It begins with the placement of a necklace: simple gold chain links– not curb link, not snake, not rope – in a Figaro design. It is carefully placed so that the charm that hangs down, gold rings of varying sizes, dangles between the V of your breasts as you stand and watch yourself in the mirror above the sink, twisting back and forth. You hop from your right foot to left foot, searching out the angles, the light and the shadows that augment your form, your skin tone, the small mole on your neck.
Brushing your hair with an antique wooden brush is what you do next, long strokes evenly pulled through the fine strands with an upturned movement to strengthen your natural wave at the finish. You disdain perfume and attend to your lipstick, mascara, and two swaths of rose-colored eye shadow.
In the next room, you hear the voices of two women singing a duet in a Romance language you can’t understand – Spanish, Italian, something like that – with dulcet tones and vibrant, excited, alien words. Words that coo, that tingle the skin along the inner thighs. The singers make love to their song; or perhaps they sing as lovers do, staring at each other’s eyes like birds of prey, ospreys or falcons, when they stare down from the sky above.
You listen to their song, turning about the room, your legs dancing on their own. You are enchanted, enchanted in that way that leaves a mark across your heart like a soft-tipped pen tracing the outline of desire but not providing the details. Details are best left for the imagination. You find your silk gown lying on the bed and pull it on. It covers your shoulders and upper arms but hangs open in front, meant to tease.
The cockatoo in the corner in his cage chatters away, and you take him out, grey feathers and white crest with a small daub of yellow. He slides from fingers to hand, arm to shoulder, small talons biting like a lover’s scratch. You sense his discomfort, feel him slip and flutter off, onto the floor, his cut-down wings of no use except to create a slight breeze in still air.
It’s all your fault – you see it in his stare, the reproach in his eyes, as you bend down, your hips thrust out, knees held straight, to take him back; but he rejects your advances now. His beak pecks at your hands when they reach him. You clutch down, feel the beat of his frantic heart, the scrabble of his nervous feet. It’s his terror – most of all – that you feel.
Holding the bird, you wonder if you need a new drug; not a real drug but the idea of one. Something hypnotic or spiritual, vivid and gentle, that makes love feel more intimate. Self-love. That’s the ticket. The bird, meanwhile, has ceased all his movement, head lolling off to the left. You stop, feel for the heartbeat, and finally feel a faint pulse. He has only fainted it seems. You place gently him back in his cage.
Your gown, which had not been zipped, slips off and abandons itself to the cold tile on the floor. You are alone and exposing your body to the walls of your room. You laugh aloud. Laughter at such moments is not uncommon. That’s what you tell yourself.
You linger on the couch when you are done, feel the slight breeze from the open window and watch the gauzy curtain sway. The red flush of your skin around your neck and clavicle and the tiny drops sliding down from your forehead to slither themselves into your mouth, where you taste their warmth, are a luxury this evening. You forget for a while that you’re alone, lacking anyone with whom to share the pleasure of the moment.
* * *
You first discovered him one afternoon as you ran around the park. Your chest was heaving from exhaustion as you neared the end of your five-mile loop around the pond, up the grassy hill and through the tall pines that bordered the road. He passed you just before you finished. As you sprinted to your ending point, a small lilac bush (the athlete buried inside still demanding that you compete, if only with yourself), he flew by as a gazelle flies over the dusty Savannah.
He had the form to run fast, legs long and feet aligned precisely perpendicular to the horizon. His hands held no tension in them. He held them slightly cupped, and he did not swing his arms wildly across his body. You watched as he leaned into the curve of the bike path as it rounded the southwest corner of the park, pulling him back toward the pond where the marsh grass and the cattails, and the wild flowers, grew close to the ambiguous water’s edge.
His chest was narrow and his shoulders bare; and you observed, as he passed by, his lips flapping with blown-out air. Then he disappeared among the weeds and weeping willows as the path wound its way to the opposite side of the park past the far shore of the pond. You waited.
In twenty minutes he came into view again, struggling up that slick hill with its dry grass squeezed down into the slope by all the runners who chose the hard way round and not the easy, gentler rise artound the park’s outer rim, where the asphalt bike path chose to keep to itself. Your lungs ached for him as he reached the trees and found a store of energy in reserve despite the slight wobble in his legs. You could recognize the signs of oxygen debt even as he accelerated again, pushing himself harder.
