I knew it would happen this way. The way it always happens. First he comes to me expecting nothing more than a friendly audience, wanting nothing more than to hear someone say Yes to him. Yes, my dear Michael. Always his name, which is, I think, the hardest thing to get used to. But I pick the name right up as part of my technique. People love to hear their own names. Even I do when the enunciation is right. When the “R” is given the soft consideration of something special. Especially Southern men. The way they say Marsha always makes me feel a little sexier, a little more mysterious, a little more pungent than I usually allow myself to feel.
I said his name Michael even though he sometimes signs his name Mike. I said But Michael. Of course I stretched the “I” so the sound of the “Mi” with the “chael” as an aftertaste was so perfectly timed you could tell I was still thinking of the “Mi” when I said the “chael.”
Even now as I look at Michael sleeping, I can see his eyes dip so the whites seem ready to fall into someone’s hands. The amber iris hides innocently in the corner. His hair is tousled always, and his hands are hands with a direction, meticulous as archaeologists tramping gently through the recesses of desire. Though my own hands are no dumb instrument, I don’t hand-wrestle with Michael. Not even when he wouldn’t let me out of bed this morning to go to the bathroom. That’s how romantic he is.
“I love you.” In the elevator. Michael is an elevator kisser. He hugs me like a tree as if I could not feel him. I said, “No. You don’t.” He laughed, thinking me cute or elusive.
It happened that I began to disagree with everything he said, whether or not I did.
We disagreed on whether to stuff the artichokes.
We drank a pint of something fiery and yellow. We sat at the table and folded our hands, chatting about God and what moved outside, how quickly night fell. I figured we’d run out of things to share. I wanted to know what he thought of me. Usually it’s sensational to hear what they think of you.
I rose from the table with no direction in mind. I didn’t have a place to go. I could go to the bathroom. I could fiddle with the fire. I could pat the dog. I walked from window to window. I pondered frames. I was looking for significance. I wondered what I should look at. Significance was everywhere.
From among the lint in my pocket, my fingers wrested a tiny circular thing that was pink. It grazed between two fingertips and didn’t smudge. I thought it might be a shrunken rose petal, it was that alive. It had no smell. I found it would stretch and not tear or puncture. The edges became slightly curled. It was a vibrant, anonymous thing, and I wanted to find a place for it.
“What’s up?” Michael asked.
“Nothing,” I said, rather more suggestively than I would have preferred.
“What you got there?” he asked.
“Penis envy,” I said idiotically. I returned the thing to a corner in my pocket.
“I’ll take care of that,” he grinned.
I told Michael to read a book, and I walked into the kitchen. Except for the dishes, the room was immaculate thanks to Michael. I rolled up my sleeves and prepared to do my share. I didn’t care. I amused myself with what stood outside the window and soap water.
It came as an unpleasant surprise when I felt Michael’s arms circling about my waist, pressing his body to mind. His hands came up from behind searching for, and then rescuing my breasts.
“Marsha,” he said.
“What do you want?”
“I want you.”
“What does that mean?”
“Go read or something.”
“Later,” he said. “Do them later.”
I uncovered the meat knife and turned around. It glistened with soap water. He laughed, and I saw my face engraved on his iris. The light made constellations on the knife. I ordered Michael to his chair. I said, “Now, read.”
In minutes we were on the carpet. The knife in his hands. I was limp but not frightened. His hands were on my wrists, and he sat on my lap. He smiled. There was not much I could say.
“Michael,” I said. “This is all wrong.”
“I don’t like you.” I looked at the cobwebs on the ceiling. I thought it would be a good time to fall asleep. The cobwebs, I noticed, were supported by wooden plants, there just for decoration. He took this opportunity to stick his hands in my hair and kiss my nose.
“I love your nose,” he said. “Why don’t you like me?”
“Because you’re a creep.” I looked directly at him in the manner of a young bull.
“Wicked,” it occurred to him to say.
I wasn’t challenged. I wanted a fight. I wanted to put things in their proper places. “You don’t like me either,” I said.
“Sure I do.”
Disgusting. I could have been anyone. For me, he had a place. There I was already merged. Already, before he knew the half of it.
“You don’t even know me,” I said.
“What I know of you I like.”
Hello irony, I thought. Welcome to despair. I enjoyed it. Getting irony’s the beginning. Keeping it’s the trick. So what if you risk some humiliation. You plead ignorance which is charming. I pondered what I’d say next. I wanted it perfect.
I wanted the knife. I saw it lying still at Michael’s side. Leave it for now, I told myself. Get it when you can use it.
