* 3 *
“My girlfriend Mara drove off a cliff. Her jaw’s wired shut. She has to drink milkshakes, soup.” I tell this to Raven as she ties me up. Her real name isn’t Raven, it’s Kate or Jen or Emily Mae. She binds my wrists to the bedposts. The rope is neon, the kind climbers use. Harlan used to rappel before he died. It’s been a year and seven days. I can picture his handkerchief tied around the carabiner on his harness. Mara got out of the hospital seven days ago. Raven’s not a climber. She ties a messy square knot.
“I think there’s something wrong with my piercing,” she says. She moves the barbell forward with her tongue. The hole in her lip is red. “Tight enough?”
“It’s fine,” I say. I flap my hands around to show there’s no budging. Raven tucks her hair behind her ears and starts working on my ankles. My tits are taped down and they’re starting to throb. I’m going to see Nate tonight; it’s been seven months. The paint on the ceiling is starting to peel and someone wrote “I heart trannyboys!” in marker. I wonder how you write on the ceiling. I wonder what it looked like in the car with the windows smashed and the roof two seconds from her face. Mara’s home now counting rosary beads or painting her nails.
“It sucks about your girlfriend,” says Raven. Now she’s got the nipple-clamps out. She opens and closes them like little mouths.
* 1 *
Harlan had a cotton handkerchief with what looked like an embroidered fish on one side, and on the other I could see where the threads were sewn poorly, tied in little knots. His hat always looked like it had been dragged across the floor of a train, covered in bits of perforation like on printer paper from the 80’s. It was a baseball cap, Florida Marlins, blue with a fish on it. I always thought he was fishlike, from the way the glands in his neck flared out like gills, because of his sinuses. He looked like the sort of person who would keep marbles in a jar, who would always have matches from five restaurants even though he didn’t smoke. He had a roll of quarters for the coke machine, rubber bands, a roll of duct tape if your jeans fell apart. But he never let his face bunch out enough or let his elbow fat hang. He only ever showed me one of his poems. If he had been a girl, he’d have been the kind who would rather cover up a zit than pop it. I often thought he must have had some dry snot he was afraid to pick out in public.
His parents had been hippies once, which is maybe why they loved me and Nate so much. Back in the day, Harlan’s old man followed his mama to college and got a place three blocks away. Long blocks, enough to need the stick-shift clunker that stalled on the hill, but short enough that he could arrive in time to ask her where you been? Honey, he’d say, come stay with me. She knew he kept cigarette butts in a Dapper Dan tin in his back pocket, and he’d fucked her, she was a feminist, and he’d seen her knit. Because of this, and because she knew those corns on his palms were from factory work, and she used to bring him milk when he had bad trips, she went. It sometimes makes me think of how menstrual blood stinks of iron, and how if women were literally baby-making machines, they would all still smell the same.
After the funeral, Nate and I brought bagels and lox-spread to their little condo in the Marina. We sat around a Formica table with the blinds slatted open, watching the bull-dykes line up outside the Gay and Lesbian Center. Nate was making little clicks with his tongue like a faucet that will stop dripping the second you get out of bed to turn it off. Harlan’s father ate dry Cheerios from a styrofoam cup and picked the crumbs from his beard. There was a pile of insurance papers on his lap and I knew he was going to have to call and talk to the drunk bitch who ran his son off the road, which made me almost forgive him for chasing Harlan’s mom across the country in 1969. Though I guess if he hadn’t done that, Harlan wouldn’t have been born. Or died.
His mom and Nate were flipping through my scrapbook from our camping trip in eleventh grade, and I didn’t even notice Nate was holding my hand until it turned warm suddenly. Nate was blushing at a picture of himself with his head on Harlan’s bare chest. That’s how they were in the morning, lying in nettles, Harlan’s duct-tape X’ed jeans all covered in ash from the campfire, Nate’s chapped lips all sticky with s’mores. Nate’s dreadlocks stuck out from his head like candles that you make by melting crayons then never light. Harlan’s mom put her bagel down on the page and drew the pink shawl about her shoulders. What do normal people do after funerals? “Kit,” she said, turning to me, “you can read my cards now, sweetie.”
