The cab slalomed north into Silver Spring and then further to places the girl had never been and did not know. The streets throbbed with light and movement, but silence is what she would remember of that night, an unmoving silence deep in the smooth pit of her that would not find words for many years.
The boys had wanted to go. They had wanted to take her. She was a novelty of sorts to them, dark-eyed country girl with skin the color of cream whose father had once been Amish, who had never heard of the things they considered so ordinary in their own worlds, debutante parties and ski vacations and the intricacies of their boarding school lives before college.
“You actually practice piano in the practice rooms?” they chided after she’d returned from long, dark evenings alone there, taking the black-and-white dots and lines and turning them into movement and sound. “That’s not what we used to do in the practice rooms with girls,” they’d say as she clutched the sheet music to her chest, moving their hands and fingers and laughing, always laughing.
“But what does Mennonite even mean?” they teased. She said words like community and simplicity and pacifist—sometimes she even muttered following the example of Christ—but they always wanted to know the same, stupid things. Did she churn butter? Had there been cows to milk?
No and no, she would say, shaking her head and smiling. She tried to explain how her father had been Amish and then had become Mennonite, a more liberal version of basically the same thing, that there was a continuum, like with Jews, she said. Orthodox and conservative and then the different degrees of reform. It was only then anyone got it, nodding and turning away to take up a more interesting vein of talk. What mattered was she knew how to be sweet about it all. She knew how to make the boys feel as though there was not a single thing wrong with them. This is what she traded on and she was good at it, at putting each and every one at ease.
To make them feel good, she’d offer the information that once she’d been the state sewing champion, and they tipped their heads back and opened their beautiful mouths and rang like church bells. They wanted to know had she gotten a speed stitching scholarship. Was she there, walking across the green lawns and taking notes in the cold stone rooms, because of some weaving fellowship? She laughed to show them how clever they were. She could see them loving her, see their minds turning her over as they would with their hands, thoughtlessly, weightlessly, this strange trinket of a girl.
The cab moved beneath her, its tires bouncing through potholes, the boys talking across her, about gambling and the amounts of money they’d won and lost.
“But the best place ever to throw down is Dubai,” Kostya said. “That place is sick.”
“Oh, yeah. I’ve heard,” Thom responded, glancing out the window in a gesture of feigned boredom. “I’ve been meaning to get there. We should go for spring break.”
“We should,” Kostya said. “You should come,” he said to her, putting his hand on her thigh. She rolled her eyes as the boys laughed.
She barely had money for cab fare, had to find two work-study jobs to pay for the gowns for the formals the university held twice a year. And then there were the cocktail parties, the holiday soirees, the off-season wine and cheese affairs. She was waiting for the day one of them would say, but you could just sew yourself a dress, couldn’t you?
The boys talked and talked. She looked out the window at a triangle of yellow-gray river wedged between two buildings. Girls in cornrows and bright tennis shoes crossed against the light. She rode the bus sometimes just to look out the window. She tucked into dirty bars that would take her fake ID, walked by herself along the storefronts on M Street, sat on a bench by the boathouse and watched the sculls slip across the gold water. It was the campus she preferred to avoid.
She had wanted to study piano, but she decided on pre-med because it was what she imagined her parents wanted for their daughter who had such promise. She spent long panicked hours in the dorm lounge poring over equations and indecipherable details. Her small Asian professor stood in front of a faraway board one Monday morning and barked about how one day they would all be lucky to study quantum mechanics. He drew what looked like a staircase in white chalk and said something she couldn’t understand about particles and being in two places at the same time.
That was the problem. She never knew where she was. Yes, she could memorize this equation. Yes, she could identify a constant, but where were they, physically speaking? Where did these calculations exist, on what level? Were they inside a cell, a nucleus? Were they inside dirt or air? She could never locate any of it and grew more and more lost inside of it. The tests came back marked with Cs and Ds and she abided these failures smiling, always smiling, never a word.
“But I don’t understand,” her mother said when the girl called crying, the one time she allowed herself such a show of emotion. “You wanted to go to college so much. All that work for your grades, for the scholarships. You’re the most capable person I know.”
