My mom’s friend, who thinks she’s my therapist, asked me the other day-
“Naomi, why all the affairs? What’s that all about?”
I tried to smile and shrug it off but my therapist was very serious. She wanted a deep answer. Before I could say anything though, she raised her hand to silence me. She went on to tell a very personal story about her father-who had been my orthodontist in Stockton-and whose name was Doctor Dennis. She said that when she was a girl, she saw her dad put on her mother’s lipstick and make pouty, kissy faces in front of his bedroom mirror. He also happened to be completely naked at the time-except for a pair of women’s nylons-which were brand new, and did not belong to his wife. I almost laughed in my therapist’s face when I heard that. I had always known that Doctor Dennis was a pervert.
Anyway, I think the sight of her father all sexed out like that must have been traumatic. She didn’t say though. Instead-after she had finished her story-she pat my hand and gave me this real warm smile. It reminded me of the look my mother used to give me when she wanted to make peace after one of our knock-down fights, which were usually about Desean.
“Naomi,” she said finally. “Tell me. Why do you think you have affairs?”
“Well,” I said. I chewed on my lower lip and thought about it for a moment. “I guess I just really like to suck dick.”
And that pretty much ended our conversation.
At the time I answered that question, I was twenty-four years old and I had slept with five men behind my husband’s back. I had just started to think that maybe I should stop. It wasn’t the number of men that disturbed me. I wanted to cut out the affairs because the last guy I’d been with broke my jaw one night and nearly beat me to death.
Before that, I had been able to avoid anything messy because I kept it simple with men. I was extremely honest. Before anything new ever started I always said, “Look. Whatever happens between us-no matter how much fun we might have-there’s absolutely no way that I’m going to leave my husband.”
And I never did. I never even thought about it. I could never leave Desean. Out of all the men I’ve known, he’s the only one that I ever loved. He’s told me things that you would never believe-secrets that God Himself has whispered to him in his dreams. Desean and I have been homeless together. We used to steal allergy medication from Walgreens and eat pills until we got high. We used to fuck in tunnels and sleep underneath bridges at night and we were always together. Do you understand that? You don’t just walk away from experiences like that.
Especially not for a guy like Mark. Actually, Mark was more of a boy. He was in college when I met him. He was cute enough I guess, that’s not really why I was attracted to him. I liked him because of his energy. He always seemed nervous and excited and a little bit on edge, like he had some crazy secret that he couldn’t wait to tell but hadn’t figured out exactly how to communicate it yet. Honestly, I think I liked him at first because he reminded me of my husband. Desean had that kind of energy before he went to prison.
The first time I saw Mark though, he was reading and that’s something Desean would have never done. Desean can’t read. He’s dyslexic. And even if he could, I doubt that he would pick Adventures with Geometry! to start with-which was what Mark had in front of him that day. He was sitting on the curb, in front of Del Taco, reading with a half smile on his face. At times, he would shake his head and laugh and then look straight up into the sky-like he was searching for some higher power to thank for the message that had been delivered to him through that book.
After watching Mark for about ten minutes from the drive thru, I walked over and interrupted him. I wanted to know what could be so wonderful about a high school textbook. He was pretty shy and he didn’t want to tell me at first, but I sat down next to him and kept at it until finally he was willing to give it up.
“Cal Mirada,” Mark said finally. “The man is a prophet of God.” He was talking about the author. He opened the book-which was coming apart at the spine-and pointed to a paragraph that he had highlighted in pink. I think it was part of a word problem. This is what it said:
The sphere is the most perfect geometric object imaginable. Its dimensions are infinite and flawless. Look within, and you’ll find the key to life-that no matter how far you journey outward, you are always bound to the center (or core) of your own existence. Have caution though. If the motion of your journey leads to perverse destinations, then the result will be a three dimensional shape totally unlike a sphere-something warped, completely removed from the inherent beauty of nature.
“I’m saving money for a trip to East Rutherford,” Mark said after I was done reading. “That’s where Cal’s from. I intend to talk to him about the shape of my life.”
. . .
When I was a teenager, I used to sneak out of our apartment and jump the fence to the complex pool at night. In Stockton, some nights don’t go below ninety degrees until four o’clock in the morning. I love to swim the breast stroke. I feel very peaceful underwater. The longer I hold my breath, the calmer I become. I once held my breath for over three minutes. No one believes me when I tell them that, but it’s true.
Most people think that I lie all the time though. That’s mainly because they don’t have any imagination. My mother is like that. She says that her husband Ronald is a pathological liar, but he’s probably the most honest man that I’ve ever met. She just doesn’t understand him very well. Ronald is a full blooded Navajo. He’s the one who told me that I was a dual spirited person.
My favorite thing about Ronald is his hair. It’s long and black and glitters like the sun reflecting against volcanic glass. My mom has always been jealous of that.
