“Hit me,” said Elaine.
I thought I hadn’t heard her right.
“Hit me,” she repeated. I stopped in mid-stroke.
She might as well have said the sheets were on fire. My penis slithered out of her like a clubbed snake.
Rolling off her, I stared at the cracked plaster and wondered why ceilings weren’t routinely decorated with some groin-enlivening mural—Delacroix’s Rape of the Sabines, maybe, or some nice nineteenth century Japanese porn—something to provide spent males, or prematurely limp ones, some focus for contemplation other than their own untimely detumescence.
“Why did you say that?”
“That was Little Elaine.”
“Oh, Christ, not that inner child crap.”
I flopped onto my side, willing myself not to say anything else. I mean, I loved this woman. Even if I’d only known her for a few months, I loved her passion and her energy and the way she craved sex like some kind of cock-junkie, but sometimes her incessant psycho-babble, pop-psychology, Survivors of Shitty Childhoods Anonymous, or whatever crap the shrinks on the bestseller list were hyping these days, really got old.
After all, nobody has a perfect childhood, right? But you grow up and you forget about the bike you didn’t get for Christmas or the dog that got hit by a car. You get down to the business of being a grown-up and you leave your childhood behind.
I stole a glance at Elaine. She appeared to be meditating on the area between her eyebrows.
“I asked you to hit me.”
“That doesn’t turn me on. I care about you. I want to kiss you and caress you.”
“You don’t get it, do you?”
“Evidently not. Care to enlighten me?”
“I don’t want you to hurt me. Getting rough during sex doesn’t have to mean anything sexist or sinister. It just adds to the rush, like going over the top of a rollercoaster. My therapist says it’s really Little Elaine, my inner child, who wants to be slapped. Little Elaine grew up with lots of yelling and screaming and hitting. She’s addicted to chaos.”
“Do you have any idea how stupid you sound when you talk about yourself in the third person? I feel like I’m in a ménage à trois, and one of us is underage.”
“Fuck you, Matthew. You’re just being a prick because you lost your hard-on.”
She flung the sheets aside and leaped out of the bed.
Suddenly I felt very alone.
“I wish you wouldn’t go.”
My pecker wished it, too. Elaine was a dancer and part-time fitness trainer. Her body radiated a fierce, androgynous energy. Riding Elaine, it was like making love to a lust-struck python. Now she stormed about the bedroom, gathering up items of her clothing that had been cast about in a frenzy of libido that, given the present circumstances, now seemed sad and ludicrous.
“Elaine, I’m sorry.”
“Look, I won’t ask you again to do anything you’re not up for—” She realized what she’d said, and we both laughed. At least it broke the tension, but she didn’t stop getting dressed. “I have to leave anyway. Cory’s probably sweet-talked the sitter into letting him stay up to play video games all night.”
“Hey, tell Cory I got that backgammon set he wanted.”
“That was sweet of you, Matthew. I will.”
• • • •
After Elaine left, I lay on the damp, sex-scented sheets, feeling angry and confused, marveling at the peculiar masochism of people who seemed to relish the rehashing of their traumatic pasts. I had always avoided thinking of my own family. Yet now, perversely, the memories came, each with its own distinctive sting, like an angry acupuncturist jabbing in the needles.
My father had died in ’98, and Mom lived with my sister RuthAnn in Illinois. I called occasionally, but the mere sound of their voices was like hearing the language of a foreign land where one was once held prisoner. I had no wish to ever revisit it.
If Elaine’s family had been drunken and violent, mine had been the opposite: quiet, pious, restrained. Grace before meals, Mass on Sunday. No alcohol, no swearing, no voices raised in either rage or exultation. Boundaries were rigidly observed and privacies respected.
Dad taught high school chemistry and coached football.
RuthAnn, two years my senior, was a high school track star.
I was a “brain” who could master trig but blundered about in gym class like a lobotomized brontosaurus, a timid tourist in my skin to whom the language of the body seemed as alien as Sanskrit.
Football was Dad’s great passion. A winning team meant conversation at the supper table, a losing one evoked grim silence. Sometimes I couldn’t help but wonder how he felt, coaching other people’s athletic, strapping sons, then staring across the table at his own pimply, uncoordinated progeny.
Freddy Burton was a year ahead of me, a sixteen-year-old junior, and even pudgier and less athletic than I was. For that reason, I suppose, I tried to be his buddy. I’d invite Freddy over for dinner and watch him scarf down two desserts and hope Dad noticed how truly disgusting Freddy was, how his gut lopped over his trousers and his chins jiggled. I figured if I couldn’t make Dad proud of me, at least I’d make him less ashamed.
