There were five of us: me, Samantha, Plan9, Revel and Revel's girlfriend, Batgrrl. We moved quietly beneath the train trestle toward the buildings on the waterfront. It was four in the morning and cold. An autumn wind was blowing off the harbor. The harbor smelled like a septic tank.
We had two satchels with us. I carried one and Batgrrl had the other. Plan9 had stuffed his mother's old dishtowels into the satchels to keep the cans from banging together.
I caught the halos around the lights on the street just ahead, felt the cigarette smoke brush my lips goodbye on its way out of my mouth, listened to the percussive resonance of our boots on the asphalt, five pairs of Doc Martens playing out a unified, stuttering song of passage.
The shadows parted, welcoming, then closed ranks behind us.
The night had our backs.
As we crossed the last street before the water, Batgrrl asked, "Is that it?"
"That's it," Plan9 answered, leading.
I looked at the large warehouse ahead of us, its brick face hung with fluorescent spotlights every fifteen feet or so. I shifted the satchel on my shoulder and the brickwork rippled momentarily, like the surface of a pond.
Before I realized I was speaking, I said, "Whoa."
"Shit's kicking in, right?'
I smiled a yes and found myself giggling.
"Shit," Revel muttered, lighting a cigarette as he walked. "They beat us to it."
I dropped my own cigarette on the ground, playing "monkey see, monkey do" tag with him in my head.
He didn't notice or at least pretended not to.
I smiled to myself and studied the warehouse.
Blazing in harsh fluorescence, the building was hit up end to end with a wildstyle burner, pink and red faded fill with a black outline.
The letters seemed to pulsate.
My mouth tasted like metal.
Upon closer inspection, what appeared to have been a random series of letters turned out to be eleven separate pieces packed close together. Although I only recognized a few of the writers Zolar15, LacyGurl I knew the work right away from hanging around with Samantha.
The whole crew had been here.
The Love Apaches owned the wall.
"Well, that's that," Batgrrl said. "Case closed."
Although I had done a few practice pieces with Samantha, this was my first night out as a member of her crew, but even I was familiar with the etiquette. This crew didn't write over anyone else's work. If The Love Apaches had gotten to the site first, it was a done deal. This wall was claimed.
"No," Plan9 said, stopping in the middle of the road. "This case is far from closed."
Shifting the satchel again, I found I was having a hard time keeping it on my shoulder. It wasn't heavy, just awkward to hold. I was suddenly having problems getting my mind around the physics of carrying something.
I started to laugh. Batgrrl joined in.
Samantha took the bag from me and said, "What are you talking about, far from closed? We're not writing over that piece. We're not gonna turn into a bunch of fucking taggers over a wall."
"Who said anything about going over it?" Plan9 asked, looking skyward.
He didn't say anything else. Eventually, we all followed his gaze.
High above us, on the flat roof of the warehouse, there was another brick building. It looked to be about thirty feet long by maybe six feet high. Its wall was bare.
Revel started laughing. Batgrrl and I had never stopped.
"Up there?" he asked. "What are we going to do, fly?"
Grinning, Plan9 pointed toward Batgrrl and me. "Give those two another half hour and they'll be able to."
I thought about what he'd said, wondered if maybe, somehow, it was true. Maybe we would be able to fly.
I looked over at Samantha and she was smiling at me.
If anyone knew how to fly, it would be her.
Our eyes locked and I found myself wanting to touch her. My own voice, loud in my head, warned me not to.
"Follow me," Plan9 instructed, walking around the side of the warehouse.
It took about a half hour, sharing satchels and mad moments between us, before we were all up the ladder and on the roof.
Plan9 led us over to the front side of the building, around the "baby building," as Batgrrl has started calling it.
"Just look at this," he said, standing close to the edge of the roof, staring out into the night. "You can see everything from here."
I looked out over Stapleton, over the rooftops, toward the projects. I could see the lights of Wagner College on Grimes Hill, thinking how every light represented a student: someone studying, someone getting stoned, getting laid. Off to my right I could see the Stapleton train station, like a toy bathed in orange mercury light and, beyond that, Eidleman's and the old movie theater.
Turning my head to the left, I could see the bright necklace of the Verrazano Bridge strung across the night sky over the mouth of the harbor. I wanted to reach out and grab it, place it around my neck.
"And what's even better," Plan9 said, turning to face the baby building, "everything can see this."
I looked at the wall. The bricks rippled and danced in the half-light from the street below.
"A crown for the dead," Revel said. I looked at him.
He was staring past the baby building, toward the skyline of Manhattan. It glistened in the darkness beyond the water.
"A jeweled crown on the skull of a rotting god," he said.