As he approached the spot where you sat beneath the only elm tree in the park, his head was off kilter and unsteady. His eyes appeared lost to some inner vision or to no vision at all: dead eyes, you thought. He was now a machine churning up and down without any purpose other than motion itself. Your chest ached again when he reached the point where you stood after scrambling up from the bare earth that still clung to your shorts and your calves and your hands.
The ache was on your right side, down low under your floating ribs. It was a real pain, sharp yet brief when you took in a breath as he slowed awkwardly, all form and grace gone, his arms flailing. His long, erect back failed him at last, after reaching the finish of his race, and he came to a stop not five feet away from you. Hands on hips, he looked down at nothing, his heaving chest blasting out air and then pulling it back in, a true bellows.
That slump, curled as if in defeat, brought him back to himself. He looked up and smiled, a small boy again in that moment, with all a small boy’s charm, willing to accept what you had to offer him. You immediately asked if he would like a drink at your apartment. You asked this even before you learned his name. He declined, saying he had to get back to work; but he did ask for your phone number.
“How will you remember it?” Asked because he had no pen or paper on which to jot it down.
“Don’t worry,” he’d replied. “I’ll remember.“
* * *
You pull yourself off the couch, the rough upholstered cushions having imprinted their pattern into your backside: shoulders and lower back, and the upper surface of your rounded ass encased within your narrow pelvis. You shower again, feeling the salt drain away with the scent of your own sex.
Hot, hot water, as hot as you can bear, pours over your head and runs down the length of you, pooling at your feet. You take your washcloth and beauty bar and soap up that piece of terry cloth, rubbing it first across your face and then the rest of you: neck, chest, belly and what lies underneath finishing with your thighs and calves. You do not wash your feet. When you have completed one such circuit, you start over with your face again, until all trace of your makeup has vanished into the foamy water draining away below.
You left the necklace on while you showered; gold does not rust, does not tarnish or lose its dark-yellow shimmer. It is not too heavy there hanging from around your throat, just heavy enough to make itself known to you when it sways with the motion of your body, a reminder of things past, of could-have-beens, of the presence of absence.
The cockatoo, awake again, is squawking loudly. From outside your open window the traffic noise rumbles through your apartment: the low grinding of delivery trucks shifting their gears, the high pitch of a motorcycle accelerating past and the not-infrequent siren of a police car, ambulance or fire engine. The world insists on proclaiming itself. You let those sounds, however, pass through every opening in your body, real or imagined, because for you there is only silence.
For a brief moment, you had conjured up his image again, your running man, his heart beating against chest, the scent of his sweat mixing with your own, and the sounds of lovemaking. But he’s gone now, and all you can sense is the residue of a past you tossed away.
He was a child in many ways, your running man. Hopelessly romantic, he brought you flowers on your first date, blue flax that he’d found growing wild by the side of the road. He’d brought a bottle of wine, too, some cheap red zinfandel, but that was fine. You’d made pasta with meat sauce, and to be honest you weren’t much of a cook. You were only looking for a brief flirtation, a one-night stand. Wine would only help matters along.
After dinner, you told him to look through your music collection and to pick out something easy to listen to while you went to the bathroom. The sounds of some light jazz came floating through the apartment, and you recall thinking, A child might have chosen this.
You were supposed to be washing up, but what you really did was take off all your clothes and pull on a red silk robe, your favorite. The robe was a gift from your former psychiatrist, who had started sleeping with you after your second session. He’d been a lousy fuck, but he did all right in the present department. You had received all sorts of expensive clothes and jewelry from him (most of which you pawned) , and the good doctor was still paying the rent on your apartment in exchange for your not filing a complaint against him with the Medical Ethics Board. That and telling his wife.
Carefully observing yourself in the mirror, you studiously shifted one side of the robe so that your right shoulder was bare and you’d loosened the sash so that your thighs could be viewed. One last look and you were satisfied. You finished the rest of the wine from the glass you had brought with you, swishing it around teeth and tongue like mouthwash before swallowing. It left behind a slight metallic taste, but it also left you suitably buzzed. What was that old song your mother had loved? In The Mood?
When you opened the door and walked out into the living room where he was sitting on your old green couch, you saw his eyes pop. That was when you smiled your Mona Lisa smile and sat down beside him, sitting at a 90-degree angle to his body. You leaned back against the pillows that lay against the armrest and casually lifted one leg so that the robe fell away. When you placed it over his lap, knee bent to form a perfect triangle, you knew he could see everything you intended for him to see.