Like that time I dislocated my shoulder in a sledding accident, and Dad drove me to the hospital. He didn’t comfort me, but only said he hoped I wasn’t going to cry. I nearly bit my tongue in half not crying.
I was thinking of that ride to the hospital when I fell asleep, and the old nightmare surfaced in all its terrible clarity: my throat feels like I’ve gargled with Drano. The school nurse has diagnosed strep throat and sent me home. Now I stand at the foot of the stairs, looking up at my father, thinking maybe he’s come home for lunch. He holds one hand out like a traffic cop and says, “Don’t come up here.”
But my room is upstairs and my bed and my books. I have a sudden, urgent need to be there. To crawl into bed with a book and escape into a jungle of squiggly black bug tracks on a cream-colored page.
I start up the stairs.
“No!” commands Dad.
A fierce heat radiates from above. My eyelashes feel scorched, my forehead burns. At first I think it’s fever. But suddenly I understand—our house must be on fire! And Mom and RuthAnn! Where are they?
Now I remember a story I read about a boy who saved his family from a burning building. How I longed to be that boy, to be a hero better than any football star. To see the pride and gratitude in Dad’s eyes, to be someone who mattered.
I rush up the stairs, oblivious to danger, determined to rescue Mom and RuthAnne, to make Dad proud.
Dad blocks my path.
He grips my shoulders, forces me to meet his eyes. They gleam like pale, ice-encrusted stones.
He says, “Some things we do not speak of.”
This was the nightmare from my youth, with Dad saying those words I always thought I had imagined, until the night Elaine asked me to hit her.
After that, it seemed as if I heard Dad’s voice every time I closed my eyes.
• • • •
On Saturday, Elaine couldn’t get a babysitter for Cory, so I took the Lexington #6 train over to 8th Street and walked up to Avenue A, stopping at the corner market to pick up steaks and a bottle of Chianti, some Orange Crush for Cory.
When I left the store in the early twilight, the neighborhood was already acrawl with people who looked as though, a few hours from now, they’d be filling up the local emergency room, psych ward, and drunk tank. A shopping bag hag waddled past me, spewing gibberish with the panache of a Pentecostal speaking in tongues. A slant-eyed hooker—some exotic mix of Chinese, Hispanic and black—leaned a leather-clad hip in a doorway.
Rap blatted from an open window. Across the street, a couple stood on the porch of a dilapidated walk-up, bickering in some dialect that sounded like corn popping. I could smell weed, hear obscenities shouted, taste the grit and the swill of the city.
Dammit, how could Elaine raise her son in such a pit? Once the neighborhood had held hopes for gentrification, but tonight the little ragged clumps of street people, the pairs of sullen hookers, fouled it like the droppings of a thousand diarrhetic pigeons.
They were on me before I realized what was happening. A tribe of them, four half-naked boys, their complexions varying shades of brown and black and sickly alabaster. They sauntered over from a doorway, all sinews and skin, like scrawny wolves wearing tight jeans and sneers.
“You party, Mister?”
The tattooed boy who spoke surveyed me with the black, predatory eyes of some wild, nocturnal raptor. His skin looked the color of dusk, all soot and smoke, and his neck was way too supple and long and unblemished to belong to a boy. His face bore a mocking smirk that I longed to rearrange with my fist.
“You talk, man?” said another. I glimpsed gold teeth, heard gum pop.
I elbowed my way past them, clutching my parcels.
“What you like, man? Blow-job? Hand-job? You like it in the ass?”
I reminded myself these were just kids trying to shock. Their high-pitched laughter sounded like Cory’s the time I took him to a PG-13 movie and, to my embarrassment, every other word was a four-letter one.
“Fuck you then. You ain’t from this neighborhood. What is it? You a cop?”
I shifted the shopping bags to one arm and shoved the boy who blocked my way. He lost his balance and stumbled off the curb. A stream of curses flew at me like darts. I reached Elaine’s building and hurled myself through the door.
I didn’t mention the encounter on the street, but when Elaine asked me to go back to the store for salad dressing, I pleaded fatigue. While she made a salad in the kitchen, Cory and I played backgammon on the set I’d bought him. He was a bright boy, quick to learn. I watched him concentrate on his next move, brows furrowing, a small black mole on his left cheek accentuating the pallor of his skin.