“He’s the same age as me,” she said once. “But he doesn’t have any gray hairs!”
My mother insists that Ronald is forty-six years old. He’s been forty-six for the last five years. He never gets older because he doesn’t celebrate his birthday. Once though-when my mom was going on and on about his hair-he leaned down and whispered the truth in my ear. He told me that he was actually seventy-three. He said that he had fought in the Korean War.
I mentioned that to my mom one day, but she just scoffed.
“Ronald smokes too much pot,” she said. “He started speaking jibberish the other day and tried to convince me that he was reciting French poetry. He doesn’t know what the hell he’s talking about.”
But I always believed Ronald. The things he said were true. They had to be. And if it wasn’t for his advice, I never would have run away with Desean.
. . .
I talked to my mom on the phone yesterday and she said that I was emotionally dead inside. I’m pretty sure I know why she said that. She still feels guilty about having Desean sent to prison and she wants me to forgive her for what she did, but I won’t. Not as long as I live. That doesn’t make me emotionally dead though. I have the same emotions-more or less-that I had when I was sixteen. The only difference is that now I know how to control them.
That’s something that comes with having a very good understanding of yourself. Desean helped me get that. When we first started dating he told me that the key was to remember your dreams. Some nights he wouldn’t sleep so he could wake me up every thirty minutes to make sure I wouldn’t forget. In the morning, I would have these great streams of dream material to sift through. I turned male in a lot of my dreams and sometimes I even dreamt about having sex with women as a man. Once I had sex with Tara Zeiter-my best friend from middle school-in a hotel in East Tokyo. After that I was worried that I might have to become a transvestite, but now I know that it was just the male part of my spirit expressing its desires in my sleep.
I think that’s another reason why I was attracted to Mark-he had very feminine energy. I sensed that about him immediately. It reminded me a little bit of when I fell in love with Desean, which happened the day he told me that he was a dual spirited person. He said that he had two souls: a man’s soul and a woman’s soul. He knew that I was a dual spirited person too. He said that’s why we were together.
“Because we can connect on both levels,” he said. “Our souls are four strands of liquid color weaving into and out of one another. It’s a continuous dance. It’s the most perfect expression of our love.”
Desean would say beautiful things like that all the time, but back then I didn’t even hear the words. It was just his voice and the smell of his breath. He always chewed spearmint gum. When we were homeless, he didn’t shower for weeks, but his breath was always very fresh.
. . .
Sometimes I think my life has been a complete failure. I was watching a movie on television last night and the main character-The Armenian-had just beat the odds to become the first international grand champion kick boxer in the history of his country. In the movie, he said that people should always fight for what they believe in. I got pretty depressed after I heard that. I couldn’t even finish watching the movie. I haven’t really believed in anything since Desean got back from prison. He’s been rubbing off on me in that way.
But it’s not worth thinking about, the negativity. I’ve always been good at ignoring those voices in my head-the ones that tell me I’m worthless-because when I listen I get this terrible, empty falling feeling that I see as a continuous plunge through the bottom of the Earth and then into space for eternity.
Those sorts of feelings only end in suicide and I’ve been working on ignoring them since I was five years old. My mother used to see me get depressed and she asked me one day when I was just a kid what was wrong.
“I’m lost on my feet,” I told her. But she didn’t understand what I was talking about and neither did I really, to tell you the truth.
. . .
When I first met Desean, we used to go to the small park next to the pool where he worked and sit on the grass underneath the oak trees and make out. Desean was a very sloppy open-mouthed kisser. His tongue was all over the place. None of that stuff bothered me though because I was crazy for Desean. He was the first black guy I ever kissed. Back then, I used to sit back in the shade with him-close my eyes-and pretend that I was making out with Michael Jordan.
But that was before things got serious between us. It wasn’t until Desean told me about God that I thought about dropping out of school to be with him. He said that he was in touch with the Divine Energy. He dreamt of God as a liquid rush of color and emotion that moved inside all of us and he said that you had to lose yourself in the feeling and then trust in your own emotion to make your decisions for you.
“Other people will think you’re acting crazy,” he said. “But that’s not important. You can’t let their limitations become your limitations.”
I didn’t really understand what he was talking about at first but then I realized that I never felt the lost, falling feeling around him so I tried to believe.
Desean talked a lot about God when we were homeless too. He used to bring me flyers that he had ripped off telephone poles so I could read them to him. I always felt honored to do that. Even though the flyers were normally about a used mattress for sale or a lost kitten, Desean would listen very carefully and then say, “I knew that paper was important. I could feel that it was.”
And I thought that by reading it, I had helped him understand God a little better because, according to Desean, God was everything and any piece of the present moment was a part of Him. Desean hasn’t talked about God since he got arrested though. He shut that part of himself off a long time ago. I still read to him-books, menus, the newspaper, anything-but he hasn’t seemed to care for a long time.
