Today my horoscope told me that I would soon be granted a guide, someone in my present that would teach me how to use my past to unlock my future. I usually skip over the horoscope to get to the personals. But of course in times of loss, the faithful turn to God, even if they have lost him, and the faithless turn to the horoscope page.
My mother passed away yesterday; I am unsure of exactly when. She was in the hospital, though she would have wanted to die at home. Her death was expected, as she'd been rendered comatose by a stroke. That was the unexpected part; that stroke. A twitch and a jerk and all of a sudden she was limp and lifeless; I am given only a twitch and a jerk and an arterial blockage that I cannot even see.
Maybe she summoned the coma herself to punish me for not visiting often enough. It's a horrible thought, I know, but I've had trouble banishing it. Somehow she discovered the way to clot her blood or squeeze her arteries shut, maybe years and years of passive-aggressive training allows you to control new muscles. Perhaps it's like training your ears to wiggle.
We both had too strong a fascination with martyrdom. We both spent so much time searching out the people to destroy us. Or maybe I searched, and she just took the people around her and wrote them into the role.
Yesterday the doctors unplugged the machines that had been keeping her alive. She died soon after, without so much as a change of face to say goodbye, or maybe a nod of forgiveness. But I would have done the same, I suppose, given myself as a son. I ran away from this home, from this valley where we have lived for so many generations, using college as the excuse. And now, what has happened? Now, for the time being, I have moved back home. I'm staying in her old house; I flew down after the coma, and when she didn't come out of it for two weeks I called up my school and withdrew for the rest of the semester. She did it; she got me back.
My uncle Harry took me out drinking tonight to commiserate her passing. At first I said I didn't want to go and turned him down, not thinking it a very proper reaction to the loss of my mother. He persuaded me to come along eventually; we stayed out until three in the morning.
"Nadine didn't want to stay a zombie," Harry shouted across to me. Arms and elbows and backs of heads surrounded him on all sides, shifting and swaying and always threatening impact. He bent over our little table in order to get close enough to my ear to be heard. "You know she was always afraid of that," he said. It took me a split-second to identify 'Nadine' with 'Mom.' Of course, her name was Nadine. It's funny how rarely you think of your mother by her first name, and how foreign that sounds. Harry called her Nadine out of habit; they were raised calling eachother Nadine and Harry, not 'Sissy' or 'Sis' or 'Bro' or any of those silly nicknames. Harry was my age; my grandmother became pregnant with him nearly twenty years after my mother, but by a new father, though he skipped out just as quickly as the first one had. That pattern was repeated when I was born. My father was gone before the pregnancy test had even been bought.
"Yes," I replied. "I know she wanted the machine to be unplugged." She had made that point clear. If she looked dead, she said she might as well be dead. She wrote that down, she told me more than once. It was in her file cabinet in case someone needed proof.
"But I have to say it's not an okay thing to do, what she did. As a Catholic." Harry looked out the corner of his eye as he said it to me. His feet were flopping on the floor, tip-tapping in double time to the music.
She was Catholic? I almost asked. Yes, she was, at least when her mother was still alive. I never had to breathe a whiff of religion growing up. Harry, however, could summon the body of Christ from a Saltine. My mother spoke to me once of sacraments, how tacky she thought sacraments were. Like the tokens for a fast-food game, collect them all to win.
"But I did it," I said. "I was the one who told the hospital to do it."
"Well if you get official about it, the doctors did it, and you know that doctors are never pious. But she asked it to be done."
He was drinking wine, which, in the dim light of the bar, looked thick and dark as cinder. "You would have let her suffer, wouldn't you?"
"Well it wasn't suffering. It was coma." Harry's fingers rubbed at the insides of his eyes, hard enough to leave red marks on the skin. "And no, I don't think I could have left her. I would have done the same." He took a sip of his wine and then looked to me with a puckish expression. "Y'know," he said, "this is an inappropriate time to say so, but situations like this always remind me of that one story you told me once."
"Situations like what?" I pulled my face in closer to his, trying to scoot my chair in but accidentally jostling someone behind me instead. I heard mumbled apologies and knew that I had just made someone spill their drink.
Harry smiled meekly. "Not, um... well, not about Nadine. But bars."
"When I'm in a place like this, where it's so crowded, I always think about that story you told me, the one about the school bus, where you fought your way out."
"Harry, I never actually did that."
"I know. I know." He turned his head again, smiling nervously. "All those stories you used to tell me," he said, sipping from his wine and saying nothing more.
