Not much time passed—I can’t remember if it was weeks or months—between when Alan bought the puppies and when he turned me out on a country road in the middle of the night, one hundred and fifty miles from my squashed, lemon-scented apartment in the city. At least it was summer. Mosquitos buzzed; the ground was warm and wet. My skin crawled with the memory of his insults, but the air was a balm.
The day he came home with two chocolate lab puppies, he invited me over for brownies and sex and a surprise. They were perfect squirmy sausages with babies’ breath. Not unlike us. New lovers, everything soft and smelling good. In the middle of the night, I woke up with the sheets like heavy breath on my legs. I felt swollen in a good way, like a peach. My mind was all metaphors. I was half-dreaming, in love with sensation and myself in that moment. I had captured a creature in my web and now I would feast. I didn’t want to move because my face was deep in his neck. But my bladder was twisting its golden knuckle hard behind my clit—it felt almost good how bad I had to pee. I got up slowly and walked to the bathroom and the dogs whimpered from their crate at the sound of my footsteps. They had to pee too.
The first time you wake a man from sleeping, you don’t know how it’s going to go. My ex-husband was an angel in this regard. You could wake him in the middle of the night for a talk and he would smile and kind of shake his head to remove the veil of sleep. You could almost see his dreamworld dissolve, and he was right there with you. Awake, listening, ready to respond. In other regards, he had room for improvement. Or maybe I did. It was a while ago, so everything is gauzy with nostalgia.
I stood looking down at Alan. He seemed harmless enough, strawberry blonde hair and freckles, breathing gently through his nose.
“Alan,” I whispered. Nothing. “Alan.” I shook his arm and he grimaced. “Alan, I think the dogs have to go out.”
“I know, I-”
“Shut up. I’m sleeping.” He didn’t yell or anything. It was more like a sharp, stony whisper.
“Ok, I can take them,”
“Just leave it.”
“Leave them alone,” he all-caps hollered and sat up. “In the morning, I will take them.”
By this time, the dogs were mewing, crying and rolling over each other. My heart broke for them, maybe because I had so freely and exaltingly relieved myself just moments before. He was the cranky-tired type I guessed.
The dogs were near panic, so I stood as still as possible, hoping I could fool them into thinking we had disappeared. Their cries were shrill, nearly human, and when the puppies gulped for air, they would subside briefly to gasping silence. After several minutes like a statue in the dark, I took a few careful steps. The floorboards creaked and their howling resumed.
Alan leapt from bed. “Divina, what the fuck!”
“Alan, I can’t do anything. They have to pee. We have to take them out.”
“I’m exhausted. I can’t deal with this right now. They have to adjust to my schedule or I won’t be able to deal. They need to be trained.”
“They’re only babies, like infants, you can’t train them like this yet.”
“You don’t know anything.”
“I know this. I know this!”
The dogs were howling over our voices.
“You think you know everything?” he bellowed. “You think they need to be let out. Here!” He unlatched the door to their crate, and they fled, falling over each other, then racing in circles around the room, crying and sniffing. They each found a spot quickly, and I heard urine pressing desperately into the floor. Then silence and the tiniest thuds. One, two, three, four. I don’t know if I really heard them, but, the silence I knew—and I knew Alan knew—meant small hot piles of shit. The smell hit us, acrid and sweet at once, like fecund soil passed through the molten center of the earth.
“Are you happy now?” Alan crawled back into bed. I stood suspended in the vibrations of his rage. Blood turned to water in my veins.
“Aren’t you going to clean it up?’
“I don’t have to.”
“You do it. Or leave. I don’t care. I have to sleep.”
I couldn’t sleep in a room full of shit, but I couldn’t leave a room full of shit in my wake either. The puppies were playing now, running through the house, sliding on the rug in the hallway. I should have pulled on my clothes and walked out right there, but it felt so irresponsible. Choking on disgust for myself, I mopped the puddles of piss and picked up the little shits. I wiped the floor with Clorox spray and scrubbed myself with peppermint soap from elbows to fingertips, then corralled the puppies back into their crate. Alan was a stone in the bed. And I was the better person. Before the sun came up, I pulled on my clothes and walked out.
If you’re wondering what made us click to begin with, I couldn’t say. I guess, from our first meeting, there was a fluidity between us. So it was easy to make plans and be together. There was no awkwardness. Sometimes that’s all it takes, and after a few easy times together, when you’ve tasted their spit and their semen, you don’t even remember how it began.
