He liked scaring me and he was good at it.
He did it often. Leaning forward in class, he whispered in my ear. Passed me notes. Caught me in the bathroom between periods, took the stall next to mine and spoke through the door. Taunt-flirting. Each interaction mixing menace and something else I didn’t know how to deal with and didn’t want to name.
“I’ve been thinking about you. About what I’d like to do to you.”
My grandfather taught me that a man is the sum of his fists. He should be able to prove it by using only his fists, but he can also put instruments in the fists and prove it that way, too. Phones. Hangers. Glasses. Knives. My parents taught me that men sometimes like to mingle fists and instruments and lips. Nothing that I’ve learned about men over the last decade has disabused me of that.
He’d been in the class for about a month when he first showed me his arms by pushing up his black sleeves so I could see the scars. Not just lines, but also constellations, letters, numbers. Later, he showed me the pentagram he carved into his shoulder. He tugged down his collar and traced its white outline with his finger. I traced his lips and his collar bone and the scar and his scratched hands with my eyes. I imagined those hands at work scarring and mortifying his skin. I assumed that if they were capable of doing that to him, they were capable of doing that to others.
We talked a lot those months. In class, in the breaks between, in the deserted hallways, walking during lunch. He needed an audience. I was eager to listen and watch. He was happy to disclose. I was happy to give nothing and take his words and his looks.
Much of it was bullshit designed to shock me. I was a dutiful, closeted, deeply Catholic boy who spent most of my time at school trying to out-achieve my peers and trying to walk from class to class without moving my hips too much. I was easy to shock. I was good at perceiving what other people wanted and pretending to be that thing.
He told me a lot of things. He told me he was a Satanist and that being a Satanist entailed mastering complicated rituals that he enacted in the park near where we both lived. He told me it involved animal sacrifices and that he liked experimenting with them, liked seeing how they reacted to a knife or a lighter before he dispatched them. He usually smiled when he told me these things. I didn’t smile, but I wasn’t exactly put off. He had pictures of his dog on his Myspace. It was a Pomeranian. Legit, animal-slaughtering Satanists don’t take pictures cuddling with their Pomeranian.
I can picture these things fifteen years later. They are vivid. They are vivid because my eyes soaked themselves in him for hours. Because I sat with the images behind closed eyelids for hours after school. Because I could smell the cream that he used in his long, reddish-blonde hair and because I found that same cream a couple of years later at a drug store and used it in my hair for nearly a decade.
He started bringing razors to class a couple months in. Showed them to me. Said they were what he used on himself. I shuddered. He saw when I shuddered. He ran the sharp edge of the razor over the skin on the inside of my elbow. The razor grazed it, drew a drop of blood. He looked in my eyes and smiled. I ran into the bathroom and put my arm under the faucet and let the water scald the spot pink and clean.
He showed me a bound notebook that he filled with words he’d written in his own blood. The blood-words were fat and brown and fading. They looked like they were made out of tree branches or shit or squashed bugs. I ran my fingers over the ugly, distorted letters and looked at the fine blue veins in his soft hands and was puzzled.
He had reddish blonde hair and wide green eyes and pink lips and perfect skin. I assumed his blood would dry vivid red. I assumed anything written in it would gleam slightly.
I had him over to my parents’ house just once. It was around April, about a month before his foster parents sent him off to military school in Missouri. My mother was out shopping. My stepfather was out of town on a business trip. He lived a couple blocks away, and rode his bike over.
We sat in my room talking for a while. He wore black shorts. I could see scars on the back of his calves. I could see the pink on the back of his ankle worn into his skin by his Converse sneakers. His sleeves were rolled up. I examined the shiny scars and the fine blonde hairs on his arms. He sat on the bed with his bare legs against the side of my comforter. He laid back on my pillow and let his hair fall over the pillowcase. He touched the inside of my elbow with the tips of his fingers. I let him touch it. I looked at his fingers and his face and told him that he should probably go.
After he was gone, I washed the spot that he cut/touched thoroughly. I folded my shirtsleeve over it. To this day, when I see a needle or a razor or a knife or a pretty Goth guy dressed in black, I have an urge to clean it and cover it up.
Water bleeds when we bleed into it. It browns when we brown. It carries off the crust that forms on skin, the sweat in joints and crevices, the oil on strands of hair that fall when we run our fingers through them. It blunts the smells of others, removes stains from the surfaces of tongues and the tips of fingers. When it’s warm, it soothes. When it’s cold, it sobers, reasserts reality.
I am a native Californian; to me, water is as abundant as cars and parking spots and shopping centers and fast food drive-thru lines. I assume everyone can drive to an ocean within an hour. I imagine water shooting out in never-ending fountains onto green lawns. I expect to see it filling hot tubs and backyard pools. Water is the only thing that makes living in a desert feel like not living in a desert.
I take showers so long that my fingertips never seem to not be wrinkled. I sit down, gather my legs up in my arms, watch the water flow over me and go down the drain, stained by the body it has just passed over.
