you,” he said. He rolled her onto her side and pushed her face away with the heel of his palm as he approached her for access, steadying his cock with his other hand, guiding it like a rudimentary weapon. At first she wanted to sink her teeth into his wrist; and then the spell of human submission came over her. She could pinpoint the day she first felt it like the warm lie of a tanning bed as, set down beneath a soft yellow lamp in an easy chair, she ground her teeth to powder and pledged to be good. That was in seventh grade. That year was also the year she let the old man in the movie theater put his hands down her pants for the duration of Kundun. In her mind’s eye she could see a line of like suitors filing out of the crowded theater, silhouettes tall and short, fat and skinny, a million sets of heads and shoulders outlined by an open door. Just be good.
Maria felt a grim satisfaction when Eric stopped prodding her and collapsed in exhaustion. Her steady unyielding wore him out. She asked him about the name tattooed beneath a coil of razor wire on his bicep. “Dave was my uncle,” he said. “I never knew him. When he and my father were fourteen they were riding dirt bikes through the forest. Some creep strung up piano wire between two trees. My uncle was decapitated.”
Maria was quiet. Clusters of dime-sized aspen leaves cast their fluttering shadows on the forest floor. A dirt bike turned on its side, its rear wheel spinning in the air. The front tire sputtered and whined, churned in the undergrowth. The wire was copper-colored. It caught the sun and turned the light back to her eyes.
Eric stood and walked to the sliding glass door of the bedroom. He pulled up the floor-length blinds and slid back the door and stepped outside into the backyard of his suburban home. He had told her he had saved up for it working in real estate since the age of twenty-two. He stood naked in the snow with his back to her.
The first snow day in Flagstaff that year had come unexpectedly, a month before Maria met Eric, two months before she met Miles. It was a clear day in November, warm, and the sun was shining. Seven miles out to the trailhead, one of her favorite trails, eight miles up into the heart of the San Franciscos, half technical, shaking the frame, her legs still scarred from learning how to really ride the last summer. It started to snow in the late afternoon. She was halfway up the path—she could have turned back—but she rode on, past the crest of the hill, down the fire road, through the boulder forest, ribs and ears sandwiched by cold stone, no gloves, just a light windbreaker, hands turning bright pink. The snow began to swirl faster and faster, obscuring the path. Dark came fast. On the downhill at a tricky turn she put her foot down too quickly onto the slick curved surface of an icy boulder. Pain knocked her from her bike. She stared up at the sky, the blue behind white. She thought maybe she wouldn’t get up. She could stay there, body between the rocks, snow numbing her expanding ankle.
She shot out onto the road as the dark descended. She had guessed at the rest of the trail, guessed at the shapes beneath the snow. She rode in the dark next to the cars beneath a tidal wave of frozen slush seven miles back to her apartment, where she stomped in, her hands curled round invisible handlebars, fingertips frostbitten, eyelashes glued to her eyebrows with snow. She’d stood there, a melting red ice statue, staring at her best friend Beth, curled up beneath a wool blanket watching The Office.
“What the fuck happened?” Beth said.
“I got caught in a snowstorm,” Maria told her.
“Are you okay?”
Maria didn’t answer. She said, “I have a date tonight,” and limped up the stairs.
She met Billy at the Monte V. The Monte Vista Hotel, the historic Flagstaff hotel where the bar scenes from Casa Blanca were filmed. Where the ghost of a murdered prostitute haunted famous clientele in the presidential suite. Where Genghis had picked her up the previous August, late one night.
Maria came in through the back door and sashayed past the pool players wearing a pair of tight jeans. “You swing that ass like that all night I just might have to tap that,” said of one of the pool players, a tall guy with a beard, pool stick in hand. She laughed.
At the bar she ran into a friend of Billy’s. “Are you his new girlfriend?” The girl asked. She laughed again. “I barely know him,” Maria said.
Billy didn’t say anything all night, even on the walk home. Maria wondered if she should have ditched him for the handsome pool player. But it didn’t matter. The night wasn’t about fun. She already knew that.
