Category Archives: Love
Since the day I started keeping records, my primordial thoughts were about a Jeff. Jeff, et al. Jeff in all his incarnations. The first diary I ever kept began,
I like Jeff. Jeff is in my class.
And then a quick nod to my coordinates in space:
Today is Friday.
Once I even cut a life-sized boy out of a roll of paper and walked around the neighborhood with it, until the real boys who lived down the street saw what I was doing and laughed me back into the house. That’s the thing about boys. Boys weren’t weird. They were practical. They weren’t dumbed down by a love of plastic dolls, ABBA ballads, or a chronic need to tuck blankets around everything until it was nice and cozy. And they sure as shit didn’t walk the block with a paper girl.
Maybe that’s why I got crushes on the mischievous Jeffs of the world, the troublemakers who got sent to the principal’s office, the ones too poor even to be cool. They operated outside the system that had me trapped; they had a nihilist sort of courage to do wrong and the balls to pretend they didn’t give a shit. They didn’t need to be cozy. They probably didn’t even use blankets.
My penchant for Jeffs became a chronic condition in adulthood. They were the types who didn’t care about much beyond their own dicks (a fact they’d never admit). They’d say instead, baby don’t get all deep n shit. Their aggrandized masculinity contained something frightening and foreign that I wanted to own. I wanted to study their skill set and their physical style, I wanted to be on the winning side of that roughness and intimidation. I longed to absorb their mannerisms, chemically react to their smell and plug my face into their naked bodies. My instincts told me that the only way a girl like me could ever stake a permanent flag on Mt. Man, was by fucking it.
The only problem was that I am in fact, secretly, quintessentially, regrettably deep n shit. I wanted to feel whole, and a relationship based solely on sex left me in roadkill condition. So, at the inevitable break-up, the part of me that had bloomed now receded painfully into hyper sleep. It was the maleness I grieved most– even though it had ignored me and slipped the beloved D to someone else – I mourned it. I’d felt so alive! And now look at me, half dead. Forgotten. Staring down the void. Wait. I know how to fix this! Let’s find another one.
This is how I got hooked on men.
Writing Crash Bang Burn was about embracing this alleged half-dead side. Instead of crashing, banging and burning, I made my characters do it – over and over. Poor things. But it was a way of taking my demons for a walk without letting them off the leash. The goal was neither desecration nor worship – I just wanted to scratch the itch without tearing my skin off for a change. I wanted to get one teensy step removed from the rejection and grief that seemed, for me, to be the predicable and perpetual female experience. Instead of it being my cross to bear, it was now, quite literally, Braylee and Edie’s.
But when I was done writing the book, I was by no means done being the puppetmaster. I had just begun. I was compelled to step into their diametrically opposed shoes and gather witnesses for the revival. I needed cameras because hey, not everyone is a reader. Edie and Braylee would be easy to act out. After all, Edie was a caricature of who I wished I wasn’t and Braylee is kinda who I wished I was.
But Cross. Cross was a different story.
Cross wasn’t just any guy. He was every guy. He was an amalgamation of all I loved and hated about men, about the south, about sex. He was the street drug I could never get enough of, even as I bled out. How was I going to animate him? I figured I should find some supermale actor to play him. But no, that wouldn’t do. They might get it wrong. Plus I didn’t need real; I’d had enough real to last a decade. I needed control. I needed a laugh. And anyway, who better to nail Cross than the one who’d been nailed the hardest?
What would I wear, I asked myself, if I were a dude? And so began the experience called “trying on men’s clothes.”
I wiped off all my makeup and strapped on a rubber dick. I found some boxer briefs, buckled on a pair of men’s pants and took a few paces across the room.
The first thing I’d like to note is, wearing a dick is very distracting. Your sex is literally wagging around like a goddamn panhandler. It wants to proposition everything you’re looking at, even the wall or the door jamb. Dick informs your every step. Dick makes you sit and walk different. You can’t just put it out of your mind. Dick is always….right…there. It gently carjacks your senses. Or Car-jeffs.
Next I put on men’s boots, pinned on some foam superman muscles and wrapped an ace bandage around my tits. I cocked my jaw, put on a ball cap, checked the mirror – and somewhere in that series of steps, I disappeared. The same way you might disappear into a hot bath or the driver’s seat of a Ferrari. I wouldn’t call it transcendent. But it’s the kind of ahhhh that put my yearnings at ease. I felt my whole center of gravity shift. I swaggered. I swooned. Look at me, I thought. Holy shit. Finally, instead of trying to crawl under a man’s skin, I was actually in it. Behold, my fix was here before me, staring back in the mirror, awaiting orders. But this time there would be no tears upon extraction. The circuit was contained and closed. I could peel him on, skewer him, adore him, and then pack him up in the closet as needed.
I was going to need to. A lot.
The first time I walked into a crowded bar dressed as Cross, the thing that hit me hardest was how completely under the radar I had become. Nobody, male or female, sized me up. I was neither bait nor competition. I was the looker, not the lookee. I had stepped outside the whole fucking female paradigm. I was free.
But I think the really good shit hit the fan after I got a film crew to capture me acting as all three characters. I wrote the script and then I buttoned up like sweet naive Edie, waiting for Cross with baited breath. Then I melted down like hot little Braylee and told him to get the fuck outta my trailer. And finally, I glued on my facial hair, spat my dip into a bottle, looked deep into the camera, and became Cross:
When I returned home that night, with my three identities and spare dick in a bag, I went through the usual motions. I flipped on the light, hung up my keys, bent down by the the cupboard to get out a bowl, and then, unexpectedly, dropped to a knee. I stared into the back of the dark pantry and happy-cried. Hard. Happy crying, how can I explain this sensation? I know all about sad-crying but this shit was new to me. Imagine feeling so fucking complete that you literally overflow with liquid gratitude. I guess I’d stumbled upon a part of me that had been buried for like, 30 years. Oh yeah, I’m an actor. I’m a goddamn motherfucking actor, people. I forgot. I had three kids, got stranded in Georgia and I completely forgot. Then one day, I dressed up like a dude and remembered who I fucking was.