I listened to his words as they warmed my ears, brushed my mind. They were truth.
He turned to address us. We were all listening.
"The river Styx," he said, pointing toward the harbor.
It sat, black and silent, its freighters motionless, like ghost ships, their lights burning like candles. Like souls.
"And this," he went on, "is a tomb."
He waved his arms slowly in the air, leaving trails as he moved.
"This is a great tomb for the rotting god and we are his acolytes. We are Egyptians, born of the night to decorate the tomb. We are the chosen."
We stood silently as he finished. I felt his words sink into me, the weight of them, the purpose of self coming to light in my mind.
Finally, Batgrrl walked over to where he stood and asked, "Baby, what the fuck are you talking about?"
When we finally all stopped laughing, we found our places along the wall, as though the reason we had come here had finally taken hold of us and put us to action. I stood between Samantha and Plan9. It felt right, balanced.
Plan9 handed me a can of Krylon and I quickly sprayed the angular outline of my piece onto the brickwork.
I looked at the word.
I sat in Samantha's attic bedroom and looked out the window at the gold and orange treetops at the bottom of the hill. It was 10:30 in the morning. It had begun to rain, a gentle, steady patter against the glass.
The stereo was playing low, tuned into a classic rock station. Jeff Lynn couldn't get something out of his head.
I wasn't speeding anymore, but the afterglow made me feel hyper alert, in tune with something that was just beyond my grasp. The head had shifted to that place where things were beginning to look real again, just a dim haze of magic outlining everything I looked at, everything I thought about. The haze made all the real things seem false.
"Will the rain ruin it?" I asked, picturing my piece collecting as a rainbow puddle on the roof of the warehouse.
I was speaking quietly. It felt right.
"No," Samantha answered from behind me. She was focused on her art. Her voice was soft, like a fur glove across the back of my neck.
A large crow circled above the trees below me, a black hieroglyph silhouetted in rainy day gold. I wondered if he could see the colors. I wondered if he could feel me spying.
I watched him draw circles in the air while I listened to the warm scratching of charcoal on paper. I picked up a book of matches from the windowsill and lit a stick of incense, planting it in the small flowerpot full of sand that sat on the floor beside my chair. It was called Spring Rain, although the scent reminded me of hot cider and doorstep kisses.
I looked out the window in time to see the crow disappear into the glowing foliage. I got up from the chair and turned to watch Samantha work.
She stood in front of her easel, working by the grey light of the morning. Her hands were decorated with black, a short stick of charcoal held lightly between the fingertips of her left hand. She moved the charcoal in short, purposeful strokes, mapping arcs and angles, smudging some into the paper with her fingers.
I came up quietly behind her and studied her creation. It looked like a stylized portrait of Revel.
"Is that Revel?" I whispered, not wanting to distract her.
She nodded, adding a thin curve beneath his lower lip, rubbing it in with her thumb.
I watched her small, graceful fingers as they brought the image to life, arranging shadows, defining contours.
"You have beautiful hands," I remarked.
She didn't respond and I felt foolish.
Revel stared at me with charcoal eyes.
"Do you like him?" I asked, hoping she would say no.
Samantha laughed, then quietly said, "I don't like anybody."
Her hands danced. I thought about the crow and wondered if he knew I was thinking about him.
"Do you like me?" I asked.
Even as I said it, I wanted to take it back.
Afraid of how it sounded, I added, "You know, as a person?"
I wondered if the crow was sitting somewhere, laughing at me.
Samantha looked at me.
"You're here, aren't you?" she asked.
Pupils dilated, she smiled with her eyes.
I felt feathers across my stomach.
She turned back to her work and I noticed, for the first time, a thin, white scar on her neck, just below her ear.
Wanting something to say, I asked, "How'd you get that scar?"
Her hands stopped.
She licked her lips and answered, "Got it when I was a kid. Don't remember how."
Something dark passed through the room.
We stood in its wake, silent in the soft, grey light.
"I have one too," I offered, by way of atonement for whatever line it was I had just felt myself cross.
"Where?" she asked, turning toward me.
I lifted my shirt a few inches and hooked my jeans with my thumb, pulling them down far enough to expose the small scar above my right hipbone.
"How'd you get that?" she asked.
"Climbing over a fence when I was twelve," I answered. "My neighbor had this pigeon coop "
She reached out her hand toward me. I stopped talking.
With the barest touch of her fingertip, she traced the scar in charcoal dust.
My skin tingled, the sensation radiating out from the point of contact like a wave of light, causing a twitch between my legs.
I took a deep breath. It sounded loud.
"The way you look at me sometimes," she whispered, staring at the scar. "I'm not imagining that, right?"
