|Illustrations by Paige Imatani|
THIS IS AN UNPLEASANT STORY, SO I'LL TELL IT as quickly as possible.
When I was much younger, I went into a bar on Coronado and picked up a young couple: 30s, he was former-football-y and corporate, she was Asian-American and also corporate. Or they might have picked me up. It was hard to tell, because we were drinking a lot, except the woman, who was only drinking a little. Now that I think about it, they did broach the subject, by telling me about a swingers' party they'd attended but failed to participate in. And I said I'd never done it with more than two people in the room, which was true if it meant only two people awake in a room. Then he said, “My wife thinks you're pretty.” So that's how it happened.
We went back to their house. The drive was long, long, up the mainland coast, to a place where the residential streets curved like a jigsaw puzzle, where there were big lawns but no sidewalks, and houses that looked much smaller than they actually were. The path from the street to their front door was lighted, but we went in through the garage.
They didn't take me to their bedroom first, but into the den, which was done in wood that I thought too light for a den, and upholstery the color of poi, beige but with a tinge, as if the sofa and loveseat had been thrown in the wash with a red sock. And some large, abstract whooshes over that, in blue. I don't remember very much else about what happened in the den, and then we did go into their bedroom, which looked like a motel room, meant for strangers and strangers only. The bed had a flowered nylon bedspread, there was no dresser or any other furniture in the room, just a wet bar and a sliding glass door.
We did that thing where you try to kiss and strip at the same time. It was easier with three, because only two could kiss at any given moment, letting the third take a shoe or a shirt off. She was wearing sexy lingerie — mine wasn't too bad either, just because it never is, but she had on black stockings and a garter belt. He, of course, wore socks, and there was a moment: the two women kneeling on the bedspread, the man between them, sitting on the edge of the bed, peeling off his socks, and it was so horrifying I giggled, though I pretended it was only the cocktails.
So then we did it, mostly lesbian stuff with him reaching in and jerking off at the same time. I really wasn't into them at all, but getting out of something like that at such a late stage is next to impossible. I remember much more of what came after, because I'd sobered up some. She went into the bathroom and took a long, long time. He took the opportunity to chat me up. Strange to say, but it's true: He was hitting on me after sex, with his wife in the shower. He wanted something he hadn't got, so I just asked him flat out.
“What do you want?”
“I want you to tell me the strangest thing you've ever done.”
“Why does your wife take so long in the bathroom?” I asked.
“She's douching, then she likes a bath. She feels remote after sex. She won't be back for a while. So tell me the strangest thing you've ever done.”
“When my mother died,” I said, “we built a pyre in the back yard and laid her on it. We lit it, and as the oldest child, it was my duty to smash her skull open with a big stick. Do you know why?”
“Why?” he asked.
“Because if you don't, the heat of the fire will make the head explode. After that we took her remains down to the sea and threw them in. We hadn't bought enough wood, so there were remains, not just ashes.”
“I'd like that,” he said. He didn't believe me, of course, but my father had seen this very thing done to the dead on his travels in India. I think about that ritual every time I feel my head is going to explode all on its own, which is every couple of days.
“So would I,” I said.
I could see that he wanted to ask me for another, truer story, then he thought better of it, and told me his own.
“THERE WAS A GIRL I'D BEEN SEEING FOR A WHILE,” he began. “We had an affair, and then I decided to go back to my wife, and I stopped calling this girl at all. A couple-three years later, she called me at work, and asked me to come over. I was having a day that day, so I went over. I didn't have a care in the world.
“When I got there, she had a 9-millimeter Glock sitting on the kitchen table. Just like that. She sat there, in her robe and socks, her face broken out. She told me very calmly that she'd decided to kill herself, because of a lot of things, none of which had to do with me. We talked for a while, and she seemed lucid. I started trying to talk her out of it, but a certain amount of it couldn't be argued away. Unless you believed flat out that killing yourself wasn't right, which I didn't.