I keep my tarot cards in a cigar box covered in beat poetry. Harlan had gotten hold of his mom’s label-maker one day, and I had gone to work, punching out yellow and red and blue strips, pressing them onto the wood. I renounce the present like a king blessing an epic. That’s Gregory Corso, my favorite. I use Aleister Crowley’s Thoth deck, which is reserved for serious students of occultism and freaky teenagers. I was still wearing a purse a year ago, so that’s what I pulled my cigar box out of.
“I need to smoke a bowl,” said Nate. We all nodded, even Harlan’s father, who had finished eating his cheerios and was waiting for his wife to notice and go get him some more. Nate squeezed my hand and went into the back room. My palm felt empty then, and I rubbed it on my corduroys.
“Do you want a full spread or just a one-card draw?” I asked.
Harlan’s mama held up one finger. I creaked back the lid of the rainbow box and shuffled the deck. The cards felt the same as they always had, heavy and light at the same time, a little too narrow, fluid. I tried to think of nothing, but instead I thought of a side-view mirror snapped like a neck against a tree, one crack in it, circular, the split reflection of lips. I slapped the top card down on the Formica. Harlan’s father swiped it up and turned it over. “The Lovers.” His voice rumbled like he had a sore throat every day. He tossed the card back down on the table and stomped into the kitchen.
Harlan’s mom put two fingers to my lips and I realized I was shaking. Her graying hair fell in wisps over her eyes. She had no rubber bands without her son’s pockets. Every time I look at my girlfriend Mara now, I think of Christ when his mama came to take him home. The smell of marijuana from the back of the house mixed with the lox taste, and I felt like the future. Then she drew it from under her pink shawl, right out from between her legs. Harlan’s mama drew out the handkerchief with the fish and laid it over the Lovers card, thread-side up.
* 2 *
Most times, in those first months after, Nate’s face was like a worn foot, like one big callous. His skin was peeling from the sun and he had stopped maintaining his dreads, so he looked like a palm-tree from some hell-desert even worse than LA. He had a car parked outside my house. He had an empty suitcase in his hand with my name on it, a red label strip.
“I’m picking up some job applications in Santa Monica,” said Nate, leaning against the big oak in my front yard. “You sure you don’t want to come?”
It was such a cowboy thing to say, like he was going to save me from college in his mom’s Ford Taurus. I had to pee so badly my clit was twitching, and I’d forgotten my heartburn meds, so my gut felt like there was a rave going on inside it, or a mosh pit. I sometimes wonder what happens to the sensations we ignore, how I had been constipated when Harlan told me he might be gay, had itchy eyes when he first told me he wanted me anyway. It was the summer after tenth grade, the first time we rode the bus to Melrose and sat on the curb in front of Pink’s hot-dogs. It was like all the punks and hippies and ravers in the city were crammed into booths together, shopping-bags between them. There was the inevitable goth chick swinging her leg back and forth, drinking a Diet Pepsi. I could hear some vegan whining about the accidental chili on her fries.
Harlan had said, “I wish I had eyelashes like yours. It must be nice to be a girl. You have such long lashes, long like rope.” He had dabbed the mustard off his chin with his handkerchief and was gingerly folding it up. I could see the little knots on the back of the fish. He had two rings on each finger, at least. “Long like rope? Oh I’m a real Shakespeare now!”
I had made my hot-dog wrapper into a triangle and was going over the creases with my thumb. “There are little bugs that live in your eyelashes,” I had said, because I hadn’t taken my Claritin and my eyeballs were as dry as pool-cues. “You know, micro-organisms. I probably have more of those too. It’s a hard trade.”
“Long like rope. Jesus.” Harlan had laughed. It took him another year or so to really find words. “Well, I wouldn’t mind having more bugs. You know I could use the company.”
The way Nate’s peeling face was pressed up against the tree trunk in my front yard, it really looked like the day he would turn to bark was not far off, the oak was begging at his skin. “Fuckin’ A, Nate, why do you always have to stand like that, like you’re James fucking Dean?” I said.
* 4 *
I’m passing as a boy. It’s seven months since I wore a purse. If I put my keys in my left pocket and wallet in my right, it’s cool. Harlan died a year and seven days ago. Nate should be here soon. Dorm rooms are messy everywhere, I figure. I push a sock pile up against the Dead Kennedys poster with my foot. Too many books about magic, he’ll tease me. I pull the Ginsberg out past the row of Aleister Crowley so he’ll see that spine when he comes in. It’s been seven months. I wonder if he’s showered.
