Category Archives: Literature

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By Ben Leib

The pueblecito was laid out just as we’d come to expect and rely on. We parked in front of la catedral and approached one of the pastor vendors operating at the perimeter of the plaza. Colin inquired in Spanish if there were any cenotes close by that we could swim in. The vendor answered that there was one nice cenote about six or seven kilometers outside of town, but the roads were very bad and we’d never make it in our rental car. No, if we wanted to see the cenote, it would be necessary to either rent scooters or hire a truck. “Where can we rent a scooter?” Colin asked. The vendor replied that first we must find a person who owned a scooter. Then we’d have to offer money. He was vexed when Colin asked about a truck, and waved us off. “Why don’t you go talk to the police officers over there?” He gestured toward el palacio, which, typical of Yucatecan pueblecitos, was the government building that faced the plaza opposite la catedral.

A dozen officers lounged in the shade of the palacio awning. They smoked cigarettes, looked authoritarian, and spoke little. Perhaps the heat of the day had drained the language out of them, but out in the lawn of the plaza, without any protection from the sun, the antojito vendors conversed spiritedly with their customers.

Colin approached one of the officers and explained that we were passing through town and hoped to swim in the cenote, which we’d heard was quite beautiful. We had been told that maybe the officers knew someone with a truck who could take us, because our car couldn’t make the drive. The officer was short and dark complexioned, nearly indistinguishable from the Mayan population who must have shared heavily in his bloodline. He was a grinning and turned to his partner, who was taller but more tacit. Their discussion was too rapid for me to follow. Then both policemen stepped from the shade of the palacio awning and gestured that we should follow them.

The short officer’s pickup truck was parked beside one of the official police trucks, and was in far worse condition than the official vehicle, though neither was too lovely. The passenger-side handle was broken, and the officer had attached a wire hanger to the inner mechanisms of the door. The two policemen climbed into the cab of the truck and indicated that Colin and I should ride in the bed. I had a bottle of water, a towel, and a few hundred pesos folded into the inner pocket of my board shorts. I wore sandals and a t-shirt ripped at the shoulder: I looked like an asshole.

The road didn’t vanish suddenly. We drove through town and it was as if the paving faded gradually and then crumbled into dirt and rock, narrowing to little more than a hiking trail. Our economy sedan wouldn’t have survived. When I stared into the cab of the truck, the two Mexican policemen were smiling and joking with each other. The shorter man drove, focusing on the topography as he swerved around rocks and craters. I turned to Colin: though we never reached speeds higher than ten kilometers an hour and rarely higher than five, I could have been watching a rodeo. Colin sat flat on the grooved steel bed, his long legs splayed, his arms gripping the walls behind him. He was lurpy and wide-eyed, and I prayed I possessed more composure. I sat atop the wheel well, where I got pummeled by the dust that blew over the cab of the truck and coagulated in my sweat. I could feel a deep burning as the sun beat through layers of skin.

We drove for half an hour and then the truck pulled to a stop facing a bower of fecund trees huddled in a field, marking a fresh water source beneath. Colin and I jumped from the bed of the truck and followed the uniformed men. Between the trees was a hole in the ground, two meters in diameter. We stood around it, looking ten meters into the cenote beneath. A shaft of light shined through the mouth of the cavern, hit the surface of the underground lake at a diagonal, and continued into the turquoise blue. Massive root networks hung beneath the trees: wooden dreadlocks that ended an inch into the water.

Colin and I discussed if we were supposed to jump from the mouth of the cavern – we could survive the ten meter fall – but when he put the question to the officers they laughed and shook their heads. They led us thirty meters, to an open shaft through which we could descend to the lake’s surface. We followed them down the shaft and into the cavern. One of the officers lit up a smoke and warned us of the mosquitos that rested like a film along the water’s surface. The cavern was a perfect dome, but the bell-shaped walls continued their outward slant, so who knew how broad the room grew beneath us? Who knew how deep?

A ledge of rock lined the cavern. The policemen gestured that we could walk along the wall, and if we jumped into the water, we would be able to climb back out at the far end. Colin and I made our way along the ledge. I looked into the abyss. It was black except for where the light shone into it. There it was turquoise, and in the light a breed of black catfish swam like illusory plays of light. They fed on mosquitos, which fed on of the blood of birds and small children who swam in the underground lake. Nothing else lived in the water.

Colin jumped in feet first and I dove behind him. The water was shockingly cool after battling the heat. We swam the breadth of the cavern, exploring the root networks. I waved my hand back and forth across the surface as I swam, clearing the mosquitos out of the way. When my movements were subdued, the catfish would get curious and nip at the dead skin on my legs and feet.

The police leaned against the rock wall and smoked cigarettes. Colin and I swam in the shaft of sunlight and were able to see five meters into the water beneath us. We talked about the drive we’d be making to Koba that afternoon. Our trip was coming to an end after a month of driving. I’d soon be travelling to Halifax and embarking for work from the Scotian shores. I felt as if all my endeavor was an attempt to recreate something nostalgic.

Colin and I made plans for our return to the coast. We would jump into the Caribbean no matter what time we arrived, before even finding a guesthouse. It was imperative.

When we got tired we swam to the platform and climbed out. The rock ledge sat three or four meters above the surface, and I jumped from it many times. I inhaled and dove. I opened my eyes under water and swam down until the light faded to darkness. My heart beat as if the world were disintegrating. Panic set in. I turned toward what I thought was the surface, and saw the shaft of light still visible above me. The sun light no longer illuminated my hand in front of my face, but existed as a solid mass hovering in the space overhead. Even the black catfish remained close to the shaft of sunlight in order to survive. I dove again and again, each time with the consciousness that the abyss continued indefinitely beneath me. I wondered what kraken might emerge from that wormhole.

When the officers got bored they climbed back to the surface. Colin and I swam until we couldn’t tread water anymore. We wanted to make the most of a difficult journey by glorying in our rewards, though the journey itself, in accordance with all clichéd literature on the matter, was more valuable than the destination. Hell, the cenote was just a place between Izamal and Koba, just a place we’d happened upon and we made the most of our good fortune. And when we were too exhausted to swim any longer, we dried ourselves before ascending to ground level.

Looking toward the mouth of the cavern, I saw the officers were speaking to two Mayan men. They wore tattered clothes and each had a bindle slung across his shoulder. The four men stood around that giant hole in the ground, and I imagined they’d been watching us swim. When the shorter of the two officers turned toward us, I saw the rifle in his hands. I looked at Colin, who’d gone pale. “Dude, what the fuck?” he muttered. He was less used to guns, though my heartrate doubled just then, and I didn’t know where the rifle had come from or what to make of it. The officer didn’t have it when we arrived. I could tell it was old and well used. There was little patina on the gun metal, which was well-maintained, but the wooden stock had lost its finish where it’d been touched too often by human hands.

The officer didn’t notice that he’d frightened us. He smiled, turned back towards the mouth of the cenote, leveled the gun skyward, and fired a round. A brief ribbon of smoke coiled from where the hammer had tapped the bullet, something fluttered in the trees, and then a bird fell, flapping all the way down, through the hole and into the water beneath. Colin and I joined the other men looking down into the cavern. We watched the wounded bird struggling at the surface, flapping her wings but unable to turn from her back. The officer smiled at his marksmanship, and I marveled at the smallness of the bird and of the caliber of the bullet: a miniscule creature with an even smaller hole into it. It struggled, not dying, but without a chance of survival. One of the Mayan men took a sling shot from his hip, loaded the cradle, aimed, and fired downward. The water exploded around the bird, and the animal stopped moving. Then the police nodded to the Mayan men, and we turned back toward town.

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Filed under Literature, Short Story

Stout of Heart, Bereft of Mind

By Ben Leib

The shadow of the helicopter was visible beneath us, a blurry oval tipped forward and moving over the surface of the New Orleans swamps and waterways. I wasn’t faring well. It had been too long since I slept, and I’d been experiencing the slow passing of time as an undeserved cruelty. Or maybe it was deserved.

I’d signed up for a five week rotation. It wasn’t my first, and I’d been working aboard the Ferdinand for the better part of a year – five weeks on, five weeks off. But the survey was coming to an end, they’d prematurely cancelled our replacements, and the five weeks began to grow. It got longer. First it turned into thirty-nine days. Then the six week mark passed, and then the seventh. We’d been strung along with promises of a return to land that were never fulfilled, and I spent those last three weeks in steady decline.

It was the third of February when the survey came to an end. This happened abruptly. I’d finished my night shift and was bed just after noon. And then I proceeded to lay there, rolling from one side of the bunk to the other, fantasizing about how wonderful it could feel to sleep. There was a viciousness to my insomnia – a voice of paranoia whispering that I was indisputably an asshole, and that the shore-side population had finally figured it out. I knew I’d return to find the world had turned on me and I believed that decision justified.

Then someone pounded on my door. I nearly fell out of bed. “Yeah.”

Drew appeared backlit in my cabin doorway. “They done shooting. We have to retrieve the gear.” The survey was over. My job was nearly done. But I still had work to do and it would take me all day to do it, but that was all right, because what sleep was I getting anyway?

Twelve more hours passed. Drew, Dori, Amy, Rufino and I spent them coiling, spooling, and labeling cables for shipping. We wrapped laptops in metric yards of cling film so that they might stand up to the elements when left in a wooden crate aboard the deck of a supply ship. We drafted our biweekly environmental impact report, and then the end of project report. We redrafted them, and then we submitted everything to the desk jockeys in Houston.

More than twelve hours passed.

We were informed that the party chief had rescheduled the helicopter, and we’d should expect to depart at eight AM. Great news, objectively, but I began wondering if I’d ever sleep again. I took a break from composing and proofreading reports in order to pack my bags, and to launder my work gear.

“They’re going to let you leave,” Alessandra asked.

“And you said that you’d never get off this ship,” Patrick reminded me.

He was joking, but there’d been a point when I imagined dying out there. And eight weeks wasn’t so long, either. Two months without seeing land, without the love of friends and family. But the possibility of that two months stretching on forever hadn’t seemed so remote.

The day the internet went out had been bad.

“We’ve been troubleshooting all day,” Drew said. “It’s not the satellite. It’s not the router…”

“Well, isn’t that fucking convenient.” It was an expression of paranoia. We’d been getting jerked around by shore-side vessel managers and suddenly our only means of communication had been taken from us. I indulged fantasies of a week’s worth of radio silence while those fuckers toyed with my fate. They’d reestablish lines only to inform us that the survey was delayed through the Summer. Then – click – they’d cut the wires again. Maybe the fall. Maybe they wouldn’t let me off the boat for a year.

“What if there’s a fucking apocalypse?” I imagined risen corpses eating the flesh of my captors. “What the fuck would we do then?” I sat in the mess hall drinking coffee with four other guys from the instrument room.

Ike laughed. “At least we’d survive.”

“Would we? Would we fucking survive? We’d keep working this survey, mowing the fucking lawn out here, back and forth, over and over, waiting to hear from the Houston office that we’re all clear to move on. Without word from Houston we’d never leave.”

The guys indulged me with their nervous laughter, but they also eyed me. I told myself to reign it in. That was the beginning of week six.

When Drew approached me the following day to inform me that there’d just been an issue with a power supply, and the whole time the problem had been hiding in plain sight, and the satellite was working again, I still felt my paranoia just.

Rufino had it worse. The guy’d already spent four months on the vessel before they began pushing back the departure date. The administrators were less considerate to the Filipino employees, and it was taken for granted that they possessed something close to super human capabilities – as if they could easily put up with things that crewmembers of other nationalities wouldn’t consider attempting.

“Those guys will stay out here until their visas expire if they’re given the opportunity,” The party chief had told me, echoing the general opinion of the vessel managers who ensured Rufino would see such a fate.

When I asked how he was doing, Rufino responded, “My mind is sand.”

In the time since Rufino had boarded the ship, Typhoon Haiyan hit and Rufino’s Tacloban home had been rendered splinters. His wife survived unharmed and was living with her parents. Their neighbors were all homeless. Then the Bohol Earthquake struck, taking innumerable lives including that of Rufino’s closest friend. That was enough tragedy for one man to endure. It’d all happened back in October. I’d been back home since then, for the month of November.

Then in January, just in order to keep the man on his toes, fate served Rufino up another helping of misfortune. His next door neighbors, devastated by the storm, found themselves facing what they may have experienced as insurmountable destitution. The patriarch murdered his wife, two children, and then took his own life. These were Rufino’s friends.

If I’d been a shade more selfish, I would have resented Rufino’s travails, for his strength served to highlight my weak-mindedness. He suffered more than I did. “I cry at night when I’m alone,” Rufino told me. I tried to keep that in mind.

On Christmas, the galley staff put in overtime and cooked a huge spread for dinner and then again for lunch. A couple of the navigators had organized a raffle and BINGO, and whispers of a delayed crew change had yet to begin.

It wasn’t the first Christmas I’d spent offshore, and the same protocols played out on every ship. Folks walked around the vessel, shaking each other’s hands and wishing each other a happy holiday. It was a performance of the most minimal of acknowledgments that something might have been missed. It was an expression of solidarity, if not exactly celebration. The meal was something to look forward to, and then everyone trudged on, that much more determined to get back to their lives and their families.

I’d spent Easters, Forth of Julys, Thanksgivings, Halloweens… The Christian holidays were the ones that everyone seemed to acknowledge. The uniquely American holidays were totally unknown to the majority of an international crew, and I kept my mouth shut about my own Jewish traditions. Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and Taoists were also noticeably silent, though they were represented among the Ferdinand’s sixty-three crewmembers.

New Year’s offshore was different, and surprisingly more traumatic. People managed to be happy on Christmas – happy because it was Christmas. But spending New Year’s on the boat felt like terrible tidings of the three-hundred and sixty-five days to come. Delays had been announced and we were reminded it was our choices that had led us to such a predicament – we couldn’t blame anybody else for where we were.

That evening, the galley staff set out hats and noise makers in the mess hall. As midnight approached, a handful of crewmembers on shift collected this ephemera and migrated to the wheelhouse. It was dark but for the navigation systems – a few lights and monitors. A red glow lent ambience, and I was able to see that twelve of us had congregated there.

I was the only one who counted down to midnight. I screamed the number ten and everyone stared at me. By the time I got to one, it was just a determined whisper, and then I blew my cardboard horn. A few of the other guys blew their horns, too.

I held my arms out and walked toward Amy. She stiffened her arms at her side – a defensive position akin to playing dead – and she averted her face as I approached. “I don’t know what you want.”

“Give me a hug.”


“Happy New Year’s.” I hugged Amy because she was the human being on the ship with whom I shared my job duties, and because she was my best friend out there. But I also hugged her because she was the only woman out of the dozen of us in the wheelhouse. I felt self-conscious about that fact, and decided that I needed to hug every other crewmember up there lest I be misinterpreted as a creep. And so began a slow round robin of awkward embraces.

“Happy New Year’s,” everyone said.

“Happy New Year’s,” as if hugging were part of some ancient maritime rite.

Then, prompted by a mutual understanding that the holiday had ended, we all walked out of the wheelhouse one by one, and we returned to work.

My five week rotation was coming to a close when I was informed that I wouldn’t be leaving. A delay of only four days, I was told. The passionate, trusting, hoping side of my brain wanted to believe. But the rational side hinted at something else, and I was forced to acknowledge that four days might be put off indefinitely. Ninety-six hours might grow into some monstrous number of hours that would have the power to drive me irreversibly insane.

“I just found out I’m not going to be back on Monday,” I messaged Corinne.

“What? Why?”

“The survey’s delayed, but they cancelled my replacements.”

“How long is this going to last?”

“They tell me four days. It could be longer.”

“How much longer?”

I couldn’t answer.

Corinne messaged me on the day I would have arrived back in California. “I told you that I could wait five weeks, and I have. But now you’re asking me to wait indefinitely. This wasn’t in the bargain.”

I’d made a lot of mistakes in the short time I’d known her. I’d anticipated the five week drain on honeymoon passion, and I’d warned her of the difficulties. Five weeks is a long time, I said, and I’ll only have to go away again. I distanced myself in preparation for a loss that I was used to by that point, and maybe in the process I’d come across as cold and unavailable. I was aware of those mistakes even as I was making them. It was a futile strategy for I found myself loving Corinne regardless.

But I’d also begun to realize other mistakes, ones I continued to make – the diction I chose when discussing the relative merits of meditation and psychiatric therapy, the abrupt way in which I’d broken the news of my delayed return, the eagerness with which I had discussed plans for some hypothetical dinner in San Francisco/day at the museum/trip to Seattle. Each word of communication became a mistake that I could dwell on and dissect, and in each case I came to the conclusion that I was a monster.

“I can sense that you’re losing interest here,” I replied, “and it makes me want to scramble. I want to remind you what a great guy I am, to assure you I’m worth the wait. But there’s the other side of my brain telling me that’d be crazy. I trust that voice because I am a little crazy right now. So what I’m going to say instead is that I recognize how difficult this is. I want to assure you that if you get tired of it, you can tell me. I won’t be happy, but I’ll understand.”

“No, I’m not ready for that yet. Let’s wait and see. We’ll meet when you get home. We’ll see how we feel then.” Corinne was trying to be sweet, trying to be diplomatic, but she was putting me in a limbo that would wear me down. She would grow cold, distant. My rational brain would tell me I’d lost a good woman. But the brain responsible for my fantasy life would spin yarns, narratives lapsing deep into an unknown future and involving Corinne’s life and mine intertwined. The conflict between those brains agonized me, and I found myself wishing that Corinne would cut the umbilical. The way she kept me dangling felt cruel. If there was nothing to look forward to, nothing hanging in the balance, then my decline might not have been so precipitous. But Corinne did not let me down easy and I was savaged by the indecision.

I’d always considered my mental fortitude indelible, but such assumptions are conceived to be tested. I wouldn’t have been able to pinpoint the exact moment folks began conspiring. I first sensed it in the tone my friends were taking – they wrote with coldness, after long lapses between correspondences. They began using the same verbiage, the same turns of phrase, as if they’d spoken amongst themselves and internalized a tone of distance, of condescension. Maybe they didn’t realize, but their tells were clear to me.

I’d written an ill-advised email to an estranged friend that could have set the ball rolling. Perhaps I posted something unpleasant, advertising my cretinism and alerting everyone to the fact that I’d been horrible all along. Or it could have been some past transgression come to light, leading folks to dig up old skeletons – there were enough of them. I could imagine the snowballing of exhumation, as if my dark places were a burying ground. The tibia of one skeleton might lead to the jaw bone of another, a few teeth in turn revealing vertebrae, and in that awful way the truth of my self could be unfolding before the world.

Every woman I’d known hated me. I’d acted terribly. I thought of the words I’d spoken: at times unkind or dismissive, and at other times bereft of boundaries. I’d promised love more than once. Five years’ worth of mistakes. Then I regressed further, back into the drinking and fighting days. It brought physical agony to recall. I’d unnecessarily hurt men. I’d been a liar and a thief. I adopted a disingenuous air of tolerance, and in the next breath slandered everyone I knew. I bad mouthed my partner, complained of her tyranny. Some of those old acquaintances had chosen her in the separation – most of them, really. Maybe they’d decided to start kicking that corpse. Lord knows it was repulsive enough to command attention – even after five years of decrepitude.

What would it would be like to face my old friends – all the people who knew me and had deigned to love me? They’d gone and I would be alone forever, and that was nobody else’s fault. It had just been a matter of time. I’d known all along, and the rest of the world was bound to find out.

Having worked through the night and spent the daylight hours wrapping up the project, with those first footsteps on land impending, I would be able to sleep finally. The insomnia would pass as the conditions for unrest had been lifted. That was the conclusion I’d come to after having been awake for thirty six hours, after too many consecutive restless nights grinding my teeth and lamenting my fate.

I mounted the bunk, lay on two pillows that I’d abused into slabs of cardboard, and I let the fear in. It wasn’t unlike my drinking days, except that back then the stupidity, the meanness, the blackouts all served to rationalize my fear. I would wake up from those mornings beset, awaiting the repercussions due me. Sometimes I couldn’t get out of bed without a drink. But that feeling had left me. The terror was gone.

I’d been out there too long – an eight week devolution – and now I was being told to face the world and I was trying to muster the courage to do such a thing. But I’d come to understand what awaited me. Maybe conditions will prevent the helicopter from landing, I assured myself, because just one more day, one good sleep, and I’d be okay.

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Filed under Literature, Short Story

Those Lonely, Lonely Nights

By Ben Leib

“So, do you like meth?” she asked me. She pivoted sideways in her barstool so that her legs were straddling my knee. She was pretty. Or, she was pretty enough for me to start up a conversation with her. Also I was lonely. Also I was drunk.

“Yeah,” I said.

“I like smoking crystal,” she said. “I love it.”

“Can I buy you a round?” I asked her.

“Ooh, a sugar daddy, huh?” she put a hand on my knee, looked me in the eyes, and smiled. “I’d love a vodka tonic.”

Keith owned the Rush Inn. He was a good guy. He was good enough to overlook suspicions concerning the fake ID that I was using to drink there. The Rush itself was the kind of place where, if you sat in the wrong barstool at, say, six in the afternoon, someone might saunter in at six thirty and let you know that that he’d like you to move out of his seat. It was late Tuesday night, and the bar was dead when I started up a conversation with the girl who espoused her love for methamphetamines.

I got Keith’s attention. “Vodka tonic for the lady,” I told him. “Jim Beam and a Bud bottle for me.”

Keith was also my neighbor. He owned the house next door to the house in which I rented a room. I don’t know if that’s relevant to the night’s events other than for the fact that I didn’t want to get on his bad side, and the fact that he got to see the worst of my drunken proclivities, for we often arrived at our respective homes at the same early hour of the morning.

With our drinks in front of us, I asked the woman, “So, do you have any?”

“Any what?”

“Crystal? You want to party?”

“I don’t have any, and my friend won’t talk to me anymore,” she explained. “He won’t answer my phone calls and shit.”

“Your friend?” I asked.

“I owe him money.”

“Ahhh,” I said.

“Do you have anybody we could call?” she asked.

“Not this late.”

“Do you have any cash?”

“A little,” I told her, “not much.”

We chatted and sipped our drinks, and I bought another round. We were both drunk, and I suspected that it hadn’t been so difficult for her to acquire her regimen of speed that night. We shared stories about rehab, for as it turned out she had, only months before, run from a court mandated treatment center. And it hadn’t been so long since I’d done something similar.

“That’s all bullshit,” she said. “Everyone there, they’re all full of shit. A bunch of self-righteous liars. They think they’re all good, that they’re being honest with themselves and helping everybody. The truth is, everyone there wants to keep doing whatever had been causing all their problems in the first place. They all wish they were loaded.”

“I know what you’re saying,” I told her. “Have you ever heard of this thing called shotgun therapy?”

“No, what’s that?”

“It’s where, when you get into trouble or something, they hold a meeting and sit you in the middle of a circle. Then everyone sits in chairs around you, and they just fucking yell at you. They tell you what a worthless lying asshole you are. They pick apart all your flaws and shit, and then they scream them back at you. I guess it’s supposed to break you down or some shit. You know? Break you down so they can build you up.”

“That’s brutal,” she said. “I’d flip out. I wouldn’t be able to sit there and take it. I’d fucking bail the moment they tried that shit.”

“People responded in two ways,” I explained, “they either recognized the truth to what everyone was saying and they got really sad. They really recognized what piles of crap they were. Either that or they recognized the truth and got furious at everyone for saying it out loud.”

I took my shot down with a dip of the arm, and was satisfied with the warmth it left inside me. The girl finished her cocktails almost as soon as Keith placed them in front of her. It never took more than a sip or two from the little bar straw before nothing but ice remained. She didn’t drink daintily either. She sucked at those undersized straws with an effort that made the veins on her neck visible. When I ordered her a third cocktail and myself another shot, I’d barely sipped the neck of my bottle. Keith delivered the drinks with a subtle shake of the head. It was disapproval. Does he know this girl? I asked myself, Is this a warning or a judgment?