When we left, the bar was still quite crowded. I got in my car and drove away as Harry fumbled for his keys, not realizing that I should have asked him if he was okay to drive until he was already far out of sight. My mother's house was forty minutes out of town; the last thing I wanted to do was add more time to that. The black of the sky was beginning to lift, and I knew sunrise would come soon.
The road back to my mother's house was one that showed its past horrors -- its skid marks, its road kills, its fraying flaps of blown-out tires -- like scars. It stayed two lanes the entire way, and though the speed limit signs read 45, no one drove under 60 there. The mice and the rabbits never stood a chance against that.
I thought about that; how easy it is to drive over the back of an animal. I would never go out of my way to squish a rabbit; I would never go out jogging one morning and try to step on them, for example. Though my old friend David would have, and did. But David had died years ago; he was the first person close to me whom I'd ever lost, and him to coma as well. I had left this little town with a surrender to death, and another surrender now marked my return.
It was 11:00 PM; I still had a good twenty minutes of driving left before I reached my mother's home. The leaves were off the trees, and the naked branches waved like craggy metronomes. I turned a corner, and the moth, a large and alien gypsy moth, crashed into my windshield. Yellow fluid shot from its body and flowed across the glass. I hit my wipers to sweep it away, but the struggling creature, obviously still alive, stuck to it, and the unfeeling wiper drug it again and again over the cold glass. I pulled to the side of the road and turned the wipers off.
On The Bus
The story I'd told to Harry was of a game I used to play on the school bus, when he and I were in Junior High; it was a grizzly thing, a creature of a twelve-year-old's mind to be sure. Everyone one the bus sat with their eyes out the window, their heads set to avoid the contact of others' eyes, silently tossing and bumping in unison over the poorly-paved stretches of street. I remember finding it infuriating.
So I would choose two of them at random, sometimes three, and imagine them screwing. Not just a screw to pass the time, but the howling, legs-in-the-air screwing that the neighbors can hear, the type that disrupts the flow of things no matter how privately it's done. My favorite girl to use was Laura, because she was big and very shy, and I always knew that she could arch and wail and scream, that she had been storing it up for her thirteen repressed years. I'd have her on top of Wayne Mackill, the slow kid that many of the popular boys had befriended, or often in a threesome with Tiffie Hurt and her best friend Aimee, because I knew in my heart of hearts that the two of them had already done most of the stuff I'd imagined them doing.
At that point another player would enter the game, and it was usually Joey Tallup or Sloan Anders, as the jealous lover. Joey or Sloan would walk on to the bus, see Laura's head rocking rhythmically, and scream out in fury. Everyone else aboard would avert their eyes, stiffen with fear. A challenge would be issued, a fight would begin, and someone would end up getting offed by the end, usually in as horiffic a manner as possible. Laura would stab Joey to death with the house key around her neck, or Joey would hold Wayne out the bus window by his ankles, dragging his head along the pavement. Sometimes I could figure out ways to get rid of all of them, and then the others on the bus would walk over, row by row, and vent their own hatreds, start kicking and punching at the dead lovers, then at eachother, until everyone aboard was rolling through the passionate chaos. Once or twice, I put myself in the fantasy. For some reason, I always ended up with Sloan on top of me, smacking my face and punching me in the stomach, his lips curled and his eyes squinting.
Harry took the same bus I did, and at lunch I would always tell him of the scenarios I'd imagined. They sometimes included him, often as the cruelest one, the one who continues hitting after the other is knocked down, hitting and kicking and screaming. Harry would blush when I told him, or look revolted, and would often tell me, "Honestly, you're just going to crack one day and take us all down with you." But afterwards he would smile, a smile of reconciliation, I used to think. But in a few years I learned what was really in the meat of it. Please, his smile would say to me, please tell me another story.
I spoke to him once of the horrible things my friend David (the cruel one) used to do to bugs. David went beyond the usual cruelties, the plucking of wings, the incineration by magnifying glass, the little horrors that everyone had committed. Once I remember him stealing a battery from his mother's kitchen junk drawer and pounding it on a rock until the acid started to drip from it. He told me to find a grasshopper; I held its feet to the ground, and David dripped the acid upon it. Its green fluids flowed with the battery acid, and the bug's violent kicks became slower, more erratic, and the look of the little creature could only be described as ecstatic.
"Ecstatic?" Harry asked me dubiously. "Do grasshoppers really ever feel ecstatic?"
