Published originally in Anti-Heroin Chic, 5/2/2019
That which consumed me wasn’t hunger, but thirst.
To drink was to imbibe an elixir that promised longer life. I loved the calm it brought—cold and dark, like sharks roaming through the depths.
I couldn’t ever drink fast enough. Thirst was insatiable even when my belly was full. Not tummy or stomach, but belly. The more I drank, the thirstier I became—guzzling until the glass almost swallowed me. Until I was sated.
Then came other sources: juice, milk, sodas, and grenadines served in sparkling glasses. One day, I tasted wine. It did more than quench. Made me feel alive, weightless, and immortal—the true elixir. But it also robbed the water from my body, leaving me thirstier than before.
I was used to thirst by then. On weekends, I walked to the neighborhood emporium to marvel at the colorful syrups that flavored the Italian sodas, drink in the sun-dappled awnings, and stare at the wedges of cake and pie in the dessert case. Cats lay in chalky strokes of light, over-licking their paws. This was where I came to cope, knowing my thirst would never be gone. It was a constant presence, like the cry of a wild animal.
I didn’t drink—only relished the surrogate pleasure of watching and listening to others do so. Flowers glowered at me from vases, their petals and stems fat with water like the tentacles of sea monsters. I listened to the quiet slurping sounds mix with the babble of the fountain. Ladies talked at a nearby table, speaking in the third person.
“She always was attracted to damaged types—men who aren’t any good for her,” said the blonde. “But that’s her—looking for someone to care for, someone to fill her up.”
I didn’t know if she were talking about me or someone else. Was anyone good for anyone, or were our personalities like basic needs to be met, I wondered?
I stared at the tears of water on the white tablecloth and the oil that swirled on the women’s salad plates. The blonde’s eyelashes were layered with thick mascara that reminded me of a deer. Her cheeks were dewdrops and her eyes olives.
Their singsong voices overlapped with the shuffle of feet and the clink of silverware. Everything seemed to float. I tried not to laugh. I was sitting alone. If I laughed, I’d look nuts. But it was no use. I laughed, anyway, glad no one noticed.
He was like thirst—waiting for me outside the store, body slanted against the painted bricks, wearing that smile that was more of a sneer.
He called out as I walked past, his gaze hovering, expectant, the way a fly’s compound eyes and succoring mouth look beneath a microscope. Up close, I noticed the pupils of his eyes were white instead of black. White stars surrounded by tangled, blue strands. I watched them disperse to a field of pressed flowers, a cosmos of insect wings flecking yellow amber. The whole universe seemed suspended in his gaze.
“You’re really pretty,” he said. “Would you like to go with me somewhere?”
We went a lot of places in the coming weeks. We went for a bike ride through the Five Points neighborhood and down the St. Mary’s strip. I strung my bike with LEDs that twinkled like a Christmas tree. He was fast and fearless, blazing down the middle of the street and cutting in front of buses, but I was spontaneous—the essential ingredient in adventure-making.
“Let’s go this way,” I said, veering right to cut through the parking lot of a shuttered gas station.
“Oh, yes, let’s…”
His voice trailed off as he followed me around the corner and down the hill. He’d gotten used to my sudden movements, where I’d swerve unpredictably down a perpendicular street. He was getting tired of them, I sensed.
The street wound past a theater and a string of art galleries, where a group of musicians stood beneath an awning playing the bagpipes. It was what I’d hoped for—that moment of serendipity that would close the night. Maybe he’d realize I was good at running into things that seemed meaningful or quaint, though I really had no idea what I was doing.
“We’re being entertained,” he said. “My family is Scottish. You know, I went to a funeral with bagpipes once.”
“Yeah?” I asked.
“It was nice until I heard the drone-pipe playing in the background. That was kind of annoying. Shall we continue?”
I felt exposed and caught off guard, laughing nervously as he rode ahead.
I wondered how long we could drag this out. Pretend our capricious flights through town were going to lead to sex when we knew they wouldn’t. I didn’t want sex, and neither did he. We were both into the thrill of it. Savoring all the moments and their little deaths when we came close to doing it but didn’t.
Paused at a red light, he stared at the colorful spokes on my wheels, his eyes focused in the vicinity of my crotch.
“I like your bike,” he said, dumbfounded.
I lowered my leg like a kickstand and straightened proudly, as if I’d garnered an award: first prize for being with the hottest guy I’d seen in years, let alone spoken to, and resisting the urge to do anything other than pedal around town.
We could go on forever, I realized.
Eventually, we wound up in his house and then his bedroom, though all we did was watch movies and play games. I listened to the cool slurp of wooden letters on the Scrabble board one night, not speaking.
“What’s wrong?” he asked, concerned.
“Nothing. I’m just really tense.”
It was more than tension. I could sense myself weakening. His gentle come-ons were getting harder to resist.
He reached across the bed, resting a hand on my upper shoulders.
“Well, here,” he said, all innocent. “Let me do this.”
He began to caress my shoulders, running his palm up and down the back of my neck while applying pressure. It felt divine. I slumped forward, relaxing. He scooted closer, watching with that expectant gaze again.
When we kissed, it was like the first time, where the kiss seemed to stretch across oceans, our tongues speaking the language of our most subtle, awakening urges. Waves of pleasure rippled over me. The room felt damp. The air seemed to drip and collect like the sea through a shell. I imagined I was an eel, a dolphin, or a jellyfish.