We toasted and I downed my shot and she siphoned up her vodka tonic.

“Let’s get the fuck out of here,” she said.

“You got a car?” I asked.


“Want to give me a ride to my place? I’ve got some bourbon lying around. We could have a few more drinks.”

“Sure,” she said.

Without another moment’s hesitation, she stood up and headed through the bar to the back parking lot. Because I didn’t have time to finish my beer, I snatched the bottle off the bar and smuggled it out the backdoor.

She was parked across the street. When she noticed that I’d snuck my beer out of the bar, she told me, “Just bring it into the car with you,” but I refused. I upended the bottle, draining it in a gulp.

Almost the moment it was back at my side, Keith appeared at the backdoor. “Hey,” he shouted, “no beverages allowed outside.”

I was standing with the car between us and the bottle was hidden.

“I put it in the recycling bin,” I hollered back.

Keith threw his hands into the air, said something that I couldn’t hear, and sauntered back inside.

I threw the bottle into the bushes behind me.

“You ready to go?” the girl asked me.


 “Take Front Street,” I told her, “over to Soquel, go over the river and we’ll cut through that little one way section on Riverside.”

The directions were pretty simple, so I was surprised when we flew passed my street on Soquel.

“Where are we going?” I asked.

“Just for a little drive,” she said.

I eyed her, looking for some hint as to what she might be considering.

“Are we going to your house?” I asked.

“Yes,” she said.

“You live this far out of town? And you drove to the Rush Inn for a drink?”

“We’re going to my house next,” she said.

“So what’s first?”

“I want you to meet my friend.”

We drove Soquel until it forked off, and then we continued onto Capitola. The commercial district tapered off abruptly as the road forked. Capitola was tree-lined, it was suburban residential, mostly low rent. We passed the high school, and a little Mexican market, and I knew the labyrinthine neighborhoods hidden just beyond the fences and the trees that walled in Capitola Road. We hadn’t left civilization altogether. Nevertheless, it was dawning on me that we traveling further from what I knew, travelling further from my home.

“I don’t want to meet your friend,” I said. “Don’t you owe him money?” I asked. “I don’t want to meet anybody you owe money to.”

“You have your own money,” she said. “You still have twenty or forty dollars in your wallet. Your money is your money. You can buy whatever you want.”

“I don’t think so. It sounds like this dude doesn’t want to talk to you. I don’t want to meet him.”

I looked at this stranger who was driving me away from what was familiar and comfortable, and she looked mad. Her skin was pale. I’d noticed the pocked complexion in the barroom, but those marks of her indulgence seemed all the more profound in the glow of passing streetlights.

She started getting upset. “We’re almost fucking there,” she said, “and I’m not turning around now.” She turned her head away from the road and looked me square in the eyes. “What kind of man are you anyways?” she asked.

I wondered about that question. I knew what she was doing, sure – baiting me into proving my manhood somehow, proving to her that I was not a coward. But the fact is, I was a coward. I was terrified – not just then but in all moments.

“C’mon,” I said, “we can go back to my house and drink whiskey instead.”

“We’ll go back to your place once we’ve picked something up,” she said. “Then we’ll have a real good time.”

“I really don’t have that much money.”

“I saw at least another twenty in your wallet.”

“It doesn’t mean that I can afford to spend it.”

“You’d have spent it on drinks if we hadn’t left the bar.”

We were miles out of town. We’d crossed Forty First Avenue where things got to be more commercial again for just a block or so, passed the DMV, and were back into the neighborhoods – lower rent, less trees, no fence to provide privacy and isolation from passing traffic. We were five, six miles from my house now, I estimated.

“Turn around,” I insisted. “I need to go home.”

“No, we’re almost there.” She pressed on the gas.

“I’m not fucking joking. I don’t want to go.”

“We’ll you can fuck yourself then, because that’s where I’m going, and you’re in my car.”

I heard gasoline being fed into the intake.

“I’m fucking done,” I said. “Pull the fucking car over. Let me out. I’m done. I’m going home.”

The car was speeding along well over the limit and when she slammed on the brake we fishtailed to the side of the road – not even to the side, really, but just to the rightmost edge of the lane. It was late enough that we were the only car out there. I exhaled. I realized I’d been sweating.

“Thank you,” I said, and then added, “I’m sorry.” I didn’t really understand why I’d said it, other than that I knew I was letting her down, and it was something I was used to saying when I let people down.

I’d unbuckled my seatbelt, opened the door, and was just about to step out when she screamed, “Fuck you! You’re coming with me,” and slammed her foot on the accelerator.

I had a moment to reflect, though there wasn’t much use for thought with all that liquor dampening synaptic operations. So it was more likely a fight or flight response that impelled me to fling open the door and take the dive just before the car really got some momentum. I didn’t even try to land on my feet – the mechanics of propelling myself from the seat prevented it, and I’d already allowed the car to pick up too much speed.

I skidded on my side into the curb.

It was a hard fall into the gutter, but I sprung up quick and took a moment to watch the car speed off. It skidded to a standstill a block up and the passenger side door swung open violently. Then the car accelerated again, and the door slammed closed fully. I dusted myself off, looked to the left and the right, making sure there were no eyewitnesses to my drunken daredevilry, turned back toward town, and began the six mile hike home.

She must have turned around somewhere up Capitola Road, and I saw her speed by me on the opposite side of the road. She rolled down the window as the car approached. “Enjoy the walk, asshole!”

I put my head down and started putting one foot in front of the other, cursing my weakness.

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By Ben Leib

Bobby and I approached the Nexus desk.  It was after breakfast, maybe eight thirty, and we were getting an early start.  But there were also time constraints, and Bobby needed to meet his lawyer early, before court reconvened from lunch.

“What y’all need?” Shirley asked from within the nexus reception area.

“We got day passes,” Bobby said.  “We need bus tokens.”

“And BART passes,” I added.

“You leavin’?  Where you goin?”

“Gotta court date in South San Francisco,” Bobby said.

“He gonna be buddying you?” Shirley asked, pointing the eraser end of her pencil at me.

“Yep.  The pass is for both of us.”

“Lemme look at this,” Shirley said, really taking time now to inspect the day pass.  It wasn’t often that residents got to leave on weekdays.  We’d be getting out of all the house meetings, the chores, our work shifts…  “Moe know about this?” she asked, turning and looking over her shoulder.

Moe, the office manager at the facility, looked up, saw us standing at the window, and nodded to Shirley.  “Yep,” Moe said.  “Ulysses said they’d be leaving for the day.”

“Well okay then,” Shirley said.

She set the clipboard on the counter so that we could sign out.  She handed each of us two Muni tokens and a BART card (we had to trust that there’d be balance enough for the fare).  I picked up the clipboard from the counter and signed my name.

“What’s the date?” I asked.

“August twenty first,” Bobby said.

I wrote 8/21/00.

We walked out of Walden House and onto the corner of Hayes and Fillmore.

“Fucking freedom,” Bobby said as we descended the stone staircase.

I looked back up at the building.  That ancient-looking convent now housed a hundred and twenty five felonious drug addicts.  It’d be nice to get out for a day.

“You got any money?” Bobby asked.

We stood at the curb for a second and then crossed Hayes Street and took a seat in the bus stop.  All of the bus stops had those little plank-like seats that swiveled on a hinge.  I figured they built them like that so you couldn’t set stuff on them, because as soon as you stood up the seat would flip vertical – like a tiny plastic version of a movie theater chair.  There was a round metal bar for a seat back.  Bobby and I each stepped up onto the seats, rested our asses on the metal bar, and leant back against the glass of the bus stop.  I pulled out a Lucky Strike and lit it up.

“I got, I think maybe eleven dollars.”

“Okay,” he said.

“Do you have any money?”

“A couple dollars.”

“Maybe we could get something to eat later.”

Bobby and I could have packed ourselves bag lunches, but we didn’t.  And there hadn’t been a specific impetus not to.  It just hadn’t really crossed our minds.

The 21 pulled up.

“Bus,” Bobby said, standing from the bus stop and holding a hand up to make sure we were noticed.

Bobby boarded hollering about the greatness of the day.  He was tattooed around his neck and up and down his arms, on one of his calves that was visible beneath his baggy cutoffs.  He had a blond Mohawk and didn’t shave often – the morning of his court date being no exception.

We were both nineteen years old.

I followed him onto the bus, dropped my token into the slot, and took the transfer from the driver.  We found a row with two open seats.

“So what’s your court date about?” I asked him.

“Drunk in public,” he said, “resisting arrest.”

“And you’re on probation, right?”

“Yeah.  I’m hoping that the last two months in treatment will buy me some leniency there.”

“I bet it will,” I said.

“You ever been arrested?” Bobby asked.

“Yeah, a few times.”

“I’m always drunk when they arrest me, and so I always fight the cops.  It’s stupid, I know.  But I just don’t know what I’m doing.  It’s like I can’t control myself.  You ever fight back when you got arrested?”

“Nah,” I said.  “I always tried to buddy up with the cops, joke around with them and shit – sometimes it keeps me out of trouble, but never when I really want it to.”

“Every time I’ve been in the back of a police car, I do the same thing,” Bobby said.  “I tuck my legs up, pull the cuffs around my ankles so that my arms are in front of me, and I start kicking the window with both feet.”

“That shit’s unbreakable, right?” I said.

“Yeah, but if you kick it hard enough, you can bust the window right out of the car.”

We boarded at the Civic Center BART Station and rode the Millbrae train to South San Francisco.

“What do ya got in your Diskman?” I asked him.

“Rudimentary Peni,” Bobby said.  “What’d you bring?”

“The Cramps.”


“Flame Job.”

“You gotta get into their old shit,” Bobby advised.

We listened to our Diskmen, and rode the train.

We were walking down Mission toward the courthouse.  The road was lined with empty lots and trees to our right.  Apartments faced Mission on our left.

“…I was drunk, real drunk, and I was in my dorm.  People said that they saw me falling around beforehand.  I’d already broken a window.  I couldn’t really stand up…”

“Oh yeah?” Bobby said.  “I been there.”

“Kids told me that they all of a sudden heard, Boom, boom, boom, boom, as I fell down the stairs.  I busted my head open pretty good, broke all of the capillaries in both eyes – just mangled my whole face.  I came to when the paramedics were picking me up, but then slipped back into my blackout.”

“Oh fuck, that’s what the scar’s from.”

“Yep,” I said, touching the purple line diagonally bisecting my forehead and terminating at my right eye.  “So the next time I wake up, I’m in the hospital, lying there on the gurney.   And I just know, Fuck, I’m in trouble here.  I’m concussed, my brain’s not working quite right, I’ve drunk enough booze that I’m demented, and I’d been on one for days – not enough sleep, so I’m impaired.  My first instinct is to run away.  I jump up but they’ve got IVs in both my arms.  So I start tugging at these things trying to get them out, but they’re taped down.  If I’d taken my time I might have been more successful.

“A nurse walks in and sees me doing this, and she has to call for a bunch of the orderlies or whatever.  They had like four or five dudes there holding me down, restraining me while I tried to get myself loose.  They ended up tying down my arms, my legs, my head… I was scared as hell.”

“Oh shit.  Were you okay?”

“I had to get twenty six stitches in my head.  But the worst part was really the CAT scan.  I was still tied up when they sent me through this big metal tube.  I just screamed and screamed.”

“So that’s why you got kicked out of school?” Bobby asked.  “That’s why you got sent here?”

“Oh no, it took me another four months or so before I landed in treatment.  I got kicked out for grades.”

The San Mateo County Superior Courthouse in South San Francisco was a flat building with a flat roof and a flat lawn.  It was unremarkable and uninviting.  I found a bench out front beneath the overhang.  I waited outside in the shade while Bobby went in to meet his lawyer and then to go to court.

I expected to be waiting there a while, but Bobby came pacing out of the building twenty minutes after he entered.  I could tell by looking at him that things hadn’t gone as they should have.

“Holy shit, dude,” he said.  “My lawyer’s not here.  They don’t even have my court case listed.”

“Oh shit is right.  Could you have gotten the dates wrong?”

“I thought that, but my lawyer called my dad two days ago to make sure I’d be here.”

“You should call him, dude.”

“What do you think’s going on?” Bobby asked.

“Whatever it is,” I said, “it’s probably not good news.  I’m pretty sure they didn’t forget about the kid who kicked out the cop car window.”

Bobby nodded.  He turned around and headed back into the courthouse to try and figure things out.

I waited there another hour.  I listened to my music and tried to smoke sparingly, as the Luckies in my pack were dwindling.  While I hadn’t thought to bring a lunch, I did remember to grab a handful of the Bugler rolling tobacco that Walden set out for its residents.  I wrapped loose leaf in a brown paper towel, folded it and put it in my pocket, and I put ten or so rolling papers in my wallet.  Between each of my Luckies, I’d roll cigarettes from the Bugler.

Bobby reemerged.  He was smiling, but he still looked worried.

“You figure it out?”

“Yeah,” he said.  “I had to convince them to let me use the phone and shit.  And then they also looked up my case for me on the computer.”


“I missed my court date.  I wasn’t even supposed to be here.  My court date was supposed to be held in the San Francisco courthouse.”

“Oh shit,” I said.  “Same case?”

“No, it’s a different charge… Or, well, same charges, different incident.”

“You kick out the cop car window on that one, too?”


“So’d you get to talk to your lawyer?”



“He’s gonna try to get the date postponed, tell them that I showed up, but just to the wrong place.  I still have my case here, too.  It’s just in a couple of weeks.”

We were walking back towards the BART station.  Now the lots and the trees were to our left, the apartments to our right.

“What do you want to do now?” Bobby asked.

“I don’t know.  We still got a ton of time before they expect us back.”

We looked around at the flat, dusty landscape around us.  There was nothing much in sight, not even a convenience store that I could see.

Bobby was silent.

“C’mon, man,” I said, “gimme something here.  I mean, this is your old stomping ground.”

“We could walk over to my dad’s place, but he lives like four miles from here.”

“Okay, well that’s out.”

“I don’t know what I used to do here.  It’s not like I spent my free time hanging out at the courthouse.”

We kept walking, slowly, inspecting the landscape as we went, hoping for some inspiration.

“Look at that fucking tree,” I said.

“She’s a big one,” Bobby said.

“That’s a climbing tree,” I said.

“You wanna climb it?”

“Shit, we got nothing but time.”

The tree was pretty easy to climb – lots of horizontal limbs and not too far up from one to the next.  We climbed higher and higher, and then we sat on a branch about twenty feet aloft.

“Fucking ants,” Bobby said, picking bugs off his shorts.

“I know.  They’re going for the sap,” I told him.  My pants were smeared and sticky with it.

We stared out from our perch there.  You couldn’t see the city or much of anything at all because the foliage blocked the view.  So we just watched the leaves moving for a couple of minutes, bullshitting still, only further from the ground while we were doing it.

Bobby turned his head skyward.  “Hey,” he said, pointing, “you think we can stand on that one?”

I inspected the fray above us, where the limbs began to lose their girth.  “I bet we can.”  I nodded.

I watched him reach out with those long arms, the artwork on his flesh rippling over the tautness of his sinews, and take hold of whatever over his head he could grab onto next.

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Je Vais Bien

By Ben Leib

My eyes were open.  I knew I wasn’t falling back asleep, and I experienced that as a traumatic disappointment.  If I could, I would have slept life to the end.

The room I awoke in was empty but for a small fridge, a twin mattress and box spring set directly on the carpeting, a bedside table, and a small desk.  I had books stacked on the floor beside the bed.  Most of them were French language workbooks.  There was also a French dictionary.  The walls were bare.

I arose, grabbed my toiletries, unlocked my door and headed for the shower.

Dressing felt like a futile act, but I looked around the blank walls of the box I was living in and knew that I couldn’t spend the day in there.

I saw Kevin in the kitchen as I passed through on my way out.  He was eating a bowl of cereal in his robe and reading the paper.

“Mornin’,” he said.

“Hey man, how’s it going?”

“Getting ready for a day up at the library.”

Kevin was a PhD student in Astrophysics or something.  It was mostly Cal students living in the boarding house.  It wasn’t really a roommate situation there.  We shared a kitchen and two bathrooms (men’s and women’s), but the house was segmented into seven separate bedrooms, each under its own lock and key, and folks rarely spent time in any common area but to eat.

“You got studying to do then?” I asked.

“Always,” he said.  “How’s the French class coming along?”

“It’s rough, but it’s coming.”

I’d moved there just for the summer, just to get through the intensive French course.  I had tested into intermediate, found a room in the boarding house, and sent Mirabelle down to Santa Cruz to set up our new place without me.

“So you heading up to campus then?”

“Yeah,” I said.  “Just on my way.”

There was a rundown convenience store just a little ways up on Martin Luther King Jr. Way and I bought a pint of milk.  That milk would be my breakfast, and I used it to chase down a couple of painkillers.

I had a large bottle of Darvocet in my bag – I’d stolen them from my brother…well, I’d kind of stolen them.  He had survived some crazy life threatening injury.  I didn’t quite understand the details of what had happened, but an artery erupted somewhere deep in his thigh, and the muscle had begun to die as pressure built within it.  It was an injury that could easily have resulted in paralysis, even in death, but Ely had been lucky.  He didn’t die or get paralyzed.

But he’d needed emergency surgery.  A surgeon cut Ely’s thigh open to relieve the pressure within.  I remembered gasping when I’d seen the surgical scar.  It took a skin graft to cover up where the swollen muscle bulged out from his flesh.  The surgeon peeled skin from Ely’s ass to put on his thigh.  The healed wound looked like the insides of his leg were still trying to escape through a web of scaly tissue.

But discomfort had been minimal during his recovery and Ely abandoned a prescription of a hundred plus opioid painkillers at my folks’ place when he returned to Santa Barbara.  I knew where they were, knew that nobody else had any designs on them… shit, I wasn’t even sure if my parents were aware of those painkillers’ existence.  So I took them.  I needed them the most.

That being the case, I had Darvocet to chew while I walked California towards University.

I turned left on University.  I stopped outside the liquor store up the block there, debated momentarily, and then entered.  I walked right to the counter.

“What can I get for you?” asked the man behind the counter.

“A pack of Lucky Strikes,” I said, “and also a pint of Ancient Age.”

The cashier put the bottle in a small paper bag and set that and the smokes onto the counter.

“Ten fifty nine,” he said.

I counted out exact change.

I walked up University, observing the city as it was getting itself underway for lunch.  It was still before eleven in the morning, the lull between meals, and the streets weren’t terribly crowded.

I turned Right on Oxford, crossed at Center Street, and took Grinnell Pathway up to campus.

I experienced a moment of pastoral serenity as I strolled that shaded walkway, beneath a canopy of green, beside a stream that trickled just audibly.  But there was not enough of that nature to lose myself in.  I could turn to my right and see parking lots and a street.  I could look up and see the classroom buildings of the Berkeley campus.

I wasn’t sure why I was walking up that way.  The French course was being held in Dwinelle Hall, but I hadn’t attended in weeks.

I was still living in the boarding house – I’d paid for the room and that money would not be refunded.  I still got up each day, and left the house.  Sometimes I still walked Grinnell Pathway.

But I no longer stepped foot in the classroom.

I passed Dwinelle on my left, took a right, and exited campus on Telegraph.  There was enough in that city to be interesting, enough that there should be things to do with my time, things that could keep me preoccupied if not exactly busy.

Hell, in another situation I’d have gone to the bars, met the noon drinkers around town there.  I could be a lively guy.  I could make a friend or two.  But something kept me from it.  Maybe I’d already degraded myself too extensively via a vast network of dishonesties.  Maybe I had to live the penance of those lies.

I took a right on Channing, walked blocks, took another right on Shattuck, traversing the heart of a beautiful city without looking or seeing.  My head was bowed.

I descended into the Downtown Berkeley BART station, slipped my card into the turnstile, and took the staircase down to the platform.  I boarded the Millbrae line.  After finding a row to myself, I cracked the lid of the bourbon, slid down in my seat, and I sipped as I rode.  I was thinking about the conversation I’d had with Mirabelle the night before.

“I’m lonely,” I told her.

“I know,” she said.  “I’m sorry.”

She was trying to be strong for me, and it wouldn’t be long before I let her down irrevocably.  I was already heading in that direction.

“I’m doing bad in my class,” I told her.  “It’s too much for me.”

“Well, just do as good as you can.  Try your best.  After all, you’re only there to learn French.  The grade doesn’t really mean anything.”

God, why’d that woman have to be so supportive?  I wanted someone to lash out at me.  I needed someone to tell me what a worthless pile of shit I was.

“I miss you,” I told her.

She knew something was wrong.  I mean, something had been wrong all along.  But she could see then, I believed, more than ever before.  Maybe it’s because things were getting worse.  I was getting worse.

“I’ll see you this weekend,” she said.  “Just get through the school week and then you can come down here and I’ll put you to work on the new apartment.  I have some shelves that I need you to hang.  Kit Kit misses you, too.  She needs someone to play string with her.  And also, your books…”

The rest wasn’t so important, just the results of that domesticity that we’d cultivated over the preceding five years.  But she did say something aloud before the conversation was done, something that seemed as if it should have been of dire importance.  She told me, “I’m worried about you.”

That one fucked me up.

I climbed off BART downtown San Francisco.  I ascended from beneath the street, and made my way up Fourth.  I entered the Metreon and approached the ticket seller.

“One for Transformers,” I said.

She issued my ticket and instructed me where to go.

“It’s going to be another half hour before the doors open though,” she said.

I went to the café they had in there and ordered a coffee.  I tipped the barista and took my cup out onto the elevated patio that overlooked Yerba Buena Gardens.  It was summertime and there were already folks lounging all over the park.  I watched them and sipped my coffee.

I’d brought a book along with me.  It was something written by Raymond Chandler, and had nothing to do with the French that I was ostensibly studying.  I looked at the open book as if a Rorschach was printed therein, and I didn’t turn a single page.

Though the Transformers movie elevated the robot warrior genre to new levels of artistry, I didn’t believe that Michael Bay had utilized a particularly coherent narrative technique.  That said, I was baffled by the film.

The opiates and the liquor had calmed me into a state of temporary numbness, but I still couldn’t focus.  I tried desperately, though.  I tried to forget about myself, and leave my problems at the door as I stepped into the darkened theater.  But I’d been unsuccessful.

The credits rolled, and I reemerged from that cavern no better than when I’d entered.  I got another cup of coffee and watched folks in the park from the Metreon porch.

I was at a loss.  I headed back up Fourth Street, and before I really knew where I was going, I was back on the train returning to Berkeley.

I got off at the Downtown Berkeley stop.  My feet determined the path I strode and my mind was not with me.

I walked down University and took a right on Martin Luther King Jr. Way.  I was walking on the sidewalk at the left side of the street, against traffic.  I approached an intersection with traffic lights, MLK and Hearst, and though I had a green there was a Zip Car in the road beside me, waiting to make a left in front of me.  I was in no hurry to get back to the boarding house, which was where my feet had decided to take me, so I deferred to the driver.

The car had already pulled partway into the intersection.  When the driver saw that I was willing to wait for him, he stepped on the gas and began to complete his turn.

Timing’s everything, because just at that moment a small and beat up looking grey Toyota blew the light speeding high over the limit and t-boned the Zip Car before the driver could complete his turn.  The Toyota struck the back of the Zip Car, spinning it a hundred and eighty degrees, crushing the body where contact was made, and ripping the bumper off.  Fiberglass grinded across the pavement for twenty feet and came to rest against the curb down the street.

The Toyota fishtailed, skidded toward the curb across the street from where I stood, regained control, accelerated, and quickly regained momentum as it continued down Hearst Street in the same direction that it had been heading.  It vanished around the next blind turn.