Blinking at my desk the next day, I couldn’t focus on anything. I have one of those jobs in an office where people have meetings which result in next steps. The next steps almost always include creating documents, which they email their supervisors to review and approve. Then, once the documents are approved, they are emailed to other people to process the information in the documents. And if something goes wrong after that, everyone involved can say, “Don’t blame me. This was approved by so-and-so.” A lot of companies operate just like this. The good thing about my particular company is the so-and-sos are overall kind and confident enough to take the blame. And because of that, everyone is pretty nice to one another and people don’t feel scared of being punished all the time. No one is looking at anyone that hard. There’s a culture of trust. That sounds like a marketing tag line, I know, but it’s true.
It’s a good work environment for me because, on a day like that one (which is maybe not so uncommon), when I’d suffered blows and my mind was mired in confusion and self-hatred and my spirit was bruised, I could hide out at my desk, and, as long as I kept a straight face, everyone just thought I was moving through business as usual. It was a good job to hide out in.
At lunch, I bumped into Elena in the kitchen. She was sitting at the break table chewing some kind of kale with lima beans. I had ordered on the internet a plate of spicy chicken with rice and plantains from a Cuban restaurant.
“Oh my god, that looks so good,” she said, “I love sweet plantains.” She drew it out, to show she really loved them.
“Do you want some?”
“Oh my god, I can’t. I would love to. But I can’t!” She was one of those girls who only indulged in private. Eating donuts in bed, licking her fingers and masturbating, powdered sugar on the sheets. Then taking a shower, applying lotions and fragrances, pulling on tight jeans. Straightening her hair with a hot iron, jaw clenched, looking at herself with critical eyes.
“Well, more for me then,” and I smiled to let her off the hook. I sat down across from her, drew a plantain through the thick white crema and stuffed it all in my mouth at once. Tart and sweet and greasy on my lips. I have never deprived myself, I thought, Maybe that’s my problem. My appetite for pleasure is immense, and I will rationalize anything to get to the plush, rich, moist prize I desire. Self-knowledge will avail us nothing, someone once told me, and, in the slick and swollen chamber of this story, it is true.
Two days later, Alan called to apologize. I was in the middle of a big project at work. Everything getting sent through for review was being returned for revisions and nothing had gotten approved. So I was able to put him off for three additional days with minimal mental anguish. Nothing I couldn’t abate with a tin of sweet and spicy shrimp pad Thai, consumed at my desk, and a thorough scrubbing of my bathroom.
I had several close friends outside of work. But whenever I found myself walking down this dark hallway of desire and pain, I didn’t feel like putting myself in the path of people who loved me. When Alan called again, I accepted his invitation to see a movie. “But only as friends.” I couldn’t let him off too easy.
As soon as the lights went down in the movie theatre, he very softly drew his fingers along my leg starting at the tip of my knee, cutting away from my crotch at the last second and curving out along my outer thigh. Then he didn’t touch me again for the rest of the show, which made me wet. The movie was a documentary about Martha Graham made in 1957, which I had written about for my senior thesis in performance studies. Since I had seen it many times, my mind was free to wander the entire time. Looking back, I think that’s why he chose the movie—to draw me in but not preoccupy me. Maybe that’s why we clicked. We were manipulative in the same ways.
Afterward, we sat across from each other in a chrome-edged diner. He had a BLT, and I ordered a banana split.
“Divina, can I have your cherry?”
“I’m sorry. For what happened.”
“I just—You were judging me. I felt you were judging me. And I guess, I just snapped.” I remembered the mushy texture of dog shit through soaked paper towels, and put down my long parfait spoon carefully in front of me on the table.
“I felt humiliated, Alan.”
“I know, and I did that on purpose.” I winced. “I made you feel that way because I felt attacked. But I’ve thought about it a lot since then, and I know you didn’t mean anything by it, you didn’t do anything wrong.” I couldn’t swallow very well. My mouth was coated in a waxy, lactose film. “I’ve always been defensive and touchy. Overly touchy, especially when I feel like someone’s telling me I’ve done something wrong, and I’ve been really stressed lately and I’m just so, so sorry. Divina, please forgive me?”
I took a long, icy sip of water from my plastic faceted cup.
“I’ll think about it.” He looked like he was about to cry. “I promise, I’ll really think about it. But I can’t—” I took another long sip. “I’m not coming home with you tonight.”
“Fair enough.” We hugged in the glow of neon lights; cars and trucks whizzed by. The air was cold, but I smelled fresh cut grass from the sliver of green median. Spring was coming.
At work the next day, everything I submitted for review was approved. Elena and I sat together again at lunch. She was cutting fresh mozzarella into minuscule pieces and tossing them with arugula, lemon juice and black pepper. I had a vegetarian Indian curry with saffron rice and garlic naan.
