Two More Chapters from EXQUISITE CORPSE

Photo by    Juliana Malta    on    Unsplash

Harwich: Summer 2013

Photos of the men you’ve loved fall into frame at intervals that put you in mind of leaves in autumn. They’re photoshopped to look like Polaroids, the asymmetrical white frame around each square dirtied up with faux dust and simulated scratches. A couple of smudged fingerprints.

The photos are falling into a shoebox with weathered edges, the kind you did keep photos of lovers in once upon a time. But the box has no logo on it, and you were never so attached to one box that you didn’t ditch it for a new one when its time had come. You’d chuckle at the failure of the facsimile if the fact that they’re Polaroids—not just any old photographs, but Polaroids—didn’t have you chuckling about something else entirely.

Once upon a time, on a dare from a feature dancer called Nikki Knockers, you worked the pole to the frenetic beat of the song that’s stuck in your head right now. You shook it like a Polaroid picture alright, just like the dude singing the song told you to—and you threw out your fucking back in the process. You lost a week’s worth of tips, convalescing on your couch at home, but it didn’t end up mattering: Nikki paid up and then some. She even stayed at your place for the week, the apartment upstairs from your parents, and you laughed at your dad as he tried not to stare at the assets which had inspired her nom de guerre.

You tried to correct her once, tell her a stage name was more of a nom de plume, but she insisted. “My mother always told me that, when a woman changes her name, that’s no act of the pen. That there is an act of war.”

All of a sudden, a voiceover booms throughout the theater. It’s Tracy’s voice, and she’s narrating over a montage of your former lovers getting miked up and made up for their on-camera interviews. They chat amiably with Tracy as she does their make-up, as she clips lavalier mikes to t-shirts and ties. But you can’t hear what they’re saying. You’re not sure if that upsets you, or not. It’d be nice to hear some of their voices—and you expect you will in just a minute—but what the hell are they going to say? That’s what’s got you on the edge of your seat right now. What are they going to say? And do you really want to know?

“Do you remember,” asks Tracy from off-camera, “that scene in Mallrats, the one where the girl shows off the code she uses for keeping track of all the guys she’s slept with? A smiley face means one thing, a smiley face with a wink means another…”

You do remember that scene. The movie came out the year that everything changed, and just before school started you went shopping to assemble the outfit that Tricia Jones wore as she sat between the two guys who’d asked to see her journal. Dark-blue v-neck, white collared shirt, a pleated skirt of blue and green plaid—and the calf-high white socks, of course. That outfit had lost you your virginity. The memory of David’s head between your thighs, the skirt like a holy garment on top of his bobbing head—it would be enough to get you wet right now, if the cancer had left enough woman in you that getting wet was still a thing you could do.

You are not going to cry over this. No, you are not. Lube—it’s a thing. And HRT. You’ll find a way. You are Ashley Silver. You will sit on someone’s dick again before you are dead and gone, and that’s a fact.

That’s a fact.

“I still can’t believe,” says Tracy, a smiling face on screen now and not just a disembodied voice, “that you showed me that movie when I was that young.”

You do some quick math, counting off on your fingers. She was 3 when the movie came out. It can’t have been when she was that young, can it? Nah. It had to be later. Had to.

Tracy is laughing now. Not just smiling, but laughing. Buckled over by the giggles, she has to collect herself before she continues. “Do you remember how pissed off my mothers were when they found out?”

No. But that makes sense.

“And for totally different reasons, too. Mom was like ‘That’s so inappropriate,’ but Des punched you in the arm and was like, ‘I wanted to be the one to show her that.’”

That makes sense, too.

“You didn’t have a code,” she says, shaking her head before sighing wistfully. “We would’ve need a Rosetta Stone to decrypt it anyway. No, you didn’t have a code. But you did have stories! Because it wasn’t like you could just scribble a house for inside and grass for outdoors; you did it in the strangest places.”

You scoot to the edge of your seat, narrowing your eyes as you bite your lower lip. In the eternity of that half a moment before the film cuts to its next shot, you puzzle over which unconventional entanglements made Tracy’s cut.

And then, suddenly, there’s a dude you barely recognize standing under the awning of a Dunkin Donuts. He’s rocking a B’s cap and an out of control beard, and he’s sipping coffee from a paper cup that’s steaming like it’s the middle of February. Or maybe a random day in June, because New England.