A slender black man stood from the Zip Car.  He held a hand over his forehead and his eyes were large.  He was about my age, maybe a few years younger – early to mid twenties.

“Holy shit, man, you okay?” I said.

“Did you see that?” he asked.  “Did you see what just happened?”

“I saw the whole thing.”

“That guy ran the stop light, right?  I mean, I’m not crazy.  I had the green, right?”

“Yeah, man, dude blew the light.”

A woman who’d been driving MLK towards us pulled her car over and was running up the street.

“Oh my God, did that guy just drive away?” she asked.

“He sure did,” I said.

“He hit and ran you?” she asked the driver.  “Are you okay?  Oh my God.  You need to sit.  Come over here.  Sit down.”  She led the driver to the curb and sat him down.  He had a shallow but long cut across the back of his forearm, and he inspected it as he sat there on the curb.  The woman pulled out her phone and dialed the police.

A moment later the driver stood again, approached the smashed Zip Car, and began inspecting the vehicle.

“I need to call Zip Car,” he said.

“You want to try to get it out of the road?” I asked.


He climbed into the driver’s seat and took the wheel.  I knelt to look at the rear of the car where the impact had crushed the body.  Because the left rear tire was flattened it remained clear of the caved in wheel well, and I figured I’d be able to get the car moved if I put my back into it.  I got it rolling, and then the woman was off the phone, and she came, took up a position beside me, and helped to push as well.  We got the car to the curb on Martin Luther King Jr. Way, opposite the direction it had originally been heading, and then the man stepped back out.

“Did you get the license number?”

“I didn’t,” I said.  “It happened too fast.  It was definitely a gray Toyota Sedan though, nineties model I’d say.”

“The police are on their way,” the woman said.

“Hey man, I’m gonna run,” I told the driver, “but let me give you my information in case the police need to contact me.”

“Yeah, that’d be great,” he said.  “You saw the whole thing.  I’m sure they’ll want to hear from you.”

I pulled a pad of paper from my messenger bag, wrote down my cell phone number, my full name, and the address of where I was staying down MLK.

“Thanks for your help.  I really appreciate it.”

“Yeah, no problem,” I said.

The boarding house room had just as many walls as when I’d left it.  I was sitting within them when the police phoned.  They confirmed my identity, asked me a few questions about what I happened to be doing when I witnessed the accident, and then asked me for my version of events.

I told them what I’d seen – unambiguous traffic light violation, unambiguous hit and run.  Definitely a gray Toyota, now with its front bumper smashed in, other than that no physical details of car or driver.

“Thanks,” the officer said.  “Not sure if we’ll catch this guy, but you’ve definitely been of service to the victim in this accident.  He told us that you were very helpful at the scene.”

The day didn’t end without another trip to the liquor store, and it was after sunset when I made my nightly phone call to Mirabelle.

“Hey,” she said.

“Hey there beautiful woman.”

“How was class today?”

“It was tough.  I’m way behind,” I said.  “I’m really struggling, babe.”

“Aw, I know you are.  You just get through this summer, and then you’ll be back here to help me put this place together.”

“I miss you,” I told her.

“I miss you, too.”

“I saw an accident today,” I told her, “a hit and run.”

“What?  Really?  Was everyone okay?”

“Yeah, the guy that got hit was fine, and the other driver was okay enough to speed away without ever stopping.”

“Oh my God.  What’d you do?”

“I helped the driver out, helped him push the car out of the road.  I gave him all my contact information and then ended up talking to the police.”

“He’s lucky you were around,” Mirabelle said.

“Yeah,” I said, “I think I did good there.”

“Well, you’re a good guy,” Mirabelle said.

She said it, but I think we both knew the truth.  And I wondered just what had compelled me to give up the right of way.

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The Brave Man who Lives in my Gullet Whispers

By Ben Leib

I was walking down the street and the sun was still shining, which meant that there must have been some special occasion, some purpose for my excursion into the world.  Staring at the pavement ahead of my toes, dragging my cigarette, I was startled when I heard someone yelling to me.  “Hey!”  I looked around and saw Jasmine’s head poking out of a moving car.

“I’m fucking single,” she shouted as the car accelerated and sped off.

I guess that was good news.  It seemed unambiguous, in fact.

I hadn’t seen Jasmine in a while when I ran into her outside of the bar.  She’d been partaking in the Red Room’s happy hour, which was my destination as well.

“Dude, all black?” she asked me as she approached.  “Are you a beatnik or something?”

“It’s just what was clean,” I told her.

She screamed when she hugged me.  “I know why you’re wearing black,” she said.  “You’re fucking fat.”

“Hey now.”

“Jesus, I can barely get my arms around you.”

Jasmine gave it another try, just to demonstrate.  She was exaggerating, of course, but it was true, I’d gained a bit of weight.  I was always fluctuating.

“More cushion for the pushin’,” I told her.

“You got that the wrong way around, fatty,” she said as she rubbed my belly.  “I feel luckier already.”

We met for drinks, or, because I was dry at the moment, I met up with Jasmine and a few of her friends while they took advantage of the Palomar’s happy hour.  As feminine smells mixed with tequila and found their way to my nostrils, my salivary glands got taxed on the overtime.

“You’re not having a drink?” one of Jasmine’s friends asked.

“He’s on the wagon,” Jasmine answered for me.

“I’ll get the next pitcher though,” I said.

“You’ve got to tell them your story,” Jasmine said to me.

I was tongue tied beside those beautiful women.  “I don’t know,” I said, “it just doesn’t feel organic right now.”

“Fuck organic,” Jasmine said.  “Just tell the fucking story.”

“I got laid the other day.”

“That’s not a story,” one of the girls said.

“Don’t be an asshole,” Jasmine told me.

“All right,” I went on.  “I wasn’t expecting to get laid,” I explained, “because no one ever has sex with me when I’m sober.”

“What happened?”

“Well, this chick saw me reading on the bus, and, you know, I guess that she made up her mind.  She came and sat beside me, and started up a conversation about the book I was reading.  Then we just started talking about things in general, so, by the time we got down to the Metro, I had her phone number.  And, I’ve got nothing else going on, right?  So I call her and she comes over to meet me at my house.  I invited her in while I finished getting ready.  She’s sitting on my bed, waiting for me, and I figure, what the fuck?  So I sit next to her and lean in for a kiss.  We’re there on my bed for a couple of minutes before I suggest we get up and do something – a movie, a drink – something.  But she doesn’t want to.  We never get out of my apartment – and this is all her doing – we end up naked, roll around for a couple of hours, and that’s that.”

The girls only half dug the story, and I didn’t tell it as well as I could have, but Jasmine hung onto my words like she could store them on her person and savor them at later dates.

“It’s like the Gods of Sobriety came down from the heavens and dropped a naked girl in your bed,” Jasmine said.

She echoed my sentiments exactly.  For a night at least, I had been blessed for my good deeds.  It was a strange feeling, for I was running deficits on both grace and benevolence.

 “I fell off the wagon,” I said.

“No shit?” Jasmine said.  “You’re drinking again?”

“Goddamn right, girl.”

“Well, are we gonna celebrate with a drink?”

“When and where?”

“Red Room, two hours.”

I arrived at the Red ten minutes ahead of schedule.  It had been a couple of months since I’d graced that little bar.  I checked in with the bartenders, bought myself a shot and a beer, and staked my claim on one of the rickety booths toward the back.

Jasmine walked in with Alex in tow.  Alex was queer.  She didn’t consider herself transgendered per se, but she pushed the envelope from the side of female in the direction of male.  She still went by She, but could’ve been mistaken for a boy.  Jasmine bumped me over in the booth and sidled in next to me.  Our thighs pressed together and as Jasmine spoke she rested a hand on my knee.  “I’m gonna show you a good time tonight,” Jasmine said.  “Tonight’s on me.”

I smiled.

Jasmine bought the table a round.  She came back with shots of Patron and cans of PBR, and we toasted my homecoming.

“I’ve got a couple grams of blow,” Jasmine said, producing a little baggie from her purse.  She wiped the table with her bar napkin and dumped a portion of the baggie’s contents in front of us.  “You do it,” Jasmine said, gesturing with her credit card.

“We starting big?” I asked.

“Get it all.”

We talked loudly, enervated by stimulants, and I drank with abandon.  The blow increased my tolerance for alcohol tenfold.  When Jasmine’s phone rang, she ran outside to answer the call.

“What was that all about?” I asked.

“She’s hooked up with some coke dealer,” Alex said.

Jasmine didn’t sit down when she returned.  “I’ve gotta run,” she said.  She tossed the little baggy of powder down on the table.  “That’s for you.  Have fun guys.”

The baggy wasn’t empty when the bar closed so Alex and I walked back to my house.

“I’m sleeping here tonight,” Alex said.

“Fine by me.”

When we crawled into bed, Alex curled into me.  “You can put your arm around me if you want,” she said.  I did as instructed.  She thrust her hips backward.  My arm was still beneath her when she flipped over to face me, and her hand snuck down into my boxer shorts.  “You can kiss me if you want,” she said.  I did as instructed.

“You’re a fucking dog,” Jasmine said.  “You and Alex, you’re both dogs.”  Jasmine was having fun.  “Why’d you guys hook up anyways?” she asked.

“We were both fucked up and drunk and horny, I guess.”  I felt I had to justify myself somehow, had to discount my and Alex’s intimacy, lest my urges be interpreted as homosexual in anyway.  I wouldn’t have cared with anybody else, but I wanted Jasmine to think of me as a man capable of bedding down the cream of the crop.  “It was really utilitarian,” I told her.  “We just both needed someone to get us off.”

“Oh, you make it sound so hot.”  Jasmine was clipping bras and corsets and panties onto hangers, and placing them on their proper racks.

I eyed the rack of lubricants, the oil based products, the water based products, flavored and heat sensitive.  “Which one’s the best, girl?  I want assistance with penetration, something that won’t gum up after five minutes.”

“Get Astroglide from the drug store, dude.”

“So, Alex says that you’re dating some coke dealer?”

“Yeah.”  Jasmine rolled her eyes.  “It’s not serious.  I’m just having fun.”

“Is he a good guy at least?”

She thought for a moment.  “He’s fun, but I don’t totally trust him.”

“Would you introduce me to him?”

I met Jasmine when we were still teenagers, fresh out of our parents’ homes, and I knew then.  Two souls so bedraggled and unsettled needed a storm to weather the storm, needed to freeze to survive the cold.  We spent our first time together snorting blow off her coffee table – her roommate had sold it to me, and I didn’t feel like being alone.

“Your boyfriend’s an asshole,” I told her.  “I don’t think he’s really welcome in the neighborhood, you know?  He doesn’t have such a good reputation around here.”

I’d only seen Jasmine’s boyfriend once before.  He got drunk and stormed up and down the street one night, calling Jasmine a bitch from the bottom of her driveway.  Had I been a braver man, I would have let him know exactly what I thought about men who spoke to women that way.  Instead, I glared at him from my porch and tried to look like I might do something.

“I know,” Jasmine said.  “He’s on the way out.”

He lingered though, and I was dating someone else.  Natalie was sleeping with other men, several other men, but I was too naïve to believe it or even consider it at the time.  So I was faithful.  We’d made no commitments to each other, I just figured that one girl willing to take her clothes off in front of me was better than zero girls, and I had better not push my luck.

“I’m here all alone,” Jasmine said to me one night.

A couple of friends were standing around her porch, where we chain smoked and sipped whiskey.  Well, I sipped whiskey.  The others were drinking wine like the sophisticates I thought they were.  I knew I was a heathen.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“Leah’s gone, and so is Noelle.  The place is empty,” she explained.  “It’s a cold night, isn’t it?”

“Yeah, it’s chilly,” I said.  Jasmine was drunk.  She was leaning on me, hands on my shoulder, cradling the spot where she rested her cheek.

“It’s going to be scary in there alone,” she said.

“You get scared alone?” I asked.

“I’m just not used to it.”

“You’ll be fine.”

“I’d rather not even be having to worry about it, you know?”

“Yeah, I know.”

“I’d rather not be cold tonight.  I’ll be scared to go to bed alone.”

“I know what you’re saying girl.  I’d love to be the one to keep you company,” I told her, as if she were not the far superior human being, as if I was a man with scruples, “but you know I’ve been seeing Natalie, and I don’t want to fuck things up with her.”

“I wasn’t inviting you to stay over,” Jasmine lifted her head from my shoulder and looked me in the eye.  “Jesus,” she said, “I was just saying, that’s all.”

I stumbled over to Jasmine’s house after noticing that the living room lights were still on.  That was a girl I knew wouldn’t mind keeping me company in my state.  She didn’t scare too easily.

“Hey,” I said to her, and then, “What’s up?” to Steve.

Steve was a buddy of mine, but he wasn’t the man for Jasmine. Steve’s perception remained unfogged by those specters of degradation.  Jasmine handed me a beer, for which I was grateful, and we all sat around the coffee table.  Jasmine was drunk I could see, as drunk as I was, and Steve looked at us as an anthropologist might inspect certain specimens of a troglodytic tribe, in which he was invested but not a member.

“I’ve got an idea,” Jasmine said, ever the hostess.  “Let’s do some nitrous.”

“You’ve got whip-its?” I asked.

“Leah and I have been selling them for two dollars a hit at parties.”

“Will your business partner mind you depleting the supply?” I asked.

“Yeah,” Steve said.  “You sure that’s a good idea?”

“It’s just some fucking nitrous,” Jasmine mumbled.  She stumbled into her room, and returned with a box of E-Z Whip, a cracker, and a punching balloon.  “Take it.”  She threw the stuff in my lap, and then fell back into the couch across the coffee table from me.

“Mind if I take a double?” I asked.

“Do me up one next.”

Once the balloon was full, I adjusted myself into the arm chair and inhaled deeply.  Moments later the balloon shot from my mouth, flatulating across the room.  I heard voices.  They multiplied and I spoke back to them, a wind tunnel of dialogic wisdom.  Then I was back in the arm chair, drooling on myself.

I looked up at Steve.  He seemed mortified and I laughed out loud, because I knew I could out don’t-give-a-shit my friends and that gave me a one up in life.

I leered at Jasmine while regaining my senses.

“Do me up one,” she said.

I went through the ritual: cracking the nitrous cartridge, draining the gas into the balloon, twisting the rubber stem, loading the second cartridge.  Jasmine watched me with an intensity, a soulful drunkenness that bespoke desires, fallen inhibitions.  My eyes met hers as I passed the balloon over the coffee table.  Neither of us shifted, nor did we avert gazes as Jasmine took the nitrous into her lungs.  She stared through me, and it wasn’t an inspection that I would soon forget.

Jasmine only broke that connection when her eyeballs rolled backward in their sockets, when the lids tightened leaving only a sliver of whites visible.  Her hands fell to her lap, fingers still clenching the lip of the balloon so that the gasses inside it leaked silently away.  Jasmine’s lips were a pristine blue, her skin milky white, that thick mass of curls, Amazonian tangles, and I felt it then as I always would – the cold steel around my wrist, the chains weighing down the floor between us.

Jasmine was mopping the corners of her eyes with a tiny bar napkin.  She was a small girl, and the effect was heartbreaking delicacy.  “What the fuck happened?” I asked.

“You know that I was still sleeping with Brad, right?”

“Well, you guys were together for a couple of years, right?  Two?  Three?  You know, I figure it kind of takes time, separating in a situation like that.”  Jasmine and her ex had split four months earlier.

“Yeah, I guess,” Jasmine said, “but this was more than that.  When he got into his accident a couple months ago, he didn’t have anybody to take care of him.  And of course he calls me.  So I spend a month, more than a month, being his fucking nurse, bathing him.  That’s when it really started,” she explained, “when I’d have to wash him in the shower.  It was just easier if I got undressed and got in there with him.  And then he’d never keep his hands to himself, so of course things started happening.”

“I thought that you were done with that guy.”

I’d always made a point of forgetting everything about Brad the moment I left his company.  He remembered me though.  I’d run into him occasionally out at the bars.  He always embraced me like an old friend.  It’d take me a moment to recognize him, and then I’d think, You’re a fucking asshole, as I hugged him tightly.

“He was fine with it when he needed someone to take care of him.  But then, when he’s all better, I go over to his place thinking that there’s still something going on, that we’re working things out.  And he lets me believe that, too.  So he fucks me, and it was so good, you know, there was so much passion there, all of that shit we’d been penting up.  But then, when it’s all over, he goes, You know we’re not dating, right?  That fucking asshole couldn’t have spoken up before he fucked me?  So I asked him that.  I asked him, What are you doing fucking me then?  You’re just leading me on.  And he says, Well, you’re still hot.  As if that’s some goddamn excuse.”

“I was never his biggest fan,” I told Jasmine.

“Do you think that’s the right thing to do?” she asked.  “I mean, you’d never do that shit, right?”

“I’d like to think that I’m able to be honest with women,” I lied.

“I know,” Jasmine said.  “You’re a better man than that.”  Though I suspected she recognized her sentiment as misguided.

I wasn’t an honest man.  Jasmine was mistaking a man who accepted what he was with humility and apology for a man unwilling to sully himself with lies.

I stood on the other side of the dressing room curtain while Jasmine tried on bras and corsets and panties and camisoles.

“I’m getting outfits for work,” she said, “so remember, the hotter the better.  I rely on tips.”

With each new outfit, she flung open the curtain, allowing me the opportunity for appraisal.  The poetry of Jasmine’s body read like Shakespearean sonnets and Victorian odes – seeping with desire, a subjective perfection that brings an author to tearful adulation, a hint of tragedy, a promise of the possibility of happiness.

I was tweaked and she was on the mend, so we were both jittery.  I was uncomfortable and endless language squeezed itself from between my teeth even as I tried to hold it in.  “Yeah, everything’s going good, you know.  Work’s coming along, and I’ve been picking up maintenance shifts here and there, which is cool because at the theater I can kind of make my own hours.  Sometimes I go in at night, after the bars, and just fix arm rests until daybreak… Oh my God, that is so fucking hot girl, you will literally give a man a heart attack.  Jesus, nothing does it for me more than a sheer camisole.  And red panties, girl, you are looking good… I’ve just been trying to keep myself busy.  I’ve told you this before, but I always manage life better when I plan, you know, when I have a routine that takes up all of my time…”

Jasmine, for her part, giggled and clung to my compliments.  I stood outside of that dressing room, in view of the sex shop clientele, and I couldn’t settle into my good fortune.

“You can see my nipples in this one,” Jasmine said.

Sure enough, there they were.  Those petite breasts, almost nonexistent really, and her hard nipples, perky, rippling the contours of the fabric.  Jasmine was giving me full permission to look, asking it as a favor, really, and yet I found myself looking away, as if I were indulging in a shameful voyeurism and getting caught in the act.  I looked around the room and then back at her body.

She seemed to interpret my jitters self-consciously.  “Oh, I don’t have enough curves to fill this thing out,” she said.  “Why doesn’t the extra weight go to my tits?  Why does it always end up right here?”  Jasmine pinched a wafer of flesh on her abdomen.  She prodded the bottom of her ass cheek.  “And down here,” she said.  “Why do I gain weight at the bottom of my ass.”

“You’re beautiful,” I told her.

Wednesday night was Drink n’ Drown at the Avenue, which meant three dollar pitchers and a high likelihood that I would piss my pants before the evening was over.  Jasmine ran to me when she saw me and she jumped on me, so that I had to catch her or let her fall to the ground.  Her arms around my neck, she slurred about how trashed she was, how she needed to fall asleep, like, right now.

“How you getting home?” I asked her.  We were no longer neighbors, but Jasmine lived within stumbling distance from downtown.  Unfortunately, she was beyond stumbling that night.

“You’re taking me.”

I searched the bar for Yacov, caught his eye, and dragged Jasmine in his direction.  “What’s up, man?”

“Hey dude,” he said, “you get a drink yet?”

“No, I just got off work.  How long have you guys been at it?”

“Jasmine was taking shots before we left,” he explained.

“Did you guys drive down here?” I asked.

“No,” Yacov said, “I was planning on hanging around for another drink.  I’ve got some blow back at my place.  If you want to hang out, we can head back over there from the bar.”

“I don’t think she’s gonna make it that long.”

For most men, there wouldn’t have been any decision to make.  All Jasmine needed was someone to put her to bed and then leave her alone.  I could have slept beside her, cuddled up to her even.  It would have been all right and I would never have crossed any of the lines that might have threatened my integrity, or her view of my integrity at least.

When I found Mick, he seemed to have his senses about him.  “Could you give Jasmine a ride home?” I asked.

“I need to go to bed,” Jasmine said.

“Yeah, I guess so,” Mick said.  “She just lives up the street, right?”

“Yeah, in the Blackburn apartments.”

I looked Mick in the eye as he dragged Jasmine from the bar.  “Take her home, Mick,” I told him.  “Take her straight home, and leave her there.”

It was an hour or so later when Yacov and I departed.  “What do you think of Jasmine dancing?” he asked me.

“I dig it,” I told him, feeling myself enlightened and open-minded.

“She’s so fucking hot,” he said.  “You know, I totally have a crush on her.”

“You and every other man on the planet,” I told him.

“Have you guys ever hooked up?” he asked.


“I just thought you might have, because, well, whatever.”

I didn’t respond.

“She stripped for me the other night.  We were totally loaded and hanging out at her place, and she said that she needed to practice.”

“How hot was that?” I asked.

“You don’t even know,” Yacov said.

I’d considered booking Jasmine for a show, saving up the cash it would have taken for a private party.  What would it have been?  Two hundred dollars?  Four hundred?  I imagined something romantic.  Her showing up at my ramshackle apartment.  I’d have champagne on ice.  I’d have the ingredients for her favorite cocktails.  And then maybe I’d take a seat off to the side, on a chair in the corner, and I’d watch as Jasmine picked a soundtrack.  She might be self-conscious at first, but those tunes would take their hold and she’d start swaying.  And she would dance for me unlike she danced for anybody else.  Unlike those bachelor parties; unlike her weekends with rich men who were fun and had endless supplies of whatever Jasmine wanted.  It would be something special.

Jasmine called me the next morning.  “Can you take me out for breakfast?” she asked.  “I need to talk to somebody.”

I’d left Yacov’s place after four in the morning, and I was moving slow.  It was hard to face the day with a hangover like that.  Even innocent, I felt like a perpetrator of unspeakable crimes, felt as if I was going out to face my own lynch mob.

“What the hell happened last night?” Jasmine asked me at the breakfast table.

“Yacov and I went back to his place, but Mick offered to give you a ride.  You were pretty tore up, so it seemed like a good idea to get you to bed.”

“That motherfucker brought me back to his place.”

“No shit?” I said.  “I told him.  I specifically said, Take her home.  She’s drunk.  She needs to be in bed.”

“Well, I guess he didn’t really take that to heart, because I woke up naked this morning in Mick’s fucking bed.”

“Did he rape you?”

“No… I mean, I don’t think so.”  Jasmine looked a wreck.  “I didn’t feel, I don’t know, sexed this morning.  You know what I mean?”

“No, not really, but, yeah, I guess I can imagine.”

“But still, what the fuck’s that motherfucker doing taking my clothes off?  Or, even if I took my own clothes off, what the fuck’s he doing bringing me home?”

“Yeah,” I agreed, “that’s fucking shady.”  Because I hadn’t slept enough, because the intoxicants that I’d ingested the previous evening were still being metabolized, emotions weren’t something easily discernable.  Nevertheless, I knew what I should do.  I knew what I should want to do.  “I’m gonna have a fucking word with Mick,” I told Jasmine.

“Dude, you should,” she said.

I avoided Mick for weeks, and it was only incidentally that I finally ran into him.  I was getting a slice of pizza downtown, and I’d forgotten that he worked at Pizza My Heart.

