You have left after the evening events, with a few others, adjourned to the hotel bar. You pull a few of the small round tables together, sit with beers and cocktails and the wet cardboard coasters that have migrated from the bar. Beneath the table, his knee begins to rest against yours – at first, it might just be the close-crowding, the jostling of too-many bodies ringing the tables, but once or twice you lift your eyes and he meets them, holds them for a second or two over whatever pint of beer. You both go out for a cigarette a time or two, small talk about politics, or tomorrow’s keynote, or whatever family you’ve vacated for this small gathering of people like yourselves, your arcane interests, your current projects.
On the third cigarette break, the wind from the small city’s riverfront whipping your hair, he says, “I’m thinking of heading to bed . . .” The red lights from the bars and restaurants along the river are slowly extinguishing, their flickers reflecting off the waters’ small waves. “I’m thinking you might come with me.”
The neighbor’s house to the north of yours has been vacant for going on eight months. The couple who lived there both moved into assisted living, then the nursing home, then died in close succession. Their son lives in the house to the south of you. This whole block used to be the family’s farm, before it was split up into city lots and parceled out. Behind your garage was once the outhouse; you can tell by the towering rings of lilac in spring, lavender and violet and white. When you’re up late yourself, wandering between the bedroom and kitchen, drinking water filtered cool through the refrigerator lines for the way it tastes middle-night, you see all the lights on in the north-side empty house. You stand at the window, watching for the son’s silhouetted body. Maybe the lights are on all the time, but you only notice at night. Different nights it’s different lit rooms. Maybe there’s a system of timers set to switches, an attempt to divert break-ins and petty theft. You could sit and watch for hours and never figure it out. Your practical side wonders why all the lights, upstairs and downstairs, wonders about the unnecessary electrical bill, wonders who has decided to keep the incandescent vigil going room to room to room.
When you can’t sleep, you worry about fatal insomnia, the prion disease that affects descendants of particular families, Italians most notably. You’ve heard that it begins by not sleeping, then paranoia, then hallucinations. Progressive, no cure. From onset, people are usually dead within a couple years. When you were younger, your best friend was Italian, and you were sometimes mistaken for sisters – maybe you had a particular look: dark hair, dark eyes, the right kind of name that could be. You have a mug that says, “Kiss Me, I’m Italian!” even though you’re not. When you were younger, you’d wake up in the middle of the night to find your father sitting on the edge of the bed watching you sleep, or sitting at the dining room table reading old newspapers. Go back to sleep, he’d say, and you’d try, lying in bed until the dawn started pinking through the curtainless windows in your bedroom.
You still can’t give blood, per the Red Cross guidelines, and you tell people it is because of another prion disease, Mad Cow. You tell people you spent time in the UK between 1980 and 1996. When you were in high school, you’d sew washers into the hems of your jeans to make the weight requirement, lie down and watch the thick liquid pink the line and run its slow course between the needle and bag. You’d watch the nurse wipe your inside-elbow with an alcohol pad and flick the greened skin to pop your vein, sink the needle. You tell people it’s because you spent time in the UK, but really it’s because of certain high-risk behaviors. You remember the first time you had to leave the cushioned lie-back chair when the worker asked you if you’d ever taken money, or drugs, or other payment for sex; or had sex with a man who had sex with another man; or had sex with someone who used needles, or had sex with someone who had ever taken money, or drugs, or other payment for sex. The laughter burbled out of you like air bubbles in a line, something that can really kill you, and right away. The Red Cross volunteer looked stricken. “Who hasn’t?,” you’d asked, and she shook her head a little and put a brightly-colored sticker on the bag waiting for your blood, and looked away from you to the door, but said low that you could still take a cookie and some juice if you wanted.
You are in the hotel elevator with him and you laugh because you both go to push the same button for the same floor, your fingers almost touching. You have had two beers. You think of an article you just read about men and their behavior around elevator buttons – their compulsive need to push the buttons, to push them confidently, self-assuredly. How if they don’t get to push the elevator buttons they make a sound in the back of their throats that sounds both like disappointment and disapproval. You are the only two people in the elevator and the metal interior is slightly blurred with fingerprints but you can still make out both your outlines as you move moderately, immoderately, toward the floor where you’ll both be sleeping. Out the elevator doors, you both turn down the same hallway. You’re not sure, and don’t say anything, but he might be following you.
