I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
His wife had ice cream cone breasts and was given to fits of crying which she did alone and in the shower. He would stand in the hallway smoking and listening to her sob waiting for a pause. Then he’d go in and pee, flush the toilet and send a shower of cold water raining down onto her body. She’d scream and curse him, hurl soap and maybe a back scrubber at him. He’d undress, step into the shower, pull her down on the porcelain, and hold her, then make love to her. Then they’d sleep, and when they woke, he’d dress her. He wouldn’t allow her to wear underwear. Then he’d take her out for a rare steak, and eat her potatoes.
Michael Morris didn’t tell me this; I knew this because I read it in his books, and his books were the truth, not even thinly veiled. He’d admitted as much. He had said, “I write the truth.” I read his stories with greedy fascination. The deep indifference seemed nearly inhuman, and it fascinated me. I read his books hungrily searching for the ugliness of human nature, his nature, my nature, so skillfully rendered it seemed almost poetic. And even as I was thinking he was horrible, I felt deeply attracted to this loathsome man, who seemed to be saying, See how you are exactly like me. You won’t admit it but you are.
Perhaps in some ways he was right, but he was offering his life as art. I wasn’t taking anything he didn’t mean for me to have, so I seized his stories, combing them for his violence. It wasn’t only a voyeuristic thrill or a vicarious pleasure, but absolution from my own small crimes of deceit. I had to admire the way he depicted himself as a creep. He wasn’t making any apologies for his behavior; he was just telling the truth, and I respected that.
Michael Morris said, “My wife is beautiful, and smart, and a better human being than I am.” And no one doubted that, except maybe the bit about her being so smart. I heard him say on a talk show, “My life is full of real life pain and drama. Why should I, if I don’t need to, make anything up? After all, I own my life.” Because he believed he owned his wife, he plucked out her soul and used it as paint. He dragged her onto the page and shackled her there with precise iron-clad punctuation and clear piercing description right down to the dark hair that curled around her nipples. She was the myopic wife who couldn’t see the way her husband needed her to be, and thus couldn’t understand the sensitive husband character. She was the wife who woke up in the middle of the night, alone, choking and unable to breathe. Her husband was gone—either out with his “buddies,” or as the case was this time, at his typewriter. “Copying my body, my face, my everything onto the page while I slept,” her character laments in his last story published in Esquire. “He was robbing me of my self.”
He and Janice lived on the far outskirts of town in a large modern house that was mostly glass, in stark contrast to the old gingerbread-style Victorians that dominate our small university town. A few years ago he had taught the occasional Honors English class at the university where I had just started working part-time in the English Department while getting my Masters in English Literature. I had been there two months and already I had heard the rumours about the intense, dark-eyed man who had sex in cars with various young coeds. It was legend that he was involved with a beautiful Lebanese freedom fighter who wore a bullet that had passed through her body on a chain around her neck, and that his wife had once tried to kill herself in his brand new Mercedes he’d bought with the advance money for a screenplay he’d sold. She tried to asphyxiate herself in their garage, with the radio on some country and western station. That’s why he said he didn’t believe she meant to kill herself, because she put the radio on a station that she didn’t even listen to. The music, he said, was for cheap dramatic effect.
Now the rumour was he and Janice were divorcing. The split had been almost devoid of drama—that must have killed him. He would have to pay her alimony. It would be a lot. She would make him pay that way. Still, the only possessions she wanted were the Oriental rugs. He owed her the rugs. They bought them on their honeymoon, the last time he was decent to her. Now, he was so sorry he was crying in restaurants. Torn apart, that’s how he was supposed to be feeling. I liked imagining him crying. Ruining perfectly good meals all over town. His head in his hands, weeping into cold soup.
He was throwing himself into touring and promoting his new book to take his mind off it. I wanted to see him. I wanted to get a look at him. I wanted to hear his words from his mouth, instead of in my own head. I wanted to watch him be Michael Morris. That was why I was at the university that night for his reading. I sat in the middle near the front so I could get a good look at him, and was also in his line of vision. Perhaps he would notice the way I was sitting: both legs tucked under me, my arms hugging my body, head tilted, and eyes fixed on him like a scope.
