They were terrifying and exquisite at the same time, like blood on clean white things
I woke up floating in the hotel’s white comforter. I sucked in a leaden breath, feeling the crack of pain in my head that made my eyes sting. There was a lump next to me, hand outstretched. I had drifted away from it during the night. He breathed slow and I sat up gingerly, curling my toes in silence. The empty wine bottle lay on the carpet on its side, a fallen soldier. Our martini glasses sat drained and squat on the nightstand. I pressed my fingers into my cheeks, squishing flesh. I then reached out and grabbed an olive, setting it on my tongue, tasting salt and gin.
My bladder was loud in my stomach, the way it aches when you’ve drifted away from yourself and everything tying you to humanity. I moved to the bathroom, the shiny foreign furniture not completely cast dark with blinds. I stood on the tiled floor, stone on the pads of my feet, across from a large mirror. The crack of the heavy door cast a slant of morning light on my reflection. Wearing his unclasped dress shirt, I looked manic and mannish, my hair wild and tossed over. I sighed as I peed.
Adam had stirred by the time I got back. His expression a sleepy smile. Without words I crossed the room, resisting folding my arms over my chest. I slid back under the cool of the sheets. He rolled towards me.
Sorry, my feet are cold now.
You’re not getting cold feet with me, now are you? He said it and I couldn’t help but laugh.
Yeah, he said, you really liked that one last night too.
The day before, I pinched at the hem of a tiny black dress. I was flushed and pouty in my spotted mirror. The air was sticky, hanging heavy, as hair clung to my wet neck. We were late on the heating bill. It didn’t really matter what I looked like.
He just wants to watch you chew, she had said. My roommate, her slim legs up on the balcony rail, ankles crossed, fork dangling from mouth, cigarette in hand. For such a disturbingly sad person she really did only ever seem to speak when it was funny.
I was 24 and even though I had boyfriends, no one ever cared enough to take me on a proper date. But after two years of casual sex, Adam said he wanted to take me to dinner. I agreed to it when I was drunk. My fear of what it meant to him was suppressed. He initially left out that he wanted to do it because it included a hotel room. I wondered if it would make me feel trapped.
I met Adam in grad school. I remember the long sloping stairs of our apartment building that first week. I was coming back from my first shift a few blocks over at Elroy’s, smelling like bar food with damp underarms. I had a friend from undergrad, Wess, who turned up leaving Adam’s party. Wess had huge eyes set way too far apart on either side of his face. A face shaped like an apple with a small upturned nose. I always liked how horrible he looked, so when he wanted to introduce me his new friend and said, You’re gonna want to have sex with him, I naturally trailed back into the apartment with him.
Adam lived below my roommate and I. I did have sex with him. He was brutal at the beginning. He would grab my throat and press down too hard under my chin. I would hit my head on the wall too much. The worst thing was when my legs were over his shoulders and he bit my calf. In the mornings I would lightly trace my index finger over the outline of his teeth.
Sometimes Adam would just get me really drunk. He liked making me screwdrivers, and I liked to stare at how orange they were. I would have too much. He wouldn’t let me try and walk up all those steps. He didn’t touch me, but he liked me there with him in his bed. I liked waking up in the morning, because when he slept he would sigh into the spaces between the round bumps of spine on the back of my neck. It gave me chills.
Once in a while we would talk about things we cared about, the moon casting stencils of our shadows on the bedroom walls. I want to go to Australia, I would say. When he asked me why, I said it was number one on my bucket list to go caging with the sharks. He would joke about taking me there. I never told him I wanted to be alone when I did it. I romanticized the idea of putting myself behind all that metal, with so many dangerous things looking and not being able to touch me. Adam painted himself human by saying he had always dreamt to grow up and be a high school history teacher.
I never told him I had grown up dreaming of being a writer. I had this undeniable desire for contemplative and beautiful things like pain and poetry and orange slices. Instead, I was on track to get a masters and maybe a doctorate in political theory. My dissertation was usually swirling around behind my eyes back then. It would be about Marxist feminism. I would imagine a future of talking circles, drooling faces.