"No," I replied, my voice no louder than the rain on the glass.
I wanted to take her in my arms. I was afraid I would scare her.
Bowie came on the radio. Heroes.
She looked into my eyes and smiled.
"I love this song," she said.
She said it with her voice.
She said it with her eyes.
She let me in.
I leaned into her and our lips met. Neither of us moved. I heard the piece of charcoal hit the floor.
I stepped back.
"Is this okay?" I asked.
I searched her face for some sign telling me to stop, some indication that I was going too far. I found nothing.
"Do you hear me complaining?" she said.
"What about your parents?"
"They never come in here."
She smiled and whispered, "Never ever."
I leaned forward and this time she met me in the middle. Our lips parted and the tips of our tongues danced with one another, a gentle, honest meeting. I reached up to touch her hair and felt her hands go to my breasts.
Almost in unison, we made the same hungry, grateful sound in our throats.
We broke contact and laughed.
We looked at one another, as though assuring ourselves this was really happening, this was really what we wanted.
Samantha licked her lips, breathing heavy through her nose. Her dark eyes were radiant.
"Again," I whispered and she put her hand on my face, framing my lips between her thumb and fingers, and came to me.
Our lips met a third time, now becoming familiar, and we were quickly in each other's mouths, in each other's minds. We kissed with our eyes open.
She pushed her body into mine, slowly backing me across the room.
Kissing my lips, my face, my neck, she undressed me as we moved toward the bed, charcoal handprints everywhere.
We stayed in bed and listened to the sounds of the rain, the radio, our breathing. I was on my back with Samantha nestled into me, her legs wrapped around mine, her head on my breast. Every now and again she would gently drag her fingernails across my belly, causing me to shiver and smile.
We had spent the morning exploring each other, tasting one another, using our bodies to connect our selves.
Throughout our love making, Samantha had kept her shirt on. The skin underneath felt bumpy, ridged.
"Do me a favor and light me a cigarette?" she asked. "I feel too good to move."
"Yes, you do," I replied. She chuckled.
I reached over to the bedside table, took a cigarette out of the pack and lit it.
"Here you go, baby," I said, without thinking.
"Baby" seemed to hang there, somehow heavy in the newness of us, and I found myself holding my breath.
Samantha raised her head to smile at me.
"Thank you," she whispered, her eyes sparkling.
I stretched my neck and kissed her deeply. Her mouth tasted like me.
Parting from her, I delicately planted the cigarette between her lips and reached over to retrieve the ashtray.
Taking it from me, she placed it on my stomach. The glass was a cool contrast to the warm skin of her body against mine.
She rested her head on my breast as she smoked.
Lazily brushing her hair with my hand, I said, "Can I ask you something?"
"Yes," she replied, the word more of a vibration on my skin then an actual sound.
I tried to think of a good way to ask, finally settling on, "Are you a lesbian?"
"Don't you think you should have asked me that before you kissed me?"
She was smiling. She looked younger.
"Yeah," I said, laughing. "I guess that didn't come out right."
She touched my face.
"If you're asking me if I enjoy sex with women, the answer is yes. If you're asking if I find men attractive, the answer is also yes."
"So," she said, pausing to take a drag of her cigarette. "What does that make me?"
"Me," I answered, causing her to laugh.
There was a knock on the bedroom door and I grabbed for the sheets. Samantha didn't even move.
"Go away," she said, her face taking on its street caste. "I'm sleeping."
"Sam," her mother said from the other side, "your father and I are leaving for church now."
"You have fun with that," she said, staring intensely at nothing.
"If you get hungry, there's ham in the "
"I'm sleeping," she shouted, glaring at the door.
Her mother went away.
Covering myself with the sheet, I watched the door for a moment to make sure it wasn't going to open.
"Relax," Samantha said, taking a drag then exhaling the smoke harshly. "They know better then to come in here."
I watched her for a moment. She was detached, her mannerisms clipped.
Naked in her bed, I suddenly felt awkward.
"Maybe I should get going," I offered.
Not really wanting to leave, I shrugged.
"Oh, don't mind her," she said, her features softening. "I want you to stay."
Leaning over, she kissed my cheek.
"Really. I like having you here."
"I like being here," I responded, still covering myself, still not sure if someone was going to come through the bedroom door.
Putting her cigarette out in the ashtray, she stared at the floor. It looked as though she might be frowning.
"What's wrong?" I asked.
After a moment, she looked up.
"Have you ever had a girlfriend? You know, like been in an actual relationship with another girl?"
"No," I replied. "Have you?"
She was silent for a minute, then asked, "Do you want me to be your girlfriend?"
I thought about it, the ramifications, the possible consequences.
I thought about the way my friends in high school had shunned me when they found out I was bisexual and how my new friends would behave, wondering if they too would cast me out.
I thought about how my parents would react if they learned I was dating another girl, how my brother would react, my little sister.
I looked into Samantha's eyes. They were dark and not a little dangerous. There was a light in there a light I wanted to touch. This thought excited me. I could deal with all those other concerns if, and when, I had to.
"Yes," I said, finally. "I want you to be my girlfriend. I would like that very much."
Placing her arms around me, Samantha pulled me toward her, kissed me gently on the ear, and whispered, "Me too."
We held one another close, sharing our warmth. I felt safe. I felt complete.
I absently brushed the back of her shirt with my hand, stopping when I felt the bumps beneath.
"What?" she asked, withdrawing from me.
"Why won't you take off your top?"
Something flashed in her eyes.
"Don't go there," she said.
As is its tendency, my mouth was moving before my brain had a chance to stop it.
"Well," I offered, albeit cautiously, "if we're going to be girlfriends, I don't see why "
She stood up and walked to the center of the room before turning on me.
"You don't see what?" she snapped.
"Look, forget it," I said, retreating into myself. "It's no big deal."
"No big deal?" She put her back to me. "Let me show you no big deal."
She quickly pulled her top off over her head and I caught my breath.
Her back was a patchwork of scar tissue, ancient, pink and angry. It looked as though she had survived a witch trial.
"What happened?" I heard myself whisper.
She laughed darkly.
"What didn't happen?" she said, facing me. "Cigarettes, a curling iron, a fucking hotplate. What didn't happen?"
"When?" I asked, my throat tight.
"Well, let's see," she said, as though reciting something boring yet familiar. "I was put into foster care when I was about four and a half. None of the foster parents I've had have ever laid so much as a finger on me. You do the math."
"My God," was all I could say.
"Yeah, I must have been a very bad baby," she said, dryly.
I wanted to go to her. I couldn't move.
"What?" she asked, her posture becoming not so much defensive as confrontational.
I had no words. My eyes had filled with tears.
"Hey, you know what?" she said, her voice hard as a slap across the face. "Thanks for a good time and all, but I don't need your pity."
I felt myself tense up.
"I don't do pity," I said.
"Oh, really?" The laugh that came out of her was intended to cut. It worked. "So what do you do?"
I got out of the bed and found my jeans.
Stepping into them, I said, "I leave."
"Yeah, I bet you do."
Buttoning my pants, I picked up my shirt and looked around to see where my bra had landed. Not spotting it, I pulled the shirt on over my head.
I don't know if it was the drugs or Samantha's hostility or the unimaginable horror inflicted upon a four-year-old girl, but I found myself overwhelmed by emotions. I wanted to take her in my arms and kick her in the teeth all at the same time.
She walked over to her easel and put her back to me.
I caught a glimpse of the scars again.
No wonder they did that to you, I thought, hating myself even as the words passed through my mind.
I hurriedly pulled my socks and boots on and located my jacket on the back of the chair by the window. I glanced at Samantha as I went to the door.
She had begun to work on her drawing, as though I was already gone.
Wanting to hurt her now, I said, "The money's on the dresser."
She let out a sob as I opened the door.
I quietly closed it and walked over to where she stood.
She wept violently as she drew, making harsh, thick strokes across the paper. She had wrecked the piece.
"Please don't go," she whispered, not looking at me.
I studied her ruined back. It was a nightmare.
Biting my lip, I placed my hand on it and she turned and collapsed into me.
"Oh, God," she sobbed into my breast, "please don't leave."
I put my arms around her and held her close.
"It's okay, baby," I whispered, kissing the top of her head. "I'm right here."
This time it was I who led her to the bed.
And I lay down with her and held her in my arms.
And she cried.
Samantha and I stood on the elevated platform of the Stapleton train station, out of the rain, and shared a joint.
Every now and then we shared a kiss.
It was late Sunday afternoon and we had the platform to ourselves, although, even had it been packed with rush-hour commuters, I would have kissed her anyway.
Plan9 had been right about the location. Our work from the night before could be seen clearly from the station and, most probably, from at least a mile away. It was perfect.
"It looks good," Samantha commented.
I nodded, proud of the work I had done, proud to be a member of this crew.
She kissed me on the neck and whispered, "You did good, Tabbykat."
I purred and she laughed.
As we admired our own handiwork, something returned to me from the night before.
"Egyptians," I said aloud.
"Egyptians," I repeated. "Something Revel was talking about last night."
"Oh, right." Samantha smiled. "I remember that."
Revel had been wrong about one thing though.
This wasn't a tomb.
This was the afterlife.
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