He asked if he could come on her breasts. They weren’t using a condom and she wasn’t on birth control but K didn’t like using condoms and Baby Girl was too scared he would stop fucking her if she protested. Baby Girl let out a cry. He pushed too hard. She started crying. She hates crying in front of anyone.
He didn’t stop or seem to notice that she was crying—he thought maybe she was just sweating because he couldn’t even remember the last time she cried. He kept staring at the tattoo of a girl riding a bicycle on her arm, watching her muscles flex the wheels as if it were floating down 3rd Ave near all the warehouses behind the BQE.
When he was in high school, he would go down there to smoke with J, sitting on the abandoned tracks letting the air brush against their new tattoos, still raw from the needles. The air would make it sting. He liked how the stinging felt. His mother would yell at him for getting home too late and scream about how he has too much freedom for a boy his age, slap his arm with a broom like she was a witch.
Sometimes he really believed she was one—the way she’d spit on him to get rid of the evil eye because the evil eye was always there, and if they weren’t careful, the devil would find them, make them do terrible things. He was just like his father and brothers—useless men who will live useless lives. Devil men, she’d say. But he never paid attention to what she said. It didn’t matter. She didn’t matter.
Baby Girl washed her face in the sink, allowing some of the water in her eyes and down her neck as if to drown herself. She wants to drown herself sometimes—or fall onto the tracks or in front of cars—but something always stops her. She doesn’t know what. Baby Girl steadied herself against the cold marble, her body illuminated by the dirty yellow light from the window, as if she’s on fire. She wants to be on fire, her body to turning to ash, ash scattered in Coney right near the Wonder Wheel. She lost her virginity in one of the bathroom stalls to H—she could feel him now, grabbing her hair and fucking her from behind, his breath in her ear as he sometimes stroked her hair. He left for Philly the next day. His roommates found his body a month later.
There was still a residue of cum on her chest. She wiped it off with his towel.
Nobody asked how it started. Outside Baby Girl’s apartment, a cherry blossom tree had grown sometime before she was even born, its pink flowers sweating in the sun. It was probably the best thing about her view, which was mostly of the cars and trucks speeding along the BQE like horses also made of metal—there’s no use for real animals in the city. There haven’t been real animals roaming for a long time. Even the humans aren’t real humans. She wondered if metal horses were real horses once, born only to be turned to metal later on, their hearts pickled and put in jars by mechanics.
She stood naked at her window, looking down into her neighbors’ yards. Old Man started replanting his vegetable garden, like he does every year. His pet pig lay in the corner, its large belly exposed in the sun, its black fur matted against its body from the heat. Sometimes the pig would wake her up in the early morning, its squeals loud, an entire building collapsing in the middle of the night. Baby Girl wondered why the pig was always so scared.
She woke up to the sounds of sirens. She was alone. There was the smell of smoke like a ghost just entered the room, maybe trying to keep her alive, maybe trying to feel for someone else they once knew, maybe trying to get something. There is never anyone, even when the room is full of people. She sat up to look out her window and saw flames rapturously dancing up to the sky—getting closer to where god is supposed to be. It’s what her teachers always told her. And she mostly believed them, she was too afraid of going to hell because she kissed girls but then she stopped believing them when she saw Sr. Charlotte kissing Sr. Mary in the hallway leading up to the third floor in the convent.
Baby Girl wasn’t supposed to be there—so she scrambled away before they could catch her—although what could they really have done to her?—but even now, she remembers them kissing like flames, struggling, veiling something more than desire. We all need our reason to live. She can’t help but think how they’re probably dead now anyway, buried in different cemeteries near families who never realized who they actually really loved.
All of a sudden she feels like she’s sitting in a stranger’s car, feeling the blood in every single finger pulsing up and down her body and the door is locked and she can’t get out and what if she gets fucked by a stranger or what if the stranger wants to watch her masturbate and she doesn’t know how because she doesn’t know how to stop feeling lonely. She watches the firemen come out of the building. Baby Girl is glad it’s not her apartment burning down but part of her wants it to be her apartment burning and all of her books and papers and photographs and film equipment shriveling up like they never existed.
When she comes back from buying groceries, some of her neighbors are smoking cigarettes and she can hear them talking about the fire. They said it was a drug deal gone wrong—probably a cocaine house, probably a whorehouse. A man’s body was found stabbed to death. One of the guys sees her, winks at her, asks how she’s doing, if she needs help. Calls her mama. She smiles, says no, laughs a little. Says she can manage on her own, no need to go out of his way—she immediately regrets the words that come out of her mouth, but she can’t help it. Sometimes she’s not sure if she prefers being small, taking up less space—or she’s afraid to have needs. She’s tired of men who don’t say what they mean. She’s tired of men.