“Hey man,” he said as I approached the counter.  I looked up at him, shocked at first that he was even there, standing in front of me.  I thought to myself that he looked a little embarrassed, maybe guilty even.  His eyebrows arched and he was waiting for a response.  And then I began to feel that familiar resentment surging through me.  Mick got a momentary death stare, the good ole stink eye.  Then I turned wordlessly and walked out of the restaurant.

“I saw Mick the other day,” I told Jasmine.

“Did you say something to him?” she asked.

“I gave him a piece of my mind.”

When I’d made the decision to leave town, I figured there wouldn’t be anybody waiting for me if or when I returned.  I’d burned a few bridges in Santa Cruz, made a few bad impressions, and, as was often my way, I ran away.  But, after a year in the city, after a cross country road trip; after jail and rehab (not necessarily in that order), I found myself toeing a doormat, wondering if it’s welcome was genuine or an ironic gesture.  But Santa Cruz let me back with less a show of forbearance than I would have expected.

Jasmine found me drunk at a house party, and she nearly mauled me.  She grabbed me out of my stupor with screeching and other shows of affection.

“You’re so fucking skinny,” she screamed.

Jasmine and Liz were sitting in their apartment, looking bored in their dresses, as if they’d made themselves beautiful to better illustrate the profundity of their malaise.

“What’d you guys get dressed up for?” I asked.

“We’re going out,” Liz said.

“I didn’t keep you waiting, did I?”

“No,” said Jasmine, “it’s still too early.”

My shift at the convenience store had just ended, and I’d walked to Jasmine’s place to buy some pills.  Liz’s boyfriend was somewhere in the apartment, and we introduced ourselves when he emerged.

After Jasmine handed me the pills, I asked if she had any booze.  She pulled down a bottle of vodka, and dug up one of Brad’s beers.  With one swift movement, the tabs sunk to my belly and a stream of liquor followed them down.  I brought the bottle of vodka and my beer over to the coffee table, and took a seat on the couch next to Jasmine.  She nestled into me, rested an arm on my shoulders.

“Is this your boyfriend?” Liz’s boyfriend asked Jasmine.

We both looked at each other and laughed – it was an uncomfortable and disheartening giggle.

I’d gotten tickets for a party bus to take us to the Castro for Halloween.  Jasmine had agreed to go.

“You have the tickets already?” she asked.

“Yeah, they drop us off there, then pick us back up and bring us back to Santa Cruz.”

“That sounds like a blast…” she said.

Halloween day found me standing in Camouflage.  Jasmine sat on the bench in the middle of the adult themed store, looking up at me.  Her eyes were always a weakness of mine, not because of their clarity of color or some other feature that made them stand out amongst the eyes of all women, but because they couldn’t hide from you.  Of the infinite articulations of her facial expression, most were variations of nonchalance, of a hardened whatever will be facade.  But her eyes, they betrayed the sadness and the pleasure.

So, when I looked into Jasmine’s eyes and I saw that sorrow, that misery, it was difficult to maintain my fury.

“So you’re not going?” I asked.

“I can’t.  I… I just think that I need to get home early tonight and get some sleep.”

“Well what the fuck am I supposed to do?” I asked.  “I don’t want to go alone.”

“I know.  I know I’m fucking up.  I’m just scared, I don’t know, that maybe we’ll get stuck up there or something.”

“Fuck, dude, I’ve got to get going,” I said.  “I’ve gotta get ready if I’m going to catch that bus.”

“I’m sorry,” she hollered.

I took the party bus to Castro with a group of kids I didn’t know.  I ran into some friends in the city, and overindulged.  I missed the bus back to Santa Cruz.

Danny was just the man I expected him to be.  I met him in an upscale yuppie bar downtown.  He was nicely dressed, smelled as if he’d bathed moments before and then showered himself again with some aerosol fragrance.  He was fit, and I could tell that he was a man who made it to the gym every day.  He was a man who knew what his priorities were.

“How much you got?” he asked.

“One fifty,” I said, sipping my beer, ignoring the shot that sat in front of me on the bar.  I wanted to match him his toughness, his confidence.

“I can do five grams for that.”

“Sounds good.”  I upended the shot.

The bartender approached and smiled at Danny.  Maybe it was self-consciousness playing tricks on me, but I imagined the two men communicating wordlessly.  The bartender’s smarmy silence bespoke an epic of condescension.  He slid another shot my way, nodded at Danny, and said, “Looks like you’re about ready for round two.”

“How do you know Jasmine?” Danny asked.

“She’s an old friend.”

“She says you’re a good guy,” Danny said.  I didn’t take it as a compliment.

Jasmine had been on a tear since she and Danny hooked up.  He kept her subservient on blow, and, from what she’d told me, I’d constructed plenty of reasons to despise the man.  So, when Jasmine told me about Danny’s proclivities for meanness, about how he used to tie up his ex-girlfriend for days at a time, high on coke, for so long that she’d shit herself, I found myself wanting to respond with an act that would prove my devotion.  “I’m all down for a little rough stuff,” Jasmine said.  “Hell, tie me up.  But I’ve got things to do, I can’t spend my days strapped to a bed, waiting until he feels like letting me loose.”  Jasmine laughed, but I didn’t trust it.

I slapped my hand on the baggies the moment they were set on the bar, pocketed them, threw back the whiskey that the bartender had poured for me, and I went off somewhere to get high and contemplate what a weak man I was.

When I saw Jasmine at the library she told me that she was moving to San Francisco with Danny.

“You sure that’s a good idea?” I asked her.

“He’s being good,” she explained.  “He’s gonna start working at his dad’s company, you know, straighten out.  He’s gonna rent out his house in Santa Cruz.”

“What’re you going to be doing?”

“Well, I’ve got a good gig at one of the clubs up there, and I’ve got my applications in for graduate school, so it just feels like things are falling into place.”

Jasmine was applying to a Master’s program in public health.  Though it may not have been obvious because so often her brilliance was buried under something that didn’t want to be recognized for its brilliance, Jasmine was just that, she was brilliant.

“Everything’s going great,” she said, fidgeting and refusing to look me in the eyes.

Danny was allowing her a limitless regimen of cocaine.

I wanted to tell her to move to San Francisco with me instead, that she could stop dancing, stop posing for lonely old photographers who were both sated and heartbroken by the proximity that the camera bestowed.  We would make our way.  We would not crash, nor would we burn.

But the truth was that those fantasies had become lodged in an otherworldly realm, from where they would never be wrested into reality, for Jasmine and I had both made our respective decisions, and we would soon be leaving each other forever.

“How’s Mirabelle?” Jasmine asked.

“She’s doing okay,” I said.  “She’s a handful, you know, but she’s doing good.  We’re talking about getting a place together.”

“And how are you?” by the way Jasmine asked, it seemed more an accusation than an interest in my wellbeing.

“I’m doing okay,” I told her, “but I miss hanging out with you.”

“We’re two busy people,” Jasmine said, and then, “I miss you too.”

It was a cold night, three AM, and I was delirious – literally.  It happened sometimes.  Mix the right amount of booze with the right amount of some other substance that keeps you from falling asleep, you’ll see, delirium.

JT had kicked me out of his place after I started crying about my mom, and I found myself alone, sitting in my living room with a pile of blow in front of me and a fifth of whiskey to season the drain.  I didn’t have any responsibilities the following day, I didn’t have anybody in my life to whom I had to be accountable, and the drive to self-preservation was exhausted in the drive to feel all right.  And, in this state, I decided to pick up the phone.

“Do you know what fucking time it is?” Jasmine asked.

“Did I wake you up?”

“Oh my God, you are so fucking trashed right now.”  She heard it in my voice.  “Is everything okay?  Are you all right?”

“It’s just been a long night.  I’m fine.  I’m great.”

“So what’s going on?”

“Jasmine,” I told her, “I don’t know what I would do without you.  From the moment we met, from the moment I first laid eyes on you…  I don’t have much going for me, you know, so I could never bring myself to tell you what I was feeling.  How can I love someone if I’m just barely holding it together?  But I don’t think we get a chance to find so many of those people that we’re really connected to.  I think that we’re only afforded so many opportunities before the connections are all used up.  So I know it’s late, but I had to call you now because I don’t think I would have called at any other time.  I had to call to tell you what I felt, because I know that you feel it too, and I just need to hear you say it, that there’s always been something there, because…”

“Wait,” Jasmine interrupted me, “It’s after three in the morning, and you’re… well, you’re pretty out of it right now – really fucking out of it.  I need you to get some rest.  Just stop drinking for the night and go lay down.  You’ll be asleep before you know it.  And I want you to call me back tomorrow, when you wake up.  Just sleep it off, okay?”

“Yeah, I can do that.”

“And you’ll call me tomorrow?”

“Yeah,” I said, “You’ll answer?”

“Of course, I’ll talk to you in the morning.”



“I love you.”

“I love you, too.”

I awoke to the sound of my phone ringing.  It was almost noon, but all I wanted was to keep sleeping.  I’d acted crazy enough the previous evening.  I’d made a night of it.  Going from one person to the next, all night long, before I ever started bawling my eyes out at JT’s place, before I’d ever called Jasmine, it was a night for making people regret that they’d ever met me, that they’d agreed to some unwritten contract stipulating friendship.  The guilt, the shame, it would be protracted.

The phone was ringing, and I knew it was Jasmine, and I knew that I would have to face my drunken phone call.  “Hey listen,” she said the moment I answered the phone, “you know, I’ve been thinking all morning about that call last night.  I’ve been waiting for you to call, but I just needed to talk to you.  I know you were probably sleeping, but…”

“Wait,” I said, incapacitated by sickness, “I called you last night?”

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Packing The Wound

By Ben Leib

After the surgery, Mirabelle played nursemaid to me for a few months straight. I’d had a pilonidal cyst removed, which is as revolting as it sounds. The surgery left me with a hole in the divot of my back three inches long and over an inch deep. It was a slot of removed flesh, and that wound was “productive” as the doctors told me, making it sound like an operational assembly line.

Because the wound was productive, I needed to tamp it with gauze, and because the gauze would get saturated, the padding needed to be changed several times a day. This responsibility fell to Mirabelle. I could sense her glee as she pushed my naked body towards our bed, coaxed me onto my belly, and proceeded to enact our little medical procedure, which involved packing the wound and dressing it. “How long did you do the sits bath for?” Mirabelle asked as she tweezed endless gauze into the hole in my back. The sits bath was a plastic bucket I filled with warm water. It fit into the toilet bowl. So, to take my sits bath, I essentially had to relax on the can for twenty minutes or so, pumping warm water from the bucket into the wound.

“I was in there for twenty minutes,” I replied.

“Good. It looks like things are getting better back here,” she narrated what she saw, “the scar’s getting longer, so the wound is healing.” She ran fingers across the places where I was healed.

“I know. I should be back to normal soon.”

“You’ve never been normal.”

Done with the packing, Mirabelle slapped an oversized gauze pad onto my lower back and taped it into place. She patted me on the ass with a little giggle and told me something about how much she liked seeing me so submissive, which was meant to be a joke but bespoke some deep truth about Mirabelle’s, about everybody’s, need to be needed.

Mirabelle once caught me trying to pack my own wound. She walked into the bedroom while I was bent over in front of the full length mirror, trying to peer at my own backside, navigating a band of gauze with one hand and a set of tweezers with the other. “What the hell are you doing?” Mirabelle asked.

I shot upright with the abrupt movements of a man with a guilty conscience, and stood there, naked, gauze dangling from my fingers as I extended my arms in a declaration of innocence. “Nothing,” I told her.

“Why are you trying to do that yourself?” she asked, “I’m just in the other room.”

“I didn’t want to bother you.”

“You promised to let me make the decisions, and that includes how to take care of you. You can’t do this yourself.”

“I know, you’re right,” I told her, holding out the strand of gauze, “I couldn’t do it without you.” The truth is, I was doing exactly what she feared. I was trying to determine if I, in fact, could do this myself. If I was alone in the world, would I be able to treat my own injuries? Could I be totally self-sufficient? And I did not have time to answer these questions satisfactorily.

“Don’t pull that shit again,” she said, snatching the gauze from my hand, “Now get onto the bed so that I can do this right. Otherwise this thing won’t heal properly.”

 Pilonidal cysts are generally an ailment plaguing hirsute men. They occur in the same place on anybody who develops one. Other cysts – abscesses, boils, sebaceous cysts – these all have their places on the human body, but a pilonidal cyst only occurs in that divot of the lower back. This phenomenon was explained to me by the friendly doctor who originally lanced my enormous sore. Before some evolutionary turn, humans had tails, the doctor explained, and we human beings still possess a physical trace of where our tails once had been. That tail-marker exists as a small cavity in the lower back, and the cavity is particularly prone to infection. The hairier the human being, the more likely he (or she) is to develop a pilonidal cyst, the reason being that the hair acts as a sort of bacteria trapper, holding harmful microbes against the skin, where they get into the vestigial tail-cavity and incubate. The bacteria cause an infection, which produces cottage cheese-like pus, which pressurizes under the skin, which bubbles up creating an excruciating sore. I was mortified, hearing the doctor describe this process. He declared that the most common bacterium was fecal, possibly implying that I had a problem wiping my own ass or worse. I took pride in my hygiene, and shuddered to think of the various infectants populating the folds and creases of my body.

The sore only took a couple of days to really ripen, though there had been a month or two of discomfort preceding it’s appearance. Once it arrived, it was so painful that I didn’t immediately recognize it as a cyst. I interpreted the discomfort as internal. Because I was at work at the time, I couldn’t get a good look at it on my backside, and I thought that I had a problem with my spine that was causing swelling. I thought maybe I was experiencing some previously unknown form of sciatica. But when I got home from work, barely able to walk, Mirabelle took a closer look.

“You’ve got a big sore back here,” she said, “Holy shit, it’s stretching the skin so much that it looks like it might just break open. I mean, I wish you could see this. It’s actually pulling your skin apart.”

“What color is it?” I asked.

“It’s purple,” she said.

Mirabelle brought the camera with us when I went to my first doctor’s appointment. We were only going to be there for about half an hour – just long enough for me to take off my clothes, for the doctor to cut open the sore on my back and to squeeze all the puss out of it. Mirabelle thought that it was an experience that deserved documentation. She snapped a shot of me taking off my shoes, taking off my pants, taking off my shirt, laying naked under a paper sheet.

The doctor had his scalpel in hand when he asked me if I was ready. I gave him the thumbs up, and Mirabelle snapped a shot of that as well. He lowered the knife, and, with just a bit of pressure, the cyst exploded. I felt the warm spatter of pressurized seepage across my lower back. I felt the flow of blood and watery pus running between my legs. The smell of that semi-solid and rarely dealt with bodily secretion produced within an infected cyst, well, it’s unique to say the least. It has the distinction of being unmistakably human, like the odor of a deep belly button, or of recently clipped toenails that were allowed to grow too long, or of a tonsil stone, all of which are simultaneously repulsive and oddly familiar. The expectorant itself, inseparable from the blood that intertwines it, is a pale yellow. It’s not the gooey plasma that one typically associates with the word “pus,” but, rather, is more solid, more chunky, almost fatty, so that when the doctor squeezed the contents from my lower back it exploded from the cyst in large pasty globs.

“How much are you getting?” I asked him, as Mirabelle moaned and blasphemed.

The doctor would show me what he was wiping away from my wound, and it rivaled any grotesquery I’d experienced up to that point.

When he was done, the doctor slapped on some gauze dressing, which was immediately saturated in purple, red, and pus colored excretions, and he told me that he had effectively lanced my cyst. He then left the room so that I could get dressed. When I hoisted myself onto my knees the paper sheet fell off of me, so that I knelt there on the examination table, my back arched in mild pain, hirsute ass pointed toward the heavens, defiled gauze taped in place, and Mirabelle clicked one last picture of me and the glorious results of my busted cyst.

But lancing the pustule wasn’t enough, for there was still an infection in my tail-hole, threatening to once again blow up into a back rending cyst. The real surgery would be the removal of that infection, which had to be carved out of the small of my back. The doctors had to put me out for the procedure. Mirabelle, her mother, and her stepfather kept me company in the examination room while I awaited my dope-induced oblivion. Finally a nurse came in and retrieved me. And then, in the operating room, they plugged my vein with drugs and I was unconscious instantly.

A friend, who’d also had a pilonidal cyst, explained to me ahead of time that, in exceptional cases, weird things can grow in the tail-cavity.

“Like what?” I asked him.

“You know, like teeth, toe nails, balls of hair, that type of thing.”

My biggest fear was that my body had chosen to grow something of this sort. I saw the nurse standing over me when I first reopened my eyes. “Did you guys find anything weird back there?” I asked her.

“What do you mean?”

“Hair or toe nails, anything like that?”

I hadn’t felt an ounce of pain during the previous afternoon or evening, but, after a night’s sleep, during which the lingering effects of anesthesia vanished, I awoke feeling like a man who’d just had three inches of flesh cut out of his back side. We were going to our first aftercare appointment. The nurse handled me more roughly than I was used to being handled by nurses, and was therefore not delicate at all when she yanked a yard or two of saturated dressing out of my back. I started to bleed. “Oh my,” the nurse said, “you’re bleeding.”

She was quick to refill the wound with gauze, trying to staunch the flow that, from what I could gather, was mildly alarming. “Do you see how it’s done?” the nurse asked Mirabelle, who was learning how to take care of me at home.

“Yeah,” Mirabelle said, “will he bleed like that every time?”

“No. Remember that his surgery was only yesterday. He’ll be healing up quickly.”

When we arrived back at the apartment, I discovered that I’d bled, not only through the packing and the dressing, but through my underwear, my jeans, and onto the seat of Mirabelle’s car. But even then, I was unalarmed. It was a surgery, after all.

“It’s not supposed to be doing that,” Mirabelle said.

“Don’t worry,” I told her, “this will be your first time packing the wound. We’ll get some fresh gauze back there, and then we’ll get a burrito for my recovery lunch.”

Mirabelle rolled her eyes. She spread several towels over the foot of the bed, instructed me to take my pants off and lay on my stomach, and then she got to work. “This is soaked through with blood,” she said, “Oh my God, you’re still bleeding so much. This isn’t right.”

“It’s okay, just get that gauze in there so it all gets soaked up.”

“No, I don’t think you understand, something’s wrong. The blood… it’s like gushing out of you. I don’t even think I can do this right with all that blood.”

“It’s easy,” I assured her, “Just pack that gauze in there. The blood will stop.”

Less than ten minutes later, I stood in the bathroom, my sweatpants at my ankles, and, when I peeled all of that fabric from my backside, I could have wrung the blood out of it. I knelt there, with the door open, kind of crouching so that the unrelenting stream of blood dripped onto the linoleum floor rather than into my pants. “Get me a roll of paper towels,” I instructed Mirabelle, who was sitting at the foot of our bed, watching me.

When she came back with the roll, she asked, “What do you expect to do with this?”

“I’m just gonna try to sop some of it up.”

“That’s it,” Mirabelle said abruptly, “I’m gonna call your dad.”

“Wait, why call him? We don’t need to worry my parents.”

Mirabelle was already running off to the living room to grab her phone. She had it to her ear when she reappeared. I’d spun off a good ten yards of paper towels, crumpled them into an oversized wad, and was pressing them to my rear with one hand while I attempted to clean the floor with the second half of the roll. “Hey Arthur,” Mirabelle said, “It’s Mirabelle… Yeah, everything went fine, but we’re having a bit of a problem right now…” She explained the situation, and then passed the phone back to me.

“Hey pop.”

“You need to go back to the hospital,” my dad said.

“I don’t know if it’s the right place to go,” I told him, “they don’t have an ER there.”

“It doesn’t matter. They’ll know what to do. Just get back there. You shouldn’t be bleeding like this.”

“Okay, Pop, we’ll do that.”

Mirabelle had her arms crossed and gave me a voodoo stare from the corners of her eyes. “What’d he say?” she asked.

“We need to drive back to the hospital.”

I stood, facing Mirabelle, in the same examination room where she’d learned how to pack a wound just hours earlier. We’d been led in there by the receptionist while unseen staff members tracked down the nurse who’d treated me. I chose to remain standing, for I knew what a mess I would potentially make just sitting on the examination table. The nurse rushed in, panting. “Would you mind,” I asked her, “if I took off my pants?”

“No,” she said, “no, please, take them off and lay down on the table.”

When I pulled my sweats down to my ankles, the wad of paper towels flew from the waistband, where it had been held in place, and flopped onto the middle of the floor. Blood splashed everywhere. As I climbed, face down, onto the table, the nurse began frantically cleaning the linoleum like some murderess, flung into a remorseful frenzy after the fact.

Because I was lying passively on the examination table, pondering the faultless shame of my current degradation, I was unprepared for the surprise when the nurse suddenly decided to shove two fingers into my surgical wound and press them against the wall of my exposed flesh in a strange attempt to staunch the blood flow.

Mirabelle’s mother had arrived and was standing beside her by the time that Dr. Woo ran into the examination room. “Sorry it took me a moment,” he said, “I was actually in the OR when I got the message. I have to say, I didn’t expect to see you so soon.”

“I didn’t expect to be bleeding so much.”

“You know,” he told me, “if this ever happens again, you’re fully covered for emergency room visits.”

Dr. Woo began digging through the trench in my back. I hadn’t been given any anesthetic and I was clinging to the examination table for dear life. “It’s a mess back here,” he said, “It’s tough to see just where you’re bleeding from. There’s a lot of coagulation. When were you here this morning?”


“So you’ve been bleeding for over two hours.”

“Yes,” I answered.

Dr. Woo turned toward Miriam. “Was he bleeding before he arrived here this morning?” he asked.

“No,” Mirabelle said.

“And yesterday afternoon or last night, after the operation?”

“No, it wasn’t until this morning.”

“Okay, just checking. So,” Dr. Woo turned his attention to me, “I think I’ve isolated where you’re bleeding from, and I looks like we’re going to have to stitch you up back here. Probably just two or three stitches will do the job.”

“All right,” I gave him the okay, “do what you need to do.”

I guess that I expected some kind of local anesthetic, a little shot of something in the back to numb things up a bit. That in mind, I was taken completely by surprise when Dr. Woo threaded up a needle and got to work. I grabbed that wax papered table in a bear hug. Mirabelle squealed and Joanne put an arm around her shoulder.

It wasn’t until after the doctor finished stitching me up that he gave me a shot and numbed up my backside. I couldn’t figure out why he’d waited, and I wouldn’t be able to say why I hadn’t requested something to stay the pain. I was fatigued. I was ready to get back home and allow myself to be taken care of.

Mirabelle seemed traumatized, and was still crying as we drove back to the apartment. “I told you,” she said, “I told you that it was serious.”

“What can I say? You were right.”

“You were bleeding all over the place and you needed your dad to tell you to go to the hospital. I was saying that all along.”

“I know, I should have listened.”

“I need you to promise me something. We’re committed to each other, and I need to hear that you’re going to listen to me. I need to know that you’re going to take me seriously.”

“I do take you seriously.”

“That’s not what I’m fucking talking about. I need to know that, when I’m serious about something, you’re going to hear me and you’re going to do what I say,” Mirabelle said, “Now you have to promise.”

“I promise.”

“You promise what?”

“I promise not to be stubborn, to recognize when you’re serious about something, and to do what you say – especially when it comes to these types of emergencies.”

“And you have to promise to let me make the decisions as long as you’re still recovering.”

“You make the medical decisions,” I announced.

Mirabelle smiled, “Now I want you to promise to always do what I say.”

“I promise to always do what you say.”

“Promise that you’ll always do the dishes and make the bed… oh, and you also have to pay the bills.”

“I promise to make the bed, do the dishes, and pay the bills.” I reached over and gave her thigh a squeeze as she drove.

“Oh, and clean the shower.”

“And clean the shower.”

“And to let me tickle you when I’m bored. And also to beat you up…”

So I didn’t argue with Mirabelle almost at all during the following weeks, during the endless sits baths and cleanings and packings and dressings. I did almost everything she asked, capitulated without protest. I let Mirabelle take care of her man and almost took it for granted that she would always be there to do so. I miss her.

