My Life in Heavy Metal
Storiesby Steve Almond
“Almond’s eye for modern types is impeccably, almost academically, sharp, and yet these stories, slight as they sometimes are, never come across as schoolwork.” –Mark Rozzo, The Los Angeles Times
“Almond’s eye for modern types is impeccably, almost academically, sharp, and yet these stories, slight as they sometimes are, never come across as schoolwork.” –Mark Rozzo, The Los Angeles Times
Steve Almond’s collection My Life in Heavy Metal presents twelve passion-fueled stories (inlcuding his Pushcart Prize-winning story “The Pass”) that take a clear-eyed view of relationships between young men and women who have come of age in an era without innocence. These are powerful and resonant stories of love and lust, that bring to life a generation desperately searching for connection in a fragmented world.
In the title story, an El Paso newspaper clerk assigned to review the heavy metal bands playing local arenas is drawn in by the primal music, fueling a torrid affair with a Mexican-American woman that will change him forever. In “Geek Player, Love Slayer,” a thirty-three-year-old woman harbors a secret crush on the young computer repairman in her office–until her ardor is unleashed at an after-work party, with unexpected consequences. In “Valentino,” two teenagers spending their last summer together before heading off to college experience a sexual awakening inspired by the romantic legend of a movie star from long ago.
By turn tender and raw, visceral and other-worldly, the stories of My Life in Heavy Metal capture the moments when the fires of passion burn over and subside into embers of pain and longing. It is a dazzling debut by a vibrant new writer.
“[A] gifted storyteller . . . [Almond] writes with a loose, anthropological humor.” –Claire Dederer, The New York Times Book Review
“Almond’s eye for modern types is impeccably, almost academically, sharp, and yet these stories, slight as they sometimes are, never come across as schoolwork.” –Mark Rozzo, The Los Angeles Times
“In spite of its range of themes, settings and voices, the collection is remarkably cohesive, the unifying factor being Almond’s vibrant prose. . . . A fine introduction to a deft new storyteller.” –Drew Cherry, The San Francisco Chronicle
“Almond writes graphically, vividly, and with unflinching detail about relationships, mostly between men and women, in and out of bed. . . . He writes in a way that is consistently clever and muscular and frequently moving. His care with details gives his images their spark and makes most of these 12 stories genuinely memorable.” –Jules Verdone, The Boston Globe
“In an assured debut, Almond gathers 12 short stories, all focusing on the fragility of human relationships, both romantic and otherwise.” –Entertainment Weekly
“[Almond’s] work is musky and lustily comic, heady without being sterile, coarse without being puerile. . . . If My Life in Heavy Metal is any indicator of the quality of young writers in America today, then we have great things to look forward to. Almond is a brilliant craftsman.” –Eric Miles Williamson, Houston Chronicle
“Polished and explicit. . . . Reading the best stories in this collection it’s clear that Almond has talent to burn.” –Greg Bottoms, The Chicago Tribune
“This is the coolest and freshest collection of short stories I’ve read since the 1980s.” –Mark Lindquist, The Seattle Times
“Every once in a while somebody comes up with the ability to describe the mechanics, the emotions, the raw energy of sex in such a way that you get a soaring–and sometimes searing–experience of it. Steve Almond is the latest somebody. The Boston College teacher’s collection of short stories, My Life in Heavy Metal, will leave you gasping, gulping and guffawing from beginning to end.” –Michael Alvear, Salon.com
“A right hook from the fist of reality . . . You’ll laugh out loud, cry to yourself, blush once or twice, and end up thanking your good fortune. . . . [Almond’s] prose crackles with electricity, as if his sentences are plugged into massive amplifiers, shaking the readers’ rib cages, urging them to rock on in the still of the night. And under it all is the ironic drone of the modern world.” –Greg Lalas, Boston Magazine
“Compelling and readable. . . . To the point, often with an emotional zinger of a final sentence. . . . Almond’s gift is the way he confidently and almost immediately conveys the tone, setting and personalities of the 12 stories.” –Erin J. Walter, Austin American-Statesman