Billy had one of those old Flagstaff houses that didn’t quite sit right—half the old houses in town were like that, as though built by drunken builders. In Billy’s house the floor and the walls didn’t quite line up, the ceiling sloped down at an odd angle. He lived alone in his jerry-rigged den with three large fluffy dogs. Chow mixes, she thought. He put her in his unmade bed and she stared at the ceiling as he went about his business. After a while she said, “Aren’t you going to come soon?”
“Don’t you want it to last?” In anger he sank his teeth into her breasts. In the morning as Billy slept the dogs licked the blood from Maria’s chest. She fell into their embrace. “Oh you, oh you,” she said, kissing the dogs’ soft ears and flinging her arms around their busy bodies as they crowded round to comfort her.
Other men were different. There was Ted, the blue-eyed Georgia boy, picked up at the bar the night she worked the patio party. He was passing through, an engineer headed to L.A. Dining at the grill early in the evening he beckoned her over, asked her what there was to see in town. She told him, come back if you don’t find what you’re looking for. At the party turtle-chinned Lisa with the pigtails and the tortoise-shell rims was talking to him, and Beth had walked straight up to him and put a hand on his shoulder. “He’s coming with us,” she said. In the morning Ted couldn’t stop kissing her. “I can’t seem to get out of here. I keep falling back in bed with you,” he said. Maria beamed up at him with her whole body.
After Ted came the tall black basketball player. She never even knew his name. All night at the club she danced with other men and he danced with other women. They smiled at each other over shoulders, whirling from one partner to another. At the end of the night he reprimanded her gently. “You didn’t dance with me.” She took his hand and led him outside.
In the wee hours of the morning he woke her up with oral sex, his strong tongue making her come almost at once. Then he rode her bareback, crying out after only a minute, the muscular contractions of his orgasm so powerful Maria climaxed again. Afterward he ran his hands over her back. “Your skin is so smooth,” he said, marveling. Most men never said anything like that, Maria thought. She guessed it was hard sometimes to appreciate a woman. With one night stands it was usually, this is where I’m going to put it. With Miles and Eric it was always, this is how I’m going to do it.
Maria stopped answering Miles’ phone calls.
One night in early summer, after sushi and sake bombers, Maria’s friend Erin talked her into a judo class. “It’s at the school gym, across the street from your apartment,” she said. “It’s for a credit.” Maria put on yoga clothes and did endless cartwheels, crabbed her way across the floor on her side using only her legs, threw herself as hard as she could onto a stiff mat repeatedly. She was hooked.
The class was on a Friday night. One Friday a big blond kid, maybe eighteen, asked her to spar. He was a kid who always made faces at her in class, and would sometimes run up and stand before her like he wanted to tell her something. That night his nose was taped across the bridge where somebody had broken it, and he had a black eye. He looked like he lifted weights, a big, tough kid, with a blunt-cut face and crystal eyes.
“Go easy on her,” the pimpled college kids said nervously, glancing at her as though they wished they had the nerve to touch her.
“Sure,” he said. “It’s just a little sparring.”
He had her on her back in a second, choking her and spreading her knees wide apart all the way back and up until she seized in pain. She started to black out from the pressure on her carotid. She tapped the mat.
“Let her go, man,” someone said. The pressure stopped.
In a moment she sat up. The big kid had backed away from her, on his haunches again, the starting position for ne-waza. He rested his weight on his knuckles and smiled at her. In the animal world, she thought, you are a gorilla, and I am a tiger.
She launched herself at him. Her spring was so sudden he didn’t know what was coming, didn’t realize her plan until her body was fully extended, a guided missile headed straight for his nose. She hit the bandaged bridge with the crown of her head and heard him howl. She tucked into a roll and came to her feet in a crouch.
“Nice,” said the sensei, standing in front of her in his blue dress gi, his arms folded. “Illegal move, but I like it.”
After class she went out to meet some friends. Beth and Amie would meet her at the Green Room. Eddie would be there too, she thought. He always worked on Friday nights.