I would be lying if I said I hadn’t imagined appearing in one of his books. Michael Morris noticed small things about a person they never noticed about themselves. He saw everything—every nuance. What could he tell me about me? I thought about my on again off again boyfriend who was now at his apartment either listening to jazz records or watching baseball with some friends. He was sweet, but I knew he didn’t know my dress size, and probably couldn’t remember what my favorite color was. Not that it really mattered. I’d asked him to join me tonight, knowing he wouldn’t. Readings bored him, and anyway, he hated Michael Morris. “He’s a jerk,” he said. “He’s a jerk who says he’s a jerk and that is supposed to make everything okay. I don’t buy it.”
In the flourescent light of the auditorium I was surprised to see how old Michael Morris looked. Maybe it was the unflattering light, but the lines in his face were drawn as though with magic marker, and steel colored strands of gray ran rampant through his black hair. He wasn’t unattractive. He was attractive in a coarse slightly scary way. He was taller than I had imagined. His body was long, the muscle compacted on the bone. His hands looked meaty and enormous. I imagined they were damp from holding what I thought was probably a flask of Jack Daniels in his coat pocket.
He was much more handsome than his jacket photos which seemed to present him either looking dark and guilty as though he’d been caught in the act of shoplifting, or intense, gaunt, and unshaven suggesting imprisonment in the jail of his own mind. He was pacing back and forth in front of the stage as though he was psyching himself into being the great author, Michael Morris. He mounted the stage deliberately, and strode to the podium as though it was magnetized. He put on his reading glasses, and without saying a word of greeting, or introduction he began to read a story concerning a professor’s fear that his student lover, who in his presence couldn’t help chewing her lips until they bled, would kill herself for him. The second story was about a man who quarrels bitterly with his brother and then tries to rape his brother’s wife to get back at him. He read slowly, deliberately shaping each word. Then he finished and stalked off the stage. No question and answer period. No thank you for coming. Wham. Bam. Thank you, ma’am.
After rapidly consuming two glasses of cheap white wine at the reception, I got up my nerve to introduce myself. After all, I thought, I know all about him.
“Lola,” he said savouring my name wetly, chewing on it—“Lo-la”—as though it were a juicy bit of sirloin,—“Lola,”—as if it wasn’t ready to be swallowed. “Lo-laah.” It rolled around inside his mouth. He offered it like a prize on his tongue. He made it sound sexy. So often I was kidded about my name. “It’s a dog’s name,” people would say. “Lola. That’s a good name for a stripper, don’t you think?”
“What a great, great name,” he said, shaking my hand, clasping it firmly, not limply or by the fingers the way some men shake your hand, as though they were shaking the hand of a child’s stuffed animal. He held my hand between his two palms. “I’m pleased to know you Lola.” I’d heard that too, but he was the first person in a long time who seemed to truly mean it. My face felt hot and tingly, my body charged with a current of excitement.
“Your books are … well, just amazing,” I stammered, feeling small and stupid and red-faced.
“Really? Well, thank you Lola,” he said sounding a little surprised and pleased by my attention. I spilled a little wine on my shoe. A brief but amused half-smile pulled up his lips, like he could tell I spilled it because I was nervous.
“I like to think that I’m a writer, too, but I mean I can’t do what you do. Not like you do it like that …” I was blathering. He hadn’t taken his eyes off my face. He stepped closer to me. His breath was warm on my face and smelled faintly of bourbon. He had the deep creases around his eyes of a man who, no matter what the weather, drives fast and with the window down just to feel the rush of wind on his face; the confirmation of hurtling forward.
“Listen,” he said running his hand over his mouth absently feeling his lips. “There are people here I have to talk to, but maybe we could talk about this later?” Then he added, “After all this crap … get a group together. It’ll be a party.”
“All right,” I said a little breathlessly, surprised and pleased at his invitation, but hoping I didn’t look it. He turned away and was immediately chest to chest with another man, an overly tan man with liquid blue eyes who half-hugged Michael and whispered in his ear, causing Michael to laugh and shake his head, then he disappeared back into the crowd.
