By Philip Connors
From Fall 2016
For our first date, we made a plan to meet for a drink before dinner. She arrived before me at the bar, so I saw her from the sidewalk through the plate-glass window. I watched as she raised a glass of whiskey in one hand, tilted her head, drained the drink in three long gulps, set the glass down on the bar, and took a drag off the cigarette in her other hand—all in a span of five seconds.
Three thoughts occurred to me.
One: My god, I think I’m in love!
Two: I wonder if she has a drinking problem?
Three: She’s probably just nervous about our date and trying to calm herself.
I affirmed number one, disregarded two, embraced the narcissism inherent in three.
As would later become clear, she was nervous about our date and trying to calm herself the only way she knew how, because she had a drinking problem by which she did not view calming herself by drinking as a problem.
So it wasn’t either/or: drinking problem, nervousness. It was both.
But I didn’t know that yet.
I only knew I was in love.
We did the usual things couples do. We fucked and we fought; we made up and we fucked; we fucked and fought and fucked in predictable cycles. We threatened to split forever, we got married and promised to hold and to cherish forever. We bought a house. We had furniture delivered. We slammed doors. We painted rooms. We planned for the future. It was so much easier than living together in the present.
Among the gifts she gave me was an introduction to the music that made our split bearable. I didn’t know a thing about Vic Chesnutt when we met, but by the time I ran off and left her I could sing along to every word of “When I Ran Off and Left Her.”
When I ran off and left her, as the song says, she wasn’t suckling an infant. If she had been I doubt I’d have run off and left her. I stuffed a few bags in the back of my truck and set off north at dusk. I wanted an austere country, hushed beneath a skin of snow and ice. Fifteen hundred miles, more or less. Two long days and I’d be home in the country I had known as a youth. I knew an old friend with an ice-fishing shack and I intended to live there until my soul froze right through.
I didn’t even make it to the Oklahoma line.
But those first 150 miles were lovely—a pale moon, silhouetted ridge lines black against a blue-black sky. My own tunes, which were her tunes first, on the ear buds: Tom Waits, M. Ward, my old buddy Vic. Sad-guy stuff. Junkie troubadour sounds. Maybe I was too lost in the music when I encountered the herd of elk moving across the highway. Maybe it wouldn’t have mattered, music or no.
One minute, moonlit emptiness and the romance of the road in the night, all my failures receding behind me. The next, spooky mammals everywhere, some of them with antlers on their heads like bone-colored knives.
I missed the first through sheer luck. I swerved to miss the second—I can’t but call it skill. As with so many things in life, the third was the one I should have paid attention to.
I have seen many brilliant and breathtaking gymnastics moves in my time, but only on television, and none quite like the double somersault accomplished by elk number three as it hit the grill of my truck, twisted onto the hood, bounced hard off the windshield, and dismounted over the top of the cab.
The sound it made afterward was like a dirge for my marriage. I could hear the wounded-animal moan even through the ear buds, which were playing a genius mix based on “When I Ran Off and Left Her.”
The sound of a dying elk breathing its last in a ditch in the middle of nowhere was the perfect resolution to my running off and leaving and thinking I’d achieved my liberation. Listening to it as my truck’s fluids leaked onto the road and the dead engine cooled with a ticking sound made me regret I hadn’t packed my gun.
If only the elk had come through the glass I would have been spared all that came after. A mercy killing by the tip of an elk antler—what a way to die!
Gored right through the eye.
I knew a thing or two about mercy killing. I had played the accomplice while she killed her father. I thought it was about the bravest thing I had ever witnessed, although I wasn’t even in the room when it finally went down. I eavesdropped via the baby monitor from upstairs, playing backup in case something went wrong.
She thought it was about the most awful thing she had ever been a part of, even though he had begged her to do it: pain pills crushed in a bowl of ice cream, plus a heavy dose of liquid morphine. A painless slide toward the great beyond with one last scoop of vanilla, a drizzle of chocolate on top. A pleasant last supper—as opposed to another few weeks or months of the pain and the pills, the wheelchair and the bed, the adult diaper.
I tried to tell her she’d done him a favor, about the biggest favor a human being can do for another in the end: offer relief from the torture of remaining alive. She laughed bitterly when I said this.
It was the only way she laughed in my presence during the time we had left.
I came to hate the sound of it.
