I tried Al on like a suit and he didn’t fit. In the crotch area, excess fabric hung loose, like disappointment. And the shoulders—the shoulders were the worst part. I do not wish to discuss my shoulders inside the suit that was Al, and I don't wish to discuss what he did to them.
This is what he'd say: Clara, you are being dramatic again, using metaphors again, insinuating about violences that did not occur. But you see, I have left him. Isn't that the thing about leaving? All he gets now is the right to be silent while I tell my story.
Except, of course, I can't make him stop talking inside my head. That is the small way in which the abandoned win: they leave words behind.
Clara, you want me, he'd say, I can tell you want me. He would say this drunk, getting into my side of the bed on the wrong side of the morning, shaking me awake, I can tell you want it. It was true, sometimes. There had been days when my body woke up wanting him. But what is that? What is attraction, desire? It is nose following a scent, it is molecules connecting with matching molecules. It is an animal thing, which is to say a thing to transcend. It made my parts hurt, that wanting, but how would desire help with alterations? It didn’t boost up my muscles, didn’t lengthen my bones.
Passion don’t pay the bills was something Al often said. He had a plainspoken way about him that some people called his persona, but I knew the way he talked was just the way he talked. It's funny, isn't it, what people choose to imagine about other people. I wonder sometimes if that's why he liked me: I never fell into that trap. I saw him as a man, not an artist, and I knew the difference.
For a while, I thought “passion don't pay the bills” meant passion, in love, is less than half the battle. Or sometimes I thought he meant I needed to pitch in more. I had not moved in yet, but I was staying over quite a bit. It's not easy, being a foreigner in this town, and even harder being a foreigner who's also a woman. One day he added, Well, except when the bills get demanding. He gave me a look, kept his eyes on my body for long minutes the way he always did when I wore a new dress he liked. I learned that day that he'd always meant the Bills, the two brothers named Bill who I later came to know, and who supplied Al and his art with everything they both needed. Al needed drugs and sometimes food brought to his home; his art demanded more, developed a taste for specifics. Some vegetable that only grows in Spain, one thousand chewed gums, a fish that can live with no water. He named it, the Bills delivered. The work didn't always sell. When it did, the money seemed to burn quick.
Their parents must’ve really loved the name Bill, I said, to choose it for both their sons. Different dads, Al said, as if that explained it. I shrugged. It's almost ten years now since I moved to this country, and still so many things confuse me.
I was living with him by then, and living with him made me shrug a lot. We often found ourselves in a space where his logic had ended and mine had not yet begun, and in that space between our logics, patience was important. I knew that well, but my shoulders kept forgetting.
Something we often did when we found ourselves in that space was have sex. I would lie there afterwards, my muscles happy and tired, and think how easy it was sometimes, satisfying the body when the mind was confused.
One Thursday morning over baked eggs he said he couldn’t possibly understand why I wouldn’t sleep with the Bills for him. They’re willing to forgo my debt entirely, he said for the third time, as if the only possible problem would be that I misunderstood, or didn't hear.
On another occasion, he wanted to use me for his art. It was a special project, he said, one that had an authentic vision. I was to find a cause, then starve myself on its behalf for eighteen days while he would document my every move. I expressed hesitation, mentioned my eating disorder. Starving myself cannot be good for my recovery. Well, Al said, maybe that can be your cause. Eight of every ten women suffer from eating disorders, he said, and most of them don’t even know it.
When we first met, he had paint all over his body; green mixed with red on his chest, down his arms.You look like a large green animal bled on you, I said. How did you know, he said—no question mark, no smile. I thought: This is a man I’ve never met before. I thought: Finally, a man I’ve never met before. I had high hopes for us then, a small drum pulsating in my ear.
Then the Bills, his special project, and the groupie he slept with. She was very young, and looked even younger. I still had high hopes, I just also had the understanding that they would not be fulfilled. Somehow, one didn’t cancel the other. It was as if I'd eaten beef and cake in one bite; I felt queasy, but had no choice but to hold it all in my stomach.
This is what happened: Al was away with a new exhibition. One of the Bills came in using his key even though I was home. This was strictly against the rules. I screamed—not out of fear at first, but in an attempt to make a point. But the Bills, they never wanted anyone to make a point, least of all me. So Bill put a finger in my mouth. The finger tasted like sour sweat and Winston Lights. When I gagged, he smiled. Another finger grazed my nipple. It might have been both Bills in there—I get confused about these sorts of specifics. I screamed, but they didn't seem to hear me. The inside of my skin burnt for months later.
I wrote Al a note the next day on a card that looked like a dry leaf. I used clear language: attack, violated, no. I am about to file a report now, I wrote, because in my head I kept seeing the movie of this incident, and my character called the police every time. But on my way to the station, I imagined a cop interviewing me, and he looked like Bill. I closed my eyes to make him go away, but in the darkness he smiled and multiplied, crowding the room with men in his image, uniformed and uninformed Bills.
I walked for hours, took my shoes off so I could feel the ground. I was waiting for Al to call. Settle down, I would tell him, if you mess them up that bad, you'll end up in jail. But when he returned home and read my note, he said It may have been some sort of mix-up, Clara. The Bills may have misunderstood me, he said. Don't go and make a big deal now.
I took to the streets. Looking back, I can see I was in quite a state, ill equipped for big decisions. But at the time, moving to the streets didn't feel like a big decision; it felt more like I'd signed up for a volunteer training session at the local library, forgot about it, and suddenly realized I was running late.
I remember thinking I needed coffee, needed other things, too, and that I was done compromising. I deserved the tenderness of a bath shared at the end of the workday, I told myself, the comfort of a well tailored suit. If I couldn't have these things with Al, well, then it was time to face the truth: I didn't have a home. I had to act fast because I knew I was the kind of woman who too easily forgot, who too easily thanked her man for whatever he felt able to offer. So I packed nothing, though I knew there would be no going back. Al had his good traits, but the ability to forgive an abandonment was never one of them. At the local deli, I counted my money. I imagined that very soon, when it ran out, I would feel unburdened.
On a street corner, a man had broad shoulders that reminded me of Al's—shoulders that always got their way. He eyed me, then my iced coffee. Lord, kill me now, he cried; let me be reborn this plastic cup of iced coffee in this woman’s hand. As I was walking away I could still hear him. Hold me, drink me, he begged. I turned around. Fuck you, sir, I said. Fuck you.
I didn't know yet, back then, that starving yourself was different from being starved, that after long weeks of wanting food, hunger becomes fragile bones, becomes hallucinations, becomes despair. I didn't know yet that living on the street meant death was a close friend who was always around, and always flirting. And I didn't know the good parts, either, didn't know that when you almost die, you live the next day loving the earth, believing it your creation. Maybe I should have known these things, but I didn't.
So walking away from that man, I felt free—perhaps for the first time. I thought: Yes, these are the streets of the city. This is what there is when we leave our homes. Most of the time it is unpleasant, unsafe. But what a relief it is, I thought, not having to pretend that violence isn't everywhere.
Shelly Oria is the author of New York 1, Tel Aviv 0 (FSG & Random House Canada, 2014), which earned nominations for a Lambda Literary Award and the Edmund White Award for Debut Fiction. Most recently, she co-authored a digital novella, CLEAN, commissioned by WeTransfer and McSweeney's. Oria's fiction has appeared in The Paris Review among numerous other places, has been translated into other languages, and has won a number of awards. She lives in Brooklyn, where she co-directs the Writer's Forum at the Pratt Institute and has a private practice as a life & creativity coach.