That summer I was attending acting classes at the Stella Adler School on Lafayette Street. I was fourteen. Five days a week, I took the 7:26 Harlem line train from Katonah to Grand Central. Then it was the downtown 6 train to an old building near Astor Place. A sunny fifth floor room with smooth hardwood floors and a dance bar where young girls with eager smiles learned that they either did or didn't have the flattest stomachs in the room. I remember each summer by the body I wore.
By the following summer, I had transferred to an all-girls school on the Upper East Side called Dominican Academy where I outgrew, or rather starved away, my ugly and became one of the prettiest girls in school. Tardiness was punished with polishing eight floors of mahogany hand railing on hands and knee-socked knees. When summer came, I never wanted to be in Katonah again. Summers there were clean, with dragonflies and the sounds of crickets and tiny peeper frogs. Katonah summers were all gently skinned knees, lost Neverland boys running around from morning to twilight, and swollen tomatoes eaten on sun-kissed back patios.
In the city, so frozen in hibernation, underground joints begin to ache when summer comes, and the city itself rises up like a flame, stretching, churning the decay off and roaring with new heat. And more hot breath from the manholes floods the streets, turning bodies puffy and swollen from winter into warm vapor. Sleepy life seeps out from hiding, alive again, sheering its excess and becoming lean with energy. Soon bare skin is everywhere, stretched out like putty and melting on the steps of park fountains.
I was sixteen and it was too hot to be alive. Ecstasy. It was Rome and the citizens were drunk. They were fucking in alleys, cheating on their wives, stabbing their rivals. I saw girls who could have been me giving sixteen-year-old Goth kids head behind trees in Tompkins Square Park. Junkies sat against scaffolding poles outside the McDonalds, the girls smearing thick make-up over their pock-scarred cheeks. All of them would gather together like zombies, pan-handling, screaming at each other, scratching and crying, dropping pennies as they counted them in their palms.
I wasn't them but I could have been. In every dope-sick teenager I saw manically rambling about her addiction, scheming for ways to get money, I saw myself, screaming at my mother and clawing at my clothes in tears in the hallway by my bedroom door. Manic is manic. How could I separate their mania from mine? It was all too close.
Then I met Jon. He was a grade above me at our brother school, a Jesuit school for boys. His world was dark, mysterious, violent, in my mind. Still water that I imagined ran very deep. The energy between us was immediately chaotic. I wanted it, wanted to feel it inside, for it to strip me down. I wanted to know what his skin felt like and how he felt himself in the shower; to see his private, distorted face ugly and crumpled. Le petit mort. The little death.
One brutally hot day we met in Central park, the first time we were alone, in daylight, away from parties and late-night drinking circles in Tribeca apartment complex quads where we had barely spoken two words to each other. Where I watched him run to payphones to call his girlfriend whenever she paged him, his red flannel lumberjack jacket and his bass slung over his shoulder from studio rehearsals with his band. He watched me sneak off to secret benches to make out with anybody who wanted to. But we had an established online friendship. Vague, flirtatious late night instant messages, his sent covertly from his girlfriend's parents' den as she slept. Even then our dynamic was one that remained private.
You think I'm so scared of you, I said, casting my drunk, liquid eyes down at our feet as we sat on a low wall by some sprinkler fountains. We drank from a bottle of Amaretto hidden in his backpack, and the hot day was made so beautiful. I can still taste it, melted toffee that bit my throat like turpentine. I slouched down to pick at a mosquito bite, examining my long, lean legs. He held my thigh so that it felt dangerous, like too sexy. Boundaries blurred. What girlfriend?
I never thought you were scared of me. I sometimes I think you're the only one that really gets me, he said forlornly, embarrassed. His tenderness was an act, though. He was a sad hobo clown. I looked up at him doll-faced and woozy.
I don't know you at all, I said softly.
Drink more, he said, taking his hand away from my thigh and handing me the cloaked bottle.
We wandered through the park drunk for hours that day, getting lost in the greenery and lone dirt paths. He had so much gear, so much on him. Everything was thick and heavy looking-his knapsack, his boots, his dark hair and muted face, his bulky clothes. He was a nomad. A caveman holding me in his teeth by the scruff of my neck. A caveman in Buffalo skin navigating the Tundra.
Make it tundra, he said to me in the summers when we went to sleep at night. I would turn the air conditioner to the coldest setting and we warmed each other with our bodies pressed together like leaches under so many blankets. Tundra. Empty, desolate stretches of ice. Devoid of life. I look back and wonder what I was holding onto so hard with him, a moody metal head who said stupid, racist things and refused to cut his disgusting, shoulder length black hair. He was insincere and manipulated me like a video game. He was a sweaty, groping letch; a monosyllabic Cro-Magnon who treated my pussy like fresh kill.
Every November he'd isolate himself in his apartment for days. Beards would grow that I never saw because he wouldn't come out. And every January first he cried for his grandmother because they used to watch The Honeymooner's new years marathon together that we would later watch in our Vicoden-infused hangovers. Me in his striped gym socks and him in a wool hat to keep the stale smell of my cigarette smoke from nesting in his hair.
He talked to his plants and took great care to keep them alive for many years. He remembered everything I said, but especially if it was to use against me or be self-congratulatory. But he understood me. He also punched walls and pretended many times not to love me, so many times that I thought the pain would kill me.
