By Israfel Sivad
There’s so little of my life that I want to remember and so little of it that I can’t forget, but you can never escape your memories. They prey upon the deepest recesses of your mind. They’re the monster that you can’t outrun in a nightmare. You pump your legs, but your limbs are waterlogged with the past’s disease. You try to close the door, but you move too slowly. A claw reaches through and catches hold of you. You cry out. You wake up, and there the past confronts you in reality. In the darkness, with pale moonlight streaming through an open window onto your mattress, lighting a swath across your eyes, your face contorts and you pound your hands against your skull. You retch from wretchedness. Your memories feed upon you whether awake or asleep, dead or alive, talking or dreaming. These monsters have devoured me.
It was in Baltimore, right after I graduated from college, that they first bested me. I was starving and struggling, living on ramen noodles and water. The roaches had taken over my apartment. It was summertime, and I spent the hot nights sweating, listening to classical music as I attempted to write and my body dried out more and more until I wound up constipated from the dehydration. Then, I sat on my toilet until well past midnight killing the roaches, listening to them crunch beneath the toilet paper in my fingers as they scampered around my feet. The bugs were nothing but babies just like me, fledgling critters dead as soon as they’d hatched. They were my only friends, and I both loved and despised the hovel we had created together.
My nights were spent dredging my memories in the attempt to devise short stories. Childhood held me rapt. I couldn’t get past it. More interesting things had happened since, but to think about that…
Finally, one night, I threw my pen into the binding of a notebook that I kept back then, and I left the fetid place to wander Baltimore’s humid, mangled streets. In the darkness, I wanted to see the inner harbor, the moonlight glowing upon the water. It was an image I’d often contemplated four years before when I’d first moved to that gray and red, brick and concrete, economically depressed city. There was a girl, one girl, a vision of whom wouldn’t let my thoughts be. Imaginings of her hair wrapped around my neck. The strands strangled me. I was willing to do anything to forget her, anything to return to some previous incarnation of myself. On the way, my attention was arrested.
East Baltimore Street is quite an interesting place. As I strolled in and out of streetlamps, chain smoking cigarettes, its vibrancy sang to me. I’d passed it on a number of occasions during my stay in Charm City, but never before had its lustful promises seemed so fulfilling. The strip cubs that dotted that block beckoned with a notion I’d never been aware of before, one of complete and total immersion in a world of forgetting. I didn’t drink at that point in my life, and God, I needed something, some semblance of connecting, some vision to provide a fantasy, anything other than reality. I turned and headed down the block in search of fleshy wares.
The street, an unrequited ocean of masculine desire, was thick with drunken, stumbling men. They swerved in and out of clubs, shouting at and dragging along their fellows. They poured down side streets and their catcalls bellowed out the open doors. Female and she-male prostitutes dotted the corners. In short skirts with their breasts bunched close together, they waved at the passing cars, and they ran in their high heels to open windows. They giggled and laughed with one another, and they harassed the bums tripping along with forties in brown bags. The bums slurred to every man who passed – Buddy, could you spare a quarter? Stumbling over their falling apart shoes, they collected nothing. Desire left them bereft. The men were deaf. Whatever was in their pockets was paper gold saved only to drape across a dancer’s naked thigh. I passed a corner club with a doorman who invited me inside to view the merchandise, and I acquiesced.
The lighting lay dark and truculent across the white trash remnants downing their drinks. I was the youngest customer by ten years. Kid Rock blared through the stereo – Baw-diddy-bah. Soft, rhythmic Christmas lights flashed swaths of color on the walls of mirrors. I took a seat at the bar and ordered a coke. Dollar bills were piled across the stage-front.
Like a prowling cat, a hunting lioness, a dancer, on her hands and knees, slinked across the stage. She reached the pole, fluidly slid up its length, and twirled a ballet-like pirouette. With her back rigid, she collapsed to the ground, spread her legs, and rolled onto her chest. She slid through a yoga posture, prayed to the sun, and rose to her feet again. She had blond hair cut to the nape of her neck, a smile on her face, thick legs, a tight stomach, and full handfuls of breasts.
A sickly, heroin addict seeming dancer quickly slid into place next to me. She shivered from her nudity. Her fingers trembled as they brushed against my arm. “Wanna buy me a drink?” she asked. Her teeth were crooked and mangled. Her skin was blotchy and translucent. I choked a sip through my straw.
I glanced from her back to the dancer on stage. “I’d rather buy her a drink,” I said, nodding to my performing choice. The girl on stage was shrouded in the beauty of perfection and mystery. She was healthy and full – something that could fulfill my deep-seated need for a pure evening of fantasy.