“In a car,” he says, only it comes out without the R. “On Route 6 down the Cape. In the dark,” he adds. (In the dahk, dude.) Then he smirks and nods. “While we was pulled over and waiting for a statie to finish ticketing my buddy for failing to use his fucking blinker.”

You lose your shit for a second when he says blinkah. But you stop laughing at him pretty quick, because you remember his fingers running through your hair near the end of it. You remember how he warned you in a whisper, “Ash, baby, it’s about to happen.” He remembered your name. You didn’t remember his, even back then, so you told him it was okay and you swallowed out of guilt.

The film cuts to a shot of Robin then, the one girl you ever slept with. She’d been your best friend since Westlands—since fucking grade school—but then she dated your brother, and you and her brother had your thing, and ‘why’d you have to go and make things so complicated?’ you wonder, the melody of an Avril Lavigne song stuck in your head now.

Robin is all leather and flannel, Boy Scout merit badges sewn onto the sleeves of her jacket like trophies. If she were a little older—if she were Pat Benatar—they’d be notches on her lipstick case, but Robin didn’t have a case. Didn’t need one. When she bothered to wear any make-up at all , she wore only one shade on her lips—the same matte red that her mother used to catch herself an American when fishing for a man from her fishing village across the sea.

She strums that hot pink Flying V of hers as she tells the story.

“In the bathroom of an abandoned highway rest stop,” she says. “You swore to me that the motel two exits up would be just as filthy, and though I’d fucked too many dudes in that motel during my touring years and knew that the reputation that preceded it was built on foundations of hyperbole—though I knew that, I smiled and pulled us over.” She smiles now on film, that smile of hers that was always caught between a simper and a smirk, and you long to reach between her legs again and coax from her a look less manufactured. But then her smile fades and just before she ducks her head to hide the truth of herself from the camera—from you—you see a longing in her eyes, a longing for something lost and never found.

When she looks up again, she has collected herself. “Leaning against the wall while you went to town on me, I stared at the dicks graffitied onto nearly every inch of those concrete walls. My ass pressed against the cold metal of the handicap rail, the cave paintings of migrant neanderthals doing their best to mesmerize me, it took forever for me to come. When we switched, you affected a lisp and joked that you’d sprained your tongue in the effort.

“Later,” she says, “in the not-at-all filthy motel room—beneath a set of freshly laundered sheets, if you recall—you told me that you’d stared at the menagerie of members too, when it was your turn. And we laughed ourselves to sleep debating which gnarled, cartoonish prick might bring each of us back to the world of men.”

And now the film cuts to Billy, who was one of the guys who brought you back.

“In an orange grove,” he says, “under the stars, with two band geeks at once. One was as gentle as the harmonies he sang, one”—he shakes two thumbs at himself, nodding with pride—“as driving and methodical as the rhythms he pounded on his skins.”

You smile—have you stopped smiling, you wonder—and recall poor old Billy and how he never could get a girl. Always trying so hard. Too hard. You slept with him the first time because he was the only one left in the band—besides your brother, of course—that you hadn’t slept with yet. And now you recall the hunger with which he devoured you, and it’s not Billy that you pity anymore. It’s all the ladies who never took a chance on a fat guy, all the girls who never stopped to imagine that a guy who knew how to eat might know how to eat.

Your doctor is on screen now, your surgeon, and you wonder how Tracy got him to agree to be filmed. Given the story you’re sure he’s about to tell, you feel like his face should be blurred out. His voice run through some filter to make him sound like an out-of-tune robot. But there he is: the most beautiful black man you’ve ever seen. There’s gray in the kinky curls he keeps cropped close atop his head, and in his goatee also, even a glint of silver here and there in the fade. It’s only been a few months, and you can’t believe how much older he looks. But when he looks straight into the camera, when you can see the smolder in his eyes at the very thought of you, you fidget in your seat again. You pull a knee up to your chin and rest your head upon it so that you’re looking at him sideways. The change in perspective—it’s the only way you won’t cry.