And to think, it all started with sad little Edie in a bar bathroom, trying to become someone else.
I like Jeff. I think I’m going to dress up like him and film a split-screen sequence making out with myself.
Today is Friday.
copyright © K. Dawn Goodwin 2016
Before dawn, Nathan was a speck at the top of a billboard, unfolding a McDonald’s ad in the spotlights. The cold wind billowed under the vinyl as he released it, threatening to bring it down onto the interstate 50 feet below and make I’m Lovin It the last thing some poor trucker would ever see.
“Fuck, fuck, fuck,” he muttered at the icy gust, bracing the flimsy material in his cracked fingertips, hurrying to sink hooks and pump tension into the ratchet straps.
It was going to be a long day, but it wasn’t the work or the deep freeze that made him feel bitter. It was having nothing better at the end of it. When the sum total of his life became nothing more than signs along a highway, that’s when memories started leaking from their holding tanks and he’d think about things he didn’t want to. Like Ellie leaning into his chest that morning outside the diner. The way her cold cheek had felt against his neck, her bones giving way in his arms — the kisses melted his armor like wax against the sun. It was like she’d just returned. But that was impossible because they’d only just met.
He unfastened the clips and let the old pictures fall, one after the other, put up new ones and made his way on down the line. By noon he’d done ten installs and boxed up his feelings too, just squares on a conveyor belt en route to oblivion where they belonged. He ate lunch at the same drive-thru. He stopped at the same gas station on the way home, bought the same beer, listened to the same station. He parked his truck the same way, the floorboards creaking under the same step as he made his way up to his apartment.
It would’ve all been the same but his next door neighbor, an army man on permanent disability, burst out of his door when he heard Nathan’s footfalls.
“Hey man, what’s up?” the guy asked, already standing way too close.
Nathan set the twelve-pack down and slid his key into the lock.
“Hey,” he answered without looking up. It was the most he’d said to anyone all day. Maybe all week.
“Ain’t seen your girl come around lately. I thought she was moving in.”
“Nope,” he answered, keeping his back turned, hoping one syllable replies were sufficient warning.
“Oh, did y’all split? I did too. With my girlfriend. Women!”
Nathan didn’t say a word. He picked up the beer and pushed open his front door.
“Did you meet her online?” The man went on, undeterred. “ Cuz I saw her profile today. She was hot. What’s her name? I was gonna message her just to say hi but wasn’t sure if —”
Nathan crossed the threshold, turned, and kicked the door shut in the man’s face. He’d meant to say it was fine, have at it, knock yourself out. But his boot had moved first, deciding on its own that the days of being neighborly were over.
Inside his living room, the blinds were shut tight against the light. He never lifted them. He flicked on the stereo to fill the silence. In the kitchen sink there was one glass, on the counter one upturned plate on a towel. He slid the blue box into the empty fridge, took out another can. She’d left salt and pepper shakers on the counter and for some reason it suddenly bothered him, so he placed them inside one of his hundred empty kitchen cabinets, along with the thought of her, and closed the compartment. He opened another and took out a pill, just in case. Not likely to get that bad, but not likely to get very good either.
In the bedroom he pulled off his work boots, but instead of dropping them in their usual place he cocked back and hurled them in succession at the opposite wall. He sat down on the edge his bed, chest heaving slow. He plugged in his phone and scrolled silently as he drank. Beside him the lamp was dark. He looked up and stared at the wall. He needed to fuck so badly.
No, he couldn’t go to her. She wasn’t willing to give him any assurance, so why should he give her any back. He needed to go somewhere the opposite of her place, see the opposite of her face. He had to get out of this room, out of the grip of this feeling. And he had to do it now.
A hundred miles away, Ellie had just gotten home with her kids. Their heads came flooding back under her wing in a barrage of laughter and dirty backpacks. But her smile was hollow; she felt dead inside and out, a human statue with a phone fused into her right palm. She knew it was wrong to feel that way, to let it get in the way, but for now nothing short of amputation would make her let go of that fucking phone.
There was cooking and cleaning to do, little faces that needed to feel loved and cared for. But maybe she wasn’t doing it right because their hugs and their chatter didn’t make her feel loved at all. She saw only the lonely job ahead, an insurmountable ascent with no summit. The only love she could feel these days came in the shape of a text message. Love was backwards and upside down.
The kitchen had been the first thing to go. Papers, bags, clothes, extension cords, groceries – they’d remained wherever she’d dropped them. The trash overflowed. The closet door sagged on its broken hinge. It was suspended animation maybe, the dwelling of someone who’d stepped outside for just a second and gotten hit by a car. Or a sign.
For weeks she’d walked on a cloud, the house ship-shape, her heart in the pink – hanging up towels, snapping the sheets, painting her nails, cooking the rice – it was all neat and pretty. The routine wasn’t a routine at all when Nathan was in it.
You want me? he’d tease with that caramel voice, that curling grin, translucent eyes staring into hers on the pillow, his cinnamon skin between her white legs. Was it possible to come so much that it destroyed your life? It had; her body had reversed polarity. They’d met on a Friday and by that Wednesday food had become an afterthought. He was the main sustenance, her sites set on his scent like nectar. She’d plundered his cock like petals but it didn’t kill the longing, she only wanted him again when they were done. Eye to eye, in the inseparable throes, days disappeared. It felt like love. But how could it be. She didn’t know him at all.
My oh my, you’re so good looking, he sang to her at the kitchen table, strumming her guitar while she put away breakfast. But I’ve not tasted all your cooking.
Who are you when we’re not fucking? She should’ve sang back, but was too out of it. His nails had felt so good going in her coffin. He’d been hammering them all night long.
Now the picture-perfect table where he’d sat like her own personal Blake Shelton was covered with melted ice cream. She put a sack and a plate down in the chocolate puddle because who cared. Both sides of the sink were a foot high with pots and pans, bowls squished together with stinky soggy sandwich blobs. The floor was so sticky the soles of her shoes peeled when she walked.
