One, two, a dozen of them followed us. Slippers soft, feet shuffling. Eyes probing for the body beneath the baggy dress.
“Hey, lady,” somebody hissed, “wanna sit on my face?”
I didn’t look up to see who had said it. I kept going, following Mark and Heather, my fiancé and his boss, on my very own private tour of Acablero State Hospital.
“… a population of almost twelve hundred men, Beth,” Heather was saying, “all of whom receive …”
Heather was the hospital’s lead psychiatrist. She had her speech on autopilot as we walked down corridors and past office after office. All drab, all mottled with layers of graffiti now scoured and painted over. Mostly genitals, from what I could see, with emphasis on the male.
“State Hospital” was a euphemism. This place was a warehouse for mentally challenged criminals and their infinitely worse cousins, the Sexually Violent Predators, whom the state of California was attempting to cure with antidepressants and talk therapy. The SVP’s came here when their prison sentences were up and they couldn’t satisfy parole boards. The disabled inmates might never get out; they didn’t understand crime as a concept, and the predators knocked out all their teeth and used them as drug mules and sex objects. Everyone was entitled to roam the halls; the doctors believed that the open-corridor policy helped them socialize in a normal way. They would learn to break free from their wounds and desires and old coping strategies, everything that made them want to hurt other people. They would change.
“How ’bout I sit on your face instead?”
“You doing okay, Beth?” Heather asked over her shoulder. She had that shrink-tic of saying a person’s name far too many times in order to create what Mark sometimes called into-me-see. Other than that, she was so small and pinched and frail-looking that I wondered what could ever have inspired her to take this job and whether the patients baited her with face sitting. I concluded that they must. Then wondered how she managed to counsel them when they did.
I caught another murmur behind us: “Ohmigawd, ain’t we just too fancy to talk to!”
Folded into myself, arms across my chest, I asked in a low voice, “Do they ever attack?”
“Don’t whisper,” Mark told me. “It makes the men nervous.”
“COME ON, LADY! SIT ON MY GODDAMN FUCKING FACE!”
Heather said, “We’d love to get you started next week.”
* * *
I wasn’t the kind of girlfriend a man typically shows off to colleagues. I also wasn’t the kind that a man normally moves three hundred miles to be with. I was artsy but not an artist, large breasted but also potbellied, the “such a pretty face” kind, as Mark once said—and my face wasn’t all that pretty.
People thought I’d got lucky. I thought so too for a long time. Mark was better-looking than I was, dark blond, with hazel eyes that he insisted were green. He had a goatee that I never told him I disliked. We’d met through a dating site that cast a wide net, and we had a long-distance relationship till he announced, just six months in, that he was ready to move down from Napa. He had already found a job, this job, at the state hospital. He wanted to live with me.
I was so surprised that I said yes, though he didn’t really seem to need an answer. And so he arrived, with more boxes and stereo equipment than my little house could hold. Some of his stuff was still sitting in boxes. My cat, Pearl, liked to dig inside the open ones, and she left drifts of white fur on all of his things.
Our world was very small. Though I believed Mark was generally well liked at work, he had made no friends in the area except me, and somehow that meant I couldn’t have friends either. I did have a promise ring, though, a silver Claddagh. Two hands holding one heart—it embarrassed me with its outright sentiment, made me feel guilty in ways I did not understand. I thought I’d seen Heather stare at it appraisingly.
I was here now because Mark wanted me to lead a workshop to help the men write their life stories. He thought confronting their crimes would help them rehabilitate. Not the disabled ones; no one believed they were capable of change. Just the SVP’s. It would be a roomful of blue-uniformed predators and me, his future wife.
Heather unclipped a key card from her belt. “Beth, this could be your classroom,” she said with a ta-da in her voice.