The night before she’d had a dream. She and Beth and Eddie had been in the darkened bar on a Tuesday, the way they used to be, back when Maria would play wingman, hanging out in the corner while Beth teased the bartender. Maria did it because Beth asked her, because she loved her. Maria would sit in the booth alone with a drink, a book in hand, as Eddie and Beth disappeared upstairs to make out.
Beth, Beth, Elizabeth Banks. It sounded so British and so posh for a skinny girl dressed in leather boots with years-old dreads, the dead ones breaking off sometimes when she went to brush them out of her eye. So posh for a girl from the wrong side of the tracks hitchhiking a ride out of the NT galaxy. But when she turned her head to the side, Maria could see it in the slim line of her neck, in the skin so thin and pale the veins were visible like the Milky Way, pulsing at her throat in a delicate cluster of blue stars. She could see it in the set of her tiny, pretty deer-head, mounted so elegantly on that slender, curved neck—the haughty tilt back of her chin, the disdain in her light-brown eyes under the inscrutable lowered lashes. She was Elizabeth Banks.
In Maria’s dream the night before the three of them sat at one of the booths, Beth and Eddie on one side, Maria on the other. Beth had that righteous look of disgust again. “I keep telling Maria I better not tell her who I have a crush on or she’ll fuck them.” Eddie was smiling his smug smile of agreement. Maria wanted so badly for Beth to see—to know—and then before them appeared a lurid tableau. In the hologram she was naked on the floor, Eddie on top of her, forcing her arms up behind her back. In the dream she had been crying, not sitting there in the booth, but the self that was on the floor, an astral projection of sorts, her soul split, like a shaman’s. Eddie had looked around for an escape. Beth had looked aghast. Her mouth opened in grief.
At the bar Beth hung back while Maria ordered. Beth wouldn’t even look Eddie in the eye anymore, would loudly tell everyone how Maria had slept with him, God, what a loyal friend. As Eddie handed over the vodka tonics, he caught her arm. “You look good,” he said to her. “You look skinny.” He raised his voice. “Hey Beth, Beth, isn’t Maria looking good? She’s looking skinny, right?” Maria couldn’t recall the last time she had eaten. She squeezed Eddie’s hand, flirtatious, complicit. Black holes in the sky. Her smile dropped down to the bar, ashamed.
Maria handed off the drinks to Beth, whose skinny black leather form, boots laced up to the knees, stomped off to find a booth without looking back. Maria walked through the beaded curtain to the restroom. It was early yet and she had beaten the line. She locked the door and sank down to the tiles. Her lips touched the porcelain bowl.
She didn’t know how long she was there. She heard people pounding on the door. Amie’s voice came through, the high tones of a child. “Maria, it’s Amie. Beth told me you were back here. Are you sick? Let me in.”
Maria crawled to the door. She saw the crowd behind her friend, Amie holding her arms up like a referee. “She’s all right, get back, okay? Give us some space.” Amie shouldered her way in and locked the door again. She stood there, one small hand wrapped round her drink, the other on her hip.
“Maria, what’s wrong? Did someone spike your drink again?”
Maria shook her head.
“Well, what happened? Did you guys pre-game it or something?”
“No, no.” Maria leaned her head against the wall. She felt exhausted. “I just can’t face him. I’m sick. I’m sick. I’m making myself sick.”
The last time I saw Eddie before tonight, Maria, thought, he was feeding the ducks. The image was so incongruous—his back bent, feeble and human, like an old man’s. Something an old man would do too, solitary, lending him a lost innocence, sad happiness of a sepia-stained life lifting years from his face and positioning him again in the sunlight as a boy.
