Five Points, Vol. 21, no. 1
Saint Sebastian of the Waters
Mark claims his friend is a lesbian dominatrix, although I don’t believe it. I tell him he’s using that word wrong, lesbian, because if she were a lesbian she wouldn’t have fucked him.
“I meant, like, mostly lesbian,” he says. “You’d like her.”
The story, as he tells it, is that he met her when he was delivering vegetables to the new farm-to-table place over on the mainland, and she threw a head of lettuce at him when he hit on her, and then she gave him her number and went home with him and choked him. He seems to have enjoyed it. His neck looks fine, but he pulls up his shirt and tries to show me the nail marks she left on his chest.
“Who the fuck likes to get choked?” I ask him. “Also, put your shirt back on.”
“You should try it,” he says. “It’s fun.”
“Why do you think I’d like this person, again?” I ask, and he gives me a look like I’m stupid.
I don’t feel comfortable calling myself a lesbian because I do have this thing going on with Mark right now. Other than him, I haven’t dated a man since my freshman year at college. Not that that’s saying much, seeing as I’ve only had one long-term girlfriend and have slept with about as many other women as I could count on one hand. But I thought I was done with men for good, until my ex moved to Germany and dumped me like hot garbage, and I lost the lease on what had been our apartment and moved back to the island to work on applications to public health programs that I probably can’t afford to go to and generally fritter my life away playing video games. There aren’t so many queer women on the island, or young people at all.
Which is to say: by not-so-many, I mean zero.
And who would stay? There aren’t jobs, or if there are they’re hard ones. You catch fish, or lobster, or you work three or four months a year in retail when the summer people are here. Mark would say he’s found something different, but he hasn’t really. He works on a local farm that sells vegetables and organic goat cheese and artisanal pasta, and is going to save the planet, or something equally heroic and unexpected for an operation that sells ten-dollar logs of soft cheese rolled in pine needles.
I’m being hard on Mark, but he’s not that bad as long as you keep him from talking about global warming. The thing I’ve got going with him is that he comes over to my house every week or two and goes down on me while I play videogames. I’m not sure exactly what he gets out of giving head to a girl who’s ignoring him, and I only get off about half the time and never reciprocate, but when it’s going well, it’s fun. The character I play in my favorite game is this giant fat dude in a gimp mask, whose main weapon is a flamethrower, and when I’m getting into it, I sometimes picture myself as him, smashing my way through walls dick first and leaving a cartoony fat-man-with-dick-out silhouette behind, setting everything on fire, like the flames are shooting out of my dick, like the best action movie explosion. I don’t know why that works for me, though.
Sometimes when I can’t sleep I worry about it. Like, do I think about this stuff because I want to have a dick (and maybe be a fat man in a gimp mask), or is it because I’m uncomfortable in my own body and can’t think of myself in a sexual way, and also why is everything on fire, is it because I’ve internalized the idea that my sexuality is inherently destructive?
It’s a nice change from worrying about whether I’m going to die an underemployed, single loser in a town that I live in but don’t belong to.
Mark’s ignoring my question.
“Why do you think I’ll like her?” I ask again. “Besides that we’re both queer and both hooking up with you?”
“She’s interesting,” Mark says at last. “Unusual, like you.”
Still, I agree to get a drink with both of thget me to look at her website on his phone, but I push him away. I pull it up and stalk her later instead. It’s like looking at Las Vegas through the eyes of a honeybee: eye-searing technicolor background, neon banner over the top of the site saying OBEY MISS WOLF. The pictures of her are all in some blank white space lit by halogen lights. In one, she takes a box cutter to a Renaissance print of Saint Sebastian, a pink wig and little girl’s tiara on her head, a baroque cross around her throat, eyeliner winged out to her temples, a sarcastic smile on her bubblegum lips. A second is photoshopped so that purple and green galaxies swirl around her black hair in a cosmic halo, while she looks down at a camera positioned around the level of her studded boots, as if from the height of a throne.
There is no way on earth I’m going to get along with Sadist Barbie, so when Mark texts me to say they’re going to be at O’Leary’s on Thursday, I feel the apprehension hit like a cold raw egg sliding down my front. I’m at work at the soap shop, turning the freshly made logs out of their molds and slicing them into bars. I’m not really supposed to be on my phone, but Jennifer is in the back, packing up a wholesale order, and October is far enough out of the tourist season that we’re unlikely to get much foot traffic. The lab—as Jennifer likes to call it, although it looks more like an industrial kitchen—opens straight out onto the sales floor behind the cashier’s counter, so shoppers can look at the bars of soap arranged in pyramids and patterns like Greek mosaics, brightly colored and decorated with swirls of glitter and crusts of certified organic oatmeal and calendula, and then see exactly where and how we make it, the whole process of production on display. When you walk in, you’re hit with the smell of vanilla and petitgrain, orange blossom, bergamot, myrrh—scents that I never would have put a name to before working here, that fade into generic sweetness after long hours in the shop. Often when I walk in now I don’t smell anything at all, until I step out the door and onto the street facing the harbor, and then the smell of sugar and spice wafts out of my clothes and mixes with the seaweed and salt and ripe mussel smell of the ocean. It’s the same smell that seeps out of my dirty clothes in the laundry hamper: flowers, spice, soap, long before I ever catch the scent of my own body.