“Suit yourself,” the heroin addict said, and she stood up. “Heather, you got a customer,” she shouted at the stage. Heather turned her head, looked right at me, and smiled. I melted. The memory that had been strangling me since before I’d left my apartment melded quietly into the nightclub’s bright silence. I could breathe again. Like the ghost of a murdered child, my memory stared at me from the corner of the room, but I hid from its angry, judgmental gaze. As long as I could see Heather, she expanded to personify every moment of my current reality. I sipped my coke and for the first time in months really felt quite happy. I closed my eyes and basked in the forgotten sensation.
Warm breath breathed across my neck: “Hello.” I opened my eyes. Sitting down next to me, in a tight, black top and black skirt cut high upon her thighs, Heather was smiling. I smiled back at her. She ran her hand behind my neck, tickled me with her painted nails, slipped her fingers through my hair, leaned forward, and kissed me on the lips.
The sensation was kinetic. Life pulsed through her lips into mine. My eyes exploded a wave of colors into my brain. My capillaries carried her sensation through my arteries and into my very blood stream where it warmed my stomach and filled my heart. My fingers tingled against her back and ribcage. Her soft, milky flesh lit my hands afire. The flames consumed my body and overpowered my soul. To further feel her burgeoning electricity, I ran one hand across her warm chin and neck. She purred, a pussy cat, and leaned closer to me. Her tongue darted between my lips. Our saliva commingled. Our tongues writhed as Chinese dragons in a fight. New Year’s fireworks exploded across my taste buds. For that brief moment, every thought that had tormented me for so long now that I couldn’t even remember a time without them vanished in death’s blinding, white light. It had been months since I’d been kissed.
“Wow,” she said when we were done. “That was great.”
My eyes glowed. My hair was out of place. An inner warmth crept through my cheeks to heat my face. “Yeah, it was,” I agreed, still tasting her snap and pop amid my emptiness.
“What’s your name?” she asked.
I told her.
“So you wanna buy me a drink?”
I nodded. Of course I did. It cost me twenty-five dollars, and according to the rules of the club, she was my property until it was done.
Heather led us to a table in the back of the club. The lighting here was even softer than that up front. The newfound darkness added dimensions to our tryst. Somehow, this all seemed more legitimate. Low-lying jazz should have been playing. A candle could have been lit. It was as if we were pretending that we’d met at a normal bar on a normal night, that I hadn’t already seen her naked, that the future might be opening up instead of closing in on us, and that somehow this might evolve into something incorporating dates and moving in together, a wedding and children. Instead, because of our falsity, I enjoyed the change of scenery and the chance to focus all my attention upon this woman I had paid for. I needed to get my money’s worth. What that was, I wasn’t quite sure. Heather nestled into my shoulder. We kissed again. I rubbed my hands up and down her smooth legs. Her skin warmed my touch. It warmed me so much, I shivered. “So what do you do?” she asked me when our lips parted from one another’s. She tilted her head back on her neck. A smile curled the corners of her lips.
“I’m a writer,” I said.
“Really? Have you published anything?”
“I just started. I just graduated from college. I’m working on a collection of short stories.”
“What are they about?”
“Real life. Divorces, drugs, fights… Someday, maybe this.”
“I read a lot. My favorite writer’s J.D. Salinger. Have you ever read Franny and Zooey?”
“No, but I just finished Nine Stories.”
“What did you think?”
“A Perfect Day for Bananafish is one of the best things I’ve ever read. If I ever get famous and get to put together one of those anthologies, I’ll definitely put it in. Along with A Clean, Well-Lighted Place by Hemingway, A Good Man Is Hard To Find by Flannery O’Connor, and Where I’m Calling From by Raymond Carver.”
“You aren’t crazy like Salinger, are you?” Her eyes opened wide as she said it. Her gaze glassed over to nothing but the present. It was almost impossible to believe that less than ten minutes before, she’d been writhing like a suffocating fish for two dozen jeering men.
“Not that I know of.”
“You wouldn’t ever want to run away from the world?”
I smiled a smile that died somewhere between my cheeks and my eyes. “I’m already trying to do that,” I answered.
“That’s okay,” Heather said. “Let me tell you a secret.” Breathing into my ear, she whispered: “I want to, too. I want to run away to the mountains and leave all this far away behind me. I want to be a little girl again.”
Something opened inside of me, something like a flower in spring, one of the many-petaled denizens of a great trap door to the source of all my nightmares and dreams. Like a hummingbird overdosed on nectar, a thought tickled the back of my throat and died. I choked on it and closed my eyes. When I opened them again, I pulled Heather closer to me. Curling her hands up to her neck, she nestled snugly into my chest. Our bodies fit together so well. My emotions swelled from the scent of the sweat from her dance. I said, “Let’s go to the mountains together.”