It was his profile picture on Facebook. Maria had stared at it for hours the day after it happened. The last time she’d really seen him had been a glimpse of his profile exiting her apartment the night before that. He’d slammed the door so hard next to her head her teeth had rattled. I was so drunk, she wanted to say to Amie. At Flag Brew after work one of the waitresses bought me ten shots in a row and then beer after beer. She got me to tell her how many men I’d slept with, and then she called me a slut. Eddie came in. He was drinking alone. At the end of the night the waitresses left me. They were always doing that—they never did anything about it when customers grabbed the summer girls, got them drunk and took them home. Anyway, Eddie said he’d walk me home. He said it was too dangerous for me to walk home alone. I was in and out of consciousness. It was one in the morning. We were having this warm, pleasant conversation. He asked me where Beth was. I said she was out of town. I didn’t know—I didn’t know they’d had a fight the night before, when I stayed in to study. That Beth had screamed fuck you and given him the finger. I didn’t know—I didn’t know how jealous he was of how everyone said Beth and I were married. Of how much she loved me. That he thought I was a cockblock. That he resented me. I didn’t know, I didn’t know. I knew he was an asshole—I always knew. But I thought he was just your garden variety asshole. I thought he liked me.
At the door I turned around to say goodnight. I was standing on the ledge, you know, the lip at the entryway, between the front walk and the floor. He just pushed back on my chest and I collapsed on the ground like a rubber doll deflating. He stepped in and shut the door. He pulled me to my feet and pushed my back to the wall. He started taking off my shirt—he just snapped open all those snap buttons, you know, the ones that my friend James always said he likes because they’re so easy to unbutton—unsnapping them one by one, businesslike, methodical, and I just stared at him, uncomprehending—that plaid shirt I stole that one time we went to Target, just put it on over my tank top and walked out. The time you told me the easiest way to shoplift is to wear something out of the store, you’re so brazen they’ll never question it. The time you took the yellow gloves for your gardening project, and we walked out in the middle of summer wearing a long plaid shirt and long yellow gardening gloves, respectively, and no one gave us a second glance. That plaid shirt that made me look like a country girl in the sunlight, you said. Barefaced and barefoot. Innocent. Laughing, you said. Beautiful, you said.
Amie, Maria wanted to say, I blacked out and when I came to I was naked on all fours. I heard a voice whimpering in the dark. It was saying stop, it hurts. Stop, stop. I didn’t know then who that voice belonged to. I blacked out again. When I came to the next time I didn’t know who I was fucking, who was fucking me, but there it was, familiar. Flesh on flesh, a song in the dark. And when I awoke the next day, my first thought was, what a strange flashback. About Eddie, of all people. And then looking around—the way the knowledge of it hitched a ride with the oncoming train of a raging hangover. I was on the hardwood floor, and the sun shining through the floor-length window illuminated the tiny gold hairs on my stomach. My neighbors, the frat boys, could have walked outside anytime and seen me. Maybe they thought it was just another Monday.
Amie, she wanted to say, my next thought was, Beth will never forgive me. She’ll think I slept with him. And how can I blame her, after all the men I’ve brought home? Amie, I went to Walgreens for the morning after pill. I was trying to do something right. The pharmacist wouldn’t give it to me. She was an older woman with the older woman’s bouffant hairdo. “But he didn’t use a condom,” I said. “I might get pregnant.”
“You should have thought about that before you made your decision.”
I reached under the plexiglass partition at this ghetto Walgreens and grabbed her by her white doctor’s sleeve. “But I didn’t. I didn’t. I didn’t make the decision.”
I saw how pity and contempt met on her face, a positive and a negative charge repelling each other in mutual dislike. Her stiff cloud of hair trembled. She said, “Let go of my sleeve before I call the police.”
But Maria didn’t say any of that. She was mumbling to the wall, a discourse with an empty chair. All she said was, “He offered to walk me home last Sunday night when I was blackout drunk. Then he came in the door behind me. He fucked me.” She turned her head to the side to wipe drool from her chin. “Beth thinks it’s my fault.”
Maria could see the angry bounce of Amie’s black hair in the mirror. Rage lines radiated like heat waves from her straightened back. Her pretty moon face hovered and snapped, her black eyes popped behind black-framed lenses. Amie said, “Why didn’t you go to the police?”