“So I decide to have it at Delia’s. It’s such a scene but the music is to die for. You know? Hardly anywhere plays good music anymore. It’s, like, impossible to find.” Once upon a time, before corporate America lured us in with its comprehensive benefits packages, Elena had been a born and raised New York club kid, and I came to the city for college and lost myself in underground clubs. We had both unlocked ourselves in the dark, beats louder than our hearts, air full of thick sweet smoke. Without ever really talking about it, we were bonded by coming into adulthood through the same pulsing cocoon. “Some people won’t come, I know. But it’s my birthday so fuck it.” Leaves of arugula squeaked between her teeth. “Anyway, you should come!”
After lunch, I had a voicemail from Alan. Did I want to meet him after work and walk the dogs? I wanted to despite everything. I felt funny about it. Ann Landers would not have approved. Neither would my best friend Claire or Elena, but, of course, I hadn’t told either of them about Alan to begin with, so I was safe to find out if the tunnel was widening or narrowing. I texted back, yes.
The memory here is kaleidoscopic. Red braided leashes double-wrapped around his wrists. Denim cracked and frayed at the knee. His expression submissive and contrite, smiling, telling me I was in charge. My nipples stiffened inside my white shirt. The dogs leapt up, swirled around my ankles. Butterballs, love and hope, hot chocolate incarnate. I was and I wasn’t in control. I can’t recall what we talked about, but again I did not go home with him. I walked away, my tongue wet inside my mouth, each taste bud like a tiny finger reaching out to caress the roof of my mouth. Inside the feeling of pre-release desire, I was safe and unexposed. I knew as soon as I opened myself up to him again, my anxiety would snap back and everything would be brittle and electric again. Like the moment you respond to a text message from an elusive lover and wish you could take it back—it was only a matter of time.
I recruited my friend Claire to go to Elena’s birthday with me. It was time to make contact with the outside world again. My relations with Alan were making me nauseous. The buzzer rang around 10pm. Lights were bright and my place was clean. I had salsa going.
“Divina!” Her face like starlight.
“Nena!” My nickname for her. Like a sweet baby, little sister, I love Claire.
“Oh my god, it’s been too long. Your place looks great. Smells like you as always, so sweet and lemony. I missed you. How are you?” That’s how she talks, rushed and exuberant. We squeezed each other. The music lifted us, and two shots of tequila with tiny wedges of lime turned the knob up on the mood.
“I’ve been so busy. I’m sorry if I’ve been MIA.” Claire had recently gotten a job job, like mine, after years of cobbling together tasks adding up to just enough. Now she wanted more. “And I have it. 401K, health insurance, dental. Seriously I’ve been working, but also, like, going to a hundred doctors and to the dentist. I was so freaked about that one because I hadn’t gone in, like, 5 years, but it wasn’t that bad. It was like nothing actually, and they gave me two free toothbrushes and floss, which I will never use, but still. Free floss on top of everything. And my boss is, like, you know, pretty civilized, so it’s all actually really good. And it seems like they like me—“
“Of course they like you—“
“Which I really care about. You know me. I’m a sucker for that.” Self-knowledge availing nothing once again. “But it’s, like, a really positive place, which is perfect for me while I mentally torture myself over what to do with my life. This is so boring to talk about, though. How are you? What’s the latest?”
“Oh. Not so much. Work is work. And I’m drained. Things have been a little weird—“
“But tonight let’s not be down. Let’s be up, let’s be free.”
“Like a loose garment. Like a poem about fireworks.” I noticed she had on these little boots with gold studs.
“Yes!” She stood up and shook her shoulders, shook her hair. I turned up the volume. Like me, she loved to fly high. And the music made us feel like we didn’t give a fuck. It had a groove, this old salsa. I wish you could hear it.
Que te fuiste sin decir adios
que no dormiras en mi colchon
que importa que importa
What does it matter? What does it matter?
que ensuciaste mi reputacion
que te vale madres este amor
que importa que importa
What does it matter? What does it matter?
The black staircase to the basement of the club wobbled, shimmered through the gloss of my night vision. The smell was familiar, chalky like old ash, a little bleachy and hollow. I was descending and ascending at once, my chest metallic and light. Mylar balloons nodded on the ceiling, gold ribbons like disco rain. Skin was everywhere. Yes, and you could see the sides of breasts and moles on backs. Sweaty necks and upper lips. Flickering in slow strobe lights.
Everything was loose and right. “ELENA!” We screamed her name, and she came to us, her bangs Cleopatra straight. She was smiling.
“Yes! You came.”
“Yes!” And the three of us held hands for a moment in a conspiracy of joy. Elena and Claire only know each other through me, but there’s love because of that, as happens with people who are threaded together by a certain energy. The night rolled like waves. Gravity hung onto our hips. Arms, shoulders, fingertips working themselves into the details. Everything clicked for us that night. My deepest yearning—the spike, the peak, the pinnacle, a party really taking off—happened.
