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Authors: Kevin Sampsell

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BOOK: This Is Between Us
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I saw some friends an hour later and told them about what had happened. My body was still vibrating from it and my brain kept telling me how lucky I was. It kept saying, “You could be in the hospital right now. You could be dying right now.”

When I saw you later, right before dinner, you told me about all the things you did during the day and the plans you had for the next day. You talked without giving me a chance to answer. You were hyper and full of energy. I tried to find a moment to tell you about the accident but it started to feel less urgent. I made the mistake of telling you other trivial things first—our friend’s new dog, the movie I wanted to see, what we needed at the store. By then it was too late.

I decided I wouldn’t tell you. It would be another secret, thrown on the pile with the others. And I sometimes think of it that way—a smelly little stack of hidden things festering somewhere. I rummage through it with my hands, holding up older secrets and trying to figure out what they are exactly. Some so moldy, dusty, and threadbare that they’re like old clothes decomposed on a corpse.

“What’s wrong?” you asked me. And that was my opening, my chance to tell.

“Nothing,” I said. I liked saying that word sometimes, so I said it again. You smiled, knowing nothing was wrong.

You told me you had a surprise and asked me to wait in the bedroom for you. You told me to take off my clothes and then dimmed the lights until you were almost shadow. You told me to close my eyes and I did.

I heard you doing something by the closet. Buttoning up, unsnapping, or maybe tying something. Music came on—piano and words of longing. I started to feel some kind of pressure to act surprised when I opened my eyes. Or maybe it wasn’t surprise that you were preparing for me. I was probably thinking too much about it. I suddenly felt vulnerable in my nudity.

Then I felt your hands cup my face and you whispered, “Hi there.” I opened my eyes and looked at you, my eyes adjusting to the near dark. “Do you like it?” you asked. You were wearing a tight black nightie and a dark wig. Instead of the best simple answer (“yes”), I tried to admire the style, the softness of the fabric. Maybe it was something fancier than a nightie. I was struck with uncertainty.

I said, “What is it?”

You snapped upright and scowled. “Forget it,” you said, flicking the music off.

“Well, no,” I said. “I just can’t really see it.”

“It’s stupid,” you said.

“No, it’s good,” I said quickly. “Let me get a better look.”

“You’re not supposed to ask me what it is,” you said. “You’re just supposed to tear it off. Never mind.” You grabbed some clothes and left the room. “I need to get out of here.”

I stayed on the bed, naked and stunned. It was after midnight but I wasn’t tired. I looked at my penis like it was to blame, or like it could have saved me. I stared at it as time passed. I grabbed it and looked at it from all different angles. I wanted to find a mirror and look at it a new way, like that movie where the women looked at their vaginas and felt empowered.

My phone buzzed on the dresser, startling me. You were calling. I let it ring eight times and then answered cautiously.

“Hey, baby! Guess what! Guess what!” you said, getting louder with each word. I wondered if you were already drunk. I thought you were doing that trick where you do the nice exclamation before the mad exclamation.

“What now?” I said. I instantly felt bad for saying
, but you didn’t seem to notice.

“I found a fifty-dollar bill! Fifty bucks!”

“Oh,” I said. “That’s nice.”

“Come down here and have a drink with me,” you said. “I’ll give you money for the jukebox. We’ll play pool too!”

I got dressed and walked down to the bar.

When I got there, you had our drinks side by side and the pool balls racked up. Your black wig was still on and you strutted around the table, air-guitaring your pool stick. You smiled like a sneaky criminal. It was like the nightie thing hadn’t happened. But then your smile turned dark and you said, “I’m gonna beat you real bad tonight.”


You kicked me out of the apartment for the afternoon and told me to call you when I felt scared about something. “You’re so calm,” you told me. “I want to hear what you’d sound like when you’re in distress.”

I went down to the boxing club that we always drove by on our way home from Saturday breakfast. There were big windows all around the place, and I watched two sweaty men going full throttle on each other in one of the boxing rings. They looked like chiseled boulders with tattoos. One of them landed four alternating punches to the other’s ribs.
Left right left right
. I imagined my ribs getting punched like that. Four blows in one excruciating second. I felt my ribs buckle, the bones caving in and stabbing my lungs. The winning fighter took a wide swing at the other’s head—a fast and vicious-looking roundhouse. The losing fighter was wearing some kind of headgear, but it looked loose. A red mouthpiece flew through the air and landed, sliding across the ring.

I thought to myself:
The fighter is going to spit now. Maybe a string of blood or a tooth
. But I wondered if they were supposed to spit.
If my mouth was ever full of my own blood, should I spit or should I swallow? What if the beating continued?

I walked down the street and found a quiet place to call you. An alleyway. When you answered the phone, I started screaming like I was being beaten, like I needed you to call 911. But I wasn’t saying words. I was just shouting in a way that seemed to say,
Hurry up! This is the end. Hurry up—I am going to die!

