DB and A-O coexist for a time in an old-West flat-choked big little city with metropolitan aspirations, one that to get much bigger would need to spread north and overlap its enormous ugly cousin named for the gorgeous bird that reincarnates from its own ashes; a monstrous cement and glass insult to the desert around it, home to so many more beautiful and curious creatures than the cars and dead-eyed zombies who make that nightmare sun glare their home. But this dust-choked quasi-boomtown spluttering on its own half-hearted gentrification—the hippies and their confused successors, the pastiche-plagued hipsters, and other scenesters—raccoon eyes, ripped tights, artful holes and scuffed boots, jean-jacket cowboy hats, embroidered marijuana leaves bulged 3D above cigarette packs—scuttle out with the “Keep _____ Shitty” signs like the ass-scratching hand of the trust-fund punk who stands in front of the glass window of the downtown boutique wondering if he ought to shell out or not for that twelve-hundred-dollar vintage suede fringe suit—this is where the story takes place; a flat valley backwater that could barely contain in it a single engorged tadpole, a shrinking puddle that threatens to disappear in the noonday sun.
At least, that’s what it became afterward for sensitive (pickup) artist Dick Beard (DB, for short). As for Awesome O-Face (who prefers the moniker Awesome O or simply “A-O!”), she didn’t even have the luck to meet the frog before he died on the sand, half-formed. Had to resolve, in the end, to crawl out of the puddle herself, grow some arms and legs, and walk off into the sunset her own prince.
In a strip-mall sparkle of average city stretch out flat West our heroes swing by a forgettably-named Chinese restaurant on a weekday afternoon and
(I must have been as cute as a baby kitten. Curled up on the bed with my eyes shut, sleek-haired and glowing, my jerry-rigged room a shambles—bed on the floor, few odd clothes in the closet, books bags and papers, the things I could carry back with me from another country; bad, cheap furniture that came with the room, fat loose blinds which dangled cock-eyed at an odd angle, near-asleep on the clean sheet, plump, smooth and, in my mind’s-eye view, so tiny, curled up in the corner of a vast expanse of futon; while you stalked around like a gorilla, like a caveman with a kitten riding on his shoulder, hairy from chest to crotch to crack, erection bobbing in front of you, an offering held out in every direction. You stalked around the room—you must have, the knuckles of your instinct dragging—looking for the little bottle of lube we had never really used, located it somewhere on my dresser, a tiny upside-down purple beacon emitting a signal that drew you to its glistening promise, inexorable; then you crossed back to me, compliant, pliable, pliant, as a newborn kitten, blind and limp. Lying down beside me, behind me, one arm up under, over, you fixed me in place; and I relaxed into your embrace, sleepy, from the alcohol, and the tiredness, of the late night, of the emotional exhaustion brought on by your presence, how much I was done by that point, tired in my love and just tired)
run smack into a petite blond man, in the darkness by the dreary fish tank.
“Table for two?” He says, and they both nod. They are a little on edge, because the alcohol-fueled late nights of Dick Beard’s manic endeavors to forget where he’s (not) living have begun, and he can’t imagine getting out of here, that Awesome O might be an escape route, or if she is, that she might let him come along.
They take a bad back booth. They are the only people in the place except for a classy-looking Chinese couple to their left. A young man presumably the chef emerges from the swinging door to the kitchen and kneels at the feet of the young Chinese woman. They have a murmured conversation in Mandarin, so low even the highest tones sound muted.
The yellow-headed waiter is bright and chirpy. He is trying to inject life into a dead place, A-O thinks. She is tired all the time from the restless current of the relationship with DB, which began because her loneliness must have shone so, so, brightly, like a beacon—
“Okay. Before you tell me more about that weekend. You said you had told him when you broke up you felt he had been abusive. Any specific instances of violation, before the night in question?”
(The night in question was already months after that one thing, that thing early on, long before we broke up; that thing with the poem, and my tits, and my mouth; that thing we never talked about; because when you heard it—what I said in that poem, what I somehow knew before I knew it—that you had constructed a version of yourself to a far greater extent than I ever had; that the way you looked away from the camera in photographs was the way you looked away from yourself. That I was right to be disappointed how you pressured me into bed the first night, set the tenor of our relationship; how crazy I drove you, in bed and out; how sometimes, when a mood set in, I wasn’t driving at all.
And in the poem what I told you I wanted, in that innocent appeal to loss and sadness; that tentative declaration of early love—for you to see me—for you to see me—for it to not be about sex or ego, ever again, not after that first time, and you said, but can you blame me—what I told you I wanted was the thing you were most incapable of giving; and so you hung your head after I read it, and asked for a tit-fuck. And when my head got pushed up against the wall in exactly the position it was always meant to be in—upright, mouth open, a vending machine accepting tokens—in that moment I ceased to exist, as a person with thoughts or feelings…
But then, I am never there for these things. I always seem to just miss the invitation to the party which my body gets roped into, in my stead, one step ahead; who am I—some inconvenience, the ugly friend and best avoided—something which I had told you, repeatedly—had told you desperately, right away, in the beginning, vomited it up all over the internet, uncontrollably—something which, after you did it, and declared you had done it, and what it was that you had done, after finishing, after pulling out of my hammered-silent mouth and coming onto my far-away face, appalled at yourself, at your shameful violation, angered by my disgrace, by my silence hovering near the ceiling, you turned your back on me, unable to say anything)
“What can I get for you folks?”
The waiter has a wide smile, skeletal in its eagerness; he stands with his arms folded behind his back, submissive in that oddly formal way waiters in five star restaurants have. A-O thinks he either must have come up or come down in the world recently, or else he was a butler in a former life.
The whispering chef has disappeared and gigantic steaming plates and bowls of food have materialized beneath the waiting chopsticks of the young Chinese couple, who sit backs straight, the lady with her legs tucked, head bowed, preparing for the act of eating. She holds her chopsticks just so, moves them almost imperceptibly between her mouth and her bowl, where she has assembled various portions of the huge meal. The gigantic steaming plates and bowls from where DB and A-O sit appear to contain broths and fresh-chopped vegetables, and glistening meats and seafood, and different kinds of rice, and there are tiny containers for dipping sauces. The smell rising from the young couple’s corner—garlic and ginger, salt, the tang of meat, spices commingling—tickles the noses and lifts the chins of all three people at the bad back booth, who stand or sit in silence, for a few good moments, breathing it in.
DB has turned around and is looking longingly at the couple’s food now, the way he looks longingly at anything which causes him envy, including A-O herself. He scratches his beard. A-O suspects he is resisting the urge to say something racist.
“They know what to order,” he says finally, twisting back around, tearing himself away. “I don’t see any of that stuff on the menu, do you?”
“I’ll have the egg foo young,” A-O tells their waiter, who nods. Very good. She orders water because beer is too expensive.