Jon. Everything seems to begin and end with Jon. He covers me like skin and he is the marrow in my bones. I need to remember my body before him, remember that it is mine. I still smell his cedar, on quiet days in October when the leaves make scraping sounds on the pavement like tiny fingernails. Autumn presses down on my chest like holding back tears, flooding me with memories of us lying in bed all day in sweaters because my landlord wouldn't turn the heat on, burning fish on Sundays, walking through the chaos of Chinatown, me smoking and him hating it. Hot coffee in Styrofoam cups. His extra pair of gloves. And then, further back, I'm seventeen and he's visiting me in Katonah on a weekend afternoon. He shows up at my door in an ill-fitting suit jacket and tie with heavy boots and a handle of cheap vodka and everything behind him outside is so orange and crisp like the set for a catalogue photo. He looks wrong against my mother's wallpaper, her antique furniture and lace curtains. His grizzled jaw and thick black hair pose a threat to the pictures of twelve-year-old-me with my brothers that line the mantel. Late at night we roll around on my bedroom floor feeling each other in the dark. It was so dark, so quiet there in the woods. My old drafty windows. Cough syrup and pot, a tangle of arms in purple clouds. Where does he end, where do I begin? Where do I begin.
I like these drawers, he whispered in the dark. Who calls them drawers? He did, in that low even voice that made heavy hot breath on my sternum. Wet in me. Drawers. My hair was everywhere and he touched my face like holding a peach. My skin was the shell of a Faberge egg. Every moment with him was fragile, a glass of water on the edge of a table. That night my mom came in and caught him going down on me. Towards the end of things he didn't do that so much anymore.
Every autumn the memories come back like a sucker-punch in the guts. A friend once told me he had soulless devil eyes. Another said he had the personality of a rock.
That man should probably be in prison, my friend Anna once said after meeting him. It was all true.
Sixteen again. Run for the Corinthians my tee shirt said. It was red with white letters and a big white cross wearing winged sneakers. The sweat from the day pulled it tight over my then-small torso. It was a thousand degrees in New York, but he was wearing a black sweatshirt. The sleeves were cut off but all I could think was he must be dying. And all that hair, all that black, all those chains. I was a tiny pebble rolling alongside a massive rock. Tattoos of green cogs, a stenciled Indian chief, and weird black symbols that I could only think to be his homage to Satan covered his teabag-brown arms. I was so small and white next to him. I was a tissue or a doily and he was a grease rag at a bike shop.
You're so white. You're like a little porcelain doll. He eyed my tired, floppy body and the beads of sweat on my nose.
Take another pull of this and we'll go find some shade, he said handing me the bottle.
The drink was so sweet and the burn was good now. It settled in my stomach like a gulp of hot lead. I'd follow him anywhere.
Where are we? How do we get out of this park? It's so hot. God, it's hot. Can you carry me? I begged.
No. Be a trooper. There's another fountain up ahead. We can cool off. We'll be like hippos.
I trailed behind him because, obviously, he was god. But he sort of slowed, looked back at me, his dark eyes screaming sex. He pulled at my waist, to hurry me up or just to touch me. He had a girlfriend who was not me. I wondered what was she was doing right then. I wondered if she was hotter than me. No, that was impossible. She wouldn't do the things I would do for him. Touch me. Any of me. Have it all. I imagined his finger up my skirt, feeling around in my warmth. I'd give him my body any way he wanted. If he only asked he could have it all.
We came to the fountain where stubby, concrete pillars shot out arches of frigid water. I ran through them, squealing, but he was too cool to run. He just tied back his hair, cupped the water in his hands and splashed it on his face and chest. We sat in the shade for a while and he wrote bad poems in my sketchbook.
Later he would pretend to have forgotten these poems, but I never forgot.
The sun was still high but the afternoon had passed. After a while, we wandered off to meet his friends and to get more drunk. I am the luckiest girl alive, I thought. My life is golden.
We ended up at the water. It stunk of garbage and the heat made it worse but it was beautiful, even if all we were looking at was Queens. It could have been some magical tiny isle off a beautiful place in the West Indies. The water was cresting softly, lapping in the darkness, and the river winds brought a decent coolness to the July air. The melting day had hardened like a quicksilver into a cool, foggy night and I could feel the impending rain on my bare skin, and the hair on my arms pricked up. The night had softened him. The Amaretto had worn off and we drank beer out of forty-ounce bottles, leaning over the guardrail overlooking the water, and we were almost equal. Almost. The force field between us quivered and my spine filled with liquid heat. His big arms held me now and I felt something like bloated storm clouds stirring in my stomach. I was pregnant with millions of crawling beetles. We were both warm and damp from the long day in the sun, but the welcomed rain started to fall. Lightly at first, but soon it was pouring. My tee shirt was soaked through and clung to my body, pulling down on my shoulders with all its new weight. He took my hand and led me to a nearby phone booth where we found shelter until the rain let up.
He pulled me close, his hands strong around my tight, wet curves, and said nothing. I stared into his black eyes until we melted into a violent, desperate kiss. Sweat and rain ran down my cheeks, into my mouth, into his mouth. He sucked my face so hard I thought I was going to die. My petit mort. I was soaking and drunk and I knew that there was no turning back. Until I consumed his head, devoured his entrails, and lefts his carcass to the vultures, this is how we would stay.