“You should just ask yourself what your needs are,” Stephanie says. She raises an eyebrow, takes a sip of sangria, swallows loudly. “Once you know, then you’ll meet the right guy.”
I glare at her, at my other friends. They nod, but look away. This is how people in relationships deal with those of us who are alone: dispense unsolicited advice while facing another direction. While we wait for the check, I glance down at my skirt and yank out the loose hem: a thin, golden thread.
That night, I go see Eden. I try on the idea that her needs are my needs.
“Stroke there,” she says. I nod. She exhales, digs her nails deep into my upper arm, near the bruises from last week.
“You like touching me?”
What I like is to watch the oak trees outside my kitchen shudder in violent gusts of wind. I like to pick at my cuticles until the skin splits open. I like summer. I like those scenes in horror movies when a sweaty man chases, catches, and then strangles a silly woman with wide eyes and huge tits.
“Yes,” I whisper. I press harder. She moans, closes her eyes. “What don’t you like?”
Dry coconut flakes, clutter in small rooms, air so cold it hurts my face. Stale pretzels, Christmas morning, rage.
“You have though, right?”
“You don’t anymore? What happened?”
I wonder not about what happened, but what she’ll do if I move my finger to the left a bit. She yelps, grins. She turns her head away from me, shifts her hips.
I also wonder what will happen if I climb on top of her and shove my fingers in her mouth. I do and she opens her legs wider. There is nothing hard pulsing against me, nothing forcing or demanding. Her body is flat, an empty shelf. I am a ocean freighter carrying everything, everything. I drop the anchor of my shit on top of her.
“I really like you,” she whispers.
“I like you more,” I say, no hesitation. Telling lies is like breathing. This is how I give myself to others: with instinct and speed—rehearsed—like jumping in to sing the chorus of a song everyone knows.
I press my hips into her nothing. I am a seawall, a tank, a castle with no gate. She grabs my ass with both hands, bites into my shoulder, rocks me up and down her body.
I drift away to a visit to the planetarium when I was a kid. I was walking far behind him and Mom and staring at his huge white sneakers. Always double-knotted, always pristine and glaring. I wanted to run away from him, but instead I stopped to read a poster that compared the sizes of all the planets and stars in our solar system. It was clear how our fireball of a sun—the center of our universe and thing we worship and rely on for warmth and life—was small relative to the other bodies.
Our glorious sun, the poster said, is rather unexceptional.
Her bed creaks. The metal frame is old, from Craigslist. She’s rocking me fast. Her breath is shallow. The air above us holds my body, her body heat, holds something else. I’m wet and gross and sliding in slime.
“Are you close?” she whispers.
I say nothing. She keeps moving me and I bury my face in her hair. She lifts her head, swirls her tongue in my ear. My body seizes, freezes, flares. She bites the rim of my ear way too hard. I gasp and shove my hand onto her shoulder, pinning her down. I’m not sure if I like her, but I like way too hard.
Right after college, I talked to a social worker. New guy, in my network. Photos of his family around his office. I sat on the sunny side of the couch and rattled off my two minute backstory: his secret nighttime visits in my bed, the eating disorder, intimacy problems, klepto tendencies, a wild imagination. He took his glasses off, rubbed his eyes, and asked how I dealt with the pain of what happened to me.
I stared at his bulge for a moment, and then glanced out the window.
“Well, as a kid I taught myself things like Morse code, ragtime music on the piano, how to tie sailor knots. I read the encyclopedia when it was still volumes of bound books. I’ve run some marathons. Sometimes I would walk into Old Navy or Gap and refold messy piles of t-shirts for a while until they told me to leave.”
He nodded. I waited for him to ask me a follow-up question, like “What do you do now to cope with the pain?”
He didn’t ask me that, though. I got the feeling that Dr. Shure from Margot Township, with his plump wife and beige Lexus and two broad-shouldered boys on the varsity golf team, didn’t really want to know.
When I met Eden, it was the end of winter. I was dating a man who was sweet, giving, kind—all the qualities I thought I needed to heal from the hurt all those years ago. He groomed his beard, called me on his way home from work, cooked four-course dinners. He knew the difference between Malbec and Merlot. He hid small presents around my apartment, mailed me handwritten cards, kissed my chin. Our navigations were slow, tender, certain.
It was loving, but it didn’t stir me. And I certainly didn’t need it. His kind of warmth—that kind of love—felt rather unexceptional.
Eden knows that when I arrive at her door, I’m my own ghost, haunting myself with an old ache that only more pain can relieve. She hurts me and I want more of it. It’s agonizing, but safe. Bitter, yet forgiving.
We welcome the pain I carry, and the pain I need, into the space between us. We watch it, play with it, honor it for what it is: a sign that we are human and confused. We are also so very tired, but we sometimes feel hopeful in small ways.
I do not come. I never come. When she comes, she whimpers, turns away from me, and stares out the window into the moonless tunnel of night.