Wait, did he say he wanted me to get a group together? No he must have said I’ll, or we’ll meaning perhaps him and some of his friends, maybe other famous writer friends. He couldn’t mean me, who did I know that he’d want to talk to? Did he mean for me to round up some other students, some other women? Well I wasn’t going to. What if he didn’t come back, and I’d arranged for a bunch of us to go out with him? That would be embarrassing. And anyway I didn’t know hardly a soul at the reading, and I wasn’t about to share Michael Morris with a bunch of silly grad students who’d just drink cheap beer and try to make pseudo-lit crit chat with him. No way. I downed my wine. Maybe it would be a big noisy affair with lots of interesting strangers, the people who populated his books: Intellectual men with clean fingernails and dirty souls; Crazy women who drank too much and took pills. I spotted him undulating through a throng of women wearing different shades of brown and cream. He stopped and talked to a young woman with strawberry-blonde hair and a gold nose ring. Her entire body seemed washed in pale freckles. He talked to her for what seemed to me a long time. Was she an old lover? A student? He laughed. She laughed and waved flirtingly at him as she sashayed away. Was she going to meet up with us at the bar? I wondered would there be other young women like me there? Was I just behaving like some groupie? Maybe he was rounding up others just like me right now. Maybe he’d choose the prettiest among us to sit alongside him. Why hadn’t he just asked me to go alone with him? It was as though I weren’t enough. I was sure it would be a large party the way he was vigorously working the room. I made my way back to the bar, taking care to pass in his eyeshot so he wouldn’t forget me. Wouldn’t forget that he had invited me along. His grey silk shirt was sticking to the middle of his back, but still he seemed to move easily in his skin like a big cat languidly prowling around the crowd shaking hands, clapping men on the shoulders, and laughing loudly.
The crowd was thinning out, but I didn’t see Michael anywhere. He had been gone a while. I picked at the top of my plastic wine glass and thought about leaving. What mattered was I met him, I talked to him, I told him I liked his work. He might not have meant it about the drink anyway, and I wasn’t going to stay there and wait for him, just stand here and wait for him only for him to forget me. Maybe I had misunderstood his invitation. Perhaps he meant, if I can get a group together we’ll all go out and have a drink. I knew he was in pain over his wife leaving. I was sure of that, the way he got so close to me so quickly like he just wanted to be near a woman. I thought about calling my boyfriend. I’d take over Chinese food, and some rum raisin ice cream. His favorite. Then later we’d have comfortable, familiar, forgettable sex. First though, I’d tell him about Michael Morris and how he wanted me to go out for a drink with him, but I didn’t go. Instead I came to his apartment. Because I missed him. That would be the hard part, saying why I missed him. That part I couldn’t do. I couldn’t go to his place. It wouldn’t work. I know me. He’d seem pale and dull in comparison to Michael Morris, and for no good reason I’d hate him and I’d leave him in a bad mood, such a bad distracted frustrated mood I wouldn’t even kiss him goodbye. I didn’t want to play out that scene. I should just quickly and invisibly disappear into the night.
I felt Michael Morris’s hand on my shoulder, his fingertips pressed down into my clavicle bones like a claim. “Well, I guess it’s just us two. It’s a ‘work night’,” he said rolling his eyes. “I trust that this isn’t a problem,” he said definitively, as though if it were a problem, he didn’t want to hear about it.
“Perfect,” I said in a voice lower than my own.
In the dim light of the bar his eyes were intensely brown like something melted down—maybe the leather interior of an expensive car or a dense cube of black hash. Something foreign. His eyes were darkly oily like that. Slowly they glided in his sockets as he traced my body in front of him, rolling up langourously to smile at the hostess who smiled back flashing him a mouth of crowded white teeth. “Yes we’d like to sit out back, in the garden you have,” he purred letting his eyes flow down her face and over her breasts. He ordered a double Jack Daniels. Up. “What ever you want,” he said. I ordered a white wine spritzer. “Really?” he laughed. “I thought only suburban ladies in espadrilles drank those.” I gave him a look of mock-disgust and said, “Well, I guess I’m proof that’s not true.”
The waitress, a bored-looking beauty with her dark-brown hair pulled into a low ponytail, narrowed her eyes at me, “Can I see some ID?”
I fumbled in my purse for my wallet pulling it upside down so my change clattered on the table, credit cards squirted out across the table, my driver’s license was lost somewhere in the nether regions of my bag. I could feel my cheeks burning. “I have it, I do. It’s here someplace damnit … “
“You’re of age, right?” she said rolling her eyes. Michael smiled broadly, he seemed pleased by the question.
“Yes of course,” I said trying to stifle my irritation and embarrassment, trying to make it all seem like no big deal. I was still being carded even though I’d been legal for years. I wished I had ordered something stronger than wine, but I didn’t want to get smashed, lose control and embarrass myself in front of Michael Morris. Even if he forgot my name he’d remember my face and I didn’t want that face splotchy and twisted with booze.
“You are of age aren’t you Lola?” Michael asked, his eyes glittering with wicked amusement.
