By R. Gay
I live with a man and sometimes he has a beard. I do not care for beards on a man. When we kiss, his beard makes me feel raw. He knows this. I tell him I want to see his face because it is a handsome face. I like to hold his bare cheeks between my hands, trace his jaw line with my thumbs. He says his beard makes him feel safe. He is big and strong. He works with his hands. He works me with his hands. He takes up a lot of space. I cannot understand how he could ever feel unsafe. He only started growing a beard when he met me. He has never concerned himself with what makes me feel safe.
This man, with his beard, like I said, he takes up space. He always falls asleep before I do because he works hard and needs his rest. He likes to say, “I’m a hard working man,” and when he says this, his voice is deep and filled with pride. His body bears the evidence of his hard work. Each of his fingertips is covered in a hard calloused shell. When he draws his fingers over my body, he makes me shiver. Sometimes I like it. His arms are dark and tan and braided with muscle. When he’s writing something down, those muscles in his arms quiver. There’s a long scar along his shin from an incident with an axe. I have traced this scar with my tongue—it is smooth and raised and bright white. He spends his days telling other men what to do. He has to be coarse and controlling. He brings his work home.
Each time I crawl into the bed we share, I find him sprawled, his arms and legs thrown widely. There is something possessive about the way he sleeps. He fucks me the same way, taking up too much space inside me, possessively. He is always rough. He uses my body like he’s trying to prove a point. I let him use me. I let him push me. I want to know where he will take me, how far he will go. In the morning, after he leaves for his hard day’s work, there is an empty place in the bed next to me that holds the warm shape of his body.
When I met the man who sometimes has a beard, he was quiet and shy. He wore a clean flannel shirt tucked into dark blue Wrangler jeans, neatly pressed. He smelled like soap and chewing tobacco. I was sitting at a bar, alone, with a drink, waiting for a man to want to take me home. There were ice cubes floating in a bath of gin, a splash of tonic and every few minutes, I would fish an ice cube out of the glass, chew on it until the last slivers of ice melted on my tongue. He stood next to me, taking up all the space a man possibly could. He said, “That’s not good for your teeth,” and I shrugged and drained the rest of my drink. I filled my mouth with the remaining ice cubes and chewed and chewed as loudly as I could. I smiled.
He spent the entire night buying me drinks and speaking in complete sentences. When other men tried to talk to me, he fixed them with a hard look and I liked it, that he was staking his claim to something that wasn’t really his. A slow song started playing and he pulled me onto the dance floor. He held me real close, uncomfortably close, with his hand firmly against the small of my back. I could hardly move he held me so tight and I thought, “This man could hurt me,” so I closed my eyes and pressed my cheek to his chest because it was nice to understand who he was early on.
When the bar closed, we stood outside while I smoked and he watched. He said, “That’s not good for you either,” and I blew a thin stream of smoke into his face. He coughed, just once. He said he wanted to show me something. We walked to the movie theater a few blocks away. This is a small town, a too small town where you can’t ever get away from who you’ve always been. The theater is called The Majestic. It’s the old-fashioned kind with an antique marquee and only one screen. There’s a balcony where teenagers make out and smoke weed and throw popcorn on the people down below. I’ve been up there once or twice doing things that weren’t decent. That night was dark and cool and quiet. We stood beneath the marquee and he said, “Close your eyes.” I threw my head back and did as he said. My body felt heavy and light all at once. I could hear the sizzle and bright hum and spark of the neon lights. We stood there, next to each other but not touching, our eyes closed but our faces tilted upward. We stood there for a very long time.
Before we made love for the first time, he told me he had only ever been with one woman. We were sitting on my front porch drinking wine, listening to James Taylor through an open window. I didn’t believe him so he grabbed my chin, made me see the truth of him. He explained he didn’t have it in him to be with a woman he didn’t love. He asked me how many men I had known, actually used that word. I didn’t want to lie but no man wants to hear that truth. I told him I had been used real hard in my life, but rarely by my choosing. A man needs to know certain things to love a woman who’s been done wrong like me. He gritted his teeth and the skin over his cheekbones rippled tightly.
We didn’t have much to say to each other after that. I hummed along with the music. It was a nice night. After a while he said, “I reckon it’s not the past that matters as much as what’s out there in front of us.” I think we both knew that wasn’t true. He took me that night on the staircase just inside my front door, couldn’t even wait until we got upstairs. He touched me like he was trying to work all the men who had come before him right out of my body. He pulled my dress up around my waist, his large, calloused hands against my hips. He pushed himself inside me and pressed his lips against my neck and breathed hard and heavy into my skin. The more excited he got, the wider he spread my legs until my feet were pressed against the walls and there was a deep ache in the bones holding me open. When he finished, he stayed inside me. Everything between us felt dull and sticky. I tried to wrap my legs around his waist, relieve the ache. He said, “No. Stay open for me.” I understood he would try to be good to me but would never be very kind.
