Authors: Laura Kasischke
“Leila,” he said softly afterward, “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to go that far.” His head was on my shoulder and I could feel tears squeeze out of his eyes onto my bare skin. “I wanted to wait until we were married,” he said.
I wanted to laugh but said, instead, “It’s fine.”
“Did it hurt?” he asked.
Maybe then I did laugh. I said, “No.” I hadn’t felt anything at all, and he seemed puzzled, but relieved.
After that, Rick seemed to feel we
married, but also that we shouldn’t have sex again until we were. He talked to me in whispers when he drove me home from school about how we weren’t virgins anymore, and I realized he’d thought I’d been one until then. It made me feel smug, safe. His eyes looked round and dumb when he fixed them on mine. It made me feel loved, the way a bad cat is loved by a lonely old woman. It knows it can scratch up the furniture, piss on the rug, and nothing is ever its fault. I liked the idea of that, liked to let him touch my breasts until he shook all over, and then I’d look into his eyes to see how clouded over with modesty and self-restraint they were. A boy on a diet. A priest. He could’ve done anything he wanted, and he knew that, but wouldn’t. He treated me the way his mother treated him—a fading beauty queen with a crush on something too fabulous to last. There were times I thought I might love him, too, because Rick was tongue-tied, slow, and dull as love itself. I’d search around my chest sometimes at night before I fell asleep, feeling for my heart, but there was never anything there.
The phone kept ringing. I picked up the inside line, which sputtered a red light like an ambulance flasher.
“Office,” I said, annoyed.
“Yeah. Hi. I’m in 22. Is this the girl I met yesterday?”
It was the man with the maroon suitcase. He was still there. Millie hadn’t bothered to write that in the guest book either.
“It is,” I said.
“I’d like to see you again.”
I rolled my eyes at the tone of his voice. He sounded like a bad actor playing the part of an ugly, romantic man. I said, “Well, it’s going to be eighty dollars this time.”
There was a pause. Maybe he was looking in his wallet. “No problem,” he said. “When?”
“Give me half an hour,” I said.
He said, “See you then.”
I put the phone down and picked it right up again, dialed my own familiar phone number. “Rick?” I asked when he answered the phone.
“Leila? Where the hell were you? I looked all over. I was worried.”
“I guess I was around back smoking a cigarette,” I said.
“I looked there.” It wasn’t an accusation. He simply sounded confused.
“You couldn’t have,” I said. “That was the only place I went except the bathroom. How long did you wait?”
“I could only stand around about ten minutes. Dad was waiting for me in the car. We did a repair job this afternoon in Ottawa.”
“Hmm,” I said, as if I were the one with a reason to be suspicious.
“I didn’t want to say anything to my dad about you not being there. I just wanted to give you your lunch and say hi.” Silence, then Rick cleared his throat and said, “I’m sorry we argued last night.”
“It’s O.K.,” I said.
“I’m just, you know, tired of being nagged.”
I touched my throat. This was the different Rick again. Even his voice was lower, and I stood up a little straighter when he said it. A little surprised. A baby hand of fear and thrill with a few ragged fingernails tickled behind my ribs. The way a big storm announces itself with monotonous blue skies for days.
“Thanks for the lunch,” I offered. “Rick, someone just pulled up. I have to go. I’ll call you back a little later, O.K.?”
“Sure,” he said. “Good-bye.”
His room was a mess. The maroon suitcase was still open on the floor. The bed wasn’t made, and it looked slept in. A white towel was wadded on the only chair.
“Didn’t you get maid service this morning?” I asked.
“I was sleeping,” he said. “I told her to go away.”
“Oh,” I said. I took the bills from his hand, slipped them into my shoe.