"Yes," I said. "Absolutely."
Its whole body would pitch back, I told him. Its jaw would open, and both to David and myself it was quite clear that the little creature was feeling something much more powerful than pain. We didn't have the words for it at the time, but that moment we knew to be a threshold, a place bigger than we could understand.
Harry would cringe at the description of the bug; I would try to tell him why it was so interesting; what the magic in it was, but he refused to listen.
"That boy," he said. And that is all he would say. "You and that boy." And shake his head in bewilderment. But always, always the smile at the end. He was begging for someone to guide him in his fall from grace; he had set the task before me.
"You've never stepped on an ant before?" I asked him dubiously once.
"That's not the point. Stepping on an ant is different. It just happens."
"You didn't go out of your way, see it walking ahead of you in the sidewalk and change your stride so your foot would land right on top of it?"
"Well, it's still not the same as..."
"And why did you do it? How did it make you feel?"
"I don't want to talk about it any more," he said, and walked away, watching his feet.
I told him almost all of the horrible thoughts and the little-boy savageries of David and myself, except for one story. Of all the stories I had told Harry to watch as his lips puckered and his eyes bulged, this one I could not tell him. The thing that David and I used to do. He used to cut me.
He was sleeping over one night, as he often did. The lights were off, and we were talking to each other through the dark. He asked me if he could try something new, all of a sudden, and I said yes, without asking what it was. He had his mother's paring knife. I asked him if I could look at the blade; he handed it to me hesitantly, keeping his hand ready to draw it back. I touched it lightly with my finger, then looked to see if it had cut the skin. It hadn't even left a crease.
"It's not very sharp."
"What?" He snatched it back from me. "I sharpened it before I came."
"You did?" I found the gesture touching. "How did you try to sharpen it?" I asked, pretending for a moment that I knew the slightest bit about knives.
"On my dad's sharpening block. Look, you can see where I did it." He moved it in the light of the bulb above, and I could see shining there the tiny curving scratches that the block had left.
"Well you did it wrong," I said. He tucked his face away from me, and I apologized for speaking too coarsely. I told him that my mother kept an electric knife sharpener in the kitchen. We crept down to the kitchen from my bedroom; David had the knife tucked into the side of his shoe. The handle pressed against the inside of his pants leg, keeping its presence known.
We passed the knife six times through the little slot on the knife sharpener, testing it each time on a tomato to see if it was ready. On the sixth try, David slipped and cut his finger.
"Oh, man," he said, wincing and pulling his hand away, "it's ready."
Suddenly my mother walked around the corner. "You guys sneaking a snack?" she asked. David threw the knife to the ground and whipped his hand behind his back.
"Oh, David, what happened?" She walked to him, placing a hand on his head, then pulling his other hand to her. "Ooh, that looks like it smarts."
"Yeah," he says. "It hurts pretty bad."
She told him to go wash it off, then finished cutting up the tomato for us. "You want cheese too?"
"Sure," I said. I went to the fridge and pulled out four slices.
"Unwrap them for me, okay?"
She spread mayonnaise on two pieces of bread and then finished assembling two sandwiches for us, cheese and bread and the tomato that David had been cutting into so ecstatically. While she did so, I slipped David's paring knife into my pocket. I could see his blood there on the tip of it; it would soak into the white cotton. It would leave a little pink stain of him there.
After she bandaged David up, she sent us upstairs with sandwiches in hand and said goodnight, forgetting even to scold us for being up too late. Do you know what is about to happen? I wanted to ask her that. Do you know what David is about to do? She did, I am sure. Parents have a way of knowing everything about their children, but denying all of it so successfully that if I'd ever told her, she would gasp in surprise. She knew, I think. She must have known.
I pulled the knife out of my pocket and laid it in David's hand; he held my fingers around the handle for a moment before pulling it away.
Up in the room, he took the sandwiches away immediately and set them on my dresser.
"Do you know what I want to try?" he asked.
"I think so."
"Take your shirt off," he said.
It was still around my head when I felt him step up behind me and put his left hand on my shoulder. Suddenly I could feel the cut open across my back, a diagonal line down. I fell forward, unable to see anything but shifting lights behind the white cotton still covering my face. The pain of the cut turned to heat, starting in my shoulder blade where the knife had broken the skin, and rolling across my body. I pulled myself back onto my knees and pulled the shirt the rest of the way off.
"Can I do it again?" he asked.