“Ha ha,” I said wishing my drink would just arrive. I hadn’t noticed earlier but on Michael’s left eyelid he had a small mole. It kept his lid from fitting snugly back in the socket, it snagged then relented. He probably hadn’t had it as a young man, or it was smaller. I’d never noticed it in any of his jacket photos. I tried to recall the various poses he was in. Was he always facing that side away from the camera? It was amusing to think he was that vain. That he would have a “good side” he favored.
“You smoke?” he said shaking the pack with expert casualness so one cigarette poked out.
“Yes. Sure,” I lied.
He lit the cigarette for me, drawing the smoke into his lungs. He handed it to me, his fingers touching mine, the filter moist. He lit his own and inhaled. He took a drag and sat back in his chair, rubbing his thumb print slowly over the filter of the cigarette in tiny circles like he was thumbing a nipple, making soft circles over and over again after each inhale.
“You smoke grass?”
“I was getting high before you were even born.” He smiled and picked a piece of tobacco off his lip.
“So?” I said and leaned into the table a little so that the top of my blouse parted and he could see the swell of my breasts.
“So if you want to get high later I’ve got some Thai stick in the car. It’s great shit. Nothing compared to the stuff I used to smoke with Ginsberg at Berkeley, but it’s good shit. If you can handle it. I mean, if you want to,” he said sipping his drink, looking up at me from under his hooded lids. I felt as though he were testing me a little. His invitation meant this didn’t have to be just one drink. This could be more.
“Good to know,” I said, my mind conjuring up fanciful images of Michael Morris and Allen Ginsberg lounging on Indian pillows passing a hookah and rapping about Chinese poetry. “Don’t worry about me,” I said, “I can handle anything.” Why did I say that? That sounded so stupid, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to get high with him. What might I say? What might I confess?
“You know you are pretty, don’t you?” he said. “I’ll bet men give you things, don’t they? You’ve got that kind of face. The kind of face you give flowers to,” he chuckled.
He gazed into my face then pulled his chair closer to the table’s edge, as though I were a fire he was warming himself in front of, gazing at my body as I shifted anxiously in the space in front of him. I could feel the back of my neck becoming damp with perspiration. I wished I were on fire, then I could beat him back. I would be provocative, and exciting with the power to destroy him a little bit, the power to make a mark on him.
“So tell me about Lola,” he said apparently tired of just staring at my body. It wasn’t enough just to look. I was silent. It had been a long time since someone had asked me such an upfront question about myself. I didn’t know how to react. Was he just making small talk? Everything I knew about him made me believe that he was incapable of it. I had to choose carefully. I wondered, what had he and the Freedom fighter talked about? What did the young woman who chewed her lips and sat in the window seat of his office beguile him with? What did I want him to know about me? How would he use it? I stalled, “Be more specific. What do you want to know about me?”
“The Lola no one knows. The one you don’t talk about.”
“Well,” I leaned back into the deep wicker chair and slipping off my shoes tucked my feet underneath me, “What makes you think there is anything to tell? Maybe I just am, as I am.” He frowned slightly, then narrowed his eyes as if he was sizing me up. I wriggled in my seat, and grinned at him.
“Come on, just between you and me,” he said, “a pretty girl like you must have lots of stories. Come on.”
“Maybe,” I said.
The famous Michael Morris wanted something Adamesque from me. He wanted something raw, and personal—maybe even sexual—something I was ashamed of perhaps. He laced his fingers together steepling his forefingers and brought them up to his lips so that it appeared he were kissing the barrel of a gun. He wanted it right now, before I had even finished my spritzer. He was greedy. My first impulse was to tell him not about me, but about my boyfriend. How he wouldn’t perform oral sex, how he ate his food off his plate in a counter-clockwise motion, and how he didn’t remember the name of the woman he lost his virginity to. But it wasn’t mine, and I sensed that wasn’t what Michael Morris wanted. He wanted something of mine.
My blood was pounding as I lifted my wineglass. I could see my hand trembling slightly as I cupped the bowl in my hand. I might tell him anything. How much did I need to show him to whet his appetite for me?