Our “maid service” was Mrs. Briggs’s daughter-in-law—a fat, damp-white woman who might have been any age over twenty-five, who smoked cigarettes and drank Coke until she coughed up a phlegmy syrup, spitting it over the railing onto the parking lot while she wheeled a stainless steel cart of sheets and plastic garbage bags full of clean or dirty linen slowly from room to room. If someone was asleep when she came by, if the
DO NOT DISTURB
sign was hanging on the door knob, she never bothered to come back, and almost no one ever complained. Some mornings she’d spend hours in a clean and vacant room watching
The Dating Game
, emerging later with a pink feather duster raised in one hand like an exotic, captured bird.
I said, “I thought you were only going to stay one night.”
He came toward me then, bolder than he had been the day before. Still in the same white T-shirt, though. Same blue slacks. “I stayed for this,” he said, pulling my pink knit sweater out of my jeans, yanking it up to my shoulders.
I raised my arms and let him slip the sweater up. He trembled trying to unsnap my bra in the back, so I did it for him. He was breathing hard. I stood with my arms at my sides. His fingers were small and cold. Clammy palms. He made little sucking sounds and groaned when he took the nipples in his mouth. After what seemed like long enough for eighty dollars, I knelt down and unzipped him, and when it was over, he sat down hard on the edge of the bed with his mouth open. His lips, shiny and wet. I didn’t say anything while I put my bra and sweater back on, or when I left.
Gary W. Jensen was leaning against the hood of his car when I stepped out of 22. He was smoking a cigarette, looking down at his blond boots. I walked by him without speaking, but he grabbed my elbow in his hands. Lightly, but I stopped.
“Jesus,” he said and bit the inside of his lower lip, shaking his head. “Sweetheart,” he said, still looking at the boots. Then he looked up at me. “How often’re you doin’ this anyway?”
I let a moment pass while I tried to decide how to speak to him. He wasn’t as easy as the man with the maroon suitcase in 22. I liked his boots and jeans, his easy laugh. He reminded me of a happy con man, the kind you cheer for in the movies—slick, but tenderhearted, with a sense of humor about his own, inevitable death. I’d felt small and clumsy the second time in Gary Jensen’s bed. Naked, I thought I looked skinny and uncooked under his solid body, a piece of white fish on a white plate, and nothing to eat with it.
But he’d been shaking, touching me, cooing about
so beautiful, so beautiful
. And it was hard to keep my eyes open. I’d gotten used to being treated like a plaster statue by then, and didn’t mind. Just my body, I thought, you can do whatever you want. I’d gotten used to treating the men themselves as if they’d hired me to complete a menial domestic chore, one they’d started themselves and hadn’t had time to finish—their couch spot-cleaned, their knickknacks dusted and rearranged.
But this was different. Gary Jensen had been trying to please me—circling, kissing. He wouldn’t let me take him in my mouth. He wanted to rub my back instead, which made the inside of my skin feel like static—an electric crackling along my spine beneath his hands, red sparks snapping from my nerves. He said
, but I couldn’t. He wanted to touch my hair, get on his knees between my legs.
His body was thin, but his skin was smooth. A feather-ridge of dark hair at his breastbone, as if there had once been wings, as if they’d been surgically removed. He moved his face down to my stomach, and the whiskers felt like a small fire there. I touched the top of his head, where the hair was thin, and I felt how soft it was, like a child’s. He begged me to let him kiss me there, and I imagined he was trying too hard to make up for hitting me the day before, that now he felt he owed me the way I felt I’d owed him for the money I’d slipped into my shoe, and, therefore, didn’t fight back when he hit me. So I let him, and he never even came, just tongued and touched me until I couldn’t stand it anymore, coming under his warm mouth.
Afterward, he kissed me over and over on the ear while I tried to catch my breath. Smiling, he said he was done, that’s all he’d wanted to do, and I put my clothes back on. Maybe it had felt good, that attention, I wasn’t entirely sure, but walking back down the concrete steps from his room, I’d felt crushed and numb where he’d tasted my heartbeat between my legs. Foolish and defeated, like a kid. I felt like a child who’d asked for a toy my parents couldn’t afford to buy, and they’d bought it for me anyway:
What you want for yourself, and what you dread being given.