When a man follows a woman, on the street, in a quiet building, a parking garage, there are a number of strategies she can employ, depending on the situation. When you were younger, and single, your uncle used to send you emails with subject lines like “Helpful Travel Tips for Women” whenever you’d go anywhere. They included the requisite pre-planning necessities like mastering karate, but also how to hold car keys between the soft crotches of your fingers so they could be used as a weapon. Now, the cell phone is the necessary tool – dial 9-1 . . ., begin recording, pretend to be talking to a friend but stay alert. To make or not to make eye contact is a decision to be considered on a case-by-case basis – it can either diffuse or escalate a situation. When your uncle was downsizing from house to apartment, he began to apportion his gun collection, and set aside a small pearl-handled revolver for you, reasoning it would fit in your hand, fit in your purse. A lady’s gun. It’s been a long time since you engaged in any high-risk behaviors, settling instead for stalking the sleeping house and watching out windows.
At your door, holding only your key card, you realize his room is right next to yours and you both laugh again, make eye contact for another moment. After you’ve shut the door, you see along the long side of the room another door – the door that would open yours up to his, make them adjoining. You don’t believe in signs, but you do believe in desire. You unlock and open this interior door, leave it ajar. You leave your clothes in a long trail on the floor, panties stacked on top, and get into the shower, turn it to its hottest, letting the steam escape above the curtain and out into the room where the two double beds sit side-by-side, their coverlets still tidily pulled up. You scrub your skin, but leave your hair unwashed. You use the entire bottle of hotel-sized conditioner on the bush between your legs, petting it in the hot shower, making it a pelt of unbearable softness. If he goes to open the door on his side of the room, he won’t be able to mistake these signs. These are not breadcrumbs, these are hard, shiny stones.
You’ve always thought of “Bluebeard” as a horror story. It’s not the blood (specifically described as “clotted” in Perrault’s version), or the bodies of her husband’s former wives murdered and hung on the walls. But after the husband returns comes this sentence: His wife did all she could to convince him that she was extremely happy about his speedy return. You can imagine all that entailed, the long night in the bedroom, the honeymoon reenacted with greater and greater feigned pleasure. The forced sighs and sounds. And Bluebeard, being a sadist, would have enjoyed every minute – asking for everything he wanted, knowing she’d do each & every act, careful to not betray any moment of hesitation, appearing willing, pliant, excited. You cannot imagine anything worse than having to pretend to be a willing body taking another body, to pretend pleasure while hating touch, bile rising in your throat. The way he must have enjoyed her mouth, her everything. There are so many variants of this story, with their own competing levels of gore. But they are all written down by men, finally, and the things they imagine are different. Things like a finger chopped off cannot compare to the night not described, the things you imagine that sentence doesn’t describe.
If, in the night, you were to roll over and wrap your arms around his body, would you mistake it for your husband’s – waiting at home? They look similar, you discover that. Roughly the same height, same build. Beneath their clothes they might be the same too, a little paunched around the middle, dark curled chest hair hinting at grey, thin-legged. Maybe you’ve chosen him because of this: even your fantasies a disappointment in the end, like thick-lensed glasses that obscure the truth most of the time. It would be another disappointment if he touches you the same way your husband does. Maybe all you’ll take home from this trip is hotel-sized regret, half-opened and partly used, saved for when you run low in the shower, or need a sliver of soap of your own. But you hope he’ll ask you what you want, and for the first time in years you’ll say it:
Put your fingers in my mouth; I’ll put my fingers in yours.
Gather your strength and throw my body around. Don’t ask. Pick me up and flip me over. I want to hear the
sound of parts of my body hitting headboard, wall, floor.
Make me flail.
Your mouth all over my body – the unexpected places, back of the knees, tops of the feet where I’ve
Sink your hands into my hair and then coil it until it’s a rope of snakes. Pull it down until the sharp chin of
my heart-shaped face cants toward the ceiling.
Ask me my safe word. I won’t need it, but knowing you asked and that you know it, will make it thrum the air, the base of my spine. The unsaid word will soak the room like storm-humidity, wind-break trees shirring. No one has ever asked before. My husband doesn’t even know I have one. Place it under your tongue like a lozenge that never dissolves. Use your tongue for other things.
You’re brushing your teeth in the hotel bathroom, the silk robe you brought tied loosely. You go to the door and listen; there’s something on the other side. You still have the toothbrush in the side of your mouth, your hair caught up in a clip. You’re wet. You open the door.
C. Kubasta writes poetry, prose & hybrid forms. Her favorite rejection (so far) noted that one editor loved her work, and the other hated it. She is the author of two poetry chapbooks, the full-length collections, All Beautiful & Useless (BlazeVOX) and Of Covenants (Whitepoint Press), and the novella Girling (Brain Mill Press). Her novel This Business of the Flesh is newly out from Apprentice House. She teaches literature, writing & cultural studies, is active with the Wisconsin Fellowship of Poets, and works with Brain Mill Press. Find her at ckubasta.com. Follow her @CKubastathePoet.