That night we found an old wooden lifeguard station and dangled our feet over the edge. Our shadows streaked across the sand-speckled concrete of the drainage creek below, long and wavering from the distant glow of a ferris wheel on the pier. The breeze was heavy with salt, humid on our tongues. We watched two figures sitting on the deck of the next station. They cut sharp black profiles against distant flickering lights and when the man stood up, we could see quite clearly what was going to happen: the woman kneeled in front of him, unbuckled his pants and leaned in. We watched her bend over the edge once she was done, nodding her head as she spit into the sand.
“I went through a phase where I wouldn’t swallow,” I said softly. I had something I was building towards.
“Did it have to do with feminism?” he asked. “Or with moods?”
“It was more like a mood. Definitely nothing like feminism,” I said. “I had issues with swallowing anything.”
“You were sick?”
I nodded. I’d been waiting for this moment ever since my disorder; the chance to show my wounded self to a man and feel him stare at it—stare at me—without flinching.
“I was anorexic,” I said. “For a while.”
I told him how my body used to be: ribs like a ladder above my tank-tops, wrists that looked broken because the knobs emerged so steeply. I told him about the places I’d fainted: my hallway, my mother’s bathtub, an old interstate rest stop. I used phrases like “appetite for sickness” and “bone-cold hunger.” I felt like I’d lived all of it—the weakness and the throbbing bellyaches and the gaunt-faced crying sessions—so I could deliver it to him like this.
He took my hand. He nodded sometimes. Once I ran out of things to say about how my body had been—and how it was—we sat quietly. It felt different than our first silences, those long mornings steeped in cold sunlight, reading our books while his fingers grazed the bone of my knee.
I wanted to talk forever so we’d never have to see the unspoken straight-on. I hated my own voice but I spoke anyway: of my ridiculous love for peanut-butter-and-bacon sandwiches, the thwarted course of my mother’s open marriage. I talked about silly toys you could only buy in Japan. I listed the names of my childhood pets and explained their hidden meanings.
There was a familiar rhythm to all this, full of comments I considered clever, but it felt like putting on a dirty outfit—something musty and sweat-stained, long discarded, foul with the odor of my own body. I had been someone else with him: less full of anecdote, suddenly able to say “I feel this deeply” without giggling or looking away. I mourned that self, felt it like a ghost rib tightening across the heart.
He broke up with me two days later. This happened back in my apartment.
“I feel myself become less complicated in this kind of intimacy,” he said. “The other facets dissolve. I’m left with something that feels too simple.”
“I feel myself contoured by you,” I said. “Like I’m in relief against another person. Like I would have to simplify myself for everything else.”
He seemed to grow more decisive as the night wore on. My own panic, the rising pitch of my evident pain—these were things that made him realize what he did not want me to ask him to become. “I feel drawn to a lack of attachment right now,” he said, which only made me want him more—not just to be with him but to be capable of his desires. I wanted to be whole, apart. But I felt huskish instead, throbbing at each place I had allowed him to enchant me.
It was quiet after he left. I waited for my body to stop existing or else get out of its chair. I took his glass of wine and threw it against the side of my fridge. I picked up one broken shell of glass and pressed it to the skin of my ankle—as I had done so many times in high school—but I couldn’t summon the energy to cut. I said hello out loud, to check if I could still make sound. I ran my tongue against the streaks of red dripping down the fridge to taste the wine he’d drunk. I stayed awake until morning.
For two weeks, I couldn’t fall asleep unless I was drunk, so I drank every night. I told everybody who would listen that I wasn’t doing well. “You don’t understand,” I explained. “I’m not usually like this.” But did it matter? This was who I’d become.
I sat on my fire escape for hours, listening to Slash’s solo on repeat. I divided days into sections based on when I would smoke my next cigarette. I often drank alone, sipping Shiraz from tea cups. I whispered affirming things to myself out loud: “Your pain can become something beautiful,” and tried to believe them.
I had thoughts all the time and I wrote them down on scraps of paper. Sometimes they were facts: I had a wine glass and it broke. Sometimes they were things I couldn’t finish: I had a mortal heart, but. I saved them with his notes but made my sister keep them in her apartment so I wouldn’t read them every night. I was going to put everything that reminded me of him into a box, but then I realized there was too much: my cum-stained sheets, my remote control, my entire refrigerator. If I’d really gotten started, I would have scoured my floor for fish crumbs and packed every single one.
Kevin was a tennis instructor who wanted to give books an honest chance.
“Reading,” he said. “I’ve always meant to do more of that.”
He’d overheard me describing myself as an avid reader. We were at a Summer Solstice party in Pac Heights that seemed to demand the use of such phrases. There was an actual pyramid of champagne glasses in the kitchen and a little dog wandering around with a Credit Suisse T-shirt dangling off his tiny barrelled rib cage. Nobody seemed eager to claim him. He spent a lot of time pawing Kevin’s legs, sniffing at his pockets. I wondered if Kevin was the kind of guy who might keep a couple of chocolates stashed away. I hoped.
“Take it easy, Suisse-man.” Kevin pushed him away with his palm. He turned back to me: “What do you like to read?”
It seemed important to talk about something that didn’t matter at all.
“I’ve been reading about pigeons,” I said. “Pigeon war heroes.”
“Really?” he asked. “What’s that all about?”
“Carrying messages. Strategy secrets and all that.”
“I never knew much about birds,” he said. “Or wars.”
I nodded, kissed him on the lips. I sensed this would be an important skill for my evening with Kevin, figuring out how to end each of our conversations.
At midnight, Kevin started looking antsy. We’d been vaguely tethering each other for most of the party, circling and returning for more moments of awkward small talk and large, toothy smiles. “I hear the roof has a great view,” he said.
I nodded. “Let’s go.”
Another important thing about Kevin: He actually looked like a tennis instructor, with blue eyes that seemed—impossibly—to never blink, and broad shoulders that felt solid beneath my fingers when I slid past him to find the bathroom. I powdered my nose, leaned close to the mirror to see the gleaming, feverish eyes beneath my velvet-shadowed lids. I looked, more than anything, vaguely startled.
We had to climb a ladder from the patio to reach the roof. Kevin carried my drink and told me I was beautiful before he unbuckled his belt at the top.
I scraped my knees on the gravel when I kneeled, took one last look at the lights of the city before leaning in. I could feel the flush of my bleeding knees, their small cuts crusted with pebbles of tar. He kept his hand on my head. I kept my teeth out of the way.
He tasted like they all do, only he didn’t take as long as most.
To read the rest of “Quiet Men”, buy Issue 3 or start a subscription today.
Read more in Issue 3
|Fiction||Testimony by Keith Lee Morris|
|IYSSSS||Gene Smith's Sink by Sam Stephenson|
|Fiction||The Month Girls by Martha Cooley|
|Poetry||The Last DJ Spinoza by Eugene Ostashevsky|
|Fiction||Quiet Men by Leslie Jamison|
|Focus||Battlegrounds Real and Fictional by Daniel Alarcón|
|Focus||To Burn the City by Julio Durán|
|Focus||The Complicity of Silence by Santiago Roncagliolo|
|IYSSSS||Everything Is Illuminated : My Love Affair with CSI by Delia Falconer|