She receded to her bedroom so she could slip away under the blankets, back turned against the sights and sounds of the house, the phone in her right hand like an empty IV.
“Mommy you ok?” her seven year-old asked, peering into her cracked bedroom door. She lifted her face and nodded.
“Just not feeling well,” she told him, and he didn’t buy it. She hated that it had leaked into his life too. “Do you need anything?”
“What’s wrong,” he asked, hanging on the doorknob, uncertain. “Why are you crying?”
“I’m okay,” she said, but instead of being okay, she put her head down and slept.
She dreamed she’d fallen into the river and someone threw her a life-preserver. It wasn’t her life she was worried about though, it was that fucking phone. It lay before her on the float, impossibly dry and shiny and black and slim — she had to save it quick. But as she hoisted her weight it capsized and disappeared down into the dirty water. At first, utter panic — she’d never get his hello! But then relief, because if there was no hello, then there’d be no goodbye. There was freedom in being cut off.
At midnight Nathan was fucking some dark-haired girl from the bar. It was a relief to be thrusting out the aggravation, but it was proving to be its own kind of aggravation. Wasn’t much he could really do with this chick. Anything short of him doing all the work wasn’t really panning out.
“What?” he asked, trying to read her. Ellie always let loose. Ellie always let him know. Ellie and her stupid face. “You want me to stop?”
“No,” the girl giggled, a weird thing to do, weird like her perfume. His hands were all over her body, getting her off, but hers were limp and non-committal. The buzz was wearing off and he had work in the morning so he took over and jerked himself off. The rage was gone at least, and soon she would be too. He staggered to the shower, wondering if it was worth it. He lathered the soap in the warm water and scrubbed his dick down a little too thoroughly, got that perfume off his neck. He felt a little better, and a lot worse. He stepped out to dry off and glanced over Ellie’s bottles in the trash. She’d be jealous if she knew. Maybe she’d feel as miserable as he had. But it was her fault for not saying I love you, her fault that he’d shut down, her fault that he was killing pain with a subpar fuck.
He walked out to his truck in the pitch black rain and began the day like always. But he hadn’t gotten his feelings fastened down just yet. The water on his windshield made him think about that night in the woods, riding the mule with her into the river, the splash exploding like yellow fireworks in their headlights. The submerged engine had churned, nearly tipping. His friends had hopped out and pushed it to shore, but Ellie had gone streaking off into the dark, leaving a trail of jeans and underwear. He’d stumbled after her, peeling off his clothes and wading up to his knees in the current. He’d reached out to her bare, luminescent skin, pressed her goosebumps against his chest. When his friends flashed the brights on their naked bodies, she’d tried to hide but tripped instead and took them both down hard in the shallow water. He kept trying to get up, but she was laughing too hard. That was how he’d felt with her from day one: so happy he couldn’t stand. How can a man live like that, on his knees, clinging to someone who won’t ever let you get a hold.
He pulled his truck up to the base of another sign, took out the next box and climbed up into the dark, disappearing above the hiss of the wet highway.
Ellie was in her kitchen making dinner. In lieu of sex she had food; potatoes in heavy cream, a cherry pie the size of a human stomach — carbohydrates were the only thing that could counter the emptiness. She set dinner out for the children and then hunched at the stove like a bundled skeleton. She ate and ate and ate, and then looked at her needful phone, hollow eyed.
She scrolled through the punishing highlight reel on Facebook, reviewing the lives of better-adjusted mothers, intact families who preferred alternative schooling and organic dinners for their better-dressed children. They were traveling to Disney again.
She called her girlfriend.
“I’m in a slump,” she sniffled, wiping her eyes on her sleeve. “I haven’t bathed. I look like a hobbit on meth. There’s a mountain of laundry that’s been on the couch so long it’s no longer clean. There are so many dirty dishes we actually ran out of dishes.”
“Oh girl listen,” her friend replied, “You’re not the only one. Just finding something to wear to the kids’ Christmas party is gonna be a chore, though I’m sure I could bring this house dress I’ve worn for the past 3 days as my plus one.”
“You make me feel better,” Ellie said. “There was half a stick of butter left out on the counter and I just wiped my bagel through it and ate it.”
“That’s not so bad.”
“Oh and a minute ago the mustard exploded on the back of a chair and I wiped my sandwich through that too. Incidentally, I found the package of ham under the table where the cat was licking it, and the cheese slices were in my purse. I just don’t give a fuck anymore. So long as I am eating.”
Her friend laughed. “What about my stained house dress?”
“Please, we both know I’m the official door greeter at the gates of hell.” Ellie paused. “But hey, you made me smile. I needed that.”
“No problem. What are fellow losers for?”
She hung up and considered the heads of her children eating dinner in front of the TV. She would go to them now, try and make up for it.
But at night, the thought of him with someone else made her pull the blankets over her head and cry. She wished she could call a timeout on her life, to put the whole act on pause, to stop all the pretending and the games and just lift the shade on all the illusions for one second – and see at last: what was the truth? And not for any magnanimous reason either, but just to know simply, had she ever mattered to him? Because how could she matter to herself if she hadn’t.
She drifted off, imagining she was walking through the dim hallway in his house. There was one glass in his kitchen sink. One plate drying on a towel. In his bedroom he was sleeping like he always did, on top of the bedspread like a permanent visitor, arms folded over his chest, huddled against the bedside table. It felt so good to see him. It felt so good to forget.
After work Nathan didn’t shower or change clothes. He felt dead inside but told himself he was just tired. He dozed off before twilight and dreamed she was standing in his bedroom doorway, whispering his name. It was such a relief, like none of the bad had ever happened. He lifted the blanket and she crawled in, facing him. He grunted with approval at her scent and her softness, her kisses crackling beneath his ear. He brought the cover up around her like wings, closed his eyes and hugged her tight. This was love, wasn’t it? Had to be. Couldn’t she feel it too? But she was wiggling out of her clothes, stroking his body into a silken barb, sliding onto him, stirring his breath. And suddenly, he wasn’t so sure.