I said no, but not in time. He cut me again, parallel to the first cut, and a third time, across the other two. A new heat arose in my fingertips from somewhere deep inside my body; an electric heat that coursed through the air from my fingers and threatened to consume me.
David clutched the paring knife like it was a rat, squirming to get out of his hands. He became smaller and smaller as I watched him, as the stuff of him mixed with the pulse and the swirl of the room. I could feel that my arms were moving through the air, though my skin was having trouble telling the difference between air and solid. All of it was just heat, just the burn and the squeal of energy. This was a threshold. This was a place in the world for which we did not yet know words.
The headlights of my mother's car struck the edges of the road's broken pavement seconds before the tires passed over them with a jolt. Each time the wings of the moth clinging to my windshield would shudder as if they were about to be ripped from its body. I slowed down to 35 miles per hour, and still the road threatened to shake both of us to pieces. It was still alive by the time I arrived at the house. Its body had been torn, as had its wings, but its feet still searched for a hold, for a way to dislodge itself. I lifted the wiper up gently, slowly, and just as slowly the moth crept across the glass, stepping through the shimmering dust of its own wings.
I used a road map to lift the insect from my windshield, then set it gently inside the car. The antennae stood as strong and healthy as the fronds of a jungle fern. This is one thing that can be said about bugs: they are fighters. They don't give up their lives so easily.
Inside the house, I set the moth onto a dinner plate. My mother's azalea was in bloom again; I plucked four of the glaring red blossoms from the plant and set them near the moth. Two of them I set behind it, the other two I set right before its face, though I turned them so that the moth would have to spin them around in order to drink from them. I never saw it drink from any of them, and by the time it died, the flowers had wilted. It lived for three days, though, before it finally yielded to the wounds of its collision. I spent the days going through my mother's affairs at a slow and ritual pace, checking on the moth regularly. Each time I did so, I pushed the flowers just a bit closer to its face, feeling guilty for setting them so far away. I will have to die, it seemed to say, but I will die when I am good and ready. I named it Sebastian for that reason, after the saint. Each day I would go to it, I would look again at its little crushed body, and I would wonder, what is it waiting for? Why would such a tiny creature resist death so long? Saint Sebastian was to be executed at the hands of the Romans; he resisted the arrows for three days, sustaining wounds that should have killed him numerous times, but resisted for three long days of constant execution.
The morning that it was clear to me that the moth had finally died, I realized that I had yet to clean the windshield where it had hit. The rough yellow stain had begun to chip and fade, but still it held most of its shape, its perfect arc across the clear glass. I put the moth body into the base of the azalea with the four azalea blossoms, then went to search my mother's house for glass cleaner.
My mother had told me long before the stroke that she would want the plug to be pulled if she ever ended up on machines. It seemed like the best choice at the time, to let things happen naturally. After the stroke I told the doctor of her decision, showed him the document she'd signed. The next day they disconnected the machines and she asphyxiated silently, without ever struggling for a breath. She was a gentle and pious woman, but she could never have become a saint.
What's the point in fighting, I wondered. What could the moth have known that neither of us knew? I was told that she probably would not have survived the coma; the chances were very much against her doing so. I've never known the unearthly sort of strength it must take to fight even when losing is assured.
Would she be the kind to haunt a place after she'd left it? Not to protect her possessions. She kept the house clean and in order, and she cared for the things she put around her--her clothes, most of which she would wash by hand, and her plants, for which she had developed an incomprehensibly complicated watering and fertilizing schedule, but she would not come back to this place for them. Would she come back for me? Would she haunt me, stay beside me, send chills through me to remind me that she was still there, still watching? No. She took care of me while I was here, and now she could never find the will to return to me, not for love, not for worry. She was not a haunter either.
I once found a picture in a French book on sexuality without a dust cover, in a chapter entitled "Le Homo-Erotique." It was a young and muscular Asian man tied to a tree, wearing nothing but a torn loincloth. Piercing his torso were two arrows, hitting his body at oblique angles. His head bent back; his lips were parted in a look that could have been agony but was drenched with pleasure. The fake blood ran down the ripples of his stomach in a careful rivulet. The caption below the photo identified him as Yukio Mishima, posing as Saint Sebastian.
I had read a book of Mishima's a few years before without knowing very much about him. On the back, it mentioned that he had committed ritual suicide after the completion of his tetralogy, his masterpiece. The book itself had frightened me horribly: a young and beautiful sailor cut to pieces by a pack of boys thirsting for dominance, for pure masculinity. The image clung to me inescapably, and often in perfectly everyday situations it would return to me, the image of the sailor, the dissected beauty.