After I’ve sliced the bars, each one gets wrapped in a label with all the ingredients listed on the back. Some bars are made with goat’s milk or honey, and others are vegan, made with avocado or coconut oil. I don’t want to think about Mark or his dominatrix date, but despite myself, my right hand is wrapping soap bars and my left is scrolling up through my text messages until I find the link to her website and open it up again.
Beyond the photos, there’s a list of services, if you can call them that. She’s posted a screengrab that shows just invoices, payments of ten dollars, twenty, fifty, one hundred, the buyers’ details scrubbed out. When I scroll, an animated photo of her pops up, laughing, pointing at the money. A speech bubble hovers over her head.
I make my piggies pay $50 a minute just to talk to me, she says. They love it when I take everything and leave them begging. She’s wearing a set of white cat ears in the photograph, inexplicably. She’s holding a cartoon piggy bank, which is wearing a ball gag.
There are other pictures, too. A man in lingerie, his face blurred out. A man with his head in a toilet. I keep scrolling back up to the payments. Jennifer doesn’t pay me that badly, at the shop, but in the off season, like now, I don’t work many hours. The total I’m looking at onscreen is what I make in two weeks, and the men paying it are paying, I guess, to be ignored, by this girl whose existence is so airbrushed she might very easily be a figment of their imaginations. Why?
I can’t make the numbers make sense, and then, after Jennifer comes back upstairs with boxes of soap for me to drive over to the post office, it occurs to me that maybe it’s all equally fake, and she’s edited in the numbers on her completely imaginary paycheck.
What do you wear to be the third wheel on a date with a person you’re fairly sure you’re going to hate? The dress that makes you feel sexy, so she knows you’re hotter than she is, or man’s shirt and baggy jeans, because you only dress up for people you like? I don’t know, and I try on a green dress that Vicky used to love when we were still together, and then take it off because I hate thinking about her hands going around my waist while I look at myself in the mirror, and anyway, it’s cold and all my tights have holes in them. It’s cold even in my grandfather’s old house with the space heater on. The central heating is creaky, like the floors, like the paint peeling off the wall behind the old stove. I twist in front of the mirror to try and see what my back looks like in the dress. The skirt feels like it’s riding up over my underwear.
I’ll be honest: if Mark thinks he’s getting a threesome out of this evening, I’m not sure what I think I’m getting. The threesome is out of the question, obviously. But there’s a streak of mean curiosity mixed in with my apprehension, the pleasurable anticipation of knowing whatever you’re doing is going to be a shit show. What does this girl even look like? What’s she going to wear? What does she look like?
I take off the dress, and put on jeans and a fleece.
The nearest bar is on the mainland. A couple years ago there was a place by the harbor with a liquor license, but in the winter too many fishermen parked themselves there all day, and then when night fell they’d spin out on the iced-over hill out of town and end up on somebody’s summer house’s back porch. Now you can pick up your beer at the convenience store and drink at home, or drive over to O’Leary’s on the mainland side of the causeway.
On the drive over, I get second thoughts just before I hit the causeway that takes me to the mainland, and I pull over onto the shoulder and sit in my car with my hands still grasping the steering wheel. It’s not that I’m afraid of how embarrassing this double date, or whatever it is, is obviously going to be. It’s just that I want to make sure that I’m not early.
The setting sun is splashed across the horizon like a spilled cup of orange juice, or like an explosion in reverse, the bright disc of sun hovering just above the ocean and pulling all of the color in the sky and the water after it. It makes the winding causeway look especially like the open mouth of some half-submerged snaky beast, an image that has always been in the back of my mind since I was a child. Instead of guardrails, the causeway is lined with flat, pointed stones called dragon’s teeth, and seeing them, hearing the word in the back of my head, sometimes makes me feel like the physical passage between the island and the mainland is more significant than it really is. I don’t remember when an adult first told me their name, but I remember being a child and hearing my mother say that a drunk driver had plowed right through the dragon’s teeth in his truck, and imagining a kind of mystical battle, Saint Margaret caught in the jaws of the beast and breaking through, bursting out into the open, freezing ocean, and freedom.