The whiteness, the fragility of that skin made me think suddenly of the vermin I’d encountered on my way here. A sudden appalling image: Cory, a few years older, posturing and smirking, eyes bright with dope and menace, thumbs thrust into the pockets of his too-tight jeans, fingers angling down to form a “V”.
“Cory, does anyone ever bother you?”
He looked up, surprised. “You mean at school?”
“Or here in the neighborhood. You know, older kids.”
“You mean like drug pushers? Pervs? We took a course in that last year in school—‘How to Be Street Smart and Safe.’”
“But do you feel safe around here?”
I made my move. Too fast, a blunder so obvious Cory had to think I was deliberately throwing the game.
“C’mon Matthew. You can do better than that.”
“Hey, look, I know this ain’t—this isn’t Fifth Avenue, and people get mugged here and all. But I can look out for me and Mom.” He glanced behind him to make sure Elaine wasn’t looking, then dug into his school bag and produced a set of nunchucks.
“Cory, you’ve got no business— “
But at once I saw in Cory’s face the fear that I’d tell his mother. I knew that such a betrayal would mean a sure rupture in the friendship the boy and I were forming. So I nodded, respecting the trust he’d placed in me by protecting his secret.
Later, though, helping Elaine do the dishes, I voiced some general concern. “You really ought to move. It isn’t safe to raise a child in this neighborhood.”
“Cory’s a tough kid. You should have heard what he said to the panhandler who cussed at me the other day. He’s a tiger.”
“He’s only twelve years old, Elaine. He needs protection.”
“Christ, Elaine, don’t tell me you don’t see the kind of hoodlums that hang out around this neighborhood? Why, just tonight on my way here, there was a gang of toughs who . . .”
But then the implications of what I was about to tell her struck me, and a queasy, seasick feeling roiled liquidly in my gut. What if there was some significance in the fact that the young thugs had chosen me to waylay? What if the street kids had sensed something in me that even I was unaware of?
Elaine was staring at me strangely. “What happened, Matthew? You look sick.”
“There was a younger kid, that’s all,” I quickly lied. “They roughed him up a bit. I put a stop to it.”
Later, after Cory was tucked in bed and we’d made love, we lay with only our fingertips touching, letting the sweat dry off our bodies. Elaine’s bedroom was stuffy, airless. A ceiling fan turning dissolutely overhead stirred air that seemed the temperature and consistency of tepid porridge.
She stroked my hand. “Cory likes you. You’re good with him.”
“Cory makes it easy. He’s bright and well-behaved. I don’t know how I’d be if he were a brat.”
Elaine turned on her side, pressed against me. Her skin felt hot and slick. She smoothed the damp hair off my face, then let her fingers trail along the inside of my thigh. A dangerous heat radiated off her. She rubbed against me, her belly muscles flexing. She was wet when I pushed inside her.
“Matthew? Did you hear me?”
She’d murmured something in her “naughty” voice, her Little Elaine voice, but I hadn’t been listening.
“Suppose I was a brat . . .?”
Her words knifed through the sex-trance.
“. . . and I’d been bad?”
I tried to get into the spirit of this without losing my concentration, without letting my mind leave its dark, preverbal rapture. “I’d cancel the cable TV.”
“I mean really bad.”
“Put you up for adoption on Craig’s List?”
“Matthew, please.” She stopped moving, but her internal muscles were at work, pumping, milking. “Punish me.”
“You haven’t done anything wrong.”
I wasn’t good at fantasy. Whatever the appeal of make-believe, I’d tried to leave it behind in childhood.
“Elaine, I can’t get into this.”
“Of course you can.”
“I don’t know what you want.”
She gazed up at me, hungry-eyed.
“Hit me,” cooed Elaine, all honey and heat.
“Elaine, this scares me.”
My erection was diminishing like a Popsicle thrust toward a flame. I tried to reconnect with sensuality by pinching her nipples and swirling my tongue along the curve of her neck. All for naught.
She sucked my lower lip between her teeth and bit down hard. The pain was like an icepick up the ass, unprecedented, scalding. I tasted blood.
She lunged at me. I fended her off, pinning her arms above her head, but it felt like she had twice as many joints as an ordinary woman and three times the strength. She broke my grip on her wrists and flailed at me with long acrylic nails.
I knew this was Elaine’s idea of a game, but suddenly I felt terrified, like I was battling for my life.
I did what she wanted.
A timid blow at best. Yet a smile of both relief and lust and yes, even childish triumph, spread across her features.
God help me, I wanted to hit her again.
