“Somehow, my heart cracked open and a corpse squeezed through.”
My boyfriend, shriveled, keeps withering. No matter how much I bring him, his skin crumples like gift tissue. It ought to make me sick, the sight and smell of him.
Trash—garbage—he ain’t worth your time, girl. I’ve heard it all at bars and cafes where women friends gather, but no one’s ever said it to me until Mel. I had no women friends before her. I had no girlfriends when I was a schoolkid either, except for Amber, and I fed her to my boyfriend years ago.
“Kathleen,” my boyfriend rasps, “save me.” We are lying on a mattress I found by a dumpster and dragged ten blocks by my own two hands to the abandoned apartment building that is our current squat. He likes tracing the mattress’s stains with the tip of his tongue, the sharpest part of him, and telling me where they came from. That yellow one shaped like Idaho is piss from a nine-year-old boy scared awake by clown dreams. This constellation of pink dots the remnants of a girl’s first period. Her uterus was tipped. The pain was like fire in her cells.
“Baby,” he says, rolling onto his belly and smiling shyly. “Will you save me?”
Save me means I’m hungry. It means go out and get him a meal.
Sometimes I forget why I ever decided to be with him. He was never a looker, and he’s always reeked of used coins and nosebleeds. Somehow, my heart cracked open and a corpse squeezed through. It must have been the movies and the TV shows. Now I’m stuck bringing him bottles of blood, cradling his head in my lap, listening to him suck at the hot remnants of murdered life.
I don’t look into mirrors anymore. I trim my hair by guesstimation. I turn away from windows at night so I don’t have to see what I’ve become. I’m the one giving strangers ketamine and rohypnol, the one clapping chloroform over their screaming mouths. I’m the one stringing them from rafters with the rope-and-pulley system I thought up. I’m the one dragging a knife across their throats and catching the splashing gushes of their blood in buckets. I’m the one saying, “You can cry but no one will hear you.” Mine’s the last face they see.
“He’s what we would call a scrub,” Mel says. “He’s who we would say, ‘No, I don’t want no scrub’ to.”
We are at a cafe, outside, under a big umbrella. A thick band of sun cuts Mel in half. Mel is sitting straight across from me. My hands and feet fidget because her eyes don’t look at you. They look through you into some bigger, inner you. When she talks it’s like her words are scalpels flung by her eyes.
A scrub is a guy that thinks he’s fly
And is also known as a buster
Always talkin’ about what he wants
And just sits on his broke ass
A scrub is a guy that can’t get no love from me
Hanging out the passenger side
Of his best friend’s ride
Trying to holler at me
She drinks some lemon water and, unsmiling, clears her throat. When she speaks again her voice is hoarse and crumbly and I think with shame, She is trying so hard.
Mel says: “He’s eaten so many people over so many centuries, and still he’s never made anything of himself. Give this man immortality, and what does he do? Hide in the shadows at bars, eyeing girls hundreds of years too young for him. But every month you open your legs wide for him, let him lick out all that makes you still feel like a living girl. Every night you bite your tongue and dribble your life into his gaping mouth.”
I want to say: And every hour of my wasting life I am aware how stupid I am. I want to say, I know that they are the ugliest things, the most secret and the most old. There’s nothing beautiful about vampires, inside or out, nothing to love at all—but how you wish there were, how you wait every second for some hint of goodness, if you know one.
But that’s too many words, so I don’t say them.
I want to have kids, and that’s a problem. That’s a real issue, as my boyfriend would say. How is death supposed to sire? Still, if I stopped the precautions, what would happen? My mind is scientific in some ways.
“You need to kick him to the curb,” Mel says. “Straight up tell him, ‘Get outta here!’ Find yourself a man who’ll do you good. Better yet, stand up strong by yourself. Show the world you don’t need anyone.”
Mel is in law school after a decade working as a financial consultant specializing in derivatives. She made a killing doing that, and now she wants to give back. She’s going to defend the rights of underprivileged women, women of color, women without voices.
