Do You Want to Be Her or Do You Want to Fuck Her?
"Pussy Hounds" by Sarah Gerard, an Original Short Story Recommended by Electric Literature
INTRODUCTION BY HALIMAH MARCUS
“Pussy Hounds” by Sarah Gerard is a story about four friends who take a trip to Maine for a self-imposed writing retreat. As it happens, not much writing gets done. One of them isn’t even a writer to begin with. They go for walks, watch movies, gossip over dinner. Their delicate social accord is threatened by a mysterious “back massage incident” that occurred years-prior. Nina, the narrator, has recently escaped a toxic marriage. Filtered through her inner life, the story is also about making art, gender and sexual identity, self harm, and abuse. “Pussy Hounds” is not, despite the title, a story about chasing pussy, though pussy does play a part.
“Pussy Hounds” is also not about Issues with a capital I. The pleasure of reading this story comes from lurking in this highly specific world inhabited by people who at first seem peculiar and by the end are intimately familiar. With her candid prose, Gerard creates a textured verisimilitude—at turns pleasurable, at turns painful—where the confessional and theoretical are blurred.
Casual observations include, “Mrs. Doubtfire was just another man who couldn’t take no for an answer,” and, “The back-massage incident was splattered across her face.” A conversation about being “obsessed” with Whitney Houston as a kid turns into one about false binaries. A comparison of sexual exploits ends up being an admission about the separation of mind and body—how sex traps and pleasure betrays.
As such, the complex subjects that this story is “about” are brought in through the Trojan Horses of everyday life—pop culture, Instagrams, emails, amusing anecdotes. By the end, readers will be left wondering how a story about four women who like each other but also kind of don’t, who are attracted to each other but also kind of aren’t, can be about so much. How did Sarah Gerard sneak so much stuff in?
Editor-in-Chief, Recommended Reading
Do You Want to Be Her or Do You Want to Fuck Her?
By Sarah Gerard
Lit Wife filled the car from Brooklyn to Maine with the worst bacterial farts you can imagine. Like hot, greasy pizza. None of us said anything. Next to me in the backseat, Rita smiled through the pain like a good Christian girl. In the driver’s seat, Leo turned up “Heartbreaker” and rolled the windows down wordlessly, as if what would really make her feel empowered this weekend was the wet, biting January air.
The retreat took place just a week after Curly and I broke up. I had gone to the courthouse with him a month after sleeping with him for the first time. This was six years ago. We were young and infatuated. I was older by one year, which makes sense in retrospect, since what he was really looking for in a wife was a mother. Now I’m thirty-two and divorced.
I had stayed with Lit Wife the night before kicking him out. I’d chosen her because I thought she would want to protect me. She’d understand that I had fled my apartment for the last time.
She put me up on her sofa. She left to go on a date with a straight girl she had met at a New Year’s party, and when she returned she brought the girl with her. I listened to them have sex while I made a list of reasons why I should leave Curly and another why I should stay. He broke a window with his head, read the first list, and, Our fights are so loud that our neighbors called the police. I wanted to be concrete. I wanted to point to specific facts or instances.
The other list: He’s probably a genius, and, We have amazing sex.
“This is a great story,” said Lit Wife the next morning, when I showed her the lists. It was typical for her to respond to me as a writer first, and a person second. “About an abusive relationship.”
“You think it’s abusive?” I said.
“Nina, does he really not like any of your friends?”
“He likes you.”
Perhaps because she’s a lesbian. Perhaps he believed her not to be a threat. Like Lit Wife, Curly is charismatic and good at parties. Enigmatic with boundaries. He wore sunglasses in our counseling sessions. Spent my money on cigarettes and weed. Shit-talked all of my friends. Snooped through my emails. Never stopped touching me.
In the car, by way of introducing myself to Leo, I’d announced that I would never again fuck any man. At the time, I’d intended this to mean I would be celibate. I was proud of myself for escaping. I wanted Leo to know me on my own terms. I felt safe with her as another part of Lit Wife’s inner circle. I did not feel safe with Curly. I was traumatized, in shock, crying hourly. I was smoking weed throughout the day. I was drinking, which I don’t even like to do.
I was surprised when Lit Wife invited Rita to come with us, and further surprised when Rita accepted. Lit Wife had still not let go of the back-massage incident from two years before. Rita had since married Churchgoer. Lit Wife skipped both her bachelorette party and the wedding, both times RSVP’ing, then failing to show. It was as if even Lit Wife did not really know how she felt about Rita—as if she wanted to be magnanimous, yet harbored resentful feelings about Rita marrying straight. It was as if even Lit Wife didn’t know what she wanted from this weekend.
Lit Wife knew the cabin’s owner. A rich friend-of-a-friend, she vacated the house in winter when defecting to warmer climates, leaving it open to fellow writers. As each other’s first readers, Lit Wife and I had a tacit agreement to share such opportunities. Prior to the back massage, Rita had also been included in this agreement; now Rita and I had our own. In our private conversations, Rita and I framed this retreat as both a workcation and a bonding opportunity with Lit Wife.
Leo was not a writer. Lit Wife invited her the week before we left, informing us that she would be the one renting us a car. We had never met her. We recognized her simply as the person Lit Wife had skipped town with on the day of Rita’s wedding—something Rita had discovered via Instagram, searching tagged photos of Lit Wife for the reason she no-showed. We couldn’t tell from their body language whether Lit Wife and Leo were sleeping together. We agreed to the car rental out of curiosity as much as gratitude for the labor it saved us. We all had bad credit.
