You open the door and she's standing there with ghosts in her eyes. Ghosts and tear tracks; her arms wrapped tight around her, fingers digging into the flesh of her upper arms. Standing there in her short skirt, with dirt on her long legs and muddy bare feet. She looks like someone who has forgotten how to speak.
You stand there, with the words swallowed down so deep. He pulls you in, gently. Asks you questions. You don't answer; you can't. Finally, he pulls you into a hug -- a long embrace, with arms protecting, cradling. His palms flat against your back, your head tilted into the hollow of shoulder. Shaking again, and he's murmuring reassuring words. The taste of mint in your mouth. Dry, dusty mint. Tilt your head up, just a little, and he's looking down at you, concern in dark brown eyes.She's shaking, and you hold her tight in the circle of your arms, trying to protect her from whatever has hurt her, trying too late. You know what it must be. A mugger, a rapist, all the bad things, bad men that your mom warned your sister about. Her head is buried in your shoulder, her face pressed hard against your chest. You give up on the questions, murmur soft, useless phrases.
He moved into the spare room a few months ago, and you don't know him and he doesn't know you, but he knows that you're not the type of woman to come home this late with dirt on your legs, with an inability to speak. You're not that kind of girl. You're not. You're a smart girl -- your father is a professor. You've been to college, to graduate school. You're in control of your life. You make your own choices.She looks up. She looks up for a long moment, and then she stretches up on her toes and kisses you. You have never been kissed before. Twenty-three and never been kissed. Another time, it would be almost funny.
His name returns to you. Joseph.
You kiss him, hard. His lips taste like nothing, a relief. He pulls away."Shefali?" Startled, unsure. She kisses you again, her mouth open, her tongue pressing against your lips. You open your lips, just a little, and her tongue slips inside. Your breath catches; you can feel the blood running through your body, running out. You are leaning against her now; you are holding each other up. Her hands are clinging tight to your shirt, her nails digging into your skin.
You had been walking down Guerrero, exhausted. Class ran late. Missed the last bus and not enough for a cab, so you were walking home after eleven. Street deserted -- pools of lamplight illuminating emptiness. Your father would have worried if he knew; he always worried. Since your mother died, he has done nothing but worry about you, his only child. But your father is in Chicago, thousands of miles away; he can't see you, and you have walked alone at night a hundred times. Backpack heavy on your shoulder and you wondering why the hell you decided to wear the damn heels to class. The sexy professor who noticed your legs yesterday was the reason. Stupid reason.You've never been this close to a girl, for this long. All through high school and college too, everyone thought you were a ladies' man; nobody noticed that all the girls liked you and all the girls flirted, but none of them dated you twice. They said, "You're such a nice guy," or "I just don't feel that way about you," or, often, "Let's just be friends, Joe." You smiled; you walked them to the door. Because you were, after all, a nice guy.
Your feet hurt like hell, and finally you stopped and took off the heels. Shoes in one hand, picking your way carefully along the concrete sidewalk, watching for broken glass. Unprepared for the swift figure out of the alley, his hand grabbing your arm, a pocketknife at your throat. Heels in his face? Scream? He dragged you into the alley, pressed you up against the wall. Just a pocketknife, but the blade was sharp.A nice guy, and you'd always figured that someday, you'd meet a nice girl. Maybe a redhead, with green eyes and pale skin. You'd be friends first, and you'd fall in love, until one day, at a movie, you'd kiss her. And she'd kiss you back, and you'd know that she loved you.
Maybe sixteen, barely bearded and acne-spotted. White boy with dead-cat breath and a high voice.
"Hey, bitch. Bitch, you're gonna give me some."
Not wanting money. Visions of blood, and your legs were shaking. Glad of the concrete wall at your back. Cool. Calm.
"You want sex?" Your voice didn't crack.
He was confused. Maybe he'd expected you to scream.
Here was the test. "Blow job's fifty bucks. You wanna fuck, it'll be a hundred." Didn't let him see the fear. As if you did this every day.So when one girl in college did sit on your bed, and lean against you, and started running her hand over your thigh, up towards your crotch -- you pulled away. She smelled sweet and dark and musky, and you were so turned on you couldn't think, but you pulled away, because she wasn't the girl you were looking for. It might have been fun, but it wouldn't have been right.
"Where the fuck am I going to get that!" He was shaking. "I've got a fucking knife on you and you want fifty bucks?"Every semester, every year, you figured the right girl would come along. You graduated, and she still hadn't shown up. Then you were working, and there were no women in the programmers' basement. You started to get scared. Maybe you'd never find her. Maybe she didn't exist. After two years of that, you figured that you had to get out of Indiana, go someplace new, different.
You sighed. A quiet voice screaming in the back of your head, ignored. "Look, whatcha got?" The knife against your throat; you imagined it piercing, the blood pouring out of you. That was how your mother died, in childbirth, with her blood pouring out. What would it have done to your father, if you had died there, like that?
He shrugged. "Maybe ten."
"Okay. But you gotta wear a rubber."