The image of Saint Sebastian had been the impetus for Mishima's first orgasm, I later learned. He found a picture of the young and dying man in his father's encyclopedia at the age of fifteen. Hence the pose in the photo. This little shot, the gape of his lips and the curl of his torso, was the embodiment of his first fantasy. Sex and cruelty never again divorced themselves in his mind.
One summer night about eight years ago, I remember, David was over again, spending the night. My mother was in bed, as we were supposed to be, but of course as rebellious twelve-year-olds, were not. His father had signed him up for a summer camp up on the other side of the mountain, so this was the last time he would be able to sleep over before the beginning of school.
We were playing Centipede on my Atari with the volume turned down.
"Hey, uh," David began to say as he played, twitching his thumb on the red trigger button, "do you remember that game we played last time? Not the video game, but the other game."
"No," I said, "I don't." I shifted uncomfortably, picking my bangs out of my eyes and turning my head.
"The one... C'mon. You know which one." He switched the game off and pulled his backpack to him. "I brought the same knife." Out of the front pocket he pulled the paring knife, turning it slowly to catch the reflection of the light fixture. It looked like a tooth to me, like a fang, except of course that it was sharp everywhere, not just at the tip.
I could feel the beat of my blood throughout my body now; in the tips of my fingers, in my eyelids, in my throat. He could change me, I thought. He could flip everything on its head, pin it on its back.
"So do you want to?" He asked it again. He moved his fingers out to my hand, and I could feel the warmth in him, the excitement, the tremble. "I want to." His voice was so silent that he nearly whispered it.
I looked to my bedroom door suddenly, as if I'd heard it opening, and David tucked the knife under his shirt nervously. "Sorry," I said, when it was clear that no one was coming in. "Thought it was my mom."
He is going to do it again, I thought, whether or not I want him to. The scars of the first cuts were still there; I had to tell my mother that a friend's cat had done it when it was thrown onto my back as a prank. She didn't believe the story, but her worry was not so strong that she forced me to tell her the truth. Would he cut me in the same place, I wondered? Would he deepen the scars that were already there? He pulled the knife out again. He moved his fingers from my hand to the bottom of my shirt and began lifting it up.
I lay back meekly as he moved over me. He cut across my chest and my stomach this time, long and curving cuts that were deepest right at the end. I sucked my breath in hard and let it out in a low continuous moan.
"This time," he said to me as the pain soaked through my body, "let's change it a bit. Let's pretend like I killed you."
I tried to lay still as he asked when he was finished, but my skin swelled into goosebumps and my hands trembled.
David mumbled some words of shock, trying to indulge the fantasy. He whispered in fear that he didn't want me to die, pulling my hand to his body and holding it firm there. He put his fingers to my neck. His hand lingered there, feeling the energy bristling in my body. "You need to stand stiller," he whispered. "You're shaking."
I clenched my body to try to quell the shaking, but I only shook more and more visibly. The feeling of the cuts on my stomach still pulsed through me.
"I'm sorry, I'm sorry," I said to him. "I'll try harder." But I found it was impossible to look dead when every bit of skin ached and throbbed with such electricity, such life.
"Stand stiller!" He said it louder. His hand moved from my neck to my shoulder, and he pressed me down into the rug as he said it. "Stand stiller!"
A Once-White Room
I slept most of the day away, waking just before sunset. Uncle Harry was coming over later that evening, my last night in the house; my mother's funeral was the next morning, and we were both worrying over the words we would give her.
"There's a full bottle of rum in the cupboard," I told him on the phone. "That'll free up our brains if nothing else will." He chuckled and said that hopefully the rum wouldn't be necessary. If I snuck a drop into his drink, though, he wouldn't protest.
I'd never felt comfortable in her house, even as a young child. It perched upon a dynamite-carved ledge deep in the hills South of town; the walls were all white as chalk, as were the floors, as if it were all built completely of photo paper constantly in danger of being exposed. The windows let the light of a strong Southern exposure pour over the house like lava, causing the walls to sing with their bright and crisp white, and always making my deep-colored skin look dirty, especially in summer when the sun varnished me to a full and golden brown. My mother's skin stayed bright and pale, as she spent most of her daytimes in her office in town, locked safely away behind cinderblock walls.