Now we unloaded groceries from the car Leo rented us. We carried them into the kitchen and stored them in the cabinets as if the cabinets were ours. Beneath the kitchen sink, I found a vase into which I placed the roses I had bought for Leo at the supermarket when I saw her eyeing them. It’s possible I was flirting with her in that safe way straight girls flirt with lesbians. It’s possible I was simply trying to thank her, this friend of Lit Wife’s who had driven us here.
Rita turned on Whitney Houston. We’d bought a roast chicken and were feeling frisky; we gathered around it on the island counter. We’d subsisted on trail mix and gas station coffee for eight hours, and Big Red, which I was chewing a lot of at this time, for the burn.
“We should name it before we eat it,” said Leo. “To honor it.”
We looked at Rita.
“His name is Fabio,” said Rita.
“Thank you, Fabio,” I said.
“How will I know (don’t trust your feelings)?” sang Whitney.
“So good of you, Fabio,” said Leo. She opened the rye.
“How will I know (love can be deceiving)?” sang Whitney.
We held out our glasses.
We ate Fabio with our hands.
Full of Fabio, we watched Mrs. Doubtfire. We decided that it does not stand the test of time. Robin Williams’s cross-dressing is designed to humiliate him, demonstrating the lengths to which he’ll debase himself in order to win back his woman: he will transform himself into something he’s not; he will traverse moral and ethical lines; he will interfere with her relationships.
My phone buzzed in the kitchen. I went to check it and found an email from Curly. An email. Something he had sat down very seriously at his computer to write to me. Dear Nina, I hope you’re having a restful time with Lit Wife and Rita, he said. I don’t want to disturb you, I just want to let you know that I saw a psychologist today.
I had begged him for years to see a therapist.
I’ve been diagnosed with a mood disorder, he said.
I reread the email. I believed he was telling a true story. Our arguments were interminable. Circuitous and senseless, with no beginning and no direction, doubling back on themselves, always escalating, never resolving. Twisted. We lived in a studio apartment, so there was no place for us to be alone. I’d lock myself in the bathroom; he broke the lock. He’d fight me against the door. I’d leave the apartment and he’d follow me around the neighborhood; he once followed me to Chicago; he followed me to New Orleans. I’d mutilated myself to find silence, something I hadn’t done since high school. He accused me of hurting myself to hurt him. He accused me of thinking I was better than him. I said horrible things to him.
In no way is this supposed to be an excuse, or a reason for us to get back together, he said, and I thought of all the times I had left him in the past, how I had always gone back to him, how somehow, he had always reeled me back. I know we’re over. I simply wanted to tell you because it’s a medical issue.
I returned to the couch, leaving the email unanswered. I was crying but nobody noticed. Leo and I shared a blanket. I drank rye and watched Mrs. Doubtfire ruin his wife’s birthday. Mrs. Doubtfire was just another man who couldn’t take no for an answer. He transgressed lines that were clearly drawn, because those lines had been drawn by a woman over whom he’d laid claim.
“This is worse than Ace Ventura,” said Lit Wife.
The sheets were freezing. A body hadn’t touched them in weeks. I lay awake swiping on Tinder. I’d turned it on two days after kicking Curly out, simply because I could. It felt like a middle finger. He had always been jealous, even of my platonic friends. He wanted to know who I was hanging out with, why, when I would be home every night. If I was twenty minutes late, he’d start calling. Once, he came around the corner of our apartment building where I was finishing a phone call and demanded to know who I was talking to. I was looking at both men and women, because I didn’t have to explain myself to anyone. I felt horribly free.
My first night on Tinder, I matched with the ex-boyfriend of a girl I knew from my MFA program. I’d always thought her boyfriend was sparkly. He had big, deep eyes like Matthew Broderick. I remembered him being a playwright.
When I got to his house, he was nursing a broken rib. He couldn’t move well but we drank wine and went up to his bedroom. I rode him indifferently, leaning on his chest. He stopped me abruptly and grabbed my wrist.
“Be careful,” he barked.
I moved off him. I was reminded that we weren’t using a condom. He held me tightly in his fist. He was chubbier than I remembered, like he’d gained weight since he and my friend broke up. He was almost as short as I was. His junk was not memorable. All of this suddenly reflected poorly on me.
“We can stop,” I said, humiliated, but we finished. As I was leaving, he pulled me towards him. He sat on an ottoman, clearly in pain. He took me around the waist and I knew that he wanted to see me again. I felt furious. He was laying a trap for me. I was vengeful slamming the front door. I imagined stabbing him. My profile said, Let’s have fun, nothing serious.
I matched with a Latina girl with a boy’s haircut. Her name was Yesenia. She was 31 and three miles away from me. A tattoo artist. I flipped through her pictures. She had geometrical patterns up and down her forearms like cuffs. She had bows on the backs of her thighs. She hung around muscular men in white tee shirts. She looked confident in her leather jacket. She was intimidating. Her easy femininity linked with the edginess of her life made me feel soft and nerdy. I didn’t know what to say to her. How to break the silence. There was too much power in her leather jacket. I wanted her to corrupt me. I wanted her to make me.
I was first in the kitchen. While the coffee steeped, I rearranged magnets on the refrigerator. I made a poem about celebrating your moist universe and posted a picture of it on Instagram, tagging Lit Wife, Leo, and Rita while they slept. I felt naughty. I sat at the breakfast table reading a friend’s memoir about his sexual maturation, up to and until the point when he lost his virginity. I was on Chapter Four, third grade, when he discovers Jessica Rabbit and shows his penis to a neighbor girl, when Rita came downstairs. “Can I read this to you?” I said.
