--FROM THE OUTSIDE PEOPLE LOOK GUILTY
…Well, tonight’s another reading. I hope it goes well. Sometimes I get so nervous I slur my words, even if I’ve had nothing to drink.
Here are two of the four things I’ll be reading:
Center and Fringe
I want you to lie to me.
I want you to pull my hair and threaten to leave me again, tell me every soiled thing you loathe about me but, later, do a paint-by-numbers watercolor on my chest, inserting a subliminal message between the stripes of a rainbow.
I want to cuddle with you on this bed of pine needles so scratchy we’d never be able to sleep, the frosty air cold enough to make our noses bleed, dribbling down our chins like scarlet fondue.
I want the taillights glowing rat-eyed across the lake to be your eyes, fascinated by me on this winter’s night. I want the cones of light reflected on the wafting water to be a cloud that morphs in undulation so that we can find new characters and objects in its wake, its center and fringes.
I want you to see what I see, the people who own that light and the house where that light glows, the ones that have been together since before the war against Germany. I saw them at Safeway yesterday. She was testing a melon with her gnarled thumb while the brittle little guy manned the cart, hunched, grinning like a very happy gnome.
I want our skins to spot and sag together. I want us to molt and refute what happened last weekend. I want magical powers, the ability to make you stay put, to cause that car to miss you, take a different corner, let you live.
I want to take it all back.
Just In Case
It doesn’t always happen the way they say it does—some poor girl, sexually abused by her dad, becoming a prostitute. Sometimes you’re just industrious. Sometimes the men are actually kind, fatherly or brotherly, preppy and toned with muscles, big-tippers, regulars who want to talk more than touch. Sometimes it’s the best gig around.
At least that’s what you tell yourself on a suede-black night, staring out the motel window wondering where the moon is hiding. You tell yourself the man in the bathroom is the prom king you worshipped from afar throughout high school. You give him blonde locks of hair and denim blue eyes, teeth paper-white and straight as a picket fence. You name him Randy Jarvis.
And when this new Randy reappears you don’t notice how his breath smells like Lysol, how his belly drags over the stump of his penis, but you do check under the pillow where you always stash the shiv, just in case.
You say, “What’ll it be?” You ask how much time he has tonight. You close your eyes while the rest happens and picture that missing moon glowing radioactive, the biggest thing in the universe, staring back at you like a bomb that can be dropped at any time.
An Unbroken Circle
You know the girl on the bed outside the bathroom resembles your daughter, that’s why you picked her, but you don’t think about it because thinking about it makes you queasy, a pervert of the worst order, even though she’s a hooker and has probably already lain with half a dozen men before the two of you ever walked through the motel door.
You just tried to urinate, but there was nothing doing. This happens quite a bit lately and it’s another thing--on the long laundry list of others--that troubles you.
Your first prostitute was an Asian girl named Suki. That was a lifetime ago, yet you remember her well because the fake name reminded you of sushi, which you loathe, and because she did this mewling act prior to fake-climaxing. After her, there were thousands more which is why you work so hard, and after laboring so much to get ahead, you reward yourself with a little fun. It’s an unbroken circle.
Before coming out of the bathroom, you give yourself a mental pep talk repeating positive affirmations: I am a great lover. I do not ejaculate too soon. I control what happens.
When you open the door, the girl fluffs your pillow and props up on her elbows. She’s chewing gum. She blows a bubble the size of a light bulb until it pops, balloon-sticky on her nose. Chuckling, she again reminds you of your daughter.
You turn off the lights. Through the sheer, piss-colored drapes the sky is tar-black, no moon to light up anything. You feel your way back to the bed like a blind man and then there’s skin on skin and everything begins again.
You don’t like memories. Recalling them is a slippery slope, a cord or rope wrapped around your neck, drawing you back to the places and times that ignited a bitter switch inside you. But there are sirens going off in the city, not police cars screaming by, but fire trucks, and you must be close to the actual fire because you can see smoke twisting like black wraiths between two sky scrapers.
You remember how you’d become a fuse yourself, and once you were lit there was no other way around it, strength you didn’t know you had coiling with rampant rage, so instead of saying the words he wanted you to say while he did it, one afternoon you told your father you would kill him, and you were a lot of things, even back then, but a liar wasn’t one of them. That night as he lay slumped and passed out in front of a blaring TV, you got a gas can and spritzed gasoline and dropped your father’s lighter over a puddle. Standing on the curb minutes later, you watched scarlet flames eat everything. You stood until the house and he were ash, not caring if the neighbors saw you watching, not caring about the future or whether this was the last, selfish decision you’d ever get to make.
You pay the girl double because she complied with everything you asked. She says, “Hey, thanks, Bill,” even though your name isn’t Bill and she knows it’s not Bill.
This triggers something and so you ask the girl what her real name is. The way her eyes stutter before she says, “Ashley” leads you believe she’s lying and this enrages you, the lies, the fraud and phoniness. You’re the John, but you’re not feeling hypocritical one bit—it’s just fury swelling inside you.
You’ve never hit a hooker before, never hit a girl or woman in your life, but Ashley won’t give up her real name, and so you clock her on the chin. It happens blink-fast, reflexively.
The girl goes wild, becoming a stallion suddenly. She calls you a bastard. Her hand leaps like a cobra out of her purse and she swings a shiv an inch from your bloated belly.
You say you’re sorry, you don’t know what got into you, hitting a girl isn’t something you’d ever do, honest.
She keeps her eyes—cobalt-blue eyes—on you as she leaves. The door’s cracked open. An old woman in a housecoat is lumbering down the hall. She looks like your mother, same spider web hair and cigarette-wrinkled lips. She looks up with a toothless grin and says, “Wanna dance?”
You think about quitting for the thousandth time. It’s folly, but you do it anyway.
This always happens after a visit with a bad John. Once an obese medical supply salesman bit your shoulder so hard you had to have Holly, a now dead prostitute, stitch you up with something that might have been fishing line and the scar is usually the part of you, when naked, that customers find most alluring.
You’ve started using again—no needles this time—just huffing. It’s a way to make the world flat and somewhat redeemable. The pile of yellow powder looks like shredded drywall that someone’s mixed with piss. You know this is leading right back to mainlining, yet you’ve lost the will to resist an easy release and lately your clients have had cruel streaks that show up out of nowhere.
The burn is a torch scalding your nostril, reaching all the way down your throat to your chest, slamming your heart with a machete. The sensation is familiar yet new all the same, like a twisted trick sprung on you by a crafty client—vibrator and penis inserted in your ass together.
Before the high seals, you think about what college life would be like, wearing a backpack, tramping through a campus with many brick buildings, kids your own age, not damaged to any major extent, their staid head nods and “Hi’s” plenty enough to make you feel vibrant and alive.
Next you think about a child you might have had, maybe a girl named Maggie with your same dimpled chin, her seated at the kitchen table coloring outside the lines of Ariel’s mermaid tail. When she asks, “Momma, why are there bad people in the world?” you say, “It’s mostly bad men.” Maggie looks up, her eyes blue as yours, saying, “But Daddy’s not bad.” You look over at your husband doing dishes in the sink. He cocks his head like a golden retriever—Huh? Am I a bad guy? You laugh and laugh and then the world goes pale yellow, becoming an endless rug that rolls you up in a magic carpet and carries you off.