A man passes in the aisle and you shudder. He is the same height, the same hair, the same shirt. Your heart explodes and then collapses in on itself. Is it him? No, of course not. Ding dong, the hope is dead. But its carcass limps along.
This is the grocery store, and the first time you’ve left your house since he left you. It hasn’t been this bad for you in a long time. Maybe you’ve air-dropped into civilian life too soon. You don’t just notice people that pass, you cling to them with your eyes. That is a person, you recite. That too is a person. The fact that they’re not dead inside like you – it’s a kind of miracle.
You can’t go inside your own head, can’t visit your thoughts for long. Everything that inhabited you has fled. There are carpet prints where furniture used to be. All that’s left are pen caps and junk mail and the detritus that no one takes with them. So you keep your gaze outward. You put one foot in front of the other.
Random men keep triggering your parasympathetic reflex, so you brace for the surge and the prickling letdown. It feels like excitement bubbling in your chest but it’s not. Excitement is pink; pink like cotton candy in your brain, pink like the sunset when you drove to his house, pink like your lips going down on him. This isn’t pink. This is gray. The precise crayon shade would be “aftermath”. This is the graveyard, the homeless shelter for love. This is you, your dry lips parted beneath a gunmetal pipe praying for one last drop. It has to be in there somewhere. It has to.
You peer at a woman near the potato chips. Her hair is tied back, her skin has color and she is frowning at a paper list. Children fuss at her waist. Her life is just a life, but her back bends so capably through it. See how she moves and doesn’t cry? you marvel. See that? You used to do that. Before you met him.
.You are blank as plastic. You are the color of a fading bruise. Cords are still plugged into your heart and they drag along behind you like a busted toy, ends ripped off, wires stripped and frayed.
You open the glass door, reach into the cold for a frozen pizza and put it in your cart. The wheels turn and you move three paces toward and still he hurts you. His existence feels like a permanent injury. You cast your eyes onto a teenage girl as she passes. Pink shorts, brown hair, you catalog desperately. She seems fine. She seems nice. You take comfort in the lines of an old man’s face. He nods and smiles at you, a giver of mercy. But a young guy brushes by and you flinch so hard the whole world quakes. Your ears explode. No one notices.
As you walk to the checkout, you hear a child wailing pitifully for his mother to lift him out of the grocery cart. Let me out let me out let me out! he sobs, louder and louder. You look around but can’t locate him him. Please! Let me out! It escalates and pierces and starts a bleed in your brain. Please mama please! Let! Me! Out! Then the refrain changes and it guts you:
I’ll be good for you! he cries. Please! I’ll be good for you! I’ll be good for you!
Something about the order of those words. Now you are crying too. Almost automatic. Push-button tears. You wipe them on your bare arm and keep moving. I’ll be good for you. That was how you acted, wasn’t it. Desperate like a child. You tried so hard not to grovel. But you did. You begged. I’ll be good for you. I’ll do anything. Don’t cut me out.
In the parking lot you unlock your car. You’ve wedged your vehicle in a space between two big trucks that look just like his. It feels safe to park like that, flanked and protected, snuggled up against a lie. You take in the hot, dying breeze. He’s so close, you think. He’s just across town. He’s not even dead. Just a little dead. Just dead for you.
At the red light, you dream with your eyes open. You have a hundred flashbacks to process, all poisoned bait. Sometimes you get so starved that you eat one. You relive him from start to finish, and lick your fingers when you’re done. You can see him on your front porch that night, grinning down at you with those black eyes as he stepped into the lamplight. He was so good-looking, like some cocky high school crush. You let yourself crumble because you knew it, you already knew it. The pain of having him in your bed was going to be as bad as the pain of not having him at all.
Go ahead, remember how it felt to touch him. Slide your hand up under his shirt and take in his clean scent, so hard under his clothes. The TV flickers and there is mint on his tongue. Press down on the stiff denim and the metal buckle. Feel him grip you all over, watch him squeeze your nipples out of the lace and into his mouth. He pulls down your underwear and towers over you naked. He’s pale and slim like some virgin sacrifice you made up. It imprints you like a negative. That cross expression, that frustrated sweetness on his pursed lips as you spread for him, right before he goes in. Long after he’s done making you come it’ll haunt you. The way he shakes his head like too goddamn good. Your body is too soft and slippery inside like velvet and cream and he gives it to you rough and quiet like a man. You let loose all your secret, wicked cries. You let loose all your girlish dreams and hope he can’t see.
It’s just an animal act of course. Sex is just pheromones and molecules and blood and skin, but afterward you rest your forehead on his chest and he feels like the shore. You drowse as he strokes your hair. I don’t want to leave, he says in the morning, and your heart soars. Wrap that day all the way around you, sell your soul to it because it never will be again. And the lesson that comes next is the hardest: It wasn’t even true. It wasn’t even close. It was pretend. It was a very good game. Oh yeah, and you lost.
Text him. One more drink would make it so easy. You finger the latch. You know what he’d do, slip his phone out of his pocket and the light of your name would shine in his eyes. Maybe he’d write back. Maybe he’d make you wait, maybe he’d drag you open-mouthed through the mud again and not even notice. Are you up for that again? The vodka seems to be.
You circle round it, longing to come alive in his hand. You pull up his name, no bigger than a kilobyte at the tip of your finger. You’ve worked hard to get clean. Are you ready to rip yourself apart for a taste? The almighty send button. It’s the only thing between you and the hell you want so badly. You pause. You sip. The screen fades to black.
So you totter to your car and begin driving toward his house. Are you going? You’re not are you? You are? You sail through the empty streets with a loopy smile, freed from the shackles of self preservation. Just past the last traffic light the town disappears, and your windshield is as dark as the edge of the earth. You have a cigarette to smoke, so you pull it hard and blow it long, pluming toward him in the dark, your fingers sparking as they skid through the air. What will you do when you land in his driveway, crumbling into fragments like a half-assed meteor. Stumble out of the driver’s side, tripping over your shoes, banging on his unlit door like you’re crazy? What is it you think you’ll find?