I get out of my car. There’s a little inlet of beach near the causeway, and I walk down to the water, kicking a gap in the black bar of seaweed washed up on the tideline, until my boots sink into the strip of wet sand just ahead of the waves. It isn’t too cold, for autumn, but the salt wind still bites my face and makes my eyes tear up. I can taste the seaweed on the back of my tongue.
I remembered bringing Vicky up here in the summer to visit my parents. She thought it was beautiful. The air was fresher, the colors of the sea and sunset brighter, as if someone had peeled a film off of the surface of the world. I feel like a peeled egg, now that she’s gone, like there’s some protective membrane I was born with that I’ve lost. I wish I was a hermit crab, and could pick up something else’s abandoned shell. I wish I was back at home under a blanket, instead of going to this bar. I wish I’d drunk a couple beers before I left the house, to desensitize myself. But I’m broke as fuck.
I pull out my phone and check the time. I’ve killed enough time to be fashionably late meeting Mark and Miss Wolf. I take a picture of the sun over the water, of the way that the waves near my feet are fading into gray-violet, like white clothes that have been washed in with the darks. It’s pretty in a tragic kind of way, but on the screen of my phone it just looks murky.
The tide’s coming in. I stand and let the waves lick the soles of my duck boots. I haven’t eaten. I can feel my stomach growling under the layers of my fleece, so, eventually, I walk back up the beach and get in my car and flip the headlights on and drive over the causeway, between the dragon’s teeth, to the mainland. I’ve got the heat turned up in the car, but I can’t get my hands warm.
My grandfather was a lobsterman. My father spent his childhood out on boats, and my sister and I did ours, for a while, before my grandfather retired. I remember it the way you remember things deep in the past, the glassy texture of saltwater pouring off a trap hoisted up from the bottom, the way my grandfather’s face looked as craggy as an oyster shell, and he smelled like sweat and tobacco. I remember the way it felt to be out on the boat as a little kid—the wonder and terror of the black water, and how I hated fighting the weight of the water to get the traps up. I struggled to pull the lines even when he put his hands on mine to help me. I was a whiny kid. I remember the sick smell of the motor’s exhaust as it chugged along and dipped with the waves, and the childish boredom of pulling trap after trap after trap. I don’t think he got bored with it. Dad used to say he knew every wrinkle on the ocean floor.
Grandpa was a lifelong smoker. He died when I was young.
My sister was the first kid to go to college. She has a law degree now, so I’m the family fuckup.
It’s the background noise in my head, these days. Fuckup, fuckup, fuckup, churning along like a laugh track all the way down the road, fuming out of the tailpipe of my car like a failed emissions test.
I hung on in Boston for three months after Vicky left me. Knowing I was spending too much on the apartment, that I’d called in sick too many times to work, that I needed a roommate, a smaller place, an escape route from my lease, a different job, a better degree. Mom and Dad had moved over to the mainland after my sister and I left for school years ago. My grandfather’s house still stood, drafty in the winter, the bathroom tiles peeling. After my grandmother died, my sister begged our parents not to sell it. She was in law school then. She’d already gotten away. She said, “I want to be able to come back here every summer, as long as I’m around. I want my kids to know where I came from.”
She brings her boyfriend up every summer to visit, but the house stays empty over the winter. She sighed at me over the phone when I mentioned moving back. “Okay, fine, just pay your own internet bill. And try and keep the place clean.”
Sometimes at night I walk around the house in my underwear, and I feel like the walls are staring at me. Fuckup,they say. So I throw myself down on the couch, feeling the indentation of someone else’s body worn into the cushion under me, and I try to imagine myself into someone else’s skin. It’s easiest when I’m looking at the version of myself on the screen. A big bouncing gut. Leather mask over my face. A body so big that nothing can penetrate far enough to get under my skin.
When I arrive at the bar, Mark’s sitting in a booth and the girl with him has her back to the door and is picking over a platter of mozzarella sticks. Mark’s head jerks up when he hears the bell over the door go. It’s a Thursday night, and just after dark, and the place is dead quiet, just a tiny knot of older men and women by the bar, drinking early.
I sit down next to Mark, hoping that he won’t try to touch me. Naturally, he puts his hand on my shoulder as soon as I’m seated, his fingers creeping up the edge of my fleece to the nape of my neck. It probably looks sweet. It makes me feel like my skin is a balloon that’s slowly deflating.
The girl across the table wipes her fingers on a napkin and sticks her hand out towards me.
“Hey. I’m Cara.”
She doesn’t look like her photographs, although I guess no flesh-and-blood human could. She’s wearing a shirt with the sleeves cut out so that her lace bra shows. She has straight, dark hair, cut bluntly across her forehead and dyed black, it looks like, from the way her eyebrows are a little bit paler. Brown eyes, and I remember, oddly, that online she wears contact lenses that make her irises a smoky, glazed gray. I don’t think I even noticed it when I was looking at her website. I didn’t notice until I saw the change.