“What is that?” DB is frowning, looking at the picture under A-O’s finger. Something flat and yellow and brown and runny.
“It’s like an egg pancake with gravy,” she says. “It’s good.”
“Oh.” He shakes his head. “Of course you order the one thing on the menu I’ve never heard of.”
In the dim light she can’t see the patches where he pulled out his lustrous curls before she met him, in a terrible bout of depression-induced trichotillomania; now they spring from his head in little corkscrews, gallop off in odd directions, and he obsesses about them anxiously in the morning mirror, asks first to borrow her comb in the shower, afterward alternately fluffs up and pats down his hair with product. It won’t occur to her till later how much everything she says affects him. In the first weeks they are together she comments on the beautiful striations of light-blue stars in his deep blue eyes, makes sure to compliment them at odd moments, off-handed yet profuse in her compliments, because she didn’t get the answer to the question right in the dark of the night that she met him, as if she cared what color the eyes were of the man who was preying on the crack in her no; but it was a required answer; he had to know that she had gone to bed with him not because she caved, but because she had memorized the blue of his eyes.
As he had memorized her face. He knew the answer to his own question that night, about hers, which were until very close-up dark green, and then only in sunlight changed, to blue gray with a gold ring; probably knew it from her pictures before he met her; had memorized the slight start of the scheming curve to her smile, before she said something she thought she shouldn’t, and even the scar on her chin, from a childhood fall onto her face, flipping way too fast on her sweater around the high bars. A scar which he will tell her he misses, in his funny, rushing way, the words tumbling out, after the terrible things he will do to her the weekend of the book fair, two weeks after they’ve split up, when he’ll come back to her the night after his bad behavior to tell her he misses everything about her: her eyes, her smile, the little scar on her chin, which she would rub then, reflexively, had never thought about before and then would not stop connecting to him.
He buys contact lenses to be less hidden by his glasses, though she tells him that she likes them. He wears for her the t-shirts and boyish jeans she likes best, though for everyone else he wears jackets and ties and tries to look like some semblance of a grown-up, the professor he used to be, is beginning to be again, with his newfound job. He had stopped dairy before she met him and then he stopped bread. She is curvy, heavy, she eats what she wants and she doesn’t care. She can’t understand what it is about her that makes him so scared.
“I’ll have the orange chicken,” DB tells the waiter, and orders a glass of iced tea. The waiter nods again; his smile splits his skin even more, as if their lunch-menu special is fantastic business in this place with no customers.
DB regards A-O the way he always regards her, unless she is dozing in his car on the highway and he thinks she isn’t looking. She catches him then, gazing at her with a dreamy look in his eyes and a slight smile on his lips, and it feels nice to know he loves her, because most of the time she doesn’t. Not through the haze of sarcasm, the barrage of jokes, the teasing meanness. Sometimes he says he does, when it is too dark to see his face, not much help from the thin yellow streetlight through her window blinds, those nights when he cleaves to her side and whispers things in her ears in the husky voice of the over-imbibed: I never thought I’d meet someone again I might want to have children with. Sometimes I think about our house, what it’ll look like. You’re the smartest woman I’ve ever dated. You’re so much smarter than me, so much more attractive. Women are always more attractive than men anyway. I want to stay with you for ever and ever. I don’t want to be with anybody else ever. We’ll do such great things together. I love you. I’m so in love with you. I feel so vulnerable to you. I think I know that you love me too.
But now he sips his iced tea through a straw and looks at her the way he always looks at her whenever they go anywhere together before he’s had his first few drinks. Before he can dance with his elbows bent and his knees forward, free his hands to shake a little and shoot his cuffs, just the right quarter-inch of sleeves to protrude from his natty thrift-store suit jacket, back into her and bump her with his hip, say “boop!” and listen for her ringing laugh. A feeling that may be the reason he suddenly cannot stand to be around her sober: wary, a resentful skepticism that hovers always on the edge of sarcasm.
Later, she will remember her meanness to him in the beginning. Just something slight, a way of keeping herself at arm’s length from his interest. A certain archness, a snobbish elitism easily purloined from her pill-popping, sherry-swilling aristocratic grandmother’s living room, like slipping on one of her grandmother’s cashmere sweaters, stolen while she dozed, cigarette in hand, from its spot draped casually and elegantly around a wicker chair back: correcting him when he mixed things up, when he paired an unnecessary “more” with the “–er” ending of a comparative, confused the past perfect with the passive, pronounced a word wrong.
“Supposably,” to take just one example. “Supposably” has always driven her crazy, drove her crazy when her first love said it; according to DB supposedly she is one of the few people who can even hear it. And “co-inflates” a concept—which, when DB countered Dogberry to her Mrs. Malaprop, made her smile and tilt her chin up—brings to mind two academics hard at work, taking turns blowing up the same wrong thought balloon until it bursts; at such times he would remind her English was his second language, though it really wasn’t; he’d grown up most of his life not in Spain but in English-speaking countries, though he liked to say he was from “Tharagotha” just to make himself sound better—which admittedly, if she’d been born in Zaragoza she would be a lot more inclined to say she was from there than from Fresno, one of the ugliest of ugly industrial cities in California’s central valley—a lot like the one they were in, actually, where she grew up mostly, and where she would say she was from, when asked; but without the surrounding desert beauty—she refrained at least from correcting his Spanish, his habit of saying “by the way” instead of “for sure.” Because he was a writer, he ought to know better, remember? It was more that she felt angry with him for coming into her life as he had, taking over. Trying to fight niceness was like trying to wrestle not in Jell-O but with an opponent made of Jell-O: her antagonist kept falling apart every time she squeezed it.
And she was right, she thought, although by then it was too late. She was right to keep him at arm’s length, and she didn’t cause it. You can’t make people do things they wouldn’t otherwise; and everything he said he didn’t like was something he later did: disrespect. Meanness. Violence. Lying. Betrayal; first desperation. It’s like, he said in the beginning, everyone on OK Cupid has this almost palpable desperation to be in a relationship. What’s up with that? And yet that was him: a love bomb going off in her life. As miscalculated and self-destructive as the anarchist’s bomb etched in his chest, a moment of madness in his early twenties, when he was first diagnosed manic-depressive. The edges of what was real and what was not in their relationship blurred like the badly-tattooed buildings surrounding the burning fuse of the big green bomb, a looming cityscape with which he’d tried to define its anarchist meaning, make it more than just a random symbol of masculine violence, the correction poorly conceived and poorly executed as the original, an unfortunate image in the age of terror; how much anything can become a metaphor for anything else. Nothing could be as bad as the correction he later attempted on her, that weekend.
“Of course they give the white people the white guy waiter,” DB says once the man has gone, taking the lunch menus with him. He pokes his straw down into the ice of his plastic glass and stirs it around. Twists his big pink lips and tilts his head to suck out a few last drops of watered-down tea. He glances over again at the Chinese couple’s feast. “I bet they gave us the white people menu too.”