I was always a good reader and I was actually pretty good in school before I dropped out. That’s something my mother will never forgive me for. She didn’t go to college and she wanted me to go worse than anything. She blames Desean for that. I know that’s why she went after him the way she did, even though she won’t admit it.
“No,” my mom always says. “I reported him to the police because he raped you.”
But that’s the same lie I’ve heard for years now, so I don’t even respond to it anymore. I’m not a spiteful person though. I’ve already forgiven the guy who broke my jaw. Actually, I hold myself more responsible for that than anyone else. I did some pretty evil things to that guy.
I definitely have a dark side and after Desean got arrested I was so full of hate and sadness that I hardly ate or slept. All I could think about was hurting other people or myself and I spent most of my time inside my head, creating sick fantasies that normally involved tossing hand grenades into crowded public places. But I didn’t want to become a violent person so after Desean had been in prison for a few months, I started with a therapist. It didn’t go well in the beginning. After our first couple sessions, she said that I was deliberately deflecting questions about my past. She said that I kept changing the subject to the men that I’ve been with so that I could talk about their lives instead of my own. She thought that I was hiding something terrible from her.
But what was there to talk about? My childhood was normal, more or less, before my mom moved in with Ronald. Sure, my dad was dead-and I guess that affected me-but his death was so ridiculous that I laughed more about it than I cried. He tripped on his pants and fell down five flights of stairs, by the way. That’s how my father broke his neck and died.
That happened when I was thirteen. My mom met Ronald two years later. Like I said earlier, Ronald was a full blooded Navajo and he grew up on a reservation in Arizona. He had the most beautiful black hair I’ve ever seen. He was the head custodian at Fillmore Elementary School. He smoked more marijuana than anyone I’ve ever known, more than I thought was humanly possible. And he changed my life permanently when he told me that both a man and woman’s soul lived within me.
That was around the same time that my mother found out that Desean was twenty-four years old when I was fifteen. She freaked out.
“You had sex with him, didn’t you!” she screamed. “You let him rape you!”
I denied that. It wasn’t rape. Although in the beginning, all Desean and I did was have sex. I thought that was all our relationship was going to be, and I was fine with that-Desean used to go down on me all the time, and I loved it-but then all that stuff slowed down and he started telling me about God.
“It’s a series of colors,” he said. “A rhythm meant to be felt. It’s a song. It’s the best day of your entire life. It’s being two people at the same time.” He took the last drag from his cigarette and threw it in the street.
“It’s your pussy,” he said.
He was talking about God. I had no idea what he meant at first. I asked Ronald about it one night after my mom had gone to bed. He had just smoked a joint. He was stoned out of his mind.
“When I was in Korea, I saw a lot of men give up their religion,” he said. “That’s why I never had any. I never saw the point. God isn’t in any religion.” He paused for a moment. It was dark in our living room. The only light came from the blue flickering of the television screen.
“Underneath all this,” he said. He was pointing down at the carpet. “Is the Earth. That’s what those men forgot about in Korea. Dirt doesn’t go anywhere. It stays the same. Do you understand what I’m saying?”
I nodded but I had no idea what he was talking about. He was really high.
“You’ve got to be in touch with yourself-with both sides of your mind and the secrets in your heart. That’s when you know what a feeling is and whether it’s right or not.”
“What if I don’t know how it’s supposed to feel?” I said.
“You’ll never know. You have to gamble on feelings. That’s the only way to figure them out.”
That was all I needed to hear. Two months later-after Desean lost his job for tossing a cigarette butt in the children’s section of the Robinhood Avenue Pool-I decided to run away with him. My mother had already called the cops by then so we needed to get away from Stockton anyway. We jumped a train at the San Joaquin Street Station, rode it all the way into Bakersfield and then hitchhiked the rest of the way south into Los Angeles. Together, we had two hundred and sixty three dollars. By the end of our fourth day in LA, we were homeless.
. . .
I think my mistake with Mark was pretending that I was more interested in Adventures in Geometry! than I actually was. In the beginning, he was mysterious. Everything was a secret and I liked having to pry information out of him to see what he was all about. But then I started asking him about that book and all of a sudden he wouldn’t shut up. He’d go on and on about Cal Mirada and how his spiritual message had changed his life.
“Before him, I didn’t even like geometry,” he said. “But Cal used the subject to show how everything in life is a shape, not just objects-stuff we can’t see too, like personal relationships. He teaches that the more these shapes resemble nature’s perfect symmetry, the closer they are to God.”
Sometimes he’d get so amped up talking about it that his face would start twitching and different parts of his body would jerk randomly-it was like electricity was being shot through his body at too high a voltage, or the hardwiring in his brain was shoddy and there were sparks flaring out the damaged ends. Honestly, his nervous energy was so intense sometimes that I would feel sick just being around him.