When a mohawk grows out, it looks stupid. I feel the fuzz on the sides of my head, prickly already. The girl who shaved it never told me it would be so cold in the winter with no hair, all the heat escaping from my head. At Harlan’s funeral it was full, blond. I wore eyeliner. I know she’s just home writing a paper, but I imagine my girlfriend Mara holding a Bible under one arm and a shopping bag in the other, her hair so blond it might just leave town. And it’s March again, snowy here in Boston, but in LA it must be Spring. Nate finally called and my wrists are all sore from fucking Raven this afternoon. I straighten out the poem, the one on the wall above my pillow. Harlan wrote it for my 18th birthday. I run my fingers up the ‘hawk, narrow it. This way I know I’m facing forward.
The door knocks and I open it. There’s Nate, the damn hippy. The beard and the curls, he looks like a goat, his body like a bad suit you could wear to a stranger’s wedding. My nipples, under the trench, graze his chest as we hug. I suck my stomach in.
“It’s so good to see you,” he says. Nate’s got a purse. It’s one of those low riding cotton ones that only hippies wear.
“Come on in,” I say. My girlfriend’s bra is in the corner. I throw a sweatshirt off the bed at it. I sit down. He closes the door.
“Crowley.” He waves a hand at the shelf. “I’m going to get into it, magic.” He smells like weed and grass. Actual grass.
“It’s a waste of time,” I say. I narrow my mohawk with my palms. He nods his head at my head. I say, “It’s been crazy here.”
“It’s crazy everywhere.” He scratches his beard and kicks off his sandals. He drops his purse, sits down on the bed and smiles sideways. Since Harlan died, all his smiles slant. I try to slouch but it comes tough. It’s hard to look casual with your legs apart.
“I’ve changed,” I say.
“You always do,” says Nate. I want to touch the place where language wells up in his throat. On men, there is the Adam’s apple, where you can see their words beginning. If you can touch their necks, you can find where language is stored. On women, words come from a place that has no address.
“I’m somebody else,” I say. I touch his shoulder so he’ll understand.
He gathers his hair in his hands. “I’m not going to cut it,” he says. “This dread has been here since last March.” It’s a solid clump in the middle, oily. It sticks out from his head.
I say, “I understand.” I do. I push my shoes off. He lies down.
“Take off your trenchcoat,” he says, laughing small. “I know you.
“Yeah, you do,” I say. I unbutton it in the middle and slide it to the floor. Nate can see what I’m shaped like, curves, but he knows. I lie down on the bed behind him. In the U of his waist, on the side, I fit my hand. I press against him. I press again and stare at Harlan’s poem on the wall. Nate’s hair smells like the train, like nettles, like the sea.
* 5 *
The drawers are perfect rectangles with bright red paneling that make them look like preschool cubby holes. I can’t remember whose bed I’m in. The dresser looks like a period in the middle of a foreign sentence. On top is my bottle of Cold Snap, herbal pills designed to improve my righteous chi, and a cylindrical tin of French vanilla cookies with that flaky pastry around the goo that makes it feel like you’re eating nothing. The cookies belong to my girlfriend Mara, which is a shame, because her mouth is wired shut. They’re probably rock-hard by now.
“Kit?” Lying there, she looks like the Beast came into her, even though her body is like Christmas. She’s like a present wrapped so tightly, the insides bulge out, like a night that’s so boxed up in memory it leaks into your days and years. The day is freezing like the night was; I have no sheets covering me, but some time in the early morning I took the fan down from the sill to position it near our faces. It’s a cheap black electric fan that will only tilt up, not down, and I remember arching my back as I lay in bed, to raise my face to where the air could cool me. I remember thinking that I couldn’t fall asleep while arching, especially since my back is all warped from binding my breasts. Mara always looks like a picture of herself, even when she’s sleeping. She has the kind of neck that you see on busts of women from the Renaissance; it bulges with the chaste fat of a different era. Everyone else I know is more like a poem.
“How long was I sleeping?” I ask, touching the scar on my girlfriend’s forehead where the plastic Jesus flew off the dashboard into it. The things they don’t warn you about in driver’s ed.
She edges onto her side and tries to smile through the steel trap in her mouth. “Good morning, pretty boy,” she says through her teeth. When I first met her, I was struck most by the wholeness of her lips, the way they hadn’t been dented yet. My punk friends always ask me what I’m doing with a chick who believes in God, and I used to say they wouldn’t get it till they met someone who was put together right, with no seams showing.