“How do you know if what they’re eating was on the menu or not? Can you really see it from here?” A-O asks. She thinks the food envy will disappear when their lunch arrives. “Or do you only think you can?”
“Mongolian beef,” says DB immediately, with unwarranted certainty in his own Chinese food-detecting expertise, the unwarranted certainty that belief is the same as truth which is everyone’s failing almost all of the time. “Cashew chicken, stir-fry vegetables and some kind of seafood soup. Plus all sorts of dumplings and wontons. I didn’t see any of that on the lunch menu.”
“Wanton wontons,” A-O says. “Seems like way too much food to me. What’s this place called again?” She cranes her head for the sign in front, hung on the wall near a golden statue of a horse. “Yeah,” she says. “That’s way too much food for just one Szechuan.”
“Ba-dum tss,” DB says, coming down hard on the cymbals of an imaginary drum set. “You and your bad puns.”
“You know that other Chinese restaurant, Peking Duck?” A-O asks. Her food arrives. She has a smiling contest with the waiter until he leaves. She picks up her fork, not even bothering with chopsticks, and toys with the slimy hot pancake.
“Sure,” DB says. “I used to love that place in high school. They had these little spring rolls. Vegan, with special peanut sauce. They really only served them in the springtime. It made me sort of sad in winter, when I’d go in and they wouldn’t have them.”
“Really? I don’t remember those. But I guess I only went there once. When I was a little kid. I don’t remember what time of year it was.” A-O shrugs and takes a bite of her food. “I said to my parents, ‘how can they cook the ducks if they’re pecking?’” A-O laughs with food in her mouth.
DB takes off his glasses to rub his eyes, shakes his head in a slow circle. “Puns are the lowest form of wit,” he tells her.
“No, that’s sarcasm,” A-O says. “Your preferred art form.”
They stare each other down across the table. A-O has never made fun of his humor before, has put up with DB’s constant put-downs of her puns, insults which began, she noticed, around the same time she made a concerted effort to stop correcting him; though now he no longer needs correcting, seems to have taken her early grammar lessons to heart. A-O, so sucked into the relationship since she’s come back she never spends time with anyone else, had really come to think her puns were bad, had really become demoralized about her silly sense of humor, until the night she made another person laugh, actually throw his head back and laugh, at Flycatcher’s; and still DB had said to her, “I can’t believe you went for it. Terrible pun,” and shaken his head like he was disappointed that she had ruined the running joke they had with the ambiguously sexually-oriented man seated next to them, who had wriggled his bottom in an ecstatic circle and exclaimed over how warm his seat was when she’d slid down to make him room, but who DB had maintained had been making suggestive eyes at him all night; a joke about the stranger’s family being killed off by tiny circus elephants. The joke which she had run with when the man had started it off by somberly telling her that his entire family had been wiped out on one fateful day in Belarus—it was she who suggested circus elephants as the cause de mort—a story the man was happy to confabulate and that both she and DB kept alive with their mischievous and half-competitive suggestions, a joke which she had punctuated merrily, triumphantly, with her crowning pun, earning a big genuine laugh from the man they were entertaining; but still DB had shaken his head at her, looking all the while into her eyes. “I can’t believe you went there.”
DB would make puns of his own sometimes, and A-O—a card-carrying Brit because of her Welsh mother, more puns than guns in her blood, in her mind, the kind of annoying American Anglophile (only when it suited her, not much different than DB with his Irish looks and Irish name playing up his Spanish ancestry) who considered it her duty to pluck even the low-hanging fruit—would quickly point out the forbidden joke; DB would always reply the same thing: “but that was a good pun.”
“That’s right,” A-O says, and watches as DB tries to manipulate his chopsticks to pick up a piece of dyed breaded meat. “There’s something to be said for humor that doesn’t depend on put-downs.”
“Oh, come on,” he says. “Not when you use it to skewer the system.” He stabs a chunk of meat on the sharp end of a chopstick as he says it.
“The system,” she says, mocking him. She stops herself from telling him that’s satire. “You use it more often to skewer me,” she says. Tears form in her eyes. This happens more and more lately, when he rushes her out the door in the mornings, hovering and barking, when he makes a mean comment, and there’s nothing she can do but take a deep breath and let it pass, prove to him she’s not melodramatic. She looks down at her plate and tries not to let them fall. She doesn’t want to look up so he can see her trying, but gravity’s not helping.
She can feel his consternation, a laser beam directed at her forehead. It’s the consternation of a person who doesn’t like crying. As he told her later, in regard to the night of the tit-fuck that turned into an unintended throat-fuck, unintended by both of them—as if skull fucks were like tidal waves, tornadoes, tectonic shifts or meteorological events that just happened, and shit you better run when you see one coming—moments before she had been crying, after reading him the poem, the poem she was so shy about and which was so hard to read to him, at that early stage of their relationship, and in which she referred to her past, asking him, before starting to cry, something she never did in front of anyone, not even herself, not about this, why do men do these things to me. Sometimes when I’m not even doing anything. I’m just minding my own business and they still do them.
“I don’t do well with crying,” he told her, when they discussed it a long time later, after it was all over. Muttering it darkly, as if by way of explanation.
“Can you tell me what happened that weekend?”
(I believed, that night, that you had been faithful, and so I let you come up to my apartment, against my better judgment. That you would not have loved me as much as you said you did, would not have written that on a Polaroid on Valentine’s Day—“Found Love”—12th row down and 4th on the left, part of a mural to be placed somewhere around the city—the “Why I Love Where I Live” project, and what people said: downtown, 4th Ave., small town vibes, the mountains, historic charm, coffee community, microbreweries, bikes, beautiful desert, the people!—somewhere in this town we are still in love—I believed you would never have written something like that, then broken up with me over something so dumb as medication you took me to get; medication recklessly doubled by my lazy or else case-loaded new psychiatrist, medication which made me crazy and sick; I didn’t believe you wouldn’t have talked to me, first; believed you when you said you were not dating, that your plan was to be single; was heartbroken, as I also had considered just letting it go—letting you go—but wanted first to try talk to you—to say—please—let’s stop competing; stop trying to make each other jealous; we loved each other’s company and had so much in common; we love each other. We’re both going through a hard time, coming back home. Trying to find jobs, friends, a place in the world. Trying to adjust to our weird brains. Please, let’s help each other. Let’s stop with this baiting, hating, stop with the abuse in the bedroom; please; let’s talk about the things we don’t, the reason I send you too many messages, to try to remember the man I believed in before I even met him. Please, let’s stop this—meanness.