I hung up the phone and started to walk home.

Twenty minutes later, you called me and started screaming too. It was a horrible sound. The sound of fear and violence. It was guttural and ugly. But then you were suddenly laughing. A giggle that turned into a cackle. It sounded like you were out of breath and wheezing. “Wait. Let me try that again,” you said. You hung up and called me back, screaming again.

We were sitting on a bench at the park when we noticed a girl jog by with her dog. The girl was short and punky, her skirt and leggings torn. Her makeup looked applied and then smeared. The dog was bigger than she was.

“Let’s follow her,” you said.

We walked quickly down the path and saw her come to a large fenced-in area. When we got to the fence, your face turned pale.

“Is this a dog park?” you asked me.

“Yeah. It’s the biggest one in the city,” I told you. I thought maybe you were afraid of big dogs. “What’s wrong?”

“My mom told me about this place. She made me promise that I would come down here and look at it before she died, and I never did.”

“Did your mom have a dog?” I watched your eyes become wet.

“No. I think she just wanted me to see something alive.”

“Is this okay?” I asked. “Do you want to leave?”

You didn’t say anything. We stood there and watched all the dogs. There were about twenty dogs in there. It was the middle of the day. The owners stood around the periphery, like parents watching their kids play. A couple of dogs were playing rough and growling and nipping each other. “Hey! Hey!” the dog owners would sometimes chide.

The girl with the big dog stood in the far corner. Her dog seemed unexcited by it all. It sat at her feet and watched us watching the dogs. After a few minutes, you noticed the punk girl and her dog watching us. You smiled and nudged me with your elbow. “There she is,” you said.

You told me never to worry about you. You ate tuna from the can. I thought about knocking it out of your hand, but which direction? Straight down, so it would splat on the floor? Underhand, so it would enter your eyes? It’s not you I worry about.

One morning, I had sex with you but then felt like masturbating just a few hours later. I was at work so I couldn’t.

On my lunch break, I was propositioned by a stranger in the parking garage. He was wearing a helmet—one of those bike helmets that look like a turtle shell. “Can I give you a ride? I have protection,” he said. He showed me his bike, held his hand out and gave it a flourish, like,
Isn’t it a nice machine?
I told him thank you and held my hand out to him, mostly out of curiosity.

I still felt unsatisfied that night, but I also felt normal. I wanted to tell you about all of this, but I didn’t think I would have the tightest answers to the loosest questions you’d ask. For instance:

“Love doesn’t just fall out of the sky,” you said once. We were listening to a show on talk radio. You were scoffing at the host, who was offering hope to a heartbroken caller. Sometimes you talked back to radios,
s, and real people.

“Let me cut through the bullshit of this dude’s advice,” you said to me. “People don’t end up with people better than they are. It’s always an equal pairing. Drug addicts end up with drug addicts. Fat people end up with fat people. Perverts end up with perverts. Boring people end up with boring people. If you’re dating outside of your league, you’re either one of the lucky few, or you’re going to die a mysterious death in the wooded area behind your house.”

“You should have your own show,” I said, even though I didn’t really agree with your assessments.

“Damn right I should,” you said.

We turned the radio off and drove in silence for a few minutes. “I love you,” you finally said. We laughed so hard we nearly drove off the road.

Vince had his first babysitting job, watching a five-year-old next door for three hours. The mother gave him twenty dollars and I asked him what he was going to do with the money. He told me about some leather gloves that he wanted at the store down the street. It was nearly summer, too warm for gloves, so I asked him what he needed them for.

“I have a pair of gloves for yard work and a pair for snow,” he said. “I think leather ones will be good social gloves.”

I tried to think of what
social gloves
would be. I imagined Vince at a fancy dinner party, shaking hands with people. His hands would probably be uncomfortable and sweaty inside them, but his social gloves would be the talk of the room. I remembered certain things I wore as a kid to come across as more sophisticated or adult—my father’s dress jackets, my first pair of slip-on shoes, and the fedora I took from my cousin’s house without permission.

When Vince returned from the store, he did not have the gloves. “They were on sale this week and ran out,” he said.

“It’s probably too warm for them now anyway,” I said. “Plus your hands are getting bigger. When it gets cold again, I’ll buy you a pair and they’ll fit better.”

“My hands are getting bigger?” he said. He looked at his hands as if he hadn’t ever thought about them before. “I guess you’re right.”

For the first couple of years, I was trying to learn as much as possible about you. I worried that your ex-husband knew more about you. I wanted all of his knowledge and more. He had to know that ants make you queasy, and he probably knew you didn’t like talk shows.

Those things were easy to learn.

I wondered if he knew more intimate details than I did. Did you ever go through an anal phase? If so, when?

Did he know that thing I discovered about your chin and how it smells like white cheddar popcorn?