I wave the waitress over and ask for fried fish and onion rings and a beer. The beer comes back first, and hunger makes me gulp it. I can feel a kind of tipsy comfort spreading through my chest in cool, fizzy, concentric ripples, as if I’d thrown a fishing weight down into still water. I’m mostly ignoring Mark and Cara’s conversation, which moves in awkward fits and starts, as if they’re embarrassed to talk to each other in public. Cara keeps checking her phone.
“Mark says you grew up on the island?” asks Cara. She asks the question twice before I register that she’s talking to me. She has the last mozzarella stick and is pulling the breading off of the core of hardening cheese and flicking it around her plate instead of eating it, which is especially annoying because I’m starving. I find myself focusing on her nails, the way they’re shaped into perfect almonds and she touches things with just their tips. Her face is a white moon hovering somewhere above the level of my gaze.
“Yeah,” I say. “I grew up here.”
“Was it weird? I heard the school has, like, six kids in some grades.”
I shrug. When I brought Vicky here we rode the ferry out to the farther islands, past the fake colonial summer houses with their widow’s walks that overlook the bay, the wind blowing her blond hair over her face, and I told her about the tiny schoolhouse, all that time spent alone and quiet, trying to beat my sister at math problems when she started learning algebra. It doesn’t feel like my experience anymore. It’s too picturesque, as if it’s been photographed and kept under glass.
“Cara’s a sculptor,” Mark says, abruptly, when the chance for me to elaborate on my childhood has well and truly passed. “She does these cool little wooden things, like totems.”
“Oh,” I say. I’m not surprised that she’s an artist—there are plenty who come up in the summer and show in the local galleries on the waterfront, near the soap shop. But it intensifies my feeling that the two of them have brought me here to provide some picturesque local color. I can feel the desire to disappear slipping down over my face like plastic sheeting. I can feel Mark shifting nervously beside me, noticing that I’m being rude, but I can’t pull myself together.
The pink almonds of Miss Wolf’s nails tap on the edge of her plate.
“Have I offended you somehow?” She has her hands flat on the table, is staring straight at me, leaning forward.
“Um, no?” I say, and the words come out sounding pretty biting.
Mark puts his hand on my knee, as if I’m the one having an outburst. “Come on, Cara, don’t be—”
The waitress reappears, with a white plate of gently steaming fried food. Miss Wolf looks at her and visibly bites her lip to keep in whatever she’s thinking about saying.
“Thanks,” I say, as the plate clicks down.
“Another round of beer,” says Mark, and Miss Wolf says, “Not for me.”
I’ve got an onion ring in my mouth before the waitress has even finished turning away. It’s hot enough to burn my tongue, and salty sweet. I eat the fish with my hands, greasily. The hunger goes down a long way. I lick my fingers. The bell over the door goes and a couple more boys come in.
Miss Wolf’s eyes follow them as if she’s longing to go over and ask them to drink with her instead. The table’s gone real quiet. Beside me, Mark shrugs, in the exaggerated slow way that says he thinks she’s being crazy, and I have a sudden weird feeling of reversal. She thinks she’s the one who’s being ganged up on. I’d been picturing the two of them sitting across from each other and sharing a secret joke about me, but here Mark’s sitting next to me and doing his don’t-make-a-scene pantomime and ordering more beer, and I’m silent and stuffing my face, and she’s staring at the bar with a look in her eyes like she can’t decide whether to give me a black eye or burst out crying.
It makes me like her, just a little bit.
“Sorry,” I say. “I’m just starving. I skipped lunch.”
Miss Wolf nibbles on one of her almond-shaped nails.
“I get like that, sometimes, when I haven’t eaten.” Her tone of voice makes it sound like she’s asking a question.
“Are we okay then?” says Mark, and Miss Wolf makes a little threatening gesture at him with her mostly empty drink, as if she’s going to throw it.
“Shut up. You’re being patronizing.” Her tone is playful rather than angry, and her gaze slides over and hooks on me like she’s inviting me to agree with her. There’s still that gleam in her eyes that made it look like she was on the verge of tears before. She looks like she’s trying to pull a mask down over the anger and turn it into a pantomime, but the anger keeps squishing out of the sides of the mask.
“Mark said you guys met while he was delivering vegetables?” I ask, at random. I’ve got tartar sauce on my thumb, and I lick it off. It’s gross—she works at the fancy organic restaurant, these onion rings obviously came out of a frozen package—but I’ve decided I’m just going to lean into the grossness.
“Yeah.” She sticks her foot out under the table and nudges Mark’s knee with her toes. “Sorry for throwing broccoli at you, by the way.”
“It was lettuce,” he says, smugly.
“No, it was definitely broccoli!”