And so I believed you when you said you were being faithful, was waiting for you to miss me, to come to me and talk to me, talk things out with me, as we never had a chance to; was still all right, during that time, sad, but all right; seeing friends, hanging out, eating, sleeping, cleaning, reading, writing, biking, all the normal things; self-care, they call it; and that weekend I said no, twice, could hear your wolfish grin down the phone; but you charmed me when I asked how drunk you were, with your talk of mapping a Cartesian plane; “I can’t do that sober,” I exclaimed, “come over, and bring me liquor,” which I killed, almost immediately, in my dizzy shock at seeing you; when I heard you at the door I stood in front of the mirror a minute, to scrub off a goofy grin before I opened the front door to greet you. I didn’t want to show you how happy I was, to see you, that weekend.
Now I masturbate thinking about how it must have felt to you in the morning, when I was sleeping. The deep sleep of too much tequila, not wanting to awaken yet to a throbbing hangover; when you spanked my ass hard and went at it like you owned it, thrusting in and out of my vagina with those little chuffing noises I always associated with the small drama you made getting up from my bed, your bad knees—you were some strange combination of old man and little boy to me, an adult human being in the rare instance when the twain did meet, those moments of decency in which you also managed to forget about the idiotic nuisance of being a man and what it means—I opened my eyes bleary and saw you thrusting above me, face scrunched, eyes closed, not bothering to ask; I imagine my penis going in and out of that inert and unresponsive body, the one that makes me so crazy I still somehow think this is sex; and when I come the tears like ejaculate erupt from me, spontaneous, huge sobbing, almost the only time I can ever cry, about any of it.
The night before, when I kissed you, and we took our clothes off, a flurry of movement, you began, with uncharacteristic crudeness—uncharacteristic until the end of our relationship, when you told me to get a sense of humor about it—to comment on my parts, with each comment a touch:
Ohh, I forgot how wet it gets! Stroke
I missed these breasts. Squeeze
I missed that ample ass. Spank
I missed that mouth. Caress
Did you miss this dick? Tell me how much you missed this dick.
Until I slapped your chest. Not hard. “I missed you, you idiot.”
I don’t know what I was thinking during this strange ritual. Maybe something along the lines of, don’t you know that we are people? The hand that serves your dinner belongs to a person. So does the mouth that gives your pleasure. You are more than just your penis and what you choose to do with it. I hope it doesn’t define you. I never thought it did.
It was after that I rolled off, for so many reasons. Disturbed by the naming of parts, as if it hadn’t been me you missed (though later, one of your vague apologies for what you did that weekend: “I think I just wanted to see you, but I went about it entirely the wrong way”). Because it was late and I drank too much, and I didn’t know what to think, seeing you like this, sleeping with you, after nearly a month—since you wouldn’t come and see me for a week and a half before you broke my heart, after we argued—nearly a month in which you had insisted on my friendship, when we were communicating, on spending time with me right away, which I didn’t understand—and I’d told you in emails I felt you had been abusive, and you told me much later how that had hurt your feelings, that you thought I had never really seen you as a person—my question, to you, first—but as a stand-in for past abusive men; that you thought you had been a good boyfriend, that you took care of others too much, even, that you thought you were pretty fucking special—how I felt guilty, always thought it was my fault anyway, let myself believe you, it was all in my head; told you yes, eventually—you were right, I wasn’t fair, I was glad you were opening up, talking to me about your feelings, you were special—what led to you asking to come over that weekend, “I know this is bad, but I want to see you,” remember? Because you “didn’t want to lose my passion and energy,” tried to force your friendship on me much the way you had sex first, and then a relationship. “I hope in time you’ll come to change your mind,” you said, so visibly upset the one night I saw you, briefly, after our breakup, an angry twenty minutes at Sky Bar, the bar where we met up on our very first date; that night I said no to being your friend, and I asked you, with tears in my eyes—well before your own accusation, weeks later, that I never saw you for who you were, saw just some demanding dick—had you ever even seen me as a person? During that week after you insisted the break-up was permanent, when I had given you a chance to just take a month off, let me figure out my medications, look for my own jobs, let us cool off; it was a first, for me; dumped, then pushed for company…
So you understand, that night. Why I stopped. Why I didn’t have the enthusiasm I had for it, in the early days…
And after I closed my eyes you went hunting for the little bottle; and it was that crudeness which you told me to get a sense of humor about, that thing that I didn’t want to do, for you, but sometimes led you on about, because I knew how much you wanted it; that thing I had forced on me, more than once, by more than one man; that thing that when I offered it “freely” I felt empty. But I had told you during the relationship “maybe,” under certain circumstances—with someone I loved, and trusted, in a long-term relationship, if I wasn’t pushed but offered, if I was very relaxed, if I came first, if we discussed it beforehand, if we went slow…if, if, if…maybe I could change the way I looked at the act; but that night, whoever you were that night—the “monster” you would tell me about later, busy about the room while I was sleeping—the one who must have lied about his late-night viewing habits, where it all must come from, where else could it come from, the choking, hard hair-pulling, the pressure, the coercion, the constant asking—this or that— for performance, sexual favors—the not asking…you decided, seeing me curled like that into a peaceful little ball, eyes closed, naked, you decided—without consulting me at all.
And the last part you mentioned—the unconquered territory of your obsession—because that is the what of who I am to you: a beautiful asshole; because after everything—the rapes, the revelation of six women in ten days, told to me while still in bed—“upfront” with me, the morning after—isn’t that what you said, when I pounced on you later that morning, after coffee? Looked into your eyes with an expression you interpreted as sadness—you covered your face and said, “Oh, are we having sad sex?”—turned around to hide what it was from you, even I didn’t know what it was yet: the knowledge of how irrevocably lost even friendship was; of what you had done; my vengeance on you—the porn star sex you wanted—the “little trick” I saved till the end making you cry out “Oh my God, get off, get off,” and come all over yourself; and you said “if I knew it would be the last time I would have made it more romantic;” like it was all up to you, how you had it—rape, sex, performance, romance; I made it romantic, one last time, for us, when I came to you at your request, one night during the week when your father was sick, and that was it—and my vengeance—giving you my body, my sweetness—I waved with both hands from my balcony as you walked away, you blew me a sad kiss goodbye—did not erase your violence; but isn’t that what you said, when I leapt on you like a full-grown cat and took my shirt off: “You know you’re beautiful.” And while I was squirming in your arms the night before like a newborn kitten, trying to open my glued-shut eyes, too tiny to be alarming, protesting, “I don’t know why guys are so obsessed with that,” while you played with me, without asking—as you had always asked, before touching me there, when we were together—asked even as you got worse and worse in all your other behavior—as you were applying something, something cold—I opened my eyes a slit, saw the purple bottle disappear between your fingers, and understood it, for the first time—like I’d been abducted by aliens on the edge of sleep, and lost time—how I came to be to the left of you, when you had been lying on your back, to the left of me; how I got to the edge of the bed; why I couldn’t move, the way that you were holding me, one arm underneath, circling my waist, up and over my chest; how you must have stood up—must have stood up horny, stalked all around the room like a caveman with his club, on a hunt for that little bottle; I was squirming again, trying to loosen your grip, and you were opening me up, fingers and thumb, and you said, “because it feels good,” and then one last “compliment,” before you pinned me down and did it: “because you have a beautiful asshole”)
I cover my face when I say the words. The officer writes it down in his little notebook
DB asks for a box from the waiter. His orange chicken is somehow both soggy and chewy at the same time. A-O asks for a box too, and the rest of the egg foo young half-falls, half-slithers off her fork onto the Styrofoam. She piles soggy rice soaked in brown gravy on top and closes the box. DB carefully packs his dry white rice to the side. He will complain throughout the rest of the relationship until the day she confronts him about the rapes that A-O ate his leftovers after the restaurant. Even though A-O has no food and no money—has spent it trying to keep pace with DB; he has none either, just credit cards that will catch up with him—even though at best such food to begin with might have lasted a day or two, and she had no clue he’d be coming back for it, he complains bitterly whenever the subject happens to pop into his brain, a thought wisp blown down on the wind from a cloud; you ate my orange chicken.