I went inside first. It smelled of dirty socks and testicles and had no windows. I saw traces of an especially large penis glyph on the far wall, bleeding through a layer of beige paint; it was thrust between round globes too big to be balls, and I couldn’t decide if they were supposed to be breasts or buttocks. I would have liked to find this funny and to make jokes about it with Mark, but he wasn’t paying attention. He was frowning. He had turned on one in a row of grubby computers, and the screen image flickered unhealthily.
The prisoners clustered like deer in the doorway. They didn’t follow us in, but they were curious.
“These computers are only three years old, Beth,” Heather informed me. “We got grant money for them. They have the latest software updates too; we got another grant for that. No internet, though—unless you have a special code.”
As if on cue, Mark looked up from his terminal and gave me a smile. Perhaps he thought that our online courtship would inspire a fondness for any computer now.
“Can we use paper instead?” I asked Heather. And immediately regretted the question, because by asking I seemed to have made a commitment. “I mean, if I do teach the class,” I added lamely.
“Oh sure.” But Heather’s pursed little mouth turned down at the ends. “You can have paper and pencils, Beth, if you count all the pencils at the end of the session and take them away. And make sure none of them are broken off and carried away. But it would be a shame not to use these computers—that’s another skill the men might need on the outside.”
I didn’t like to think of “the men,” the predators, released into the world of prepubescent children and single mothers, middle-aged office workers and elderly widows. I liked even less to think of helping them get out. It seemed that, under Heather’s approach, the truth really would set them free.
A Sexually Violent Paradox.
* * *
That night, Mark broke my jaw.
I remember thinking, At last, here it is. Some part of me had been preparing.
As his fist hit my face and my face hit the counter, there was only one why to ponder. Why tonight? Maybe my fear of ASH was exciting to him. Or he was mad because I hadn’t represented well in front of his boss. Or he’d realized I wasn’t pretty enough. Or he was frustrated with having moved so far to find not enough room for his things.
I lay on the kitchen floor, trying not to breathe. Trying to move my jaw but not able to.
Mark poked me with his toe. “You going to get up?” he asked.
* * *
“So what do you think?” he’d asked that afternoon, once we were buckled into the car and well on the winding road to Los Osos, where my little house perched in a sandy cul-de-sac.
“What do I think …” I stalled. I hated talking in the car, especially about anything important, and most especially when Mark was driving. He was hard on a gearshift, but he liked to drive and I thought it wasn’t worth arguing over.
I was learning how to make compromises. I had never lived with a man before.
“I’m not sure,” I said honestly.
He took a curve fast. “Don’t you want to make a difference?”
I’d always found that phrase problematic. Many differences are for the worse.
“I feel sick,” I said. “Could you go a little slower, please?”
Mark took his foot off the gas for a second, then put it back down, making us lurch. He blew air noisily through his lips and scratched the back of his neck as if he’d been stung.
“You’re always complaining about your job, Beth,” he said. “This is your chance to do something really meaningful.”
There it was again, the psychologist’s tic, the into-me-see. Except Mark had it wrong. I liked my job.
I was a grant writer and administrator for a community arts organization, mostly serving retirees who finally had the time to learn to paint with watercolors or make their own jewelry out of titanium. I didn’t know when Mark thought I’d been complaining; I loved the cheerful seniors trouping past my desk with their oversized tablets and baskets of brushes. I loved it when one of the teachers, the “real” artists, was out and I got to take over a class. But this was not the time to say so.
Compromise, I told myself. Grassy yellow hills flashed by, dotted with purple splotches of sweetpea. We had reached ranch land.
“I’ll keep thinking about it,” I said. “I don’t know if I can make it work with my schedule at the Center.”
“Do the class on the weekends. Saturday afternoons.”
“The AC has events on Saturdays.”
“Not every Saturday.”
I realized with a jolt of fear that we were bickering—and then recognized the fear. It had grown out of an uneasiness that had developed since he’d moved in, as we’d found places to put his clothes and stereo and television but not his c.d.’s and Elvis memorabilia. As he slammed the lid on the washing machine after Pearl threw up a hairball on his quilt. As the dishes piled up and he threw away the salad I’d made for dinner, because dinner should always be hot food.