Adam, like me, was on track to graduate in two months. His masters was in computer science. He had golden spirals he tried to keep trimmed to his scalp, broad shoulders, and an undeniable love for wrapping his long fingers around complicated things. He was a republican but he wasn’t arrogant, and sometimes he made my legs shake. For a long time, I thought he loved me. I couldn’t decide if I was happy or guilty or disappointed I didn’t feel the same way.
Adam and I checked in to the hotel before we went to meet our reservation. The shiny revolving door and thick carpet in the lobby made me feel alien. There were fake green plants in large pots and lots of windows but no lights. The man behind the front desk wore a bow tie and his name tag said Phil. He went to escort us to the elevator and rested a hand on the curve of my lower back. The outline of his fingers pressed through the thin fabric. I felt Adam tense up at that, so I pulled down the dress a little. I held his hand in the mirrored elevator and we didn’t talk. Piano and sax and jazz came from the speaker in the corner. I looked tired as I glanced at all three versions of myself.
I had been reading a book in class by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, a Nigerian feminist. She talked about bottom power, a cultural concept that women can wield sexuality to manipulate men. Adichie writes that this is not real power, because women are simply operating within the system to tap into male dominance. I thought about how easy it was to weaponize sexuality. I thought about social ecology. I wondered if there was another way. Our capitalist system makes it so that those who aren’t at the starting line when the buzzer goes off never catch up. Our colonizing system makes it so that everything must be conquered and ravaged and claimed. I am just a little cog in a sphere of a big machine. Aristotle said separate spheres. Willow says stain steel spheres. Susan B. Anthony signaled a war cry: organize, agitate, educate; went on hunger strikes for voting rights only for women to suffer from eating disorders and elect men. I wish I knew how to feel different. I just felt lonely.
Most men were either cruel or weak, and I really believed that. Earlier that spring I had been working a double at Elroy’s. I could feel the worn soles of my shoes and my mouth was sour. We were unusually busy because some college kids were doing a “worst bars” bar crawl. My coworkers there were characters that got me to the end. The bartender named Larry was my favorite. He liked to sing my name and had a big, red parrot tattoo on his forearm. There was, of course, Elroy, a wiry man who owned the bar. I never heard him speak. He liked to just stand in the kitchen and watch with a low brimmed hat shading his gaze. Sometimes if I stayed after to drink he would laugh at my jokes. In those rare moments I would catch his yellow eyes, perched on a barstool, red rimmed lips sucking every last morsel of meat and tendons off of chicken wings. He would look away quickly. His baby mama, The Boss, she really called the shots. She was a tiny woman with a mean voice and spiraling orange curls. The bouncer was creepy. I don’t think they normally would have liked someone coming from the University. But I always had the highest number in sales, and I wasn’t afraid to flirt and keep a lot of freaks around.
I got off really late one Thursday. The city had descended into dark and cold and one of those aforementioned freaks followed me home. I could hear his gruff breathing for the first two blocks, but I wasn’t too worried for some reason. I didn’t even think of calling the cops. He was a regular. I focused on the stop lights, urban noise, and the steam rolling off the gutter. My heart picked up a bit when he started calling after me. All I had was my phone and my tips. Cars honked a street over. I had a feeling he wasn’t after my money.
My head was swimming as I chewed on my nail so I tripped on uneven pavement. It gave him a chance to catch up. I looked into his square face, he seemed a lot more massive than when he hunched on Elroy’s barstool. I tried to remember his name, Rick? Rob? He held out a hand to help me. I didn’t really know what else to do except pretend it was all fine and he was polite. He put his arm around my shoulder and held me tight for a second. He guided me into an alley four feet away. His breath grazing my cheek was warm and smelled like whiskey. His hooded eyes weren’t focused as he looked at me for too long. When he tried to push me up against the wall, I thought about what my skin would feel like rubbed up against the brick.
My best shot was to knee him in the balls, so I did. He was pretty fucking mad at me after that, so I ran across the street. I dialed Adam as he chased me. My feet were tired. I tried to choke out what was happening. I decided his name was Frank.
I made it into our building as Adam flooded down the steps. He hugged me while my fingernails dug into my palms. Then he led me to his bed.
