lready the air in his room is close and warm, but the light between the curtains is gray so it must be very early, too early to be awake. He is asleep on his back. I feel tired, but I can’t fall asleep again because I keep thinking about how he might wake up and look at me in the daylight while I’m sleeping, when I won’t be able to cover the folds of my stomach with my arms or cross my legs to hide the razor burn. He’ll see me slack and supine, all deflated flesh, like a sweaty blow-up doll with an expressive face. I consider curling up against him with my head on his chest, but my skin is clammy and I can taste my breath, so I leave a few inches between us. His features haven’t changed, but there’s something unfamiliar about his sleeping face, like looking at his identical twin. The same, but not. I’m still watching him sleep when he opens his eyes, looks at me, blinks a few times.
“How long have you been awake?”
“Not long. I basically just woke up. It’s really early; you should go back to sleep.”
He laughs and pulls my body toward his. “Were you watching me sleep?”
“No,” I say, smiling. “Well, maybe for a little while. I read somewhere that people who take themselves very seriously tend to sleep on their backs. Must be true.”
He grins and throws his arms around me, rolling over my body so that he’s looking at me from above, bracketing my hips with his knees. He doesn’t look strange anymore.
“What are you thinking about?” he asks, moving his face closer to mine.
“Nothing,” I run my fingers through his hair. “I don’t know. Lots of things. You.”
“What about me?”
“Just that you look different when you’re asleep. Not in a bad way. You just look younger. Boyish. It’s the only time I’ve seen you look your age.” He frowns and presses the full weight of his body against mine, kissing my chest and my neck and my face and then my mouth because I’ve forgotten about my bad breath. I mumble his name between kisses.
“I love hearing you say my name,” he whispers into my neck. “I hate my name, but I love hearing you say it.”
“Really? I think Jake is a nice name.”
“Thanks, but I don’t. It’s better than my real name, though. The one my parents gave me.”
“Beckett. My dad was a pretentious English major and my mother just didn’t give a shit.”
I laugh. “I don’t like my name either.”
“Emma? I think Emma is pretty,” he says. “Emma, Emma. Emma.”
I shake my head. “I don’t like it.”
“Why not? Because it’s, like, the most popular baby name in the country? Not original enough for you?”
“No, that doesn’t matter to me. I don’t like it because it begins and ends with vowels. Too many open mouths.”
He kisses me again. “Well, I like it.”
“No, it’s awful,” I say. “Hearing it is like being swallowed up and regurgitated. Like being tasted and gnashed and wretched back up soaked in someone else’s digestive fluids.”
“But it’s so pretty.”
The sex survey guy calls at 9am. “Hello, Emma?”
“Is this your wakeup call?” He sounds younger than I expected.
“Yeah.” I giggle to show him I’m not annoyed because I am a good-natured girl and then I have to clear my throat because yesterday I smoked probably twenty cigarettes. I have started smoking again.
“And you go by Emma? Or should I call you something else?”
“Yeah, Emma is fine.”
“It’s a pretty name.”
I giggle. “Thanks.”
“Ok, Emma,” he says. “I’m going to ask you a few questions, and I want you to be really open and honest. I don’t want you to make up any crazy stories; I just want your real answers. And then you’ll have a chance to ask me some questions. Does that sound good?”
“Are you ready?”
He asks me how tall I am. He asks me how much I weigh. What are my measurements? I hesitate.
“If you don’t know, just estimate.”
In my head I subtract two inches three times and say some numbers. “Sorry,” I laugh. “I’m just not sure.”
“Okay.” His tone remains the same. “What would you most like to change about your body?”
“My stomach,” I say without hesitation. This is a boring response, but at least it’s normal. I wish I had said something girlish and indifferent, like a woman in a Godard film. Something about cigarettes and trembling hands.
“It’s not perfectly flat. It’s not fat, but…it’s just…not flat.” And it never will be. I’ve yearned for a flat stomach since I was eleven, when my friend Ella told me two secrets. The second secret was that having a flat stomach is important because it’s pretty and it’s what boys want. Ella accomplished this easily, throwing away her lunch and running laps around the track after school. Behind the handball court she told the first secret, whispering about a dim hallway and an opened door, a squeaking of springs, a writhing beneath sheets, a grunt, a gasp, a widening of eyes, a reddening of faces, a shout. This secret also required throwing away food and running laps. She shrunk until her stomach grew concave and I withered alongside her, but none of it mattered because I still couldn’t wear a crop top.