“Then her face lit up. She said she had a proposal for me. She knew I was interested in the extremes of experience, and that one extreme that could almost never be had safely, by a normal person outside of wartime, was the experience of killing someone. Since the question of whether or not she was going to die by a gunshot wound to the heart was moot, there existed the unique opportunity for me to be the one to pull the trigger. She wanted me to shoot her. For her, it would mean that she didn't have to die alone. It would still be suicide, absolutely, she said, but it would make her death an intimate experience, the most intimate experience of our lives.
“She had a plan. We would drive up to the Angeles National Forest, to the spot she wanted, where she would dig a shallow grave. Then she would lie in it, and I would put the gun to her chest and pull the trigger. I would leave her there with her own gun. She would likely never be found, and if she was, no one would ever think of me, since I had no motive and hadn't seen her in years.
“I could see that she trusted me in proposing this scenario, and I felt I owed it to her to trust her sincerity. I thought about it, and about all the things women had asked me for in the past, some of which I had tried to give them. I began to catch some of the suicide's lucidity, and the thing started to look like the perfect relationship: a nice drive, an afternoon in the forest with this terrific woman — because she was pretty terrific always, and still was — then this act. When I started to think about what I might feel driving home, I was committed.
“I sat on her bed drinking coffee and watched her pull clothes from the closet, discarding one shirt that had no button, choosing another. Her body always looked nice without any kind of exercise, but it was like watching someone you've lived with for a long time get dressed in the morning — no desire, only approval. I picked up a magazine on her nightstand that I'd already read, and we talked about an article on Robert Mitchum, and we both laughed when I read the best quotes back to her. She settled on jeans and a blue plaid work shirt.
“We didn't talk on the drive. She had her feet on the dash, and the shadows of trees slashed over her ankles. She smiled occasionally, but didn't seem lost in thought. She told me to turn onto a dirt fire road, which we followed to its end. When I stopped the car, she told me what she'd purposefully left out: It's a five-mile hike, all uphill.
“So we walked the five miles up, on a trail at first, over a pass, around another hill, then we headed cross-country over a ridge, to a spot out of sight from any road or footpath. The site she'd chosen was a shallow dip in the side of a hill, clear of any spring runoffs. I watched her dig, and never felt that she wanted me to stop her. I wouldn't say that what I felt was love, but it was very free, the freest I've ever felt with another person. I did wonder, why the grave? But it was what she wanted.
“When she was done, we sat together and shared a cigarette. Then she pulled the Glock from the waist of her jeans and a pair of rubber gloves from her back pocket. She watched me put on the gloves, then held my hands and positioned the gun over her chest, demonstrating the angle. She climbed into the hole, lay down on her back and looked up. In her plaid shirt she looked like an Egyptian pharaoh dressed as a lumberjack.
“I tried kneeling beside the grave, then straddling it, accidentally pulling her hair with the ball of my hand as I swung over. She yelped, and I apologized, then she laughed kindly.
“In the end I climbed down into the grave, knelt on her stomach and hips and held the gun to her chest. The whole time I was settling myself, she looked at the sky. But then she laid her hands lightly over mine, and looked at me, and I pulled the trigger.”
HE HAD BEEN LYING NEXT TO ME VERY still while he told the story. Now he sat up on one elbow, his face over mine. He kissed me, then stroked my hair a little.
“What do you want?” I asked again.
“I want to choke you with my hands while I fuck you. It will leave bruises, but it will feel good. Will you let me do that?”
I nodded. And that is what he was doing when his wife walked in wearing a terrycloth robe. She stopped short at the sight of his hunched back. Evidently, she didn't expect that he'd be fucking me while she wasn't there.
I made a kind of involuntary squeak.
At first he didn't notice her in the room, then she made a noise and he did, but he didn't stop what he was doing.
She opened her mouth to shout, then her face changed color as she saw what he was doing to me with his hands, and the shout ratcheted up into a scream like a siren. Her body flew across the room, arms and legs splayed out, leaping on him like a cat.
The bed made a huge dip as she landed on him, screaming and clawing and crying. I thought she was jealous, but it wasn't that. She thought he was committing a murder, and she was trying to pull him off me. She was trying to save my life. At that moment, she was all mine.
He just kept going, fucking me harder and ignoring her even when she tore a chunk off his ear with her acrylic nails. So this is what it's about, I thought. We're doing it to her.