“I couldn’t go through it again,” Maria said. “They would never believe me anyway. You remember what happened last time.”
“What happened last time? I thought you dropped the charges because there wasn’t enough evidence.”
“Not exactly.” Maria was still mumbling. Amie squatted in front of her and grabbed her chin.
“Tell me!” She said.
Amie had taken her to the police station last August. The cop who’d come out into the waiting room had said to them, “Which one of you is the victim?” He’d been rubbing his hands together in anticipation, glancing between the two of them.
“It’s me,” Maria had said, and she’d wondered if the cop looked disappointed because she looked more like your average slut and not the innocent her friend seemed. He wanted to make it that much hotter, or else he knew she didn’t have a case, because girls who don’t look innocent are always asking for it.
Maria had requested a woman but was told one wouldn’t be around until the next day. There was a problem of paperwork after the incident in the woods. Resigned, she’d said okay to a man.
Officer Radloff had taken her inside his tiny office. “What seems to be the problem?”
She’d begun by telling him. He’d spelled the name wrong. “It’s G-E-N-G-H-I-S,” she’d told him. “The H comes after the second G.”
He had looked up at her suspiciously. “How do you know,” he’d asked. She’d shrugged. She’d meant it harmless but it came off snooty in his all-day-every-day 9-5 eyes. “I’m an English major, I can spell,” she’d told him.
“For such a smart girl you did a stupid, stupid thing,” he’d said. “Don’t you know better than to go home with someone you just met.”
“But,” Maria had said. “That’s just the point. I didn’t go home with him. He was standing at the bar telling me how much he admired his namesake and next thing I know he was putting me in a cab. I was out late with my friend celebrating—she went to the bathroom for five minutes, we were so wasted by then—he was with friends and said there was a party, and then he just took me by the arm and dragged me outside.”
Officer Radloff had shaken his head. “I’ll tell you straight up you have no case. The DA’ll just kick it back. I mean, even if you have cervical bruising it doesn’t matter, because some women like rough sex. Next time get to know someone first.” He’d looked up from under his sorrowful crew cut. One side had been shaved too far down, like he’d done it himself. “The other day I shot a guy in the woods off Route 66. He was a guy lived in his mom’s basement. He ran out of medication. I guess he was schizophrenic. He took a knife from his mom’s house and was waving it around. We Tasered him twice but that bastard just wouldn’t go down!” He’d nodded once to himself and then looked up to meet Maria’s gaze. His eyes were pleading. “Do you know how long our days are? I’ve been here since seven. Do you know how much I get paid for this? Do you?”
Maria stopped talking. She leaned over the bowl again.
Amie said, “Oh my God. Oh my God. Why didn’t you tell me?” She set her drink down on the sink. “Maria, you always take care of me. You stopped Chris that one time. You threw him out on his ass, and he was your friend. You watch Beth’s back at concerts when she’s done too many drugs. You took care of Erin when that guy slipped something in her drink. You called the cops, for fuck’s sake.”
Maria started to cry. “I don’t know. I don’t know.”
Amie slammed the flat of her hand into the mirror, breaking it. “He’s a rapist. I hate him.”
The pounding got louder. For fifteen minutes they had ignored the cries. “Are you all right?” “Open the goddamned door, we need to pee!” “Is some chick dying in there?”
And then a man’s voice. “You need to open the door, this is the manager.”
Amie picked up her drink from the sink where she’d set it. She opened the door to a tall man with his fist upraised to knock. He spoke to her in anger. “This is a club, not a hotel.” He looked inside and saw the broken mirror. “What’s the meaning of this?” He said. He pushed past Amie and saw Maria in the corner. He knelt down and put a hand on her shoulder. “Are you all right? Do you need an ambulance?”
Maria shook her head. “Come on,” the manager said, helping her to her feet. She caught a flash of green eyes in the splintered glass, radioactive in a white face. The manager half twisted to his right and said to Amie, “Can you tell me what happened in here?”