Heather pulled back so that she could look me in the face and judge my sincerity. Beneath the somber gleam of the lights glowing in the front, her eyes sparkled. Her lips twirled into a full grin, and she said, “Have you seen Life is Beautiful yet?”
I told her I hadn’t.
“First, you need to take me to see that. You’ll love it. It’s perfect for our first date, if you don’t count this.”
“I don’t count this.”
“Good. I don’t either. You can’t count a date at a place like this. We’ll pretend like I’m a waitress and you met me at the restaurant where I work. You ordered a hamburger, and I left you my phone number on the check.” That sounded like a good idea.
A few minutes later, the club’s lone waitress approached us. She was middle aged and sallow. Pudge trickled over the top of her jeans, but her flamboyant mannerisms implied that at one point in time, years ago, she very well may have been one of the girls twirling around the pole. “Heather, are you done with your drink yet?” she asked, a certain persistence in her tone, an admonishing glint in her eyes.
“Is he going to buy you another one?”
Heather looked at me. I nodded to say I would. “Amelia,” Heather said, “Could you bring me a pen, too, and be discrete about it. Whatever you do, don’t let Jimmy see you.” When Amelia left, Heather turned back to me. “We aren’t supposed to give our phone numbers out to anybody,” she explained. “But you’re different. I’m glad I met you.”
Amelia returned with the drink and a pen. Heather grabbed a cocktail napkin. In a flowery hand reminiscent of all the notes the girls had delivered to me in high school, she scribbled across it. Her “H” had trills to it. Her “t” had a flowing tail at the end. The crosshatch squiggled across the page. To set them off from everything else, the numbers had hearts around them. She slid the napkin across the table to me. “Thank you,” I said. I slipped it into my pocket, and we kissed to confirm our need to see one another again.
I bought Heather two more drinks before I left… one hundred dollars. I’d only spent that much money one other time in my life: the first time I ever went to a strip club in LA. My shoes, which by that point had holes in the toes, didn’t even cost that much. But that was the going rate in Baltimore to spend an hour running away from your memories. Even without any alcohol, her scent and her smile, her breasts and her eyes were inebriating. Every time our lips touched I tasted wine. Every rustle of her nails through my hair distorted my mind. She buried reality in a tomb of its own design.
We cuddled and kissed between minute sips off her drink. She tried to make every glass last. But Amelia kept her eye on us, and as soon as Heather started swirling her ice, she was upon us again, breathing into our faces, disturbing our embrace, forcing me to ante up and hold onto my place in the club. There was a hint in her mannerisms of us doing something vaguely illegal. It must have been against the rules, some sort of unknown sin, for us to enjoy one another’s company, to simply talk as I held gingerly onto Heather’s fingertips. I fumbled through my weekly allowance and forked over the bills I didn’t want to part with. Heather and I discussed everything from art to movies to literature to our dreams for the future. All around us, the rest of the customers were getting lap dances. Faceless girls ground their hips into unknown men’s crotches. Hidden in the corner, my heroin addict from earlier had her hands down an old man’s pants. His eyes were closed, and he held his head tilted back towards the ceiling. Spittle spouted from his lips. Heather wanted to be a preschool teacher because she loved children. We decided she could do that somewhere far away in our imaginary mountains.
We said goodbye slowly. Grins toyed with both of our faces. My hand slid down her arm to end with a light touch on the tips of her fingers. Her eyes sparkled with delight as I promised I’d call her the very next night. “I’d like that very much,” she said. I leaned down and kissed her one last time. She bit her upper lip as she told me, “Good night.”
Outside, on the street, the heat was suffocating. I could already feel myself dehydrating. The doorman asked me if I had a good time. I said, “Yeah,” in order to be polite. I reached into my pocket and felt the cocktail napkin with Heather’s number on it. Its rough edges were comforting and nice. Then, something shifted around inside of me. In the glare of the streetlights, with a barrage of honking horns, fantasy gave way to reality. My facial expression collapsed. The trap door that I’d been dreading opened up. I fell headlong into a black hole descending into my gut.
I pulled the cocktail napkin from my pocket, and I dropped it – hearts, squiggles, and all. It twirled in the stagnant air and fell into the empty gutter as I walked back along the vacant streets to return to greet the roaches who ruled my apartment while I was out, to spend all night sweating into and writhing across my lonely sheets. I never made it to the inner harbor.