He didn't move or speak. Sweat dripping down his face and the stink of fear heavy in the air.
He pulled the knife away from your throat, held it tight in his right hand. Fumbled in his pocket with the left, dragged out a crumpled five, a couple of ones. You took them, not touching his fingers. Didn't let your hand shake.So you moved to San Francisco, moved in with a friend of your sister's. Shefali. Just for a few months, until you found a place of your own. She worked all day and took classes at night, so you didn't see her much, but didn't much mind. Pretty, but not really your type -- too thin, too intense. A little intimidating. Your friends would have told you to go for it, but you'd waited so long already -- you could wait a little longer.
"Don't have a rubber." He was halfway apologetic, halfway belligerent. His forehead was sweating. Could have lost it right there.
You slowly reached back, watching his eyes. Watch the eyes, not the knife. Unzipped your backpack, stuffed the money in. In a mesh pocket, among tampons and spare batteries, found a single condom. Only God knew how long it'd been there. Handed it to him.
He unzipped his pants, pulled out his cock. Got the condom on, with difficulty. Stood there, waiting for you, blinking.You were still waiting for your girl, and you thought you knew what it'd be like. After that first kiss, after lots of kissing, it would be slow and gentle. You'd talk a lot first, that first time, calming her nerves and yours. Then some kissing, touching, more talking. Slow and easy and gentle, just the way she liked it. If you were lucky, that would be the girl you married someday.
You dropped to your knees on gravel. Muck on your legs. Spit on your hand and grabbed his cock. Rubbed it 'til it was hard. Then in your mouth, powdery-mint and latex. You almost gagged then, but shoved it down. All down.
His hands tight in your hair. By the end, he was fucking your mouth, slamming into your throat. When it was done, he tossed the condom, zipped up, walked away. Tomorrow he'd tell his friends he got a blow job from a hooker for only seven bucks. He'd boast. He'd do this again.And then. You were running a program, trying to find the bugs. Lost in it, and you don't know how long it was until you heard the banging at the door. You lifted your head, confused. Shefali had a key. You went down the stairs, wondering what had happened. Had she lost her key? Maybe it was a neighbor? A fire? A shooting?
You knelt there.
Once he was out of sight, the shakes took over. Deep shudders and still you were biting back the moan. Blankly you stood and started walking. Walking and walking. You circled your block three times before you walked up the stairs to the apartment and the door. Couldn't find your keys. You slammed your fist into the door until Joseph opened it, his eyes startled.Now Shefali's body is long against yours. She's kissing you so hard, so fierce, like she wants to swallow you whole. You can't help reacting to this woman in these arms, this woman who smells like night, this woman who wants you. Your head is swimming and your muscles are tense. Her lips are traveling over yours, her tongue is entwining with yours.
She wants you.
Your hands balled tight in the fabric of his shirt, you pull him to you. You can feel him hard against you; he must want you. He has to.This can't be right.
You take a deep breath and then pull back. You catch her hands in yours, her hands that are still locked on your shirt -- as if she wants to drag you down or drag herself up. You hold her hands and ask her with your hands, your eyes, your voice. "Shefali, is this what you really want?"
Such a kind voice, and you nod. Mouth 'yes,' though your throat is still locked. Mouth 'please.'You don't know her -- you don't even like her -- but she wants you, she needs you.
You're a nice guy, and she needs you.
Can you say no to that?
He surrenders then, hands gentle on your back, lips moving against yours. He smells like open fields.You release her hands. Her tongue thrusts into your mouth. She leads you up the stairs, to her room, her bed. Your hands travel uncertainly over her body, trying to erase the imagined touch, to replace it with warm hands, with care. Trying to be as gentle as possible.
But she is not gentle with you.
So slow, so patient, and you cannot stand it. You need speed, the rush of blood in your arteries and veins. He does not know how to give it to you, and so you take it, digging your nails into his back, biting down until you break the skin, riding him until you and he and the room and the world dissolve into light, into nothing at all.Afterwards, she cries. Shefali weeps, and terror rises in you and wonder if you have done the wrong thing, if you have hurt her, hurt her worse, perhaps. You hold her close as she tells you everything.
Weep while he holds you, until the tears have washed a path down cheekbone and chin to opening throat. Tell him everything, every detail.Your stomach churns, and you are glad that you did not ask her to go down on you. Not that you would have had the nerve, even if this had been a normal date, at a normal time. Not the first time.
He gets the seven dollars from your backpack and you throw it out the window. He puts you in a shower. You both go back to bed.She is no longer shaking, and she smiles at you, and the ghosts seem fainter now. Maybe it will be all right. Maybe you did the right thing after all.
He holds you close and rubs your back until you finally fall asleep in his arms. Your last thought is of your father. He sent you a letter last week -- on your next visit to Chicago, he wants you to have dinner with someone, the son of a friend. A nice Tamil boy, he says. He thinks you'll like him.Shefali falls asleep before you, and you lie there in the moonlight, tracing the line of her cheekbone with your eyes.
This was not the way you had wanted it to be.