“And a second thing?”
I pause, searching for the right answer. “I guess…my kneecaps? I wish I had smaller kneecaps.” I am perfectly satisfied with my kneecaps, but this is better than telling him about the hair. My mother has it too. Dark coarse stalks sprout from her forearms and chin. On her chest and cheeks and stomach it’s soft and sprawling like yellow sea grass. For as long as I can remember her calves have been barbed.
“What is the thing you like most about your body?”
“Um. My collarbone.” This is a ladylike response because it doesn’t give too much away. Casey’s mother said that being a lady means leaving your shoulders bare and covering your thighs. I didn’t need this advice because it would be a long time before I knew what I had to give away. Casey didn’t want this advice because she wasn’t giving – she was exchanging. We were twelve when men began looking at her. They stared when she rode the bus in a tube top and tiny denim shorts, slouching, knees wide, unthinking, defiant. They looked over their shoulders when she passed them on the sidewalk in her plaid uniform skirt.
“It sort of sticks out.” Casey liked eating cherry lollipops and ice cream cones in public. Some weekends we stole her mother’s tequila and sat on her bed in our underwear, passing the bottle back and forth until she’d unclasped herself on video chat for all the boys she knew. There was a folder on her desktop entitled “<3” where she kept screenshots of those who returned the favor, but she rarely opened it. She wasn’t in it for the dick pics. She had something beautiful and wanted to watch someone look. She cried when she got her braces off, as if she understood.
“And it’s elegant. I guess.” Her mother looked like she was made of wax. She had tight shiny skin and a gracefully scalpel-eroded nose. On Monday and Wednesday afternoons she practiced “therapeutic screaming” in the shower. She decided her daughter was a lady (makeup, nose job) when she was fifteen, so Casey became very busy stealing clothes from Barney’s and being good-looking in public. She was a beautiful thing and someone wanted to look. She practiced crying in the mirror.
“What color is your hair?”
“Has it been any other color?”
I laugh. “It was purple for a while.”
“But now it’s brown?”
“Why did you change it back?”
“Um, it was hard to match clothes?” I say. He chuckles. “And I guess I got bored of it.” I looked ugly with purple hair. When my mother pointed this out, I dyed it brown. A week later I pierced my left nipple with a safety pin and made an OkCupid account to meet girls. The piercing got infected and I didn’t meet any girls.
“What do men like most about your body?”
I have to think about this. “It’s, um, perky? And round.” I hear a short pleased hum.
“Where do you most like to be touched?” I think about a hand on my left thigh in a dark theater and a tongue on my earlobe and rough fingers tracing the purple scab on my ankle. A blonde boy’s eyes on the bookshelf in my childhood bedroom. Casey’s shoulders in the sweater I gave her. Jake’s breath on my collarbone.
“Um. I like it when someone kisses my neck.”
“Okay.” His voice is flat. Generic answer. Oops. “What type and size of bra do you wear?”
I explain that I wear the same unpadded bra, size medium, from American Apparel almost every day. He is silent. “But it’s sheer,” I say, attempting to redeem myself. “Sorry.”
“Okay, if you were to buy a bra at a real place, what size would it be? An A cup or a B cup or a C cup?”
I don’t know the answer. I pick B. He asks me to describe two sets of lingerie I would like to have. “From any store you want.” I say Agent Provocateur because it is the only brand of lingerie I know. I say I would like something pink and frilly and matching. When I pause he is silent which makes me worry he is disappointed but how can I tell him about drinking beer on the sun-drenched porch behind the house on Mulholland with the girl in pink underwear.
Valentine Thomas. It was summer, and we’d both returned home from our first year of college. I admired her because she was principled – she lived by two cardinal rules. The first was that she wanted to experience everything. We had lots of fun together. We took mushrooms and she collapsed face first in a parking lot. The mushrooms kicked in thirty minutes later. She said she was crazy and an “insecure narcissist,” but “it’s OK because I’m self-aware.” She told me about the time she stood in front of her parents in the kitchen and slashed her wrists with a steak knife like it was the funniest thing in the world.