We didn’t ever actually have sex— only dry humped. Over the next couple hours, we mastered the art of dry humping.
His lips grazed my entire body from head to toe. White light tunneled my vision, throwing the room at odd angles. I passed through all the lunar phases. On the fourteenth day of the month, the moon stopped in its tracks and scratched instructions in chalk on the sky: Fuck with a capital ‘F.’
His thrusts were rough through fabric, aimed at the juncture of my hip and thigh. I kept getting wetter and reached down to find the seam of my jeans was soaked. I turned my head to the side and peered out the window at night’s black chasm.
He scooted to the end of the bed as I walked my panties down my legs like a panda climbing a stalk of bamboo and twisted my arms back to undo my bra. He buried his face in my lap and I reached down to hold his head. He peered up from between my legs, wearing a spaced-out but attentive look.
The next hour was akin to starting at the bottom of a canyon and slowly making our way to the top. We were like a couple of pack mules or out-of-work horses.
Our feet tripped over the rocks and stones lining the walk. We tripped over each other and fell out of rhythm. His teeth sparred with my pubic bone. A woman in a crinkled skirt hawked flowers on the side of the road, distracting us.
But we kept going. When we reached the top of the hill, I was thirstier than I’d ever been. I expected a smooth climax, but it was nothing like that. Instead, I resembled a monkey clashing a pair of cymbals between my thighs, my whole body lurching and convulsing forward, my eyes squeezing shut and my feet flexing and my knees going all bowlegged like a frog swimming through Jell-O. Meanwhile, he sort of latched on. My hips were rocking so quickly that he might have come flying off otherwise.
Afterward, he relaxed into the mattress, whereas I was nervous and self-conscious. My body felt white and gigantic, like a flesh sundae.
“You have a very nice body,” he said, as if he could read my thoughts. As if that fixed everything.
In the morning, he was still asleep when I woke up. I felt drained. The events of the previous night were hazy. Searching the room, I found a bag of Jolly Ranchers on top of the tiny fridge. I sat on the bed sucking on one after the other, hoping he wouldn’t wake up and see me eating all his candy. He did wake up, but it was only for a second. He craned his head toward the end of the bed where I was and then slunk back down to the pillow, asleep again.
He woke again mid-morning, rising up to pull on his jeans and peer at me over his shoulder, all matter-of-fact.
“I’m hungry,” he said. “Do you want anything?”
“A coffee. And some water.”
“There’s water in the kitchen.”
He returned a half hour later with a coffee, soda, and a bag of fried chicken. I held the coffee under my nose and inhaled the steam while he slouched on the mattress eating from the bag. The aroma of chicken filled the room. I felt heavy, as if my bones were made of lead.
While it was only morning, the day felt over already.
“I really like your bike,” he said.
“I like yours, too.”
“I wouldn’t take it on any super-long trips, but it’s a nice one.”
“Why, are you afraid I won’t make it?”
“It’s not built for long distances. It’s a hybrid.”
“I could make it.”
He watched me with an incredulous stare, his eyebrows raised and his jaw protruding with food. It was irresistible. I’d succumbed to him, I realized. I could get used to this. Even envisioned us being able to stay together without driving each other crazy. Still, he was a succedaneum. Nothing could replace thirst.
The following weekend, I drove to the coast to visit my parents. They were waiting when I arrived. Mom always made something sweet. This time, it was her famous chocolate cake.
“Have some,” she said, serving me a slice. “It’s been a while.”
She watched me sit at the table and eat, taking quick bites that made it vanish. Dad pointed at the light refracted through the glass prism on the windowsill. At night, he showed me the stars through his telescope. They knew about the thirst. Everyone did. But they also knew there was no real fix. They suffered, too, and could only be compassionate.
Walking with mom along the beach, I noticed how it sprawled like a wet desert, a plain of sand that seemed to recede infinitely. Blades of grass cut through the dunes. Birds flew in sharp aerials above the sere landscape.
Being by the sea made me feel like a part of it. Like a pent-up sea, I was constantly churning.
“It’s a monster,” I cried.
Mom’s laugh was helpless and surrendering.
“It is a monster, but if you learn to respect the monster—to know its limits—you’ll be fine.”
An image formed in my mind. A grainy picture of mom and dad, like the one that appeared on my phone whenever they called. I heard the fizzing sound of the connection as their faces came into view. Many years had gone by, yet there they were—the same two people I’d known as an infant—as if not a day had passed. The picture was static and unchanging.
I wanted those years back—all the intervening years before the thirst took over my life. Time once seemed fluid, like it could flow forward or backward. Until now, it didn’t occur to me it might be irreversible. Yet it wasn’t loss that I felt, or even longing, but something more elemental, desperate, pining…
I knew what it was. Felt it pooling like saliva in my mouth, though I wouldn’t say it out loud.
“I love you more than the ocean, more than the sky,” mom said. “But I know you have your own life to live.”
There was plenty of love here, I thought. It was more than enough for one person. Why didn’t I stay? Why did I leave the people I loved in search of fleeting pleasures?
When we got home, I stood on the porch gazing toward the ocean. Though it was salty, I imagined swallowing it whole. I wished for rain—a thunderstorm—the clouds cracking open and shedding thick torrents. Yet the sky was a bottomless blue.
Mom watched from the window. When she saw me standing and staring like that, she came to bring me in.
“Come in and have lunch,” she said.