In that cold house, my old room alone could make me feel warmth. It was the only room we used on the second floor, as the bathroom seemed always to be broken and the second bedroom became storage for all of my mother's old things. The walls of my room were permanently stained by my young dirty hands, especially around the doorknob, the light switch, and the window pane. It had originally been painted white as the rest of the house had until I started playing with markers; the white was too thin to cover the huge horrific scribble-monsters I would draw on my walls in red and blue and black and purple, so my mother painted the walls orange.
My shirts too used to be mostly white, until the second time I was cut, when the muted red diagonal stripes would appear. I tried to scrub those stains away, but I didn't know the proper ways to get them out. I'd considered just throwing the shirts away, but I feared that my mother would find them in the trash.
She found them anyway, in the corner of my closet weeks later, stuffed into a ball tucked under a pile of clothes I had outgrown. One day I came home and noticed that my closet door was open; I checked the pile where the shirt was hidden. It was still there, only tidier now. The old clothes had been pushed into place.
That night at supper, she asked me if David's cat had gotten to me again.
"He's a beast," I said, and she agreed that yes, he must be quite a beast to make such awful scratches.
"Maybe you shouldn't go over to David's any more, if that cat is getting at you like that," she said, staring at me as she said it. She had a beggar's face right then, pleading eyes and outstretched lips. I wanted her to punish me, to lock me away. She could see what was happening; she could see me changing, but she didn't cling. She never had the strength to cling. "Maybe you shouldn't go over there any more," she said again.
"Well," I said, "I'll just try harder to keep the cat away."
On some summer nights I would take the screens out of the windows of my orange room and leave the light on above my bed, then peek carefully out from under my sheet as the insects swarmed the light, crawling over each other's bodies and casting their giant shadows onto the dirty walls. Usually I would fall asleep then, until my mother woke me in the morning with a mild scolding, often nothing more than a sigh of forbearance. Then she would move throughout the room systematically with the vacuum cleaner, sucking the insects from the walls one by one. Sometimes she would let me help, and I would always squeal in joy as the strength of the vacuum's pull made them jump from the walls and into the dark coils of the vacuum's attachment.
"What happens to them inside the bag?" I would sometimes ask.
"They stay inside until they turn into dirt," my mother would say.
I imagined the scene, the scrambling legs of the insects pressing into each other, the crush becoming so intense and so powerful that soon they all fell to pieces, to absolute specks.
David and I had stolen into the garage once when he was spending the night, and decided to look inside the bag. I took us quite a while to figure out how to open the vacuum, and we may have broken it, though my mother never said anything to me. I poked and prodded at the vacuum's hard plastic canister, then David found the latch and it popped cleanly open. We pulled the paper bag out, holding its opening tight between our fingers, then brought it into the back yard to inspect its contents in the moonlight. I slowly unfurled my fingers from the bag as David pushed his inside; as soon as it was open, both of us were immersed in a cloud of mosquitoes and moths and dust. The little bugs flew into our eyes and our mouths, coating our faces with a gentle layer of dust and stinging our noses. We ran screaming into the house, leaving the screen door open behind us, and woke my mother to confess. She cleaned us up and sent us back to bed, turning the light out behind her and then locking us in. We heard the drone of the vacuum from behind the door soon, reclaiming the evils we'd released that had already begun to fly back into the house.
I walked up the stairs and through the hallway to my old room. I hadn't seen it too much since I'd been back in the house, spending most of my time in my mother's cold room and in her storage room, sorting through her papers and making the necessary phone calls. The bed there was still the single bed I'd had since the age of eight, complete with bright red and blue bedspread and red metal frame. It was much too small for me now, though suddenly I wanted so badly to feel the comforter over me again. I opened the window, feeling the clumsy breezes tumble down my skin. My fingers went to the corners of the screen, pushing with short stabs to dislodge them, then pulling the screen inside to set it on the ground. I stretched my arms out, catching the light of the crescent moon in my hand; its light turned my skin as white and fragile as my mother's walls. I curled myself onto my old bed and soon was fast asleep again.
There was a man once who thought my skin was white, I remembered, even though the August sun had tanned it dark as creamed coffee. It was in a bar; it could have been the way the lights hit me.
His tongue was stained from the wine he'd been drinking, the way that red wine will do it; his half-empty glass had rings of red to show where his previous sips had left off. "If I touched you, I'd leave prints," he said. I let him touch my cheek, let him move his fingers down my neck as his other hand swept along my thigh.
"I bet you need it gentle, don't you?" he asked.