I heard it in my memory even after she was gone — especially when the first fuck I enjoyed after we split gifted me a prostate like a blowfish and balls the size and color of plums. I assumed I’d acquired an STD, my first in forty years on this earth—just the thing to confirm my membership in the club of middle-age wannabe Lotharios.
I went to the clinic, as one will, waited in the plastic chair, as one will, dreaded hearing my name called aloud. Heard my name called aloud, saw the heads swivel on the bodies in their plastic chairs, connecting name to face. Followed the nurse down the hall. Pissed in the cup. Watched the blood gush into the vial from the needle in my arm.
I waited a week for the results.
You are clean and clear, the voice on the telephone told me, in words with the lilt of a song. Everything came back negative.
Tell that to my balls, I thought.
When I could stand the pain no longer, I went to urgent care. A doctor donned a rubber glove and lubed a finger and asked me to bend over. Inside my cranium the sound of Szeryng’s recordings of Bach’s Sonatas for Violin. Only one other man had been where he was about to go. This called for violin. Welcome. Welcome.
They were right, he said, stripping the gloves from his fingers with a sound that cut the violin short. It’s not an STD. It’s a prostate infection. I’ll write you a scrip for Cipro. Ten days. Make sure you take it all. That should cure you.
Oh how I wish.
I should be honest and admit it was me who let the cocaine through the door, which led to our long, slow unraveling, which led to our divorce, which led to my sleeping with another woman for the first time in a decade, which led to my prostate rebelling at its encounter with some mystery microbe until it felt like a spiny blowfish when I sat down. It’s all connected if you tease out the lines of action and consequence. The euthanizing of the father, the cocaine, the miscarriage, the bitter feuds, the threats of suicide, the divorce, the liberating freedom fuck, and the prostate like a blowfish. Just like that.
Some cholos started tipping me in powder at the bar where I worked. Little did I suspect they were running a racket and needed my complicity. They wanted to deal in the bar and they figured they’d have a free hand if I was implicated, and what better way to achieve that than to slip me a big fat rock now and then, after which how could I say no to their doing their deals in the men’s room?
They had me by the balls, back when my balls were still amenable to a human touch.
One time I slipped a little baggie with a rock in it—otherwise known as my tip—into my back pocket and forgot about it. The pants ended up on the bedroom floor at home. She found the rock as she prepared to do the laundry. She was conscientious that way: checking pockets front and back before the pants went in the washer. I can still picture her turning them inside out. My god but she was lovely.
It wasn’t long before she had the majordomo cholo’s cell phone number and was buying direct.
I was always more of a weed guy myself.
When I drove east to help her care for and then kill her terminally ill father, I had three joints with me, thinking the old man might need a puff. But I took the long route, and by the time I arrived two of them were gone and I wasn’t about to give up the last.
No matter. He wasn’t thinking about alleviating pain. He was thinking about alleviating his existence. Which I suppose is just the most radical way of alleviating pain.
When my prostate swelled up to the size of a tangerine, and I ran a fever and ached all over, and taking a piss required a ten-minute effort, and I could no longer stand for the job but had to lower the seat lady-style to avoid spraying a split-stream all over the place, I too thought of alleviating pain in the most radical way.
French-kissing the mouth of my gun, like an act of terminal intimacy with a lover.
An act of sexy mercy.
I now know a thing or two about the desire for death, and how it looks on the faces of those who feel it. I have confirmed it in the mirror after seeing it on another man first.
The look in the old man’s eye: he was staring down a tunnel at death and finding it too far way.
In the beginning we did lines together on the coffee table and talked for hours about our future and then fucked like frantic fallen angels until the sun came up. Our fucking was never not mythical, the hangover never not deadly. Feeling euphoria and despair in such close proximity made me think I knew what it must mean to taste the tears of a god.
Now I sometimes wonder if it was all a dream sprinkled in Columbian fairy dust imported via Mexico and cut with baby laxative for maximum profit by the retail foot soldiers at the end of the supply chain.
Strange that we should have come to need the fairy dust to have the simulacrum of an honest conversation. In the beginning, alcohol had worked just fine.
On our very first date, properly loquacious from the bourbon, she told me about the priest. About the party her parents threw where he was an invited guest. How she had been reading in her room upstairs when the priest paid a visit. How he sat down next to her on the edge of the bed, almost as if he were prepared to pray with her, or accept her confession. The things he told her, the way he eventually put his hand over her mouth so no one would hear her cry or scream.