Not just hit her, but pound her face until her nose shattered, until her eyes were fleshy slits echoing the larger wound between her legs, her cheekbones like crushed eggshells, and then I’d work her over down below, starting with her penis—
Shame flayed me. I muttered “Damn you,” got out of bed, and headed for the bathroom, where I knelt before the toilet, my dinner perilously close to retracing its original route. The hand with which I’d struck Elaine still tingled.
Elaine tapped on the door.
“Matthew? Matthew, listen. You didn’t hurt me. Matthew, are you okay? What’s wrong?”
But how could I answer her, when I truly wasn’t sure? And how could I go to sleep, when I knew what I would dream?
• • • •
I’ve left school early, sent home with a sore throat. Dad’s Olds is in the driveway, but he isn’t in the kitchen or the den, so I start up the stairs to look for him.
This time Dad doesn’t stop me. A cold dread ices my stomach, and I try desperately to wake myself up, but it’s as if I’m trapped in the dream, drowning in it, and I have to go on.
On the threshold of my parents’ room, I hesitate. I’ve never intruded here, not even when I was five years old and woke up screaming, convinced the silhouette of the neighbor’s cat outside my window was a bloody-fingered corpse, freshly self-exhumed, scratching at me outside the glass.
I give a timid knock before entering, but the room is empty.
From the bathroom that adjoins their room, I hear sounds. The door’s half open, so I peek inside.
And almost blurt out “excuse me”, because isn’t that what you say when you catch someone on the commode, except the toilet seat Dad’s sitting on is down, and Freddy Burton’s head is bobbing up-down, down-up on his lap.
Dad looks at me, but doesn’t disengage. It’s as if the head is growing out of my father’s crotch, a gross and bloated cancer complete with jug ears, sprouting from his genitals.
“You bastard!” I shout. “You bastard, I’m going to tell!”
I shut the door and run.
Outside, a light snow’s falling. I run until my lungs hitch. Then I walk until I’m able to run some more. It goes like that, until I’m numb in every part of me except my heart, the part that hurts the most and that I cannot deaden.
Anger keeps me going long past the time my lungs and muscles scream to quit. What brings me home at last, though, is something else, that most exhausting of emotions, shame. I feel that I will choke on shame, because, as the anger recedes, what’s left stranded on the shore of my soul isn’t disgust or rage or revulsion, but something much more terrifying: black envy of the boy my father’s used. Envy and, God help me, desire.
Part of me would like to die, to be found frozen in the snow, my corpse mute accusation far worse than any words.
Instead, of course, I opt for warmth over melodrama. I hide out at the Mall until it closes, then slink home.
Mom and Dad and RuthAnn are finishing supper. Mom looks up and says, “Thank God! We were about to call the police,” but I know that’s just to scare me. Then Dad takes me into the den and unbuckles his belt. I know this ritual well, know what’s expected. I lower my jeans and briefs, brace myself against Dad’s desk. My testicles curl up so tight I can feel them press my kidneys.
“Say it,” says my father.
I can’t. My throat feels cauterized.
The belt hisses down, strikes the desk chair.
“What do you want? Say it or I’ll make it worse.”
The words dribble out of me like tears.
“So I can hear you!”
I have to say it each time, before each stroke, even when I’m crying too hard to get the words out in any coherent form.
After it’s over, my father says, “There are things that decent people never speak about, Matthew. And if you ever threaten me again, I’ll make it worse for you. Much worse.”
And that is all he says about it. Ever.
• • • •
I knew I shouldn’t go back to Elaine’s apartment, not with the weight of those memories. But on the phone, she purred and promised enticements so seductive my cock lifted like a charmed snake, while in the background, I could hear Cory urging me to come over so he could beat me again at backgammon.
A humid drizzle was falling, leaving the streets sodden, rain-slicked as I came up out of the subway.
Before I even saw them, I heard their voices. The sharp, mocking chatter of parrots, curse words in English that were interspersed with bright, harsh snaps of Spanish. Three of them were huddled under the rain-sagging awning of a fruit stand. Eyes glittery and feral, voices like little shards of glass, snipping at arteries.
“Where’re your groceries tonight, man?”
The skinny one canted a hip. Batting of lashes, slicking of tongue.
“Hey, man, whatchoo want?”
I wanted to bounce their skulls off the sidewalk and watch them splat open like dropped melons. They were evil boys who singled decent people out for prey, who imagined others shared their vile desires.
By the time I reached Elaine’s door, I burned with indignation. I would call the police, report the hooligans for prostitution, harassment.
