“Breathe . . . You aren’t breathing . . .”

The University had a social one evening towards the end of the residency at a restaurant, a high-end  restaurant most of us wouldn’t be able to afford. It sat on a private stretch in Marina del Rey on the edge of the water. I was seated with my first year classmates at a big round table inside, by the buffet table, mostly because we didn’t want to be cold outside by the water and also because we were all starving and broke. As they started setting up the buffet, we stood up and waited patiently for them to finishing putting out the food so we would be the first in line to fill our plates. I was enjoying a few very strong mojitos another guy paid for. I would catch Huck outside where most of the other faculty and staff mingled, behind him the sun melted and the boats slowly disappeared. There was a long, outdoor patio along the marina where people table hopped and mingled. We “First Years” were just too comfortable with each other, and stayed loyally next to one another.

Often I would see Huck through the window, returning to the patio bar for another drink or chatting with someone just before dropping a tip for the bartender- just as he would pass by, we would catch each other’s eye and smile, wink or, once, he stuck his tongue out at me. I joined him outside for a smoke and a chat with another student, shivering from the wind off the ocean, he offered me his sock hat to keep warm. I felt the other students notice, as I fondly pushed it around my ears.

Eventually, other students started leaving in huge groups. The sun was gone entirely, and as usual, I wasn’t prepared to end the party. Huck sat next to me and said his ride was leaving soon, someone who was staying at the same hotel. He asked if I would like to jump on it, since I didn’t have a ride either. Knowing this was the window for the evening we planned together, I accepted. Flushed, giddy, sprightly, I couldn’t get in that car fast enough.

Our driver was a first year student too, married, middle-aged and a pastor. We had an intimate talk a few nights earlier at a barbeque about his family. I felt comfortable enough with him. While Huck collected his things at the restaurant, in front of an empty, stained tablecloth, I confessed to the Pastor that something about Huck was alluring. I don’t really know what he thought as he drove us back to the hotel, listening to our empty plans for karaoke later that night. Or if he felt the tension as we waited for the elevator doors to open on his floor of the hotel, but just as the Pastor left us and the door closed on floor five, Huck crossed the elevator and hit me with a hard kiss. He was going for bravado again.  The sexual tension didn’t erupt in an unwound stomach knot, a missed heartbeat or musical goose bumps the way I wanted, but I knew he was trying to impress me. So I followed him back to his room on the seventh floor.

When I walked in, I immediately felt comfortable. It had been over a month since I had my own space, and almost a year since I had my own bathroom and kitchen. Two months prior, I had an opportunity to take a job in France mentoring students, so I put my things in storage and fled the U.S. for a month, sharing a flat with four students. After returning, I stayed with my parents in a small house in Washington state until leaving for this program. Now, in Culver City, I was sharing again. Strolling into Huck’s hotel room felt like paradise. Our own bathroom. Utopia.

He poured generic vodka out of an almost empty, plastic container in two glasses. One part bad vodka, two parts hotel ice. We quickly ended on the bed. I should take a moment here to say usually I don’t engage in casual sex. It just so happens, in April, my on-again off-again boyfriend of two years, Abe, broke up with me the weekend of his cousin’s wedding, just after proposing we move in together.

Abe and I broke up a couple times during our two year affair. He was an unemployed trust fund baby who loved living in Orange County and getting stoned everyday. He had very high cheekbones and big blue eyes that could glow in the dark. He was interested in crystals and Hebrew mysticism, maybe because his grandparents were Holocaust survivors with a book published on their escape from a train headed to Auschwitz. Abe wasn’t like Eric or Huck, he was calm, unmotivated with no troubled childhood. He still visited his family every Friday night. Above all, Abe was kind- often frustrated, but always kind.

I met him six months after Eric, he was the one that helped me get used to having sex without a pillow covering my face. Five years with a psychotic can get you used to things you should never get used to.

The first time Abe broke my heart, I drank so much I threw up in my bed. I wanted to vomit up everything inside of me, so I could eject him from my heart and my stomach. The second time he broke my heart, I made myself sleep with someone else. The third time we got back together, we picked up where we left off. I believed in us, but he would inevitably drift away the more responsibility I put on him, and I would lash out until he stopped calling or texting.  My unemployment claims were always delayed, and though I worked cash jobs all the time, I couldn’t afford a place for myself and the three dogs I adopted in Los Angeles. He proposed under pressure, and broke it off under that same pressure.