The waiter brings by their fortune cookies. The couple at the next table is resting between courses, their eyes closed in food bliss. DB and A-O are in no such state, having finished, hungover and pissed at each other, only half their plates; DB crushes his fortune cookie in one hand, unfolds the paper inside and reads it. A-O doesn’t say anything. She slowly eats all of her cookie before looking at her fortune.
“Po says: Treat people well in relationships,” DB reads. He rolls his eyes. “Duh.” He crumples the paper into a little ball and flicks it away. Then he grins at her. “You know that old fortune cookie joke? That you’re supposed to add ‘in bed’ to the end of every fortune?”
“I’ve never heard that before,” A-O says.
“No?” DB frowns. “I can’t believe you never heard of that. Well, it’s true!”
“So yours would be, ‘treat people well in relationships, in bed.’”
DB and A-O laugh.
She has no idea that in just a few short days her huge dose of medication will kick in and she will begin to annoy him, to text him, not knowing what’s going on with him, never sure to begin with and observing his own increasingly strange behavior, as he is medicated on something even stronger; that she will go to the hospital with exudative pharyngitis because of what he calls “4th Avenue shenanigans” (which she finds mostly unenjoyable and which, after their breakup, while he’s out getting drunk, seducing, fucking, fucking up, crashing in his car to sleep it off, he tells her later, in a moment of honesty, he wouldn’t call fun but is “just living”), too much drinking and smoking; that she will lie naked under a thin gown on a hospital bed while a grinning young medical resident forces wide her mouth with a tongue depressor and DB stands over her and takes a picture of her diseased throat for a keepsake, that DB will begin, in his annoyance with her for being defective in the relationship, for passively-aggressively bugging him when they are not together, in his angry mania, to squabble with her over small things—her father buying the wrong kind of shrimp on Valentine’s Day, her cleaning her own kitchen in the morning when he wants to get to the coffee shop early—that he will begin to put his hand around her throat during sex. Pull her hair harder than ever. Pressure her for sexual favors, in sudden bouts of ashamed self-awareness feel bad then when she offers. More than once climb on top of her and put his penis in her mouth, not asking, her not knowing what to say then, his behavior confusing, when he had seemed so against even the slightest violation, when she told him a long time ago, proposed it as a solution, as her orgasm fizzled, died out altogether, to his everlasting shame—she had ceased feeling safe with him, around the time that she read him the poem—he was free to go down on her any time he liked, without needing to ask permission; him saying then oh but that feels like too much of a violation; that he will begin, too, to ask crude things of her, say crude things to her, go places drunk with dubious strangers and get kicked out off the floor of someone’s section 8 housing, literally thrown out by the scruff of his neck on his ass, which will hurt him for days; at the Chinese restaurant she has no idea of any of this.
She has no idea that after the night that he stops only once she starts screaming, the morning he starts when she is sleeping, he will come back to her the following evening. That he will crawl into bed with her, ask her if it is okay, to simply lie down beside her; that he will kiss her sweetly on the temple before clasping her to his chest. That he will whimper and moan, “I’m a bad person for coming over here when I knew you wouldn’t say no. I miss you, I miss you, I don’t have any real friends in town, I can’t help I’m such a fuck-up, all I ever do is hurt people, I can’t give you what you want, a relationship is a cage,” and when she starts to cry and say, “you have to let me go,” he’ll murmur, “but not permanently, though, not permanently” and then, half-asleep, “it’s not up to me, you’re the boss, you’re in charge.” That when they have sex again he will wrap both hands around her throat, roll his body around on the bed and groan strangely like an animal in pain as he thrusts inside her; that she will wonder if he will just kill her, and having accomplished that end himself, in horror; put them both out of their misery, a definitive end to the whole sad story.
She doesn’t know any of that then. Nor how sorry she will feel for him, when his father is hospitalized; how she will be there for him as if none of it had happened; how she will stage one last sweet night together, and how sorry he will be for what he’s done, because he can’t have her ever.
She doesn’t know how he will name it himself when she finally tells him why she can’t be his friend, because of “that weekend”: standing up and knocking back his chair; “You can’t cry after the fact! The r-word? The r-word? You can’t cry after the fact! You didn’t say no!” How he will be more hurt when she steps back in the bar where they are at than by the conversation about rape, the bar where she has met him to give back the packet of poems she promised to help edit, which she could never quite bring herself to do after the breakup, which she is trying to do feebly, while he is at the hospital by his father’s side, unable, still, to give him feedback; not after what happened; not after that weekend; how he will yell when she takes a step back as he rushes toward her, “Did you just step back? Like I’m violent? I’m violent? Oh, that’s hurtful, that’s hurtful,” as if it she who has hurt him, now; as if he is more hurt by the implied accusation that he might strike her than by the accusation of rape. Because that is not something he would do, strike her. As if rape isn’t violence.
She doesn’t know how he will begin to shout about anal sex in front of strangers: “We can talk about this! We can talk about this, we never had anal sex, it was sad, failed, anal sex,” lowering his tone then, his voice cruel with disappointment, as though she has let him down again, with her sad failure to give him what he wants; sad and failed, for him, because he didn’t get his orgasm; not because he trapped her and held her, not because she screamed in pain and begged him to stop, until he did, reluctant; whining self-congratulation: “See? I stopped, even though it was really hard.” Not sad because it reminds her every day and every nightmare of what it feels like to be trapped and forced, of every single other instance of rape which she has told him about, which she told him in the very beginning, when they shared their writing before even meeting. She doesn’t know that he will claim to not even know what she is talking about when she mentions the morning.
She doesn’t know how many times she will blame herself, and love him, then blame him, and hate him; the way he told her that he loved her right before and after he raped her.