* * *
What had surprised you was not that he was a better lover than you expected, but what happened afterward. He had stayed up all night talking with you until the first light of a rose dawn peered through your bedroom window. Not even talking that much, but lying there listening to you for the most part, his eyes never wandering from your face.
You can’t remember a word he said, or even much of what you told him that night (half of which was probably lies in any case). What you do recall is the tenderness of his fingers’ touch brushing your face, your hair, the side of your upraised hip as the two of you lay side to side, speaking to one another for hours that were not hours because they passed too quickly.
You can still remember his calm, measured voice and the expression of concern and of sadness when he responded to what you revealed about your life before that night. You told him about the father who’d deserted you and your younger brothers and mother, when he came home from the war to marry some bitch nurse who had worked by his side at a surgical hospital near Saigon for two years. Together, the two of them had pulled shrapnel and bullets from all the many places they could possibly puncture a human body. A surgeon who fell in love with a little mousy slut because she was there, his chief surgical nurse, sharing all of that with him while your mother was at home raising his three children, alone. How cliché.
When you close your eyes, you can still see the look that night on that lovely boy’s face, not six inches from your own. The horror and the pity it showed when you told him of your mother’s first breakdown, a few days after her separation from your father became official. Your mother had alternated between mania and depression: vicious, unpredictable mood swings. Happily serving dinner one minute and then locking the bathroom door behind her and threatening to swallow a whole bottle of Seconal the next. She had one hundred red capsules or more, she announced through the locked door. She’d been saving them up, stealing them five or ten at a time from the hospital where she worked as a nurse administrator.
Some nights she never came home from work. You were lucky if she remembered to call you from a payphone at some seedy bar where she spent far too many nights trolling for lovers. Most nights she didn’t bother calling, and it was left to you, a baby really, no more than 12 or 13, to feed your younger brothers TV dinners or warmed-up pork and beans straight from the can. If you were lucky, there might be a casserole from one of her girl friends, a casserole that hadn’t yet gone bad after a week or more sitting silent in the fridge.
After dinner was over, you’d help the boys with their homework and tuck them into bed, pretending all the while that this was how normal families lived. You sang to them the same lullabies that your mother had sung to you, even though you had no ear for music and couldn’t carry a tune for more than a few notes at best before messing up. No matter. They fell asleep all the same even if you couldn’t.
You became the new Mommy for everyone: your mother, lost in her misery and her nightly drunken trysts with nameless, faceless men; and your brothers who couldn’t understand why their lives had suddenly been turned upside down. You even played the nasty ex-wife when your rat bastard father came to take the boys out to the shooting range or to watch a ball game on one of those rare occasions when the Queen Bitch (your private name for Wifey # 2) would let him.
You were the one who told Daddy when the boys had better be delivered back home, or else. You were the one who called his office when the child-support checks were late and who threatened to sic your mother’s divorce lawyer on him, the one she hired after Dear Daddy served her with divorce papers the day after their 15th anniversary. You were the one who fought and screamed, and stood up to him and called him an asshole to his face while you mother huddled in her room. Hidden away while you fought her battles for her, she would dose herself with sedatives and vodka over ice. She would watch her television with its volume turned up as loud as possible to drown out even the remotest chance she might hear her ex-husband’s voice, the voice of a man she still loved and yet had learned to hate almost as much as she hated and loathed herself.
That was your life between twelve and eighteen when you left home for good. You blackmailed the bastard into paying for everything, every red cent you needed for school in a city far from your own. Or else. You never let a teardrop fall for any of them that whole time. Not for Dear Daddy, nor for Mother, either. That was the one lesson they both had taught you. Whether you let any tears drop for yourself, you can no longer recall. It was a long time ago.
* * *
Later, much later in life, after you lost the boy to whom you spilled out your life’s story that night on a cheap mattress in a low-rent apartment, after he had vanished into mere memories, you watched a documentary about Mike Tyson. Of course, you knew who Tyson was, thanks to your brothers: the Meanest Man on the Planet.