I would be lying if I said that I hadn’t fantasized about appearing in one of his books. I imagined how he would see me. I would be younger than I truly was, my long brown hair would be chestnut and curly. He’d mention my breasts which were really nothing special, comparing them to dollops of fresh white cream. My legs, elongated, would cut through space like scissors. I would be smart, but not too smart. I would be naive. Maybe he’d widen the gap in my front teeth. He would rewrite all his parts so he was obviously the one with the upper hand, and the poetic dialogue fraught with tense and subtle metaphor. In that way I was sure he wasn’t honest. But, I would be different. Like a man, I’d have him, and I would leave him. He would put me on the page, build me beautiful paragraphs or maybe a story, and lay me back on pillows of his finest prose, but I’d live outside it. I’d live longer than he. Every time the reader entered my page I would breathe, I would move, I would reach my arms out to them. I would be alive. They’d forget his name, but my “character” would live in the readers imagination long after he was gone. I would win. He could make me immortal – if I was willing play the game.
“All right,” he said and ran his tongue over his lips. “Tell me what you’ve heard about me,” he said and smiled running his finger along the wet rim of his glass so that it sang into his palm. “Go, on. I want to know. I know you all talk about me.”
“You know what they say. Why do I need to tell you,” I said, not knowing if it was the wrong way to respond. He smiled at me and raised his eyebrow as if to concede the point. He knew what the stories were. I wondered if at some point he had stopped simply living and had started concentrating on making the myth of Michael Morris, making himself immortal.
I thought about having sex with him. He’d crush me. He’d enclose my breast in his fist, owning it, grabbing it like some golden apple. He’d spread my legs wide—after all I was young, and bury himself deep inside me like he was searching for my soul. He’d want me to wrap my legs around his head, or stand on my hands. He’d want me on top, touching myself. He’d want drama. He’d want gymnastics. He wouldn’t ask if I minded if he smoked in bed. He’d sleep deeply and with his mouth open. In the morning, after he’d showered, and taken care of his body’s needs, then he’d think about me. Good or bad? Maybe with his pen in hand, or his cock, or maybe not at all. Maybe he wouldn’t think of me at all. I’d be just one in a string of women all blurring together. Fur, and legs, and the occasional quick glass of juice or coffee, drunk over the kitchen sink as they exchanged terse pleasantries. Have you seen my necktie? Will you call me? Someone he’d remember only as long as the love bites on his neck and pelvis lasted, and even then my face would be hazy, my name and my body lost. I couldn’t stand that idea. The idea that I was to be just some twig thrown into this fire to keep it stoked.
“Have you got a lover?” he asked me running the length of his index finger back and forth across his lips.
“Sure,” I said quickly. After all I did, but I didn’t think that should pose any obstacle to us getting to know each other. In fact it might turn him on. I wasn’t sure. I could always deny it later. And I liked the way he said lover instead of boyfriend. It seemed to suggest that you might have a relationship with another person, male or female, simply for the sexual pleasure of it. No dinner in front of the TV, no talking about religion or your parents, just sex. Just great sex.
“Why isn’t he here with you tonight? Doesn’t he like my work? Or, did you lose him after the reading?” he grinned conspiratorially.
“He’s sick,” I lied.
“Would you marry him?” he asked, letting the smoke slowly crawl out of his mouth like a snake.
“Maybe,” I lied.
“If you got pregnant you’d marry him wouldn’t you? Even if you weren’t sure that you loved him.”
“No, of course not,” I said feeling my face burning with indignation and humiliation that he assumed I was the sort of woman who wouldn’t marry for love, but because of an unwanted birth. He was saying I was uptight, old fashioned, a prude.
“You can tell me,” he leaned into the table. “You could have an abortion. Would you do that?” He lit another cigarette with the still glowing tip of the last one, and stared at me as though he really expected me to answer him civilly.
“That is none of your business,” I snapped.
“I’m sorry,” he said holding his hands up to show me he meant no harm. He thought I was overreacting. “I didn’t realize it was such a touchy subject. No big deal. I just thought we were having a conversation.”
“We were talking about love not abortion,” I said.
“Right, love,” he snorted and took a long drag on his cigarette. “Liking the same foods, the same sex—that isn’t love,” he said and leaned across the table towards me. “What could you know about love? You are a child.” He made his voice soft and knowing. “I know you. As beautiful as you are, and special. I know you.” His arms encircled the table, holding onto it as if to say, this table here is all that is between us and I have it in my arms. This little thing is all that divides us from being one.
“I’m sorry about you and your wife,” I stammered trying to slow him down.
He looked solemn for an instant, then he said “I did love her, the bitch. No one wants to believe that.” He laughed, “But, that is a closed chapter.”