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The Memoirist’s Christmas

By Ben Leib

Sitting alone at a deserted café, I’d convinced myself that I love Christmas. It’s a Jewish reprieve, became my mantra. Not being a family holiday for me, I was almost forced to take the day off. While friends were off opening gifts, eating smoked ham, doing Christmasy activities, I had no choice but sit alone with my laptop, drinking my coffee. It was refreshing, I reassured myself, to have no obligations.

The truth was Christmas played out much the same as every other day in the year. There’d been a time, it seemed, when I was so busy, so burdened with friendship that I barely had a waking hour to myself. That was no longer the case. I no longer had good friends, only acquaintances.

That being the case, I was thrilled to see a message appear on the screen from an old friend. Shirley Ann – now there was a lovely, lovely woman who I’d never expected to hear from again. Having last seen her maybe seven years prior, I supposed she’d fallen into that nebulous place where fallow relationships are lost, never to revive.

Through those intervening years I had looked up Shirley’s homepage from time to time in moments of longing, begrudging my own failures and envious of her successes (and hers was not the only homepage that I turned to during these fits of self-pity). Accepting that pictures do not lie, she was as beautiful as the day I met her: that thick mass of tangled black hair cascading to her shoulders, her flawlessly complexioned amber skin, the thick lips, the slightly too large front teeth.

I remembered her throaty voice as if we’d spoken in the past seven years, remembered her slight lisp, and as I read her message I could almost hear her beside me dictating. I could almost imagine an actual, real-life conversation.

Happy holidays, she wrote. How are you?

Shirley Ann! I replied.

We chatted in brief, fragmented sentences about books.

I told her I liked crime fiction.

We recommended good reads.

So she’s back in Santa Cruz for Christmas?

She was in town, she revealed.

I’m sitting at a café doing some writing, come and meet me, I suggested.

Busy with family, next time.

What you up to tonight?

Leaving town for a snow trip. Tahoe, baby!

We exchanged phone numbers, promised to dial those numbers in the near distant future, and then came that solemn exile back to my physical world of aloneness: Shirley Ann is offline.

When Shirley called that evening I answered the phone with an enthusiasm that bespoke desperation.

“Hey,” she said, “soooo, my snowboarding trip got cancelled.”


I was sitting at my desk, chain smoking Lucky Strikes in my boxer shorts and a ripped undershirt, reading Frederick Exley and bemoaning a lack of life experience.

“I know, total bummer, right?” she said. “But at least this means I’ll get to hang out in town for a couple more days. I could totally use the rest too. I figured that maybe we could hang out tonight, catch up, maybe grab a drink or two.”

An actual, breathing, living human woman invited me out.

I showered.

We met downstairs at the Red Room. Downstairs was a dive. It was my kind of place – hipsters took up too much room, smoking, drinking cheap well drinks. The light was soft and the ambience subdued. Aggressions were checked in preference of a nonchalant and tacit suggestion of superiority. Instead of being in the way, I didn’t exist, which I preferred.

I strode into the bar at nine fifty, nodded to a few folks, and said hello to Gabrielle, one of the bar tenders who remembered me from years back. It surprised me, the number of people spending the PM hours of Christmas drinking in this public space, away from their families.

Shirley sauntered in ten minutes later.

“Hey darlin’,” I yelled over the ambient noise. We hugged. I held her at arm’s length, looking her up and down. “You’re looking good girl.” No woman can resist compliments to her physical appearance, right?

“You want to grab a booth,” she asked.

We found a place and I asked Shirley if I could get her a drink.

“Vodka soda, lemon wedge,” she told me.

“Any specific vodka?”

“Just not well, you know what’s good.”

When I got to the bar, Gabrielle smiled and walked over. “What can I get for you, Hon?”

“A coke for me, vodka soda for my friend,” I told her. “Use some top shelf vodka. What do you have?”

“I’ll make something good for you,” Gabrielle said.

I had my wallet out when she set the drinks on the bar in front of me. “I got you tonight,” she said, waving a hand at my money. I suppose it was a special occasion after all, seeing as I hadn’t stepped foot in there in what must have been two years.

With drinks in hand, Shirley and I sat side by side chatting. She told me about leaving town, training under a world renowned chef, and making the decision to start a catering company. By the time we met, her catering services had become not only successful, but in demand. As she described her life to me I imagined a whirlwind, a Tasmanian devil-like flurry, whisking through existence with an inexhaustible surplus of energy, every waking hour constituting an opportunity, a moment of productivity.

“I loved hanging out with you boys back in the day,” Shirley said. At that time, all of my friends lived together in a second story apartment, located above a local café. Shirley spent a lot of time with us in that dirty flat. “Do you keep in touch with any of those boys?” she asked.

“I see Sayre from time to time and keep in touch with Steve a bit, but, other than that, not so much these days.”

“It sounds like I see them more than you do.” That was true. They all lived in San Francisco. Shirley ran into those guys at bars, at parties. “How did we ever start hanging out anyways?” Shirley pondered, “I feel like it was you who introduced me to everybody, but I don’t remember where we met.”

“We met when I was working at the Metro Mart. You were always in there with your friends, buying candy and soda and stuff. We started talking when I’d serve you, and, you know, we kind of just became friends by nature of seeing each other around a lot.”

“Oh yeah, I remember now.” Shirley said this with a coy grin. “I remember how I was: see a cute boy working at the market. I’m sure I couldn’t wait to become friends with you.” Contact was being made. Shirley had begun touching my arm, resting an occasional hand on my knee, pushing my shoulder when I made her laugh.

“Well, you weren’t too shabby yourself. I’m sure the boys were blown away the first time I brought you over to the apartment.” I told her. “You’re still looking good.” I threw it in for good measure.

“For a bunch of womanizers, you guys sure were gentlemen. I can’t believe that you didn’t try anything with me.”

“Steve and Sayre are really the ladies’ men. I always had the hots for you, but you were with that dude you went to high school with. I can’t remember his name…”

“Caleb.” I remembered her awkwardly teenage boyfriend upset that he’d been dragged over to the house to hang out with a bunch of older, worldlier men – at least as we saw ourselves. He moped around a lot and wasn’t wrong to feel discomforted – we didn’t want him around.

“That’s right. You had a boyfriend that whole time. Besides that, I think everyone felt they had to proceed carefully, you know, you were still pretty young. That said, I’m sure there were a couple of times that someone or another gave it a go. I seem to remember a drunk Jeremy making the move on you one night.”

“Oh, I remember that.”

Then it was my turn to talk: “What have I been up to? Well, it’s been a crazy handful of years.”

“I know. I want to hear what’s been going on. When I looked at your homepage, I half expected to find out you’d gotten married. And you moved out of Santa Cruz for a while. What the hell happened?” Shirley asked.

“Actually,” I revealed, “it was really my fault that the relationship ended.” I said this by way of confession. I leaned close as if my secret might be overheard in that too-noisy bar. “I don’t know if you realized it when we were friends, back in the day, but I always had a bit of a drinking problem.”

“I knew you liked to drink, but I always just thought you were kind of edgy, just doing the same thing as a lot of dudes your age.”

“It was a problem back then and it got worse over the years. When I first got together with Mirabelle, I was in love. I really hoped that was enough to force me to hold it together. And it was enough for a long time. I settled down. I started to be more responsible. But it only lasted so long. When we were living in San Jose, I was working with a bunch of alcoholic, gambling old men. They just fed me booze at the restaurant. So that’s when things started to get worse. Then, when we moved back to Santa Cruz we weren’t really getting along anymore, things really went downhill. I was indulging more and more. Almost without realizing that it had happened, I found that I’d started using needles. I was out of control – teaching my classes on the nod. I’d get the shakes in lecture. Three years ago, we broke up. Mirabelle moved out.”

“How long have you been sober?” Shirley had scooted closer to me as I told the story. Our thighs were touching.

“A year and a half now.” I had revealed myself to Shirley in hopes that it might bestow on me an edginess that she’d find irresistible. But a love affair with addictive substances is bound to result in degradation that is less than dignified, that’s certainly not attractive. I never told Shirley about the time that I shot up my grandfather’s liquid morphine, as he lay on his deathbed, moments away from lapsing back into the eternal. I chose not to mention how often I injected my sick cat’s medication; how Kit-Kit would get her dose and then I’d take one for myself.

Shirley was starry eyed by the intimacy of my words. In a spirit of mutual disclosure, she began to tell me of her own misadventures, her own battles. She had skeletons about which she expressed remorse and a bit of shame, guarded secrets that defined her as somebody more complex than a simple success story. She was also someone who’d been impelled to overcome. And she revealed to me just a few of these secrets, that we might share in the guarding of each other’s struggles, that I might not feel too vulnerable in the professed weakness of my own revelations. “Because you’ve shared something so intimate with me,” she began, “I want to tell you about my own story…”

After hearing my story, Shirley stopped drinking in front of me. I interpreted her abstention as self-conscious and overly-concerned appeasement, as if she might be tempting or offending me by imbibing in my presence. Furthermore, such accommodations painted me as weak in ways that I refused to admit. I could see that I had become a bourdon, a vestigial appendage, tolerated because of a preexisting attachment, preventing anyone in the room from feeling comfortable because there, in plain view, was that appendage, looking unnatural as bystanders attempted to avert their eyes, stumbled over their words in the effort, and ultimately were unable to look away, for the visage of human freakishness engenders an intrigue too powerful to tame.

Then Shirley’s friends started rolling into the bar, and, when they arrived, I, being without a single friend, at least without any in attendance, found myself at an irredeemable disadvantage. It began with a suave looking, pompadoured young man, who, to my utter relief, was accompanied by his girlfriend. Because he and Shirley had grown up together, they were drawn into the encrypted discourse reserved for old friends who seem to have developed a language all their own, leaving the girlfriend and me to entertain each other.

The woman was beautiful. She was the spitting image of a young Jacqueline Bouvier. But she wasn’t a conversationalist. She held her martini too delicately, spilling half of it on me through a series of constant and barely perceptible jerks of the arm. She spoke softly, awaited conversation to arise, and failed to laugh each time I took a stab at humor. I, for my part, talked. I paused only long enough to give her a chance to laugh or to respond, and then, seeing that she had no intention of doing so, I would lapse once again into soliloquy. I tried to get her involved. I asked her questions: Where was she from? What brought her to California? What kind of music was she interested in? To which she’d reply in monosyllabic fragments of sentences, smile, and wait for me to continue. I couldn’t tell whether she was missing a chromosome, or if I was the simpleton whom she humored while awaiting her boyfriend’s return.

She touched my arm regularly, a gesture which I was ambivalent about. Of course, I loved being touched by beautiful women, but at the same time it felt one of those expressions of affection reserved solely for small children, demented old men, and cute dogs.

“You’re very sweet,” she informed me. Although she attempted to drain the words of condescension, it was then I realized, beyond a doubt, that I was the tragic figure, not at all humorous or interesting.

“Some of my friends are upstairs,” Shirley told me, “I’m gonna go up and check it out. What do you feel like doing? I could come back down here in a bit? You could come up?”

It was at this moment in the evening that the implications of social cues eluded me. “I’ll go with you,” I said, “I don’t mind hanging out a bit.”

The upstairs portion of the Red Room was more a lounge, less a pub. Men strutted with a self-conscious bravado, nearly as happy to physically resolve a drunken dispute as they would be to pick up one of the girls that they came to impress. Men outnumbered women upstairs. They spoke loudly, firmly declaring their personhood.

I didn’t like the upstairs Red Room, less that night than ever before. My pugilistic days were over, I having long since realized a dearth of both skill and heart in the face of physical confrontation. My drinking days were over, gone as well, leaving me uncomfortable and intimidated amidst that alcoholic excess. I was less a man than ever before.

For Shirley, upstairs was a high school reunion. Upon entering, like some sanctified starlet, she was surrounded by a group of boys who wanted nothing to do with me. In surrounding Shirley, this half dozen men effectively cut me out of all conversation. They were, every one of them, taller, more physically fit, younger, more interesting than I could ever hope to be.

Time passed. I stood off to the side, silent but holding out hope that Shirley would choose me at night’s end, never quite realizing that I had become a liability and not quite understanding the first thing about women – not understanding that Shirley had been more of a friend to me that night – sitting with me while her friends awaited and listening to the uncomfortably personal details of my life – than anybody had been in quite some time.

As last call was impending, one of Shirley’s high school friends made a suggestion: “Let’s go to my place. We can play beer pong and take bong loads.”

Shirley smiled and I knew that I had lost.

We all – me, Shirley, the half dozen studs – left the bar together.

“You coming with us, bro?” One of the studs grabbed onto my shoulders and gave me a manly shake.

“Not my thing,” I said, rolling my eyeballs around their sockets blindly, eyelids closed.

Standing outside together in a small group, they were making their plans and I was awaiting a good moment to announce my departure, when a tall drunk man was thrown from the barroom door. He was a gangly man, inebriated to the point of undeserved confidence.

“Fuck you.” he said, turning back towards the exit that he’d just been ejected from. “Why the fuck do you have to treat me this way? I was going to leave. I was fucking leaving.”

Three bouncers appeared as the drunk man backed down the curb. I could relate to this luckless drunk. He wasn’t fighting back. He wasn’t threatening anybody. He was simply demanding to be treated with the respect that a man deserves.

“Why does it take three of you to throw me out of the bar?”

I don’t know what kind of scene he’d been making inside, but physically the drunk man appeared harmless. He wasn’t a man who spoke with his fists.

“You’re fucking pussies, all of you.” he yelled.

“What the fuck did you call me?” a doorman asked.

The three bouncers fanned out so that they flanked him while he backed away.

“I was fucking leaving,” the drunkard said. “You’re pussies for treating me like that when I didn’t do shit to you.”

“Hear that? He called you a pussy dude.”

One of the bouncers, tall, clearly skilled as a boxer, took three long strides in and punched the drunk twice in the face. The drunk fell into the gutter and began seizing immediately.

One of his friends ran to him and took a position over the motionless body, holding his hands out lest another bouncer might get some more ideas about what a deserving punishment might be. A second friend knelt at the drunkard’s side, patting his face and trying to lift him by lifeless arms.

“Why’d you need to do that?” asked the man knealing there. “He was leaving.”

The guys surrounding Shirley had their own running commentary.

“Dude had it coming.”

“Calling the bouncer a pussy, that’s a no-no.”

“He’s too drunk for his own good.”

“Yeah, maybe he’ll learn his lesson tonight though.”

I was disgusted. More so that there had been a time not so long before that I might have gloried in a public display of violence, although I preferred to believe that such senselessness would always have repulsed me. More profoundly though, I recognized that I had been in the drunk man’s shoes oftener than I’d cared to reflect on. I’d been there and I knew – It’s a long fall into that gutter.

I approached him lying there on the asphalt. I looked from him to the bouncers, who strutted, chins thrust forward, daring anybody to question their right to violent acts. I stared at them like a gaze might be a knife, that I might draw blood and rectify violence with a violence of my own.

One of Shirley’s high school classmates ran over to the unconscious man. He helped the guy’s friends to scoop him off of the ground, and together the three of them helped the drunk start walking down the street.

I returned to Shirley and her group of suitors, and asked, “Does he know that kid?”

“No,” one of the studs answered. “He’s friends with the bouncer, the guy who knocked the kid out. He wants to get that drunk dude out of here before the cops show up.”

I looked at Shirley. “That guy didn’t deserve that,” I told her.

But I once again failed to follow my heart. Fear kept me from it.

“It was great seeing you,” she said.

I knew that I wouldn’t be able to fall asleep that night. From my bedroom, I would hear the drunken revelers hollering as they made their way home from the bars. Life had once again proven to me its fundamental and unalterable truths: disappointment and cruelty. Had I spent uncountable years plying my share of nature’s own capital? I certainly had spent years, a good part of a lifetime, trying to numb myself to these truths.

And other people seemed to get by. Others seemed to find some sort of contentment, a blissful serenity amidst the unfairness. I would make a vow that night, a promise that I had made to myself so often over the years, that I’d recently found myself repeating over and over as if an incantatory spell wherein was hidden the secrets of an unknown salvation. Leave it all behind, I told myself. You don’t need anybody. Your own world will be enough. And with my vows renewed I would sit alone in cafés, avoiding eye contact, banging keys, circumscribing a life already lived and thereby recreating the space in which I might perpetually dwell.

“You too,” I said. “I’m glad we got a chance to catch up. I’m really happy for you. I always knew you’d come out on top. You’ve got a good head on your shoulders.” Pithy wisdom from a man unqualified to make such summations. “Shirley, darlin’, I gotta run.”

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Filed under Literature, Short Story

The Staging Ground

By Ben Leib

When I went out to check my laundry and found that somebody had taken my wet clothes out of the washer and set them atop the drier, I was enraged to the point of impulsiveness. That drier lid had never been cleaned that I knew of, so I interpreted the act as one of aggression. Such inconsequential dramas may seem things easy to overlook, but I was at a point in life at which I was unwilling to let people walk all over me. Powerless and subjected to the whims of a populous unconcerned with my dignity or sense of well being, I could no longer bite my tongue, take pause, and allow for such selfishness. So I took my neighbor’s clothes out of the washer, set them atop the drier – just as had been done to me – and I began my last dirty load.

As I turned around, I was surprised to see my next door neighbor, Kaitlin, standing in the doorway to the laundry room. “Why are you touching my laundry?” she asked, lips peeled like an animal demented with rabies, feet planted square.

“Oh, I was just moving it out of the way so that I could do my wash,” I said.

“But I’m still in line for the drier, right?”

“Yeah, of course,” I told her, “I’m going to finish the wash I started, and in about two hours the drier will be free for you to use.”

It wasn’t what she wanted to hear. “Excuse me? I did this load already; I should get the drier as soon as those clothes are done.”

 “Look, you’re the one who chose to come along and mess with my laundry. You took my clothes out of the wash, I’m gonna do the same,” I explained, “What’s good for the goose is good for the gander, right?”

“You’re a fucking asshole, you know that?”

“You knew that you were doing something wrong, am I right? You knew that you’d be pissing someone off by moving their laundry while they were in the middle of it.”

 “You’re a little fucking baby, you whiney little bitch.” I stared at her. Kaitlin started crying. “I’ve worked two shifts today, and I’m fucking tired. This is fucking bullshit!”

“I worked a double today also,” I told her.

I first heard Kaitlin crying within two weeks of moving into my new place. I heard her through the walls. It wasn’t a soft whimper either, but a loud, groaning wail. I didn’t know either Danny or Kaitlin very well. Nevertheless, I had already made up my mind that the next door neighbors would not become friends of mine, and were, in fact, folks who I should avoid.

On the day I moved in, Danny invited me into their apartment. Before I even knew their names, Danny and Kaitlin were slandering the neighbors. “Those homos,” Danny said, “are always having their gay little dramas in the driveway. We call the cops on them at least once a week,” Danny informed me, “Finally, I had to tell Zelma that, if they got ticketed for a noise complaint, she would be responsible for paying it. I did my research,” Danny smiled proudly, “and I know that it’s the landlords who are responsible for residential fines. After I let her know, Zelma had a talk with the neighbors, and they’ve been behaving so far.” Those particular neighbors moved out by the end of that month.

It was maybe three weeks after I’d moved in that I first heard the screaming, the fighting. It sounded like an earthquake was localized, against all probability and against the laws of nature, in the confines of my neighbors’ apartment. I heard their household items being thrown against walls, I felt the reverberations of their stomping, I heard the horrible things that they said to each other, and, occasionally, I would hear the brawl as their disagreements turned physical.

Once again my laundry had been moved, and once again Kaitlin was the culprit. I responded in kind.

“Um, yeah,” she said, storming across the driveway, “I need you to take your clothes out of there right this second.”

Maybe she thought that a direct order was more likely to meet with results. “Excuse me? You want me to stop the drier and take my clothes out?”

“It’s my turn, you leap frogged me, now get your fucking clothes out of the drier.”

“Sorry, but that’s not gonna happen.”

“Fuck you, you asshole piece of shit, get your goddamn clothes out of there.”

“Look, you took a gamble, you cut in front of me hoping that I wouldn’t say anything, but you lost. I’m going to finish my laundry, please don’t ever move it again.”

“I didn’t move your laundry,” she said. “I didn’t fucking touch your laundry.” This was beginning to sound like true insanity.

“You fucking touched it and you moved it when you took it out of that washing machine,” I pointed to the washing machine, “and set it on top of that drier,” I pointed to the drier. “You did take it out of the fucking washing machine, right?”

“You’re the one leap frogging,” she said.

“You’re the one cutting.”

“You’re a little fucking child, with all this cutting shit.”

“Cutting, leap frogging, they’re the same thing. But you’re right, this is beginning to feel totally childish. I’m not moving my goddamn laundry, period. I don’t think there’s anything else to say.”

Kaitlin screamed. She mocked my physical appearance, and questioned my mental capabilities.

Finally, I’d had enough. “Look, there’s no reason for me to stand here and listen to this. Tomorrow the landlord’s getting a call, we’ll let Zelma sort this out, but for now I’m finishing my fucking laundry.”

Kaitlin stormed out of the laundry room, using both hands to slam the door closed behind her. I caught the door before it slammed shut, angry as I could ever remember being. But it wasn’t over, because Kaitlin ran into her apartment, and, front door still open, began screaming to Danny, “That little piece of shit fucking leap frogged us.”

If she wanted to get the old man involved, I was more than game. This was a fight I wasn’t going to run from. “If you want to fucking talk about this, Danny, I’m right fucking here!” I hollered into their open door, “I’m not going anywhere.”

“What’s going on?” he asked innocently.

“This fucking asshole won’t let me do our laundry.”

“Hey man, I was there first. I’m finishing my fucking wash,” I said.

“How much more do you have to do?” Danny asked.

I gritted my teeth and replied, “One more load.”

Kaitlin ran to the doorway behind him. “This little fucker leap frogged,” she said, “He’s always pulling this bullshit…”

“You know what,” I said, interrupting her, “fuck this. I’m fucking calling Zelma tomorrow, and that’s it.”

I was lying in bed, feeling as if I’d been the one in a fight when the cops finally showed up at around two AM. Kaitlin had been screaming and banging and throwing and breaking, and I was surprised that she still had an apartment left when the officer knocked on the door. “Uh, oh hey,” she said upon answering, “what can I do for you?”

“We’ve got a report of a domestic disturbance,” one officer said.

“Really? Nothing like that’s going on here.”

“Nevertheless, we got a complaint. Is Daniel Mendez a resident here?”

“Yes, Dan’s sleeping right now,” Kaitlin explained.

“Well, we’re gonna need to have a word with him.”

“Really, I mean, he’s got to get up for work early tomorrow. I’d hate to wake him up.”

“Look Miss, we have to talk to Mr. Mendez because the individual who called us expressed concern for his safety. The caller believed that you were threatening him, and that his life was in danger.”

Kaitlin was tongue tied.

“No need for the melodrama, Miss. Get Daniel out here, we’ll see that he’s still alive, and then we can go.”

 “Hi Zelma,” I said when I got her on the line, “I’m having some problems with the laundry room.”

“Why?” she asked, “What’s going on?”

I explained the situation. I wasn’t positive that she’d agree with me. Maybe it was fine for people to move a wet load as soon as the wash cycle had run its course, but I suspected not.

“That’s terrible,” Zelma said, “I just don’t know why people can’t act like adults.” Then she asked something that took me by surprise, “Was it Kaitlin, in B?”

Hearing the two women fighting, Kaitlin and the woman from Apartment C, I couldn’t discern what had prompted the animosity. They were both screaming at each other. The woman from C held her own against Kaitlin. Both went for the jugular. Kaitlin screamed what a poor, undesirable, piece of trash our neighbor was. And the neighbor had no problem calling Kaitlin a lunatic, referencing the nightly fighting taking place in apartment B.