She couldn’t explain it, the dark hollow of yearning that each weekend she filled up, and filled up again. Alcohol worked, but the boys were better. Thom was tall and Korean-American, wore starched white shirts, smelled of blackberries, liked to drink expensive gin. His face was wide and the color of thin honey, shaped like a shovel. She could have speared the soil with his chin. This is what she’d been thinking about as she kissed him one night, the loam crumbling up and over the topography of his ridges, the range of lips and of his nose. Spring water could pool where his eyes went. She looked at his beauty as he put one hand on top of her head and nudged it down toward his dick. She had a way of romanticizing and she knew it. She was drunk and didn’t mind it in her mouth since it was so small, like her own finger, like nothing.
In the cab, Kostya sat with his legs spread, his warm thigh pressed firmly into the bareness of hers. His mother had been a Russian prima ballerina, his father a Middle Eastern businessman. When he’d taken them out to brunch—all of them, the boys and all the girls at a long table with a mounting bill that made her anxious to even fathom—she’d charmed the dark-eyed father easily, without even trying.
“My dear, do you play tennis?” he’d asked. “You must come play tennis at our estate by the bay.” She had nodded, nodded, said yes with her lips and her eyes sinking into him.
Kostya was dim-witted in the way of rich, only sons, but prettier than Thom, with heavy brown eyes and lips like a child, full and moist and grape-colored as if he’d just been suckled. He was uncut but she’d never seen it, only heard from her girlfriends, each of whom had touched it or put it in their mouths.
She could tell how a boy looked but not how he was. On the outside they were one thing, but give them time, a month or week or sometimes even a night, and they changed into something altogether different. She could see the exact moment when it happened, always, the eyes gone blank. After that there was no use trying to stop it, how they’d been rewired inside, how they now spit and popped with cold electricity. This was how she was coming to understand men, their ability to be one person and then another. Their ability to completely disappear while remaining in plain sight.
She’d written about her parents in her college application essay because she knew it would get her in. A Mennonite girl in her income bracket from rural Ohio with unusually high test scores would fill all sorts of outlying demographics. She gave the admissions officers what they wanted, beautifully. It was an essay about belief and integrity and choosing a sacred philosophy over progress and modernity. There are still people who work the land and bring forth from it food to feed their family for the year. People who know how to shear the sheep and spin the wool. People who can take a beehive and turn it into a light that flickers in the deepest night. These people are my people, my parents, my family. What she hadn’t written was how she wanted to go to college in an attempt to erase all this from her genetic makeup. It wasn’t just the gardening and sheep and candle dipping. It was her father, the minister. As he preached on Sunday mornings in the high, clean church house, his voice conjured fronts of clouds that moved over the congregation and then floated there above them, white and innocent. But the weather abided. It followed the girl throughout the week, always just above her head, sometimes light and fluffy, sometimes dark and threatening, but always, always there. Her father, his voice calling into being the very atmosphere in which she lived.
“You’re different,” her father told her if ever she complained about the chores or the prayers or the way the kids treated her at school. “You’re special,” he said. “Part of a different story. You’re destined for bigger things.” She wanted to believe it and she also didn’t. She wanted to be normal and wear a cheerleading skirt and care about hair. She wanted to be extraordinary, so big and powerful she was beyond the touch of human hands.
Nights after she had finished her homework, the girl sat in her basement bedroom as her mother sang hymns in the kitchen while baking bread and her father paced above her head in his heavy work boots. She lay in bed, trying to sleep, and listened as they asked each other questions about her to which she’d already told them the answers.
The day before she left for college, she worked the compost pile by the garden with a pitchfork. This was her job, mixing the fresh compost into what was buried beneath, that dark, dank soil decomposing their scraps. She pulled the pitchfork from the pile and, with it, a writhing black snake impaled on the tines.
She froze. The snake slung the front half of its body toward her, its white-chinned head weaving near her face, looking directly in her eyes.
She flung the pitchfork and snake hard as she could into the garden and sprinted toward the house.
Her father made her go back out and look at what she’d done, needlessly broken half a dozen bean plants and messed up his carrots with her childish fear.