Her parents were itinerant farm workers from Mexico. Her father died in a hit and run, the perpetrators of which were never prosecuted. Her mother raised Mel and her brother alone. When Mel describes all this it is as if she is listing grocery items. She is not impressed with her own hardship, her own rags-to-riches. I think it bores her.
How I met Mel is what my grandmother would call a miracle from heaven. I was outside a McDonald’s trying to talk a homeless man into coming home with me when she clicked over.
“Do your parents know where you are?” she said.
I wanted to say: I’m almost thirty-five.
The homeless man shuffled away.
“Are you hungry?” she said.
She took me to an all-night diner and I had blueberry pancakes and French toast. I wouldn’t be able to save my boyfriend that night. She got me a cup of coffee the waitress kept refilling. She asked me how I was feeling. She asked me to tell her about my life.
I never did tell Mel my real age. She doesn’t suspect that I should know better. Maybe, Mel being Mel, she wouldn’t judge. You can’t bank on that, though.
“This one here’s from a woman’s privates.” Tongue out, tongue in. “A woman in her late forties. Nonconsensual.”
My boyfriend is trying to be sexy. He rolls onto his back and scuttles his blue hand over his chest and belly. His body is shrunken but his hands are puffed, filled with what blood is inside him. They are often the only part of him that throb with life, but they are so sensitive he can’t do a thing with them. He is looking at the air next to my neck.
I’ve been with him ten years, but something about him still excites me. What few couples can boast that?
My boyfriend is trying to be kittenish. On his belly, he kicks his legs like a teenager on the phone. He purses his mouth into a fish pucker, knowing it will make me laugh. I laugh.
“All I want is a family,” I say. “If we have a baby maybe things will be more normal.”
“There is nothing normal about this relationship. The best thing for you is to get out of it. Pronto. Ask yourself: What is it you’re getting from this? Be very honest, Kathleen. We need to know this before we can move forward.”
Mel has confused the role of a lawyer with the role of a therapist, though maybe she never meant to be a lawyer to me but a—what? Friend?
Come to think of it, Mel doesn’t have many friends either. She had a good group of girlfriends back in New York, she claims, but here people seem to fear her. No one seems to get that she means well. They see her suit and her eyes and her face and they think she’s a bitch. I am maybe her only friend.
What I get from this? I suppose I feel a sense of purpose every time I fill a bottle with blood. How pathetic he is—it makes me feel capable by comparison, like someone with a good head on her shoulders, the sensible one in the partnership, the clean-up to the screw-up. Then, sawing someone’s throat open can be cathartic.
There are some things you can tell a friend. Some things you can’t.
“He makes me feel needed,” I say. “He makes me feel important.”
“Now imagine if you were to go back to school. Build a career. Let the whole world know what you have to offer. Kathleen, you are underestimating yourself. You are grossly undervaluing your potential. You need to wake up and let yourself dream big, girl.”
I am two years older than Mel. During the years she plunged her intuition into a niche I’d never even known existed and made a name for herself as a high priestess of risky investment, I was honing my skills as a butcher of human cattle. I was learning how to sharpen knives and mix knock-out cocktails, how to maneuver bodies thrice my weight, how to hang them head-down and slice. I was learning how to dispose and to hide.
Mel says: “I believe in you, Kathleen. Now you have to believe in yourself.”
Oftentimes while my boyfriend sleeps in the afternoon, I playact his murder by holding a train spike to his heart. The spike, my most precious belonging, is the only secret I keep from him. I found it not long after I met my boyfriend, not long after my first kill. I was walking along the train tracks, the iron still in my nose, the red and the stink still in my eyes.