“Huh? How often?” He nudged me, squeezing my elbow. Not hard, but I looked up.
“I’d have to say that’s none of your business,” I said. Then I moved my leg between his legs, my light blue jeans against his dark blue ones, and I pressed my knee into his. “Unless you’re saying you’d like to do it again,” I said.
He threw his cigarette into the rock garden, and a thin string of smoke rose from the ruined petunias, wadded as they were now, like used tissue, facedown and done. He took his hand off my elbow and slipped his arm around my waist, pulling me into him. Kissing my ear. “Yeah,” he said into my hair, “I want to do it again.”
22 opened then. Someone looked out from a dark split in the doorway, a man with small bird eyes, and shut the door again.
,” my mother says to my father.
They are at the kitchen table, a scattering of empty envelopes between them.
My mother turns her palms up on the envelopes and says, again, “Look. We know Andy will lend us the money. And he’s got it. If you won’t ask him, I will.”
My father is looking into the checkbook ledger as if he’s lost something in it. He says nothing, but he swallows.
A drift of snow has leaned against our kitchen window, and in the February twilight, as blank and white as cold bath water, the snow appears to be the sky. Heat rises from the register, scratching •—a dry wool sweater over my face, and I stand with bare feet on the black grill of it, burning and frozen at the same time.
I look out the window, over the snowdrift and through the condensation on the other side of the glass, and through it I can see into our neighbors’ fenced back yard to where a long brown rabbit is tied by its foot to the low branch of a tree: a cherry tree. In the spring that tree will be bright and fluttered as a hundred doves, and then, in summer, the blossoms will turn to tough red gems of blood.
There’s blood under the hung rabbit now—a splash of black in the snow. I watch the rabbit swing back and forth in the wind, closed mouth, its ears still pressed back against its head, defying gravity, or listening intently to the dark. The short gusts of wind nudge the rabbit’s form forward like the quick breaths of a woman dying or giving birth in the pause between two, blizzards.
“Jeez,” my father says. “I hate to take all this money from my brother.”
There’s silence and, in it, my mother seems to roll her eyes at the white ceiling over our heads. My father doesn’t notice. There’s an angry rash underneath his chin where he daily shaves the dark whiskers away and washes them down the drain. His hair is too short, cut too close to the scalp, to tell if it’s still black or gray.
“But there just isn’t any other way,” he says and clears his throat, “and anyway, next month.” Then he lifts one shoulder in a shrug, as if a bird has landed there and surprised him, as if someone not entirely unexpected has come up behind him and stuck a gun against his ribs.
My mother lights a cigarette. She’s wearing a tight tan sweater and a black skirt. Her legs are long and crossed under the table—high heels, black nylons. She’ll say she’s going to choir practice that night, but practice has already been canceled because of the weather and, hours later, when my father phones the church, worried, the sky will be blood blue, and the janitor there will tell him it was all called off hours and hours ago.
But now my mother goes into the bedroom, stands at her dresser and dabs violet water on her wrists before she puts her camel’s hair coat on and leaves. I watch her skate away over the ice, over a crust of snow in those black heels to the car. Behind her, in the hall outside their bedroom, a pillar of violet water rises and diffuses with the furnace dust. Outside, an animal cries, shrill and tinny, at the frozen garbage in the frozen garbage can.
I go to bed early, listen to the wind and to the sound of tires crunching over deep, packed snow.
Kissing my hair, he said again, “Yeah, I want to do it some more.”
I leaned in, circled my tongue quickly in his ear, and it tasted sweet, like sweat, a husk, and whispered, “Eighty will be enough. Does that sound good?”
“Better than good,” he breathed, lips open against my neck.
“Well,” I said, stepping out of his arms, and I laughed. “We can’t do it here.”
He laughed, too. “No, darlin’. You’re right about that.”