Baby Girl still smells the smoke even long after L comes over. She sees a man sitting in the corner of the room—she can’t tell what he’s wearing or what he looks like, but she knows he’s there from the outline of his back and shoulders and legs. He’s long-limbed like the cherry tree in Old Man’s backyard. L is talking about his band and how they’re going on tour in a week and how he wishes she could take off time at work to come for a bit. He’s lying on his side, playing with her orange sheets and starting to roll a cigarette.
Being in a room with L makes her feel like she’s talking to a ghost and she wonders if the ghost knows this. The ghost is watching her, sneering at her and she can’t tell if he’s sneering because L is already too high, already at that stage where his body is too heavy and his teeth are numb—or if he thinks Baby Girl is a piece of shit because she’s weak. Baby Girl knows she should stop hanging around guys like L, but she wants to help L, she wants to be sweet to him, she wants to give him what he needs to get better, even though she knows he won’t ever get better.
L touches her arm, brings her body closer to his. She stands there, letting her arms fall awkwardly to her side until she caresses the side of his shaved head, and she wants to tell him how ugly he looks when he’s high. She doesn’t say this to him. He pushes her onto the bed, puts his hand up her dress. He tells her how much he loves her pussy, that her pussy is magic, that she is beautiful. Baby Girl doesn’t say anything. The ghost watches, but his face is hidden by a shadow.
His mouth is on her mouth and she feels lost. He stares at her like he sees someone else inside of her, a ghost. He calls her Cleopatra. Tells her to give him her “sweet eyes,” to fuck him like a good girl. Baby Girl doesn’t know what this mean because she doesn’t think she’s a good girl. He sees her lost and he likes that, moving her legs open a little more and she feels like she’s on a boat drifting to a remote island somewhere full of jacaranda trees and avocados so large they can’t fit into her hands.
He continues to dig inside her, digging the moat around her house, the sea around her island. She wants to be the sea. She doesn’t want to live anywhere or be anyone’s baby. But Baby Girl also wants to be someone’s baby even if she’s not the only baby. She hears someone, not L, whisper into her ear. The whisper is full of many whispers and it scares her but before she can say anything, the whisper is gone. She looks around for the ghost, but the ghost isn’t there in the corner anymore.
L finishes quickly before she’s even felt anything. He asks her if she came, and she says no, but that it doesn’t matter. And she kind of believes it doesn’t, but she wants to know what it feels like to come every time you have sex. Basically, she wants to know what it feels like to be a man. He says he needs to go, he’s going to be late for band practice, that he feels bad he won’t see her for awhile after this, that he’ll miss her.
Baby Girl looks at him, tells him, It doesn’t make me that sad.
I’ve never been here before, Baby Girl says as she climbs out of the backseat of O’s car. They drove out to Long Island to see O’s dad and swim in his pool and drink expensive wine because his dad’s a plastic surgeon and has more money than he knows what to do with. When O’s dad sees her, he says she looks like a bruja. Says she looks like trouble and winks at her. Her body burns hot then cold like it’s raining outside, but it’s not raining. O isn’t around to hear any of this—he’s somewhere in the house, bringing their bags up to his childhood room.
His dad brushes her shoulder, asks how long she’s been friends with O, what she does. Baby Girl notices a picture of O’s mom on the table in the foyer, almost completely covered by bills and unread copies of the “The New Yorker.” This was before she got cancer, her long black hair still cascading over her shoulders, holding his younger sister. This was before the chemo, before the affair, before the years of binge drinking, before O planned her funeral by himself because his dad was busy marrying his second ex-wife.
Baby Girls looks at him now—his receding hair pushed into a small messy bun, looking more like a yoga instructor than a plastic surgeon—and his loneliness is unmistakable—so much so that she feels stupid she didn’t notice it before. Is she that oblivious? His hand slips down to her waist—Baby Girl doesn’t know what to do, feels bad for him, so bad that she lets him. When O comes into the room, his dad leaves to make a phone call. Baby Girl never tells O what happened.
They’ve been swiping left for hours, trying to find cute boys, until “Candy Darling” comes on and O starts to cry. He says he wants to be beautiful too, just like Candy was—her long lashes, the slope of her lips, those thighs. Baby Girl did his makeup before, applying rose to his cheeks and silver glitter to his eyes and winging the eyeliner so he felt like Marilyn. He is beautiful, but he isn’t a girl. And he doesn’t want to be a girl exactly either. He wants to be something else, something other than a man. He hates being a man.
He lights a cigarette, and goes to smoke it out his window so he dad doesn’t smell it. The eyeliner starts to smudge, making him look more like Robert Smith than Candy Darling. Will this feeling ever stop? He asks, then says, I wish I would just stop being a pussy and kill myself already…Although, I shouldn’t say that, pussies are stronger than dicks, you know?
And Baby Girl laughs. They both laugh. Because it’s true, pussies are better than dicks, even though they both love dicks too much. You can’t kill yourself, you know, you promised me, Baby Girl says. And he says, I know, I won’t. I can’t break my promise to you. He’s serious even though she’s smiling.