“That’s horrible,” I blurted out expecting him to respond, but he didn’t. “How can you say that?” I asked. He stared at me and shrugged then he said, “You want me to say it’s some way it isn’t.”
“You really hurt her. You did. How could you write all that stuff knowing it would cause her pain?” I asked him half disgusted, half curious. I didn’t want to believe he set out to damage her.
“I didn’t hurt her. She let it hurt her; that’s different,” he explained, and paused dramatically as though waiting for it to sink, as though I shouldunderstand the difference, and if I didn’t, I needed to.
He looked odd sitting deep in the highbacked white wicker chair. His eyes unblinking, his chest lurched forward and curled over the table slightly hunched like he was going to ask me for a favour, and he didn’t want anyone to hear, or he was going to beg for something horrible, something he needed to save his life and he didn’t want to have to ask. He made me feel that if I were a real woman I’d know what it was. I’d know, and because he was an artist I’d offer it.
He stood halfway up and pulled his chair around the table closer to my side. “I can’t hear you with all the noise,” he said. “I can’t hear you,” he said pressing his ear into my lips as I answered, “I’ll speak louder.” His eyes were half-closed. His head pressed up close to my shoulder. Almost resting there like some big, dangerous baby. He ordered two more drinks. I switched to Jack Daniels. He smiled as I took my first sip of it and flinched.
“I’m comfortable talking about myself, because I’m a writer,” he said wrapping his arm around the back of my chair. “You’re a writer. What do you write about?”
I struggled, I couldn’t think clearly with his body so close to mine, “Well. I don’t know. Relationships, I guess. How people are with each other.”
He shook his head. “It’s unfair that you know all about me, and all I know about you, Lola, is that you write about relationships.” He spit out the word relationships as though it were tainted. “Come on, give me a story,” he said, “you don’t know maybe I could help,” his hand squeezing my shoulder for a moment.
“I don’t think I have anything ready,” I said, fumbling with the napkin in my lap.
“No. I mean now. Tell me about your first hickey, prom, learning to ice skate. Your nose job. Losing your virginity. Tell me that one.”
“I didn’t have a nose job,” I said, laughingly defending one of my few gifts of nature.
“Come on, that perfect little nose. How much did Daddy spend? You can tell me. I won’t tell. Lots of girls get them for their sweet 16s, or their bat mitzvah.”
“It’s mine,” I said, “and I’m a Presbyterian.”
“Why are you lying to me?” he asked gruffly.
“I’m not,” I insisted, uncomfortable with the rough edge on his voice. He studied my face hard as though his eyes could burn off any deception I might attempt.
“Good,” he said sliding his hand into the top of his shirt and running his palm slowly over his chest, his fingers fluffing up the black and silver hairs.
“Why don’t you tell me about the new book …” I said trying to change the subject to something I thought he would surely be comfortable talking about, but instead his face hardened.
“They hate me,” he barked. “Reviewers. Everybody. They all hate me, especially the women. They think I’m a misogynist, because I tell it like it is. I don’t understand it. If anyone ever loved women, it is me!” He pounded his hands on the table nearly upsetting his drink. People at nearby tables murmured, inclining their heads towards each other. I imagined them whispering, “See that couple? That is the famous writer. Yes, that one. Who’s the girl? I bet they are lovers.” Their attention, coupled with the drinks made me want to light a cigarette and blow smoke out my nose. It made me want to lean over the table and kiss him hard on the mouth. A middle aged couple turned their heads pretending to look over our heads at something in the distance, but I knew it was us they were looking at. It proved his point, people were against him—against him, and now by association, me.
I sipped my whiskey. It didn’t hurt this time, but warmed my mouth and flooded my body with a pleasurable heat. He reached over and grabbed my hand. “You believe me, don’t you?” he asked, his fingers pressed into my palm. He looked younger in the candlelit darkness. It accentuated his knobbed cheekbones, and made his mouth seem thick and lush. I was beginning to surrender inches of myself to him. He caressed my palm. Then the inside of my arm up to the elbow. He traced a blue vein that ran up and disappeared into my sleeve. I shivered. I could see the soft white skin where his wedding band used to be. It looked like new white skin, as though when he had removed the ring he had worn for years, his skin had been torn off with it. This pale naked groove made him seem even more attractive to me. Overhead stars were sprinkled like tiny pins in a map showing where the bombs are buried—where soon everything would never again be like it was. He whispered in my ear, his lips moving against my lobe, “You know you are sexy,” he murmured.