“What is it?”
She poured herself coffee and I read her my friend’s story about being infatuated with the neighbor girl. How they married when they were nine but he never worked up the courage to kiss her. How later, she watched him spell his name on the driveway in urine. And how, the next time he saw her, as an adult—
“She was a lesbian,” said Rita.
“Wait, how did you know that?”
“Because they weren’t going to get married.”
“They did get married.”
“Right.” She rolled her eyes.
“Couldn’t they just be friends?”
“That’s not enough of a tragedy. Then you don’t get the shock value of her being a lesbian.”
“How dramatic,” I said.
Leo came downstairs.
“Leo, let me read this book to you,” I said.
“I feel like we should cut up this watermelon,” she said.
“Do it,” said Rita.
I read to Leo while she disemboweled a watermelon. She leaned over it and cut downward with a butcher knife guided by meaty shoulders. She wore a wife beater and sweatpants and rested her weight against the counter, lowering her face to the wet fruit. I read the story of my friend measuring his penis against the pages of a snuff magazine. Peeking around the sides of urinals. Fucking a sandwich bag of pudding between two couch cushions.
“What is this?” she laughed.
“A book that just came out,” I said. “I know the person who wrote it.”
“Is that what it’s like being a straight guy?”
“I don’t know,” said Rita. “I don’t think Churchgoer is like that.”
“Churchgoer is different. He’s older. He’s more mature.”
“Is Churchgoer your husband?” Leo asked.
“Yes,” Rita grinned.
“How long have you been married?”
“Six months,” she said.
“Do you like it?”
Rita laughed. “Yeah, I like it.”
Lit Wife came downstairs. We turned to acknowledge her. “Morning, dumplings,” she said. “Let’s go for a hike.”
Outside it was thawing. We descended a set of stairs built into the hill behind the cabin and followed Lit Wife down a mossy path to a river. The sun was bright and cold water flowed down the hill and sparkled over the lichen. The river opened. Ice drifted atop it. I felt in my pocket to take a picture but had left my phone in the cabin, so dug out the one-hitter instead. I stuffed a nugget inside it and passed it to Leo; she passed it on to the others. We sat on stone slabs that sloped down to the river, and smoked, and admired the blue, a perfect replica of the sky. The walls of the hills made a mudra. The weed settled in. We were cozy in our coats, and benevolent. Leo passed the dugout back to me and the gesture felt like a message. Though I hadn’t yet had a conversation with Leo alone, it seemed to me that we were alike in that we were both Nonsexual Friends of Lit Wife’s and therefore a silent audience to the drama of Lit Wife and Rita. The atmosphere shifted around us. I wanted to talk to Leo about it. I wanted to know what she knew.
“What are you working on right now?” Rita asked Lit Wife.
Lit Wife trained her eyes on the distance. “I’m working on a short story about my relationship with straight girls,” she answered.
She’d sent me a draft of it. Rita was in it, but I hadn’t told her. The back-massage incident was narrated in full. The weekend with Churchgoer, the afternoon on his golf course, the shame of his accidental discovery of them in the den.
“What about straight girls?” said Rita.
“I’m looking at the ways the queer body is objectified, commodified, and exploited by straight girls,” said Lit Wife. Leo sat back on her elbows. I did the same. Between Leo and I was the understanding that we were actively listening in. “I’m pulling from my personal history and queer theory, and examining the dynamics at play in different fictionalized situations of microaggression or violence.”
“Oh. Like what?” Rita said.
“Anything from a homophobic comment made by a teacher or a coworker to an abusive relationship, to a manipulative so-called friend.”
Rita returned her attention to the river. Her jaw was set. I ran my hands over my history with Lit Wife looking for lumps and found it more or less smooth. I decided we had a strong relationship with open communication and healthy boundaries. I was as close to her as I could expect to be with anyone in New York City, where I saw my closest friends every few months. Lit Wife was a steady presence. In New York, I’d learned, what was important was that a person continued to show up for you, that they didn’t become someone you saw only at publishing parties. But also, you couldn’t ask too much of them, because no one in New York had much to begin with. No one had spare time or money saved. No one had an extra room to put you up in for a night.
I had never called upon Lit Wife for more than writing advice in the seven years I’d known her, until recently, when I was forced to leave Curly.
I looked at Rita. The back-massage incident was splattered across her face.
We sang “Elastic Heart” on our way back to the cabin. We installed ourselves in separate rooms. I lay on the couch expanding the lists I’d started at Lit Wife’s apartment the night before kicking Curly out. By the time I’d decided the next morning that it had to be done, the list of reasons not to do so was three pages long; the list of reasons to do so was seven. I called my mother and asked her how to do it. How did she get Derrick out of the condo? She said to bring someone with me. Make it someone who intimidates Curly. Preferably a man. I asked Lit Wife. She had work to do. So, I brought my friend Kevynn.
Asked me, in front of Kevynn, “Did you bring him with you because he’s your least threatening male friend?” I wrote.
He had thrown his suitcase across the room. He smashed our wedding portrait on the kitchen tile. The list was now nine pages long.
Screamed, “Ask yourself why this keeps happening to you! You’re the problem!” in my face as he left.
Kevynn couldn’t stay, so another friend spent the night. The next morning, we watched Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood and ate oatmeal and ice cream for breakfast. My friend left. I watched out the window all day in case Curly came back. I was prepared to call the police. He was out of his mind, unpredictable. I didn’t go outside for four days. I didn’t shower. I had the locks changed.
Once said to me proudly, “I’m kind of an asshole, Nina.”