Our hotel room had a sky painted on the ceiling. I looked for gaps in the clouds when we first walked in. I sat myself down at the desk next to the mini bar. The chair was the leather kind the underside of my thighs would paste to. I regretted the dress again as I shifted.
Adam threw our bags on a startlingly white couch. He sat across from me. The setting sun through the curtains made all his blonde a halo. He smiled at me and brushed his thumb over my hand sitting on the table. I tried not to grimace.
Earlier, after we had gotten out of the elevator he had to call down to the lobby, even though I told him the room number was probably on the card. I don’t remember what Phil told me, he said. I stood there, feeling leggy and irritated. He called down. I grabbed the card, flipped it. 222. We said it at the same time. He laughed, I didn’t.
Sitting there on the sticky chairs, he told me he brought a surprise for me. He pulled out a bottle of red wine. I watched him pour it into glasses with thick clear rims. It’s Australian wine, he said, for when we go. His eyes were so full of something as he looked at me. I laughed hoping it didn’t sound frosted over. I thanked him, like it was the sweetest goddamn thing anyone ever did for me. Hell maybe it was. I hadn’t eaten yet that day because my roommate and I hadn’t gone to the store in a while. Light floated across my vision like fuzzy penny catchers in spring. I quickly slipped the whole glass down my throat. He left his glass full, stretching to grab my jacket to make the reservation.
The only other time I ever had to make a reservation I never showed up.
Last summer Adam tried to decide that we shouldn’t see other people. So, I put the spare key he gave me back under his mat and started dating a man named Nick. I met Nick at Elroy’s and he was so charming I convinced myself he made me feel good. He was tall and cruel and incredibly funny. I would watch long documentaries some nights about things like the prison system, the war in Afghanistan, corruption in corporate agriculture, or the opioid epidemic. He would grab on my thigh and wait for it to be over. The man he split rent with, Dave, yelled at me once for having sex in front of him. I didn’t know what he was talking about. I was doing really well in classes and thinking a lot. Sometimes, when I was drinking my face would get hot and I would talk about how horrible the world was. I don’t think Nick ever listened.
He tried to take me to the really nice Italian restaurant on Spruce Street one night. I took off work for it and everything. That afternoon, I was walking home from class, early October wind tugging the skin on my face back and I saw Nick. He was walking out of an apartment building with his arm around a woman wearing black stilettos. He was wearing his favorite brown shoes. I went right to his apartment, and he smelled like jasmine. I hated the smell of jasmine. I didn’t give him time to explain. I just took 100 dollars off his counter and calmly left. I brought the money to a stand on the corner and bought a pack of Marlboros and a hot dog with it. I gave the rest to a homeless person sitting on a crack in the sidewalk outside my street.
The first time Nick had told me he loved me we stank like rum and I was sitting on my bathroom counter. I smoked a cigarette as my spine looked at its reflection. He pissed on my tile floor as he said it. The smell stung my nose as I wordlessly cleaned up after him. Then he fucked me.
Adam and I went down and sat next to the dim bar in a green booth. The black and white checkered floor shined with cocktails and careless opulence. I ran my finger tip over the table cloth, pushing on it and making a ripple. It made me think of the plastic ones at birthday parties I would push my fingers through as a kid. The waiter carded me and not Adam, which he found funny. I just pursed my mouth and licked off some of my red lipstick. I ordered a martini and the most expensive thing on the menu, a pink fat slab of salmon that I ate too quickly in chunks. I didn’t wipe the butter off of my mouth. I felt dizzy and nauseous as Adam spoke to me in my ear. He was so close I felt his lips graze my ear lobe. I held his hand under the table, so he wouldn’t slide it up the hem of the dress. He told me how perfect I looked but I couldn’t focus because I was trained in on a middle-aged couple at the bar. Their wedding rings glinted if I unfocused my eyes. He made her laugh when he whispered to her.
In undergrad, I remember sitting with a painted face in cool bars. They smelled like sweat and draft beer and were shrill with people and breathy words. I slept around too much back then, and I was always surprised by how much more capable I was than the men I was with. I had this overwhelming superiority of a 3.9 grade point and inflated self-worth growing from things I hadn’t done yet. I would talk to them and I felt encompassed by an absent feeling. Like I was hovering. Cold as stone, I could still drift away and no one would notice or care.