“Not necessarily,” I replied shaking my head, enjoying the rattle of his words in my skull. I was stimulated by his words—You, are, sexy.
“How do you see me?” I asked, leaning towards him so he could get a better look in the candlelight. “I mean, how do I appear to you?” I pushed the hair back and away from my shoulders, holding on to a strand of it which I brushed back and forth over my lips.
He looked at me for a minute and licked his lips. “I don’t know if you really want me to tell you,” he said raising an eyebrow.
“I do,” I said and squeezed his fingers.
“Later,” he said.
I wanted him to tell me now. I did, but I knew if I said too much, if I seemed too eager, he’d make me beg for it. He was the kind of man who would like to make a woman beg. He was the kind of man who wanted to do things you’d never let another man do to your body, like it was his right. Then he’d want you to tell him how it felt. How he felt. In detail, so he owned it.
He reached out slowly and took my hair in his hands, cupping it, weighing it. Then he pressed it to his lips and kissed it. He rubbed his face in it. I tried to move my chair back a little, but my hair snagged, tangling painfully between his fingers. He dragged the knotted hair through his fingers, and I yelped. Pulling his fingers towards his mouth he tore out strands of my hair. He kissed the hair wrapped around his fingertips, and grinned slowly showing me his teeth.
“I’m going to go take a leak,” he said standing up leisurely. “Don’t you go anywhere.”
My scalp felt seared and sore. It seemed like everyone around me had started talking all at once, moving their heads in minute fractions, like they were listening to signals from the heavens emanating from those silver pin points. I rubbed my fingers against the soft indents of my temples. I believed he pulled my hair on purpose. He thought he could do whatever he wanted with me. I thought about leaving right then. Just leaving him there. I imagined him coming back to the table thinking maybe I was hiding from him, playing a little game. He’d get down on his hands and knees, get mud on his trousers looking for me. He’d get hard thinking about me half-undressed in the bushes waiting for him to discover me in the dirt. Not finding me he’d think, “That impulsive, mysterious woman has eluded me, and now I’ll never possess her.” Or, he’d think, “What a stupid little girl. Silly thing got frightened and ran away. She couldn’t even say good-bye.” I knew that was what he would think, or that was what he would make my character think if he chose to put me on the page.
I bit down hard on an ice cube, gnawing on the edges. I didn’t even hear him return to the table.
“Lola,” he said, softly prodding my ribs with his forefinger. “Lola,” he said. “Where are you?” He crossed his arms against his chest and sank down into his chair. “Are you thinking about what you’re going to tell your friends about tonight? I know how women talk. I don’t mind.” He rubbed my shoulder. “I don’t mind at all.”
“I’m here,” I said curtly. “And I don’t talk that way.” He looked a little surprised. “I’m sorry,” I said. “I’m just tired. I guess I’m fading.”
He rubbed a few strands of my hair between his fingers, “No you’re not. I can still see you. I can,” he said, gently shoving his hand up under my hair, grasping the nape of my neck with his thick fingers, “I can still feel you.” I smiled unsteadily. I wondered how he saw me. Would he tell me? Would he lie? His large hand tightened on the back of my head. “You are lovely. Did you know” he asked teasingly, “that I have a photographic memory? I remember the body of every woman I’ve ever made love to.” His hand fell to my shoulder. He ran his fingers down my arm brushing lightly against my breast, “every curve. Every muscle …” He pulled my hand to his mouth and kissed my knuckles, his tongue pressed itself between my spread fingers.
I pulled my hand away and down into my lap. Then I started to stand up. I didn’t think I could do this. Could I? What would the story be? What would my story be? There was no story. He had written this story a hundred times.
“You can’t go,” he whispered as he grabbed my wrist. “I want to make love to you. Have one more drink. We’ll go someplace. I need you.”
“I can’t,” I tried to shake my hand loose. “It’s, it’s too easy.”
His face was cold, half angry, half sad, like he didn’t know what to do. “Fine,” he said. “You disappoint me,” he said. “I thought you were different. I thought you were more than this. I thought you had something, but I guess you don’t,” he said and let out a short harsh laugh. The couple sitting one table over, stopped talking and listened for a moment. I could see the light vanishing from his eyes as though there were lamps being pulled back inside him. The front of his face was dark, and empty, and ugly. No one said anything. I was different. I would tell him something. I could tell him something he didn’t know. Something I’d never read in his books. Something he’d want, something he’d like and need. He actually looked small sitting there next to me turning his hands over and over in his lap. So I threw him a bone.