That frightens Baby Girl because she doesn’t want to be the only reason he’s alive, the only reason he won’t kill himself. Because she knows she can’t be the only one in this world who loves him—and she loves him more than anything, more than the taste of salt on her mouth from swimming in the ocean—but she’s afraid.
Sometimes she wants to kill herself too, and sometimes she tells O this and they both laugh and make each other pinky-swear that they won’t. But she also knows O can’t save her—because she doesn’t really want to be saved—and she knows she won’t really kill herself. She just thinks about it sometimes. To stop existing and to die are two different things. Sometimes she wishes she could do both and still come back to life, as if she’s a plague of scorpions—as if the ghost ate her and spit her back out.
I need to find a new boy, fucking is a good distraction, you know? O says, laughing a little, throwing back his head so his cheekbones cut through the moon—his last boyfriend got bored, started fucking someone else. Which was okay, as O explained, because he was kind of shallow anyway and didn’t even like good music or old films. They agreed that the ex-boyfriend was too lame to be truly sad about. At least, that’s what O said.
It’s too bad I’m not a boy, Baby Girl says, though she doesn’t really want to be a boy, because dicks are terrifying. But Baby Girl would be a boy for O, because she wants to make O happy. Anytime she says this, O tells her she’s perfect, that he would never want her to change. You know how in love with you I am, he always says. Baby Girl wishes she could be both, for him.
They lie on O’s bed, which is too small for both of them to fit comfortably without spooning each other. Baby Girl closes her eyes and falls asleep. It’s 3 AM when she’s startled awake. The moonlight peeks through the curtains like knives and she sees her tarot deck on the bedside table, all the cards spread out as if someone was going through them. She saw The Hanged Man—his upside down body hanging from a tree glaring at her. Then she saw it.
Again, the smell of smoke, of burning filled the room. But there was no fire. O still slept undisturbed, his arm around her waist. She looked over, only to see the ghost was standing next to O, no sound of breath. There wasn’t any sounds, not even cicadas or crickets or the sound of an old house or a rustled breeze circling through the trees to remind her that there is a world and she is alive within it. There was nothing.
The ghost moved around the room. Baby Girl wasn’t exactly afraid until his face was pressed up against her face. But there wasn’t a mouth or eyes or a nose, just a faint black shadow next to her, with no breath or sound, just the smell of smoke like burned wood and rubber and hair. It made her stomach clench the closer he got. It made her feel like she was dying—an octopus twisting inside her belly, her organs—or pregnant.
The whispering starts again, but she can’t make out any words. For a second, she thinks he’s saying, “Don’t you know me?” But then, he tells her to go to sleep. The whispering stops and she feels a hand on her chest pushing her down until she can’t breathe.
Baby Girl wakes up to O smoking a cigarette, checking all his missed text messages, deciding who to ghost and who to send selfies. She can only see the ghost—tasting that terrible putrid burning in her mouth, so far back inside her throat like she’s hiding something, like she’s hiding the kind of thing she wouldn’t tell her father about.
The ghost is still there. She names him Z, because she can’t remember who he is or what he wants. Her belly feels swollen. It feels like it’ll be swollen forever. O brushes his hands through her hair and suggests they get real cute and go to the beach. They kiss and pretend she is a boy.
They drive around while listening to Sam Cooke, flicking ashes into a coke can and Baby Girl puts her feet on the dashboard. It’s 90 degrees out and every part of her is sweating. She’s not even sure what’s she sweating out anymore.
Eventually, there is the beach and she hears the sound of waves hissing along the shore like a snake. Unlike in the city, the beaches here are clean—which is hard for Baby Girl to get used to. The trash is comforting—the kind of comfort her parents have after 40 years of an unhappy marriage. And there’s a lot to be said for the comfort of expectation.
No one calls O a fag today. No one really seems to care that he’s wearing red lipstick and a sequined crop top. When Baby Girl and O are together, it’s hard to tell them apart. They revel in this and call themselves The Twins when they meet strangers. Baby Girl loves this—she loves telling O everything, except about the ghost, about Z, about H, about the octopus in her belly, about The Hanged Man.
She is alone as O goes to swim in the ocean, allowing the tide to push and pull him. Next to her are two boys playing in the sand, the older one is burying the younger one. They are both quiet until the older boy starts shoveling sand on the little boy’s face and the little boy starts screaming. Their mother tells them cut it out, that she’s tired.
Her phone buzzes and she has a dozen missed texts from her sister and L. She ignores them all, checks her Facebook until she sees a link to an article with the headline: “How to Get out of a Depression: Get naked. Touch someone. Be touched. Don’t piss off your cat.” She saw the ghost’s face on her phone, clicking the link to his profile.
There was his name. This is what he wanted. This is the man whose face she remembers staring down at her as a child, all dressed in black and hovering above her bed. This is the man who said it wouldn’t hurt. This was the man who said she was always going to be his. Baby Girl sits up and squeezes her sides, tries to dig in as if she was trying to pull out her own organs, the octopus. She fights the tears. She fights them for as long as she can.