"No," I said. "I like it rough."
His hand squeezed down on me, harder and harder, and I began to panic. The bar was packed, and the bodies behind me were pushing me closer to the man with the stained tongue. His fingers curled in as he pressed them into the meat of my leg.
"How rough?" he asked. He moved his mouth closer to me.
I began to think of what I could do to get away; if I pushed away from him, if I got someone between us, could I make it to the door before he caught me again? How many people would I have to get through to make it out? A thrust from behind me nearly knocked me over; I braced myself against the bar to avoid falling off my stool. The man took it as a good sign and squeezed a little tighter.
"Stop," I said. "Please."
"What?" he asked.
"I said stop."
"I thought you could..."
"Stop it! Please let go."
The man's hand released instantly. "Just what I thought," he said. "You need it gentle, or you snap in two." He swiveled in his seat to face the bar again; I let the crowd pull me in, and before I knew it I could no longer see him. Towards closing time I wanted to go to him, to say You're wrong, I can take it. I can take whatever you can dish out. He had no idea what I could do, what I could feel. I pushed my way towards his bar stool but he was no longer there. I scanned the room and spotted him by the coat check, jacket in hand. He was shorter than I thought he would be; his shoulders were slumped, though his face still had the look of a drill, of a weapon that dug inside.
"Hey," I said as I walked to him, "heading home so soon?"
"It's closing time," he said.
"Mind some company?"
"I don't think you can handle my company. I'd snap you."
"Maybe I like being snapped."
I followed him out the door and into the parking lot behind the bar. "My car's around the corner," he said. He put a hand on my shoulder and began pushing his fingers into my neck. "My house is real close."
I would be bruised from him; this I knew almost immediately. This man was nothing like David to me; he would hit me, and behind the hit was no game. There was cruelty that was not pretend. I lay on his bed, cowering, naked, as he hit me across the face, across the back. Still there was a place I was sent to, though, outside of that horrific little man. As the pain of the blows sank deeper under the skin, as the hits became rhythmic, another, then another right behind it, like a chant in punches rather than words, the sensation and the flesh spun around eachother, got dizzy, and fell to the ground, no longer remembering which was which. I thought about running away, of pushing past him, grabbing up whatever clothes I could, and running for the door. It would be a challenge to rouse myself out of this delicious stupor, to drive him off me. But the real fight would be to stay, to take every hit he could give, sink as deeply into each one as I could, and force my way through until morning.
I woke up before he did; his clock said 6:45. I slipped out of his bed as quietly as I could and gathered my clothes in my arms. I dressed in the living room so as not to wake him and left without washing my face, as something told me I should not look at it. On my body, there in the sunlight, I could see the gray discoloration of bruises already start to form, and knew my face would be quite a sight. At the door, though, I couldn't resist. I walked to a mirror in the hallway and I looked at my face. There were marks above both of my eyes, along my left cheek, and cuts along my lips. It surprised me to realized I was admiring them. I was wearing his bruises as I would wear his skin. As a trophy.
It turned out, fittingly enough, that David was allergic to insect stings. This he discovered the summer after our Senior year. He had made it so long throwing beetles into spiders' webs and shooting bleach at ants before something finally bit back. Of course he hadn't been mutilating insects all of this time; for the most part he left the habit behind him once he started middle school. It was something he returned to, he told me, in times of worry or stress, as one returns to smoking.
It was a hornets' nest; he really should have known better, allergy or no. The hornets were building it right in the tool shed in his back yard, his family told us afterwards. His sister was the one who found him. She had heard the buzzing; she had even seen the hornets flying up to her bedroom window, scuttling about with unusual frenzy. A muffled grunting causer her to look out her window, where she saw her brother, waving unsteadily, fighting not to yell out as the hornets stung him again and again. By the time she ran out to the back yard and pulled him inside, suffering a sting or two of her own, his flushed skin was already beginning to swell.
We had become estranged as friends; we said hello in school still, but there was always between us the barrier of a past intimacy that neither of us had the strength to acknowledge, like a stain around our lips or a flake of something hanging off of our shoes that neither could find the will to tell the other about.
But that night, David's mother called me first.
"He's in the hospital, hon. You should go see him." She choked some words down that she could not yet say. "We, ah, we've been told that we should all try to visit him now." The next day was Saturday; I called in to my summer job and told them that I would not make it in.
