You’re afraid to come near me, aren’t you?
Now, at least.
You never used to be afraid. Not then. In the past, when I was bitter, sarcastic, scathing, and lashed out with a vicious tongue. When we were eighteen and I was screaming laughter in your car, scattering lettuce all over your leather seats from my burrito and spitting vituperation out of my dirty, grinning mouth—just before I puked out the car window, chunks splat against the backseat door with its fancy chrome harlot-lipstick-red paint.
You didn’t fear me then because I was harmless where it mattered, right?
Inside me, the will to harm was missing.
At least, the will to harm those I loved.
Maybe it’s still missing, that willingness to hurt.
And maybe it’s not. Maybe I’ve changed. Been steeped in the vile alteration of life.
Or maybe you have.
Two and a half centuries is definitely long enough for it to happen.
For better or for worse, right? Recognize those words?
You vowed them to me on the side of a Texas road to nowhere, in a chapel where the open church doors squeaked, dust swept across the floor in small cyclones, and sunbeams slanted through the grimy stained glass windows that threw ruby and emerald gems on the wooden floorboards. The air scorched our scalps and armpits. Flies buzzed in our ears and alighted on our skin, all ticklish, fuzzy legs and faceted bug-eyes. My face and yours were caked with gunky sweat, your hands sticky from gripping the leather steering wheel in 100-degree weather. My shorts and blouse stuck to the coarse sand coating my thighs and shoulders.
I was heavy, pregnant, ankles swollen. My knees itched, and barely a breeze wafted across that Texan desert while we exchanged vows I never expected you to keep. My stomach was roiling, and I needed to pee… but then your leather-scented hand cupped my chin and lifted it. Your eyes, thick-lashed and dark, flicked down to mine. Your mouth was dry but grains of sand flecked your hair and sparked in the sun like pixie dust, and that’s all I saw. The black strands fell over your cheeks and shed sand granules on my lips in the instant before your mouth took mine, your hand trembling on my jaw. Your lips were salty where mine were sweet and wet with the lemonade I’d drunk in the car, though mine were chapped from gnawing.
I forgot all the discomfort when we kissed, though.
Did I ever tell you that?
I always hated the world until you kissed me.
Whenever your lips found mine, I forgot it all—the world, the loathing. My FuckMom and your FuckDad. The cephalopods, the experiments, the leather restraints, the squeaks of the gurneys, the liquid shots under bright lights and my dark blood filling up clear vials. Your face the day they battered you to your knees on the threshold of our prison and busted your lip, smashed your ribs, and still you coughed and screamed, spat up blood and mucus, and fought as they forced you to kneel.
That day in the chapel it felt different, though—your kiss.
It felt permanent. Your hands pressing me into you, the desert grit sticking us together. We were all sweat and dirt, our breath incredibly hot. Your tongue moved slower, somehow, learning and tasting more than before.
I didn’t mind, though.
I didn’t think it would last.
But I underestimated you, didn’t I?
Now, 253 years later, do I believe you meant that vow ‘for better or for worse’?
Maybe I do.
Maybe I don’t.
Maybe I’m still on the fence about it.
I was always on the fence about you. Ever since the beginning of all this mess, when we were eighteen and the world was going to crapola-ville, when your father was a quack scientist and my mother a shameless opportunist who wore too-large sunglasses, carried a too-colorful faux-leather purse, and nurtured an agenda for everything, including how to live forever—or at least how to survive the GMOs that were causing pustules and disease in the more unfortunate and weak of the populace.
Did I get that from her? Judging people in my life based by how they can forward my next scheme, my next plan?
You want the answer to that? Let’s go back to the beginning then, and I’ll tell you everything. My every disgusting thought. Lance the rancid pus from the putrid wound that life rent in my soul, a soul that hasn’t been innocent since my infant lungs first drew in the world’s polluted air. Let my true thoughts spill out like fetid guts on this page, spread out for you in all their putrescent glory.
For better or for worse, Joaquin. You said you meant it.
Now that it’s for worse—much, much worse, prove that vow.
Come to me. Show me your promise is worth over two hundred fifty years of weight.
Come to me and see if there’s a reason to be afraid.
It was two a.m., and all I wanted was a kebab.
And flat shoes.
And clean air, not this stingy crap that was like breathing in a thorn-thicket where everyone wheezed like asthmatics.
Car horns honked and phones beeped on all sides as I limped along the cracked city sidewalk like a leprous dwarf, ankles aching from stumbling on my drunk legs. My skin itched from the miasma of smothering contamination, my flesh too exposed by the scrap of red skirt barely covering my ass and the strip of white shirt barely covering my boobs. Everything was oddly tilty: the parking meters, the lit-up steel-strutted bridge at the end of the street, the star-scarred sky above.
Things felt off.
The high-rises on either side glimmered in overlapping pairs, their windows and doors doubled. People passing by were all suddenly grinning triplets.
And the guys from the party were following me.
“Harley, babe, come on! Come back here!” one of them called.
They’d been dogging my steps for how many blocks now?