I am twenty the first time I turn the water red. I find him online. I am dispassionate, single-minded, focused on forcing myself into acting on something that I’ve known for years but built up a fail-safe system to obfuscate. He’s in his early forties. He’s tall, balding, bulky, thick in his arms and his torso and his stomach. He isn’t handsome. I will not fall in love with him. That’s not his function.
I tell him the truth. He promises to be gentle. He seems kind. He seems boring in precisely the right way.
I meet him on a hot weekday afternoon at the door of his house. It’s a squat, suburban house at the end of a suburban cul-de-sac a mile from my parents’ place. He wears a black t-shirt and no underwear and black sweat-shorts and flip-flops. I wear glasses and an undershirt and a long-sleeved button up and a crew neck sweater and boxers and long pants and knee-high Gold Toe socks and bulky K-Swiss sneakers with double-knotted laces. My hair is still wet and combed back.
It is dry and messy when I leave.
I am on the floor of the shower and my hand is shaking as I move it through spaces between limbs that I don’t want to name. I can smell the lube and the latex condom and the poppers he offered and I didn’t accept because I don’t know what the hell poppers are. I can taste his ChapStick and his green Listerine tongue and his pre-cum and the sweat in the space between his thigh and his balls. I can smell myself, reminded that I’m a body and the body is feral and this is why the soul is preferable to the body. Steam rises from the water as it hits me. I watch my legs and feet turn the same color as the stream that flows out from between and under me.
I replay what happened. I have a knot in my stomach. I run through lists of STIs. I consider how to go to the Urgent Care without my parents finding out. I masturbate with a hand that won’t stop shaking.
An hour later, I step out of the shower. The acrylic tub is as white as it was when I stepped into it. I smell like Dove soap. I dry off, comb my hair, brush my teeth. I pass my hand over my skin and then examine it.
There is no blood.
The two of them had judged the tide well. They positioned the towel and the backpack and their legs just right. Now, the ocean water came up just to the ends of their bodies, bubbling for a moment on the tips of their toes before it retreated.
They were boys. They had the bad hair and the acne and the erections to prove it.
They wore clothes that were too big for their bodies. They had noses that didn’t make sense on their faces and tongues that were brown from cigarettes and teeth that had food in them and nails that were just filthy. They had no wrinkles and spotty facial hair. They had butts that were out of proportion to their bodies; one was way too big and the other one was way too small, which meant that, from behind, one looked like an anchor and the other looked like a sailboat. They smelled like soap and canned deodorant and cheap wine.
They were stupid. Out on the dunes at Santa Monica at 2 a.m., smoking swishers and Pall Malls and chugging Wild Vines straight out of the bottle. They knew that the authorities sometimes found bodies under the boardwalk. They knew that the beach was the filthiest, most unhygienic beach in California. Needles and knives and human feces and rotten potato salad and corpse parts in the sand. They knew the cops handed out $300 fines to anyone they found here after midnight. They knew, and they didn’t care.
Like stupid boys, they said stupid things.
“If you were to commit suicide, how would you do it?” one asked the other.
“I’d do it like Sylvia Plath,” the other responded. “Only I’d get naked before I put my head in the oven.”
They talked about things they’d read, but were too young to understand. Things they never should’ve read or talked about until after they stopped being stupid. They read and talked about Butler and Dostoyevsky and Foucault and Fanon and God and the devil and growing up. They didn’t actually know anything about any of these topics, which only made them more convinced that their views on them were invaluable.
They were young and stupid. And because they were young and stupid, they looked at and listened to each other with a one-time earnestness, a one-time attentiveness. Their eyes were urgent and their ears were hungry and each made note of everything that the other said because they thought it was the first time that observation had ever been made.
They came once a week for an hour or two. Spread out the towel, sat down in the sand together, talked for a while, made out. They looked out in the darkness for perverts and predators and cops. When they didn’t find them, they spat on their palms and jerked each other off.
They put sand in each other’s hair. They made themselves stink of saliva, their tongues on each other’s nipples, palms, dicks. With the moon behind clouds, they unwrapped each other and the condoms and fucked, one on top of the other or the other way round or both, one after the other, open-mouthed, open-eyed, silent from fear and exhilaration.
They sometimes misjudged the tide’s tendencies and found themselves drenched and startled and salty and suddenly flaccid when a wave overcame them, mid-fuck. And then they’d laugh and button up and abandon the spoiled wine and the soggy cigs, running together back to the car to drive the hour and half back home.
More often, though, each boy would have the chance to finish. They went together, more often than not, coordinating as best they could, one saving himself or dispatching himself more quickly, depending on the progress of the other. If one went first, he would let the other one have his turn, beginning out of duty and then gradually coming back into the act, hardening, cumming again, all the while thinking the “fuck do I love you” that his open mouth couldn’t form.
On their last time out there, just before it ended, they lay in the silence after finishing, three used condoms and a nearly empty bottle of beer emptying at their feet, spilling into the sand. They lay naked face to face for a while, their lips muttering against each other. Their interlocked fingers laced into one, joint fist, a knot so tight that each couldn’t distinguish his own pulse from the other. They felt the tide edge come up to their ankles, as it swept the bottle and the condoms out into the Pacific.
Rumpus original art by Liam Golden.