His hands on my neck grew tighter and tighter, just right, while she screamed and clawed and bit and sobbed, and drew blood. He found a rhythm in the mayhem. I could hear and see the wife in my peripheral vision. My god, I thought, what did this woman want?
I kept my eyes on his until I started to come. He squeezed my throat until I saw stars, and felt the rush, and then he came, and it was over. I remember her sobbing on the floor, then him trying to touch her shoulder, her flinching, then looking at me, not knowing what I was. Whatever she saw in my face made her gulp down a big sob and run out of the room.
He rolled onto his back, threw his arm over his forehead, and sighed, a man both sated and defeated. I picked up my clothes, put them half-on in a hurry, and got the hell out of their house.
I crashed in a back yard down the street, curling up on the puffy vinyl cushion of a lawn chair and smelling the eucalyptus trees.
Crack of dawn, only a couple of hours later, I woke up sore and headachy. I'd got blood on me, too, all up my arm, which the dew against the vinyl had turned into a watermark. I knelt by the swimming pool and washed the blood off, splashing my face and rubbing under my eyes in case they were raccoon-ringed with mascara. Then I crept down the side yard and into the street. I chose downhill instead of up, as it seemed more likely to lead out of this enclave. The asphalt was very dark, very rough, oily and new, not meant to be walked on in Sabrina-heeled mules.
I remembered getting dressed to “go out” the previous evening, already a little lit from a glass of wine, taking off the dress I'd squeezed into and putting on my polka-dot satin capris and a tight striped sailor tee, and the little green satin heels that are sexier dressed down than with a tight dress. Now, I smelled like the barn at a horse-breeding farm, like boozy sweat, semen, blood and reactivated dry-cleaning fluid. Jammed into my wobbly shoes on the downhill trudge, the knuckles of my toes hurt, and my thigh muscles were starting to twitch up and down like needles in a sewing machine. The pain was the only thing that kept me from rising up in a beam of light and floating away through the upper atmosphere to heavenly paradise, and I had silly, burgeoning feelings of love for the ivy and the marigolds and the bumpers of late-model cars parked in the driveways along my path.
I came to a fork and bore right. I was starting to feel a wave rise up under my lungs, over and over. Dry heaves. My shoulders followed, with an involuntary rolling motion. Down the block, I saw a nurse get out of a beige Cadillac Eldorado parked in the driveway of a low, brick-fronted ranch house. Her white uniform gleamed in the morning sun, and a garden hose curled at her feet like a snake. She was stocky and middle-aged, and — I saw as I staggered toward her shouting, “Excuse me! Excuse me!” — of a hostile nature.
“Yes?” she said, meaning the exact opposite.
“I wonder if you could call me a cab? I've had some trouble and I can't get . . .”
“I think you'd better find someone else,” she said, turning toward the house. She was carrying a white prescription bag.
“There isn't anyone else,” I said. “I just need a cab, that's all.”
She stopped to bar me from the front stoop and looked at my satin pants. “No cab is going to pick you up in this neighborhood.”
Just then the front door opened, and a frail, elderly lady stood there. She was dressed in a smooth black skirt and a cream-colored twinset, pearls at her neck and ears, hair in a set do. “What's this?” she said.
“It's nothing,” the nurse said.
“I've had an accident,” I said to the old woman, “and I need . . .”
“Have her come in,” the old woman said, in a tone so calm and easy it was clear she never had to say anything twice. I wondered what that must be like, only having to say something once.
I followed the elderly woman into a pale-blue living room a step down from the tiled entryway. The room was enormous, you could swim laps in the carpet if it were liquid. The furniture matched the old lady.
“Please sit down,” she said.
I sat. She sat across from me.
“I've had an accident,” I said. “I just need to call a taxi, that's all.”
“Have you enough money for a taxi?” she asked.
“I don't think so,” I said, wondering why this was relevant. That particular problem seemed a long way off at the moment.
“Ah,” she said, nodding. I was looking around for a little dog, because I smelled one. The nurse reappeared with a glass of water and some red-and-white capsules on a saucer, handed it to the old woman. “Thank you,” she said. “Can you make some milk toast for the young lady? With salt and pepper.”