“Okay,” I said. His face softened. He opened his mouth slightly then curved his body intimately around my chair. He wanted my secret. He wanted to insure that I gave it to him, that he heard it all, and that it was for his ears alone. I sucked down the last little bit of liquor lingering there in the bottom of my glass, swallowing it like the tail end of the evening.
“I give up,” I said. I took a deep breath, and with my eyes fixed on the candle’s flame I told him this: “I’ve got lousy rhythm. I can’t slow dance. I try to lead. I’ve got to close my eyes and give myself over, literally safety-pin myself like a scarf to my partner and let him move me. I’m lousy in bed because of this. It’s true. I’m a terrible lover. I’m afraid to lose the power of being the one who’s acted upon, the passive one, the one who doesn’t risk anything except perhaps my lover’s disappointment, and I worry about that. Of course I worry about disappointing. You see I’m not like other women. I can’t become a character, I can’t forget myself and be somebody else during sex. I can only be myself, and I guess I’m not comfortable with that. That’s why I don’t want to take control, why I want to be taken. I’m afraid to straddle a man and ride him because I can’t get into any kind of rhythm and stay there. I can’t play it out, steady, steady, to the moment of ejaculation, I’ve never been able to come like that on top, I can’t stay wet. I just panic and roll on to my back even though I know I’m supposed to want it on top like that—in a position to rule, I know it’s supposed to empower me, and turn me on, but I just can’t do it. Maybe I’m just afraid that if I take control, if I am secure enough to let myself go, I might find out something about myself that I don’t want to know. If I let go, I might be consumed by my desires. I’m afraid of what I might want. What I might need. What it might do to me. Who I might become.” I blurted out all of this, my heart was pounding in my mouth. I stared down into my lap fixating on my hands laying flat and still over my sex. I couldn’t look up at him. I could feel his breath on my cheek as he leaned into my body. His breathing sounded shallow, and uneven.
“Is that true?” he asked, his voice was throaty and deep. I looked up at him. His lips were slightly parted and his pupils looked large and limpid. I had him.
“What do you think?” I said, my voice steady.
“I don’t know. Is it?” he asked pushing me to divulge more. He couldn’t stand not knowing if I was, or was not, telling him the truth, and he needed to know.
“Why would it matter?” I said, and he just looked at me, like nothing else does matter. I smiled at him, and gave him a little shrug that convinced him I wasn’t about to tell. I curled up in my chair and gazed up at the stars then back at him until he shifted his eyes to the ground. He put his hands on his knees and breathed in deeply, looking as though I had shoved him hard in chest.
“She left me,” he said lifting his head up slowly.
“I know,” I said. I didn’t want to hear the things I’ve already read—hear the things I already knew. “Everyone knows that,” I said in a disinterested tone, and took a cigarette out of his pack. He stared at me as I tapped the tobacco down into the tip, and leaning across the table lit it from the candle. His eyes looked flat and black like he wanted me to just listen to him.
“She was fucking my brother,” he said. “My only brother, who I slept in the same room with for 15 years. Thanksgiving. Hanukkah. Fucking Arbor day. Two long years I sat there, like an idiot eating their shit while they snuck off and fucked in the bathroom on holidays, fucking behind my back while I slept. My brother and my wife. It’s over they say. The fucking bastards. But, but, that’s not why she left me. She tells me, ’That’s not why I left you. I am only telling you this so you hear it from me.’ My brother he doesn’t say anything. He won’t even look at me. I hit the bastard. I beat his head in … I beat his head in and all he does is stand there and fucking sob.”
I didn’t want to look at him. His face was dripping with tears, his mouth open and ragged. I stood up and slowly slipped into my coat. “You can’t leave Michael Morris,” he cried out and grasped at my arm. He sprang to his feet and pulled out his wallet yanking out a wad of dollar bills and throwing them on the table. He grabbed my elbow. I stopped. I didn’t move. I didn’t run. I just let him keep talking. “Come on, come on, you can’t leave me. I’ve got my car here,” he pleaded. “You can’t just leave me like this baby. I’m destroyed. I’m destroyed. I need you. You can make it better,” he pulled me towards him, wrapping his arms around me, he clenched me to his chest. I could feel the coldness of his belt buckle against the back of my hand. “Come on,” he said. “Use me.”
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee