Saturday, August 14, 2010

tender traps

I was eighteen, and my body was bony and sleek as a fish. White as a fish, too, with a net of silver-blue veins you could see just under the skin. I still wore clothes in children’s sizes. Not from my own wholesome childhood of tie-dye and hand-knits, but the frilly, lace-trimmed things I had been deprived of. What I wore that night was something I invented with a pair of scissors and an old slip. I cut it above the knee, at the exact height of my baby blue thigh-high stockings. The thin white nylon rolled up at the raw edge. My thighs, my thigh, above my thigh-highs—the center of the world was there. The bright pink scar was there, where I let the last boyfriend open me up and get inside the only way he knew how. Pink and puckered like a little mouth. I wore my new patent-leather platform boots at the bottom, as ballast. In them I stood maybe five-foot-four. On top, my bright red hair, bangs cut straight and short above black-lined eyes. Imagine all this together, and the truth was I looked like tender meat—which is what I heard someone say about us that night. Later, in the limousine.

There was us and there was them. My friend and I were not part of them yet, but we wanted to be. They were older than us, although not by much. At the center of them there was he and she. His birthday was the reason for the limousine. She didn’t know it, but I lived in her shadow all over our city. Everywhere I went she had already been, with her darkness and her long legs and her ropes of hair and her face like the smooth marble of a Greek statue. Some kind of void lingered after her. The air drew tight around her if you stood too close, like gravity was being invented in the hot cave of her chest.

I hardly remember the night outside. Street lamps, asphalt, gravel; the sound of the car door. We stopped sometimes at a bar—black-lit, throbbing—and we floated in and out, my friend and I, right past the bouncers and the bartenders. Someone paid for our drinks. Someone paid for the car. The limo. I don’t know who. But it was a separate world in there. We were snug and plush in that fast black thing, and nothing else was as interesting. We climbed in and out of the car, rearranged ourselves, like musical chairs, each time. They kept me close, though, as the night wore on. He and she—each time, they had me near. We left someone by the side of the road. Someone else we took from one bar and dropped at the next one—an aging drag queen, giant; her wig leaning out of the open roof; she clutched it tight with one hand and batted her impeccable lashes. I held a glass with ice in it, sweating against my knee. My hand was cold and wet. He was sitting next to me, on my left. She, even after the drag queen was gone, held me on her lap. Her skirt was slit high, and the back of my thigh made contact with the front of hers, skin to skin, through the gap between my dress and my stockings. Sudden warmth. I might as well have been wearing nothing for the amount of skirt I had left when I sat down. She put her hands right under the fabric. It felt safe with her holding me like that, meaningless, familiar—like my mother throwing her arm across my body at every red light when she drives. Just an instinct.

But then. Her fingers crawling inside the damp pocket of fabric, tight elastic, tissue-thin. I tried not to notice. So many of us all together in there, with the wind from the roof and streaks of light flickering by and the tires bouncing tires over the seams in the asphalt. My friend saw me and I saw her, over there, with one of their friends. There was nothing we could do for each other now, even if we didn’t want to be there anymore—but we did want it. Next to me, did he see what his wife’s hands were doing? Did my face betray her; did I squirm? She was behind me where I couldn’t see, but when I did, her face was blank as a mask. Oh she she she. Did I mention the sound of her? It was the quiet ringing of metal, of chains and charms and the heavy hoops of her earrings.

At the end of the night I found myself alone in their dark living room. They left me standing there when they walked into what must have been their bedroom. I listened to the kitchen faucet drip. There was a light under the door at the other end of the hall, where my friend had disappeared. I stood, blinking, clutching my purse, until I heard them laugh. “Come on,” they said.

In the room was a dark red tent, suspended from the ceiling. I realized this was the bed. I walked up to the curtain and pulled at the edge—they were there, waiting. She leaned back, out of focus. He reached for my hand. I let my bag drop to the floor and crawled forward on my knees. He pulled me in. “I have my shoes on,” I said. Someone unlaced my boots and tossed them out of the tent. I think my eyes were closed. I could feel my heart rise up in my throat, all trembly. They pulled me close as they kissed each other. It was like trying to have a conversation with someone smarter than you without saying anything stupid. I was so small I slid myself into the spaces between them. He smelled like leather and milk mixed faintly with motor oil. She smelled like baby hair and jasmine and herbal tea. Between them both, the smell of many piercings, that smell of skin, slightly dirty, and hot metal. Her nipples caught small glints of light from the street lamps outside that slipped between the curtains. I think she kissed me first, but I don’t know if that was before or after I bruised her neck and my stockings ended up bunched around my ankles. Somebody pulled me free of them, eventually. Somebody pulled my bra up around my neck. I was slim and slippery, and every time I got untangled from them, it was like coming up for air far from any land. So I kept swimming. Her lips were soft and serious, probing. His stubble grazed my cheek, my chest, the back of my shoulder. Fingers pressed into me at the base of my spine and held my whole quivering being there. The smells all heated up and mixed together until she moaned, “No, no, no, not the—” and I smelled something salty like a tide pool turned inside out.

The blurriness—it’s not just memory fading at the edges of things. It was blurry from the start. My eyes were half-closed. It was like being underwater, with everything distorted and magnified and slow as honey. That’s just what happens. Sex is the water part of this metaphor. You go under and it’s a different world down there. Creatures down there you’ve never seen before, phosphorescent, prehistoric.