Thursday, July 2, 2015

Secret Faultline

by Annabeth Leong

I must have seen her in class before, could never have failed to notice the sharp blue of her eyes, set off expertly by the tones of the vintage dresses she wore. The first time I remember seeing her, though, she was naked except for a thick towel wound around her torso, held in place with nothing but a negligent tuck of fabric.

I was new at the college, looking for friends, and I’d gone to visit her roommate, who seemed like a nice girl. I don’t remember a damn thing about what the roommate said. I just remember this girl, traipsing into the middle of the conversation, leaning against the divider that led to her half of the room, and my awareness of her bare, pale legs, the lovely shapes of her chin and cheeks, and everything only slightly hidden by the towel.

She had a free and knowing laugh. I wanted her to like me right away. Her very existence felt like a dare. She was bold and artistic and I had to match her. In the space of a few minutes, we agreed that she should come to my room the next night and draw me naked. I do remember the roommate being surprised by that decision, maybe impressed and maybe suspicious. I couldn’t think of much besides the person I wanted to be. A brave person. A person who took my clothes off in front of this girl as boldly as she let the towel slip gradually down her chest as we talked.

***

There is always an unspoken agreement in relationships, a secret faultline. Its terms are rarely drawn up with formality, but I think of it as the original promise. Breaking it gets you thrown out of the Garden of Eden. I’ve often wondered why I always seem to want the one forbidden fruit, even amid an embarrassment of fertility. But it’s human nature. If there is an original promise, most people are compelled to break it eventually.

***

So this was mine: I was special as long as I was never like the others. We took long walks through every hidden wild place that city had (men leaning out of cars to leer and shout to her girl you bounce when you walk), and with each step she mocked her would-be lovers. Lust for her was simple-minded, unworthy by nature. Despite the sexual feelings she inspired everywhere she went, only music could arouse her.

I laughed uneasily at her side, never confessed to the dreams I sometimes had of dashing myself against the rocks of her lips and teeth, where so many others had crashed before me.

She tolerated the knowledge of my promiscuity with bemusement and light condescension. She was a follower of Artemis, made powerful by virginity. We were to be best and devoted friends--fierce, pure, and united against all others.

She was a lioness at my side, never tame, safe only as long as she never smelled the blood of my weakness. A hint of admitted desire and she would have turned on me, torn me open.

***

I have sometimes had lovers who made me feel powerful in my desire. My thighs become thick and tireless, my arms bulge with muscle, my fingers are long, my hands large but not so much that they cease to be clever. Fucking is athletic. I climb, I gasp, I laugh with the joy of victory.

I know sex doesn’t have to be a weakness. I can fuck from love, from strength, from courage. Nakedness can be a statement of fearlessness, of innocence, of trust.

There are others, though, who make me feel ugly and vulnerable. Desire is base, and I can’t control it. Wanting diminishes. I am full of holes. I am a wanderer seeking to bury myself in any home I can find. I am no better than any other mere human because we’re all like that. We’re all like that.

***

She did naked yoga in the room we shared. She talked all the time about how much she loved my hugs. I took her to a party once and let her pick my outfit. She put me in a vest, a fedora, suit pants, a tie, and then she dressed so femme it made me ache. I gave her my arm as we stepped into the music-filled hall, full of wary pride, and then remembered I never learned how to dance as lead.

As long as I wasn’t in love with her, I was her constant companion, invulnerable, allowed to remain beside her when all others were banished.

On Valentine’s Day, her room filled with flowers, their rotting sweetness like corpses of the fallen. She laughed at the silliness of boys, and it tempted me to ask what she thought of girls. But I knew her by then, enough that I suspected she made everyone think they might hold the secret key to her heart, her body. How many times had a boy confided in me that she just needed X or Y, a thing he could give that other suitors had not? As much as she wanted me to join her in making fun of these deluded boys, I knew better. I was a hair away from being just like them, from letting myself hold the arrogant belief that I knew what she needed, from giving in to weakness.

***

But fuck, she always seemed to know what I needed. What I wanted. Many years after college, when we hadn’t spoken in a long time, she invited me to spend a weekend with her and a lesbian couple she felt sure I’d love to be around. She told me she had a silver pitcher she wanted to use to wash my feet, that she wanted to rub them. She said she missed my touch.

You have to know me quite well to know what this offer was like for me. I had been secretly agonizing about my sexual orientation for several months at that point. I have a foot fetish. I had imagined touching her so many times. I had never told her any of this.

If this had come from another girl, I would have thought my dreams were coming true. Instead, the old wariness returned, the fear of spilling blood in the water.

