Your daughter wants you to scratch her back while she falls asleep. She calls you from the other room, her voice high and irritating and swooping down into petulance. Come scratch my back. Your husband holds up his hand like a claw and flexes it, indicating that his fingernails are too short, and smiles at you in that porpoise way he has that makes you wonder if he isn’t mildly afflicted with Down’s Syndrome. You push your exhausted body off the couch and move deeper into the small, dull apartment to appease the voice.
She is prone on her stomach, ready for you. You sit in the chair next to her bed, situated there for the purpose of bedtime stories and back-scratching. There is a picture of Peter Rabbit appliquéd on the back. She calls it her Peter Rabbit chair. You lean slightly out, your arm extended awkwardly, and start at the center of her back. You say nothing and she says nothing. She does not want to talk to you; she wants your hand, your fingernails, your effort and quiet attendance.
She is wearing just white cotton panties. Her skin is sticky with a summer film – salt, sweat, dirt, sprinkler water, the end stages of a sunburn. The scum of it comes off under your nails. She should have had a bath. She runs around all day, half-naked and sexless like a blonde Mowgli; she eats dinner with her fingers, her soft, pale nipples flat against the wooden edge of the table. You don’t really know her. Six years ago she slipped out of the glove of your body and everything between the two of you since that day has been a series of near-misses.
You never wanted her. You always saw something cleaner for yourself, something polished like a quiet office job and drinks with an attractive co-worker who you let into your sterile, hard-edged apartment, and then let back out two hours later, his tie draped over his arm and his button threads loosened from frantic undoing. You didn’t want double-handled juice cups and Cheerios between the car seats and innumerable stuffed animals infused with sacred individual significance. Torrential crying jags when you pick up one particular bear by the foot and toss it onto her bed. And you have to shut yourself into the beige bathroom and run cold water over your itchy hands so that you don’t shake her little body until she goes limp and silent. There is a fake ivy plant on the back of the toilet that your mother-in-law gave you, and it doesn’t stop the room from smelling like shit every time your husband walks out of it, still fastening his pants under the pregnant weight of his stomach. You sit on the closed seat and rub your palms over and over your thighs until they are dry and hot from friction. Outside the bathroom his voice is gone chirpy as he reassures her that the bear is okay. You did not want this. You did not want this.
You should have known better. You learned from your own mother that once you have a baby you never add up to as much as you should. No matter how many of your parts are tallied – belly thighs cunt teeth hair brain spine heart, your college degree, your affair with your history professor, your talent for giving head, your smattering of French, your scar from the tailpipe of your second boyfriend‘s motorcycle, the perfect backbend you did in third grade, your cousin showing you his dick when he was fourteen and you were nine and the way you touched it with an index finger that was cut at the knuckle – all of this that makes up who and why you are – the sum of it inevitably totals one, no matter how many times you sit up alone in the flat windowless apartment dark, adding and re-adding. It always comes back to one. Her. This life’s-worth of you, pouring down into a little funnel of dirty sun-gilded skin, and there’s too much for the aperture, some of it has to run down the sides. It’s unavoidable. So how are you going to sop it up?
You meet him at a bookstore. She is sitting at the midget wooden table at the back of the children’s section and you are wandering the fringes of it, anxious to leave but reluctant to engage in the exhausting process of buying her something or not buying her something. You notice him because he walks like he knows he is being watched. So you acquiesce; you watch him. He makes eye contact and the fact of your attention clicks neatly into place and he changes his course so that he veers towards you. You stand still and she sits behind you, focused tightly inward like always, her mouth shaping silently around words she doesn’t know yet, her voice a breath of sound that you can’t hear from where you are.
He compliments you before introducing himself. You really are a beautiful girl, you know that? he asks. Girl, he said, he actually called you a girl. Because of this, you will always think of him as simply the boy. You look like you never hear that, he says, his eyes narrowed on you and his head cocked, and in the next heartbeat you are writing your cel phone number with perfectly steady handwriting on the back of a receipt from his pocket. He smiles at you with clear blue eyes. His hair is short, a fresh haircut. He gives the air of being professionally groomed everyday by a team of experts before leaving his house.