Stuck his finger in my bellybutton over and over even though I told him a million times that I hate that.
Road rage that puts me in fear for my life.
My phone buzzed. I had left it in the kitchen. I rose from the couch and rubbed my face as I crossed the room. I found another email from Curly, along with ten of his missed calls. I considered not opening the email. We’d arranged for him to retrieve the last of his belongings from my apartment while I was away. I knew this confused and enraged him.
Dear Nina, I need to tell you this before the landlord does. I called him twice but he didn’t answer. He says he didn’t get any calls, so I’ve attached a screenshot of my call record here. Time was running out and I had to sneak in the bathroom window. The landlord saw me on the camera and chewed me out, but he locked the apartment door behind me. It is not something I wanted to do, but I had to. I removed my final belongings from the apartment, the PlayStation, the two chairs, one wedding photo of us from the floral box, and my lock of your hair. Also, if I were you, I would have changed the top lock, not the bottom one.
I returned to the couch and added this incident to the list.
He broke into my apartment.
He compulsively minimizes his wrongdoings
He nitpicks me constantly.
It bothered me that I couldn’t be more specific. In retrospect, I had been conditioned to think that explaining grievances like these was overdramatic. Like I was taking things too seriously, being unfair, failing to see myself clearly. “We’re the same, Nina. I’ve been trying to tell you that,” Curly would say. Two years beforehand, after my abortion, I began a memoir about leaving Curly. My hope was that I would be able to finish it, that I would be forced to. I’d started it longhand in a notebook Curly’s friend had made for me in prison. He’d ripped the pages out of a spiritual self-help book called How’s Your Soul? and hot-glued a sheaf of unused notebook paper into the empty hardcover. The wide-ruled pages had been left behind in another prisoner’s abandoned journal. I gave up on the memoir after twenty pages, afraid Curly would find it. I couldn’t write about him now, beyond recording the facts. I figured I would get around to telling the story when I was ready.
That night, we drank bourbon and played cards. We sang along to Rocky Horror Picture Show on the TV, though none of us watched it. I told them about playing Columbia in my high school theater class’s mini-mashup of Rocky Horror selections. I was fourteen. I’d just gotten my period. I self-selected the role of Columbia the tap-dancer while my best friend played the maid and my other friend played Frank-N-Furter. The fat kid in the class played Eddie. In the movie, Eddie is played by Meat Loaf. He’s a Hell’s Angel who forms the nucleus of Columbia’s love-obsession. I related to love-obsessions. I’d always had them. They’d be flattered by my attention and return it from time to time to encourage it. None of them were truly interested in me. By the age of nine, I was used to being abandoned.
“I should have known after the first time that it would happen again,” Leo said.
She had just finished telling the story of the last person who used her, a woman who led her on for weeks, making love to her, but failing to make a commitment. “That’s just the way she is.”
“You can’t blame yourself,” said Lit Wife. “I felt like I was in free-fall after Line Dancer and I broke up. There’s stability even in a dysfunctional relationship.”
“Sex also traps you,” I added.
“What do you mean?”
“You feel close to a person even if you know they’re not good for you,” I said. “You can’t trust your feelings.”
“Curly and I would argue in the mornings a lot because he always woke up cranky, and I would have no desire to be anywhere near him for the rest of the day. But then at night he would want to have sex, and I would just be like, ‘Ugh, no.’ But he would get pouty. So, I would work myself up to have sex with him, and then afterward, I would feel all close to him, but I knew it wasn’t real. I knew it was wrong. But our sex was amazing. It’s a lot of the reason we stayed together, I think. I was trapped by my own body. It got to the point where I didn’t trust my body anymore.”
“I’m so glad you’re taking care of yourself now, honey,” said Lit Wife. “I think sex was a lot of the reason Line Dancer and I kept ending up back together. It’s a horrible cycle.”
“It really is,” I said.
“But weren’t you and Curly open?” asked Rita.
“Ostensibly. It was complicated.”
“Yeah, it seemed like it was really hard on you,” said Lit Wife.
“How did you deal with the jealousy? I don’t want to think about Churchgoer with another woman unless I’m there with them.”
I looked at Lit Wife. She showed no reaction.
“Curly never dated other people,” I said. “He had a hard time staying friends with people. He didn’t really like people or trust them. I think he had crushes on other girls, but he never told me about it.”
“I couldn’t do it,” said Leo. Lit Wife agreed.
“I don’t know,” said Rita. “Churchgoer and I have talked about having a threesome with a woman. I think I’d be comfortable with that.”
Leo glanced at Lit Wife.
“Curly and I did that with a guy,” I said.
“What did you think?”
“The other person was Curly’s friend from high school who I’d always thought was hot, but he was a weird kisser. He opened his mouth and stuck his tongue out, and it was like I was making out with a room temperature steak.”
“That is disgusting,” said Lit Wife.
“There was this dynamic among the three of us where Curly was slightly competitive, and would push Lifeguard out of the way, which made me feel bad for Lifeguard, which wasn’t sexy.”
“Did Curly and Lifeguard fuck?” asked Leo.
“They had an agreement that if their dicks touched, that was okay, but neither of them wanted to go further.”
We looked at our cards. We listened to the TV. Frank was seducing Brad, unaware that, in the meantime, Rocky has betrayed him with Janet.
“I’m surprised, to be honest,” said Rita. “I thought Curly was bi.”
“I’ve wondered, but if he is, he doesn’t know it.”
“There’s no crime in giving yourself over to pleasure,” said Frank.