A-O doesn’t know any of that then. And so she laughs.
“Treat people well in relationships,” she said. “In bed.” She wags her finger at him, then her tongue.
“What does yours say?” DB asks her, as an afterthought. He’s forgotten she even has a fortune. Sometimes his self-absorption means she gets to get away with not telling him a secret. Like that he has to eat the whole cookie first. Be patient.
“Po says: it doesn’t matter how slow you go, if you get to the top.” She smiles. “In bed.” And they both crack up.
On the way out of the restaurant A-O and DB waltz by the young couple’s table, intending, like curious dogs, to stick their noses in the food bowls. The woman is gone, perhaps to the restroom, but the man remains, eyes closed, still fast asleep in suspended animation. A-O gets the feeling something essential has been removed from him, some rule broken. He has taken off his shoes and his socked feet are stretched out on the bench.
The woman returns; the man opens his eyes. The woman looks at A-O and DB suspiciously. They look away. “Are you ready to go?” She asks her companion.
“Mmm,” he says, sitting up. In a slow circle, he blinks at them all.
DB reaches for A-O’s hand as they walk out of the restaurant. A-O doesn’t take it. DB turns around to look at her a question. She pauses under the green awning, not yet ready for the sunlight.
“You know,” she says, “I was thinking about what you said to me the other day, when we were in bed. About my past.”
“What did I say?”
“About how I said I feel like I could have made so much more of myself. If I hadn’t been so down on myself. If those things hadn’t happened to me. And you said, maybe the opposite is true. Maybe you would have just drifted your whole life, without a purpose—without any reason to take a risk—and done not much of anything at all…you reminded me of everywhere I’ve been and taught and had adventures, and met people, and learned languages and cultures…that maybe I’m not such a failure.” She smiles at him. “Thank you for saying that. Sometimes that’s all we need. To reframe our narrative.”
DB reaches out his hand again, and she accepts it; he kisses her knuckles, then leans in, tugging her forward a little, and kisses her sweetly, on the lips. She responds, leaning into the kiss. Cupping his head. When they stop he rests his cheek against her cheek, still holding her hand. He’d rested his cheek against hers the same way, when he’d said it:
I think it’s so amazing all you’ve done, everywhere you’ve been, all that you’ve been through, and you never let it stop you…I can’t even move to San Diego alone without getting depressed. I could never move to a foreign country by myself. And she had told him, It’s different moving to a foreign country alone, because everyone is interested in you. You don’t have to try hard to meet people. Other foreigners are desperate for your company and everyone who is interested in something different in that country is interested in you. Moving to another city in the U.S. by yourself is alienating. Look at us, back here after a long time away from our own hometown. How we said we always feel a little sad coming back here. A little defeated. How we’re drifting.
“I always said you were braver than I was,” DB says to her now, shyly.
Flattered, A-O stands up on her tiptoes for another kiss; but then she stops, releases DB’s hand, rocks back on her heels, unsettled. She leans forward again, squinting, craning her head; she is not imagining things. He is featureless against the backdrop of the burning parking lot.
A-O gets a funny feeling in her stomach. Not the egg foo young.
She wants to see him. She wants to see him.
Not the man who agreed with her ideas about sexual ethics over the chat on the online dating site, told her online dating was a first for him too—something she will later cease to believe, or much of what he told her at all, except for the sad things, the things from his childhood—the man who then pushed past her no’s on their first date; not this figure in her mind she resented from the very beginning, for how little she and her ideas had really meant to him, for representing—yes, representing—all the men for whom what she could do for them mattered more than who she was as a person.
Perhaps, she had later thought, what she had asked of him in the poem was too much for the beginning, perhaps ever. After all, who really sees anyone?
She squints harder. She is struck by the fact that maybe she never wanted him. Any more than he had wanted her; she wanted someone, to be sure, but she wanted to find out first, not force an illusion, with the first person who felt all right. The first person who had most of the elements in place, at least on the surface. For him she knew she had been vulnerable, exotic prey, the first person who felt exciting.
When they first met and began to make tentative inquiries into each other’s lives, before they grew comfortable with each other and began to have fun—friendly debates about the definition of literature, discussions of books and science, cute dialogue from classic film scripts, silly tickling and funny voices, sex round the clock, 3 AM passionate talks—she had been boastful in her insecurity, trying somewhat pitifully to impress him and in some sense to warn him, that she was not the same person she once was. Just as he had warned her, in the beginning, a non sequitur dropped in the midst of innocuous conversation one afternoon in his sister’s living room: I tend to hurt people. Really hurt people. At the time she had shrugged it off; people hurt people in relationships. But as she squints at him now, trying to see him, she begins to wonder. What he was warning her of.
And who knows what he had thought, of her early bragging? He had likely not seen someone trying to impress him, because that he probably couldn’t fathom, in his own insecurity; the insecurity of a woman trying to impress him, and doing it badly. So, what, then? Someone trying to make him feel bad about himself—a competitor? The kind of woman who needed unseating from the gigantic rocking horse she was still riding instead of the real thing?
Yet she thinks that somewhere along the line he must have seen someone else, someone she doesn’t quite believe in. It’s the only thing that explains his behavior. Someone he thinks she might be, behind the insignificant non-entity that exists in her own mind—doubly so when they first met, for so many reasons—culture shock after coming back, to this strange, ugly land of excess; processing all that had happened in the country she had just left. Missing her friends there, facing the daunting prospect of a career change; sad, and having nightmares, after months of isolating, disturbing research, and so, so lonely, in need less of a boyfriend than a therapist—he must have thought he had caught a glimpse behind all that of someone who would never have dated him, under any other circumstance. Someone he doesn’t think he deserves, though she never said that, never thought that, only ever made him feel that because of how he pushed.
But she never meant to tell him she was better. Not a better person, not a better athlete, not a better writer, not better at anything. She has complimented him on lots of things—his writing, his taste in music, in clothing, told him he is handsome—more than he has her; but it’s never been enough, because of how he feels, and she knows it’s how he feels, from the way he talks to her, night and day, which is when it takes place: a riddle of insecure compliments and cruel insults.
She wonders, suddenly, if he is a person who simply needs others to exist for him; not merely to bolster his ego but to create it. If he is maybe that good at convincing people that he is what’s been missing, and they ought to adore him, and she’s just not very good at it, adoration. Love she can do, given time, and trust, but not the abject adoration DB seems to want. A-O is like that herself—attracts admiration, even adoration, when she is happy and vibrant, though she doesn’t strive for it, on the whole prefers love to adoration, likes to disabuse admirers of their notions, with her weirdness. It is always unconscious, what she does. This is me. Take it or leave it.