Are you waiting on anything? he asks you, and you see her behind you, as clearly as though you turned your head, her little body hiked up on the wooden chair, the book flattened open underneath her grubby, graceless hands, her white-gold hair hanging into her face as she hunches over and sounds out the story. Anyone could take her. She could wind up in any creek bed, any garage, any oil-smeared trunk.
No, you say, and follow him to the front of the store.
The distance between you and the midget table at the back of the children’s section tightens with every step, like an elastic cord that she grips in her sticky hand, and the end of it is tied around your bottommost rib. You feel the absence of her like an amputated limb, like a yanked out tooth, this tingling non-presence that is as sensate as any pain. Your face flushes, and the cord sings tighter. You imagine that everyone is watching you, incredulous, although no one’s eyes meet yours. Shelves of books move past you as though they are on a conveyer belt. The absence of the amputated limb is strange, but the dead weight of it is gone; the aching of the yanked tooth is gone; it is a relief to have left her back there.
You buy a magazine, you aren’t even sure which one, and he buys the book in his hand. At the door you pause and he waits there, holding it open, watching you with his head cocked. The entire world unfolds just beyond where the two of you stand. The parking lot bakes in the sun, flushed black with exhaust. People and birds and garbage sweep past the bookstore and away like they never existed. It would be so easy to succumb to that momentum, to get caught in it like a waterlogged corpse in the run of a river. You just step out…and let yourself fall.
But there is a cord tied to your bottommost rib, stringing out taut behind you to the back of the store. You move your eyes down his body, his black button-down shirt, to the book in his hand. Is that a biography? you ask, because there is a black and white photograph of an old man on the cover, and you equate these kinds of pictures with biographies. He smiles, looks at it as though unsure of what he had bought.
Sure, he says. Anything wrong?
You open your purse and look into it, blindly. My keys, you say. I think I left my keys back there. You go on, I’m just going to run back there- and you’re turning away, and you hate her for robbing you of this moment. You hate her helplessness.
All right, then, he says after you. I’ll call you about that coffee.
You beeline to the back of store, moving faster than you want to admit, and you’re thinking of what you’ll tell your husband and the police and your mother-in-law if she isn’t there.
But she is there. She is still hunched over the book, rocking like an autistic child, like a crack baby, the inside of her sandal gone black where it has flipped away from the arched sole of her foot.
It happens fast. The boy calls you the next day, you deposit her with the daycare at your husband’s office, you throw the word gynecologist at him, and you meet the boy at his apartment. There is no pretense of coffee.
You fall into a pattern. This is easy to do because no one is watching. You always fuck on the floor, never the bed. You tell him you want it this way – that the bed is too personal, too close to what you do with your husband, and as you say the words you wonder what the hell you are talking about. You could fuck the boy in the indent your husband leaves in the mattress without skipping a beat, you could wedge your husband’s pillow under your ass to tilt your pelvis up so the boy’s cock hits deeper, you could suck him off with your husband watching Monday night football in the next room if the opportunity arose, and it wouldn’t matter to you. Nothing matters. Isn’t that the point?
But you tell him that, you create this personality for yourself, and he nods. He understands. He is used to accommodating guilt in pointless, stylized ways. He knew you were married all along, of course, before he even saw the ring. This is what he does.
So you fuck him on the polished hardwood of his living room, and on the forest green marble of his kitchen, and on the black tile of his bathroom. It seems that every room is walled in floor to ceiling windows, thick smoked glass braced in frames of cold black metal, like a high rise office building, and you imagine that the entire city can see you bathed in the soft expensive light of his apartment as you rise up on top of him. You revel in your imperfections – stretch marks melting wax-like down your stomach and the curve of your hips, the scar sectioned like the body of an earthworm from when you had your appendix out, the extra weight ringing your navel like a flesh doughnut, padding your ass, rounding your thighs; you spread this out on top of him. You use it against him. You grind his pelvis down into the floor, trying to hurt him with his own bones. Underneath you he is a long, flat construction of tidy muscle. His dick inside you points straight up at your heart, like it is aimed there. It isn’t big enough. This gives you some strange sense of satisfaction. Even your husband’s dick is bigger than his, this obsolete man who is so useless to you he barely exists – even he might have a better shot at satiating you, if you‘d give him the chance.