The next morning, we hiked back to the river. We sat on the slabs and brought our boots close to the water, and Leo fashioned a boat from a piece of driftwood and a broken stem with a leaf on it. It was the flag of biology. She sent it out into the drift, where it tangled with some aqueous plants. “It’ll free itself,” she said. In time, the current freed it. We bared our faces to the sun. The silence of the moment filled me, and I felt that it would be futile to continue using other people to barricade myself against the void. That it would be potentially fatal. I saw how love could bring me down. I was very pessimistic about it. I took a radical existentialist view. No relationship lasts forever. Everything is mortal. For that reason, I claimed pleasure as my guiding force. I would be kind, I would love others, but in a distant, humanitarian way.
I felt a pleasant darkness pass through me. I could behave in any way I wanted to. To be in relation to only one other person, I had learned to move within fixed behavioral parameters. I had learned to cheat those parameters, but I had always been forced to confront them. My open relationship with Curly was a form of confrontation. I had urged him for months to read The Ethical Slut. I pretended not to notice or accept that he hated the book. It drove him crazy. In the dead of winter, when Curly stood over me screaming, after I had gone to bed—to end the argument—I’d pulled the covers over my head to block out the light—I’d thought, Surely, this would qualify as abuse—but there was nothing I could do about it. I couldn’t move out without money. And where would I go? And where would he go?
The morning after that argument, I’d sat on a sidewalk in Bushwick with Kevynn. I’d tried to tell him what happened. “We argue several times a week,” I said, crying. “There’s nothing I can do to end an argument once it starts. It just keeps going and going. I try to separate, and he doesn’t leave me alone. He follows me into the bathroom. He fights me against the door. I have bruises. He asks me how long I need to be alone, he wants a precise number.”
A few weeks later, I escaped to New Orleans and hid in bed with Fisherman. Curly drove twenty-six hours to bring me home. He forced me to tell him the details of what Fisherman and I had done together. I told him I couldn’t be monogamous. That it’s not how I was made. I have never been faithful to any person; I must not be capable. At the time, I felt this could be true. I didn’t know myself. But I knew in the end that I could force his hand because beneath Curly’s anger was his terror of losing me. I knew, I feared, that Curly would never leave me.
We set new parameters. Transgressions or suspicion were met with consequences. Curly’s frequent mental breakdowns. More promises I couldn’t keep. More secret searches on Zillow. At times the walls felt close.
The driftwood boat was almost gone. I reached for my phone in my pocket, wanting to take a picture. On my lock screen, I found an Instagram notification for Fisherman. He’d ghosted me, and over the ensuing weeks my obsession with him had reached the boiling point of Post Notifications. I was desperate for any sign of activity from him, any sign that he may be thinking about me. A secret message. Total degradation. They all came to that. I was ghosted and ghosted. I was a ghost. Self-disgust rose from my stomach. It was a picture of Fisherman’s girlfriend. They’d eloped.
“It’s so far away now,” said Rita.
I trained my camera on the boat and shot video. Sam Cooke sang from Leo’s phone. My life was a song about infatuation—infatuation that burned hot enough to transmute into marriage. Like my parents. My life was a song about the heartbreak of making a home.
“Darling, you thrill me,” Sam sang. “Honest you do.”
The late morning sun cut the water in cold sheets. The driftwood boat was too small to see.
In the bathtub, I scrolled through Fisherman’s Instagram, a daily ritual I maintained even months after my last text went unanswered. His girlfriend had tagged him in a photo of a tattoo of a wedding ring. It hovered beside a matching one on his own hand: two indelible black lines reaching as far into eternity as they could go. Like all my meta-boyfriends, Fisherman was long-distance; I’d established whatever we had while away on book tour. I’d insisted on going on tour without Curly because separateness made a new togetherness possible. Emotionally capsized from aborting our baby, from Curly’s as-yet-undiagnosed mood disorder, I tethered myself to Fisherman and begged him to take me. I abandoned myself to him. I drowned.
It was as if in my brief relationship with Fisherman I had regressed back to my childhood fantasy that absolute candidness with a pen pal made the deepest connections possible. I wrote him letters from airplanes and trains. I wrote him though he never wrote me back. The letters were a secret code I was trying to crack, as if sending the right message would grant me access to him, which would reverse his decision to reject me. I designed special envelopes, drew pictures for him, tucked irreplaceable childhood photos into the crevices of his pages, forcing a protective love that would never be, because I didn’t deserve Fisherman’s protection. I had never deserved any man’s protection.
“I slept with you because I thought you wanted me to,” he told me in New Orleans. I sat on the floor while he sat on the couch. I wanted to rest my chin on his knee. I wanted to be his dog. “I’m in love with Mermaid,” he said. “I’ve been in love with her for a long time.”
“So, you don’t want to have sex with me?” I said. I felt his hands on me from the night before. His fingers traveling up my ass crack. I didn’t care that he had a girlfriend. I was willing to share him.
“No,” he said.
Leo had braised cod while we were holed up elsewhere. She served it in the dining room, where the overhead light was garish and unappetizing. I tried several times to enter the conversation, but each time the anxiety of the light overwhelmed me. It was the same white light they’d installed in the bathroom of the first rehab I locked myself up in, when I was fifteen. I was there for depression and self-mutilation, which I did to get my parents’ attention and convince them to get back together. That year, I swallowed three of my friend’s Adderall and had a panic attack at school, or perhaps faked a panic attack so that my mother would pick me up in the middle of the day. In my bedroom, I cut myself with a broken Lady Bic in deep red crisscrosses, and walked into her home office to show her my wounds. What did I want her to see in them? Her failure? The blood soaked through the baby blue cotton of my pajama pants. “You made me do this,” I said to her.