There were other incidents over the next couple of weeks. Kaitlin and the woman from C had their semiweekly verbal sparring matches out in the driveway. What’s more, things began occurring in the laundry room. First, somebody emptied the carton of detergent belonging to the woman in C. I knew this because she left an angry note taped to the drier, demanding compensation from whoever had used all of her soap.

Sometime after that, the laundry belonging to that woman’s teenage daughter, a hamper full of clean clothes, vanished. It was half of the girl’s wardrobe, and I can only imagine what it costs to dress a teenage female. The girl’s mother, the woman who’d been feuding with Kaitlin, approached me to ask if I’d seen anything. “Yeah, she’s an irresponsible teenager,” the woman explained, “She left her clothes in the laundry room for over a day. She forgot about them. But they weren’t in the way. Her hamper was in there, and I’m sure somebody just moved them to the side. I just want to know if you’ve seen anything suspicious. People have been leaving the laundry room unlocked, and I want to find out who took my daughter’s clothes.”

“I didn’t see anything. I’m really sorry.”

It was my day off and I had slept in. I was still in bed when I heard, through my bedroom window, Kaitlin talking on her cell phone to the landlord. “She’s crazy, Zelma,” Kaitlin said, “and she’s messy. She leaves trash all over the property. She’s got a cat too, and I know that’s against the rules. Yesterday, that cat got into my house and scratched up all my furniture, totally damaged my couches. Now I don’t know who’s going to pay for those couches, but… yeah, cats. I can’t even leave my door open without having to worry now about something going wrong.”

“And she gets into fights,” Kaitlin continued, “the cops came over and talked to her and her boyfriend just last week… Yeah, they were fighting all night and someone called the police on them. The police actually had to get the guy out of their house.”

Because I’d been waiting for someone to come and unclog my shower drain, I had a reasonable motive for calling Zelma. If Kaitlin happened to come up, well, then, that was just the nature of any casual interaction. After confirming a good time for the maintenance man to swing by, I asked, “What’s up with the ladies in Apartment C?”

“Well,” Zelma, who was a glutton for gossip, revealed, “they just put in their notice, so they’ll be gone in a few weeks. But I guess that it’s for the best, because I’ve heard that she’s been fighting over there, and that the police have gotten involved.”

“Really,” I said, “I’ve never heard the police knocking on the door of Apartment C. That lady and her daughter? Really? They actually keep to themselves for the most part, but I know that the police have broken up fights between Danny and Kaitlin several times.”

“No! In apartment B?”

“Yep, that’s right.”

“Oh my. Kaitlin was just on the phone with me, and she said that the lady’s cats had scratched up her couch.”

“Really?” I said, “Well, I’ve never had any animals get into my house without my knowing it. I don’t see how a cat would ever get into my place long enough to do damage to my furniture.”

I began to notice little things. For example, garbage began appearing in my laundry. It would somehow enter the drier, and I would find it, either at the moment I unloaded my dry clothes, or when I was back in my apartment, putting things away. Once there was a thin rubber examination glove half melted onto a pair of jeans. Once there was a condom, in about the same condition. I suspected that, maybe, someone was entering the laundry room and putting trash into the drier while it was running. But there was also a little bucket for lint and other garbage, and the bucket was perpetually on the verge of overflowing. It was conceivable that I had simply tracked some of that garbage into the drier by mistake. But it seemed unlikely.

The roof of my car got scratched. It was a long, single scratch, beginning above the passenger seat and extending to the driver side door. I knew that the scratch was recent, though I couldn’t pin point a certain day or time that it had happened. I just looked at the roof of my car one day and thought to myself, fuck, that sucks. But Zelma was renovating the house at the back of the property, and there were builders and carpenters constantly at work in our little parking lot. Maybe, I thought to myself, someone was parked too close to my car, and was careless with a beam that they were unloading or something.

It started with the usual screaming, throwing things against the walls, that type of thing. I had to work an opening shift at six in the morning, and my rage grew exponentially in proportion to the intensity of the fight keeping me awake.

 Kaitlin stormed outside, slamming the door behind her. Once outside, Kaitlin took a breather. She chain smoked cigarettes, and, I hoped, cooled herself off a bit. But, while she paced back and forth in the driveway outside of my bedroom window, Danny was in their apartment calling her cell phone incessantly. Kaitlin’s ring tone sounded like whistling. So two or three times a minute, while I lay there trying to go to sleep, I would hear a haunting whistle outside. Kaitlin allowed the thing to ring for a little while, and then hung up without answering, at which point Danny dialed her number once again.

Kaitlin finished chain smoking, and didn’t so much walk back inside as she charged at full speed like a one woman SWAT team, screaming an unintelligible battle cry. During Kaitlin’s final smoke break that evening, at about three in the morning, I heard their front door open. “What the fuck do you want?” I heard her scream at Danny. I then heard the sound of liquid splattering onto their front porch. At first I thought, Is he pissing right there? But then Kaitlin found began screaming. “That’s my booze,” she screamed, “You’re wasting my shit. You’re wasting my money. You’re stealing from me.”

She charged, and the fight escalated inside. Kaitlin kept screaming, over and over, “You’re wasting my shit. You’re stealing from me.” I heard them tussling in their apartment, heard Kaitlin’s protestations rising in pitch and in fervor, and then I heard her speech suddenly muffled. I imagined Danny grabbing her by the head, and shoving his hand over her mouth. I could still identify Kaitlin’s muffled cries as the two of them struggled. When Kaitlin broke free from Danny’s grip, she vocalized a single, uninterrupted, screen rattling scream, which she sustained for the better part of a minute. It wasn’t a second into that scream that I was reaching for my phone and dialing the police.

I rolled my eyes in exasperation when I went to move my laundry. My first load was finished and sitting, wet, at the bottom of the washing machine, beneath a layer of powdered soap. Someone had come along and poured a bunch of dry detergent onto my clean clothes. Maybe, I told myself, it was just a mistake. Maybe someone didn’t see that there were clothes in the machine, and, in their haste, threw a cup of detergent into it.

But I sat at my desk thinking about that detergent, dwelling on the half an hour of sleep that I would not be getting, on the dollar fifty I had to pay to rewash my clothes. When I went back out to change my wash, Kaitlin was sitting on her porch. As I glanced at her, I thought that I caught her smirking ever so slightly in my direction.

 “Are you messing with my laundry?” I asked her.

She looked at me with an expression of disbelief. “I haven’t fucking stepped foot in the laundry room today. Fuck you, you little fucking asshole. How dare you accuse me of anything…”

I interrupted her, “because I can’t think of anyone else who’d have any inclination to do something like that.” I interpreted it as a sign of guilt that she didn’t bother to ask what specific offence had befallen me, that she wasn’t curious what, specifically, she was being accused of.

Kaitlin was still on her porch as I dragged my hamper back across the driveway. “Thanks for harassing me!” she yelled.

Oh, now she says I’m harassing her, I thought to myself, now she thinks she has something on me. “Thanks for messing with my laundry!” I yelled back.

had taken great will power not to sit at the edge of my bed, lights out, blinds cracked, staking out the laundry room door. I don’t want to feel like a hostage, I told myself. And I was able to complete the wash without further incident. At least, that is, until I was pulling out the last of my dry clothes. I’d felt relieved when I walked out of my house and Kaitlin’s porch chair was vacant. But she must have heard me walk by, and by the time I was returning from the laundry room she’d resumed her usual perch.

“You ever find out who was fucking with your laundry?” she asked with a tinge of glory in her voice.

“I fucking think it was you!” I snapped, turning to face her.

Danny appeared in the doorway as if conjured by witchcraft. “Hold up, hold up,” he said, “what’s all this bullshit about? What the fuck are you accusing her of? She’s not a fucking child. She’s not about to start playing these little games with you.”

“I’m not trying to hurt anybody’s feelings here,” I said, “If she’s innocent, then she’s fucking innocent – she’s got nothing to worry about and she can forget I ever said anything…”

“No one’s feelings are hurt…” Danny said.

“…but if your fucking with my possessions,” I pointed a finger squarely at Kaitlin, “I think it’s you, I’ve called you out on it, cut it the fuck out.”

“Fuck you, your awful little piece of shit. You’re a fucking…”

“Hold up here,” Danny interrupted her, and then turned back to me, “Now I know that washing machine’s a piece of shit. It shakes all to hell, shit falls in there, it’s just what happens. It’s happened to me and I’ve complained to Zelma about it.”

“This is bullshit,” I said, “Somebody opened that fucking door, walked in there, and poured fucking detergent all over my clean wash. Period. And I think it was Kaitlin.”

This silenced Danny. He turned from me to face Kaitlin, who sat in her porch chair, cigarette dangling from her finger tips, an innocent smirk on her lips, and, for a moment, none of us said a thing. Kaitlin broke the silence, “Get the fuck inside your apartment, you fucking dick.”

“Excuse me?”

“You heard me, get the fuck out of my fucking sight, you little asshole.”

I needed the last word. I pointed at Kaitlin once again, “If anything else happens to my laundry, or to anything I own, I’m going to assume it’s you, so cut it out!” and then I ducked into my apartment.

 “You’re a fucking asshole, and I never want to see you again you piece of shit!” Kaitlin was standing on the porch, screaming into her phone. She screamed loud enough to interrupt my sleep, and for that reason I was angry.

“C’mon Kaitlin, grab your things,” it was another woman’s voice, older than Kaitlin, and I guessed that her mother was out there giving her support, “You don’t need to waste any more time on him. Just hang up.”

Within moments, the eerie whistle of her ring tone erupted, and her phone did not stop ringing for some time.

There were other voices out there in the driveway that night. One man, a brother I assumed, was furious, and insisted that Kaitlin allow him to answer the phone so that he could have a word with Danny. When Kaitlin refused, the man tried convincing her to erase Danny’s number entirely. The woman’s voice agreed, “You’re not strong enough to face that ringing day in and day out,” she said. How does this woman have a family who loves her? I thought to myself

Kaitlin refused to delete Danny’s number. “I’m going to need to talk to him about getting the TV,” she said.

“Fuck the TV,” the man’s voice instructed, “make a clean fucking break.”

“I need to explain things to him,” Kaitlin said.

She alternately cried, a kind of wailing, sobbing cry, and discussed the situation with her family. “He hit me,” Kaitlin said, “that fucking asshole laid his hands on me, and I can’t take that shit.”

“You don’t need to,” the woman said, “You’re not going to take any of it anymore.”

“But I feel like an asshole,” Kaitlin said, “because I was doing shit to him too. I’m not innocent.”

“The victim always blames herself, Kaitlin.”

“But I’m not just a victim,” Kaitlin proclaimed.

I heard them entering and exiting Apartment B, emptying it of Kaitlin’s belongings. And, despite the fact that her situation with Danny was miserable, I didn’t initially interpret this episode with her family compassionately. It was just another ruse, I told myself, a means to announce to the neighbors, that, hey, I’m doing something about this; I have people who love me and will stick up for me. But just the need to make such announcements somehow, in that moment, couldn’t help but define Kaitlin’s humanity. Her pain was infectious, and I could relate to the insanity of love and the insanity of resentment. Goddamn it, I thought to myself, empathy’s my traitor, for there was something painfully unpleasant in realizing that my nemesis was, too, human.

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Filed under Literature, Short Story

Eliza’s Body as Sacrament of the Grace I Sunk From

By Ben Leib

“It’s for you.”  Elaine said.

I was midway through my Thursday swing shift at the Nickelodeon Theater, and wasn’t sure who’d be calling me at work.  .

I took the phone.  “Hello.”

“Hi.”  It was a woman.


“It’s Eliza!”

I didn’t recognize the voice.

“Uh, hey Eliza, how’s it going?” I said.

“Great,” Eliza said.  “So, I really enjoyed getting to talk to you at the Red Room on Tuesday night.” 

After a moment’s hesitation, I said, “Yeah, I had a great time too.”


“Totally, I’m just wishing I’d given you my phone number.”

“I was thinking the same thing,” Eliza said.  “But you did tell me where you worked.  We talked for like two hours, and then you gave me a kiss on the cheek when you left.”

I was beginning to piece things together.  I remembered enough about the past Tuesday to know that I’d been with a group of friends.  I’d been drunk but clearly I’d still been charming enough to impress someone.  She lingered on me.  That happened to me occasionally – I enamored a woman.  I found it inexplicable. 

The kiss on the cheek didn’t sound too impressive though, and I didn’t like missed opportunities – particularly since they seemed so fleeting.

“I was hoping I’d run into you again.” I said.

“Me too,” Eliza said.

“Well,” I said, “what are you up to tomorrow?”

And so it was decided.  I was going on a date with Eliza.

“Ooh, you’ve got a date!” Elaine announced after I hung up the phone.  She’d been sitting beside me during the entire conversation.  “Who’s the lucky lady?”

“I don’t know.”

I’d dated one or two unstable women and I didn’t want Eliza knowing where I lived before I’d had the chance to get a sense of her, so I had her meet me at the theater.

I watched from inside, hoping for a sign to tell me it was her when she arrived.  When a car pulled into the red zone in front of the theater, I ran out to see, though I left my backpack inside.  I strolled up to the passenger window and knelt down.

“Hi,” a woman smiled at me from behind the wheel.

“Thanks for picking me up,” I said.

Good boy, I thought to myself as I leaned into the window.  I don’t know how, but you done good boy.  

I was attracted to Eliza right off – her black hair flowing from her scalp in ringlets, her light complexion and pale freckles, her slight overbite.  She was beautiful, and she was, assuredly, a woman.  Even crouching at the open car window I could smell the pheromonal softness, the odd, barely detectable aura of femininity.

“Ready to go?” she asked.

“One sec,” I told her.  “I’ve just got to grab my backpack.”

The Saturn Café had brightly colored murals covering the walls and menageries of junk built into the plexi-glass tabletops.  It was a vegetarian diner, oozing an affectation of hipness.

“I eat like a pig.” Eliza warned me.

“That’s all right,” I told her, “I’m used to it.”

The last girl I’d dated managed to make a mess of any plate of food with such daintiness that you’d barely know it was happening until about two thirds of the way through the meal, at which point her supper had come to resemble something gelatinous. 

Eliza was also a messy eater, but in a different way.  She deconstructed her veggie burger with her fingers, eating it ingredient by ingredient.  First she ate the tomato, then the lettuce, then a bit of bun, then some of the patty.  The meal went on like this until she’d cleared her plate.  My own plate was long empty by that time.

We ordered a pitcher of dark beer, and then ordered another before we’d finished eating.

I’d already made the good first impression, done so without recollection.  I’d jumped that first hurdle, but I still felt pressure.  I told Eliza about being a literature major.  It was the one thing about myself that I considered somewhat sexy.

“So what made you choose books?” she asked.  “I mean, what drew you to that rather than, I don’t know, math, or business?”

There’s something compelling about the study of literature, something so purely intellectual, so impractical, that it holds a gravity of passion.

“Fiction was always something that I’ve been able to lose myself in,” I told her.  “Even when I was young, I remember my dad reading to me in bed.  Some of those books were tough, too – Robert Louis Stevenson, Farley Mowat.  Even when it got late I never wanted him to stop.”

“It sounds like you have a good dad,” Eliza said, “like he’s supportive.”

“He is good,” I said.  “But there were other things, too.  There were times when I was getting in trouble – I dropped out of college for a year, for example – and even in the moments when I was struggling I found that books were always something I could turn to.  Fiction’s just been a constant for me.  And by the time I was ready to buckle down and commit myself to the university everyone was going to support me no matter what I was studying.  They were just glad that I made it back.”

“Do you have a type of literature that’s your favorite?” Eliza asked.

“Well, my favorites are crime novels.  But in academics I’ve been drawn to the British high modernists.  And it’s not like this stuff comes naturally to me.  I have to work hard at it.  Reading is work.  Writing is work.  But it’s the only thing that’s made me feel like I’m doing something in life.”

These things were true, but there were also some misleading implications.  I implied that I had made my way through darkness, and was now proceeding along in the light.  I implied that I was good as a student, and that I was perhaps even wise.  I implied that my passions were what drove me.  And I was spurred to continue implying as Eliza leaned further and further over the table.

 “…So it’s my own business,” she explained.  “I started it up before I really knew what I was doing.  Then, when I realized that I was in over my head, I went to Cabrillo and took some business classes to figure out what I had to do next – the licenses I had to apply for, that type of thing.”

Eliza was twenty six, more than five years my senior.  By my estimation that made her a woman – which marked me as a child still.

“What made you decide on babysitting?”

Eliza laughed, and I had to admit that the question could have come across as condescending, though it wasn’t meant that way.

“Well, it’s what I was doing.  You know, I babysat kids when I was in high school, and the money was pretty good back then, but I realized as I got older that folks will pay very good money for a reliable babysitter.  I went AWOL for a bit, disappeared to Hawaii for a couple of years.  When I came back to California, I needed to work fast.  I had a few families that I’d worked with locally, some very well off folks, and they were happy to have me back.

“These families loved me – I still look after their kids, by the way – and they started recommending me to their friends.  Before I knew it, I had more offers for work than I knew what to do with.  I’d come across a few teenage girls who I trusted, and I referred them to the families.  Things kind of just snowballed from there.  I realized, Hey, I’m providing a service here.  People get paid for this.  So that’s when I started developing the business.”

“So how were you able to capitalize on it?”

Eliza took a French fry from her plate, ripped it in two, and shoved one of the pieces into her mouth.  She set the other French fry half back on her plate and began tearing away a piece of her bun.

“Well,” she said, “I make most of my money through finder’s fees.  I tend to have seven or eight girls working for me at a time.  They give me their schedules and their availability.  They switch on call days in case a family needs a sitter at the last minute, but otherwise they get a three day warning when I’m scheduling them.  Anything less than a three day warning, and the fees increase – both my commission, and the girls’ hourly fee.”

“Ah, so you make a commission each time you place a sitter.”

“Exactly,” Eliza said.  “And then I keep sitting for my two favorite families, and I charge quite a bit these days, so with the commissions and my own hourly fee, I do pretty well.”

“That’s amazing that you were able to get that off the ground yourself.”

“It just kind of came together.”  Eliza downplayed it, but I could tell she was proud.  “Really, the most difficult thing about it is finding good, reliable girls.  It sucks when they flake and I have to pick up the slack, which does happen sometimes.  Either that, or sometimes they get poached, too.  But the families are also pretty good about word of mouth referrals, so it all seems to stay pretty steady.  And I’ve had some luck finding new sitters right when I need them, so I’ve managed to stay consistent.”

“I’m impressed,” I told her.

It was the good stuff, the things we were proud to divulge about ourselves, the identities by which we would like to be known to the world – me, an intellectual, a bit of an artist – Eliza, an adult, an entrepreneur, a businesswoman.  And it was each of these personas that we first offered up for judgment and appraisal.  There must have been nuances that night, things that might have revealed our respective weaknesses, our lunacies and incompatibilities.  And those shades of gray may have represented more than just frailty.  It might have been our humanity that we were suppressing.

But I was happy to take first impressions at face value.  I did not consciously analyze them, nor did I want to.  We were lovable and passionate in our own ways.  I was attracted to Eliza and I detected that yearning, a premonition of love, reflected in her eyes.  And I was redeemed by a confirmation of my own desirability, for it was also a confirmation of the person that I wanted myself to be.

Eliza gave me a ride home that night.  I was living with this dude Ed and his girlfriend, Pam.  Ed had a wandering eye that made him look insane.  It was the result of a merciless childhood beating from his father, a fact that I found horrifying when I was told about the incident.  Ed smoked debilitating amounts of weed and he screamed at Pam when he drank.  Pam was friendly but so soft spoken as to become nearly transparent.

My roommates creeped me out.  They weren’t friends of mine but they tolerated some pretty habitual alcohol abuse and the rent was cheap.  I liked my real friends.  I wanted to keep them so I chose not to live with them.  Ed and Pam’s house was located in the Santa Cruz beach flats.  It fronted Riverside Avenue and behind it stood a series of ramshackle apartments that shared a common driveway.  My room was at the back, and I came and went through the back door, avoiding Ed and Pam as much as possible. 

“This is the place, right here,” I said.

“This one?”  Eliza slowed the car, then stopped.

“Yeah.  Sooo, would you like to come in for the grand tour?” I said.  “You’re welcome to pull into the driveway if you’d like.”

I led her around to the back of the house.  The back door opened onto a strange addition, a half bathroom and a walk-in closet.  To the left was the kitchen and at the left of the kitchen was my bedroom door.  The tour was over before it started.  My room was a twelve by twelve foot square.  What floor space not taken up by my futon, was reserved for a tiny computer desk and a set of shelves for my stereo.  The shelves were wooden planks stacked on top of cinder blocks.  There was also a small coffee table that I’d found at the side of the road and carried home one night.

“So, this is your place,” Eliza said.

“This is the palace.”

“I like it.  It’s definitely a college boy’s room.”

“I’ll take that as a compliment.” I said, sitting on my futon.  Eliza sat next to me.  We turned to look at each other as we spoke.  “So, I had a really good time tonight.” I told her, “I’m glad you called me.”

“So am I.  I was nervous to call.  But I’d also been looking forward to meeting you again, and so I knew that I’d have to take some initiative.”  She paused.  “I know you don’t remember meeting me.”

“I remember the night.  I remember sitting in a group, talking.  I was drunk.”

“I know.  I mean, I was drunk too, but I knew that you’d been drinking a lot.  You like to drink, don’t you?”

“I do.”  The admission, for me, encapsulated all that I was guilty of.  “I was glad when I saw you in your car tonight.”

“Oh yeah, why?”

“Because you’re a good looking woman.”

“Even for such an old lady?”

“Yeah.”  I grinned.  “Even though you’re old.”

I kissed her.  It was long and tender, my kind of kiss.  She was starry eyed when I pulled away.  I was smitten myself.  She grabbed my head and pulled our faces back together with force.  Her tongue shot into my mouth.  I was momentarily dazed before I could respond in kind.  Hands explored bodies.  I was proud, happy that it seemed I’d done something right.

“I have to go.”  The announcement was sudden.

“Why, what’s up?”  I was having fun.

“This is just a little too intense at the moment.”  It had been pretty intense, but I wasn’t a fan of deferred gratification.  I didn’t understand why anyone would wait to have sex.

“You know, you could stay here tonight if you wanted.”

“I do.  I mean, I would want to.  I’ve got to work for one of my families tomorrow at eight.  I need to get some sleep tonight.”

I tried a bit more to convince her to stay.  Then I reluctantly agreed to walk her back out to her car.  I kissed her for a long time while she leaned on the passenger side door.  “I had a really good time,” I told her.

“We should do this again soon.”  And with that, Eliza climbed into the car and started the engine.

After Eliza left, I went to the bar.  It was a Friday night after all.

Eliza and I spent the film lip-locked.  Her hands worked their way over my chest, down my abdomen, across my lap.  I pawed at her chest through her blouse – she was wearing something colorful that day, something maybe with flowers on it – my hands made their way beneath the light fabric.  Her bra felt sturdy, held generous curves firmly in place.  I explored the texture of the undergarment.  The weight of her breasts filled its lace.  I groped at what of the flesh I could access and I tried to imagine her naked.  I tried to envision those details…

We went back to the Saturn Café for dinner.  We talked through the meal, but the conversation was interspersed with long silences which were not uncomfortable but full of a lust that clouded all perceptions and drove thought in a very specific direction.  I know for my part that I could not help but think about getting that woman undressed, getting her onto my bed.  I wanted to ravage her.  My breathing deepened.  I ate quickly.  So did Eliza.  The flames ignited in the dark of the movie theater burned, yet to be extinguished.

I ordered a beer with dinner, and was baffled when Eliza refrained.


“…It was during my year off of school – I only came back to Santa Cruz less than a year ago, now that I think about it – but I ended up taking this road trip.”

“Oh, so you went on an adventure,” Eliza said.