“It’s just a snake,” he said, taking a hoe and hacking off its head. He laid the body in the garden to scare off rodents. By the time the girl got in the rusted family car packed full with her belongings the next day, the skeleton had been picked clean and laid bleached and bare against the dark black earth.
The cab stopped on a darkened street in front of a windowless brick façade. A curved green door cut into the blank expanse.
“Dope,” Kostya said. Thom offered a clipped nod.
“Where are we?” she asked.
Thom slid a card through a reader next to the door. Something buzzed, and he turned the knob, and the door swung open, then they were all inside.
In the antechamber the dark wood floor gleamed with a high, cold lacquer and the only thing in the room was an empty podium set at one side. Though she had questions, the girl remained silent. This was her posture, her way of knowing.
A woman who materialized as if summoned by circuits and electricity pixelated into place behind the podium, pale in a long black smock. Her marble face and pale arms floated from it as if themselves disembodied.
“May I help you?” she asked with a faint accent and Thom took over with yes and of course I know how much it is. It’s all taken care of. The woman nodded slightly and locked eyes with the girl, a smile turning her nude lips. “Will you be needing any bills changed?” the woman asked. Thom counted a wad of cash. Kostya handed her something similar.
“I have forty,” the girl whispered as she reached in a black silk clutch she’d bought specially for the night. Thom patted her on the head then took the back of her neck in his hand and held her that way. She handed him the bills and he slipped them in his pocket. Her face burned red and she smiled.
“Good girl,” he said. The marble woman delivered him singles in a crisp pile wrapped with a tag that read 500.
They entered into a labyrinth of plush chairs haphazardly arranged around small stages on which naked women bowed and arced like swans. Faceless men with rumpled, rolled shirtsleeves stared up toward the light. She couldn’t find a place to put her eyes that felt right and so turned to the starched backs of the boys, who led her through the maze of chairs, through men whose shoulders canted at awkward angles in reaction to her presence. They jerked and leaned inelegantly as she passed, as if their bodies were unsure of her intentions. She was used to clarity of movement, to calculated stares and flagrant gestures from unknown men. Here, though. Here. They all turned their blank faces toward the pale women, who worked like an elixir, slowing time, tilting the normal give of things. The colors around her deepened until it all looked ancient and apocryphal.
They reached the far side of the room and stopped at another green door.
“Aren’t we going to pause?” Kostya asked Thom.
“Please,” Thom said. “As if we’d stay here among the plebs.”
Thom flashed a card at the big, suited man standing by the door and then they were through, walking blank hallways that slanted up or down, through more green doors, more men with ear pieces and hard faces, right and then left, the third door on the right, the fifth door on the left. Finally, at the end of a long empty hall, another marble woman at another podium guarded another green door.
She gestured to the door and nodded with a faraway smile. “Have a good time.”
“Was that the same woman at the front door?” the girl asked. “She looked exactly the same.”
Kostya laughed, and Thom shook his head.
“Didn’t she look the same?” the girl insisted.
“Act like you’ve been,” Thom said. “Seriously.”
Curtained booths ringed the low-lit room like caves, flames burning inside each. Sprawling couches, overstuffed with softness, lulled in the recesses.
At the bar, Thom gave her a small, wrinkled berry and told her to suck on it.
She rolled her eyes then ran the nub of a fruit hard against her tongue and pressed it into the roof of her mouth. It was all pit and didn’t taste like anything.
The bartender asked her lemon or grapefruit and she said lemon without knowing what she was choosing. He split a fresh lemon in half with a knife and sunk a silver juicer into its pulp, siphoning all the juice into a crystal tumbler. He mixed clear liquids from expensive bottles in with the juice and then gave it to her.
She pinched her eyes shut and puckered her face, but the drink was sweet and thick, a lemon distilled to its most fundamental essence.
“It’s called magic fruit,” Thom explained. “It turns your taste buds around. Whatever is sour turns sweet. They fly it in from Africa just for fun. What else do you want?”
“What is there?”
“Whatever,” he said. “Coke. LSD. Ecstasy. Tons of pills. Ask down there.” He gestured to another marble woman dressed in black standing at another dimly-lit podium at the end of the bar. The girl’s face went numb. She smiled and took a slow sip.