“I could probably make some time,” I said. If I scheduled my class for Saturdays, was I supposed to go there alone while Mark stayed home? “I’ll talk to my boss.”
Mark must have noticed that I wasn’t making any real promises. But he didn’t say anything more but just drove, still faster than I would have liked, until the smell of cows was overtaken by the tang of salt air and we were home.
* * *
Before the doctors at Grace Medical would let me go, I had to see a staff therapist. She sat me down in a room with comfortable chairs and asked if I feared for my safety.
My jaw was wired shut and the rest of my face was so swollen that my left eye had closed. There was a swamp where I once had a molar. I couldn’t move my head without making more pain.
So I wrote my answer: No.
It came out in a messy scrawl, which surprised me because nothing had happened to my hand. And it was a lie, but I did not see a choice. Mark hardly needed to point out that everyone involved would take his word over mine. He’d been introducing himself right and left as a clinical psychologist from ASH. As Dr. The county medical community is tiny; friends or not, the shrinks know each other.
Even without accusing anyone, I had to produce an account of the accident three separate times. I varied the wording slightly so it didn’t seem rehearsed: Sliped in wa ter & felll on cuonter top. It ws gratnite.
The night supervisor got the third set. He frowned. “You might have a concussion,” he said, and stared into my eyes. “Any memory loss? Headache?”
Probably and definitely.
He had me follow his finger right to left. “Go easy on the wine for now, all right?” he said.
* * *
I didn’t know much about Mark’s parents but I did know that they didn’t let their children drink, not that they knew of. I’d heard cautionary tales about Aunt Trishie, who’d been married not once but four times in Reno under the influence, and Uncle Bart, who’d been so mad over a fender bender one December 25 that he grabbed the tire iron out of the back of his truck and “stepped on over to kick that driver some Christmas ass.”
Mark offered these stories as examples of his own triumph over the family disease. He liked wine, beer, and cocktails, but he said he didn’t let them run his life. As proof, one of his specialties as a counselor was substance abuse.
That night, I was putting dishes in the sink and running the tap when he told me he wanted me to lie down naked in bed and let him tie me up. After that, he would pretend to force me to have sex with him.
I made a mistake. I didn’t think. I said, “If you want to do that, you’ll really have to rape me.”
Next I knew, I lay spitting blood onto the tiles.
Mark waited a half hour, till it was clear I wouldn’t get up. He had a glass of red wine to calm his nerves. When the EMT’s arrived, he introduced himself and said I’d been drinking. Everyone that night seemed to accept it, though as they worked on me they could have smelled my breath and known Mark was lying.
* * *
At the end of the tour, we faced a final corridor of offices for counselors, therapists, and administrators. It was locked. Here Heather began telling me about Mark’s predecessor: a female psychologist who’d been caught in a broom closet having sex with an SVP.
“The orderlies had to pull them apart,” she said. She swiped her card key and got a red light; she frowned and tried again. “She kept screaming, ‘I can change him! I can change him!’”
I wished Heather had waited to tell the story in private, not when that throng of SVP’s stood just a few feet behind us.
“Does that happen a lot?” I asked.
Heather didn’t exactly answer. “She’s at a super-max up north now,” she said, swiping the card several times in rapid succession and getting nowhere. I felt the SVP’s laughing behind us. “As an inmate, I mean. She’d been muling drugs in for the guy. And on a similar note, that’s why we don’t take writing tutors from college—the SVP’s are too smart, and they’d eat undergrads for lunch. We really need you, Beth.”
“Which prisoner was it?” I asked. Heather rubbed her card key against her pants as if to clean it off. “Is he here now?”
About five feet behind us, I heard the men rustling. Mark, meanwhile, decided to help; he took out his own key card and reached around Heather. It slid gently in and the lock clicked.
“Ah!” Heather exclaimed, as if she’d just seen Jesus. Mark smiled in that humble way that isn’t humble at all.