Maybe he’ll yank you into his hallway and ragefuck you so hard the picture frames drop from the wall and shatter. Maybe you can tear his shirt and pound his chest and rake his face with your nails while he makes your body come, because that’s all you got with him. Fucking bodies. Bodies that fuck. Love is nowhere on the scanner. But you miss his scorpion sting, don’t you? The way it leaves you dazed and paralyzed and unable to function for weeks on end? Mmm. That’s sort of like love, isn’t it.
You never make it to his house. Your stomach is seizing, temples throbbing with blood like syrup. The nub of the cigarette goes out the window, and then the entire pack with it. You heave up the woozy dream onto the median, frothy and vile as poisonous raspberries. It feels so good to be so sick. It slaps you in the face. It empties out the pink fog, leaving behind the hard certainty of right and wrong, what will hurt and what will help.
You’ve got to replace the gaping hole in your life and the burning one in your bed. You can’t go back or you’ll have to start all over. So you pick a guy just like him. A little shier, a little softer, a little tamer. A grade B version. He ignores you a little and it weirdly turns you on. You meet him for a drink but he’s not as attractive really, or as interesting. He doesn’t say you’re pretty. He doesn’t say how’d I get so lucky. But he’s here for sex just the same. During a long silence you look over at the bar and see another guy talking to a girl who looks like you. Maybe it’s you in another dimension, you on a future date with someone who cares.
You look back at your empty replacement and realize you’ve made a mistake. You are sitting in the wrong chair, trying to fix a shitty feeling by eating more shit. So you take your purse and get up, as if your software has suddenly expired. You walk away from your date and out the front door and never look back.
Hey hottie where u go? texts what’s-his-name. You don’t answer. You don’t answer anyone. You go home and rub one out. You dry your eyes, smoke half a cigarette and wonder, is it time? But you know, deep down, it’s not. Not even fucking close. You crush the butt and contempt burns deeper.
When r we gonna hang out sexy? Numbnuts texts again.
How bout never, you say out loud, to the empty room. Because someday you’re going to have to recover. Someday pushing your broken heart around in a grocery cart is going to get old. Someday you’re going to have to make room for something good.
“Soon,” you type back. “lol.”
Someday. Just not yet.
copyright © K. Dawn Goodwin 2016
Around here men and lifted trucks were like kudzu. The only difference was, now she noticed every single one, every bed full of machinery, every drop of mud on the chrome. It made her swim with hope like poison.
It wouldn’t even be him driving it, just some camouflage lid helping himself to the tops of her thighs, as if sex was a drive-thru rodeo or a box of fries. She turned away, serious as a heart attack. Sex wasn’t like that for her, even if her favorite songs said it was. Sex was a stolen briefcase shackled to her arm, glowing like Marcellus Wallace’s soul. You didn’t want something like that falling into the wrong hands. You didn’t want the whole reign down with vengeance deal. Maybe that’s why she missed his truck so much, because she missed his heart. It’d been heavy like hers, heavy like a trapdoor. It had felt so good slipping through it into the dark, so familiar and breathless, like a ruse she’d planned herself.
Most of the time she didn’t make a peep, she went home and perched up high like a spider, watching the town from the rafters, sucking off the blood of her losses. Years of solitary spinning had left untold volumes on her desk, her routine, her whole heart like a dusty cocoon. Nothing in real life came close to her recollection of it.
So that’s where she stayed. Mostly.
If I were a boy, she thought, looking his picture over from head to toe, I’d wanna look like that. What an empty notion. But his original incoming message, his hello, how are you? was so innocuous, a bird on the other side of her window. Two different worlds pressed eye to eye for a half second, completely safe from one another. But suddenly there was movement in the outliers.
His messages came in reasonably, like rations, once a day. He was playful, had good manners, and was unwilling to come close. She liked that unwillingness best of all. That was what she was good at: laying out love like bait, measuring the quivering strands to a satellite and two million miles of outer space and back.
I’ve seen a lot of bad things at work, he typed. I’m a little gun-shy.
She soothed him with her smartphone and her shorthand, as if his shyness could be patiently cured, and he lured out over time, a controlled burn. But she noticed, not without concern, the way she leaned away from her loom to check her phone. One thing was certain, his gun-shy wasn’t like any kind she knew, the kind where you just flinch a little. His gun-shy involved actual guns, and sleeping with an eye trained on the clock and the door, a head full of violent ends, fists on flesh, fingers wrapped around his forearm like a slipping knot, blood spraying on his shirt. In his world, car roofs were peeled like open heart surgeries in the middle of a freeway. In his world, love wasn’t just hard, it was cataclysmic, and he beckoned like cornfield full of ghosts. But she didn’t want sex that ended in a bloodbath. She just wanted to know what he looked like in the sunlight. Someday. And right then, right in the middle of enjoying the neverness of someday, he was ready. To meet. The way gun-shy people do: In a Kroger parking lot.
She left the web, she left the loom, wrote Tennyson. She made three paces thro’ the room.
This is retarded, she thought, scrambling to go.
The first thing she noticed was the lift kit on his black pickup truck, like something out of Godzilla vs. The Tarantula. He’d parked it ass first so he could survey the parking lot from the all-seeing eye of his towering, tinted cab. Maybe that was his rafter. Or maybe he was a brown recluse type, wanting to see his victim without being seen. But how could you not be seen in that, the ridiculous toothy tread on those sick tires, extended shocks glinting like the ribs and tendons of a great shell-shocked beast.
Ohmygod, she thought, taking cover behind her steering wheel. One of those?
But too late, he was coming straight toward her, a thin man, shaved head, worn collared shirt and jeans, black sneakers with fluorescent laces. She couldn’t breathe, what was it, the shoes maybe, or the sunglasses. He was intended for someone else. A Scooby snack for the local pussy, for cute young girls full of sunshine and down-home. Not for spiders. But here he was anyway, with that fearless gait, like he was ready to burst right in and tear all the lattice work down, and offer himself as sustenance.