A cab rushed past, a flash of yellow, and a thick hand wrapped in my hair. A hard chest smelling of spilled beer mashed into my cheek. My body swayed, and my stupid heel flopped to its side like a dead toad. My bare foot hit concrete.
“Harls, come on. Why are you running?”
“You drugged me, you ffff—fffff—” My mouth burbled like a runaway stream flowing off my tongue, garbled words floating away on its current like flotsam and jetsam. It felt like dead fish were rolling in the waters of my mind—a polluted river of eely thoughts, and I couldn’t catch any of them.
I must’ve drunk the tap water again. But I should be used to living with a constant fever from the unfiltered filth that scum-of-the-earth like me and FuckMom had to—
No, wait. That wasn’t true anymore. FuckMom had gotten her Pretty Woman fairy-tale happiness when one of her customers—your father, who was rich-as-a-sick-puppy-on-a-funding-sight—fell in lurve with her and ensconced her in his condo. Naturally, FMom had taken her recalcitrant teenaged daughter along, too.
Your father didn’t like me, of course, but he endured me for my mother’s sake, and I endured him for the water in his house, filtered by the richest mechanisms available, so sweet on my tongue—
As someone’s kiss on my tongue was not sweet. Rubbery lips writhed over mine, a revolting tongue pushing between my teeth and tasting of pickles, onions, and mustard.
His arm had hooked around my waist, too, digging me into his erection, and his fingers moved down my back and cupped my rump, kneading it.
Autopilot Harley kicked in and rammed my spiked steel heel into his tennis shoe.
His arms loosened, erection retreating, and I reeled away.
Run, I thought, but lights flooded in along with the disorienting honking of horns. Cars zoomed past, their buzzing vibration traveling through the sidewalk and thrumming up my body.
Everything was spinning, and I could swear I was just about to learn how to fly, to take a leap into nowhere, but too many people crowded around me. I was pushing at the group of twins—triplets—how many bastards were there? Like fifteen? Too many shadow hands for me to fight found me.
My feet left the ground, my head falling back. The world went wonky and upside down and floaty; lights stretched into streaks. My limbs were melting like fake butter left out in the sun—the air was always hot now—so hot I was sweating even in my short skirt.
Someone was draping me on trash-littered cement by a dumpster—we were in an alleyway now—the sour-milk stench making me choke and shut my eyes. The fingers grasping my thighs were slick with my sweat, the night sultry as a tropical desert. Heat waves rose off the concrete under my hair and distorted the people walking by the mouth of the alley like a movie reel too far for me to touch. Lovers strolled by, kissing, oblivious to the guy kneeling above me in the dim-dark. Another passerby glanced in but averted his gaze the instant after and hurried on.
Then you careened around the corner, running and shouting.
The hands pushing down my thighs let up a little as their owner looked toward you.
My bleary head managed to look, too.
Here you were in a smutty alleyway with plastic bags dancing past and brushing your black cotton pants and white button-up shirt, your shoes pounding on the cement, thud thud thud, in time with the impending headache I felt coming from a mile off. You looked like you’d just come from a preppy school: your sleeves rolled up to your elbows and the top few buttons near the collar open, but then you always dressed classy because your father was a cut above—no, high-rises above me and FuckMom.
I shut my eyes. Hated your voice, I did.
Great, now I was talking like Yoda. Fucktard Harley! Friggin’ loser, you are.
I would rather have my brains screwed out in someone’s puddle of urine than have you materialize to save the day like some kind of hero.
And yet here you were, hauling off a brutish, wanna-be rapist, two silhouettes in vicious combat among wind-tossed plastic bags.
Crud, my stomach churned and roiled, and whatever I’d last eaten climbed up my throat like a clawed snake, acrid and unrecognizable as anything once tasty. It merged like a virus with stomach bile burning the back of my throat. The first bit that came up stung, followed by the thick, slithering grossness of lumpy liquid.
I needed a toilet rim to prostrate myself over, but I could scarcely move. I was a worm belly up and wriggling on a mound of earth.
You knelt beside me, the victor of the fight, a pretty boy gilded by streetlight as you hunkered over a cankerous whore’s child. You smelled so much better than me. Like cologne and pepper and clean clothes freshly pressed while I was club and foreign sweat, splashed alcohol and someone else’s body odor.
You slipped your arms under me with your rich smell and lifted me with muscles flexing from months of paid fitness. Even your hair as you dipped close smelled like luxury salon styling. And your voice—damn—your voice sounded like a hot model’s, full of smoke and fury.
“Bastards. I came as soon as I got your message,” you huffed close to my cheek, your breath like mint. “I’m taking you home.”
As you carried me out of the alleyway, I battled my way back through my labyrinthine thoughts to those moments after I realized I’d been stupid and careless and those asshats had drugged me. My mind had gone fuzzy, my fingers all funky and not quite functional. But I recalled staring at the phone screen, scrolling through contacts, and finding the only one I could count on—
Joaquin Goody Two-Shoes. Always running errands for the fuckparents.