Even now I’m following leads. Each sound has audience. Michael’s shuffling feet. The pigeons garooling in the airshaft. The rhythm of their calls so violent I once mistook it for the people upstairs. Imagine everyone in the building making love. I watch Michael’s hand on my shoulder flutter harmlessly like dolls’ eyes.
“That’s interesting,” I told Michael. “For me it’s what I don’t know about you. That’s what I like.” That was the truth. It was testing. I was taking risks, and I finagled the knife into my hands.
If I could be in anyone’s dreams right now it would be Andrew’s. Andrew was the first. I could be sure of Andrew. What started it was inscrutable so it had to be in the imagination. It wasn’t sex because we were too young. It took us years to get through all the firsts. I loved it. I never wanted to get there because I thought it would be like this. I think if it weren’t for Andrew I’d hate them all. No one could ever know me like Andrew.
With the knife I stood up. I flipped it up and caught the blade in my fingertips. No harm. Michael watched uneasily. “You don’t know the half of it,” I said. I could do anything.
“You just keep away,” I told him, and he did.
The thing was, Andrew never dreamed. Only when he was knocked unconscious in the intramurals. He had a concussion and dreams. I was in every one. In each dream I was plotting his death. It made me guilty. I didn’t want him to die, though obviously he thought I did. What I wanted was freedom. I wanted him to trust me. He thought I was nuts. Probably I was nuts. You get nutty when something you need is denied.
My knife told Michael to undress. He didn’t mind. I remembered his penis was circumcised. I wished it weren’t. Might as well get some education from this thing. Then I told him to dress again. I said, “Not interested.” This aroused him, and he easily took the knife from me.
“What the hell is this all about?” he asked. “Are you nuts?”
I nodded my head with a good, healthy laugh.
Lord, I thought why do I get myself into these pickles. It’s not so complex as it seems, I was reminded. You need companionship. I took out my rose petal. It was still as good as new. I looked around for its proper place. It wasn’t something to be displayed, but it belonged. Outside somewhere, I thought. But where?” It had no taste, but since it felt good on my tongue, I tried to keep it there. Michael was standing above me like a monument. His expression said, “Explain.” What could I say. Where did it begin. For drama I spit the thing into my fingers. I told him to put the knife away and maybe we could act like adults. It made me laugh.
“Michael,” I said with the petal back in my mouth so it sounded like “Moron.” It felt so good. Probably that crazy liquor.
“Poor moron,” I said, and accidentally swallowed the rose.
As I coughed and heaved and tried to spit the thing out again, Michael was saying how terribly fond he was of me. “You know that, don’t you?” He was saying how crazy he must be. He was close again, and we were knifeless, thingless, and I didn’t give a damn again.
“You don’t even know me,” I gagged. “You think I’m crazy.”
“No,” he said. “I like you. You’re crazy.”
“You’re ridiculous,” I said like an adult.
I wanted the phone to ring, the doorbell. I wanted a prince or angel to suddenly dispel Michael. How nobly might Michael disappear. He wasn’t so bad. But nobody came and Michael relaxed. Okay,” I thought. I knew where this would end up anyway. It was too late. So I was going to enjoy it.
“Tell me about all your lovers,” Michael requested. I had expected this earlier.
So I did. I told him about the tight-rope walker named Eli. I told him about Robert, my cousin. I told him about the priest and my kindergarten teacher. I mentioned neighbors, the doorman, and some friend of his. My father. I implicated women. He nodded. He’d known them, too. I told him about state officials, a fortune teller who lived on 14th Street who said I’d marry a prince. A harmonica player named Colonel Joe. Joe wasn’t really a colonel, I said. He just looked like one. A cellist who played blue grass. A Korean poet. A community from Nebraska.
“Enough, enough,” Michael said.
“No, there’s one more,” I said. I told him about Left, the paraplegic wrestler.
“More, more,” he said.
“But there is no more.”
“Who was the first?”
“Michael,” I said. “How can you possibly expect me to remember who came first?”
“The first,” he demanded. “You must remember.”
“Charles,” I mourned. “Einstein’s son. It was terrible. Terrible.”
Hysterical, I asked him his.
He sobbed perfectly. “For me, there’s only you.”
I slip away in the night. I feel like a criminal easing off the bed, a single mattress on the floor. I slide away, my knees skimming wood. Like a snail I succeed. I hear the noises of Michael on the bed. How easily can a soft body sound like steel parts. Now his arms reach out. He smiles.
He will leave eventually. After it took what it took. It will be a recognizable feeling, though usually I am civil and end it in a way that prolongs it.
I won’t write him anymore. And when he sends me pictures, I will feel long distance guilt. So I will tell him when I zm coming near.
I will write him nothing.
He will call me, and I will say I’ll call him back.
I will not call him back. I will not see him again.
How does it feel, he wants to know. How does it feel?