A few feet from impact, he lifted up his plastic shades and his eyes were all she could take in, the kindness in them so palpable it pinned her back with the force of an arrow, a gentle smile and worried, opposing lines on his brow. Wiry arms like driftwood that had baked dry in the wake of some tsunami, and all that were left now were tattoos like scars.
“I just shaved all my hair off,” he said, running his hand over the curve of his skull. He was tall, but bowed himself a little, as if eager to come down to whatever height was required. “I didn’t know what hell else to do with it.” His chest faced hers squarely, a socket you could plug into. He was so wiry-waisted that the breeze rippled his shirt near the belt.
“I like it,” she replied, grasping for an opener. A silence filler. “So. You live in the same county as the Grand Dragon. That’s gotta be a great feeling.”
“Yes, he lived not far from me. The old KKK headquarters.”
“Wait what?” Hot June wind tore across the black asphalt and blew her hair into her eyes like straw. She tried to part it with her hand. “I was just kidding. You mean that’s real? I thought the KKK was like rural legend.”
“It’s gone now. But you can still see the old sign. Actually, I was the one on call when their house caught fire.”
“Yes ma’am,” he said. Ma’am, she thought. Southern boys sure did know how to talk.
“Did everyone make it?” she asked, grinning.
“Dammit,” she kidded.
He looked away, stopping short of agreeing. His hands were on his hips.
“I don’t think like that. I’m trained to help everyone.”
She fell silent, soaking up the convergence of the two realities: one where she sat alone in her house, surmising about local life. The other where she intersected it like a bullet.
“I don’t know how I ended up out here,” he said finally, sweeping his hand over the whole town, as if it all just brought him down. “I’m not even from here.”
Her ears perked, now fully aware of the problem, other than his adorable bewilderment, like the south had him hostage. The actual problem wasn’t that, it was that minutes had turned into a half hour and they were still in the middle of a stupid parking lot, unable to follow protocol and just leave. She summed up the facts in her field of vision, eyes sweeping back and forth between the two: boy in the foreground, truck in the back. The front bumper had the plate of the fireman, the red stripe across the black rectangle. She’d seen countless plates around town — the Georgia dawgs, the Alabama whatevers — at least here was someone more interested in actual emergencies than staged ones. Someone who would run toward fire, while all the others ran away.
I’m a fire too, she thought. And there it was again, the sucking feeling in her chest, as if the doors were burgeoning and all the pressure and light on the outside was about to obliterate the seal.
“Well it was nice meeting you,” she heard herself say, eager to be good. She hugged his neck, all numb and nervous like. And then: 20 more minutes of small talk. It wasn’t the words that made it hard to leave. It was that exquisite feel of his presence, like honey and sunshine, all the things that spiders don’t need to be happy. It was all making her so happy. Happy like a fucking drug.
“Call me some time,” she said finally, “we should meet up.”
He smiled at the offer, but couldn’t be coaxed into agreeing to it. But whatever, she could wait. She drove home on the same road she’d driven for years, the straight shot, the one with no lefts or rights, and promptly took two wrong turns. In some right hand lane, blinker blinking, she forced herself to take stock. Okay, maybe this was cute. It was cute, right? Cute to get all flustered. But that’s how deadly things always started out: as super cute things, and then someone leans in to say awww and the next thing you know everybody is dead.
And that’s what she was doing one week later, sitting across a table from him at sunset, a string around her neck and tits pressed against the straps. It was macabre really, getting all pretty to get all dead.
“You got me.” he laughed, nodding at the outfit. “I ain’t going nowhere.”
“You like it?” she went back. “I call it stripper Barbie.”
Her heart was thrumming in a purse under the table, and above the tablecloth she was absorbing every last detail. He’d made her laugh more than once, and the sensation was so unfamiliar that her entire system recalibrated to receive more of this drug called he makes me laaaaugh. But then, without warning, he switched over to a voice so quiet she had to strain forward in her chair. And all the laughing stopped. His stories dropped a wavelength and widened to a low level earthquake, to exploding meth labs, gunshots to the head, a trailer where a child had burned to death. His stories came in a torrent, one after the other. She could see it all too, his uniform rushing into black smoke, flames curling around the edges of a door, explosions imminent, more fearsome than the gates of her own heart. His was the world of actuals. Of actual pain, of actual work, of actual life. She could feel her life, so soft and virtual, disappearing in his stories, her eyes like two butterflies, wicking up the sweat and the mud under his tracks. He asked no questions about her, and even if he had, there was suddenly not much worth telling.
But it didn’t matter, because afterward he didn’t want to go home to his solitary confinement, and neither did she. He drove her through the town, around and around it in 10 mile increments, back and forth toward no particular destination. High above the cars, high on his deafening engine and his thudding bass, the clock scrolled forward to 2 am. She let her hand rest in the open window, the silk flying free. When was the last time she’d felt this at home? She couldn’t remember.
“Damn, this is nice,” he confessed. “Just being with you.”
“Same here,” she said, and their glances caught in the shadowy cab, and stuck.
A few days later, his truck was owning all the space in her driveway, sitting there like a mythical creature that needed hay or water. She came out the front door, squinting at it in the hot sun, knowing that this was somehow going to ratchet up everything until he disappeared, leaving nothing but blood and an oil stain. But for now, here he was, slim as a cross-tie, hard-boned as a piece of Georgia granite, walking toward her in a sleeveless shirt, shoulders popping like a teenage boy.
“Hi,” he said, bag in hand, smiling at her like he was her best friend or something. For a solitary moment she mistook him for a kindred spirit, miraculously unscathed from a trip that began halfway across the galaxy. He cut his eyes up and down her street, all the identical houses like cardboard cutouts, or a collage of a world he had heard about, but never known.
“People gonna be like, who that redneck?” His throaty laugh. His drawl had a lightness about it, like he was aware of it. Like he could lift it off anytime he wanted, maybe try on another. He did that sometimes, talked like a yankee, and it made her laugh. She took him inside, into her messy web of cords and laundry piles and anemic houseplants. She skated right over his disparaging self-appraisal, so endearing. Maybe it had been a warning, if only she hadn’t been so busy touching his skin, studying his tattoos like petroglyphs on a cave wall.