“In a doctor’s office,” he says, “with the surgeon who took your breasts from you, and who had just told you that the cancer was back, that it wasn’t going anywhere this time. You took his face in your hands and rubbed your thumbs along the bags beneath his eyes, wiping away the tears he would not cry. ‘I’m good,’ he said with a nod, trying to convince you when the brother can’t even convince his damn self.” He pauses, shakes his head, pushes his lips together in that way he does to keep from crying, and then he waves a hand at the camera.

In your mind, you think Stay with him, as if the Tracy can not only hear your thoughts, but hear them across time and space. But she doesn’t. She cuts away from him in what she must’ve seen as an act of mercy. But you know that he needed those tears. And you wish she’d stayed with him long enough for him to find them.

Whether the cut jumps 10 seconds or 10 minutes, you’re not sure. But the next time you see his face, he’s collected himself. He’s calm, almost cold. He’s not Malik no more. He’s Doctor Palmer, and he’s pleased to make your acquaintance.

“You pulled him down on top of you,” he continues, building toward the climax with a clinical cadence, “the sheet of throwaway paper crinkling underneath you. And you loved this man hard and long. Because, even if he couldn’t fix you, perhaps you still had time to fix him.”

You stand and stalk down the aisle, not sure that you can take anymore. But then a pain in your gut doubles you over. What is left in your gut to cause you pain, you wonder as you try to stand again. The film fades to black, but you know there’s more. Tracy’s told you this is just an assembly cut, so there’s got to be loads more. But what more is there to say? And who is left to say it.

You remember your brother only after he appears on screen for the first time.

Chelmsford: September 1982

When I look at it now, it’s hard to believe that the pillar at the end of our driveway ever seemed tall at all. I look at that leaning tower of flagstone and I laugh that my life has become an SAT problem. You remember that one, right? The bit about the kid who comes back to his hometown and everything is smaller? He looks longingly at the tree he used to climb, and then we’re supposed to write an essay about what it means. We’re supposed to write like we’re not sixteen or seventeen years old. In a classroom on a snowy Saturday morning, we’re supposed to write like we long for the past and not the future.

But it did used to be big, that pillar at the end of our driveway. Enormous even. And enticing. It looked like a Jenga puzzle, only no one had dared to start the game. No one at all, not in the two hundred some-odd years since it’d been built to mark property lines for our colonial ancestors.

On my first day of kindergarten, I held Mom’s hand as I toddled up our long gravel driveway. The other boys, the neighbors, they snickered at the orange rain coat and boots that I’d picked out with Grammy H at K-Mart, and they snickered more when I hid my face in Mom’s flowered skirt, when I pulled the stethoscope out of the pocket of her lab coat and put it on to listen to my thundering heart. She looked down at me then, away from her watch, away from the bend in the road the bus was supposed to be rounding, and she asked what was wrong, but I said nothing.

On the second day, it was Dad’s turn, and he didn’t hold my hand. He was too busy trying to keep you from plowing your big wheel out into the road. And that’s how I got on top of the pillar. With Dad distracted, I made the climb. And it had been so nice, with my kid sister busy playing in traffic, to sit in peace and watch the world. The cardinals that Grammy S loved so much played in the crabapple tree across the way, dodging between branches as they chased each other. But then Dad had the big wheel under one arm and you under the other and he was saying “Get your ass down from there.”

The other kids at the bus stop, silent until this moment, they cackled. But then Dad gave them a look—no words, just a glare—and they shut right the hell up.

“What were you doing up there?” he asked me.

“Trying to escape,” I said. And he smirked, you still wriggling under one arm. You just kept on moving, even though you knew you wouldn’t get put down until you were still again.

“This family,” said Dad, “we’ve been trying to escape for decades.”

“What’s a decade?” I asked him.

“Never mind,” he said, setting you down now that you’d gone as stiff as a board. “Never mind,” he said. “You just keep trying.”

“Okay,” I said.

“And who knows,” he said, laughing at a joke he hadn’t even made yet, “maybe one of you kids’ll be the first to do it.”

One of us was, but it wasn’t me. I’m still working on it, even now.

But you? The moment Dad set you down, you ran out into the road again. You looked over your shoulder and stuck your tongue out at the both of us. The kids at the bus stop were shouting at you about something, waving their arms, but you weren’t listening. And me and Dad—we were too stunned at what was about to happen that we couldn’t move a muscle.

Luckily, the school bus stopped in time.


And isn’t that what makes every prison break possible, in the end?

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