There was no answer. The manager glanced over his shoulder. Amie was gone. The crowd had moved away from the door and towards the bar, all eyes on her. The great thing about being Asian, Amie had once said to Maria, is people think I’m a ninja. I’m small and quiet, but when I get pissed off, people think I have magical powers.
The crowd three deep at the bar parted to let Amie through. Eddie was craning his head like everybody else, his handsome face curious, blond hair shining in the overhead lights. They reminded Maria of the lights on a movie set. She watched with a distant curiosity, standing just inside the threshold of the bathroom door, the manager’s arm around her shoulder.
Amie marched straight up to Eddie and threw her drink in his face. Maria saw the V of drink splash down Eddie’s sweater vest. Then Amie threw her glass at his head.
The manager left his place at Maria’s side and reached Amie just as the bouncer bore down upon her. Maria pushed out of the bathroom and was sucked into a funnel through the crowd of people jamming up the front door. After being ejected onto the street she stopped a moment to catch her breath. She wondered what had happened to Beth. The thought of her best friend made her feel sick again. She scrubbed her mouth out with snow. Then she began the short walk home.
From the bars knots of people were spilling onto the street, pushing and shoving, setting down beer cans in the snow. A man fell in step beside her.
“Sure,” she said. “Why not.”
She saw he wasn’t her type when they came through her front door together. He was about ten years older, with thinning sandy hair and a pale, plain face. He couldn’t believe his luck.
“I don’t have any sheets on my bed,” she told him. She took him upstairs, where they put on the rumpled sheets together, left unfolded with the rest of the wrinkled clothes in her laundry basket. He cast a disgusted eye over the broken dresser, rescued from a dumpster, the scratched and beaten desk, littered with pennies, and the floor, strewn with trash.
What do you expect, she wanted to say to him. Do you think a girl with a clean bedroom would let you fall in step beside her on the street.
She put the condom on. This was one thing she’d learned. He came as soon as he started to enter.
“Jesus,” she said, and pushed him off her.
He resisted. “Let me stay a minute.” Panting into her face.
“No,” she said. “I want you to go. Right now.”
When he was gone she began to pick up her room. She folded her clothes carefully and put them away. She put all of the pennies into a change purse. She picked up the trash.
She called Miles.
He answered on the first ring. “I thought you’d never talk to me again,” he said.
“Can you come over and help me move a dresser?” She said.
He was there in ten minutes. When she opened the door, he hugged her. “Hey, stranger,” he said, his smile lighting up the doorway.
“I missed you too, Miles,” she said. “Will you come upstairs with me?”
“You never have to ask that, kiddo,” he said. She took his hand, something she never did.
Upstairs she led him to the bed. “I thought we were going to move a dresser,” he said.
“Later,” she said. “First things first.” She began to unbuckle his belt.
“What’s going on, Maria?” He caught her hand and cupped it to his chest.
“I just had some bad sex, that’s all. I need to forget about it.”
“When? Right now?”
“I guess,” she said.
“What was so bad about it?”
“Everything,” she said.
“Maybe he was just so attracted to you.”
“I don’t care,” she said. “Miles, you never made me come before. Will you make me come tonight?”
A series of expressions passed over his young face like a wind over water. “Is that why you stopped calling? You should have told me.”
“No, it’s not. I promise. It really doesn’t matter. I just wanted to tonight, that’s all.”
“It does matter, Maria,” he said. “Lay back. Let me get the massage oil.”
“No,” she said. “We’re going to do this my way.”
Miles looked surprised. “All right,” he said after a moment. His voice sounded hesitant.
Maria undressed him slowly. She kissed the sickle scar in his scalp. She kissed the white necklace of scar tissue. She caressed the cross-hatched gloss of his arm. “Your body is perfect,” she said.
He raised his eyebrows. “You’re the one with no scars.”
“I love the story of you in these scars. I don’t even have a tattoo.”
“Well, maybe you should get one.”
“If I could think of something perfect. But there’s nothing I won’t change my mind about.”