I didn't say anything at all, watching her swallow the medicine.
“You're in shock,” the old woman said. “You must have something to eat, rest for a while, and then we'll see.”
I started to open my mouth, and she stopped me. “I don't know the answer to any of your questions. That's why I said, 'We'll see.'” She smiled with an expression of understanding, though of what, exactly, was unclear.
I ate the milk toast in the blue-and-white breakfast nook. It was limp and sweet, and the grains of salt and pepper were like little exploding stars in my mouth. I still had trouble breathing, and I was staring at my plate trying to remember how to do it. How do you breathe? How does skin work? What am I doing that holds it tight, and what happens if I forget and stop? How do I remember to do these things all at one time?
A small gray muzzled poodle was staring at me and agitating near my leg.
The old woman came through the kitchen. “Your room is ready,” she said.
I followed her.
The room was in the back of the house, small but full of delicate things on shelves behind glass, a couple of comfy, wing-back chairs beside the bed, which was very high and deep, with pale, blue-flowered pillows. A gauze-draped window looked out on a garden. On the nightstand was another tumbler of water on a saucer, and two capsules. The old woman pulled some heavy drapes to block out the sun. A filmy polyester nightie was draped over the foot of the bed. She left the room while I changed into it, then came back and tucked me in, handing me the capsules.
“You need rest,” she said. “You've had a great shock. This will do you.”
I felt the bed spin around as I lay down on it. I wanted to spend the rest of my life in it. I slept. I woke up, and the old woman was there by my bed in a wing-back chair. She gave me two more capsules, and I fell asleep again. I woke up again, and she wasn't there. The third time I woke up, she was there again, asleep, a thick novel open and resting on her frail chest. I closed my eyes.
I DON'T KNOW HOW LONG IT WAS before I opened my eyes again. I could see a sliver of sun shining through a crack in the drapes. It filled me with a sense of urgency, but I couldn't move. A long time passed while I looked at the shaft of light. I thought about living my life, then fell into a familiar sex fantasy I lifted off a porno rental. In it, two French foreign-exchange students drift onto an American construction site, where they fall into a round of group sex with the construction workers. Sometimes I'm one of the girls, sometimes I'm one of the guys. Sometimes I'm watching. It seemed as real as I was, which was not very. Thinner than a dream, or a memory.
Eventually, the nurse came in, her face passive. She peeled back the covers and helped me up. My limbs felt numb. She helped me to the bathroom, and back to bed. She gave me some more capsules, saying nothing.
As the pills kicked in, I considered that I might be kidnapped, that I might never leave. Leaving in any capacity seemed remote, and undesirable. Then again, staying seemed so too. Sleep took over.
Then it was night, a lamp was lit near the bed, and the old woman was back in the chair. The nurse brought a tray, with a bowl of broth and some toast. I was hungry.
“How long have I been here?” I asked.
“Oh, a couple of days,” the old woman said with a faint wave of her hand. “I lose track of time, the way I live.”
I looked at her. She was shaking slightly, like her poodle, but didn't appear to notice.
“I thought about what you might be missing,” she said. “A wedding? A death? Picking a child up from school?”
I shook my head.
She smiled. “I decided it was worth the risk. I simply felt that if I let you go, in the state you were in, you might never recover from the thing that happened to you.”
I lay back, exhausted. “Thank you,” I said. “I'm going to fall asleep again.”
“That's fine,” she said, removing the tray. “When you wake up, you will be all right again.”
I wondered if anyone recovers from anything, really. I'd never been raped, but I thought about it all the time, and it turned me on. How did you recover from things that didn't happen to you? I wanted to ask the old woman, but I was too tired to speak. She held my tray on her lap and rang a crystal bell. The nurse came and took the tray away. Then the old woman smoothed my forehead and left.
I dreamed a variation on Munchkin Land, where a wee little lass came to the door of your teacup every morning and gave you the day in the form of an egg, which would by the end of the day hatch into something you didn't want. The insult brigade came by and kicked you in the shin. The liars came after that and posed an interesting philosophical question. Then the adulterers came and led you away to a shortcut through the field of poppies, where the fact that no one loved you suddenly came as a relief.