“Does it happen a lot?” I asked more loudly. “That sort of … affair?”
We stepped into stale air that smelled of books and dying houseplants, the low murmurs of therapy sessions behind heavy steel doors. In Heather’s office, I noticed the ugliest dick-glyph of all. It was long and straight and uncircumcised, and it stretched over the front of her desk as if it owned the place. I wondered how it had got there.
“Anyone on staff who gets involved with a patient is immediately fired,” Heather said, as if that were an answer to a question I hadn’t yet asked. “And loses their license.”
* * *
Mark took some personal days. He called my bosses and the clubs whose events I’d be missing and told them I was hurt. He relayed their good wishes as he fed me smoothies and Vicodin. He said Heather sent me a hug, which seemed improbable. He gave me the hug and it made my heart skip with adrenaline.
“She really likes you,” he told me. “She says you’re a gem.”
I can make a difference, I thought as my face throbbed and my vision faded in and out. I am a gem.
Mark gave me another painkiller. I was dreamy on Vicodin. On Vicodin I couldn’t run away if Mark hit me, but on Vicodin I didn’t really care.
Drawn by the human-in-pain pheromone, Pearl spent hours sleeping on my chest. She knocked the smoothie cups out of my hands. Mark didn’t complain about the mess, and Pearl rubbed against him.
He was treating me nicely. He was very careful, carrying wire cutters in his pocket in case I started to choke and he had to get my mouth open fast. He acted so easygoing that I started to question my memory of that night, starting with my reaction to his request—that’s how I had to think of it—for bedtime activity. Maybe it was a harmless fantasy; maybe it was even selfless. Maybe he just wanted to understand his patients better and do it in a safe way with me, his partner.
But of course (I pulled myself back through the fog) it hadn’t been at all safe for me in the end.
At my desk in the small second bedroom, I slogged through insurance forms. Date of first injury; first day of last menstrual period; pre-existing conditions; parents’ causes of death, unless living; single, separated, married, divorced …
Writing was almost as difficult as speaking. The paper felt very far away, and the fingers holding the pen were not mine. Water fell onto the page and I realized I was drooling. I mopped at my mouth with a Kleenex. My parents were dead and so was my brother, in a single car crash.
Memories raced more vividly than the events of the now.
“What am I supposed to call them?” I’d asked Mark as we were walking through the parking lot for the first time, toward the squat brown buildings of ASH itself. “If I can’t call them prisoners, I mean.”
“Patients,” he said, and at first I’d heard patience, a command.
Even now, I felt the men’s eyes on me, the SVPs’. I thought I remembered one more thing from that day: a disabled man with an eager smile but a glazed expression. His grin stretched so wide I could see he didn’t have a single tooth left in his mouth. This was clearer in my mind than my last menstrual period.
Mark had said that almost all the patients at ASH had substance-abuse issues that fueled their predation or contributed to their mental disabilities. His mission was to give them the tools with which to fight their own cravings.
“Oh, it’ll just take a lil’ time,” I heard him slurring into the phone one night. “She’s gonna be fine. I’m takin’ care her myself.” A brief silence, the sound of a glass touching down on the counter, then, “Email me you’ recipe for that tomato soup we used to have when we were sick, will you? I think she’ll like it.”
Oh, he was talking to his mother. Who thought that her son never drank.
When he hung up the phone he noticed me watching him. Surprisingly, he grinned. “Yeah,” he said, “you’re funny-lookin’, but you’re my funny-lookin’ girl.”
* * *
When I finally met Mark in person after a few weeks of e-dating, when he drove down and stayed in a motel, he told me he loved me.
“I’m your family now,” he said.
He seemed terrifically romantic. When I said it back, a week or so later, he wept.
Either his mother never sent her recipe or Mark decided not to make it, because the soups he gave me were Campbell’s. He’d open a can and heat it in a bowl in the microwave, then sit companionably watching me eat while he had a sandwich and drank one or two beers. And then one or two more. And some wine and some whisky and I must have been really confused because no one can drink that much in an evening and not pass out.