“Why did you throw broccoli?” I say.
Miss Wolf shrugs. “He said he bet I couldn’t hit him with it.”
I don’t know why that makes Mark look so self-satisfied. The waitress comes back with more beer, and Cara orders another one for herself and then peeks at her phone and starts typing something under the table, her nails going tap tap tap against the screen.
“Sorry,” she says, and takes a sip of beer, licking the downy strip of foam off of her upper lip. “Client.”
“You’re on call or something?” I ask.
She shrugs. “He’s a regular. He pays for texting. Hey, want to be in a photo?”
She slides into the booth beside me, tilting the camera on her phone so that Mark’s out of the frame. In the photo, she’s sneering and I’m blank, but she selects a filter that gives both of us bunny ears and cute button noses, under which it’s impossible to tell what faces we’re making.
“Should I send it?”
“Sure,” I say.
“Don’t worry, you look pretty.” She takes her phone back and taps out a message to go with the picture. Her phone whooshes as she sends it.
“Sorry I jumped on you a minute ago,” she says. “Sometimes people can get kind of shitty about the kink stuff, and I just assumed.”
Her knee is pressed against mine on the sticky vinyl seating. I have no idea whether she’s flirting with me, or whether I want to flirt back, if she is. She smells like vanilla perfume. Mark’s leaning over in front of me, trying to read her messages over her shoulder, and after a moment of disorientation I decide that what I probably want is to get out from between the two of them.
But also, maybe, to kiss her? Really suddenly, so I can run away before she says anything.
Mark’s laughing. “I can’t believe people pay you to say this shit. Must be fun.”
Miss Wolf smiles, one hand on my knee. “It really depends on the situation.”
Later, we pile out into Cara’s car. I’ve drunk enough that I know I shouldn’t be driving, and maybe she shouldn’t either, but she makes a big show of taking Mark’s keys out of his hand and briskly buckling up, checking her rearview mirror and her headlights. She lives up in town, about a fifteen minute drive away—closer than my house on the island. I leave my car in the parking lot, and turn back to watch it as we pull away. Cara reaches for her phone, which makes a bright square in the shadows, and flips through it onehanded, until she finds a song she wants to play, something bubbly and frenetic that sounds like the soundtrack of an old arcade game. I can see a sliver of moon caught in the branches of the trees on either side of the road, and suddenly, again, I want out of the car. I want to walk out over the dragon’s teeth and into the ocean until I can’t see land anymore.
The singer’s voice comes in over the sound of synths, sharp and breathy and somehow at odds with the music itself, as if, in the midst of the pattering dance beat, she’s holding back some feeling that can’t be named.
Hey, she sings, remember me?
And I feel the hair stand up all along my arms, as if the moon had spoken, and called my name in particular.
We pull up in front of a front of white clapboard church, the old-fashioned kind you see by the roadside in small towns, narrow and steepled.
“Are you kidding?” I say.
“It’s deconsecrated,” Cara says. “And I really only live in the two back rooms. There’s no heat, and the congregation hall’s way too big for a space heater. I store my sculpture there.”
She unlocks the door of the church, and Mark and I follow her into the sanctuary. It’s a forest of long, thin wooden spires, growing where the pews would once have been. They’re thick wedges stacked like a child’s building blocks or thin sheets of plywood laminated together in odd shapes and pieces that look like the legs off of a particularly lunatic hand-turned chair. Some are painted in neons, and the paint is speckled across dropcloths. The smell of it hangs in the air. I walk out into the middle of the floor. The wooden thing nearest me comes up to my sternum and ends in a green arrowhead. In the moonlight emanating dimly from the high windows, the sculptures look like a tiny, fantastic city of towers, overshadowed by the antique chair that sits where the altar should be, ringed by a semicircle of halogen lights. There’s a music stand in front of it, and I realize that here, on the altar, must be where she shoots the photos for her website, presiding over her realm of sculptures like a queen looking down at an army of miniature Stylites perched on tiny, ornate columns. When I walk closer, I see she’s taped a shredded picture of Saint Sebastian to the back of the chair, and suddenly the wooden totems look like a forest of arrows.
“Cara, this is dope,” says Mark. I guess they must have hooked up in the little trailer he lives in on the farm, the first time.
“It gets crazy cold in here during bad weather, though,” she says. “Sometimes I wear gloves to work in, or else my hands turn to ice.”
It’s cold here even now. I can see she’s got a space heater pulled up by the throne on a long extension cord.
The back rooms are small. There’s a couch with a strip of leather torn out of its back and an enormous pile of shoes on the welcome mat. Cara flips the switch on another space heater and then goes over to the windowless kitchenette, rummaging beers out of the fridge while Mark stands behind her and nuzzles her neck. The light in the living room is still off, but the kitchen light filters in enough to see by, and makes everything look like an abandoned house shut up for the winter. The walls are made of old pressed tin. There are a few sculptures in here, too, looking goofy and anodyne compared to the forest out in the sanctuary. She’s hung a coat on a blue pole with weird groove marks in it.