Her other rule was that she wanted to love everyone. We went to a punk show with a quiet girl who was our age and had a master’s degree in physics. We watched a redheaded boy perform Poi in his driveway. We invited her friends to my house for midnight dinner parties. They were in their twenties and seemed exotic. I thought I fell in love with an ugly awkward boy who made me laugh because it no longer mattered to me that he was ugly and awkward. I told Valentine I thought I loved him. She slept with him. I’m dying. He liked her more than he liked me. I’m dying. I sent him an email professing my love and he didn’t reply. I’m dying. Facebook said they were “in a relationship” but I didn’t care because I’m dead.
“And then something black. Lacy and black.” Which two couples would I want to watch having sex. Which positions have I tried. Which position is my favorite. What taste would I most closely associate with cum. The first thing I think of is snails so that’s what I say.
He laughs. “I’ve never heard that one before.” He asks me if I would let a man come inside me, where on my body would I want a man to come.
“Anywhere but my face. I would never let someone come on my face,” I say, thinking about the boy in the band in the yellow room at the Best Western who I refused to fuck because I had my period so I let him come on my face instead because he was famous. I didn’t feel guilty about this and I didn’t cry riding the Red Line home and I didn’t wash my face until the next morning because I’m still dead.
He asks me how many people I have slept with. Six. What is the strangest place I have had sex. The library stairwell, or my ex-girlfriend’s mother’s closet. Which place was more exciting. It’s difficult to say. Probably the closet because her mother was eating breakfast in the room directly beneath us.
“Would you consider yourself bisexual?”
“I don’t know; it seems contingent on the person.” I know that when I kissed a girl for the first time (Casey, “for practice,” doesn’t count) I thought about the night I lay drunk in bed next to Valentine and she asked to kiss me and I laughed and turned away. I felt like I might vomit, kissing this girl and thinking about Valentine, from the excitement or the regret or the tequila or the scent of shampoo and tobacco but I was soaking wet inside my jeans. I’m probably not dead anymore.
Would I fuck a married man. Maybe, it depends. Would I fuck a married man “with his wife still on his dick.” I guess. Would I prefer to fuck a married man immediately before or immediately after he has fucked his wife. Immediately after–seems less dishonest. Would I go down on a married man with his wife still on his dick. Yes, if I were his long-term mistress because “every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.” This is America after all. Would I want to watch him fuck his wife. No, I think that would make me feel sad.
Would I ever watch someone masturbate for money. Do you mean paying money or being paid money. “Being paid.” Yes. Would I let someone watch me masturbate for money. No. How often do I touch myself. I lie and say almost never because I am embarrassed to talk about it. Has anyone ever watched me touch myself. I don’t know; it’s possible. But has anyone ever caught me touching myself and then watched as I continued doing it. So we’re both aware of each other’s presence? “Yes.” No. I wish that had happened to me because it would make a good story. I would want it to be like the scene in American Beauty when Thora Birch sees her next door neighbor filming her through her bedroom window so she takes off her tank top and stands in front of the window and one of her breasts hangs a little lower than the other because this is what I always think of when I am imagining tender unabashed confrontational female nudity.
Can I describe how I masturbate. When was the last time I had sex. Two weeks ago. “Can you describe it?”
“It was with this boy. Andrew. It was…rough. He hit me with a belt. And then, um, and then he fucked me. Hard.”
“Did you like that?”
“Yeah, it was hot. Sometimes it feels good to be an object. To be used as a sexual object.”
Andrew lived in a room overlooking a preschool. He was the smartest person I had ever met. His room had two windows, neither of which had blinds. It was afternoon and children were shrieking in the playground. I was sitting at his desk in the size medium bra from American Apparel and underwear that said “Friday” on them even though it was Thursday (which I was intentionally wearing on Thursday hoping Andrew will see them and think “Wow, Emma is so whimsical and carefree and non-neurotic”) reading an essay he had written about his heroin addiction because he asked me to read it. It began with an anecdote about the time he overdosed in a Starbucks bathroom.