He used to say, “We cast a spell on each other.” In the remaining weeks before France, we still saw each other, and still slept together. We left on a hanging note but, in my heart, I needed it to end so I could start again somewhere else.

When I went to France three weeks later, it became a sexual excursion. I was seduced by several tall, gorgeous and charming men. It was liberating, but I thought of it as a once in a lifetime thing. Typically, in a bed with someone I hardly knew, I was neurotic about my body, what he thought of me and about STDs, but France and my newfound confidence was still hanging overhead, and I easily slipped into Huck’s queen size bed.

The first thing he did was pull my pony tail out. I hadn’t worn my hair down in Culver since I was at an awkward length. His hand grabbed my hair and I felt embraced they way I fantasized during the lecture sitting in front of him.

He climbed on top of me and held his fist up in the air like he was going to hit me but held back and smiled. He was testing me. I knew he wouldn’t hurt me. And he didn’t.

We made love. We were looking at each other, holding each other. Occasionally, he gave me a light slap in the face. I expected that from our earlier conversation on-line. I can’t quite explain why I liked it. I grew up in a house where my father didn’t often hit me, but when he did, it hurt. While working on a documentary series, I confided in my boss, “I can’t complain about my childhood, there wasn’t a lot of actual violence.”

“Sometimes the threat of violence is worse,” he said.

So when Huck passed his hand over my face, and I felt a light sting, there was relief in knowing how hard he could hit. With men, you always wonder how hard that first blow will be, even if they never hit you.

When we finished, I poured myself another drink and felt a tear under my eye. With Abe, I sometimes cried after intimate sex. Of course, we had a year and change under our belt first, so it was unusual for me to feel a tear after the first time with someone. Unusual isn’t the right word, completely unique. It had never happened to me before.

I sat at the side of the bed, and sipped my ice with vodka, then quickly wiped it off my face before he noticed. “Are you crying?” he asked from across the room.

“No, that would be stupid,” I bluffed.

He laughed, walking over and affectionately pet my hair before sitting at the desk in his room, then asked if I wanted to hear some of his poetry. I knew he was a poetry major but I was dreading the moment he would ask me to hear it. I am not a fan. He read a poem in labored French, knowing I was in love with everything French.

I lay down across the bed the wrong way, staring at the ceiling, listening to his voice:

“I would be shouting at
her with a raised hand
or throwing the phone at her
if it were then, if I were him.
We hurt feelings instead of faces.
We break hearts instead of promises.
At least we feel that way.
But sometimes they sneak up
on us, our fathers.
And we kick things and throw them
around hurting faces and hearts
like when you watched your mother
run away from under covers and
learned his language from
behind the bedroom door.
No, I don’t get to shout at her,
she left when she saw how
I was born of a young man.
When she saw how I would
hurt her over and over
with hand or heart.
To be born of young men
is to be alone behind closed
doors and scared under blankets
with no calming words
from woman’s wisdom.”

My eyes welled up again. In the moment, I could not fathom why I was so easily moved by him. Even when prancing through the door of his hotel room, my assumption was this would be casual.  “Are you crying again?” he asked with a chuckle.

“No. What am I? A moron?” I said, flatly.

He came over and took the tears off of me with his fingertip, “What’s wrong with you?”

I laughed a little, “I don’t know.”

“I like that you cry,” he said, smiling over me. Our faces were close again and he frightened me a little, mostly because I didn’t know how he would hurt me, if it would be later that night, the next day or the end of residency, but I knew he would hurt me.

I asked if he wanted to read something I wrote. He said he did. Pulling up my email, I logged into my Google Docs and opened the excerpts I submitted for Admissions to our writing program. I walked away so I could be on the other side of the room when he read them. “You have 13, 894 unread messages in your inbox.”

“I know, I have a problem letting go,” I said.

“But they are unread.”

“I know, but I might read them later.”

Then, I felt his eyes over my words. I walked towards the hotel door, and lingered over the clean glasses on the dresser and the wet ice bucket, the contents melting into slop. When I heard his first laugh, I smiled. I like to use comedy in my writing. That moment, hearing him laugh, was my great moment with him. It felt like I turned the light on and he could finally see me.