“My Life in Heavy Metal is an amazingly intricate and complex collection that takes on territory once home to F. Scott Fitzgerald–the confusion of desire and the sweet derangement of urban romance. In story after story, Steve Almond gets into the heart of American youth to portray the pleasures and terrors of contemporary intimacy with beauty and regret, humor and surprising tenderness. A brilliant, sexy debut.” –Stewart O’Nan
“Realistic, spare prose that makes for a satisfying read; Almond is a writer to watch.” – Gear
“May have more to do with orgasms than with Ozzy Osbourne, but his fiction is fixated less on bodies sliding in and around one another than on how people are guided, misled, tormented and obsessed by their desires. . . .While he writes about all kinds of couplings, he does it with a clear eye, humor and a tender, often sad touch.” –John Adamian, The Hartford Advocate
“Sexually frank and emotionally charged, My Life in Heavy Metal is a smart and refreshing take on the graceless dance between men and women as they strive to make a meaningful connection.” –Sarah, Gianelli, The Oregonian
“Almond’s conversational style lends an easy authenticity to these tales. . . . My Life in Heavy Metal has moments of emotional agony and bittersweet melancholy, but it also offers puns and pratfalls and the pungent odor of sweaty sheets. The result is pretty goddamned funny and pretty goddamned sad–a lot like real-life romance.” –Patrick Sullivan, The Baltimore City Paper
“Well written. . . . These stories are passionate, sexy and resonant. They look at relationships and dissect them without making them rosy or disgusting, heartfelt or horrible. They just show them as they are.” –Jonathan Shipley, Oklahoman
“[Almond’s] stories mostly deal with the tumultuous topography of modern-day relationships, but they come at it from a range of characters and settings. . . . Almond’s writing is riveting; the characters rise from the page emotionally bared. They fumble and make mistakes, desperate for physical and spiritual connection.” –Clay Risen, Nashville Scene
“Read this collection for more honesty and humor than you’d ever hoped to find about the hopelessness and redemption of men.” –Erin Flanagan, The Reader
“The best fiction I’ve read this year. Almond has a master’s touch. His stoies–about a generation caught in a whatever world–are sexy, touching, funny and gorgeously written.” –MSNBC.com
“Characters are drawn to each other because of their incompatibilities, both physical and intellectual, which makes for the conflict the short story requires and also leads to some hot and clumsy sex. . . . What I liked most . . . is that Steve Almond doesn’t shut the fictional drapes when his characters have sex; the act is natural to the kinds of stories he tells. . . . When characters experience moments of revelation, Almond’s writing becomes not simply clever, but gorgeous.” –Ingrid Hawkinson, Third Coast
“My Life in Heavy Metal reads much like a great rock album plays: Almond is solid from cover to cover.” –Mike Larrivee, Burke’s Book Store (Memphis, TN)
“Twelve delightful debut stories more often than not about men’s powerlessness in the face of feminine beauty.” –Kirkus Reviews (Starred Review)
“The short story speaks to us like no other literary form, and Steve Almond is among its latest champions. I read these wonderful stories with awe, envy, and delight. Almond is a writer to watch.” –Rick DeMarinis
“Steve Almond’s subject is the emotional terrain between lovers, and he nails it. These are dynamite stories: sexy, stylish, full of nerve and moments of uncanny wisdom. This is a writer to watch.” –David Long, author of The Falling Boy and The Daughters of Simon Lamoreaux
“These stories are filled with some of the most vigorous and energetic writing that I have read in a long while! Some of them will make you feel young, some will make you feel old, and some of them might make you blush just a little. . .but that’s a good thing. A must read for any fan of the short story.” –Jen Reynolds, Joseph-Beth, Cincinnati, OH, Book Sense quote
A Book Sense 76 Selection
A Massachusetts Book Honor Award Recipient
My Life in Heavy Metal
Josephine Byron chased me all through college. Nobody could figure this out, not her friends, not mine, nor the frat boys who watched her wag across the wide lawns of our school. She was one of those women invariably referred to as striking, a great big get-a-load-of-that: gleaming black hair, curves like a tulip. Snow White refigured, made warmer, more voluptuous. She was also utterly convinced of herself, her good taste in clothing and men, her beauty and intellect, which she unfurled in earnest, vaguely Marxist jeremiads, while the rest of us gazed at her lips.