“I’ll just keep drinking this,” she said.
“But you have to take advantage…” he insisted and she pitched back the entire drink and looked to the bartender, who took up with making her another.
“I want to drink,” she said. “I want to drink a lot.”
“Fine,” Thom said. “It’s a waste though.” He left her there to go to the marble woman. She couldn’t see Kostya anywhere as she drank. She leaned against the heavy bar and studied the silent men in their deep chairs. The only light came from the spinning white orb stationed above a black lacquered stage pierced through with a golden pole. The music of bells and high strings swirled from hidden speakers. The entire room waited.
To the left of the stage sat a recessed cubby cordoned off with velvet ropes. In it, three men hunched on plush black sofas, leaning toward each other and speaking intently with their arms resting on their knees, hands wrapped loosely around sparkling drinks. She studied the man in the middle, his peculiar haircut with its blunted bangs, his fastidiously trimmed beard and shorn upper lip. He wore a short-sleeved shirt with a crisp, buttonless placket. Suspenders. Dark pants and tough-toed work boots. His tan skin exuded health against the whiteness of his shirt. He threw his head back and laughed.
For one quick second, every nerve flared white-hot and then her skin burned with electric pain. Her professor had said something about how quantum objects existed as both waves and particles. This paradox, he said, was a fundamental property of the universe.
“Do you have any pills for me?” the girl asked, joining Kostya and Thom at their own recessed couch near the stage. “I want a pill. Any kind. I don’t care.” Thom reached in his pocket and handed her a small plastic baggie.
“Take whatever you want.” She picked a small pink pill and swallowed it with a sip of lemon juice.
A new song started and with it entered a pale woman wrapped in a pale snake. She wore sparkling underthings which quickly came off, then climbed upward on the golden pole with athleticism and spun slowly upside-down, thighs clamped around the metal, black swath of hair pulling through the air. Her back arched elegantly and as she spread her arms the girl saw first one, then a whole flock of birds taking off in an open field, moving as the wind moved over late-spring hay. The white snake coiled lazily around her torso, slinking across the soft skin of her stomach, in between her breasts, around one muscled arm where it flicked its black tongue against her bicep.
The woman faded down the pole and rested her palms on the floor. She untwined her long legs and stretched them straight above her, then balanced perfectly, unmoving, wearing the pale snake.
“That’s one of the five most expensive snake breeds on the planet,” Thom said. “An albino they brought in from Bangladesh. They said it cost something like ten grand.”
The girl almost said that’s nothing more than a common rat snake but instead took another sip of the lemon syrup. She smiled. She was drunk and something else. Her knees had disappeared from her legs.
The lady with the snake entered their cave and took Thom’s open face in her hands, smiled at him, pulled him close to whisper in his ear. She kissed his forehead and buried his face between her breasts.
The girl wanted to say aloud this place is infused with innocence but she knew the boys wouldn’t understand the ecstasy of it and would instead laugh like it was some joke. Rapturous, disheveled men sat transfixed in chairs while naked women crouched over them, their bodies flowing like pale ribbons. Somehow the world around her had been washed of its sin, but she still carried all of hers. How had they gotten rid of it, she wondered. They just want to be touched. They were all so beautiful.
Kostya rested his hand on her bare leg and squeezed her muscle, running his palm over the freshly shaved skin, moving it higher and higher. A naked woman arrived with two fresh drinks, handed one to Kostya and one to her, then laid her cool, damp finger on one of the girl’s bare shoulders. The girl jerked and the naked woman laughed and touched her on her head. She laughed. Kostya rubbed her leg. She could feel him hardening beneath his clothes, could feel his organs insisting somewhere deep and warm and horrible. She didn’t want to touch him then, to deal with him or anyone else. There was always a need to deal with these boys, these men.