A convicted rapist and a man accused of being a wife beater and philanderer speaking in front of a national TV audience and Barbara Walters sitting next to his soon to be former wife—that was Mike Tyson. For a brief time he was “the Champ,” a feared and despised boxer, who, in the crux of a downward spiral into madness and financial collapse, literally bit off an opponent’s ear in the ring one night because he was losing. In short, one crazy dangerous motherfucker, the sort of man even you avoided.
Yet he surprised you, as he talked about himself before the camera. You hadn’t known that he had raised pigeons as a poor black teenager on a rooftop in the Bronx waiting for his chance to become the Champion of the World. Nor had you known that he had thought of himself as lonely, unloved and unwanted by everyone and everything, unloved except by those pigeons he cared for so tenderly.
You laughed when you heard his high-pitched, incongruous Pee-Wee Herman voice, a voice so out of character for a man with his hulking body, though it still had this undercurrent of menace and barely concealed rage behind it even when he wasn’t using it to express hostility. But that wasn’t why you laughed. You laughed because you recognized yourself.
You knew those pigeons didn’t love Tyson, just as long ago you learned that the men in your life had never loved you. Just like the young Tyson, however, you had given those men the same thing that Tyson had given his pigeons: what they most desired. For his pigeons, it had been food and water, and a place to hang out with their friends, if birds have friends. For your pigeons, it had been sex— sex any way they wanted it, better than anyone else could give it to them, sex that no other person was willing to give them.
Like Tyson, you had deluded yourself into believing that they loved you. You told yourself that the little baubles you received, the rent paid on your apartment, the free meals in fancy restaurants were all tokens of love, though you knew better, even then. It wasn’t love, but it was attention, attention from men who you believed would otherwise never have given you the time of day.
So you did what they asked. One “paramour” wanted a four-way with his frat buddies. Sure, no problem, Honey. One beau loved to cross-dress, wear a wig, make up his face as an over-worked whore and pretend you were a man. Easy-peasy, my little baby boy, easy-peasy. Another invited three of his business clients for dinner and suggested afterward that they all pass a joint around in his hot tub and enjoy the best blow-jobs they would ever get in this life or the next, courtesy of you, his fiancé. Who were you to say no?
* * *
When the running boy stayed late that night, after the lovemaking, listening to every word that poured out of you, you saw no judgment in his eyes, only the sad, dedicated look of someone who cared about what you were saying, and you were amazed. His did not manufacture his concern for your story, From him the false compassion some men put on and take off like a tailor-made suit, carefully folding it and hanging it away in their closet until the next time they need it, was entirely absent. No, his behavior that night was strange and – unexpected.
He hung attentively on every word, as a girlfriend would have done. He made soothing noises and said the words that showed that he, this odd male creature, somehow understood what you had gone through. You believed, not only that he understood your story, but also that he felt real empathy. It was as if he could gather all of your suffering into a ball of fine yarn and knit a tapestry from it, one that laid out all your pain before you as a picturesque tableau, finally allowing you to grasp the truths in it that you had never fathomed before. What he did that night was magic, and to you he became a magical being. Thus, did his enchantment ensnare you, though he never knew how deeply his spell had made you his captive.
For the first time, you discovered a man who had given you something more precious than than anything else you’d ever been given, someone who cared more for you than he did for himself. You saw him every night for the next two weeks straight, only ending when you had had to leave town for the weekend to visit an old friend. By the third night, he’d confessed his love for you. Two days later, you were telling him the same thing. Within another month, you actually meant it.
How were you to know at only twenty-two that your love for him was impossible? You who had been seeking not love, but control, not understanding, but attention. How could you know that love is a beast that throws off any restraint, that goes where it wants, that breaks into the most hidden places of your heart like a bull trampling and smashing what it finds there? Until you have experienced its full force, how can you be prepared for what you’ve never felt before?
All true love stories always end in one of two ways: either in death or through neglect. For you, neglect was the culprit. He came too soon into your life, before you had discovered a way to change old habits. You continued sleeping with other men, men for whom you didn’t particularly care, because you couldn’t accept that his love was real, that it would last. In the end, you dumped him for an older man, one with money who used you until your appeal faded and he discarded you for another younger version.
You threw away the love of your beautiful boy, for so you called him in the hidden recesses of your mind, because you were a monster. The only decent thing you ever did in your life, though it killed you to see the pain in his eyes when you finally told him it was over for good. For it’s a lie what the movies say, that beauty kills the beast. Always, it is the other way around.