“So whenever something’s perfect you know it’s only temporary, you mean—that makes it imperfect? So nothing is ever perfect for you?”
“Your body is,” she said.
She climbed on top of him and snuggled up to him, shy. Her face stayed in the crease of his neck for a long time. She kissed him softly, the tip of her tongue tracing his lips. She stroked his chest and gently pressed the pads of her fingers down over his nipples. She lowered herself onto him smoothly and began to ride him. On top had used to be her favorite position. She rocked him gently and leaned back, her hair falling down to his knees.
His hands came up to her breasts. He slipped one hand below and stroked her.
“No,” she said, gently lifting his hand and placing it back on her breast. “Let me.” She closed her eyes as she touched herself. Through her open window drifted the sound of Seals and Croft’s ”Summer Breeze.” See the curtains hangin’ in the window. In the evenin’ on a Friday night. A little light a-shinin’ through the window, lets me know everything is all right. See the paper layin’ on the sidewalk, a little music from the house next door. So I walked on up to the doorstep, through the screen and across the floor.
Warmth spread up through Maria’s whole body, and she continued to rock Miles gently. He screwed up his face like a baby’s. “I can’t, I can’t,” he said. “You’re squeezing me so hard.”
“Don’t stop,” she said. “Please.”
“Just for a second,” he said. “I can’t make it.”
She paused, looking into his open face. “Tell me when you’re ready,” she said.
He nodded, his lips pressed white. She began again, softly, touching herself, rising, rising. Her mouth opened and a long sigh escaped her, not the scream of banshees that emanated from her speakers at night, her face lit up by flickering pictures, but a long, low sigh, pulled deep from her diaphragm. It unspooled like yards of colorful cloth from her shallow throat.
“Let me come,” Miles said. “Please.”
“Come,” Maria said.
“Not inside you.”
“Yes.” She leaned down and nuzzled his ear. She felt him shudder and gasp and his fingers sunk into the flesh of her ass. She pulled his face against her shoulder. He held her like that for a long time, at the edge of the bed, her ankles crossed at the small of his back, his arms around her waist.
After, as they lay heads together, their bodies glistening in the dark, he smiled at her. He looked older in the moonlight through the window, faint glimmer on his nose and cheekbones contrasting his eyes into deep shadow. “You could get a tear, here,” he said, tracing her cheek. “Or here,” he said, tracing her other cheek.
“You’d like that, wouldn’t you.”
“Or a clown mask tattooed over your face.”
“Would you still sleep with me if I had a clown mask tattooed over my face?”
“Yes,” he said.
“What if I had a scar that cut me open from mons pubis to breastbone?”
“I’m not sure exactly what the first one is, but I can guess,” he said. “Yes.”
She waited a beat. “Miles?”
“Who was your friend?”
“The friend who was forty when you were ten.”
He was quiet. “Just someone I knew,” he said finally. “He saved my life. He was my friend.”
She nodded in the dark. “Miles?” She said again.
“You really didn’t cry in the hospital?”
“Yes,” he said. “The second time. When the doctor came in, I asked him which piece they took. When he left, and my parents left, I couldn’t stop. I cried so much the nurse came and cleaned my face. I still cry about it. I’m not the same person I was before. Things go missing sometimes.”
“You still cry about it?”
“All the time.”
Maria nodded. Miles raised himself up on an elbow. “Do you?”
“Do I what?”
“Do you still cry about it?”
Maria didn’t answer. She lay on her back, arms stiff at her sides. Miles’ gaze was unrelenting. She stood up and hopped one leg at time into her underwear. “Let’s get rid of that dresser now.” She began to yank out the drawers, tearing apart the particle board. She split the splintering wood with her knee. Miles rose and pulled on his boxer shorts. He came up behind her and kissed her on her cheek, tightening his arms around her body. She let herself relax against his chest a moment. Then she handed him a board.
Fifteen minutes they worked together in silence to reduce her dresser to rubble. Then side by side they carried it out into the moonlight.