But that’s when the floodgates opened up and then there was no going back after that. He started telling me everything about his life and most of those secrets-the source of the mystery that had attracted me to him in the first place-turned out to be silent grudges that he held with the rest of the world for not being able to understand his “spirituality.”
“Except you,” he said to me once. “You’re the only one who really gets me.”
It was hard not to laugh when I heard because I never understood what the hell he was talking about. I don’t even think he did. He just seemed like a lost kid who had latched onto something at random-like he’d just happened to stumble on that textbook before someone had told him about Buddhism or Scientology. I managed to keep a straight face while he talked but that’s when he stopped reminding me of Desean. Even when our relationship was going good, Desean wouldn’t say much. He only talked when he had something truly important to say and he never sat around whining like a little brat.
So even before Desean walked in on us messing around in the living room one evening, my relationship with Mark had started to sour. We were on the couch at the time. We had finished some Chinese food a little bit earlier. I had just taken Mark’s shirt off and he was working his hand up my thigh when the front door opened. Desean was getting home from work. His parole officer got him a job at an orchard supply store and he unloaded trucks from early morning to afternoon.
He completely ignored me and Mark when he saw us, by the way, which was so typical of him. Desean knew about most of my affairs but I had never brought one into the house before. I thought that might get a rise out of him and he’d do something-slap Mark around a little bit or scream at me and call me a whore-but all he did was saunter into the bedroom and flip on the TV like any other day.
I was so pissed at him for not doing anything that I didn’t hear Mark’s question at first. “Who’s that?” he kept saying. He was whispering. He sounded scared.
“That’s Desean,” I said finally. “My husband.”
Mark didn’t speak to me for a few days after he found out I was married, but I finally tracked him down at his dorm room. He was in bad shape when I found him. Dirty clothes had been thrown all over the floor and dark bags were starting to swell beneath his eyes. He looked like he hadn’t slept for a couple days and that’s when I realized he was in love with me.
He was upset and I let him scream at me for a while to let him get it out of his system. He said that I was a terrible person, of course-that I had deliberately manipulated and mislead him and that I had no idea the kind of pain that I was causing him. At one point he even pulled out Adventures in Geometry!
“Look!” he screamed. He ripped opened the book. “Read what this says!”
The isosceles triangle is a terrible geometric shape. Two sides mirror one another, but the third unequal side creates an unbalanced image that often appears perversely elongated, like the true form of a triangle skewered and stretched by a tortuous device from the middle ages.
“What the fuck is that supposed to mean?” I said.
Mark slammed the book shut. He tapped his forefinger against his temple and his left eye started to twitch a little bit. “Cal is saying that I’m the unequal side,” he said. “I’m perverting the beauty of your relationship with your husband.”
I laughed out loud when I heard that. I couldn’t help myself. I explained what the deal was with Desean. I told him that they’re hadn’t been any beauty in our relationship in a long time. He started to calm down when he heard that but he said he didn’t want anything to do with the situation.
“I’m out,” he said. “Done.”
But there was no conviction in his voice and I wasn’t about to let this kid call the shots. I wasn’t done with him yet. I let the silence build up between us and when it started to feel awkward, I put my hand on his knee and started to caress his leg. He didn’t stop me. He was sitting in a desk chair with his head facing the ground. Before he could start talking again, which is what he’d been doing for the last hour, I stood up and put my hand on the side of his face. He looked at me with hurt puppy-dog eyes. I leaned down and kissed him on the mouth and then wrapped my legs around his waist and straddled him in the chair. I kissed his neck and started to nibble on his earlobe. I tried to unbutton his shirt but he was stone-cold about it and wouldn’t let me. I took off mine instead. By the time I was topless, he was still acting like he didn’t want to have anything to do with me. That’s when I started to insult him.
“Stop pretending,” I said. “You don’t care about my relationship with Desean. You’re just using that as an excuse not to fuck me.”
Mark shook his head. “No, I just-”
“You’re scared of him, right? Because he’s black.”
“What does that-”
“Shut up,” I said. “You’re nothing but a little pussy.”
That got him riled up and I kept at it until he finally grabbed me and pinned me to the bed. Some men are easy like that, insult their manhood and they’ll do anything you want. Guys in general though, when they’re in love with you, are like wet clay-you can mold or shape them into whatever you want as long as you know the right command.
The sex was quick and after we were done, he looked terrible-like he was about to be sick. I started putting on my clothes. I’m not proud of what I did next, but something about how pathetic he was acting brought out my dark side and I was so angry all of a sudden that I thought I might rip his hair out.
“I’m not happy about this either,” I said. “Believe me, I’d much rather be sleeping with my husband-or someone who could actually do a decent enough job to satisfy me, instead of a little freak who can’t stop thinking about triangles.” I didn’t stick around to see how that comment affected him. I just know that from then on the sex with Mark was angry and terrible and he started to become so unsure of himself around me that sometimes he couldn’t even perform at all. I realized then that it didn’t matter what he said anymore or what he wanted. I had complete control.