He’s fooling himself, I thought at night, as he lay snoring beside me and I was too nervous to move. He doesn’t know what happens when he drinks. He doesn’t really want to pretend-rape me. Alcoholism is a disease. So is violence.
But the clichés ran out. I didn’t want to think of him as sick and hurt. I was hurt. And he hadn’t been drunk until after he hit me.
I tried to slide out of his arms and join Pearl on the sofa, but even in sleep he held on hard.
* * *
About a week after that night, my friend Leslie, a fellow grant writer from the Arts Center, came to visit. She brought a bouquet of white roses, a card, and some new insurance forms.
I took these things from her and asked, “Want to sit down?” It came out as Wahssiddown. Low and hissing.
Leslie looked startled. She hadn’t heard me try to speak a sentence before. She covered by telling me that the card had been made by Earl, one of the few men in the Arts Center program.
“I like Earl,” I said.
Earl had glasses an inch thick and more hair growing out of his ears than on his head. He’d painted a creature in the mongoose family with lipstick and curly eyelashes, half her limbs bandaged up, and a cloud of punctuation marks circling her head. “Hang in there, your too pretty to die,” it said. Inside were plenty of teasing good wishes from teachers and students, all of whom I imagined had perfectly happy sex lives and work lives and stories to tell, properly spelled or not. I loved them all, in a big bubble of opiate good feeling that made me weep.
I realized Leslie had been talking for a while.
“I’m shorry?” Stupid reflex, apologizing through the wires holding my mouth shut. I had to dab at my lips again. The corners were cracked and chapped from the drooling. “What?” Whaa.
“The man of the house. Is he taking good care of you?” She said it brightly, cocking her head toward the clatter in the kitchen.
Mark was running water and banging around with a kettle. He didn’t like guests but he was going to make tea for this one.
I grunted Yes.
Leslie pitched her voice so Mark could hear: “You know he emails us about you every day?”
I did know, and I didn’t like it, but I couldn’t answer right away. Leslie was wearing blue crystal earrings that made prisms of the dust motes in the air and distracted me. They looked especially nice under her cropped gray hair.
Little things, I thought. Little things were all I noticed anymore, maybe all that mattered. That would be a nice lesson to take away from this experience.
Mark brought in the tea: a cup for my friend, a glass with ice and a straw and a pill bottle for me. He was wearing his favorite T-shirt, the one for the movie Alien.
“So what do the doctors say?” Leslie looked at Mark while she stirred sugar into her cup. She was finding it painful to look at me. “Is our girl healing?”
I may have fallen half-asleep by then. I remember Mark’s voice saying something, and Leslie asking exactly how I’d hurt myself, since Mark’s first call had been vague; but I don’t recall his answer. Then a rattling sound as Leslie picked up the bottle of Vicodin, and her voice asking, “Should she really still be taking these?” Mark’s voice reassured her.
* * *
In two weeks I’d healed faster than I would have expected, at least enough to go back to work. My mouth was still wired, my face splotched green and black, but I had learned to speak with a sort of surly fluency.
The retirees made a point of stopping by my desk with little tokens, mostly candy and cookies they’d made.
“Sweets speed the healing,” they said earnestly. “Feed your pretty face up again.”
They were so kind that I couldn’t tell them I wouldn’t eat solid food for another month. Sometimes I had to lock myself in the bathroom and cry.
I was afraid to go home. Mark drove me everywhere. I was in pain and I craved Vicodin with every fiber of my being. Sex was going to come up soon, I could tell; he had begun dropping hints. I didn’t like to think about what he might expect after weeks of nursing me from an injury he didn’t seem to remember he’d caused. I didn’t even want to do it with him the regular way.