She comes out of the kitchen and hands me a beer.
“What—” I say. “Why do you make those things?”
Cara shrugs and purses her lips around the mouth of her bottle. She looks just normal, awkward and embarrassed. I can’t picture her sitting on that throne on the altar, and I can’t picture her working on those eerie sculptures, without being a different person than she seems to be.
“I just make them,” she says. “I took a woodworking class in college, and at first I made normal things, like little salad bowls and one time a table. But I started looking at, like, plywood and scraps, and they just wanted to be made into things. And I like the way they look.”
I sip. “Why here?”
“The rent’s cheap, and there’s a lot of space. And the church is pretty.”
“I meant, why this town at all?”
She shrugs. “Well, my friend’s godmother owns the restaurant. I thought I’d come up here, I’d work in the garden, work on my art, and it would be like being out of the world, a little bit.” A pause. I guess she’s watching my face. “I don’t mean that, like—that must sound like such a summer person thing to say. I know this is part of the world.”
“Are you talking about gentrification?” Mark waltzes up out of the kitchen like he’s doing a musical entrance. “People are so invested in where they’re from. I don’t subscribe to the politics of origin.” He leans on that last phrase like he’s hoping someone will ask him for a definition. No one does.
“I have to pee,” I say.
“Bathroom’s on your right.” Cara gestures, her fingers stretched out like she’s scattering birdseed.
It would be hard to miss it—the hallway’s more of a closet than anything. Inside, I lock the door and turn on the light. There’s a transparent rack of cosmetics sitting on the countertop, a small magnifying mirror attached by an arm to the larger mirror over the sink. She’s the type who tapes things across the bottom edge of her bathroom mirror—pictures of beautifully made-up women on glossy magazine paper, but also what looks like inspirational quotes, a to-do list.
I turn on the sink and splash my face. I feel like I’ve seen something private. There’s a blond woman holding out a ring of keys on the left edge of the mirror, so that her hand, carefully cut out, seems to point to my face as I look at myself. I’m thirsty. I run the tap, and put my face down into the sink, and drink.
When I brought Vicky to the island, I took her down to walk along the harbor. It was summer, and there were roses and lupine blooming everywhere that there was a spot of green, and on the evening we arrived together, the sky over the sea looked like a floating kingdom, squat towers of cloud shot through with shell-pink and chrysanthemum. I recognized the anvil shape that means a storm is coming, but before the wind set in, there was a moment when you could see both the lightning flickering inside the clouds and the colors of sunset. I held her hand and said, “Look,” and we walked down to the boat launch and took our shoes off and stood in the cold water until we could feel the fresh gust of the storm rolling in and scouring away the rust scent of the harbor.
Things were already bad, even then. She’d slept with an old friend from college just before we left to see my family, a woman I knew, and had had drinks with, and who came over to our house for a game night two months after it happened, and hovered in the kitchen looking like she was about to cry. Which didn’t even strike me as suspicious at the time. Vicky didn’t tell me until much later, and when I first heard I said, “It’s alright, I’m not angry, I know it was a mistake. I still love you.”
The funny thing was, I wasn’t angry. It was like someone had offered me absolution for everything that had gone wrong between us. That I found myself sitting later and later in front of the TV most nights, delaying going to bed. That it never seemed to occur to her to touch me. That when I cooked, she often said she didn’t like whatever food I’d made, and got up from the table to steam her own broccoli or make her own omelet, and only sat back down after I’d finished my meal and packed up the leftovers. That I’d forgotten to hand in a rent check the month before, and she’d looked at the late fee and said, “Can’t you ever pull your weight?”
And suddenly I had something I could forgive her for, that was definitely her fault, not mine.
After she told me, she lay on the couch and cried with her face in a pillow. I told her it was alright, and stroked her shoulders, and she looked up and said, “This makes me feel like I just got diagnosed with cancer.”
And we laughed together until we cried. But I was still angry.
I am still angry. She packed up her things, and I wanted to dump all her carefully sorted boxes out on the floor and tell her to look at me, to look at my face, to say anything at all that would let me know she still knew I existed.
Back on the island, before any of that happened, I walked with Vicky to the seafood co-op before it rained, and bought lobsters that I carried home in a brown paper bag with the top open so that they wouldn’t suffocate. I put them on my lap in the car and felt the scuttling pressure of their armored legs through the dampening paper the whole drive home. And as I was standing in my grandfather’s house over the ancient stove putting them into the pot, she stood behind me and said, “Oh god, no, don’t, I feel so bad for the lobsters!”