He was conscious intermittently; when I went to see him he was just starting to awaken again. The poison had paralyzed most of his body. His fingers could twitch and he could speak, but he couldn't open his eyes. And he was horrific to see. His swelling had gone down, but he was still very disfigured. All of this I'd already been told before I left to prepare me; upon seeing him, I knew I had not allowed myself to be sufficiently prepared.
The welts of the hornet stings covered his forehead and cheeks, standing like anthills on his skin. He was still bright red and bloated to twice his usual size as his blood worked furiously to wash the poison out of him.
His mother was there beside the bed when I entered; her hand was on his arm, though as soon as I entered she jerked it away from him.
"Dear, guess who's here to see you?" she said, then left to give us privacy.
He was surprised to hear my voice; I told him that his mother had called to tell me what happened and he said that she shouldn't have done so. I didn't ask why not. His mouth worked furiously to stay open long enough for speak, though every solid and liquid bit of him worked to press it closed.
"I just want it over," he said in a wet, thick slur. "Whatever over means." I had trouble believing that there was a person buried inside of there, that there were bones and eyes and muscles buried deep beneath the blood and swollen skin. His speech dipped down; many of the words nearly died in his mouth. He was clearly on the threshold of consciousness again.
"It hurts a lot?" I asked.
"Yeah," he said. "More than you could ever imagine." He stiffened his fingers for emphasis.
"Let yourself go in it," I said. "Just let it soak in and take over. It's the only way to get through." I moved my hand to his fat fingers, gripping tentatively. They moved over mine, and I knew he was trying to hold on. I could feel the intense heat of him; the blood hotter and faster inside of him now. His face remained expressionless and alien, his eyes sealed over, their lids bulging out from his head in tiny orbs. Only the movement of his fingers, their twitch and their splay, gave a clue to the pain he felt, from his very innards out. In a few moments, though, his hand was slack again.
"David?" I asked. "Still there?" I put his hand back down beside him, tucking it into his bloated side, and went back out into the hall.
"How is he?" his mother asked.
"I think he's unconscious again," I said.
He fell comatose that night, and after two days with no sign of re-emerging, his parents made the decision to pull the plug. At the time, I thought their decision to be a brave one. It was David on whom I laid the blame. It was a hypocrite's death -- the giver of pain can't take it when his own medicine is dished out. He faints; he goes comatose. I tried to explain to my mother my anger; she said it was a natural reaction to blame him for leaving, that when I was older I could feel grief without anger, without wanting possession of him.
"When you get more practice at loss, honey," is what she had said, and smiled for saying such an unfortunate thing. Those were her words, yes.
Asleep on my old red metal bed, I felt a tickle on the tip of my nose. I brushed it away, still half-asleep, and rolled back over. Soon it returned though, accompanied by one on the outside of my ear, moving over its folds and heading almost into the canal. I jumped out of bed with a start and made my way to the light switch. I shielded my eyes as I hit the light, expecting the brilliant orange of the walls. But between my fingers, I could see that the walls were no longer orange; they were white, ghost-white, shifting and rolling like sea foam, like thousands of tiny white wings.
The window, I realized. I left the window open as I slept.
The walls had been remade in moth bodies; the gray and white of their wings shifted and churned over the orange underneath, obscuring it almost completely. I hit the light off again as the moths began to circle it; they settled slowly back onto the walls. The light of the moon was enough to illuminate the moon, hitting the shimmering powder of the moths' wings, making them even colder, even paler. They obscured the marks of my dirty hands on the door frame and the light switch, I saw. They returned the room to its former incarnation. As my eyes adjusted I began to see the powder in the air, kicked loose by the rambunctious movements of the wings. It hung there, each particle seeming to be set in space, catching the light of the moon and holding it out to my eyes. Even the air around me was sparkling and clean.
I wanted to leave; my first instinct was to run for the door, to brush the moths off, to close the door behind me. They had started to cling to me, crawling along the edges of my fingers, flying onto the top of my head. Instead of running, though, I kneeled slowly onto the floor and let them come, one by one, moving to the walls to land upon me. They were remaking my body in shimmering white, just as they had remade the walls. Each foot touched upon my skin faintly, gently, as the moths moved in slow, gentle circles over my body. I felt them on the lids of my eyes now, and now on the palms of my feet as I turned them up, the gentlest touch one could feel, and I felt it over and over again, hundreds of them all at the same time. It would only be for a minute or so, as I knew Harry was probably within ten minutes of the house. When he arrived, he could help me find the vacuum cleaner.