We eat. We eat like children left alone. That’s what we are, aren’t we? We are only children with greedy bellies. Our faces smeared with chocolate, with ketchup; we’ll put anything in our mouths that isn’t the soft current running gently between our thighs.
Put me in your mouth.
You never talk about your dad. I say.
I don’t have a dad. The impossibility of this statement, what to do with it?
Who made you?
My mother made me. She didn’t need anyone else. It’s just the two of us.
How is that possible?
She’s really strong, my mother. I motion to the busser to refill my water. He ignores me. Karine’s glass is still full. She is always thirsty, but never drinks.
I haven’t showered in three days. The fucking super still hasn’t come to fix the water.
You can shower at my place I say.
The water at your place tastes like metal.
You think all water tastes like metal.
Outside, a girl with pink lipstick stops and stares at me through the windowpane. Her blonde hair catches the autumn light in a halo. She moves in closer until her mouth is inches from my face. She runs a finger along her lipline then bares her teeth, her tongue licking each one. She pouts at me and then grins, fluffs her halo hair with a come hither look. I smile shyly. She turns and walks away.
That was weird I say.
She didn’t see you.
She was using that window as a mirror.
Oh. Can I have some of your water? Karine pushes her glass toward me.
Isn’t it weird how girls flirt with themselves in mirrors? As if they’re communicating with an altogether different person.
I think it’s intimate Karine says. You can finish it. My fries too. I don’t want them. I’m full but somehow hungry again at Karine’s suggestion that I have more.
Karine watches me eat like a mother watching her firstborn son. Which makes me try to swirl the ketchup a little more sexily. Makes me try to think of naughty words as I eat.
Something roils up out of me out of the grey for a moment, turning everything to honey, to sweat, to metal, anything lickable: the saucer and cup she hasn’t touched, her fingers drumming the tabletop, the V of her brown chest that her shirt leaves uncovered. The lines of everything becoming a little melty. I want to reach with my hands and smooth the melting, feel it on my fingers.
Tell me about your mother she says. Logic reasserts itself and I am blind again, as we have to be.
My mother is frustrated. Like her mother before her. She raised me in her mother’s house. They drank. They were warm, sardonic. And then inexplicably cold. We were lonely. We played with our dogs. We didn’t mind. But really we did. I did. I don’t think she understood it wouldn’t be alright for me. To be so alone out there… My mother could charm anything out of anyone. And she spends most of her time alone. That’s all I really know about her come to think of it.
I love hearing you talk, she says, And I love watching you eat. The waiter clears our plates and brings the check.
I know you do.
I’ve got this. Don’t worry about it. Let’s go.
You didn’t drink your coffee.
As we walk up 6th Avenue, Karine buys us nectarines since we didn’t get ice cream at the diner. We deserve it she says. Karine believes in rewards.
It’s almost too cold for nectarines.
Almost. A black beggar in a blonde wig and ice-white eye shadow holds out his white hat silently as we pass.
Oh, stop! Look at that little boy!
A mocha skinned four year old boy is stopped on the sidewalk staring despairingly down at his shoelaces, which are untied. He looks as if he just realized for the first time that the world is an unmanageable place, and that it is beyond his power to put things in order. It knocks the breath out of me. Doesn’t he just look like a little jellybean? Karine squeals, And his cheeks. I could just squeeze his face off! Where’s his mother?
Do you need help tying your shoes? The boy looks up at me, his eyes turning wide and shiny as silver dollars. I reach out to touch his shoulder. To reassure him. So he will know it will be all right. He turns and runs. Runs on little bowlegs, tearing down the street until he finally ducks into a nail salon at the end of the block.
You scared him.
I was trying to help.
You’re too big, think how you must have looked to him. Suddenly I see myself inflate. I wonder if this is how I look to Karine. Karine who is slim-hipped like a boy. How is it possible that I am allowed to be so much bigger than everyone?
We turn west. Where had that boy’s mother been? So strange that no strong feminine voice had called out to him; that no eyes appeared to be on him other than our own. No one watching. Karine cups my hand in hers and leads me further west to the water. No mother watching. It seems to me that I have felt the eyes of my mother on me all my life. They have followed me wherever I go, making decisions for me. The decisions I have made suddenly seem like a tight grid. As if I’d spent my entire life trying to avoid the burning mama-shame that comes with making wicked choices. The sensation that now, with this simple palm in mine, burns a wild fear through me. I could never handle being in trouble. Now I think I will have to learn. But how to negotiate it? Calm, with my hands folded is all I know how to be.
Where are you taking me Karine?
My spot. Karine has many “spots”. Inconspicuous little nooks around the city where a body can go to think and not be bothered. This is one of my favorite things about her. Her ability to slip into these little places most people miss. We pass the Christopher St. pier, with its joggers and dog-walkers weaving among ebullient queens and queers. This is still their territory and because of this it always feels like spring on Christopher St. Even in the fall air there is lightness, as if everyone has just cast off heavy overcoats. I want it to be mine too. I want to own something without the anxiety of making it private, of guarding it. Something outside.