. . .
I must have inherited my dual spirited nature from my dad. He had big fat hips and was shaped more like a woman than a man. He was never at peace with himself. He was so ashamed of his lower body that he would always tie a sweatshirt around his waist, no matter the weather. It could be a hundred and four degrees outside and he’d have that sweatshirt wrapped around him.
He also wore pants that were ridiculously large. He thought they somehow made him look slimmer. He used to wear a belt and roll up the cuffs just so his pants wouldn’t drag on the ground. Those pants killed him. The coroner never had it in his report, but I’m sure that’s why my dad fell down all those stairs. He must have tripped over his pants. And that never would have happened if he’d just understood that both a man’s and a woman’s soul lived in his being.
Desean came to understand his dual nature during our second week in Los Angeles. That day we stole a bottle of Robitussin from a CVS and then went to Sunset Park and drank it. We got pretty drunk off that. We couldn’t really walk so we just crashed underneath a tree. It was almost evening, but it was still warm outside. It’s always warm in Los Angeles.
“I was a woman in a past life,” Desean said while we were lying on the grass. “I had a husband and a young daughter. Her name was Rachelle. I died in a car accident when I was forty-seven.”
When I heard that, I knew. I waited until later-after we had sobered up a little and started our late-night sleeping tour of 24 hour diners-to tell him what Ronald had told me. About how dual sprits were an important part of the Navajo tradition. About the great honor that we had both been blessed with. About how we fit together at more than two ends.
After that, we weren’t worried about anything. Being homeless didn’t matter. We stole from people. We fucked next to gutters. And the only constant was us together-inseparable-living together as one energy both inside and out of our bodies.
. . .
When I got my jaw broke, I was definitely caught off guard. I hadn’t been planning on it-but then again, I’ve never planned anything in my entire life. I guess I’ve only really been surprised once. That was when Desean got arrested. We were sitting against the wall of a tattoo parlor across the street from Ripley’s Believe It or Not! on the Boulevard. I could see Humphrey Bogart’s star in the ground right in front of us. We had just smoked some pot that we’d stolen from a kid two days earlier. We were robbing a lot of people back then. It was easy. We had a system. Plus, Desean was four or five years older than all the other street kids in Hollywood and they normally did what he said.
The sun was setting while we sat there watching all the tourists walk by. Everything was nice and warm and smoggy, and we were pretty high. A police car cruised by nice and slow. A pack of Scientologists walked by in their blue uniforms. The police car came back around. The cops double parked and that’s when I saw the kid in the back seat. He was pointing at us and then the cops were on Desean-guns drawn-before we could move. They pinned him face-first against the concrete, cuffed him, and then dragged him into the cruiser. I barely moved. I was too shocked and too high to do anything at all.
Me and Desean never thought that anyone would be dumb enough to report stolen drugs to the police. I found out later that Desean had actually been accused of assault. That never would have happened if he’d stuck to the plan. We were supposed to hustle people, not put them in the hospital. Especially not a kid like Tennessee, who was such an easy target-a stupid looking okie with the same name as the state he was from. He started with a sad story the second he got to LA.
“I hate my stepdaddy,” he said. “So I tried to kill him. I put rat poison in his coffee and I hope he drank it. I don’t know if he did though, I was moving west before I could find out.”
I was the only one who listened to him. Apparently, his stepfather used to smoke meth and smack him around. His real dad worked on an offshore oil rig. His mother had kids from another marriage and she didn’t seem to care about what her husband did to Tennessee. He almost cried when he talked about his mom. He thought that she loved everyone else in his family more than him. He was a lost kid and he was too stupid to survive in LA by himself. Part of me still feels bad about what Desean and I did to him.
“Sometimes,” Tennessee said. “This is the only thing that keeps me from going insane.” He opened up his backpack and showed me a ziplock bag holding a half ounce of the most colorful marijuana that I’ve ever seen.
“It’s called Agent Orange,” he said. “My stepdad bought it off some dealer in Nashville. I stole it after I put that poison in his coffee.”
After that, I got real friendly with Tennessee. He told me that his plan was to sell as much marijuana as he could and then use the money to open up his own skateboard shop in Long Beach. He loved to skateboard and that’s all he thought he needed to know to start a business. He was one dumb son of a bitch. The sun faded while I listened to him and I told him that I knew a place where we could spend the night together. I smiled seductively when I said that and tugged at his arm. He followed me like a little dog and every time I looked back I caught him staring at my ass. Desean stayed in the shadows and stalked us.
We climbed a chain link fence and walked through the back door of an apartment building that had been condemned. It was a pretty well-known place to crash. There were a couple cracked-out looking guys muttering to each other on the first floor, so we walked up to the second. It was dark in the building. I acted like I couldn’t see the stairs and I pressed myself against Tennessee and asked him to help me walk up. I felt him get hard the second I touched him.