Oh yes, I was in love from the very beginning.
Who confesses such things on a first date?
Only the lonely. Only the brave.
When my time is up on this Earth, when the end feels so near I can taste it on my tongue, when the urge to kiss the mouth of my gun comes on like a sexual feeling, I am getting in my truck and finding at least one priest to take with me.
Up against the wall, padre.
But first, bend over please.
It’s hard to believe now we almost had a baby. Would that have been our superglue, I want to know. Or maybe I don’t want to know.
Maybe the new baby smell would have been something we huffed for another hit of the old familiar lunacy which the child would allow us to propagate for another generation.
She never knew that I knew what it felt like to be held down and told it would all be over soon and please don’t struggle because that will only make it worse.
The relief I felt when she miscarried was a kind of euphoria I hadn’t felt since my first line of cocaine, my whole life opening out before me in renewed possibility. The euphoria was followed shortly afterward by a wild despair of the sort I hadn’t felt since my tenth line of cocaine, my entire existence shrinking to the size of an eyeball that can only see the inside of itself.
I thought by not telling her I knew all about it, I allowed her to occupy a space she needed to keep as her own. I suspected she would have felt crowded there if I had told her the truth.
That I knew. Oh yes. I knew.
Freedom, that’s what the miscarriage meant. For a minute or two I hated myself for thinking that word and that word only in regard to the death of my once future child who would always only ever be a small motionless shape on a screen where an audible heartbeat should have been.
In my mind I was gone the minute I learned that heartbeat had failed.
Freedom, that’s what I discovered inside the silence where the heartbeat should have been.
How could I tell her that I knew what it meant to feel my body yield to the intentions of another? There was room for only one such story in our love affair. Space for only one of us to have been so defiled. My silence gave her the power of sole ownership of a secret.
Besides, how could I trump a priest with a first cousin once removed?
It’s no great secret that a dick in the ass just doesn’t elicit the same sort of sympathy.
I never had to look him in the eye. Plus he had the courtesy to play Szeryng playing Bach. How could I really complain?
I’ve been taking it in the ass for months now. It’s the only way to keep the prostate tame. Beaded-cuff, non-latex, powder-free rubber gloves and water-based lubricant. A firm and well-placed index finger. That’s all that’s left to a man for whom the antibiotics have failed. Prostate massage, “milking the prostate,” whatever you want to call it: the thing that keeps me from a French-kiss with the mouth of my shotgun.
I clamp my hand over my own mouth every time she does it, to keep from crying out in pain.
She—my new lover, she of the original freedom fuck, who now fucks me as much out of mercy as any other impulse—she is so tender as she presses on my tender place. It’s a good part of the reason she loves me: the fact that I have this tender place and allow her to touch it. The intimacy it engenders, the trust. The role reversal of penetrator and penetrated, the hint of violation and dominance. Oh yes, she loves it. She whispers soothing words to me when she does it, and every time it reminds me of the act that defiled and deformed me, made me cold and secretive, so secretive I could not even tell my own wife that I knew what she knew.
Her father was still alive at dawn. The opioids were meant to kill him by then, but he breathed raggedly, angrily, a petulant snore, unable to let go and unable to wake up. Caught in some in-between place, some purgatory between pain and no pain, life and death.
She sat next to him, quietly, reverently, as if in prayer. I pictured her there as I listened via the baby monitor. When he wouldn’t die on his own, she covered his mouth with one hand and pinched his nostrils closed with the other in an act of unimaginable mercy.
In my dreams I sometimes see the elk twirling, the bone-colored knives of its points through the splintering glass. I hear its subsequent moans like the sound of desire in the midst of desire’s fulfillment. The knives so close I can almost lick them but for the glass between my tongue and their blades.
She is so tender. So tender when she presses on my tender place.
Her hand over his mouth, her fingers pinching his nostrils.
Would it have made a difference, I wonder, with my hand over my mouth to keep from crying out as my aperture yields yet again to the probing of another.
To have had a child together.
Would it have made a difference, I wonder, as my teeth gnaw the skin of my palm.
To have said those two little words.
I know. I know.
I whisper the words with a hand clamped over my mouth and my tongue feels the edge of a bone-colored knife as the glass explodes.
In a more poetic world, that’s how I’d have died.
The night I ran off and left her.
Gored right through the eye.