Even though I hated you and you despised me, you adored FuckMom because she knew how to put on masks as well as she knew how to put condoms on her clients—but psst, don’t repeat that, because no one’s supposed to know about those.
She knew masks, and she could don Sweet and Sugary and Shiny and Kind at will—which mask would win the draw today? She put them on so well your father had bought the cow, and she wore them so often you thought they were real—you never saw through those eye holes to the real soul behind them like I had.
I’d had 18 years to look through those masks, after all.
As for me, I didn’t wear masks. I only knew how to fling them off. Fling them in someone’s face. Like condoms. And cows, for that matter. I’d throw anything in anyone’s face if they pissed me off enough.
The streetlights stabbed down again, glaring at me like a thousand hot suns. The world around kept changing like a kaleidoscope: a series of fragmented pieces not quite overlapping properly. An image put into a huge mouth and gargled: lights, cars, skyscrapers, your face with its sinful eyelashes.
My other heel dangled precariously from my foot as you walked, your arms supporting my back and under my knees while my butt hung down by your midriff and drafty air blew right up my alley.
You made some homeless men very happy that night, because everyone on that street got a prime-time view of my panties. Their gummy smiles went wide as I bobbed past them in your arms, their gap-toothed grins lecher-bright in the flames from the burning trash cans they congregated around.
“Can you stand?”
The world swiveled upright without warning as you stood me up and my bare foot smacked on the street, my other ankle spiking with pain as sharp as the heel.
The universe melded into flash and vertigo for an instant—and your car. Flash-red with a gold, solar-paneled hood. The one I called Coolness in my mind and Foolness to your face.
“Harley, where’s your other shoe?”
Funny, isn’t it? How you cared about inane things like shoes back then.
I grimaced at you—or exerted a valiant effort to grimace. My unwieldy facial features were popping off my cheeks by then, my lips off my jaw, my eyeballs out of their sockets, held there only by threads inside my skull. I felt the pull of those strings like a tiny puppeteer of headaches. “It’s two a.m. and a kebab I want,” I said.
“When you can’t even walk?”
“Walk, I can.”
“Alright, Yoda.” You leaned away from me, leaving me swaying on the curb. “Walk to me, O Jedi Master.”
I managed a step. Only somehow it went backward. A motorcycle roared past, shearing my consciousness, the whoosh knocking some of my hair over the crusty corner of my lips. It tasted of cigarette smoke and dry ice from the dance floor.
I don’t know how I ended up in your passenger seat, but the click of the seat belt as you hooked it snapped me awake.
I lifted my hand and you caught it—your clean fingers around mine, uncaring of the grime under my fingernails.
The word barely mumbled out of me. “Thanks.”
You stayed frozen a moment, bent half over me, your face a sculpted plane of symmetry, high cheekbones, and velvety dark eyes.
“But I still hate you,” I said. “And I want a kebab.”
You retreated without a word and shut the car door.
Seconds later, you settled in the driver’s seat. The car rumbled to life beneath us, its purr on my nearly bare butt, with the skirt ridden up and only a thin scrap of panty separating me from the vibrating car seat.
My fingers gripped the sides of the leather, willing my body not to feel. Willing myself not to remember you taking me under you in the backseat. Both sixteen years old and stupid as jack. Me drunk off my ass, you drugged up as shit, your eyes glazed as you looked down at me as if you’d already forgotten who I was—until we climaxed, then you clung to me and said you never wanted to forget—you wanted to remember so badly you cried. You wept like a baby and said—
Not that I would’ve ever repeated it to you then, in your car two years later, when we were eighteen and volleyed too much poisonous hostility between us.
You stopped the car before we’d even gone a block and got out, stalking over to a food stand. The lights made my eyes ache, though, and I hunched over and fisted my hands in my hair, pulling at the roots of the crimson-dyed, dirty blond tresses. Every part of me smelled like someone else: drunk school boys, homeless bagmen, FuckMom’s perfume. I wasn’t myself anymore, but a repulsive conglomeration of others.
It was as if, after you’d gotten stoned and screwed me and then done what you’d done afterward, I’d spiraled out of control and lost who I was. I’d had to gather up bits of other people instead and piece together a puzzle of an identity that got confusing. I was a sum of moving parts, and none of them added up properly; I didn’t recognize any of them. My toes sparkled under silver glitter like my lashes. My fingernails were ragged from scratching at doors that weren’t prisons. Half my hair was white blond and half scarlet red, stolen from a comic book character. My lips were half drawn on.
I was a mess of parts with no whole to pin them on. A poster gone terribly wrong. Who would pin me up on their wall but a psycho? Someone who wanted a mesh of glitz and despondency, raggedy hair and snapping teeth.
The driver’s side door opened and you slid into the seat, bringing with you the luscious smell of spiced chicken, grilled onion, dressing, and paprika wafting its succulent steam through the car.
It was the last straw: you buying a kebab for yourself just to add torment to injury—
But when I lifted my head, you were holding it out to me.