IN THE MORNING — A MORNING — the old woman brought me scrambled eggs, toast, corned-beef hash from a can, and black coffee. Then I took a long shower and brushed my teeth with a new toothbrush. Back in my room, I saw that she'd laid out some of her old clothes for me: a cotton dress from the '50s with a Peter Pan collar, smelling very fresh and good, a pink cashmere sweater that was clean but did not smell fresh, and my own bra and panties. For shoes, some house slippers, which my heels overhung by a good inch.
I shuffled into the kitchen, stretching, and found the nurse washing my breakfast dishes. “You can wait in the garden,” she said.
Outside, I sat on an iron settee, then thought better of it and sat on the grass, doing some stretches, feeling blood move. The air smelled sweet. No pool, but a corner fountain with a praying virgin nested in a seashell alcove. I felt the urge to kneel, so I did, and my heart opened. My eyes filled with tears. “Thank you,” I whispered.
“I'm not Catholic,” the old lady said behind me, the dog prancing around her feet. “I just liked her when I saw her in the garden shop. Are you Catholic?”
I turned and smiled, embarrassed, shaking my head. “No, I'm not anything. Not that I know of.”
“Just sentimental then,” she said.
“I guess so,” I said. Nothing, I thought, could be further from the truth.
“We'll drive you home now,” she said brightly, “if you're ready.”
The nurse drove the Cadillac, the old woman in the passenger seat, and I sat in the back like a child being driven to church. “It's Sunday,” the old woman said. “If that matters. I noticed today because the paper was thicker. Do you do the crossword?”
Had I been gone a whole week?
“No,” I said. “My mother used to do them though.”
“You should take it up,” she said. “It's very soothing at times. Takes you out of yourself.” She looked out the car window. “But so many things do.”
I gave directions as soon as I recognized where we were, and it wasn't long before the nurse was wheeling the Eldorado into the driveway of the house where I rented a garage apartment.
“I'd like you to come up,” I said. “Just for a moment. I want you to see where I live.” I'd been growing anxious that she'd refuse, but the old woman heard the pointed note in my voice, gave a nod, and I helped her out of the car.
The steps up to my place are flimsy and creaky, and she put her whole weight on my forearm, walking a step ahead of me. I unlocked the door and let us into the musty room.
She took a turn around, then stopped next to the sofa. She was winded from the climb. I crossed the threshold and stood there, too, looking at the old woman in my apartment: behind her on the coffee table, my lipsticked wineglass, and through the open door of the bedroom, on the floor, the dress I had decided not to wear. She was in the foreground, her purse over her arm, her sweater held over her quavering shoulders by a coppery maple-leaf sweater clip.
She looked at the room, briefly, and without assessment, as if it didn't matter, or wouldn't very soon.
“You're starting over now,” she said, appraising me. I was, after all, standing there in her clothes. “It's good.”
I stalled — I didn't want her to go. “But what do I want?” I asked. “This time?”
“What did you want the last time?” She shook a little harder, I thought, then laughed abruptly, a guffaw, like she probably used to make when she was young and flirting over a fence or something. Then her expression sobered. “What do I want? What a useless question,” she barked irritably. “Don't ever ask it again. Of yourself or anyone else.”
I was taken aback. “I won't.”
She smiled. “Goodbye, dear,” she said. She gave my arm a pat, and my forehead a last feel. “Good,” she said. “Goodbye.”
I watched her go down the steps, leaning on the rickety rail and taking them sideways. She waved me away. “No, don't come down,” she said. “I like leaving you here.” And she tottered off. The nurse helped her into the Cadillac, and they drove away.
I turned back, went inside, and sat down. I looked at my apartment. I put on shorts and drove down to the harbor, where I ran six miles, so that I had blisters even on the soles of my feet for days.
Slowly, I took the old woman's advice. And I can now say, looking back, that since then, I have never wanted.
I SEE NOW THAT I HAVEN'T TOLD THIS unpleasant story quickly at all, but maybe as quickly as is ultimately possible.
Hillary Johnson is the author of Physical Culture: A Novel and the nonfiction collection Super Vixens' Dymaxion Lounge.