And A-O attracts hatred as much as love, for her moralizing, which at times comes across as self-righteous. But she needs it; A-O needs it. She can only stick up for herself through others. Every time she wins a fight on behalf of another—at great personal cost and despite scapegoating on all sides fighting back against and ultimately ousting her tyrannical boss at the university where she recently worked, a department head who terrified and punished the students; risking her life once on a dark street half a world away to save another woman’s—she feels a triumphant little lift; vicarious justice.
She knows people dislike her too for her disdain of all things disingenuous. She figures when people despise her for her honesty she must be doing something right, an undiplomatic quality not particularly admirable but one in which she takes a vain pride, the irony of which is not lost on her. She wonders if this is another reason DB is scared of her.
She squints at him, trying hard to see him through the shade of the awning; but above her stands an outline, solid in its wavering, refusing to take on color and form or even meaning. He is a silhouette, backlit by the sparkle and gleam of windshields and blacktop. Beard and hair alive, fine filaments trembling at the edge of shadow. Sparking where they catch the light, a border of fire that races nervously around the darkness of his face.
“Why are you looking at me like that?” DB steps forward uncertainly, and A-O steps back, afraid. But in the dim light under the awning she can see him again. She stands still, and he advances toward her cautiously, like she is a deer who will startle if he moves too quickly; he takes her hand and rubs the center of her palm. She feels a shiver all down her spine, a spasm of strange feeling; he rubs her palm some more, and she relaxes. Most of the time, when a man takes her hand, A-O feels comforted, like a small child.
A-O follows DB out to the parking lot, two strides for his every one. She has been good, at the end of this lunch. She has said something nice to DB, she complimented him on his compliments, she reciprocated his tender kiss. She has held his hand.
DB deposits the food in the back, and they head to her apartment to sleep a little, and sex, before going out, more weeknight shows and bars, another restless alcoholic tour to nowhere.
Later that night at IBT’s they meet a drag queen, or else transitioning transwoman, who asks if they’re straight, says she has no problem with it, then leaves abruptly, wobbling stiffly away on her stiletto heels. A-O laughs at DB’s jokes at the woman’s expense, at his urging drinks the drink she’s left behind, Fireball and Coke, just awful. Maybe that’s why your throat got infected, DB will tell her later. Maybe that wasn’t such a good idea.
Just as he will tell her, so insultingly, the day after he does those things to her, the day after he talks her into letting him come over—“Please, please, I really want to see you,” wheedling, coaxing, sweet-talking, cajoling, when after her first outright refusals she tells him reluctantly, as she had on their first date, three or four times, that he can crash on the couch, “oh, but I want to come to your bedroom!”:
You should have said no.
What the police officer he sends to her apartment after the confrontation about rape, her refusal to let it go, will say to her too, an exact echo, when she tells him of the text she sent DB in reply after he contacted her wanting to come over the next evening, after everything he’d done; her helpless response: you know I can’t say no to you, but is it the best idea? When she tells him of all the things DB whispered in her ear that night, in a wretched, disconsolate whimper, how he’d wrapped both hands around her throat to try and make himself come when she let him continue to have the sex she’d started (replacing, again, erasing, how many times before she could erase what had happened?); hearing a rattle in his lungs, concerned for his health, she had wanted to stop, but he hadn’t. “I was crazy to let him do that, after what he did to me the night before,” she tells the officer. “The state he was in right then. He could have killed me.” The patrol officer backing away, shaking his head side to side, wide-eyed, disbelief and horror. Retreating, almost running, from her door.
You should have said no.
“Are you planning to hurt yourself?”
(With what little cash I had I bought cheap liquor, and drank myself into a stupor; I ate nothing for two weeks and lost ten pounds, causing everyone around me to say, “Wow, you look great!” I smoked like a chimney, joined Tinder, and sent naked pictures of myself to men. I considered prostitution for a living. I stepped on a glass and broke it, swept glass into my bed and slept with it, woke up, drunk, when a large shard punctured my thigh; marveled at how fast the blood ran, like a miniature river, grabbed the towel I’d been using to mop up spilled drinks and pressed it against the wound until the blood stopped. I developed mouth sores from the drinking and the lack of nutrition, a terrible infection from the weekend in question—you did what you did both times without a condom, without washing—and a staph boil on my inner thigh, from the stress on my immune system; I told my friends I felt I had been raped, but would not leave my room except for late at night, to buy alcohol and cigarettes. I drank to sleep and slept, fitfully, when I could, with the light on, having nightmares; I woke one morning in a puddle of diarrhea and another morning in a puddle of vomit. I couldn’t stop remembering how you said you loved me).
I don’t tell the officer all of this. I won’t let him see my room; I haven’t cleaned it since that weekend. He puts on gloves and I give him the once-white sheet, now stained, with your semen, my blood, my feces, my vomit.
I cry during my account, humiliated. I tell him you are friend requesting my friends on Facebook, maybe to receive event invites, try to run into me in public; something you lied and told them I was doing to you. This is before your campaign to become the town’s leading writer, literary organizer, and block me out of everything; going to all the open mikes, events, writers’ groups, and readings; getting a shiny new girlfriend-cum-admirer days after I confronted you about the rapes; publishing, on April Fool’s, for national poetry month, the poem I helped you with, while threatening over email to call the police if I said the word “rape” to you again; this was before your photo shoot, your statewide writers’ group, before your shameless boasting on the writer’s page you created shortly after I blocked you; you, who always told me you abhorred the boastful, so self-proclaimed humble the mind boggles; this was before I decided to shut down my own account indefinitely, turn off your show so I wouldn’t look, to drop out of the writer’s group I had never gone back to and now never could. This was before you created a fake profile to stalk me, and I caught you, and was still far too nice, telling you to leave me alone, and get help. That sometimes people do bad things but they don’t have to be bad people, but that you had to go on and be good on your own, treat other women well, try to be a better person, without me around.
I tell the officer I am not making trouble for you, telling anyone about what you have done to me, your parents, people in the community, other women; no one. He says to me, grimly, “you do what you need to do.”
I don’t tell him that I am scared to go out anywhere. That I can’t go out and meet other people, other writers, read my own work if I want, go to the places I used to like, that I don’t even want to go to shows or concerts, have turned down dates, don’t know when I will date again. How can I trust anyone? I trusted you, in the beginning.
I don’t tell him I look over my shoulder every time I do go out. Hell, every time I step out. I don’t tell him how scared I am, at just the prospect of seeing you. How scared I am, right now, in general.
Still the officer you sent over tells me to get an order of protection. Still he says, “Whatever you do, you can’t let this guy back into your life.”