I got in trouble there once, and I sat in a fold up chair in the backyard of my friend Sean’s house. The grass was brushing my ankles. When he asked me why I was crying I said I was worried I would lose my scholarship. He looked at my gray face, laughed, and told me he always thought I was stupid.
One night I was with Sean’s friends and a boy named Al was being really nice to me. He asked me about my major, which somehow was enough to make my cheeks burn. Al got a little too drunk, and pulled me into a bedroom at a party. When I didn’t kiss him he ripped off my favorite white skirt. I wanted to tell him to stop, but I didn’t think it was worth it. Instead, I let him get on top of me and I just tugged at a loose string on the comforter the whole time. I had no choice but to walk home holding the skirt together with my left hand, while I wiped a silent salty tear off the slope of my nose with the right.
During that spring, I would spend my evenings running far off campus. I went to undergraduate school away from home, somewhere in southern suburbs. Still running. The path I took was through this neighborhood that was clogged with pollen so I struggled to breathe. The most uncomfortable lazy feeling hung from all the green trees. It always seemed to smell like grass and the boiling dearth of summer. My feet hit the ground, past musky wisteria and hemmed shrubs and yellow dogs and Easter bunny flags. Sometimes I would see young mothers with fat toddlers in the lawns their husbands cut. I would fly past wind pinwheels, watch them stir, think about what my life could look like if I lived there. Beautiful sky and babies and seasonal allergies amongst sprinklers and bumper stickers. A band around my finger that tied me to a person and a place. I would run until my underarms were slick, and my shins hurt. As I threw up, some of the women would stare. It reminded me I wasn’t supposed to do what everyone expects and act dramatic.
Adam and I sat at the bar until he had a stupid smile and finding our way back to the room was a mountainous thing. 222 was calm and dark. The carpet felt good between my toes as I kicked off my heels. I had spent the last thirty minutes before he picked me up coloring in the scuff marks with a black sharpie, like my mom had me do for her when I was little as she hummed Karen Carpenter.
Adam ordered more martinis, his had gin, mine had vodka. I didn’t believe in gin because Larry from Elroy’s told me it came from a poisonous berry and it was the only liquor you couldn’t sweat out. I sipped mine and stepped on the balcony to smoke a cigarette. Adam went into the bathroom and turned on the bath. I watched my smoke swirl and dissipate in the city lights. I wondered if I appeared forlorn and romantic when he walked back into the room and looked out on me.
When he pulled me back inside with doe eyes, I imagined I tasted like ash. Crumbling under his lips as he slipped the dress over my head, slid off my underwear. The room tilted as he carried me into the bathroom. He set me on cool black and white tiles, just like the ones down by the bar. I looked at my red toe nails as I stepped into the water. It burned my skin. He ran his hands down my arms. I looked at the way his chin rested on the water, disturbing the surface and making velvet waves. His eyes shone in the dark. I sucked in steam. He filled the water too full, and it splashed across the pretty floor in torrents when we tried to have sex. When we gave up and stood I felt pink and shriveled.
Water. I remembered when I was sixteen getting in the shower after I found out. Hot water poured all over me. I shivered at the hands, gone, hands pushing up against my chest. Unconscious on the carpeted floor in the dark. People sleeping and kissing and someone throwing up in a corner. I blinked at the hot water in my eyes, burning and blurry. I had fluttered my eyes open, feeling a hand move up my bare thigh. His thumb was moving in circles. I lost track of where I was, yawning for air. Circles, thumb in circles, thumb with finger prints that belonged to someone gone. My skin was melting, I felt fingerprints everywhere. I scrubbed them off. I sat on the floor of the tub, water melting over my spine, my shoulders. He pulled at my hair, running water was in my hair. I stood up and looked in the mirror, shaking off a bad dream. I stepped out of the shower, dripping, wrapping up my hair in a towel and throwing on a t-shirt for family dinner.
Brian had done something terrible to me at a party. Brian jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge. They didn’t find his body for two weeks. Everyone knew why. I felt guilty. I never said a word.