“What’s it say?” she asked, tilting her head to try and read the letters that scrolled down the length of his forearm. They were placed on the outside of his bone, as if to be read by an enemy in the final throes, right before the sword comes barreling down on your head.
“It’s a Psalm,” he said, suddenly earnest, and quiet.
“What’s the verse?” She mimicked his quiet now, eyes fluttering at this, the first of many impasses.
“The Lord Preserves me.” The quiet voice again, the one she almost couldn’t hear.
The Lord Preserves me, she thought, moving her fingers along the barbed font. Funny, seemed more like a warning than a blessing. It was all over him, this petrified tenderness. She moved to the firefighter tattoo, the whirling bladed insignia on the shoulders, then back up to the features of his stubbled face, back down again to scripture.
He went back outside he took the mower out of the bed of the truck, and showed her the hammer he used to drive the nails into the crossties when he worked railroad jobs. Almost the length of a man, he swung it high over his head and down into the green of her subdivision sod, good-natured entertainment for the privileged white people.
“An actual pickaxe!” she squealed, grasping the weight of the steel head. “Just like in minecraft.” There it was again: his life and hers, one real and one simulated, a disparity that could never be reconciled, but maybe it could. Maybe it could.
“On a job, we go through two a these a day,” he said, with that accent. “They just break.”
The thought of hammers breaking in his hands made her feel pain, like she wanted to own it by kissing him. She wanted to kiss him so bad.
But he’d come to mow the lawn as a favor. He didn’t know it was more than that to her. It was a sign. While he sweated back and forth through her yard, she paced in circles inside the house, wringing her hands around a rag, peeking through the blinds.
So sweet, she sighed, deeply perplexed.
Afterward he turned the mower upside down over a pan that she brought him, hot oil pouring out like cream soda. She crouched nearby to steady the sides, fascinated by all the boring mechanics of lawnmower maintenance, all the gears and drive shafts and bolts and springs that wouldn’t matter but for his human life, his sweet smile, the engine pieces in his arms that shone with stories, even if the roof above him was held together with his last piece of string. Droplets splattered, burning her bare legs but she didn’t move an inch. Another tiny sting, then another, and still: right there. Watching, awaiting further instructions.
That night the storms came, rain pouring into the open window. She laid under him, learning about his face. A first kiss and then another, his lips parted, setting history aside, allowing her to reach in. She thrashed like a filament while he pinned her wrists, eye to eye, downloading every detail until she couldn’t take anymore. The stubble on his face stung like needles, and she raked her lips across anyway, inviting more.
The rain came in sideways, filling up the oil pan until it overflowed the sides, seeping into the mossy ground outside the bedroom window. In the morning the blades of clover glistened like toxic gold, the ground saturated with the poison. She stood barefoot on the wet ground, looking at the oil spill, at the polluted green moss of her heart. Even the concrete foundation had soaked up the stain. The spiders didn’t stand a chance.
I get it, she thought, chest aching, black water coursing through her own veins. But that doesn’t mean I can fix it.
copyright © K. Dawn Goodwin 2013
Growing up I used to hear people say, “inner beauty is what counts”. It was one of those things that looked great on paper, but in real life usually panned out to be bullshit. If it counted, then why didn’t it count? Why was inner beauty more like the snickering consolation prize handed out to ugly people who didn’t get the invite. People like me.
In the real world, especially the one girls had to live in, the surface mattered. A lot. In fact, despite a lot of lip service to the contrary, it was everything. Pretty faces and attractive body parts were the sum total of our human worth. Even God, who was supposed to see only our hearts, ironically chose only the comeliest maidens for the Bible’s best supporting roles. Despite what anyone said, the mirror always laid out the bottom line. The mirror reflected back Who You Really Were. And your placement on the sliding scale of hotness was the Decider between life as a Role Model or life as a Joke. Inner beauty? It didn’t even have a seat at the table. It couldn’t even get into the club.
Somewhere along the way, someone told me I was ugly. And then I realized – or decided – that it was true. After all, ugly explained why I didn’t fit in, why other kids thought I was weird. But ugly also became the battle cry that divided me against me, served up my first taste of hate, cast a miserable spell of self-conscious panic over every face to face interaction. Back then, there was never any hope of appreciating the magnitude of the extraordinary gifts I’d been given as a human being. What gifts. And who would notice them anyway, and what did it matter, since I was ugly.
Last week, I went to the mall. I walked into a store where headless mannequins strutted with attitude and oversized photos of young models loomed. Like plastic fruit, their faces had been cleared of anything real. Their long, silky hair had been cut from the heads of plain-faced girls, sold and reattached to their model scalps, strand by strand, tousled with precision, and placed around skin that would be airbrushed to a supple pool of lifeless cream.
The greeter at the front of the store said hello to me, and I nodded back. She resembled the models too, only much shorter, and with acne that she’d tried to powder over.
I browsed the racks of clothes and took a few pairs of shorts into the dressing room, where a panel of mirrors awaited. I undressed sheepishly, shrinking under the raw glare of the overhead lighting, averting my eyes as I kicked off my jeans. I slipped on the shorts, buttoned the top snap, and then, without breathing, glimpsed myself. My legs. They’d been hidden all winter under pants, below the counter, beyond the reach of my bathroom mirror. But here they were, revealed to the twisting cringe of the judges table at America’s Next Top Model.
On the inside of my right thigh, there was an angry looking, bruise-colored cluster of varicose veins. On the back of my left leg, there were more. Another vein ran down the front of my shin bone. As I stared, they seemed to double, triple, quadruple – too many to count. I’d had surgeries in the past to remove the worst ones, but I’d lost my insurance before the rest could be fixed. It looked like I’d been beaten with a pipe, and was sprouting leaks all over.
Disfigured, my thoughts whispered. It knocked the wind right out of me, a fist to the gut.
“Don’t worry,” Tyra Banks assured me, “you still have your inner beauty.”