A-O doesn’t know she will remember again and again a conversation she had with DB about rape, at the beginning of their relationship, before what he himself termed his violation the night she read him the poem, the night he “saw the look on her face and just kept going;” an early conversation, when she said she thought there were degrees of rape, intentional, opportunistic, and sometimes men, well, lost control; he had cried out “Bullshit! Men never just ‘lose control.’ They always know when they do that to a woman. That’s letting them off the hook!” She doesn’t know then she won’t be able to stop remembering how when she says to him those two little words, “that weekend,” he will counter, “that out of control weekend?,” as if to prove her point; or else just justify it? That then he will stand up himself and name it, before she has made any overture on the topic; “the r-word?” (He means rain, right? Or relaxation. Reconciliation?)
She doesn’t know how loud he will shout, when she says that weekend: “You can’t cry after the fact!”
She doesn’t know any of that. Nor that her friend F will highlight the real problem: “You can’t rape love. You can’t rape friendship.”
Though it’s worth wondering, she will think after he says it; worth wondering why she made DB breakfast, the morning after, soaped his back in the shower, brought him coffee. Was sweet to him, solicitous, quiet throughout the day, as he alternately rubbed it in about the other women, complaining about their “drama” and bragging about their good looks, his conquests, and in the next breath told her he would come visit her, wherever she went. When he slapped her on the ass with a dark look—the same eye-smirk, of lust and triumph, and something more, of ownership, that she will catch, in a quick glimpse as she adjusts her dress, at the bar Mr. Head’s, the last time she will see him, the day she gives him back his poems; the dark look that will make her finally decide to confront him about what happened that weekend—when he slapped her ass with that dark flicker in front of a book fair official, a woman taken aback but silent, before he walked off to receive his instruction on volunteering, A-O had only blinked at him, bewildered; unsure yet whether she was hurt or not, like a startled child who’s taken a tumble, a fall that injures less than it disorients, makes the world turn sideways.
She was nice to him, too, when he ignored her after the book fair, texting people on his phone, not listening to her conversation about writing, distant and disinterested at the bar; she was nice to him that night, when he dropped her off and tried to scare her, fake-lunging as he told her about “the monster;” when he confessed to her he had no self-control she gave him advice about the paradox of free will, how choice is only ever really possible in hindsight. She did not raise her voice to him, as she never had, but drifted sadly the whole weekend, until by the second night, when he came back to her apartment, she was bright-eyed from lack of sleep and trembling. Maybe you are just a nice person, her therapist will tell her, when she finally gets a therapist. Something which she never wanted to be, can’t believe she has become. If the road to hell is paved with anything it’s niceness. It sounds like you were in shock.
And apart from DB’s intermittent bringing up of the illicitly consumed leftovers, A-O will forget totally about their lunch at the Chinese restaurant until she finds herself out at her parents’, near catatonic after that weekend; speechless, racing thoughts, seeing things and scatterbrained, she will come in crying and hardly leave the guest bedroom. But after they feed her, after she feels better, days later, as she readies herself to return to her apartment, shaking out the sheets of the guest bed she will find it, fluttering down to the tiles as if by magic. At least a month and a half by then would have passed, and it will have been all but forgotten, that fractious lunch: Po, the little panda.
It doesn’t matter how slow you go if you get to the top.
A Thousand Words (poem from the story)
And when the world comes lunging at me,
I curse you for not leaving
me alone; how can I do
Before I met my best friend
I saw her picture–
dark hair in the breeze,
with such a look–
mouth twisted up–
and I thought, “we
are going to be friends.”
But then when we met
at an awkward
and I found out
she had served
our country, fought for us,
I was filled with such
for a concept
I had no idea of
I shelved the thought;
so when at last
we became friends
it was by accident.
I read a story
she wrote about
two women in love,
And what I liked
about you: that picture
of you, hair blown
flat on one side, each curl
clear as glass
against some diffuse
and mellow sunset,
from the camera,
by your glasses
and your downturned
eyes; that picture
which reminded me
so much of her, because in it
you don’t look
which no longer
attracts me in an adult–
but wistful, a little
delicate, and vulnerable,
like a person
who can be hurt.
And it’s not that
I would ever want
to hurt you,
but that I know you
have some essential
quality that lets you
see into me,
and in that photo
I can see you–
I can see you clearly.
Some scientists did
a study about
It turns out others
can tell exactly
what you are like
from looking at
your picture, from
your face, and how you
hold it up on that
your body: slumped, or
down, or drawn up
straight as a sharp-cut
mountain, it’s impossible
any view you want
over something so solid.
And when I met
you I only wanted
to field the volley
of bright stars
you flung my way
to blind me, to find
that man in the picture,
that essential being.
I forgot for a while
I was a beautiful woman.
I remembered it
on my ride home
after the night we spent
at your sister’s;
dazzled by sunlight, a tire-catch
in the tracks on 4th
made me cry out,
and a man dashed
into the street
from the sidewalk
to steady me; as if he would do
anything for me,
as if it were really me
that he was seeing,
and not some
pretty girl on a bicycle;
like the young man
in a snowy college
town far removed
who once braved traffic
to fetch my scarf;
when he handed it
back I could only
look at him coldly,
machine-like in my lack
I have told you
too much, and yet
you don’t see: how
for me, in the picture
of myself I carry I am
that girl on her
down when she
resisted, sobbing as if
her heart would break
the day she found
out she was really
free–that the results
of all her hard work,
all that risky
promiscuity, came back
clean, and she wasn’t sure
if she was sobbing
from relief or if it was
You are someone, someone
once said to me,
who uses sex
to keep people
at a distance.
I never slept
with the people
I could have loved, not after…
and that night,
with you, I felt
let down; how
pedestrian, you wanting
to come to my bed.
Yet, a stranger in my
own mind, I always
wanted to be liked,
and it seemed that
sex, which I dangled,
was a shortcut,
until one day I realized
that the men
who knew my face
tilted up, my nipples
their lips, my heat,
couldn’t climb inside;
what I liked about
you that night was how
you sighed, so real,
said you didn’t want to be
I could have held
you forever then. What I
liked about you was how
you looked away
this morning when I told you
you were handsome.
It’s as if you didn’t
know that suddenly
a person can see you,
and you are different;
not a long list of don’ts,
of perceived faults;
you have beautiful and shy
retiring eyes, cobalt blue,
a mole in the sun
without your glasses;
hair swept back,
curls wetted down
in the morning mirror,
lips that quiver
until a person just has
to kiss them to stop them
I’ve only known
you a short time,
every day finding
of attraction, so
when you looked at me
this morning like you
didn’t believe me,
I had to turn away
from whatever it was
you didn’t want me
to see yet–but here
is what I don’t want
you to know: how
you are, in my eyes.
How it’s too late.
That this isn’t about
sex or ego.
You took me
to bed, yet somehow
you saw me;
and you will keep
seeing me, until we can
tear up those pictures
so long they’re
the ones we show
smiling, like nothing
has ever happened,
could ever happen
to hurt me; the you poking fun
at everyone and
everything; and the back
snapped as if
from outside, as if
by sadists: the girl
on her knees; the man
is so transparent
he averts his eyes
to look at you.