The woman with the snake had tired of Thom and turned to the girl, motioning with her hands, touching the girl’s face as she led her to the stage. The woman pulled the hem of the girl’s gauzy shirt up over her head to reveal her lace bra and half moons of breast that spilled from the top, then pulled the girl onto the stage and laid her on her back. The girl touched the woman’s skin and threaded her fingers in her dark hair. They kissed and the woman’s skin tasted sour because of the fruit the girl had eaten. They moved over each other’s bodies and she forgot the boys and men. She loved the woman. She loved her white snake. As she ran her tongue over the woman’s skin she knew things the boys would never know and grew as big as God Himself.
The stuff of women, the hosiery and hair and dressing and undressing. So much attention paid to the body, to the power of the body. The body is a temple. She slipped her fingers into the woman’s warmth. Without feeling anything, she watched the woman’s pretty mouth as she tilted her head back and moaned.
In the magic-hour light of late summer afternoons, the orchard might have been the most beautiful place in the entire world. The girl recognized this as she reached and stooped for soft, mottled pears, but it didn’t matter. The trees grew on the side of a tall hill planted with waving hay. Had she known what was to come, she would have absorbed the light from that place deep into her cells, but she didn’t. She was seventeen. She pulled the pears too hard so that the stems separated from the ripe pulp or else took off small bits of branch along with the fruit. Bugs dove around her ears and she blew and bucked like a temperamental colt.
“Look at this,” her father said later, holding a stemless pear from her bucket. “It’ll be brown by morning. You know better.” He threw it back in the bucket and kicked the thing softly.
“Sorry,” she said.
“You’re not,” he said. “You do this on purpose. No time. Don’t want to help. My parents would have never stood for such behavior. Spoiled. Worldy. Ach.” He swatted the air with one hand and opened the spigot positioned low on the outside of the house to wash his hands.
“I’m not like you,” she said. “I’m different.”
“Oh really,” he said, flapping his wet hands in the air. His eyes glowed with heat the girl associated with either hell or heaven, depending. “Different. Sure you are.” He laughed. Mosquitoes fed from the girl’s leg and she stomped her feet and slapped at her skin.
“I’m not Mennonite,” she said angrily. “I’m not like you. I want…things.” She waved her hand imprecisely. In the late afternoon shadows her father quieted and his entire body settled into something unfamiliar and frightening. He was still. He did not seem to be her father. She feared he might strike her though he had never done such a thing.
He moved one callused hand toward her and held it as Jesus did in Bible illustrations.
“You will never be anyone other than who you are,” her father said softly. His words felt like a threat. “Even if you want to be someone else, you can’t.”
“So hot,” Kostya said as she pulled her shirt back on and sat beside him. He took her hand and placed it on the hardness beneath his pants. She closed her eyes and laughed.
“Hot,” Thom said, putting his hand on her neck.
“My pretty little birds,” she said, touching each of them on the cheek and laughing perfectly, exactly as they wanted. Their eyes had gone dumb and blank with want. “Another drink,” she said, leaving them.
She floated near the bar and, given different circumstances, might have been embarrassed about the floating, but she wasn’t. She was monumental.
The man she had studied earlier now stood beside her at the bar, the white of his shirt glowing against the deep brown of his skin.
“You look exactly like this guy I know back home,” the girl said. “Abe. Abe Troyer.”
The man studied her face, his eyes riding over each contour and bone so closely she could feel it. His face was dark and blank as he looked at her, then cracked open as he laughed.
“Really,” he said. “Is old Abe a nice guy?”
“Of course,” she said, stirring her drink with the short straw and then touching it to her lips.
“Then I probably don’t remind you of him.”
“Do you like animals? Abe likes animals.”
“You want to see some animals?” he asked, smiling.
Her drink was wet and cold in her hand and she followed him through a side door. The giant of a man standing watch didn’t so much as glance at the man and the girl as they passed. She floated beside him and looked through open doors, here a sparkling conglomeration of flesh and hair, there white clouds of powder and sweet smelling mists, men being led in and out of rooms by giggling naked nymphs. The halls glowed gold and she trailed her fingertips against the flocked walls to feel their velvet.