I tried to focus on the shorts, just the shorts, with their cute little sparkly embroidered back pockets, price tags still dangling, but all I could picture was girls whispering about me when I was 14, my guts exposed through my pale, translucent skin, a force-fed bariatric cocktail of pure shame. The air itself was burning the backs of my calves, millions of blinding reflected angles, each one a judgment, a pink slip, a failure.
I dressed, not bothering to button properly, grabbed my purse, shoved my hangers into the arms of the attendant and hightailed it the hell out of there. Above my disheveled shirt collar, the sphere of the mall gleamed and glistened in a carousel of beauty, all of it digitally, surgically, chemically, financially enhanced. I alone was real, my tender and freakish body caught in the grinding metal gears of the machine. I hurtled toward the safety of my car, where I could regroup in stillness, drive away from my problems, and never be free of them.
I went to the gym to seek absolution, hoping, as usual, to change how I felt. I stood in the back of an exercise class with fifteen women of varying shapes and sizes, trying to follow along. Looking around, I couldn’t help but feel like we were all caricatures of the fitness instructor at the front, whose body was the template, having been repeatedly shaped by the singeing edges of her own vicious will power, and also a hot metal cookie cutter. She reminded me of the unforgiving tyrant who lived in me, in all of us, and who never saw enough improvement, no matter which mountains we moved.
Improvement. I was always trying to improve my body so that I would end up liking it. Only, I never quite reached the promised land of “like.” I barely crossed the town line of “despise slightly less.” What was improvement anyway, what was fixing the thing I hated, without learning how to love it first? Exercising when I was feeling bad was like worshiping a parking meter: it only loved you while you were feeding it coins.
At home, I ate dinner and watched a TV show where a fat person was made to confront his shirtless body in a mirror. He cried and confessed his shame. I stared at the enormous folds in his exposed skin, the unfixable stretch mark scars, and recoiled as they intended me too, the same way I recoiled at my own reflection. Then I pushed my plate away and cried. These bodies were supposed to tell strangers everything they needed to know about us. Instead, they told absolutely fucking nothing. They told lies. And the world pressed sticky notes onto me, onto him, scribbled with comments and fear and paranoia and untreated mental illness.
My whole life I’d envied playboy bunnies and acrobatic strippers and fitness instructors and gorgeous actresses and lingerie models, because their parking meters never seemed to run out of love. But I was tired of bleeding on a gurney. I was tired of feeling ashamed.
That evening, I scanned through the news of the day, checked the weather, then finally, half-asleep, I clicked on an article about a 25 year-old man who had received a face transplant that day.
His name was Dallas, and in the margin was a snapshot of the way he looked back in 2008, before he accidentally touched a high-voltage power line that burned off all the flesh from the crown of his head to the tip of his chin.
The last thing he remembered, the article read, was standing inside a cherry picker, making repairs on a church window. Three months later, he woke up in a burn unit, faceless. Without eyes or nose. His upper lip, roof and insides of his mouth were gone, as were his teeth. His face was a numb, expressionless graft of skin.
I looked at his before and after pictures, and beheld the unimaginable.
How normal I suddenly was, how functional my body, how perfect it seemed, how socially acceptable. Suffering? Clearly I didn’t know the meaning of the word.
I imagined myself in his place, left to navigate the world in darkness, where networks would advise viewer discretion before revealing my face, and onlookers would shield their eyes from the sight of me. I imagined lying in the hospital bed as he had, coming to terms with the pain, the loss of my control, of my pre-planned place in the world. How could I survive such grief, only to face a doomed life? I tried to imagine summoning the will to stand upright, but could not.
I clicked on the video of him speaking. It was prior to the transplant. He faced the camera, without lips, with the empty sockets of his skull plainly visible beneath the skin graft, and he said, “The accident was a gift.”
“When you stare death in the face,” he said, “everything about life seems that much more precious. Every breath is a gift.”
I’d heard that cliché before too, how a brush with death makes you appreciate life. But as I took in his horrifying scars, and then the sound of his voice brimming with gratitude — and not suffering — the magnitude of his spirit settled on me, and opened me. In a flash, I saw what it might be like to have my own body decimated, my own life in question. I saw how everything that confused and pressured me now would evaporate, all the illusions would be stripped bare, all the relationships pared down to their essences, and all the little, overlooked things would emerge in their true glory. At the brink, I realized, you could see what was lasting, and what was false. You came back understanding the difference.
They filmed Dallas at the playground, crouching to catch his three year-old daughter at the bottom of the slide. He told the interviewer that the face transplant wasn’t about fixing his face. He was proud of his scars.
“But I can’t feel my daughter’s kisses,” he said, “and I can’t truly kiss her back.”
She descended the slide, tumbled into his hands and threw her arms instinctively around his neck.
“Daddy got me,” she said, and looked right at him, without the slightest flicker of hesitation. She didn’t even notice the complete absence of his face. Only his presence mattered to her. Only him.
“She doesn’t care and she never has since day one that I was disfigured,” Dallas continued. “She says, ‘Daddy has a boo-boo.’”
Then he steadied himself, resting one hand on the slide as he struggled to stand up. Something about him spellbound me. Even with no features, he was intensely, brilliantly beautiful. How could that be? I wasn’t sure exactly, but this, I realized, was what I wanted. This was what was missing from my life, from the way I saw others, from the way I experienced myself. It was the overriding influence of someone whose spirit was so powerful it transcended everything you could see with your eyes. It annihilated ugliness. It was more tactile than anything I had ever felt in my hands. It was bravery. Massive, larger than life bravery. Up to then, I didn’t know it was possible in such heroic portion.
Perfection is the world’s eternal obsession, its constant misery. But at least now I could rest my attention on a different map entirely, one with a path out of darkness. I could put my finger on the pulse of what was true and did not hurt. It wasn’t outer beauty, or inner. It was what Dallas did when fate conspired to destroy him. He rose from the ashes with no face at all, and shone like the sun.
copyright © Dawn Goodwin 2010-2011