And after they’d finished steaming and turned coral red, she cracked hers open and said, “Does this seem a little underdone to you? I think it tastes kind of watery. I mean, no, don’t get up. It’s fine. It’s delicious. It’s fine.”
I should not be thinking about Vicky in Miss Wolf’s bathroom. I feel drunk, and stretched out thin as a layer of paint. I pee and then stand in front of the sink, turning the water off and on, for as long as I can convince myself that they won’t notice I’ve disappeared. I press my hand against the mirror and breathe on it so that it leaves a squishy outline.
Finally, Miss Wolf knocks on the door.
“You okay in there?”
“I’m fine.” I unlatch the door, open up. “Sorry, I was snooping into your makeup.”
She laughs. “Want me to give you a makeover?”
“Not really, thanks.”
“Come on, I love doing makeup, especially for butch girls. You’ll look dashing.”
“I’m not butch!” I say. “My hair’s too long.”
“Babe, you wore rubber boots to the pub.” She puts her arm around my waist and kisses my cheek. I think she’s waiting for me to kiss her back, but instead I put my hands on her shoulders and stand there with her hands on my hips, wondering what’s happening, as if we’ve been catapulted back through time and are slow-dancing like kids.
Cara gets a chair and then sits me in it and tells me not to open my eyes. Mark keeps moving around behind me, cracking dumb jokes like, “I think the tomato color would look good with the chartreuse, right?” When I’ve got a good layer of stuff on my face, he puts his hand on my shoulder and says, softly, “Me next.” But despite that it’s nice, feeling the powder brushes whisk back and forth across my face. Cara’s leaning so close I can feel her breath on my eyebrows, but she’s not really concentrating on me, so I can let my mind go blank and imagine the light over the mirror as explosions, that I’m at home doing all the motions of running through fire on the screen, and everything is working out.
I’m zoned out enough that when Cara says, “Ta-da! You can look!” it feels like it’s been no time at all, and I’ve just walked back into my mind for a few minutes. The face I see in the mirror is someone else’s, with sculpted cheekbones and eyes smoked out in diabolical pink, and all the planes of my face coated in something that gleams as if I’ve just been dipped in saltwater.
“Do you like it?” she asks.
“It’s weird,” I say.
“You look like a cartoon,” says Mark. “It’s cute.”
I wander out and get another beer while Cara cleans up the counter. I can feel the powder creasing on my face. I sit down on the couch with the bottle in my hand, and her phone buzzes and emits a square of light from where it’s slipped halfway between the cushions.
I guess she is doing Mark’s face in there. Or they’re making out. I slouch down until I’m lying on the couch, my chin in my hand because I don’t want to smudge the makeup. I wonder if Cara will be offended if I go back in and take it off. The space heater hums pleasantly and sends a wash of hot air over me as I stare down at the faded pattern on the couch. Cara’s phone buzzes again and again. After the third or fourth time, I pull it out from between the cushions and look at the messages.
Mistress please where are you
Mistress i want to serve your friend too
Mistress im your cash slave take it all
Please take my money
Please take my money so you can laugh at me
I put the phone facedown on the floor. I feel like I’ve been bitten.
The bathroom door opens and closes. Mark comes out, looking the same.
“No makeover?” I ask.
“I washed it off.”
Cara’s behind him.
“Your—” I start, and trip over the next word. “Someone keeps texting you.”
She picks it up and scowls. “God, he’s such a fucking pain in the ass. I already work most of the weekend, does he think I’m on call every night?”
“Can’t you just order him to leave you alone?”
She collapses down on the couch beside me, and I pull up my knees to give her more space.
“I don’t know.” She shrugs. “It’s part of the fantasy that I ignore him and call him a bore. And he pays for it, and I could use the money.”
Her phone buzzes again, and she checks it without seeming to notice she’s doing it.
“He’s asking about you, by the way.”
“Are you going to send him another picture?”
She shakes her head. “I’m not in the mood.”
“I thought you had fun with it,” says Mark.
“You know,” Cara says. “It’s fine.” It’s obviously not fine. Her bad mood is all over her face.
“Is it sexy?” I ask. Sexy is the wrong word, though. What I want to ask is, When you’re sitting up on your chair on the altar, do you feel like you’re in control? And, then, Does it feel good to be in control?
Cara shakes her head. “No,” she says. “I thought it would be, when I started, but mostly it isn’t.”
Her phone buzzes.
“Actually,” I say, “can I try it?”
I’m sitting on the chair in the circle of spotlights, with Miss Wolf’s laptop on the stand in front of me. The light gets in my eyes. I’ve been briefed by Cara on how I should act (scornful, commanding, disinterested, never uncertain or sympathetic) and what I can request (more money). I can see, beyond the enchanted circle, the forest of painted totems, and I imagine first that they are a city and I am a giant, and then that they’re an army of arrows aimed at me.