Sometimes I walked around with my cock sticking out of the front flap of my boxers, but only when it was erect. You were trying to check your email and I kept pacing closer to you. I started rubbing your back and you turned your head to put me in your mouth. My breath got quicker and you twisted in your chair for a better angle. I had to stand on the tips of my toes a little. I read through your email in-box while you sucked on me. Sarah, James, Jennifer, Dad, Chris, Sage, Rob, Rob, Rob, Sarah, Rob. I wondered why Rob emailed you so much. Was it the Rob from your library or some other Rob I didn’t know? Suddenly, the doorbell rang and you stopped. You shut down the computer and stood up. The doorbell rang again. “I owe you half a blow job,” you said.

When we first met, I heard you talking to an old boyfriend on the phone and you were laughing a lot. I wasn’t sure what was so funny, but I became surprisingly jealous. When you got off the phone, I said something about how I didn’t like him and that you shouldn’t be friends with him after the way he treated you. He was ten years older than you and also worked at the library. He read all the Russians, all the Eastern Europeans. You told me he “loathed” your American novels and self-help books. “You’re letting him off the hook for all those times he talked down to you,” I said.

“He only said those things because I went to a small college,” you answered.

“He’s a jerkhole,” I said.

“Are you saying I can’t be friends with him anymore?”

“I don’t like the sound of your laugh with him,” I said.

We were silent for a minute and you stared at me with hard, squinting eyes. “Is that going to be a rule?” you said.

“You can text him and you can email him, but no more talking,” I said. I caught even myself off guard by how stern I was being, but in a strange way you seemed to like this punishment.

As far as I could tell, you obeyed this rigid rule. You earned some trust points, as our therapy-going friends called them. I wanted to lift the embargo on the phone calls with him, but it was probably the only hard rule I had made in our relationship, and I shamefully liked that little sliver of power. It made me feel manly, in an old-fashioned, patriarchal way.

I held on to that rule like a security blanket.

Sometimes we couldn’t even be in the same room. Nothing would be said directly about the tight knot of an argument we’d had earlier. My behavior, you said, got me into situations with some of our female friends that felt too intimate. It made me, and the people around me, vulnerable to bad decisions, you told me. I didn’t fully disagree with you, and that’s what made our simmering animosity linger for too long.

We were at home together, but we felt separate.

If one of us was sitting on the couch, the other was back in the bedroom, writing emails, pillows propping us up. We might come together in the kitchen after an hour or so. We each made our own drinks and said something simple, like, “How are you doing?” The answer was a shrug, or “I’m doing okay.”

Then we’d switch places—me on the couch, you in the bedroom. You watching a movie on your laptop. Me reading with the stereo on. I’d hear the bedroom door close. You didn’t want to hear my music. I didn’t want to hear your movie.

It started to feel good, being apart like this and letting the tension slowly dissipate. But the next day, even though it would be small and hidden, it would still be there.

One time a friend of ours was over and you were getting pretty drunk with him. It was getting late and you told me to go to bed. You seemed agitated.

I went to our bedroom and listened to the dull silence break every few minutes whenever you laughed at something he said. I kept thinking:
He’s only a guy who works at a bar. He lives off of tips and doesn’t have health insurance
. But I knew those things didn’t matter sometimes.

I started to say into the pillow, “Come to bed. Come to bed. Come to bed . . .” But you kept laughing. I raised my voice a little. “Come to bed!” I aimed my voice at the two of you. “Come to bed!”

Your sense of smell is heightened when you drink whiskey. “I love the way you smell,” you said, and you pulled me to you, huffing on my shirt and knocking things off the dining room table.

“Really?” I said, thinking I probably stank after a long workday.

“Yes,” you said. “You smell so good, so manly.”

“I wonder if you’re smelling BO.” I sniffed my own armpits. “It smells kind of gross to me.”

“Oh, you don’t even know,” you said, shaking your head.

I went into the kitchen and poured you another drink. When I came back to the table your eyes were closed and you were breathing in deep, like you were meditating or something.

“I can smell your penis,” you said.

“When you were a boy, what did you use for masturbation?” you asked me.

“Besides my hand?” I asked.

“Yes, besides your hand and your Farrah Fawcett poster or whatever.”

“It was Loni Anderson,” I corrected you. “My mom wouldn’t let me have the Farrah poster because her nips were sticking out.”

You made an approving sound and took a sip of your tea. We were having our afternoon caffeine at the coffee shop by your library.

I thought about your question for a moment longer and calculated what to say and what to leave out. “I tried to use one of those cardboard toilet paper tubes once,” I said.

You grimaced and said, “Well, I guess that’s economical, anyway.”

“What about you?” I said. “You have to give me one too.”

“I used a screwdriver a couple of times,” you said. “I thought that’s why they called it a screwdriver.”

“A couple of times?” I said.

“It wasn’t a big pointy one or anything, plus I thought I was doing it wrong or something. I was really worried that my vagina was too big. It was like I was rattling that thing around like someone playing a triangle in a high school band.”

BOOK: This Is Between Us
13.91Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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