I laughed because he was mixing the past perfect and simple past tenses clumsily. He tore the paper from my hands and threw it on the ground and threw me on the bed. He handcuffed me and tied my ankles together with a belt and stuffed a t-shirt in my mouth and blindfolded me with a sleeping mask that said Delta Airlines on it. Then he started hitting me with another belt.
“I hate you, Emma,” he said. The belt struck my leg. It felt good because I knew then that even though he was smarter than me I was capable of hurting him. He hit me harder. I heard the preschoolers screaming and I heard Andrew saying, “You are not pretty. You are not interesting. You are not smart.” I started crying a little bit. I wasn’t crying because he was hitting me. I wanted him to hit me. I was crying because when he said my name it sounded perfect. I was crying because I was afraid.
He didn’t stop until I started crying a lot. I spit out the t-shirt and he removed the blindfold and the handcuffs and the belt from around my ankles. He held me, told me I was wonderful.
I apologized for crying. I said things like: I just got sad for a second, I shouldn’t drink red wine in the afternoon, I wasn’t crying because you were hitting me and saying mean things to me, I was crying because I should have felt angry or horny or both but all I felt was apathy. I’m not sure if he knew I was lying but that night, driving around Los Feliz trying to find something to do, he accused me of having a Tumblr so he probably knew.
It is not until later that I realize this isn’t the last time I had sex – I fucked my ex-girlfriend four days after Andrew. The next day I broke up with her. The day after that she saw me outside the library and started yelling at me so I admitted to fucking Andrew. I said I was “madly in love with him” which could be true because I pinched the bruises he left on my body every day for a week, but probably isn’t true because sometimes I look at his Facebook and feel nauseated. Maybe it’s possible to love him in practice but not in theory. When my ex-girlfriend slapped me in the face I said, “Andrew slaps me harder than that,” which made me feel like I was in a movie.
I ask him some questions. His sister-in-law has a hot body and he wants to fuck her. Once at the family beach house in Nantucket on a morning when he thought no one was home he began masturbating and she walked in and “just stood there” until he came. Do you like when women make sounds during sex. What kind of sounds do I make. “Show me.” I exhale in a way that seems sexy but is also like aching. “I like that.” I can tell by his tone that he exclusively uses the word cock to refer to his penis. A vagina is a pussy and sometimes a cunt.
“I am going to go home and fuck my wife tonight. Give me two positions I should fuck her in.” Um, hold her wrists down and fuck her from above–you know, like, the normal way. Then put her legs over your shoulders, drape her legs over your shoulders. “Thank you.”
He says something but the sounds stagger. I think it was a question so I ask him to repeat himself. “I like to come at the end of these calls,” he says. “Is that okay?” Yeah, sure, whatever does it for you. “And I like to hear my name.” Okay, what’s your name? “Mike.” I think I detect a note of hurt in his voice but I am probably imagining this.
I know he wants me to keep talking but I can’t think so I don’t say anything. “Talk to me while I come. Say my name. Talk.” Mike, I say, I want you to come. Think about all the voices you’ve heard, Mike. Now focus on me. I repeat the words “Oh, Mike” a few times in a voice that is mostly breath. I feel light and formless.
“I’m getting close to coming,” he says and I can hear him breathing and I think about sweat. “Where do you want me to come?”
I want him to come in his hand. I think about cum dripping onto his fingers and hiding under his nails which are probably very clean and seeping into the cracks of his skin and crawling into the corners of his watch if he masturbates with that arm. I feel tingly listening to his breath. He makes a sound like he is choking on a moan.
“Thank you, Emma. You can email me to arrange payment. Have a nice day.”
I feel weird, so I get in the shower and think about the things I told Mike. He knows I have brown hair that used to be purple, and that I wear a sheer unpadded size medium bra from American Apparel almost every day. He knows that I had sex two weeks ago. He knows what my voice sounds like. He knows my name. I wonder if this means he knows me. He doesn’t know the girl who didn’t have a flat stomach, or the girl who couldn’t be a lady, or the girl who was nothing to two people at once. But maybe he doesn’t need to know those girls to know me. They were. I’m not.
I make fried eggs for breakfast. My roommate Kyle walks into the kitchen wearing his pajamas and opens the fridge, staring blankly at its contents.
“Hey, Emma,” he says.
“Hey,” I reply.