“It’s is a contraction with an apostrophe, you moron,” he said roughly. He was taking a tone, but it was friendly.

“I know, I am not great with possessive and contraction.”

“Numbers are spelled out, stupid.”

“Ok, ok!” I said, turning from my reflection and swinging back around. I was already at the other end of the room, there was nowhere else to go.


“Great, thank you!”

“Be grateful that’s the only thing I am saying.” Then he grew quiet as he read and laughed again .  . . and then again. We both were hanging around in our underwear, reading each other’s writing and that was a moment of closeness I have never felt with anyone, at least so immediately.

When done, I opened my mini-laptop and played the original music video of “Emotional Rescue” by the Rolling Stones and performed the song, in my underwear and in synch with Mick Jagger. He sat on the bed and laughed. I obsess over a new Rolling Stones song every 6 months. First, it was “Angie”, then it was “Miss You”, followed by “She’s So Cold”, and now it was “Emotional Rescue”.

“You know, that was my first impression of you, walking into that bar while you were singing this on karaoke?” he said, leaning back into the pillows. The light off the nightstand was soft on his skin, everything seemed to be soft on his skin.

“No,” I said. I had no idea he was there so early on that first night, of course my concept of time was completely warped from the beer, champagne and martinis.

“I saw you singing right as I walked in and thought, ‘I’m gonna talk to that girl.”

“I don’t think your friend likes me anymore after that night, maybe I was too flirtatious or too much,” I sat next to him, filling another glass.

“She’s a bitch,” he said, dismissively.

“I can have a loud personality, it will inevitably turn some people off.”

He walked away to the other end of the room, “No shit.”

I laughed from my diaphragm. He really made me laugh. It never felt like one of those throaty, polite laughs you throw at someone to encourage them to get to the point. There was something about him that reminded me of an old man, the kind you like talking to; they hold their liquor, they sell sarcasm, they work hard and they don’t bullshit.

We ran out of vodka within the hour, and broke open what was left of the beer he had stashed in his room, Buck Range. It was terrible, but we didn’t mind. I spilled some beer on his bare chest by accident, and took the opportunity to act out a commercial for the super-value pale ale. I licked the beer off his chest and then popped up in his face with a cheesy, “Buck Range.” We both did a few versions of it before laughing so hard, we couldn’t finish a sentence.

He covered his face, “What is wrong with us?” he said, giggling.

I sipped the spilled beer off my can, “Pheromones.” He repeated the word like it was a disappointment.

I lay on top of him as he stroked my hair and looked into my eyes. His bare chest was completely hairless, like parts of him never made it to puberty. When laying on top of a man in bed, I love to feel his voice shake through my torso and breasts. He said, “You are adorable. A-DOR-ABLE.” For the first moment it occurred to me that he really liked me.

Huck told me he was writing his critical paper on Bukowski, so I told him about a poem he wrote called “So You Want to Be a Writer”. I found it on the internet and watched him read it: (I am posting the whole poem in my blog because I love it and everyone with a soul should read it)

“if it doesn’t come bursting out of you
in spite of everything,
don’t do it.
unless it comes unasked out of your
heart and your mind and your mouth
and your gut,
don’t do it.
if you have to sit for hours
staring at your computer screen
or hunched over your
searching for words,
don’t do it.
if you’re doing it for money or
don’t do it.
if you’re doing it because you want
women in your bed,
don’t do it.
if you have to sit there and
rewrite it again and again,
don’t do it.
if it’s hard work just thinking about doing it,
don’t do it.
if you’re trying to write like somebody
forget about it.

if you have to wait for it to roar out of
then wait patiently.
if it never does roar out of you,
do something else.

if you first have to read it to your wife
or your girlfriend or your boyfriend
or your parents or to anybody at all,
you’re not ready.

don’t be like so many writers,
don’t be like so many thousands of
people who call themselves writers,
don’t be dull and boring and
pretentious, don’t be consumed with self-
the libraries of the world have
yawned themselves to
over your kind.
don’t add to that.
don’t do it.
unless it comes out of
your soul like a rocket,
unless being still would
drive you to madness or
suicide or murder,
don’t do it.
unless the sun inside you is
burning your gut,
don’t do it.

when it is truly time,
and if you have been chosen,
it will do it by
itself and it will keep on doing it
until you die or it dies in you.

there is no other way.

and there never was.”