Soon after, I cut into my wrists. I knew I wasn’t suicidal, but my new therapist, the one my mother had made me see, threatened to put me away against my will. I could go voluntarily instead, she said. So I did.
Jenner was my roommate. She smoked cigarettes. She was seventeen and had snuck them into the facility in the lining of her suitcase. All other contraband had been confiscated: her Elliott Smith and Bright Eyes CDs, her copy of The Perks of Being a Wallflower, her ball bearing necklace, anything she could use to harm herself. Her commitment to self-abuse was incandescent. She craved it, sought after it, always threatened to use it against authority. She forced other people to inflict it upon her, made them her tools. She defiantly smoked in our shared bathroom and taunted me for being afraid. She crept into my twin bed in the middle of the night.
“Your body belongs to you,” she told me. Her father had begun molesting her when she was five. Her mother had filed a restraining order but sometimes he still showed up to watch Jenner get on the school bus. I told her about the man who worked for my mother, our secret meetings. “You think you have more power than you have,” she said. “He’s a grown man, Nina. You’re practically a virgin.”
I couldn’t stand the light. I rose from the table and switched on the floor lamp in the corner, the lamp in the adjacent living room, and the light in the kitchen, and turned off the dining room’s overhead fixture. The room glowed. I was drunk on bitter white wine and watched Leo watching me as I resumed my seat at the table. Rita was asking her a question. I smiled. The fish tasted sweet.
“I had a boyfriend all through high school and some of college,” said Leo.
“Did you like having sex with him?”
“I think I liked penetration.”
“Did you love him?”
“I was with him for five years.”
“So how did you ultimately know that you were gay?”
“I slept with a woman.”
“And there was a difference?”
“I haven’t wanted to have sex with a man since.”
“I never wanted to,” said Lit Wife. “But I had a raging hard-on for Whitney Houston.”
“When I was a kid, I was obsessed with Whitney Houston,” I said. “I had a poster of her in my bedroom.”
“Yeah, but did you want to fuck her, or did you want to be her?” said Lit Wife.
“Both?” I said. “Neither?”
“Well, I wanted to fuck her.”
“That’s fine, but your metric is heteronormative. It puts me in the category of a cisgender male partner if I were to want to fuck Whitney Houston, because if I did, then I couldn’t also want to be her. That’s the problem with binaries—they don’t allow nuance. It’s also misogynistic. What if instead of objectifying her, I just want to talk to her? What about bisexuality or asexuality? What if I’m trans or nonbinary?”
“I think you’re thinking about this too much,” said Lit Wife.
“I don’t think so,” I said.
“Leo, tell me if this is too personal,” said Rita. “How big was your boyfriend’s penis?”
“Is he the only man you’ve ever slept with?”
“No, there were one or two others.”
“Because size matters,” Rita said.
Leo looked at her. “Are you implying that I only think I’m gay because I haven’t taken a big enough dick?”
“Well, when you put it that way…”
“A small one is really disappointing,” I said. “Just saying.”
“It really is.”
“I thought ‘size doesn’t matter,’” said Lit Wife.
“It’s a lie,” I said. “There’s no worse feeling than building yourself up all night to fuck a dude, and then you reach into his pants and—” I winced. “It makes everything that happens between you afterward that much worse.”
“‘Everything,’ like the sex?” asked Leo.
“Like everything,” I said. “Like, last summer I had this—affair?—with my friend’s friend, Tiny Dick. I was in Texas for a week while my grandma died, and it was really hard on my relationship with Curly because he was back in New York, and we were arguing every single day. Tiny Dick and I ended up hanging out a lot because I was in a dark place, and grieving, and lonely, and I liked him. He was cocky. I slept with him thinking it would make me feel better about Curly and my grandma. Dumb move. His dick was literally the size of my index finger.” I held it up. “Then he ghosted me, slept with my friend, and cheated on her with some girl no one had ever met—and he got that girl pregnant.”
“Damn,” said Leo. “That’s savage.”
“And it’s so much worse because his dick wasn’t even worth it.”
“I bet his baby is ugly,” said Rita.
“I feel bad for the girl,” I said. “She seems rad. She can do better.”
“Why do girls do that?” said Rita.
“Because they think they can’t do better,” said Lit Wife. “They think they deserve to be mistreated. They’re reenacting their first trauma over and over again because the pain is excruciating but at least it’s familiar, so it’s less terrifying than the possibility of a new and unfamiliar pain. It’s even a little bit comforting. It’s like, why do I keep fucking straight girls?”
Rita and I looked at each other.
“Because the conquest is so sweet?” said Leo.
“No, because I know I’m going to get hurt,” said Lit Wife.
Rita found me by the garbage cans at the side of the house. The sun was setting. It had snowed while we were eating, and it looked like it would snow again. I thought of that Mary Ruefle poem about snow, about burrowing down into it next to the warm body of another person with whom, after having sex, you might sleep the sleep of the dead. The lids of the trashcans were covered, and I wrapped my sleeve around my hand and lifted one by the handle. I dropped the fish scraps inside and placed both hands in my pockets.
“Can I tell you something?” Rita said behind me. I waited for her. “It really bothers me that Lit Wife is writing this story.”
“Which story?” I said.
“You know which one. I’m not stupid. You’ve read it, haven’t you?”
I paused. “I’ve read parts of it. She’s told me about it.”
“She likes saying ‘straight girls.’ It has a ring to it—it sounds like Mean Girls. She likes hearing herself talk about it, like she’s figured something out.”