Dripping in moisture and the fluff of hotel towels, Adam had picked up his glass of Australian wine. When he turned to make sure I hadn’t faded away, he stumbled, and the red tumbled across the fabric of the white couch. It looked like an inchoate statement piece.
We laughed and fell back onto the starch of the blanketed bed. I focused hard on how I could imagine feeling. But at the end of the day it was just his lips on my neck, on my arms and chest and legs. I felt him in the pit of my stomach. All I was to him right then was skin and ribs and blood and heat. His hands were on me, and that’s all I wanted him to take. Flesh.
After it was over I laid on the ground, looking at the sky on the ceiling and I started to cry. He kept asking me what was wrong. I felt pressure roiling in my head, behind my nose, pressing on my sternum. He faced me on his side, tracing his fingers over my eyelashes, rubbing the dampness into my cheeks. I smiled. Wiped my snot. Kissed him. Blamed it on my roommate.
My roommate was an artist living out of her parents’ pocket. I didn’t really understand the art she did. It looked like wide broken strokes and confused colors to me. I didn’t really understand much about my roommate, though, either. She definitely fascinated me. She wore long silver dresses and no bras, cut her own bangs, and only ate caprese salad. She was always on the rusted bars of our balcony, pretending to read the black and white paper. She would blow cigarette smoke through her thin lips as the setting sun coated her in gold. I imagined that if soft Clair de Lune was pressed into a piano behind her she would be a scene from a movie that made you cry. When she spoke it often sounded gutteral and broken.
That’s why I bought a big, weepy basil plant that I never seemed to be able to water enough. I kept it on the edge of the sink so I wouldn’t forget. So she could eat her caprese. I didn’t know how else to make her feel better.
She fell in love with horrible men, and once came home with an eye covered in bruises. They were terrifying and exquisite at the same time, like blood on clean white things. After that her collarbones and shoulders started sticking out too much. I would stand in socks outside her closed door and think of all the things I could try and say to her.
Instead I bought fridge magnets with a bunch of different words on them. I started leaving her notes, and she would answer them.
do you want wine tonight
I love you
I didn’t really know how else to help her. She definitely couldn’t help me.
I fell asleep in the hotel bed in Adam’s arms, blurry. I was physically there, but my head, the only thing I could identify myself with, was gone. Far away. Alone. When we drove away, he talked about how much he liked spending time with me. I was just grateful he ignored my meltdown.
I sat in the passenger seat, trying to air my blistered ankles from where those shoes had burned at my heel. I stared at the piece of pizza Adam bought me, thinking about how the cheese looked like peeled back skin from one of those hospital shows on tv. When we got home, I slept with my window open all day. The breeze pushed hot air in and out. I listened to the drip of rain and missed my shift at Elroy’s.
After I went on the date with Adam, he started calling me his beautiful girlfriend. He would buy me food and cigarettes and brush my hair out of my face in the dark. He dropped by Elroy’s a lot. Larry started making fun of me for it.
Adam started holding me closer when graduation lit the horizon. He was moving to a nicer place in the city. I didn’t know what I was doing. I would lay naked beside him and feel the space between us. I was afraid he would leave me. I was afraid I wouldn’t feel any different.
It’s a mystery what ugly things my mouth produced during the fight that ended Adam for me. I remember sitting on his lap, my bed, the floor. I remember the sting of liquor on my lips, diving into the base of my stomach. I remember listening to my favorite song. The noise wobbled over me as I moved in the dark. I remember his nose and stale breath parked on the nape of my neck. The knotted sheets strangling me, tears and truths and teeth biting into my skin. The world turned and turned. It rolled in the fuzz behind my eyes, even though my head was still on my stripped mattress. I don’t remember the last time our lips touched or him ever saying my name.
I woke up the next morning, cold, naked, and gloriously by myself. The sun wrapped around me. I had on one sock, and pulled a red t-shirt over my head. My stomach ached like sex. Water. When I went to open the fridge, the words were all pushed to the side except a single string.
your soul is above love jackass
The magnets were uneven. I smiled.
About the author
Excellent work. Looking forward to reading more!
Original narrative & well developed characters
Heartfelt and relatable
The story invoked strong personal emotions