And then it was another labyrinthine walk through the cryptic building, up a spiral staircase, through three unguarded green doors, there was some sort of ladder, heavy curtains, the shapes of men and women moving unclothed through deep shadow. They turned and suddenly walked inside some sort of aquarium, walls swimming all around and above and below with flat yellow fish and tentacles and mouths full of sharp teeth. She looked at the man, and the underwater light rippled in his face. It seemed to stretch and flex beneath his skin.
“Where are we?” she asked.
“Does it matter?”
“I guess not.”
And then she was walking up gold stairs toward a square of black, black night.
They emerged into the air and all around her spread forth swaths of thick grass. It had been cut that day. Ferns and full-bloom bougainvillea and scrubby bushes and spikey shoots and showy fan-like fronds exploded around the edges of the expanse. Bushes her mother kept—she didn’t know the name, had never learned it on purpose—overflowed along the winding paths that led through and around cages and fences. There was a peacock. Two. Cages of snakes and birds. What looked like a small pony. What looked like a big cat.
“The girls all love Evie the most,” the man said, pointing. She looked and a red fox ran to them down a narrow path, sniffed the cuff of the man’s pants, then obediently laid at his feet. He took a biscuit from his pocket and fed it to the animal, who ate it quickly, then licked its black paws.
She knelt next to the man and stroked the animal’s head. It was soft and smelled of cinnamon. The fox nuzzled her leg and licked her hands with its rough pink tongue. She held its face and looked in its eyes. She could see deep into them, into the folds of tissue. The fox nodded and rubbed its chin against her arm. Birds called with songs she’d never heard. The wind picked up and pushed past her face.
He took her hand to help her up, then led her further into the foliage, beneath small palms, past walls of vines and a pond darting with koi.
In a big cage, small furry things ate pieces of orange fruit with their small hands, tilting their heads one way and then another, hopping from branch to branch. They clicked as she and the man neared.
“Pygmy marmosets,” he said.
She fit her forefinger through the metal grate and the monkey put its mouth on the end to suck. It touched her skin gently and looked at her with human eyes.
“Can I hold one?”
He nodded and slid the cage open. The small thing threw itself toward his chest and he laughed and caught it, then handed it to her.
A yawn. A gesture. The inquiries the creature made of her, touching and clicking and holding. We share a common ancestor, she told it as she held it close and felt the tick of its heart. And I know you don’t want to be here. No one wants to live in a cage, even if it looks like a beautiful garden.
The man was no longer beside her. She hadn’t seen him leave. The small furry thing pulsed with blood as it huddled in her hands. She closed her eyes to feel its life better. After what seemed a long time she awoke and glimpsed the man wandering far away. He paced, head bowed, talking on his phone.
She reached in the cage and collected bits of fruit, then snapped open her small silk pouch and dropped them in on top of her lip gloss. Her head throbbed. The pill’s effect rose inside her like a muddy river. Shapes and things were taking on hard edges. Even the air felt solid. She had to work her way through it.
“It’s okay. You’ll be fine.” She held the monkey to her face and pressed its fur to her lips. She closed her eyes and the creature ran its hands over her lids, feeling her lashes. She delicately fit the creature inside the purse, pulling out her cell phone to make more room. Eleven new messages. The boys.
She stroked the monkey’s head and it closed its eyes and pushed back against her touch. Reality dissolved into one vast continuum. The flat expanse of her stomach was exactly the same as the monkey’s silky coat. Blood moved inside her as the water moved next to the ferns. The blackness of the night sky might as well have been her mother.
“It’s okay,” she whispered before clicking the pouch shut. She turned and walked toward the door they’d entered, looking for the man, who suddenly was at her side, arm around her waist.
“Miss me?” he said, his face at her ear. His breath smelled of pine needles.
“Of course,” she teased. “But my friends are looking for me and I have to pee. I need to go back down.”
“I thought we’d spend a bit more time together.” He took a strand of her hair and rolled it between two fingers. The small animal shifted in her hand and she pleaded with God or science or fate, whatever, please don’t let him see it. It seemed she’d been with this man for hours, lifetimes.
“I really need to go back.” He didn’t move. She couldn’t see the machinery inside him like she could with the others. She waited and he looked up at the sky for a while. She knew not to say anything but that’s all she knew.
He took her hand without a word and moved to the door, helping her through, then led her back through the maze by which they’d come.