“We should make an appearance at karaoke,” he said checking the clock. It was now after midnight. The same friends were there at the same bar.  “If you really want to, we can try, but we have to move now. The bars will close in a couple hours,” I said. We didn’t move.

We made love on a chair in the corner. Afterward, I looked in the mirror at my tousled hair and said, “Horrifying.” I pulled out my student ID shoved it in his face, “Don’t I look like a little British boy?” He looked at the picture right as I broke out in song, “Chim Chim Cheree, Chim Chim Cheree, A sweep is as lucky, As lucky can be . . .” He laughed.  I loved making him laugh, even more than I loved providing him with orgasms.

An hour later, I straddled him as his hands roamed over me looking for my ticklish spot. “Here?” he asked, searching my face for truth.

“No. I have one ticklish spot, and I never tell anyone where it is.”

His hands roamed up. “Cold,” I said.

His hands roamed down. “Warm.”

Down they trailed toward my inner thigh, “That’s it! That’s it!”

Now, it was 3am. He stroked my hair with the burning gold of the nightstand lamp over us. It seemed to grow stronger as the night went on. My hands outlined two tattoos on his hips, “What are these?”

“Drum sticks,” he said, gently, “I am a drummer.” So was Abe.

“You are 34?” he asked.

“How did you know that?”

“You told me.”

I sipped whatever was left of my beer, “Jesus. I told you everything.”

His hand trailed down my arm, “You don’t act like you are 34.”

I grinned a little and tossed my head to the side, so he wouldn’t think too hard about that. “I know.”

After 4am, I lay on my back, his arm around me smelling sweet with sticky sex, “Did you get a breast reduction?”

“No, why?” I said.

“Your breasts, they kind of look like this girl I was with once who had a breast reduction.”

“No, but I lost a lot of weight when I decided to try and become an actress. I lost about 10 pounds,” I said, waiting for a compliment.

His hand cupped my soft mound and he exhaled a, “That’s probably why.” I wondered if he liked my breasts.

It was around 5am when we were desperate to make love one more time and, in our staggering wisdom, decided to have a go without protection. Not my finest hour. I wasn’t on birth control and knew he was a carrier for HPV, later we realized the gas station was open down on the corner. We did it anyway.

While making love, he looked me in the eyes, “Don’t fall in love with me, kiddo.” I smiled a little. I was. He bent down next to my head and whispered, “Breathe . . . you aren’t breathing.”

“Oh,” I exhaled.

We collapsed on top of each other, his salt slipping down my stomach. Our bodies broken and leaking on to each other, like two cracked eggs left in the bowl to bleed out away from the others.

When our breathing slowed, and our minds steadied, I asked him what he thought the likelihood was that I acquired HPV. He swiftly got out of bed and on the computer to frantically search my statistical chances of acquiring cervical cancer. I watched him hold his head up with one hand, looking distressed into the blue monitor and I realized why he had to pretend to be tough all the time; his heart was on a string. “Come back to bed. Come on. Turn that off,” I said, as if I was a mother. He did.

“Have you been tested recently for any disease?” I pressed, combing his hair out of his face so the sweat wouldn’t stick. “No, not in a long time,” he said.

“When was the last time you had unprotected sex?”

“A month ago,” he admitted.

“God, I hope you don’t have AIDS.”

“Don’t be ridiculous, no one has AIDS anymore.” I laughed again, shoving his head up in the air as my stomach bent in half so I could cackle.

We showered, and as he dried off outside the shower curtain he looked at me, holding up two sets of crossed fingers, “No baby, No baby, No baby.” I held up my crossed fingers too, and we chanted it together like we were trying to throw a baseball player’s concentration. “No baby, No baby, No baby.”

In towels and wet hair, facing each other on the bed, I felt so comfortable with him. I can’t recall the last time anyone felt so easy in my company, my mind could rest and I was allowed to just enjoy myself. Then, I accidentally said “I love you” and immediately slapped my hand over my mouth, as if to shove the words back down my throat. “Did I just say that?”

Smiling, “Twice,” he said.

We held each other and talked until 6am, when we finally drifted off into sleep. “Thank you for wanting me so much, you would risk disease,” he said.

“Sure,” I whispered and held him close.

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