“You don’t have to punish him, but if he wants you to he’ll probably suggest something, and you can just go along with it,” she says. “It’s alright if you’re not creative on your first try. He’s the type where sometimes if he wants to do something he’ll beg you not to make him, but it doesn’t mean he really doesn’t want to do it.”
The laptop’s on. Cara steps up beside me and leans in real close to the camera as the call connects.
“Where’s my money, pig?” she spits into the screen. I can’t see the person on the other side of the webcam. Her head’s in the way. “You think you can just text me all night with nothing to show for it? Do you think I think it’s fun to see your worthless messages every five seconds?”
I can feel myself freezing up. It’s like a hot core of rage is bubbling over and erupting out of her mouth. It’s make-believe, I tell myself, as she told me a few minutes ago. But it looks real. The spotlights are in my eyes, blotting out the rest of the room.
“I’m doing it, mistress,” the man behind the screen says. “I’m sending the money now.”
“I’m here.” I feel like I’m talking through a sheet of plastic. I put my hand on Cara’s shoulder and move her away. “What do you want?”
“Don’t ask him what he wants,” she mouths to me, out of the camera’s eye.
The man on the other side of the camera is middle-aged, balding, red in the face, in a way that I can’t tell if it’s from sun or shame or drink. He’s naked, except for an old-fashioned white satin brassiere. The hair on his barrel chest is gray. His face pixelates every time he moves.
“I’ll be your piggy bank, Mistress,” he says. I can hear Cara’s phone buzz with an alert from the bank. I can’t see where his hands are. “I’ll do whatever you want. I’ll be your ATM.”
“No,” I say.
“Please, Mistress. I’ll do whatever you want if you just let me pay you. I’ll be your human ashtray.”
I shake my head. “Do you have a lighter?”
“I do, Mistress. Shall I light a cigarette for you?” His face keeps blurring out as he nods.
Maybe you’ve had a moment where you become someone else. It happens to me sometimes in a game, where all the moves become so automatic that I feel like I’m in the body of my character. Now, I feel like I’m inside him, guiding his movements with an invisible hand. And also I’m up on the altar, too far away for the arrows below to touch me.
“How much money do you have in your wallet?” I ask.
“I’m sending you money now, Mistress,” he says, and Cara says, “He’s sent seventy-five.”
“I mean cash,” I say. “I want you to get your wallet and take out all of the cash, and all of your credit cards.”
He stares at me. “Are you going to make me give you my credit card numbers?”
I can’t tell if he’s excited or afraid, or if he even realizes that I’m not in a position where I can make him do anything.
“Do what I said,” I tell him. I can feel my skin prickling as if I’m about to cry, but I don’t think I am. He finds his wallet and empties the contents into a pile in front of his computer. He’s sniffling.
“Now take the lighter and burn it,” I say.
“What?” he says, and Cara echoes him. It’s like they’re speaking from down a long hallway. I’m looking at the jumble of cards, the little stack of wrinkled ones and twenties. Less than he’s already paid Cara for the photos and the video call, I’m sure.
“I said burn it,” I tell him, again. All the hairs are standing up on the back of my neck, as if I’m alone in the car again, listening to someone sing. “I don’t want your money. I don’t need anything from you. I just want you not to have it. If you want to serve me, burn it.”
The bills go up quickest, catching fire and burning cleanly, with a light that looks white over the webcam. The cards smoke at the edges, but they don’t catch before the paper has burned itself out, and he has to pick them up by the least-melted corners and hold the lighter to the numbers, to the magnetic strip, while they give off huge clouds of smoke that leave him coughing. It takes a long time. The first card melts. He begs. He burns the second. There’s a pile of black ash and toxic-looking sludge on his desk.
I’m not sure if what’s happening is still pretend or not.
“Alright,” I say, “that’s enough,” and I hit the button to end the video call, and snap the laptop shut.
The world comes back into focus when I step outside the circle of lights. Mark and Cara are staring at me.
“Dude, that was terrifying,” says Mark. “You just—talked him into it.”
“I didn’t talk him into anything,” I say. “I just asked.”
Cara’s phone buzzes.
“He’s sending more money. I think I owe you half of this.”
“I don’t want it.” I feel like the tide’s gone out somewhere in my head. Has something changed in the room? The shadows cast by Cara’s sculptures seem longer.
It’s like there’s another version of myself standing just in front of me, or just behind, and she’s wrapped in a halo of fire, but the fire doesn’t consume her, and we’re trying to decide which one of us is going to sit in the driver’s seat. I can feel her hand on my hand.
It’s cold in the sanctuary.
“I think someone should drive me home,” I say.