I was twenty-five then and felt ancient. I’d come back to my hometown lost, done in. I was staying at my grandma’s house. Never mind all that. The important thing is I ran into Amber at the Save Mart, where she was cashiering. The important thing: My new boyfriend, who called me baby, wanted me to save him, and she was the only person who would follow me to the old factory. It wasn’t quick. It was long and messy and loud. Amber was a hundred eighty pounds at least. She’d had a hard life and knew how to throw punches. When I finished, dawn was already drenching the land blue, and the groan of crop dusters rent the quiet.
I walked along the train tracks, knowing that when I got to my boyfriend’s apartment he would be sleeping, his gray lids drooped. Sleeping like a baby. The train spike wasn’t even hidden amongst weeds. I thought, This is a sign. I put it in my purse. It dragged my shoulder down. I thought about how interesting it was that, when you kill someone, it is difficult to pinpoint the exact moment of the soul’s departure. By the time I unlocked my boyfriend’s door I had forgotten about the spike. I fed him and watched those stone lids pinken. I thought, I can get good at this.
“My boyfriend”: these are words rolled like diamonds in a teen girl’s mouth, but for a woman nearing her thirty-fifth birthday, what do they mean? Is it not my right at this stage to utter “my husband”? I want a family and that’s an issue. I want my boyfriend to be my husband, or maybe I want a different man entirely. Maybe I don’t want anything, only an excuse to use the train spike, to make that, at least, mean something.
“A whole month and a half and nothing for him to lick from me.”
Mel and I are at a bistro. A Pepsi is three-fifty a glass. We are snacking on onion rings before our entrees.
“You haven’t gotten your period,” Mel said. Mel never asks questions. Every word drops like hail. She steeples her fingers. “You’ve stopped using contraceptives. You want to have a baby with him.”
“Looks like I’m going to, doesn’t it?”
“I hope for your own sake it’s just late.” Mel looks away with the look of a soldier too long in trenches. “You need to see what a bad idea this is, starting a family with this man. I hesitate even to call him a man.”
“He’s a scrub,” I say.
“Worse. And he has permeated you as termites do the foundations of a house. I understand how difficult it is to disentangle yourself from him. But you gotta. You gotta think of your own life, your own needs.”
“He might turn around as a father. He might take on responsibilities. People change.”
Beneath this, so obvious I know Mel smells it: Maybe I will turn around. Maybe I’ll be good as a mother. My body will change, at the very least. It will age into that of a real woman. No one will mistake me for a child any longer. They will know me as a bringer of life. They will know me as having contributed to this world.
My boyfriend is half-risen on the mattress. His eyes are bright red, like a lemur’s in a night zoo.
“I won’t let you have it. You’ll get rid of it.”
One of those scenes. Who would have thought it? It took us ten years to get here.
“I thought you’d be happy. You should be. This child will be good for us.” I clasp my hands to my belly. It already feels stretched and roiling.
“You don’t understand, Kathleen. It’ll kill you. My kind and yours—we can’t mate. We can’t create anything viable.” He puts his portly hands on his head. “No, that’s too kind a way to put it. What we can create will destroy everything around it, even its own mother.”
“Then why?” I back away from him. “Why did you even let it get this far? Why didn’t you tell me in the beginning? Why did you lead me on these long?”
“Kathleen, what we had—what we have—is good. It works. We’re happy.”
“I kill for you. The best years of my life I’ve given to you. All for nothing.”
“Don’t say what we have is nothing.”
I breathe. I think about a waterfall and peaceful woods, a little cabin, a white-spotted fawn nipping new leaves. The fawn is feeling sleepy and wants to nap, but it is also hungry. That’s all right, because there’s all the time in the world for it to do everything it wants, to have everything it desires.
“I’ll find a clinic. Will you come with me?”
My boyfriend raises his swollen hands. His ruby eyes bulge. A breeze from the open window wafts his smell to me.
“I wish I could, I really do, but how can I when I’m like this?”
Mel’s BMW has beige leather seats that warm themselves. It glides so smoothly over the road. A bottle of orange juice rattles in one cup holder. A bag of dried cranberries is wedged into the other, because Mel thinks I need iron after the procedure. She thinks cranberries are rich in iron because they’re red.