“She’s upset about the back massage.”
“Did she tell you that? She won’t even talk to me about it. I’ve tried bringing it up and she just says everything is fine. I know it’s not. I can tell she hates me. She’s spitting in my face calling me a straight girl. Even my husband gets that I’m bi.”
“She doesn’t hate you. If she hated you, why would she invite you here? Lit Wife is sensitive. Maybe she wants to keep everything superficial until she’s sure she can trust you again.”
“That places all of the blame for her feelings on me, and she was an active, consenting participant in the massage.”
“It seems like she knows that on some level, but Lit Wife has a massive ego. It was bruised.”
“She needs to take responsibility for her behavior and stop treating herself like a victim. It’s really annoying.”
She stared into the darkness. I could tell she was furious, and that her fury made her feel vulnerable. It was the violence of misidentification and mischaracterization and blame. Lit Wife’s story suggested that Rita had choreographed the back massage. That her desire for Lit Wife was never genuine. It suggested that Rita did not also feel betrayed.
“What do I do?” Rita asked me.
“I think you just need to give her space.”
“She’ll never bring it up on her own, no matter how long I wait.”
“There’s nothing you can do about that.”
“I’m so upset.”
I hugged her over the fish-smelling trash.
“She doesn’t get to decide how this ends,” she said.
Back inside, Lit Wife was finishing the last of the wine and refilling her glass with bourbon. Her legs were wrapped around Leo’s waist, and Leo was hunched over in the kitchen, humping along, carrying the dead weight of Lit Wife on her back.
“Leo, you’re strong for being so little,” said Lit Wife.
Later, we sat on Lit Wife’s bed in clean pajamas. I watched Rita smile serenely, her feelings neatly compartmentalized. Our mouths were minty from brushing and our hair was wet from bathing. Our cheeks were flush with liquor and pheromones. We were babies fresh from the womb, as yet unaware of how our lives would be gradually closed off by definitions. We were oxytocin drunk on exertion and the elation of escape: for the last two days, we had lived outside the bounds of our everyday lives with no schedules or strictures, no one watching, accountable only to ourselves within the walls of this cabin, which had become our nexus of pleasure. We were unreachable to those who knew us as we normally were. We were unavailable for explanation. It felt as though we could slip free, step out of our proclaimed identities. Leo was first. “Honestly, I’d do Macauley Culkin in Party Monster,” she said.
“A murderer?” I said.
“Excuse me, I thought this was a safe space.”
“I’m just saying: physically, I can see it, but he did kill a man.”
“There’s something erotic about it.”
“He looks a little like Justin Bieber,” said Rita.
“He looks a little like you, Leo,” I said.
Leo flipped me off.
“Can we not get violent?” I said.
“I’d do Arsenio Hall in Coming to America,” said Rita.
“Those eyebrows,” said Lit Wife.
“John Leguizamo in To Wong Foo,” I said. “Or Hilary Swank in Boys Don’t Cry.”
Rita’s phone rang on the nightstand in her bedroom. “That’s Churchgoer,” she said. “I’m going to talk to him before he goes to bed. I’ll see you ladies in the morning.”
We watched her leave the room.
“Can’t you go one night without talking to your boyfriend?” said Lit Wife.
“Husband,” I said.
Then Lit Wife said to Leo: “This is what I’m talking about.”
“What’s what you’re talking about?” I said.
“No, what?” I looked at her. She looked at Leo. Leo smirked.
“Grace Jones in A View to a Kill,” she said.
“Grace Jones in Boomerang,” said Lit Wife.
We all laughed.
“‘No man can turn down this pussy,’” I said.
“So true,” said Lit Wife.
“So true,” said Leo.
We looked at one another.
“I’m feeling a little sleepy,” I said. “Do you want to lie down?”
We weren’t saying what we meant. It was akin to what Daddy had said to me on the phone the one and only time I saw him in person: “Do you want to come over and snuggle?” It was enticingly innocent. I was in Chicago, where he lived. I had met him on Instagram via the account he kept for his high-contrast black-and-white BDSM drawings a few months before, and had messaged him to buy one for a hundred dollars, informing him that I would be using it to masturbate. It was a POV shot of a girl with a ball gag getting titty-fucked, looking wide-eyed into the camera. I framed it above my desk. Curly knew what was happening. Daddy and I sexted for a week or so and then I began applying to artist residencies in Chicago. I wanted to give myself a reason to be near him, but he did not ask me to do this, so I wanted it to seem coincidental. I wanted him to react with excitement. His girlfriend was six years younger than me, and a student at SAIC, and was moving in with him as soon as she graduated with her BFA. “She just does it for me,” he had told me. I performed being laid back about his girlfriend. It was part of what made me disposable in the end.
I wanted to snuggle with him that night because, though I knew intuitively upon landing in Chicago that he didn’t care about me, I couldn’t allow myself to believe it. If Daddy didn’t want me, I had no reason to live. I was on the edge of the abyss. I paid for an Uber half an hour to the house he shared with two other dropouts. It was necessary that I believe on my way to the house that we really would only snuggle that night—that snuggling with me would have been enough for him.
The next day, Curly called me from Midway. I still believe he is psychic. Three days later, I sat in the lobby of the Planned Parenthood back in Soho awaiting my free round of STI tests, terrified of what I would be forced to do if one of them came back positive, how I would say that to Curly. I gagged at the memory of Daddy’s Rottweiler’s tumors, and his dresser caked in cigarette ash, and his bare mattress, and the taste of his beer breath, and his asshole on my tongue. He had not showered since getting off work at the Salvation Army. He pulled a fuchsia ski mask over my face with two eyes cut into it, and a ghastly mouth. I gagged in disgust, but I persevered in a state of suicidal abandonment. Whatever happened to me on Daddy’s bed was appropriate. Any punishment he wanted to exact. The orange numbers spelled five in the morning when he laid down to spoon me. I didn’t even pee afterward. He drove me back to my Airbnb at nine, smoking a cigarette on the way with the windows up.