As they walked through the aquarium, he began to talk without looking at her, soliloquizing on the benefits of experience, the ways in which people come into being in their youth through trial and error, experimentation. He wrapped an arm around her shoulders and pulled her close.
“You’re in college, right? Consider this the time for your education, not just intellectually but otherwise. Experientially. Those two guys you’re with—they don’t even know how to fuck yet. Believe me.” Tangles of eels swarmed at her right and left and she tucked the silk clutch beneath her arm.
In the hall with the flocked velvet wallpaper he spoke of pleasure and skin and surrender. He took her by the shoulder and leaned her against the wall, palm moving over her thigh. The monkey clicked and moved and she stared at him, paralyzed.
“Five thousand, cash. I bet that could go far, right? You could use it.”
“No,” she whispered, arranging the clutch, now damp with her sweat and the monkey’s warmth. She dipped her head and looked at her palm, at his body leaning so close to hers, the size of it, its strength.
Naked women wafted in and out of rooms. The man stared at her. His face turned the golden light of the hall to shadow. He stood and straightened himself.
“Admit you liked me. You even thought about it, about me wanting to fuck you.”
She looked at her palm. The creases were caked with fine dirt.
“I do like you.”
“Then nothing’s a problem.”
She smelled his deodorant. He ran his hands over her cheeks.
He held her face in his hands, turning it this way and that, examining it as a farmer scrutinizes fruit.
“Fine,” he said. He sighed and then reached to gingerly take her clutch.
“No,” she said, startled, holding onto it weakly. “Stop.”
“Just…” He eased the bag from her hold, smiling. Skin crinkled in fans around his eyes. He knew and would take it back or else make her pay, hold her here until she gave him money or other things. He’d humiliate her in front of everyone. He weighed the contents of the bag in his hand and smoothed the hair on her head with his other one.
He drew back his hand, then drove the bag hard and solid into the wall. She opened her mouth and did not make a sound as he did it again, and again, the sound heavy and dull and horrible.
“You think I didn’t know?” he said quietly, forcing the bag back in her hand. “I see everything. I know everything. You could have had it, could have had whatever you wanted, but you had to go and be a fucking cunt.”
He strolled to the door that led back to where they started, grabbing a girl and kissing her on the neck as he went. She screeched and laughed, then wiggled away into a room.
In the bathroom she crawled from her skin and then there were two of her: one the girl and one a slimed and bloodied doppelganger of a girl very much like her. She looked at the floor but only found a dropped glass and a small yellow puddle. She snapped open the silk pouch with her eyes closed. You have to look. This is what you did. It’s your fault.
In the cab back to campus she told the boys about the man and the aquarium and the rooftop garden with the animals. She stretched her eyes wide and used her hands. She’d stolen the monkey in her purse! They gawked and laughed and touched her in soft places. Oh my god, they said. Oh my god.
She skipped over the part where he propositioned her, the part with the monkey and her purse and the man’s contorted face in the hallway, and instead she lied and said she’d given the creature back to him and he called her a naughty girl, then placed it beneath his shirt, next to his bare skin, to keep the animal warm.
“You’re crazy,” Kostya said, laughing with delight even though there had not been a single aspect of the evening to elicit such a sound.
The silk of her purse lay heavy on her lap. A dark stain had seeped into her skirt. She placed her hand on the pile. She’d throw it in the trash once she got back and then it would be like it never happened.
As they moved through empty streets, neither one of the boys touched her or set a comforting hand anywhere. The drugs ebbed and slowed them with sleep. They murmured about vacation meccas and personal masseurs.
The lights of the city flashed across their faces as the taxi took them back to the green lawns of campus. She watched as buildings passed, the dark windows, hunched men shuffling in oversized coats. The boys and their talk had caused her loneliness to bloom large, larger, a familiar, silky thing with undulating edges that caressed her cheeks and neck until she found herself on the other side of sadness. Soon, the river came into view again, a dark body that started somewhere up north and flowed silently among the distracted buildings, then further south, to the hushed farmlands where, every night, pale calves slipped from their mothers in a surge of silence and gore.