“Exactly.  I mean, living in San Francisco had been an adventure of its own.”  I realized it as I was forming the words, but there were details I was emphasizing and details I was omitting.  I had, for example, spent nine months in an urban inpatient treatment facility when I’d moved to San Francisco.  I wasn’t so forthcoming about those details.  “But,” I went on, “I was working in this terrible office job in the city.  I’d worked several different temp jobs while I was there – the Department of Elections had been cool, for example, but that ended after the presidential election – but the last one was a receptionist gig in this engineering firm.  I detested it.”

“We haven’t known each other long,” Eliza said, “but I could see you struggling in an office.”

“That was definitely the case.  At the end I guess I just panicked.  I quit my job over the phone, gave up the apartment I’d just moved into, and I hit the road.  My parents were out of town at the time, and I literally just left them notes saying that I was leaving.”

“Where’d you go?”

“First, I got a ride with my buddy Colin to San Diego via Santa Cruz.  I lived with him for a couple of weeks and then I caught a Greyhound over to Austin, Texas.  I spent a little over two weeks there, too.  Then another bus, and nearly a month in New Orleans.  By the time I was done with my New Orleans trip, I’d gotten myself into enough trouble, had enough of an adventure, and I headed back home.  The return bus ride was over seventy hours – three days straight sitting on Greyhounds and trying not to lose it.  I’d have to clean up in Greyhound bathrooms – sink showers is what I called them.”

“That does sound like an adventure.”

I thought back on it somewhat self-satisfied, but still wondering how much to divulge.  Would it be romantic, for example, or would it be a red flag if I told the story about going to jail in New Orleans?  What about the Tijuana story, where I got arrested at the border?

“It was an amazing experience,” I said.

“I had my version of that, too, my throwing-it-to-the-wind experience.”

“Oh yeah?”

“Yeah.  That’s what Hawaii was all about.  It was just something that I never expected to be able to do.  I literally went there with nothing.  I had nights where I had to camp on the beach.  But over time things worked out.  I found a job, I got my own place, I made friends…  And after a while it had become my home.  I still miss it there.”

“Oh man,” I said, “I’d love to do that.”

“It actually all started because of a boy.  I thought I was in love at the time, and it really took him to get me out of my comfort zone, to get myself moving.  And I’ll always appreciate him for that.  But it didn’t take me long to realize that I needed to do it for myself…”

I didn’t want to think about Eliza with other men yet, and I imagined that, at that point, I remained idealized in her mind as well.

Once again at my house.  Once again shut away in my bedroom.  We kissed savagely.  We rolled all over one another.  I shifted and mounted between her legs, the denim of my pants grinding against her own tight fitting jeans.  She rolled me over, straddled me from above.  My hands worked their way up the back of her shirt.

“You won’t get it back there.” She said.

“I’m a pro at this.”

“It clasps in the front.”

She threw off her blouse, exposing sexy black lace.  She’d put thought into this outfit.  She’d anticipated what view I’d be getting.  Her bra defied gravity and was sheer enough to reveal the discoloration of her nipples beneath the fabric.  She took my hands in hers, guided them up to the front of her bra, to the space between her breasts.  I got it free.  She pulled it away from her naked torso, launching it across the room.

My hands covered every inch of bare flesh, devouring its tactile details.  And despite my hunger, I dwelt on her nudity, on the idiosyncrasies of her naked form.  She had a little tummy.  Her breasts were large and shaped nicely, but not without their own uniqueness, drooping a bit on either side.  She had thick nipples which pointed as they came to life, deeply colored against the whiteness of her natural pallor.  I lingered and lingered on that wonderful body.  I could see the hunger in her eyes, could taste it when she pressed her lips to mine.  She kissed with such a deep urgency it seemed that each might be the last.  Each announced a mournful and long-coming departure, as if, were death to take her in that state of ecstasy, she would if nothing else be leaving the world with that last kiss on her lips.

I reached to her waist and began fumbling with her belt.

She pulled away.  “We can’t.” she announced.

“What are you talking about?”

“We can’t go any further tonight.”  She looked at me with an expression that I interpreted as apologetic.  “I can’t go any further tonight.”

“Oh,” I said, understanding.  “You know, I could overlook that.  It wouldn’t be that big of a deal.”  I was starving.

“No, I don’t want the first time to be like that.  Besides, I already think this is going too fast.  I mean, I really, really like you.  I really want this, too much maybe.  So it’s good that we can’t tonight.”

I didn’t argue.  Eliza didn’t give me a chance to argue.  She jumped off of me.  “I need to take a shower before I go home.  Do you have a clean towel?”

“Yeah.”  I grabbed it for her, baffled.

I wasn’t pushy, possibly to a fault.  I didn’t demand or in any way attempt to persuade Eliza to extinguish the fire she had so efficiently ignited.  This wasn’t because I was a gentleman.  It was because I was too afraid, at that time in my life, to articulate my needs aloud, to state them and ask they be attended to.

I lay on my bed, pining, confused, as Eliza showered.  She emerged from the bathroom fully dressed.  She jumped on top of me once again, gave me one more hard kiss.

“You don’t need to walk me out in your condition.”

She patted my crotch, then she patted my chest, then she stood and left.

Eliza and I rolled around my unmade bed fully clothed, clawing and kneading each other.  As things reached a climactic point, as clothes began to come off, Eliza stopped.

“I need to take a shower,” she said.


“I’m going to take a shower and then I’m going to go.”

I had not yet done laundry and she grabbed the same towel she’d used the last time.

“You know, we can keep going,” I said.

“I just think we’re taking things a little fast.  I’m gonna clean up and then I’m gonna go.”

I heard the bath running.  When the water was the right temperature, Eliza turned on the shower.  I’d been laying on the bed, my shirt off, my belt unbuckled, my hand down the front of my pants, when I heard the water stop.  The bathroom was dark behind her when Eliza swung the door open.  Only the desk lamp was on in my room.  Eliza was wrapped in a wet towel.  Steam rose from her flesh.  The ends of her hair were damp.  She let the towel fall to the floor, stood naked for one frozen moment, and then she climbed on top of me.

What made Eliza’s body perfection were its imperfections.  Her glistening pubic hair, which had not been recently manicured, wound in chaotic tangles.  She really hadn’t planned on sleeping with me tonight, I thought to myself.  Her hips had an extra little bump.  She had a gravity defying ass, but it creased and dimpled just a bit where it met her thighs.  Her ankles were only slightly too small for the rest of her figure.

She used soft kisses to chart a cartographic memory of my face, my chest.  Her body was warm against mine, skin still silky from her shower.  As she raised and lowered herself against my chest, I felt her breasts sway against me, her nipples grazing my bare skin and then pressing firmly.  She lay on top of me thoughtlessly, allowing the weight of her body to hold me in place, trusting that I could sustain that weight indefinitely.

She raised herself to her knees, straddling my legs, and I got another opportunity to dwell on her body, to allow the realization of my luck to set in fully.  She reached down to my waist and began fumbling with the button on my pants, then with the zipper.  I didn’t help her.  I let her take her time, teasing her a bit.

“You’ll get it,” I said.  “Just focus, keep trying.”

As soon as my jeans were undone, her hand reached into the vent of my boxer shorts and grabbed onto my cock.  She lowered herself onto her side so that she was laying beside me.  Her head on my chest, she stared down as she pulled my cock into view.

“Oh thank God,” she whispered.

“Mmm?” it was both a moan and a question.

“I knew you’d have a big dick.”

Nothing could have turned me on more.  She liked the way I looked.  She was imagining the way I would feel inside her.

My hand had worked its way to her thighs.  She parted her legs a bit to allow me access.  She was bursting.  I let my fingers explore through the tangles of black hair.  I moistened them with her own fluids and ran them smoothly over the external hills and ridges while she squirmed, breathed heavily, closed her eyes, and ran a hand over my face.  I kissed her chest, alternately taking her nipples in my mouth, trying to raise them to even sharper heights.

I pushed myself to my feet, stood up on the foot of the mattress, and took off my pants.  I grabbed a condom from a box on my shelves and rolled it into place.  The elastic squeezed uncomfortably.  I climbed on top of her.  She spread her legs for me and I lowered myself between them, her hips angled against the mattress.

Eliza groaned cutely.  She had a high pitched and sustained expression of pleasure that ranged in volume from a whisper to a near scream.  I aimed to evoke those screams.  I wanted the neighbors to complain.  She grasped onto my back, controlled the momentum of my thrusts.  She climaxed several minutes before I did, losing control of her muscles momentarily, but never quite pushing me away.

“Don’t stop.  Don’t stop,” she said.  “It still feels so good.  Don’t stop.”

I was sweating as I reached completion.

“You’re all slimy,” she told me when I collapsed onto her.

She kissed me over and over again, pulling my face away each time to stare into my eyes.  She held my face in her hands, and when I saw her staring at me I glimpsed the passion and the devotion that was just then burgeoning behind that gaze.  My heart pounded under the weight of it.  It made me want to convey something dire.

“I could fall in love with you,” Eliza said.

It scared me.

“I want to take another shower,” Eliza said.

I lay on the bed beside her.

“Do you want to stay over tonight?”

“No, I can’t.  I have to get up early for a job tomorrow.”

I arose and stood by the bed so that I could look at her.

“Do you mind if I take a shower with you?”

“Oh my God,” she announced as she sat up in bed.  “Don’t look down.”

I looked at her lap.  There was a small streak of blood on her inner thigh.

“I told you not to look!”

I stood at the back of the shower, allowed Eliza to engulf herself in it.  Hands wandered.  She lathered herself.  She lathered me.  We embraced.  She cleaned me.

“I didn’t hurt you tonight, did I?” I asked.

“No, no, not at all.”

“Because you could always tell me to stop or to slow down.”

“No, you don’t understand.  It felt amazing.  It’s just been a long time.  And you are pretty big – bigger than my ex.  But mostly things have just tightened up down there a bit.  I told you not to look.  I didn’t want you to get worried.  You did everything just right.”

“Tightened up, huh?”

“Yeah, good news for you big boy.”  She patted my cheek with a soapy hand.

Eliza was spread eagle on my bed.  I still had my shorts on as I moved between her legs.  Her hips pumped against the thin fabric of my underwear.  My lips left hers.  I kissed her ears, her neck.  I pressed my fingers into her as I continued my downward journey.  I dwelt on her breasts, coercing those dark nipples.  I worked down her abdomen, across her belly.

She moaned with anticipation.

“Are you going to eat my pussy?” she asked.

I looked up at her and smiled.

“What a lucky girl I am,” she said.  “I was getting nervous that maybe you didn’t do that.”

Eliza’s pubic hair was a thing of the past.  I positioned myself between her legs, a thigh resting on each shoulder.  I lapped at her in broad strokes, using all of the wide surface of my tongue, covering her anatomy.  She flinched with each pass.

She began to open for me.  The tip of my tongue explored her labial folds, worked its way through each detail of her nakedness.  I took hold of her thighs.  She shifted against me.  I tasted the salt of her flesh, of the moisture that I was cultivating.  As her excitement mounted, the natural resistances of her body relented.  She opened more and more.  I plunged into her, burying myself, getting lost in her body, in the flood of saliva and secretions.  I lingered rhythmically, drawing her closer and closer.  She shifted and pivoted her hips, grinding against my face without inhibition.  I held myself firmly in place, braced myself as she thrust against me, determined not to yield, determined to hold my ground.

She screamed and then came in a torrent, her whole body writhing senseless.  She had grabbed onto my hands and her nails gnashed into my palms.

I continued to lap at her softly and she shuddered, still unable to speak.  Then I laid my head on her belly.  My damp face was chilled once I pulled it from the heat of her body.  She stroked my hair.

In the darkness of the movie theater, Eliza’s hand never left my lap.  It was as if she were on a mission to keep me perpetually aroused.  It was the most pleasurable form of being controlled.  She was saying to me, always, during every moment we spent together, I’m the one who’s going to make you feel goodI will always be here to scratch this little itch of yours, and you will be the one to bring me my own pleasure.

And so much of it had been the mutual giving and receiving of pleasure.  Eliza was ready and eager to test the boundaries of stamina, of endurance.

She worked her hand back and forth over my cock, which felt at that point like it might burst out of its own skin.  But as I reached between her legs, she closed them like a vice.  She was teaching me – these public gifts were for me alone.

She leaned over the arm rest and whispered in my ear, “I’m gonna fuck the shit out of you tonight.”

Eliza, though an intelligent woman, was not computer savvy.  I wasn’t much better, but I knew that basic, publically consumed software was bound to be relatively user friendly.  And even if not, at least it didn’t intimidate me in the same way it did Eliza.

“I don’t know what I’m doing.” She complained.  “I don’t understand this shit.  You’ve gotta teach me, baby.”

I spent hours at Eliza’s place with a little library spread across the living room floor around me.  I lay on my stomach, staring at her laptop, reading course handouts, user manuals, and online help sites, attempting to synthesize the various and sometimes disparate solutions to hypothetical problems.

Eliza waited patiently.  Once I’d found the solution, I could explain it to her in the simplest way possible.  I was very professorial, requiring that Eliza actually perform the tasks at her laptop as I described them.

She sat on her couch behind me while I worked.  Sometimes, I narrated the progress I was making while I read endless tutorials and frequently asked questions.  I assumed that she was listening to me.  I figured, somewhat narcissistically, that I was helping.  Yeah, it was boring.  But I was amazed by her patience as I lay there, prattling on about spreadsheets or compatibility or operating systems.

I was carrying on like this when I heard a quiet little noise from behind me.  It was a kind of wetness, a kind of sexy noise.  I turned toward the couch where Eliza sat watching me.  She was wearing a deep blue sun dress that day, patterned with tiny white daisies.  It was hiked up to her hips.  Her panties were pulled to the side, and she was touching herself.  She paused as I looked up, and just sat motionless, not continuing but not covering herself up either.  Then she smiled a kind of naughty, what-are-you-gonna-do-about-it? smile.

I smiled back.

“You bad, bad girl,” I said.  “I’m trying to teach you over here, doing all of your work for you, and you’re not listening to a word I’m saying.”

“Oh, I’m listening.” She said.  She still had not moved.

“Do I need to teach you a lesson?”  I rose from the floor and approached her.

“No,” she said, “you don’t.”  She allowed me one kiss.  “You need to get back to work.”

I did as I was told.  I got back down on the living room floor.  It was difficult to sustain the lesson but I was able, after a moment, to actually focus on her homework problems, and put it out of my mind that she was sitting on the couch behind me.

When I finally turned back to check on her, her skirt was lying flat across her lap.  She was staring at me, smiling nicely, her hands crossed.

“Are you ready to learn how to do this?” I asked her.

“Are you ready to teach me?”

When Eliza picked me up, I had a rose that I’d bought for her birthday.

“That’s so sweet,” she said as I handed the flower through the passenger side window.

I climbed into the car.  “Happy birthday, beautiful.”

When we arrived at Eliza’s house I produced the rest of my gift to her – a bottle of massage oil and a bottle of massage oil.  But by plying her with physical affection, I figured I might make up for the fact that I had no money to buy her a real gift.  I didn’t know much about being a gentleman at the time and I missed an opportunity to make her feel special.

I fucked Eliza on her living room floor that night.  We’d laid a blanket that we’d spread out.  I took all of her clothes off and rubbed every inch of her body while she lay there, docile, wanting to submit.  Having relaxed her into a trance-like state, I dwelt on her ass, kneading, working my palms down her thighs.  She parted her legs.  I stood quietly, not wanting to break her spell, undressed, and lowered myself down on top of her.

Eliza was always reticent to have sex in her own bed.  I figured it was because she didn’t want to do the laundry, but also she seemed to like the idea of exploring under-utilized regions of the apartment.

She came hard beneath me.  I loved looking down at her, facing her when she orgasmed.  I felt powerful when I saw how absolutely she lost control, the way her eyes dilated, opening wide at first and then clenching shut tight; the way her muscles all tensed to rigidity and then totally failed.

She reached behind and held me close, flinching every time I moved inside of her and grasping to keep me still.  When she recovered, she pulled out from under me and enacted a ritual that had by then become familiar.

“I want to sit on the couch,” she said.

She leaned one of the cushions in just the right way to accommodate her and set herself down, reclining against it, her hips pivoted upward.

“Okay, I’m ready,” she said.

I leaned over her, placed my hands on the back of the couch behind her, and eased in.

“Slow,” she said.  “Now get as deep as you can.”

I pushed into her with long slow thrusts.  Each time I thought I couldn’t get any deeper, I pushed just a little further.  Each time I pushed those extra millimeters, Eliza groaned loudly.  It was something like an exercise for her.

“I’m getting better at taking it,” she said.

“Am I getting deep?”

“Oh fuck, it hurts me.  My pussy just aches wanting you inside of me.  I fucking feel it all through me.”

“How deep?” I said.  “Tell me how deep I’m getting.”

“It’s up to here,” Eliza said, marking a point on her abdomen.  “You know how to fill every inch of me.”

I started pushing harder.  I watched her breasts shaking each time I slammed against her.  Moans turned to screams.

“Oh, oh,” she said, and then she stopped me.  “Okay, okay.  Stop, stop.  It’s too much for me.”

“Back onto the floor?”

“I want you to bend me over the counter,” she said.

Eliza was throwing a barbeque for her twenty seventh birthday.  Her apartment occupied the second story of a split level up in the Santa Cruz Mountains.  She rented the place from the folks living below her, Dave and Maria, a couple in their early thirties with a mortgage on the property.  There was a large deck that extended from Eliza’s front door, and she and her landlords shared that space, often spending time out there together, barbequing, eating dinners on warm nights.

“How many people are you expecting?” I asked her as I looked through the groceries she’d purchased for the party.

“Not too many,” she told me.  “Dave and Maria are coming up, and they’ve invited Dave’s brother and sister in law.  They’re bringing their kids with them, who are five and three.  Of course Katrina is coming…”

Katrina was Eliza’s best friend.  She was dating a recently single man with a new born baby, and didn’t make it out much.

“Is her man coming?”

“No, he’s working – thank God.  My friend Sarah’s coming, too, and she’s bringing her boyfriend.  You haven’t met them yet because they living in the city, but her boyfriend’s this Irish guy.  He’s okay – you’ll probably like him – but he drinks too much.  Way too much.  They’ve got some serious problems, but I love her and so I’ve gotta put up with him, too.  My sister will be there.  Let’s see…my parent’s will be getting in about two o’clock or so…”

“Wait, what?” I said.  “Your parents are coming?”

“Yeah.  I mean, it is my birthday.”

“Still, you could have given me some kind of warning.”

“They’re easy,” Eliza said.  “It’s no pressure.  You’re just another one of my friends attending.”

I did a bit of mental calculation and came up with my own conclusions.  Eliza didn’t have an extensive guest list.  It was going to be pretty obvious to everyone there what integer I represented in the equation.

Her father wore a beard and wire rimmed glasses that I interpreted as an attempt to make him look sophisticated and maybe a bit rugged.  They did not have their intended effect.  Upon shaking the man’s hand, I got a distinct sense from him, something that I interpreted as more lecherous than manly, something not so sophisticated at all.

He arrived as I was bringing a bowl of marinating chicken over to the grill.  “So,” he said to me, “you seem to be right at home here.”

I didn’t really know what he meant by it, but he said the words as if there was some deeper meaning that only he and I understood.  I knew from what Eliza had told me that she and her father were not close.  I wasn’t sure if I imagined it, but there seemed to be a constant and mindful acknowledgement that I was fucking his daughter, a kind of wink-wink mentality that made me squirm.

“My little baby is all grown up,” he said, leering at me.

“I don’t know what you’ve done to that girl,” he observed, “but she’s walking on clouds.”

Eliza sat beside me and placed a hand on my thigh.  Her father stared at me from across the porch and produced a grin out of the side of his mouth that wasn’t really a grin at all.

Because it was my way, the method by which I dealt with discomfort, I was sociable.  I drank too many beers, told stories, ate copious barbeque, played with the kids, and did my utmost not to judge the situation too harshly.

It was dusk by the time everyone left, and Eliza and I were cleaning things up.  I stood over the sink, scrubbing dishes while she packed away the leftovers.

“Hey,” I said, “do me a favor.  Tell me next time I’m going to meet your parents, or any other new members of your family for that matter.”

“Okay, baby,” she said.  “Thank you for being so good with them.”

“It’s no problem.  I just wish you would have told me.  Just give me some warning next time, okay?”

I turned to Eliza in time to see a bit of that evil on her face.

“It’s not like it’s some big deal,” she said.  “We weren’t announcing an engagement or anything.  It was just a little barbeque, and, yeah, my parents were invited.  But that’s it.  So don’t try to make something out of it that it’s not, okay?”

The sun shone through my bedroom curtains.  That old house was barely insulated, and I wondered if the neighbors could hear Eliza screaming.

“Shit, I’m so fucking close,” I said.

“Do it, baby.  Keep fucking me.”

“I’m right there.  I gonna come.”

“I want you to come on my tits,” Eliza said.  “I want you to pull it out and come all over me.”

I pulled free, and straddled her torso, as she squirmed to move her body down the bed beneath me.  I grabbed onto my cock.  I looked down at Eliza as she grabbed her breasts in her hands and pushed them together on her chest.

“Oh fuck, yes, baby,” Eliza moaned.  “Fucking come all over me.  Fucking cover me in it.”

She moaned and I almost thought that she was also climaxing.  Before I’d even finished, Eliza was rubbing my come into her breasts, across her nipples, all down her torso, so that her body glimmered with the moisture of it.  I made sure not to miss a drop.

I collapsed beside her.  Eliza rolled toward me, pressed her lips against mine, and our bodies met as I turned to return the kiss.

“Did you like that, baby?  Do you like coming all over me like that?”

“That was fucking hot.”

“God, I just want to fucking drown in you.”

“We don’t always have to eat out,” I told her.

“I like taking care of you, baby,” Eliza said.

“I like being taken care of,” I said.  “But I’m just saying.”

The proprietor of the Thai House approached our table.  She was a broad, matronly woman with a round cheeked smile and a thick accent.

“Hey Tama,” Eliza said.

“How you, girl?” Tama said.

“I’m doing really good,” Eliza said.  “This is my…friend…”

Tama took my hand in both of hers.  “Oooh,” she said.  “You such a lucky man.”  Then she turned to Eliza.  “He handsome.”  She winked.

“I first met Tama in Hawaii,” Eliza explained.  “She had a restaurant over there, too.”

“You was always the best, sweetheart.  Always my favorite customer.”

“How are your kids doing?” Eliza asked.

And the formalities went on like that for a couple of minutes while the ladies got caught up with each other.

Eliza ordered a bottle of wine for us.  The waitress arrived at the table a few minutes later with the wine and a couple of glasses.  She poured just a splash for each of us.  I waited while Eliza swirled, while she sniffed and then tasted.

“Very good,” she said.

The waitress filled our glasses.  She set the half empty bottle on the table, pulled out a pad and a pen, and asked for our orders.  I smiled up at her and listed off the courses that Eliza and I had agreed on beforehand.  Eliza was beaming at me from across the table.

Dinners with Eliza were always easy.  I never felt like I was straining for conversation like I did with some women.  We were just able to chat and drink our wine and eat our food, and that was pretty good.

As we finished up the meal, Eliza slid her credit card across the table at me.  This had become protocol.  Maybe Eliza liked for people to believe that her man was taking her out, and that was probably the case to a degree.  But she also had my feelings in mind.  At every turn she guarded my manhood, as if its fragility was something plainly evident.

Eliza wanted to preserve my dignity, wanted to cultivate it for her own reaping.

Tama brought the check to the table personally.  I took the check from her, glanced at it quickly, tucked the card into the tray, and handed it back to her.

Eliza let herself in the back door.  I knew that she’d be coming over when she finished with the kids, but I wasn’t sure when she’d be arriving.  I was lying on my bed when she knocked on my bedroom door.

