Her jaw is aching. She grinds her teeth at night. She is thinking of a boy with sky blue eyes and long, nicotine stained fingers. He put those fingers inside her and she opened like a flower. He said the vagina expands when a woman is aroused. She thought of Georgia O’Keefe paintings, of organs, of orchids.
They were always drinking when they had sex, like she is doing with the man beside her now. He is older, broader in the neck and shoulders and biceps. He keeps the TV on and drinks beer after beer. She tries to talk about what she is reading, watching, what is in the news. He looks at her, smiles, says, “That’s interesting.”
There are moments when he feels lost, like she does, as if he should be further along in life as an adult. They connect in this way. But she is getting restless.
She met the boy in the Bronx when she was still living in New York. They had been living across the street from each other for months but never seen each other. He was like a beautiful ghost, with his pale eyes, pale skin, and pair hair slicked back with gel. He wore a collared shirt and jeans and sat at the end of the bar cradling a mug of beer. He smelled like American Spirits.
She had moved to New York for graduate school and was teaching creative writing at Westchester Correctional Facility, but had picked up a second job working as a professional dominatrix in Manhattan. She needed drugs to perform. He was from the area. His friends, family, and connections were here, but his past hunted him. There was always a packet of cocaine in his back pocket or wallet and he offered to share with her.
In her bedroom he told her a secret. She wrapped her arms around him but knew there was little she could do to comfort him. He was so tall she felt as if she were hugging a tree.
“I never have sex right away,” she said, relieved that he had not made assumptions based on her profession. “It’s not you. It’s just how I am.”
“We don’t have to have sex. But can I crash here tonight?”
In bed he kissed her, pulling back a moment to gauge her reaction. She looked into the blueness of his eyes. He kissed her again and kept kissing her. She began to giggle, finally pulling him closer.
“Do you want to put your head on my chest?”
“I’m okay,” she said. But she did wrap her arm around his bicep. The gesture was instinctual, like a baby gripping your finger.
The following morning, the boy asked her to be his girlfriend.
“I think dating is about getting to know someone and how compatible you are. How about we start off as friends?” she said.
She was used to men liking her. It was better not to question why. But developing romantic feelings for someone was not in her control. She assumed it would never happen again and fingered pendant around her neck in the shape of a key.
He was willing to be her friend. She was still at the dungeon but detoxed from heroin on her own that week. Withdraw left her curled on her side, like a dead thing, her legs unaccountably aching. She wanted to run but did not want to be around people. She did not want to be seen. He texted her and she told him she needed the week. Her eyes were clear when she saw him again.
They were always around people. He had so many friends. But they concluded each night alone. At first she needed to drink to be close to him. But touching became more reflexive. A hand on his shoulder when he needed comforting. A hug when she was grateful or gleeful. One night, she was raped and he made the hour long trek to Planned Parenthood with her in case she needed an abortion. She agreed to the label finally. But she was still working. She was still wearing the pendant. He claimed to be okay with her second job but left marks on her skin. Love bites that blossomed like warnings.
He was always proud when he took her out. She reveled in the feeling of community, in belonging. But she wanted love. She knew what it was like to want one person, for everyone else to fall away.
She had only had sex with three people in her life unless you counted the rape. She did not. She did not even remember it. Only what she was told after. She had not considered that in giving up her boyfriend, she was giving up her sense of community too. It was the right decision to leave but left her spiraling. She began to experiment. She began to act out.
She was not healthy. She came home from work with bruises on her body. Men in the community reacted. There was the man who came up behind her and grabbed both her breasts at a bar. Her friend Mason, who she knew because nobody else would listen to him vent about his ex-girlfriend, pretended not to see. He later admitted he was being a coward.
She was at a bar in her neighborhood the night she met Steve. Her cousin had died of anorexia that week. Was she drinking to escape? The man looked so solid, unlike Jeffrey, who had become skeletal, wasted. She had dressed well that night. Sometimes dressing well made her feel safe.
“Can I buy you a drink?” he asked, and she accepted, unsurprised when he asked how old she was. Men were always asking her that.
“What do you do?” she asked, curious to get a sense of his interests.
“I’m a firefighter.”
She felt apologetic when he drew back from her, apparently defensive. “I went to college!” he said.
“What did you study?” she asked encouragingly.
In high school her Honors English teacher had told her she had a “philosophical mind.” She wondered if she could believe in magical thinking and asked more questions, hoping to draw him out. They drank drink after drink. When Steve kissed her, his tongue felt foreign and odd, but she expected that from a first kiss, even her first kiss with Shane was like that. She got in a cab with him.
She saw Steve regularly. The first time she was overflowing with anxiety, half expecting to lose her balance and fall. She hugged him. She could feel the hard muscles in his chest and upper arms, the warm fabric of his shirt. She pulled back uncertainly, embarrassed. Her voice was fast and nervous. He kept asking, “What?”
Steve made them drinks. They sat on the couch and she put one of the throw pillows on her lap and smiled over at him. The other throw pillow was between their bodies. He moved it out of the way.
“Let’s watch something you like!” she suggested encouragingly. She smiled brightly. “Do you like American Horror Story?”
He said he did. He changed the channel and stretched his arm across the top of the sofa. When she laughed he laughed. He was sprawled back against the couch, broad shoulders, caged energy. She wanted to sit in his lap.
The next time he looked over at her he kissed her. He moved fluidly, his tongue in her mouth, his body pressing hers against the couch. She responded instinctively. She ran her hands up and down his biceps and planted kisses against his neck, surprised that each gesture felt natural.
She stopped wearing the pendant after she met Steve. It had been five years. She fingers the naked skin of her breastbone. He peeled back a layer of her skin.