***

The last time I called her, my stomach churned as we talked. I wanted to be someone brave. Within me, I could feel ghosts of an old self stirring, a girl who didn’t mind causing trouble, who knew the truth makes messes but never hesitated. I was going to confess the things I’ve written about here.

By then, the friendship seemed broken anyway, and I didn’t want to return to it in the form it used to take. And I had broken to the point that I couldn’t wear the familiar disguises anymore. Too much reality burst out through the seams of any lie I tried to stitch.

The weakness I’d always feared she would exploit--I didn’t see how it could hurt me now. I meant to pull it out into the light, to show her faultline and let her laugh if she wanted to. But she cut off the words before I could say them, and even as I bent over the sidewalk, body heaving with anxiety, I wondered if she had an old weakness that matched mine.

11 comments:

  1. Isn't it weird when we look back at things that really happened, and the real-life narrative seems like something we would labor over as fiction writers, down to every distinct detail. But, no, it really happened.

    I have a college-era real-life story that has that "you'd think I sat down at the fiction desk" quality, in a small way. I was unrequitedly in love with someone (and she knew it). We were close friends, though we had a lot of out-of-proportion conflict over relatively minor things in the area of attitudes and ideas. So about 25 percent of the time, we weren't speaking to each other. Ha.

    She had a boyfriend (though they were sometimes on the verge of breaking up) and was not sexually attracted to me (nor do I think she was in denial— I really think she wasn't attracted to me, and I don't say that out of any self-esteem issues).

    On the morning I was leaving the college for the summer, I went up to her room to say goodbye. She was in bed, covered to her chin by a comforter but evidently naked beneath it... and she informed me that she'd been reconsidering whether there might be some merit to the idea of something physical happening between us. (She and her boyfriend had recently split.)

    My ride for the seven-hour drive home was waiting for me downstairs, right outside the dorm. She tentatively propositioned me, and I didn't know what to do— a particularly apt choice of words, given that I was a virgin. My ride was downstairs. Did I mention that my ride was my dad? He was a pretty cool guy, but, still, it wasn't exactly the same as keeping a dorm buddy waiting.

    I think I'd made tentative hand-to-body contact when she said, no, it wasn't right, I wasn't [name of boyfriend]. I'm sure she was right to call it off. And I'm sure she wasn't toying with me: she was confused, she'd had a last-minute insight that she should make something happen before I disappeared, but she realized as it started to happen that it was all wrong. Good for her. Also, she was bad for me (see above, re. conflict), and it would have been a disaster, though I didn't yet have that insight as I walked, befuddled, to my father's car.

    The suspense! The twists and turns! The cinematic drama!!

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    1. I love that you answered my college story with one of your own, Jeremy. And this is quite a story (I also love the way you build to the point of the reveal that your ride was your dad...).

      I think the thing we labor over as fiction writers is very much about capturing a narrative that feels like these stories do. Those moments (like yours walking to your father's car, or mine on the sidewalk that day) have a very distinct feeling, and I'm often trying to make fiction that feels something like it.

      Thanks for reading!

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  2. Lovely post, Annabeth. Fiction must have resolution. Life goes on.

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    1. Thank you! And your comment points to a funny thing about writing from real life. I struggled quite a bit figuring out where to end this. :)

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  3. Great, bittersweet stories, Annabeth and Jeremy. This gives me an idea for my own post.

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  4. If I were you, looking back, I'd wonder: how much of my so-called weakness was imagined? Was I projecting this Artemis role upon her? Or was she perhaps deliberately wearing a mask, too?

    I wonder also whether the emotions from this relationship fed your Artemis story in Liquid Longing. I think I hear echoes.

    Also, I love your comment above about not knowing where to end a real life story. Any cut would in some sense be artificial wouldn't it. One never knows when there might be a next chapter.

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    1. She explicitly embraced the Artemis role--it was a thing she talked about, and she did self-portraits of herself that way.

      As far as whether it fed into Hunting Artemis, I can never be sure. I never design a story that way (I remember planning it thinking I wanted to choose an unexpected Greek God, not someone obvious like Aphrodite). But obviously a lot of things can bubble up from the subconscious in the process.

      And the thing about real life stories is I think one of the major divides between fiction and nonfiction. Endings are challenging in either case, but in nonfiction it's finding where to stop and in fiction it's finding a resolution that strikes the right balance between providing satisfaction and preserving a sense of realism.

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  5. Time does make a lot of difference. It even make us different people who remember all the different people we've been, stage by stage, but looking at them from outside. She may have been using bravado to deal with repression, caused by who knows what, and looked back later on what she had missed, or may have looked back on that old self as a distant acquaintence and not given it much thought.

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    1. The fun thing about being writers is we can speculate!

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