I lead him into an apartment at the end of the hall. Inside, the dry wall in the living room was cracked and there was a circle burned into the carpet where someone had started a fire. Tennessee looked around the place but we couldn’t see much of anything because there was no electricity in the building.
“Is it safe for us to be here?” he whispered. He sounded scared.
I nodded and then caressed his arm. As soon as he took off his backpack, I grabbed his neck and kissed him hard. It was a sudden move, but I figured he wouldn’t question an opportunity for sex-I mean, I was probably the first girl who had ever stuck her tongue in his mouth. I led him into the bedroom and then pulled him down to the carpet. He crawled on top of me and I spread my legs for him. Outside, footsteps thumped on the stairs.
“What’s that?” Tennessee said.
I kept grinding my hips against him. “A lot of people sleep in this building,” I said. But I knew it was Desean. I pulled his hand down into my pants and spread myself open. I guided his fingers inside of me. To tell you the truth, I felt sorry for Tennessee. I imagined him getting beat up by his stepdad and I knew he was a virgin. He must have been having the time of his life with me though. He was grunting and drooling all over the place and I started to moan-louder than I ever had before-because I didn’t want him to hear Desean come into the apartment.
“I’m so wet,” I said. Tennessee leaned down and slobbered on my neck while I helped him finger me. I kept moaning. He tried to take off my pants, but I stopped him because I saw Desean standing in the door of the bedroom.
Tennessee scrambled up off me and turned around. As soon as he saw Desean, he started to tremble. “Who are you?” he said.
Desean walked straight toward him and kicked him in the nuts. Tennessee groaned and collapsed on the ground. Desean stood over him and clenched his jaw and then glared at me before he kicked him two more times in the crotch. Tennessee started to gasp and then he choked on his breath and it sounded like he was about to throw up. Desean stormed into the living room. I buttoned up my pants and stumbled after him.
Desean ripped open Tennessee’s backpack. He dumped everything out on the floor. It was mostly clothes. There was a skateboarding magazine, some pliers, and a pair of boots too.
“I was only distracting him,” I said.
Desean didn’t say anything. He sifted through the clothes on the ground and then reached inside one of the boots. He pulled out the bag of marijuana and put it back in the backpack. He found a crumpled ten dollar bill in the other boot and took that too.
“I didn’t want him to hear you come inside the apartment,” I said.
Desean put the backpack over his shoulder and walked out. Tennessee was still groaning in the bedroom. He sounded like he’d been shot but I didn’t care about him at all. I ran down the stairs to catch up with Desean. He had just walked out the building.
“You shouldn’t have let him see you,” I said. “What happened to our-”
Right then he grabbed me by the throat and shoved me against the outside wall. A streetlamp bathed his face in pale orange. A vein pulsated in his forehead just above his eyebrow. He wasn’t blinking.
“You went too far,” he said in a sinister voice. He choked me harder. I squirmed and pulled at his hand. I couldn’t breathe. Cars were driving by, but Desean didn’t seem to care if anyone saw him or not. The muscles on his forearm knotted. His fingernails dug into my throat.
“You went too fucking far,” he said again through grit teeth.
Finally-when everything around me started to go hazy and I thought he might actually be killing me-he let go of my throat and stormed off into the night. I fell to my knees and gasped for air. I stayed on the ground for a long time. After I caught my breath, I started to follow Desean at a distance. He walked back to our usual sleeping spot next to the Metro station. I wasn’t sure what he was going to do next. It wasn’t until after he smoked some of Tennessee’s pot that he calmed down and waved for me to come to him.
“Man,” he said after I had sat down. “This is some good weed.”
“It’s called Agent Orange,” I said. “It’s going to make Tennessee rich.”
Desean laughed. He put his arm around me and then passed me the joint. I could still feel the cuts where his fingernails had dug into my throat, but then he kissed my cheek and I started to trust him again.
Tennessee’s assault charges didn’t stick, but Desean was with the LAPD long enough for them to do a background check. There was a warrant out for his arrest-kidnapping and statutory rape-thanks to my mother, who had reported him to the police back in Stockton. He was tried, convicted of statutory rape, and sentenced to three years in San Quentin. He was granted parole after twenty-eight months and then he came back to me but things were never the same between us after that.
. . .
The other day my therapist told me that I’ve idealized my experience with Desean before he went to prison. She said that nothing in the present could live up to the perfect image of the past that I’ve created in my mind.
Maybe that’s why it was so hard for me when he got back from prison and told me that he wished we were both dead. He said that none of it had been worth it. He said that he was going to figure out a way to murder my mom and get away with it. He hated unloading trucks. The memories of San Quentin haunted him. I used to think that any day he was going to leave me forever. I don’t know why he stayed. I would wake up some mornings and see him staring at me-disinterested-like he was watching laundry swirl in a washing machine instead of looking at his wife.