But you fuck the boy anyway. Your knees rub red against the floor. You shove yourself into a stinging soreness. You fake orgasms until your throat feels stripped. You do this while your little girl is at home with your husband, or visiting her grandmother at the retirement home. Once you miss a school play and blame traffic.
And then one night you stay longer than the usual hour. He pees with the bathroom door open and you watch his perfect ass. You are sitting with your legs up on his couch, naked, your skin sticking and catching on the black leather cushions. His semen ekes out of your body and slicks the place where you sit. You let it; you like to imagine his maid service cleaning it up later. He looks over his shoulder and watches you watching him and smiles. He flushes the squat, black toilet and comes to the couch, slowly, walking naked with his spent, pink penis foremost, and you want to laugh. He sits next to you and rests his arm along the back of the couch. Beyond the two of you, the city spreads itself open for him like a woman, dark and studded with lights that looked like diamonds but are something else entirely.
Tell me something about yourself, he says.
So you do.
What comes out is your sad story, the sad story that everyone has, the one moment of valid hurt that can be presented as a reason for everything else. You tell him about your high school boyfriend, Delaney, who died in a car accident during your senior year. He wasn’t drinking and he wasn’t drag-racing; he was just unlucky. Sometimes you think that Delaney really was the reason for everything – the start of every misstep and bad decision and compromise you ever made.
So you tell the boy about him. You paint him like a fifties cliché, like Johnny Angel. He loved you, he picked a fight with the quarterback just for looking at you, he treated you more carefully than anyone ever has before or since.
But the truth is that he always wanted head from you; he would pull over the car, tilt up the steering wheel, and unbuckle his belt without a word, and down you went. The truth is that he kissed with his teeth and he laughed like a little girl, loudly enough to embarrass you, and the bump on the bridge of his nose that you knew you were supposed to think was sexy – you hated it. And there was a part of you that was glad when he died. There was a part of you that loved the attention, the sympathy that allowed you to coast through the remainder of your senior year, and the full-skirted black dress that you wore to his funeral. It was a relief not to have to break up with him. And you know that it really did all start with Delaney, but not the hurt, not the compromises. Delaney’s death was the start of the black separateness that allows you to do the things that you do. It was the start of the meanness, and the distance, and the uncaring.
You tell the boy your sad story and you start to cry. You are shocked and momentarily relieved by the crying, although you do not understand it. He moves closer and you double up your body into a position of true ugliness. Flesh bulges and cellulite dimples to the surface and your breasts flatten against your stubbled thighs. You cry wet and heat into the folded center of your body, and his smooth hands flit over the back of your shoulders, and he exhales shhhhhh-shh-shh into your ear. Your shoulder bumps into his bony chest. His breath tickles you, and it is annoying. You have become this woman. You have become the woman who he has to comfort. You stand up from the couch quickly, dislodging him from you, and walk to where your clothes are wadded next to the coffee table. He watches you, silent, and you don’t care if he sees the folds under your ass or the handfuls of fat at your waist. You dress and sling your purse over your shoulder and you leave. If he speaks you don’t hear it.
In the elevator you demand an explanation from yourself. Delaney doesn’t matter; he didn’t matter at the time, he certainly doesn’t matter fifteen years later. You cried because earlier that day your little girl screamed in the grocery store and you wanted to slap her. You cried because your husband is fat and green from the florescent lights in his office and his quirks that at one time attracted you have solidified into a twitching mass of tics that make you want to poison his coffee every morning. You cried because the boy never made you come, not once, and if he knew what he was doing he would have been able to tell. He would have seen right through you. You tell yourself that you cried because you are filled with hate, not because you are filled with love. You did not cry because Delaney used to slide his hand over the small of your back when he opened doors for you. You did not cry for what you lost, because you have not lost anything. You tell yourself this. Your reflection in the copper elevator doors is warped and insubstantial, like you are submerged in something thick and yellow as urine. They slide open, and you disappear.