“This was all for the best,” she says. “You’ll realize later.”
“Didn’t you have class today?”
“Never mind that.” Mel eases to a stop as a light blinks red. “You need someone with you. Anyway, you’ll see this as the wake-up call it is. This is the best day of your life, Kathleen.” She strikes the steering wheel with the heels of her hands as she says this. “This is the day you’ll begin to see you have to live life differently. Yeah!”
Her apartment complex has walls around it and a gate. She has to buzz in. The anesthesia is still in my body, or I’m tired, so I clutch her arm as we walk into the marble-floored lobby and the elevator whose mirror walls are perfectly silver, smudgeless. Her apartment has wall-to-wall windows that look out over the sparkling city. Somewhere in that swathe of darkness and lights my boyfriend is lying on our stained mattress, pondering donning his trench coat and spraying on a few layers of Burberry Men and heading out to a bar. He only does this when I fail, when I can’t save him.
The sofa pulls out into a bed. Mel fits a snow-white sheet over it, shakes out a comforter. Flakes of down hover in the air and descend.
“I don’t know how to thank you.” I finish my orange juice.
“Don’t mention it. We gotta stick together, you know.”
It occurs to me that Mel thinks we are the same. She thinks that because we came from similar beginnings, we are headed toward similar conclusions. She thinks I will become another her. It dizzies me, how wrong she is. It doesn’t matter where we come from. The real judge of what a person is: where she is now. After I recover I will have to leave this apartment; I will have to walk the shit-caked streets in old shoes I will try to leave my boyfriend, but he will find me, and he will charm me with this tongue, wise in its own ways from centuries. I will kill again for him, because of what I am, because of what I want.
Of course I don’t tell Mel this. We eat artisan pizza topped with goat’s cheese and roasted bell peppers. We drink ginger ale from glass bottles.
“I can be there when you tell him it’s over,” Mel says. “You need backup. You’ll be able to, if someone’s there with you.”
“But what will I do after? What will I do with my life? I’m not a good person, Mel. I’m not like you.”
If only Mel would hate me, I think, I’d be able to change.
“You gotta believe in yourself,” Mel says. “You’ve got so much potential. Girl, you can do anything.”
I smile and look down at my crust-sprinkled plate.
“I want to hear you say it: ‘I can do anything.’”
“I can do anything.”
“Yell it to the world!”
“I can do anything!”
Mel smiles. “I knew you had it in you.”
I can still see my boyfriend’s flicking tongue the first time I met him, his face hidden under the brim of a fedora, between the wedges of a popped-up collar, like an old-timey spy. All I could see were the eyes, the color of merlot, and the active tongue. The cigarettes and the liquor masked the smell. He bought me a gin and tonic and pushed it toward me with big leather-gloved hands. He didn’t ask how old I was. He could see the real me.
In Mel’s spotless mirror in Mel’s gleaming bathroom, I see my face for the first time in years. It is strangely smooth, unwrinkled, as if all the time I spend on mistakes rewards my body. Maybe it’s the killing, the therapy of it. The constant fume of fresh blood that steams my skin, the adrenaline that pumps glow into my eyes.
Mel sleeps on her back, her arms at her side. Nothing bends Mel, not even slumber. There is a crystal vase with white red-striped roses on the bedside table. Does she have a boyfriend? Will she get married someday? Even if she does, she’ll belong to people like me. I don’t understand her.
The train spike feels heavier when I hold it over her. Some people exert a more powerful gravity, I guess. As such, they attract all sorts.
It’s all I can do to stop the spike from plunging into her of its own volition. Bits of dirt and rust dust the rise and fall of her white-gowned chest. This, it could be said, is the first real interaction we’ve had, and I am excited.
I want to say: I can. I can and I won’t. You hear me? I can and I won’t.
But she strikes me as a light sleeper, so I don’t.
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