“When I was in prison,” he said once. “I was a Muslim for a little while, but they kicked me out because I told them that God was more a shade of color than anything else.” His eyes were cold and mean when he said that. Every time he talked about prison his mood got even worse and I don’t think he believed in God anymore.
“It’s not my fault,” I said once. My voice started to crack when I spoke and I thought I was going to cry. “I know you blame me but I didn’t send you to jail, my mother did. I waited for you and I love you and I want us to be like we were.”
He never responded to that. I’m not even sure if he heard me. He gazed off in the distance and his mind was somewhere else-a million miles away probably- anywhere but with me. After he got out, we lived like strangers and hardly ever spoke. I couldn’t take it. I needed to feel something other than the emptiness of our ruined relationship so before that first terrible month was over I had already started and finished my first affair with a guy named Spencer, someone that I had played soccer with in middle school.
. . .
The last day of summer started of very strange. My kitty cat had been walking sideways all day. Something was wrong with her hip joint so I rubbed her down with Tiger Balm and then called Mark from the bedroom. Desean was watching basketball across the hall and I made sure to talk loud enough for him to hear.
“I’m coming over tonight,” I said.
“Please don’t,” Mark said. There was a touch of desperation in his voice.
“Okay see you at nine then,” I said and hung up. I don’t know if Desean had heard or not. If he did, he didn’t say anything-he just stared at the TV. That’s all he does since he got back from prison, go to work and watch television. That’s why I was caught off guard when he spoke up later in the evening, just as I was getting ready to leave for Mark’s.
He called me into the living room before I could walk out the front door. The same basketball game was still on TV, or maybe it was a different one-I have no idea.
“Where are you going?” he said.
“Out,” I said.
“When are you coming back?”
“What does it matter?” I said. I was starting to get annoyed by his questions. He sounded like he was trying to play daddy all of a sudden.
“You going to see that guy?” he said. His eyes still faced the TV but it didn’t seem like he was paying attention to the game. I pretended like I didn’t know what he was talking about. Honestly, I was confused. I didn’t know why he was acting like he cared now after so many months of indifference. I guess I’d always wanted to believe that he’d cared all along though and he’d just been too stubborn or angry to show it.
Desean sighed and then looked up at me and I was surprised to see some feeling in his face. He looked slightly hurt or confused maybe, and for a second I felt our old connection flare up-back when we were both responsible for each other’s emotions and we didn’t even think about doing things independent of one another. The memory brought back some of the feelings for him that I’d been trying to forget.
“When’s this gonna stop?” he said.
I felt the tears coming and I scrunched my face up, trying to hold them back. I didn’t want to cry in front of Desean. I shrugged and when I blinked a tear came streaming down my cheek. “I don’t know,” I said finally. That’s all I could manage. My voice was shaking and all I could do at that point was react to whatever Desean decided to do next. I wanted him to get up and grab me and hug me all night. I would have settled for him to just say something else and continue the conversation, but after a little while that same distant look spread over his face and he turned back to the television. It was like I’d never even been there in the first place.
I stood there for a bit longer in disbelief while I wiped the tears off my face. Once I gathered myself, I grabbed my purse and walked out. Once I got outside though, I waited by the front door. I was furious with myself for letting Desean trick me into hoping again. I hated him for that. But deep down, I wanted him to get up off the couch and drag me back inside. I wanted him to give a shit about me again.
I was in a poisonous mood when I got to Mark’s dorm room. I didn’t even bother to fix my make-up and I looked like a train wreck. Another surprise was waiting for me there though too. The place was practically empty. All the dirty clothes had been picked up off the ground. There wasn’t any old food lying around. Two large duffel bags were stuffed full in the middle of the room. And the first thing that Mark did was shove a train ticket in my face that he had just bought-he didn’t even notice that I had been crying.
“I used the money from my dad’s last tuition check,” he said. “I’m headed to New Jersey. I’m finally going to get to see Cal.” Mark looked at me triumphantly, like he had won some small victory from me by buying that ticket.
“What if he’s dead?” I said.
“That’s not possible.”
“Why not? That book is twenty years old.”
“People like Cal just don’t die of a heart attack in their sleep or something,” he said. “If he was dead, it would have been something big. We would’ve heard about it on the news.”
“That the stupidest thing you’ve ever said.”
Mark didn’t seem to hear me. He started searching though Adventures in Geometry! and then pointed to another passage. “No,” he said. “Look at this and you’ll see what I mean.”
You can determine the area of a square by multiplying each side together. Remember, squares have equal sides-so the formula is simply A=4s. Solve for the area of a square if each side is equal to 8 in.
“Thirty-two inches,” I said.
“What?” Mark said.
“That’s the answer.” I pointed to the book.