We fell into the crowd. We saw other people, some we knew and some we didn’t know, with open expressions, and fell into their rhythms. We laughed when we caught the beat just right and when we missed it too. We discovered moves we didn’t know we had. We sweated, moving away from each other and finding each other again. Something split open in me that night.
In music and in darkness, there is freedom. The remembrance of the original release: bursting from the tight womb of anxiety. Are my fingers fully formed? Has my tongue retracted its serpentine spear? Am I fully human? And the beat says yes, and the wailing guitars and the faces wet with sweat and warm with love say yes.
I thought about it, falling asleep in my bed next to Claire, drained completely. A night like that makes you remember yourself. The world within is mirrored infinitely. The only limits are the ones with which we mercilessly handcuff ourselves. Even when our intention is to serve and protect, we can end up close to strangulation. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
In the morning, my calves were sore, and we drank green tea with almond milk in bed.
“Oh glory, glory halleluiah,” said Claire, “You know what I mean? That really worked out.”
“It did, right?” I licked honey off my finger. We hadn’t had a good night out in years, it felt like.
“I love you, Divina.”
“Nena, I was about to say the same.” We napped all day, and when she left that night, we hugged like we couldn’t peel away.
Something about the robotic bleating of the phone made me know it was Alan. My face was deep in a bushel of velvety eucalyptus being sold on a street corner. I thought about not answering. I almost thought it would be possible to let it go, but it wasn’t.
“Divina, where you been? Beautiful.” Had I missed other calls from him?
“Around. You know.” Let him play one card first.
“Come meet me. This weekend. I’m upstate.” He was remodeling an old house there. For a friend. I mean for money, but for a friend.
I took a bus four hours, leaving from Port Authority at the worst possible time. 6:30pm on a Friday. Old advertisements buckled and curled on the walls. Nervous people looking for the exits stepped over addicts nodding out in front of wilted pleading signs. I guess I had a bad feeling going in.
Alan picked me up from the bus stop in his truck. “Divina, god,” he leaned out the window like he could eat me. I felt swollen, like my tits were being weighed one in each of his hands. The street light by the side of the road shined on us, our shoulders, crowns and tips of noses glowed. Everywhere else was black.
The inside of the house ached with the smell of sawdust. You could feel it straining to be complete. The roof beams, railings, floors, doors were taut and naked. Alan made cheese sandwiches on a baguette that scratched the roof of my mouth. Gums stinging, I followed him up the stairs. In that whole hollow place, only the bed was inviting. He had arranged colorful down pillows in a nest with layers of blankets from thin and silky to furry and plush.
“I missed you, Divina.” I couldn’t process that, so I kissed him. And everything melted, until he yelled out, “I’m coming!” like he was surprised himself, and I bit his shoulder hard.
He jerked back, “Bitch.”
“What?” I wasn’t fully there.
“You fucking bit me. You bitch.”
“Alan?” I could not compute.
And then he went crazy. “You think you can treat me like this? You come into my life and give me a big huge hard on, then you leave me. You play hot and cold with me. I try to apologize, and I think you’re coming back. You show up at almost 11pm. Expect me to make you food, fuck you. And this is how you behave.”
He seemed to be ramping up, and I was getting scared. Slowly, I put my clothes back on, and went into the bathroom to splash water on my face. Maybe it wasn’t really happening. The water ran cold down my face, dripping off my nose and chin into the nouveau industrial steel sink. He growled behind me inches from my ear, and I froze.
“Get out of here,” he said. Hs breath raked the back of my neck. “I’ve never been with someone so selfish and disgusting. Your body is like lard. You should feel lucky I will even look at you.” My chest was heaving. I think I was taking in air, but my body wasn’t registering oxygen. I felt the heat of his body behind me. He grabbed one side of my ass with both hands and squeezed it hard with all ten fingers. I screamed and he walked away. I heard him walk down the stairs, turn on the kitchen faucet. While I could hear the water running, I quickly put on my shoes and shoved my things in my bag.
Earlier, I think I might have said he turned me out, but the truth is that I left. As I slammed the door, he pleaded with me to stay. He cried streaming snotty tears, and the dogs wailed. They were in the yard, I realized. Chained.
All in all, it lasted only a couple months, and the torment was largely self-imposed. But what I want you to see is that it was also out of my control. My pleasure receptors misfire in the face of pain. I am not a victim, anti-feminist, old-fashioned or blind. I am just wired this way.
I grew up separate from where I was, on another plane. Where the breeze blew soft and women marched the earth. While my mother tore a brush through my hair, while my father clicked his leather briefcase shut and walked out the door, poems grew up inside me. I was expanding and shrinking, softening and hardening, holding myself tenderly and clawing myself to shreds. This is who I am. But this is also not who I am. If you can understand. Unless you think this is not exactly first date conversation?
Illustration by Carolyn Tripp