“Come in,” I said.

“Hey babe,” she said from the doorway.


“Could you come out here and help me put these groceries away?”

“Wait, what?  You got groceries?”

“Just a few things.”

“Aw, you didn’t need to do that,” I said.  “I mean, seriously, I can feed myself.  Besides, you know I don’t really cook much.”

“Oh, I’ve seen what you eat,” Eliza said.  “And this stuff is super easy to make, just the essentials really – eggs, milk, butter, cheese, some fruit, salad ingredients, some dressing…  Besides, this is mostly for me, really – for the nights that I’m over.”

“All right,” I said.  “But I really don’t want you to feel like you have to do this.”

Eliza smiled at me.  “I don’t think I have to do anything.”

I grinned at her.  “I can think of a few things I’m gonna make you do.”

“Are you gonna force me?”

“Damn right.”

I didn’t know what time it was when I opened my eyes.  The first thing I saw was Eliza standing over me.  She’d let herself into the house at some point and I hadn’t expected to see her.  She was wearing an ankle length trench coat.

“Eliza,” I said.

“Hey baby.”

I could smell hot bacon grease.

“What are you doing here?”

“I was thinking about you,” she said.  “And I brought you two presents this morning.”

My head was throbbing from a night of excess.  I had so little time to myself.  I seemed driven to reckless irresponsibility on the nights that I didn’t spend with Eliza, and I was paying for it that morning.

“Presents?” I said.

“Do you want to know what they are?”

“Yes,” I said.  “Yes I do.”

“Well, first…”  Eliza disappeared into the kitchen.  “Sit up in bed,” she hollered.  I did as I was told.  Eliza returned with a plate in her hand.

“What’s this?” I said as she set the meal in my lap.

“I cooked you breakfast,” Eliza said.

There was bacon, eggs and cheese, toast, even a halved grapefruit.

“Oh my God.  What the hell is this?  You’re spoiling me.”

Eliza handed me a fork and a folded paper towel.

She was smiling.  “I made you coffee, too.”

“You should join me,” I said.  “Do you have a plate for yourself in there?”

“I ate while I was cooking,” she said.  She took a seat in my desk chair and gazed at me as I began piling eggs onto my toast.  “Do you want to know what your other present is?”

“What?” I said, my mouth now full.  “There’s another gift?”

“I told you there was two.”

“Lay it on me.”

Eliza stood up.

“I wore this over here just for you,” she said as she let the trench coat fall to the floor.  “Do you want to unwrap your second gift?”

I set my plate aside.

I disappeared for a moment as we walked through the grocery store.  When I found Eliza again, I was toting along a fifth of bourbon.  I dropped it into the basket.

“What do you need that for?”

“Don’t worry, I’ll pay for it.”

“That’s not what I’m worried about.”

“You don’t keep any booze in your house.  I want to be able to have a drink while I’m over.”

“Is a night without one so unimaginable?”

Eliza was worried, but she was also jealous.  She had a mistress to compete with.  Maybe it was becoming clear that she would have to share my love, that she wouldn’t be my only source of comfort.

“I just like to have it around.”

I wouldn’t be able to consume the bourbon with the abandon that I so desired, but at least a drink or two would help.

I lay there with my eyes open.  Eliza was sleeping turned mostly on her belly, her head resting in the nook of my shoulder, my arm thrown around her, her breasts pressed against my chest, her legs straddling my thigh.  She sunk her hips into me as she slept.  I could feel the stubble of recently shaved hair.  I lay there pondering the great heat generated by that particular region of her anatomy.  I lay there feeling the moisture of post coital perspiration, smelling those post coital smells, feeling as if the sheets were sticking to me and not quite comfortable or tired enough to sleep.

I was mostly sober, too.  That didn’t help things.

Eliza was out like a light.  She had no problem sleeping naked on top of me like that.

It’d been about a week since I’d purchased the bottle of sleeping pills.  I was already familiar with these sleep-aids.  During my series of long, cross country bus rides, I’d survived off of them.  They staved off the delirium of sleep deprivation when there was no other way to doze off.  I knew they were effective and I purchased them for my nights with Eliza.  They were over the counter medication and they didn’t get me high, so I figured that there was nothing to be ashamed of.

I could see my pants lying on the floor just beside the bed.  My sleeping pills were in my pocket, and I was wondering if I’d be able to sneak out of bed without waking Eliza.

I hadn’t told her about the sleeping pills.  I didn’t want to admit that I found it difficult sleeping so close to her.  I didn’t want to seem as if I had some revulsion to intimacy that prevented me from passing a night normally, like any other couple, so I kept my mouth shut and let the pills put me to sleep.

It was an impossible secret to keep.  My pants had been lying on the floor for ages by the time we were ready for bed.  There was no clandestine way to reach into my pocket, grab a bottle of pills, and disappear into the bathroom.  It was my mistake.  For the past week, I’d been strategically leaving my pants in the bathroom, by the bathroom door, anywhere outside of the bedroom, so that when I arose from bed I could access the pills without revealing my intent.

As innocuously as I could, I pulled my arm from beneath Eliza’s head.  She groaned and set her head onto the pillow, but she did not open her eyes.  I set my feet on the floor, tiptoed over to where my pants lay, picked them off the ground, and headed towards the door.

 “What’s in your pants that you always need them for?” Eliza asked.

I jumped.

“Uh,” I said.  I thought about lying.  Nothing came to me.  “Sometimes,” I said, “I have to take sleeping pills to fall asleep.  It’s nothing crazy or anything.  I bought them at the drug store.  It’s just that sometimes I get insomnia, and, well…”

“That’s messed up, baby.  Why do you think it is that you can’t fall asleep?”

“It’s just insomnia.  Lots of people have it.  Nothing’s wrong.”

“I want you to be able to fall asleep with me.”

Eliza eyed me suspiciously.  I think she saw through me.

There was a group of us all sitting around the dirty living room.  Eliza sat on the couch beside me, a hand on my thigh.  She was quieter than usual.  When Eliza and I were alone together, it could be difficult to get a word into the conversation.  But there, in my buddies’ apartment, she was more taciturn that I’d ever seen her.

All those guys lived together in an apartment above Café Pergolesi, downtown Santa Cruz.  It was the perfect spot for a bunch of twenty year old college scenesters.  Eliza didn’t really fit in.  My buddies were loud and opinionated.  They bethought themselves edgy and hip.  I think they intimidated Eliza but she was doing a good job of being patient there.  She was on her best behavior.

When I went downstairs for a smoke, Eliza followed me.  It was evening, just before eleven – still early by my standards.  The guys would be heading out to some house party or another before too long, and they wouldn’t likely be getting back before three.  I’d already given Eliza a head’s up, but she’d been quite insistent that she wasn’t so old, that she could still enjoy drinking beer out of plastic cups, and hollering over a too-loud home stereo system.

We descended the steps from the guys’ place, down to Pergolesi’s side patio.  They’d just closed up and the porch was deserted, but I could still see the lights on inside where the baristas were cleaning things up while they drank after hours drafts.

“What’s over here?” Eliza asked, leading me to the back of the café patio, through the latching gate to the employees-only porch.  It was empty.  “Let’s sit here,” she announced, lowering herself onto the bench.

I sat next to her, pulled out my smokes, and lit one up.

“You doing okay so far?” I asked her.

“You’re friends are intense,” she said.

“I know they can be.”

“But I’m doing good.  I like them.  But I’m also glad to have a minute alone with you.”

She turned toward me and started kissing my neck.  Her lips found my left ear.  She knew I loved that.  She’d discovered every one of my sensitivities, my weaknesses.  And she exploited them.

I dragged my cigarette.

Eliza kept kissing.

Her hand slid across my lap.

“What have we got here?” She teased.  “What is this?”

She unzipped my fly and stuck her hand into my pants.  She toyed with me down there, then pulled my cock out.  She was still kissing my ear.

“I love rubbing this big dick of yours,” she whispered.

I closed my eyes.

Her lips left my ear, and I felt the heat of her breath as she lowered her head to my lap.  She spent just enough time down there to get everything lubricated, and then she returned to kissing my ear, returned her hand to my lap.

“Does that feel good, baby?”

“You know it does.”

“Do you want to go back home?” she whispered.


We’d been fucking on the rug on her bedroom floor for an hour.  I was already drunk when Eliza had picked me up that night, and I couldn’t finish.

“What’s the matter, baby?” Eliza cried.  “Am I doing everything right?”

“Yeah, it’s amazing.  Everything feels great.  I don’t know what’s going on.  I keep getting close, but then it just doesn’t happen.”

Eliza climbed off of me.  Her hair was matted with sweat.  She was pouting.  “I don’t know how much longer I can go for.”  She smiled a pouty smile.  “You already got me off more times than I can count.”  She stood and looked down at me where I still lay naked on the rug.

“You can just use your hands,” I told her.  “Massage me.  You know I love it when you touch me.”

“But why can’t I get you off in other ways.”  She was talking with a sulky, childish intonation.  She flopped, belly down, over the edge of her bed so that her ass stuck up in the air and she turned her head to stare at me.  She was frowning.

Because I was unwilling to recourse to excuses of drunkenness, I had no way to explain my diminished capacity for sensation.  “I’m sorry,” I said.  “I don’t know what’s going on.”

She kicked her feet a bit while she lay on the bed, still staring at me.  Her behind jiggled.  “I want you to come inside me, baby.”  She lay there, bent over the bed, breasts flattened against the mattress.  Her poutiness had taken on a kind of sexy affectation.  “I would do anything you wanted,” she said slowly, “to get you to come inside me.”

The first time Eliza scratched me, the first time that she dug those sharp claws across my shoulder blades, sunk them into my flank, I loved it.  It thrilled me.  She screamed and moaned as I pumped harder.  I gritted my teeth, squinted.  My muscles flexed and tensed in response to the pain.  The wounds stung in the cold air.

“I’m coming, oh, oh, baby, I’m coming so hard!”  She was screaming.  I wanted her to announce those delights.  “Oooh baby, you’re getting it just right!”

Her vaginal walls quivered and then clenched at me as if her whole body was working in unconscious ways to bring me off.  She tore the flesh from my back as I sank deeper, cried out and released.

“Did I hurt you, baby?”  She asked.

“No, I liked it.”

“Good.  I liked it too.  I didn’t even mean to.  You were just making me feel so good.  But I wouldn’t want to hurt you.”

Droplets of my blood stained the sheets that night.  Upon waking the next day, I took stock of those little stains, the marks of something terribly passionate, maybe forbidden.  I was proud.  I was proud that I’d been man enough to let Eliza have her way with my body, that I’d withstood.  But more than that, I was proud that I’d enjoyed it.

I went into the bathroom and examined my wounds, a series of parallel scratch marks shone bright red, some of them scabbing here and there.  My love handles were patterned with deep crescent lesions, each ringed with an emerging bruise.  The hot water of the shower stung, reviving memories of the previous evening.

Eliza’s delight in pain endured, prevailed.  I had already been initiated into the relatively innocuous world of playful domination.  A bit of spanking, a bit of hair pulling, that was all fine and well, but Eliza wanted something a bit more.

I set my teeth onto her erect nipples.

“Harder,” she roared.  “Fucking bite me.”

I’d put my hands around her throat and she’d actually set her own hands over mine, squeezing them firmer.

She wanted me to pull her arms behind her back, pin her to the mattress.

She told me to fuck her harder that I thought any woman could really take.

And then, when she got a hold of me, she lashed out, scratching, clawing, biting.

I typically let her down in those situations.  She’d scream and beg for a little bit of agony, and I couldn’t deliver.  I didn’t have it in me.  I was scared.  And where was that line?  Because I didn’t mind throwing her around the bed a bit.  I didn’t think that I was an overly-cautious lover.  And yet, I did view her body as something more delicate than it must have been.  I was scared of hurting her when she wanted to be hurt in a controlled and loving way.

And it’s not like her desires were unhealthy.  She never requested anything unreasonable, and I was thrilled when I had the will to acquiesce.  I wanted to satisfy her.  But even my own pleasure was something worrisome to me.  The scratching became common place.  My back was a roadmap of wounds at various stages of recovery.  Because the pain, even if negligent, was constant, because I was always made aware of those wounds by a pat on the back, by the insignificant weight of my undershirt, Eliza haunted the margins of my consciousness during every waking moment.

It was the first night I’d been out with the boys for over a week.  Eliza nearly broke down. 

“Don’t get drunk and fuck anyone,” she commanded.

“Nobody wants to fuck me,” I said.

“Don’t play dumb with me.  Don’t forget where I met you.  I know what a fucking flirt you are when you’ve been drinking.”

“Eliza, don’t give me this shit.  The only reason I’m going out is so I can spend some time with my friends.”

“I still don’t understand why I can’t come,” she said.

“I told you, it’s just the guys tonight.  Besides, you know that I can’t keep my hands off you when were together.  I’d end up spending all my time with you.”

She responded well to flattery.  Her voice brightened as she said, “So?  What’s wrong with that?”

“I just miss my friends and want to spend some time with them.”

“Maybe I’ll just go anyway.”  She was getting sassy.  “There’s no law that says I can’t go to the bar to get a drink.”

It wouldn’t have been the first time Eliza showed up unexpectedly while I was out with friends.  Previously, I’d interpreted it as almost cute.  It’d been early enough in our friendship that it almost seemed accidental.  I also had been happy to see her in that event.

“That would be a big mistake,” I told her.  “Just let me have my night, and I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“I’m scared you’re gonna be flirting with other girls.”

“No flirting, I promise.”

The guys were sitting on the back patio of The Avenue when I arrived, and they gave me a hard time about my absenteeism when they saw me coming.

“Hey, you can’t blame me if I’d rather be getting pussy than hanging out with a bunch of assholes,” I declared.  Inspiration hit.  “Check this out,” I said as I turned my back to the table and pulled my shirt over my head, revealing the crosshatched scars, the fingernail crescents in my sides.

“Holy shit, dude.”

“That’s gnarly.”

“Doesn’t that hurt?”

“She’s beating you, isn’t she?”

I got drunker that night than I’d been in weeks.  I stumbled home after last call.  I heard the phone ringing as I pushed open the back door.  She knew better than to call at night.  The landline woke up Ed and Pam.

I fell onto my bed and pulled the phone from the receiver.  “Eliza, is that you?”

“Baby?  You’re home?”

“Yeah, I just got here.”

“Did any girls try to take you home tonight?”


“So you’re alone.”

“Of course.”

“Can I come over?”

I paused for a moment.

“I’ll leave the back door unlocked.”

Eliza rocked my shoulder, roused me from sleep.  “Hey, your roommates are fighting.”

I woke slowly.  “What the?  I’ve never heard them fight like this before.”

Ed was screaming at Pam.

She was crying, begging really.

“Get the fuck outta here,” he said.  “Get the fuck out of this fucking house you stupid cunt.”  He took his time enunciating each syllable, really dragging it out.  “I don’t ever want to see your disgusting fucking face again.”

Pam screamed.  We heard the front door open.  I could only imagine that Ed was flinging her from the house.  It was a terrible thing to hear.  I knew, somehow, deep down, that I should do something – call the police, intervene physically even – Ed wouldn’t be a match for me.  He was a coward and I knew it.  But I did nothing.  It made me feel useless.  I was not a man.

“What the fuck should I do?” I asked Eliza.

“There’s nothing you can do, baby.”  It was comforting to hear, although I doubted her sincerity.

“This is fucked up.  I can’t live with these fucking guys.  They’re crazy.”

“Do you think Pam will come back?”

“Yeah, she’ll be back tomorrow.”

“So what is there to do?” Eliza said.

I still felt like something less than a man.

“You know, baby…”  Eliza talked softly, still consoling me.  “…I used to be in a relationship like that.  It was the guy I went to Hawaii with.  I loved him so much that I’d let him get away with it.  Things would get bad and I’d end up running out of the apartment in the middle of the night.  I’d sleep on the beach and typically things would be better when I went back the next morning.  It was an ugly relationship.  I had to learn that I didn’t need him though.  When I left him, I didn’t have any place to go.  I was working a little bit over there, but I didn’t have a place to stay.  But I got through it, you know?  I was determined.  I left him, but I didn’t run away.”

My impulse was not original.  Rather, it was stereotypically masculine.  I saw red.  I had visions of a violence of my own.  Here was a woman that I was trying, in my weak and futile way, not to hurt, to protect and love even.  I began fantasizing about killing a man I’d never seen before.  Apart from being Eliza’s abuser, his identity was unknown to me.  But I knew abusers, I told myself.  I knew bullies.  I knew he was weak and that I would be able to capitalize upon that weakness.

“Where does he live?” I asked, as if I might follow through on these impulses.

“Oh, my wonderful man.  You want to protect me.  He’s still in Hawaii, and he’s finally out of my life, which I’m so happy about.  Things haven’t been so good in a long time.”

“Was it hard to get rid of him?”

“He called me every fifteen minutes for months.  I’d run into him every once in a while – at a bar or something – and he’d beg me to come back.  He’d cry in front of everybody.  But when I turned him down, he’d get mad again.  Luckily, he knew better than to try anything in public.”

“I’m sorry you had to put up with that.”  I couldn’t think of anything meaningful to say.

“Just be good to me, baby.”

We lay silently for a little while, unable to fall back asleep.

I went outside for a smoke.  When I came back, Eliza was sitting up in bed.  “You could move,” she said.

“I was just thinking the same thing.  I bet I could get my own place.  It wouldn’t be that much more expensive.”

“Then we wouldn’t have to deal with your roommates anymore.  It would be more comfortable for me to come over and spend time with you.  I could cook for you more.  I’d never have to put my clothes on.”

And with visions of Eliza taking care of me, I closed my eyes.

By the following afternoon, I’d put in my thirty day notice.

We were fighting.  I was sober.  I felt trapped.  That was the one thing I hated about spending the night at her place.  I felt like a hostage.  She lived out in the woods, out in Aptos.  Because I didn’t have a car, I relied on Eliza to drive me to her place and back into town.  So, once I was out there, alone in that house with her, I was at her mercy.

We hadn’t picked up any booze for me that night: no beer, no whiskey, nothing.  Eliza’s house was dry.  That was a difficult situation for me, and I was irritable because of it.  But I was becoming discontent in general.  I’d made up my mind and I didn’t want to fall in love.  Eliza’s apparent need for me, her love, her devotion, it was just one more thing that terrified me, just another burden.

And while there was a part of me that considered abandoning myself to the feelings that she managed, as no other woman had, to evoke in me, I was in equal part frustrated by her love.  Why couldn’t she reason through her emotional impulses?  Why did it so often have to be all or nothing?  And why was her all so profoundly bountiful?

Eliza had started to make plans.  I always kept my mouth shut and allowed her these fantasies.  She planned elaborate vacations.  She wanted to backpack South America.  More immediately, more realistically, she wanted to go backpacking out in Yosemite, roughing it in the woods, just she and I.  She didn’t realize because I didn’t tell her, but there was no way she’d ever have been able to convince me to go camping with her.  It was my idea of a living nightmare: the dirt, the food, the physical trial of it…the sobriety.  Besides, it was intense enough being isolated with Eliza in civilization.

But I wasn’t honest.  I placated her.  “That sounds great,” I’d say.  “One of these days.”

Talk of the future didn’t end there, either.  Such talk terrified me.  But I was a weak man, and unable to express my own desires clearly.  I placated and learned to resent with a sense of self-righteousness.

So one night we fought.  I got mad.  I didn’t like fighting and I’d mostly avoided it up until then.  There had been underhanded comments.  Eliza didn’t want me to drink.  I nursed my own resentments.  But more than anything else Eliza wanted me to be a man and I still wanted to be a little boy.  The fight came to a climax when I demanded that Eliza give me a ride back into Santa Cruz, back to my place. 

I had the thirst, and I wanted a drink so badly that it was about all I could think of.  If I got a ride back to town, I could still go out and get drunk – all the better now that I had an excuse.

Eliza tried to dissuade me and then relented in a fit of rage.  She grabbed my sleeping pills from the medicine cabinet (where I was allowed to keep them, no longer hidden).  She threw the bottle at me.  “Don’t forget your fucking pills.”

On the ride back to my house, Eliza attempted to smooth things over.  “Oh baby, don’t be mad at me,” she said.  “I’m sorry if I’ve been a brat.  I’m sorry if I haven’t been listening to you.  We don’t have to go camping together.  We can take a trip you want to take.  We need to do something nice together.”

We arrived back at my place.

“I don’t want you to go, baby,” she said.  “Don’t just walk out of this car.  I want you to invite me in.  I want to take real good care of you tonight.  I need you to take care of me.”

But I wasn’t having it.  I could already taste the drink that was waiting for me.  In my mind, it had already been poured.

Eliza called dozens of times over the next week, left several messages a day.  It was another example of my weakness.  I couldn’t be a man.  I couldn’t take responsibility for my decisions, for hurting someone who had been kind enough to love me when I felt so unworthy of love.

One day I was careless.  I picked up the phone without letting it go to the machine.  It was Eliza.

“I’ve been trying to call you,” she said as if I might not have known.

“I know.  I’m sorry I haven’t called back.”

“What’s the matter, baby?  What’s going on?”

“I think we need to talk.”

“Okay.”  She was crying.

“Do you want to meet me for coffee tomorrow?”

She agreed.

She was crying.  “I should’ve never let you go home alone that night.  I should’ve convinced you to stay with me.  I should’ve come into your house with you.  I would have made everything better.”

“There’s nothing you could’ve done.”

“You can’t do this.  You can’t do this to me.  I won’t let you.”

“I’m sorry.  You don’t have a choice about this.”

“That isn’t fair.  Why don’t I have a say?  There’s two of us.  We should have a discussion and come to a conclusion together.”

“I’m sorry.”

“So there’s nothing I can say to you, is there?  You know that I’d do anything to keep you, baby.  I want to keep you.”

“I’m so sorry, Eliza.  I know I’m not being fair.”

“You’re not being fair at all.”  Eliza jumped from her seat, stood in front of me, grief becoming rage, her fists balled.  I stayed in my seat.  She grabbed me by the collar and yanked me forward.  “I want to hit you so hard in the face right now.  Do you hear me?  I’m gonna hit you in the face!”

I looked around, nervous about the scene we were making.  “I’d understand if you had to.”

She let her hands fall back to her side and abandoned herself to sobbing.  I was relieved, but also a little disappointed.  I wanted her to hit me.  I wanted some self-justification, for as it stood what was I throwing away and why?

I left the café and made a b-line for the liquor store.  I knew how I’d be spending the rest of my evening.

I wondered if I’d be able to turn my experience with Eliza into a story.  I would go to my friends’ house and I would try to entertain them with details of my private life.  It wasn’t a kiss and tell story – none of the mindless pornography that men tend to share with each other in the spirit of big dick contests.  I would spin a yarn that might encapsulate my prevailing un-sureness.  Maybe, through that re-creation, I’d be able to rectify the ambivalences, be able to come to some satisfying conclusion about my experiences with Eliza.

As I walked down the street, I thought about what I would tell my friends.  They’d be happy to have me back, I knew, but would they understand the decision I’d made to leave a woman who exhibited so many qualities, a woman who was eager to gratify me, a woman whose rapture, though arguably unhealthy in some ways, had the potential to grant immeasurable satisfaction?  Maybe they would understand all too well.

Eliza was following me as I walked down the street.  I didn’t think it was healthy but I let her have her way.  I didn’t want to provoke another confrontation.

I picked up a pint of whiskey from Bonecio’s, and headed over to the café.  It was dark out.  When I arrived at Pergolesi, I climbed the steps at the side of the building and entered the apartment.  The boys were sitting around the living room.

“Well, it’s over guys,” I said.

I uncapped the Jim Beam and I began to talk.  At some point, I turned to look out the front window of the apartment.  I was looking for Eliza and there she was, sitting on the front steps of the café with her head cradled in her arms.

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