Elaine greeted me wearing a little see-through teddy with cut-outs in strategic places. “What’s wrong?” she said.
“Those damned boys out on the street. They’re dangerous. I’m going to call the cops.”
“Matthew, calm down. Can’t it wait?” She took my hand and kissed the knuckles, the inside of the wrist. Her palms felt hot, as though she’d warmed them over a stove.
“I sent Cory to the store,” she said and led me toward the bedroom, where we made love with all the fervor of the first time, or maybe Elaine made love and I just fucked, I couldn’t tell. I only knew I didn’t want to look at her, that every time I closed my eyes I saw the sneering faces of the street hustlers.
Elaine clutched at me.
“Hit me, Matthew. I’ve been bad.”
She bucked beneath me. Our bellies slapped together, sang of sex. She moaned, “I can’t . . . come . . . if you don’t . . .”
“Then don’t fucking come.”
“Damn you. Do it!”
I can’t. I won’t. I want to.
Elaine stopped moving. We were suddenly no longer joined. The urgent, hormonal energy that a moment earlier had galvanized my penis simply vanished, and with it went my hard-on.
“Jesus, Matthew, not again.”
“So understanding, aren’t you?”
“Okay, you’ve got a problem.”
“Yes, I do.”
She got out of bed, grabbed her robe. I came around the bed to intercept her.
“Elaine, I don’t want to . . .”
“Maybe you’d better leave.”
But I did.
I did what she had wanted all along.
Suddenly she became small and light, almost weightless. My blow was open-handed but she flew backward, struck the wall, did not slide down, but blinked, astonished, hurt, and after that first time, it was easy, fun, like so many evil things, and the next blow spun her in another direction, against another wall.
“Matthew, no. Stop!”
This time she didn’t rise so fast. Her mouth was bleeding. I grabbed her by the hair, flung her across the bed.
Her eyes took on a bright, uncomprehending terror. The next blow made her scream. My fist rose up, as powerful and potent as I wished my cock to be, but I didn’t hit her. Something smashed my ear, my neck. Raked my ribs from the other direction.
“Let her go!”
I tore my hand lose from Elaine’s frantic grip, whirled and caught Cory’s wrist. The nunchucks clattered to the floor. I threw him down and pinned him. In the dim light, I could see anguish on his young boy’s face, the skin so pale, like marble, eyes black and fierce with rage. A lovely face, the pink mouth opening like the sweetest of promises.
Then the room exploded as Elaine grabbed the bedside lamp and swung the metal base against my head.
Neon pain, Times-Square on New Year’s Eve inside my skull. Elaine and Cory fleeing. I heard the lock turn inside the bathroom door, got up and stumbled toward it.
“Matthew, go away! If you try to break the door down, I’ll scream ‘Fire’! Everyone in the building will come running.”
“But I . . . it shouldn’t end like this. Elaine? Cory. Cory, talk to me.”
“Go to hell, motherfucker!”
Elaine shushed him. “Don’t make him mad. He’s crazy.” Then, to me, “Just go. You’ve terrorized me and my son enough.”
I leaned my head against the door. It felt like I was standing outside that other bathroom door again, the door behind which Freddy Burton knelt between my father’s feet, head bouncing up and down, and I wished it had been me. Me. I knew I wasn’t supposed to cry, but I couldn’t remember why not.
Before I left Elaine’s apartment, I found Cory’s nunchucks on the floor and took them with me. He was too young to have such a dangerous possession anyway.
Then I went looking.
I didn’t have to go far. Two of them were lounging up against the wall of Elaine’s building. Passing a bagged bottle back and forth, stoned and sultry-eyed as heat-struck snakes.
I motioned to the one with the curvaceous white throat and the blank, executioner eyes.
“Still want to party?”
The worst part was he didn’t look surprised.
I let him lead me to a room in a squalid walk-up used by hustlers and heroin addicts.
There were just the three of us tonight, though, me and the boy and Cory’s nunchucks.
He wasn’t shocked by what I said I wanted him to do. Perhaps he’d played this role before. Perhaps other men had asked such things of him, men who cherished the seductiveness of pain, the cleansing power of suffering.
After I gave him his instructions, he stood behind me, in the shadows, while I braced myself against the wall. But I could sense the bunching of his muscles, the gauging of the force he’d use on that first downward blow. My dick stiffened in remembrance of that place I once thought I’d escaped forever, my childhood.
And the words came like a long-forgotten prayer: “Hit me.”