Somehow the weeks of recovery had turned me against him as even the violent night hadn’t done. If only I’d been honest with the emergency team at the hospital … but everyone knows that if onlys are a big waste of time. My medical records said I was clumsy, and the EMT’s and doctors and nurses would all, every last one, believe Mark. He was one of them and I was a liar. It was what they would say, anyway.
Some days I thought, Maybe Mark has changed. Maybe the violence scared him as much as it scared me. Maybe things—everything, all the undefinable things—would be different now.
Other times, I thought that if Mark guessed that I wanted to leave, he might hurt me worse.
I took to hiding my wallet in a new place every night. I got cash out of an ATM during my lunch hour and stashed it in my file drawer at the Arts Center. I kept my mind a blank so he couldn’t read it. I didn’t have a plan for leaving, but I was preparing to have a plan.
I had sex with him and pretended it was okay. He didn’t have to rape me; I went along with everything. The jaw wires were as good as handcuffs anyway.
At six weeks, the wires came out, and the doctor said I was safe to teach my first class at ASH. My option to say no had disappeared somewhere among get-well cards and smoothies with straws. The board at the Arts Center was excited; every prison worth its salt those days had a writing program, and every local arts organization was involved in one. Leslie was especially proud that I was proving the Center wasn’t just for wealthy retirees. It had real grit and commitment.
“We can apply for so many grants!” she said—always the first thought of a not-for-profit arts administrator. “It takes a special person to do this kind of thing. I know I don’t have it in me.”
I couldn’t bring myself to tell her I didn’t think I did either. I was afraid to teach at ASH and I was afraid of what would happen at home if I didn’t. I was a sniveling weakling and I would never get away.
So Mark and I drove again through the hills to the huddle of brown boxes and razor wire. It didn’t seem much time could have passed, though the sweetpeas were gone. I let the guards take my Arts Center tote bag, which they upended so they could examine every pencil that fell out (no pens—I’d been warned they could be melted and shaped into weapons or drug paraphernalia). I blushed when they examined my i.d., then looked at my face.
A greenish tint lingered in my skin, and my lips were still scabbed from the drooling. I looked horrible. Worse, vulnerable, like a walking billboard for abuse. I couldn’t believe there was anyone who didn’t recognize it in me.
They didn’t even comment on my face.
“You can’t use these pencils.” A pimply young guard held one up triumphantly. “Metal on the ends! Dangerous!” He took out a pair of pliers and began snipping off the erasers and the metal bands that held them in place.
I realized my hands were shaking.
The older one said, “You won’t try bringing these in again, will you?”
“No.” I clasped the hands together.
“She’s going to help the men write their memoirs,” Mark said as if to shame the guards, just as Heather came through one of the locked ward doors.
She was in another brown pantsuit, this one with pink grosgrain ribbon bows on the lapels and cuffs. She greeted me by taking both of my hands in both of hers, a counselor’s gesture of warmth. I wondered what she thought of Mark and if either of them was a good therapist.
“This is going to make such a difference, Beth!” she declared; but she was looking at Mark. Apparently I was painful for her to see, too. “What you’re doing is going to change lives.”
(“Hey, lady …”)
I pulled away and busied myself finishing the sign-in. I had a bad, sweaty feeling all over. It might have come from nerves or fear or the fact that when Mark fed me my latest Vicodin I spat it out surreptitiously, not wanting to show up at ASH drugged. Instead, I was in withdrawal.
“You okay, ma’am?” the older guard asked, and then I knew how bad off I was. If I’d acted close to normal, he would have called me miss. “You want some water or something?”
I shook my head and hurried to finish the form. As I wrote my name, I saw the letters come out foreign and distorted, the way they had been that first night. I wondered: Was it possible to become an addict in under two months? The person who could give me the answer was a person I should not ask.
Mark said, “She’s a trouper!” and loaded the mutilated pencils back into my tote bag.
A guard buzzed us through the first door, and Heather led the rest of the way with her key card. We walked down corridors still—or again—rippling with graffiti and the paint used to disguise it.