I folded myself between Lit Wife and Leo. They enclosed me in protective layers of flesh, a softness that made me want to weep. I wondered if we really would fall asleep. We were very still. I began to drift.
Lit Wife moved her hand to my breast. With her full palm over my tee shirt, she massaged it gently in a circle. She found my nipple and a warm radiance filled my stomach. With it came the realization that I did not want to fuck her. The idea of it was repellant. She did not do it for me. I remembered the stench of her gas in the car, the freezing window.
Leo was warm in my lap. Between my chest and her shoulders was enough space to keep Lit Wife’s activity a secret. I pinned my hips to hers, found her breast with my hand, and slid my fingers inside her wife beater. I grazed her nipple, rolled it between my fingers. Her stomach trembled. I held my arm perfectly still so as not to alert Lit Wife.
Lit Wife stroked my stomach with her nails.
“I think I’m going to bed now,” said Leo.
She sat up suddenly. Lit Wife pulled away.
“We have to get up early,” she said. “I’m the only one who can drive the car, and the rental is in my name. I would just feel safer if I could get a good night’s sleep.”
“Yeah, that’s fine,” said Lit Wife.
“Okay,” I said. “Sweet dreams.”
She smiled at both of us. I sat up. I looked at Lit Wife.
“I think I’m going to get some sleep, too,” I said.
Lit Wife smiled from me to Leo, working something over in her mind. “Goodnight, sweet peas,” she said.
On the way to my room, I stopped in front of Leo’s door. Through the crack, I saw her sitting on the twin bed, reading a magazine. She lowered it and smiled.
“Goodnight,” I said.
I waited three months to propose a reunion. In the meantime, I gave myself over to my trauma. I would cry on the train; freeze up, heart racing, when someone passed me from behind; stare paranoid out my front windows, afraid I might see Curly coming up the block, as if he’d returned for me. I locked and relocked my only door, and failed to sleep knowing that the ground-level windows above my bed did not have bars on them. I drank every night though I hated being drunk. I couldn’t stop. I drank to feel and I drank not to feel. Leo drank with me. When I finally hit bottom, it was at her apartment, into a quart of Chinese takeout she’d bought for me, because I hadn’t eaten in days. I locked myself in her bathroom, hyperventilated over the sink, felt fragile and depleted. Curly forced his way into me. My mind itself was inaccessible, and yet I had no desire to access it, I wanted to destroy it. “Why is this happening to me?” I pleaded to Leo. She held me. I knew that she wanted to be with me. I loved her for that, but I was incapable.
I sought help at a domestic violence center. My counselor taught me how to use grounding methods. “No feeling is final,” she told me. She assured me that a spasmodic distrust of the male sex was normal after what I’d been through. She told me not to worry about defining my orientation toward or away from one gender or another, that whatever I was experiencing right now was complex and personal, that I would soon find balance. In the meantime, it was important to be patient with myself, she said, as Curly had not allowed me to be. She said it was expected that I would miss him. I cried on her shoulder. She smelled like my grandmother after a shower. I wanted to keep seeing her after our free eight weeks was over, but the center wouldn’t allow it. I grieved her along with my marriage. I was grateful for what we’d been through together.
Leo never responded to my group email. Rita canceled at the last minute, explaining, Unfortunately, something came up at work, but have fun without me.
Lit Wife found us a table at Le Pain Quotidien. She was drinking a bloody Mary when I arrived. It was Saturday afternoon, the same weekend I had proposed for the reunion dinner, which was now canceled. The din of the room gave us privacy.
“I feel like you could have just not done it,” she told me when I asked her why she’d been distant lately. I could tell she didn’t want to talk to me. I could tell it had to do with Leo. I was defensive. I had done nothing wrong to Leo. I had made her breakfast. I’d bought her flowers. I’d made her a Valentine’s Day present. We had cried when we’d decided after two months to stop seeing each other, but then we’d had sex on the floor. As far as I knew, there were no hard feelings.
“Leo was very hurt, Nina,” Lit Wife said.
“I didn’t want to be in a monogamous relationship,” I said. “I was clear about that. I had just broken up with Curly.”
“I was just realizing that I’d been closeted to myself since high school.”
“That doesn’t change the fact that Leo was very hurt.”
“What business is it of yours? You make it sound like her feelings are my fault. She came into my room.”
“That’s not what she told me.”
“Well, that’s what happened.”
I hated Lit Wife. I cried angry tears as the waiter served me avocado toast. I resisted lashing out as a pain response, though I had every right to defend myself. I felt gaslighted. I knew how I’d behaved with Leo. I had been ethical with her.
“You don’t know both sides,” I said.
“No, you definitely do not know both sides.”
I gathered my tote bag and left. That night, I stayed up until sunrise writing Lit Wife an email. I laid bare my soul and the details of my relationship with Leo, being careful to preserve my own image, and avoid any potholes or plot holes. If Leo could tell her story, then I could tell mine.
I ended the email with a question: I’ve been thinking about your short story, Lit Wife, and I feel that I should ask you: Have I ever done anything like that to you?
I texted her to let her know I had sent it. She responded a minute later.
With love, I’m going to take some space.