Mark re-read the page. His brow furrowed and he seemed confused. “That’s the wrong passage,” he muttered. “I meant to show you something else-nevermind, it doesn’t really matter at this point.” He stuffed the textbook into one of the duffel bags and then started looking through his closet for anything else that he still had to pack.
“So where does that leave us?” I said. I didn’t like the smug tone that Mark was using with me. It was a weak front and I knew that he was full of shit but it was getting to me. That incident with Desean had left me shaken and I didn’t have the control over my emotions that I normally did. I could feel my rage building.
“You don’t care about me,” he said. “You’ve just been using me to make your husband jealous, or hurt him or hurt yourself-I don’t know. But you don’t give a shit about me, that’s for sure.”
“I need you Mark,” I said. I just sort of blurted it out. I didn’t mean it at all but I could feel everything slipping away all of a sudden and I was willing to do anything to keep that from happening.
“No you don’t,” he said. “You don’t need anybody because you’re dead inside and that’s why you’re going to end up all alone.”
I started crying after he said that. I’m not sure where the tears came from-it was partly an act I guess, but maybe my frustration with Desean finally boiled over or maybe Mark was a little more important to me than I let on. Anyway, whatever it was, the tears did the trick. Mark stood off for a while, but the more I cried, the more he broke down until finally his smug front disappeared and he was the same insecure little boy that he’d always been around me. He started hugging me and apologizing for what he’d said and then he even asked me to run away with him.
“I can get more money,” he said while he kissed my cheek. “I’ll help you buy a train ticket. We can go see Cal together and maybe he can help us figure out-”
I started kissing his throat before he could say anything else. I felt like fucking all of a sudden. I wrapped my arms around him and grabbed his ass and then kissed him on the mouth and started sucking his tongue. I brought one hand back around to his crotch and slid it down his jeans. He tried to pull away from me.
“Please,” he said. “Not now.”
I ignored him. I slid my hand down further and then grabbed him. I could feel him getting too aroused too quickly and then he grabbed my shoulders and pushed me away. “That’s enough,” he said.
I tried to press myself against him again but this time he shoved me with two hands. I stumbled backward and then tripped over one of his duffel bags and fell on the ground. I looked over and saw his train ticket jutting out of the side pocket of the other duffel bag and-I didn’t even think-I just grabbed it and ripped it up in as many pieces as I could. Knowing Mark, I figured that he’d be the one who started crying after that.
“Well,” I said, climbing to my feet and laughing a little bit. “How are you going to get to the east-”
I stopped talking when I saw his face. It was grimaced and twisted and ugly like I’d never seen it before. He wasn’t crying at all. He looked like a different person all of a sudden. All that pathetic indecision was gone. He started to walk toward me and his left shoulder twitched while he walked. I backpedaled toward his bed. It seemed like a good time to start apologizing and I started to say something but that’s when he lunged at me and swung. I never thought that he could throw a punch as well as he did. I tried to duck, but it didn’t matter. His fist slammed into my temple. Something exploded in my head-blood vessels, probably. I stumbled back against the wall and he was already on top of me-fueled by rage that had been building for months-kicking me in the stomach and then the face while I fell crumpled to the floor. From that point on, everything is sort of a blur.
I don’t know if Mark ever made it to East Rutherford. He did leave town after he beat the shit out of me but I’m not sure where he went. And I never figured out if he called an ambulance for me or someone else did after I lost consciousness. All I know is that I woke up in the hospital with my jaw wired shut and Desean sitting in the chair next to my bed. He was hunched over, holding his head in his hands. He looked really worried. In the corner of the room, a digital clock flashed three-thirty a.m. Desean had to go to work at five.
I don’t know how long I had been out. It might have been seven hours. I had a splitting headache and I was starving. There were tubes stuck in the veins of my left arm and I couldn’t open my mouth. I kept staring at Desean and finally he looked over at me. I told him how I felt with my eyes. He understood immediately. We hadn’t communicated like that since we left Los Angeles. I thought our psychic connection had been severed a long time ago. Even though my face was bruised and busted up, I smiled.
Desean stood up and took a paper bag off the table next to me. He pulled out a styrofoam cup and put a straw inside of it and then slid the straw between my swollen lips. I sucked it gently. It was a cookies and cream milkshake. It was pretty watered down-he must have bought it more than an hour ago-but it was delicious. It was exactly what I wanted. He smoothed my hair down behind my ears while I drank and he looked at what Mark had done to my face.
He was quiet for a long time while I drank and then he kneeled down next to my bed and got very serious all of a sudden.
“Alright Naomi.” His voice wavered. He was pleading with me. He hadn’t done that since he asked me to run away with him when I was sixteen. “Are you done with all this now? Is it over?” he said-and even though I don’t think he was talking about the milkshake, I finished the last sip and then looked up at him and nodded.