I did not look around this time, but nonetheless I got that sensation again, the creeping at the back of my neck. Men were coming out of rooms and offices, staring. Following us with that shuffling soft scuff.
“Hey, lady …” I heard it again and again. I tried to ignore what came after.
Soon enough Heather unlocked the classroom. On one of the grubby computers, there was a newly scratched penis and also the word to identify it. This was both depressing and a little uplifting; it showed at least one man could write as well as he drew.
Eight pupils were waiting: white, black, Latino, all tilting back at a dangerous angle in their scuffed plastic chairs. Three looked disabled and the rest had the sharp eyes of SVP’s.
A man with hair sprouting in uneven tufts asked, “Can we play video games?” He pointed to a computer, smiling with naïve hope. He had no teeth. He wasn’t exactly the man I’d seen in my visions, but he might have been. There were so many of them.
Mark and Heather exchanged a forbearing look.
“Not today, Roy,” Heather said with professional cheer.
“Take your hand out of your pants, Roy,” said Mark.
Roy obeyed, his grin now sheepish. “Sorry, Doc Mark.”
My jaw throbbed. I’d had no idea Mark had an affectionate nickname here. It made me nervous. I took a deep breath and tried to steady myself by counting out a slow exhalation: One, two, three … When I made it to ten, I would begin the speech I had practiced.
My speech was about the joy of self-expression and how freeing it could be to tell a story honestly and with feeling, yet so artfully shaped that the reader would experience exactly the emotions the writer wanted to evoke. When I’d practiced at home, I almost believed it. I almost thought it actually might help make the SVP’s stop hurting people weaker than themselves. But then I looked at Mark and knew I would have to do much more than encourage them to write memoirs.
“Beth!” Mark said rather loudly, up close to me. “Are you sick? If you don’t want to do this anymore, just say so.”
He was trying to be gentle, but I heard the threat beneath the veneer of kindly Dr. Mark, therapist. If you don’t want to … I was supposed to double down and swear that I did want this. But I couldn’t push the words out of my throat.
All eyes were on Mark and me. The men knew what was happening—at least, the predators did.
Heather looked puzzled, in her no-nonsense brown suit with its girlish pink ribbons. “Mark,” she said, “Beth hasn’t uttered two words since she got here.”
He put his hand on my shoulder. It felt heavy and hot. “What do you think, Beth?” His voice buzzed like the air before a storm. “Are you going to do this?”
* * *
“Poor little thing,” said the seniors at the AC. They said it over and over for weeks. “How are you feeling?”
Over and over, I shrugged and smiled and said I was fine. I knew they weren’t thinking of my jaw so much as the fact that the Claddagh ring had disappeared. I was therefore obviously without a mate.
There were others, though, who didn’t pity me for being single. Women stopped by my desk to confide that some man in their past had hurt them, that they’d been raped, that their bones and spirits had been broken in the name of love.
“It’s so much nicer when the need for a man goes away,” they would say.
I was sure they were right. But still, somehow, I kept hoping, and probably will keep on hoping, that I might find somebody whose kindness will draw out the kindness in me. I want this so badly that sometimes, even after all of these years, I wake up in the dark with my heart pounding, as if it knows I’m too late.
Susann Cokal is the author of Mermaid Moon (Candlewick 2020), The Kingdom of Little Wounds (winner of several national awards, including a 2014 silver Printz medal from the American Library Association), Mirabilis (Penguin Putnam), and Breath and Bones (Unbridled). Her short stories have appeared in journals such as Electric Lit, Cincinnati Review, Prairie Schooner, Hayden's Ferry Review, Quarterly West, The Journal, and many others. She is also author of articles on Jeanette Winterson, Georges Bataille, The Sopranos, supermodels, zoos, and other aspects of high and pop culture. She has also published dozens of reviews in The New York Times Book Review and is editorial director of Broad Street Magazine (broadstreetonline.org). Her home on the web is susanncokal.net.
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.