My mother and I don’t get on very well but it’s not for a lack of loving each other. She lives in a run down prefab on the edge of town with a man who thinks woman is just another word for wrong. Whenever I go to see her, I sit in my car smoking, until I see her man who is not my daddy but tried to be in all the worst ways, stumble out of the trailer and spill into his truck to head to the bar for the night. I usually find my mother sitting on that awful couch of hers watching one of her shows. She always looks small and tired, her feet pulled under her body. I never try to look too close; don’t want to see the edges of black and purple under her eyes or around her wrist or anywhere at all. After I started seeing my man, I went to my mother’s and I sat next to her. I rested a hand on her leg. I said, “I found me a man.” She turned to me slowly, covered my hand with hers.
It was a strange sensation, her skin against mine. We were never much for holding on to each other. She asked, “Is he a good man,” and I said, “He’s good enough.” She squeezed my hand. She said, “That’s good.” I stayed with her a few hours that night, tried to make her a little less lonely until I heard her man trying to pull open a door that needed pushing. I kissed her forehead. She grabbed my wrist, nodded toward the kitchen. She said, “Take one of my cookbooks. Making a good meal every night helps you hold on to a man.” The drunk at the door finally managed to let himself in. When he saw me, he whistled, told me I was still looking good. He grabbed one of my elbows and pulled me toward him. I could smell the booze on his breath, sweet and sharp. My skin felt like a bunch of little insects were running just beneath the surface. My body knew too much about him. My mother returned her attention to her shows. For a terrible moment, it was like I had never gotten out of that house.
I went to my man that night, my head rotten with old ghosts. He was on our couch watching his shows. I poured him a drink. I stood in front of him, slid out of my dress. I straddled his lap and kissed him hard, bit his lips. He held my waist with his calloused hands, and I moaned something ugly into his mouth. I told him he had hands like the man who wasn’t my daddy. He asked, “Is that a good thing?” I said, “In its own way.” I didn’t tell him I need to think about that man’s hands to feel anything at all when another man’s fucking me. My man finished his drink and I licked a stray drop from his chin. His beard was a few days old, just rough enough to leave a burn. The booze on his breath was thick and familiar. He pushed me onto the floor, kneeled between my thighs. I listened as he unzipped his jeans.
I reached for him, my hands trembling. When I opened my eyes, he was staring down at me with his pretty gray eyes. He said, “You’re different tonight,” and I said, “You’re only seeing what I am.” He lay on top of me, the whole weight of him holding me down. He said, “I don’t understand half the things you say.” I grabbed his earlobe between my teeth. I wanted him to stop talking, didn’t want to hear another word he had to say. I said, “You can do anything you want to me tonight.” He grinned and grunted, rubbed his beard against my neck. His cock was hard against my thigh. He turned me onto my stomach, real rough, pulled my ass into the air. I felt calm, turned my cheek to the floor, breathed real slow. My man started fucking me hard and fast, held the back of my neck with a firm hand. He talked dirty, saying the things he likes to hear himself say. I wasn’t listening. I wasn’t with him at all.
I was thinking about my mother’s man—his dirty beard, his thin wet lips, his pale, flabby stomach, his rough, calloused hands. You could hear everything happening on the couch in my mother’s living room from her bedroom but she never did let on. I was so angry I wanted to laugh. I reached back for my man, my fingers grazing his thigh. I said some bad things, trying to bring out a little more meanness in him. He gave me exactly what I asked for, twisted his fingers through my hair, pulled my head back until it felt like my neck might break. It was so hard to breathe a sharp panic throbbed inside my ribcage and then I came so hard I made myself sick. My man lay next to me with his pants around his ankles, and he patted my stomach with a heavy hand. He slurred, “You’re the best, baby.” I shoved his hand off me. I stepped over him and pulled my dress back on. I ran outside and threw up in the flowerbed I had just planted. I could still feel sharp twinges below my navel. The grass was cold and damp and it felt clean. I lay on my back staring up thinking about how every day our town felt a little smaller. I could hear the bright, bright hum of the Majestic marquee, how alive it sounded.
R. Gay writes things and is terribly unimaginative when it comes to bios and that doesn't bode well for her writing. She is proud this week of completely embarrassing herself via certain means of electronic communication.