We head north to the pier above. It is deserted. A vast salted emptiness that drops off at the guardrail. Karine leads me over the rail and we sit on the wooden girders, completely hidden from the rest of the island of Manhattan. There is now nothing between us and the water.
I didn’t know it was possible to feel so… away in this city.
In my first year here, I thought I’d go crazy. All I wanted was peace and quiet. So I searched, and this is the first place I found where I could truly be alone. The image of a slightly younger Karine sitting by herself on a girder brings to mind a line of Anne Carson: Waiting coils inside her, and licks and licks its paws.
Karine studies her hands. I keep thinking about that little boy.
Me too, I say.
I wasn’t too much older when I realized I could be by myself like that.
I don’t follow. You mean, how lonely he looked?
He wasn’t lonely. He was alone.
He was abandoned.
Or he ran. I’m talking about seeing yourself apart from everyone else. As just you. Realizing that’s how it will be for the rest of your life. It hadn’t seemed to me that the boy’s overwhelmedness had been that accepting.
I don’t know what you mean.
Like… I remember walking home from first grade one day by myself after not having made any friends the first few weeks. I remember gripping my backpack and thinking ‘Is this it? Is this what loneliness is? I can do this. I can live like this. This is nothing’.
Do you really feel that way?
We’re alone, Baby. Girls like you and me will always be alone. We want to make something and we’re not really supposed to. So we will be on our own. You can’t be afraid of that.
But I’m here with you now. You’re not alone now. And neither am I. In fact, I can’t remember a time I’ve felt less… unfixed. As soon as I say it I know that it’s true. Up to now every moment spent with her has felt like a bridge, quietly building itself plank by plank. Karine shakes her head.
We comfort each other. That’s all we have to offer. Comfort. I want to tell her how important that is. What comfort means. How when you send out a thought it bounces and comes back bigger rather than going sailing off without a ripple. How we all need that. But the words get tangled up and I just say
I need you.
You can’t need someone. Or have someone. You can want them. That’s all. This makes me unbearably sad.
I guess you’re right. You can’t control people. That would be limiting.
We bite into our nectarines. Yellow juice dribbles down my chin to my neck. She closes in on it, her breath on me, on my collarbone. I close my eyes, and tilt my head back. Sweep the sticky line clean, I say. She does. Her tongue traces it and leaves a new kind of sticky. As she pulls away, finger wiping her lip, she sighs. Mmmmmh. It’s the noise of a child. My face gets hot. Put me in your mouth.
Karine, Karine, my Nectarine I chant. Karine laughs and turns away from the wind, hiding her face in her black hair. The moment is broken.
I stare down at the browny green water relieved and disappointed. The water offers no clarity in its pollution.
She leaves me on the subway platform. She will come over later she says. So that she can shower. The train is slow, making local stops. I am so full. The fullness eats me up. Our conversations while eating, they eat me up too. Eat up all over. Little beasts sucking on the skin. I could call them desire, the beasts, as if they were one thing, but I know better. There is no location for them. They burns all over in a million tiny mouths, giving the impressions of being solid. Monolithic. All-consuming. They isn’ts. I have to blink. I am still on the train. I am no more lit up than the people sitting across from me. The ones who are biting their lips impatiently or playing games on their cellphones. Or the ones standing, staring upwards, willing the train to go faster. They too are eaten up. A woman eating a nectarine across from me. The last of the season. She looks like an older version of Karine. She could be her mother.
I listen for the sucking noise of desire. It’s a noise, too, isn’t it? The woman finishes the nectarine and sucks on the pit. Then she swallows it. It goes down slow, I can see it travel, see her throat bulge. I shiver, suddenly too aware of insides. A million tiny decibels sucking, sighing. The more I listen, the more deaf I become to anything else. It’s all I hear. The joints and gears of desire screeching. Splintering. Desires knocking together and coming apart. Desire’s frenetic keening so small and insistent, so clearly driving this train and every breathing thing on it, that it can only be molecular. No. Between molecules. I am hearing something I shouldn’t. A daily desperation that is always humming, a noise that we can become aware of for a split second, a dog noise. Waiting coils inside her and licks and licks its paws. Licks and licks its paws. Licks and licks its paws. I can’t take it and get off the train three stops too early.
That night I dream of Karine’s mother who is lonely and strong. I dream that she eats a nectarine and swallows the pit. And the pit grows and grows inside of her. Her belly swollen, she understands that she can make a child out of nothing. She is happy. She will be a mother and will no longer be lonely, she will no longer have to be so strong. But when the baby is born no milk comes in. Karine’s mother understands that this child will not need to drink. What she understands then about what she has created frightens her. A child that comes from nothing needs nothing. She will forever be a reminder of the loneliness she was made from.