In the dim, yeasty haze of after parties and the stoned vistas of Hope Hill, on the cruddy avenues of our college town, Jo came to me bearing gifts, a fresh-baked loaf of bread, a Mardi Gras necklace, bearing her sly smile and plump white breasts. She let me have my way with her, though I was never quite sure, in the end, she wasn’t having her way with me. At night, she kissed my body all over and in the mornings made me omelets.
It was like having “Happy Birthday” sung to me each day: ecstatic and deeply disquieting.
A few months after graduating I moved to El Paso, where the daily paper needed a clerk. I lived alone, in a basement, and ate fried chicken from boxes. The shower in my place was like being spit on, so I got in the habit of showering at the YMCA, where I swam a few times a week. The lifeguard was a quiet woman who wore clunky glasses and a red Speedo one-piece with a towel wrapped around her lower body. If I stuck around long enough on Wednesdays, she took off the towel and led kiddie classes in the shallow end. She was good with the kids, teasing them in Spanish, holding their bellies while they flailed. Her face was round, bookish, somewhat drab. Even without the glasses her eyes seemed far away. But she cut the water like a nymph.
I spent hours at the paper, hoping to distinguish myself. I sent Jo long, maudlin letters. I wanted her to love me again. I had been wrong to treat her with such disregard. At dusk, when the sun relented, I wandered El Paso’s ragged downtown, wallowing in a sadness I considered sophisticated and insoluble. The plaza was always emptying: vendedores and day maids trudging back to Ju’rez, the sweet stale scent of lard punching out from El Segundo Barrio, the thrum of swamp coolers fallen away. Later, the smelting plant would fire up its chimneys and smoke would drift over the Franklin Mountains, which shadowed the city like a row of brown shrugs. To the east lay the trim, eerie avenues of Fort Bliss. To the west, the terraced estates of Coronado, where the swimming pools glowed like sapphires.
For seven months I handled weddings and obits. Then the pop music critic quit, and the managing editor, lacking other recourse, allowed me to sub. El Paso was, still is, part of the vast spandex-and-umlaut circuit that runs the length of I-10. I reviewed virtually every one of the late-eighties hair bands at least once: Ratt, Poison, Winger, Warrant, Great White, White Snake, Kiss, Vixen, Cinderella, Queensryche, Skid Row, Def Leppard, Brittney Foxx, and Kiss without makeup. At my first concert, Metallica, the band’s new bassist introduced himself to the crowd by farting into his microphone. This was the heavy metal equivalent of a bon mot.
Because we were a morning paper, I had to bang out my copy by midnight. I operated on a template involving an initial bad pun, a lengthy playlist–adjective, adjective, song title–and a description of the lead singer’s hair. The rest was your standard catalog of puking yayas, flung undies, poignant duets with the rhythm guitarist back from rehab. I loved the velocity of the process: an event witnessed and recorded overnight. I loved the pressure, the glib improvisation; I loved seeing my byline the next day, all my pretty words, smelling of ink and newsprint.
And the truth is I loved the shows. I remember standing in the front row as Sebastian Bach, the lead singer of Skid Row, screeched “Youth Gone Wild.” Bach was the quintessential metal front man, a blond mane and a pair of cheekbones. He strutted the stage like a drag queen, while the lead guitarist yanked out an interminable solo and the drummer became a shirtless piston. It was formulaic and mercenary and a little pathetic. But when I stared down the row, I saw twenty heads banging in unison, like angry mops. These were kids lousy with the bad hormones of adolescence, humiliated by the poverty of their prospects, and this was their dance, their chance to be part of some larger phallic brotherhood; the notes lashed their rib cages, called out to their beautiful, furious wishes.
I’d spoken to the lifeguard a few times, about holiday hours, lane dividers. I imagined having sex with her constantly. I did the same thing with the newsroom prospects, though with the lifeguard it was always more exciting, because we were both almost naked.
Her name was Claudia, pronounced in the beautiful Spanish manner, as three distinct, rolling syllables: Cloud-i-ahh. She lived by herself, in an apartment not far from the Y.
Every couple of weeks, I took her to some show or another. The idea was that some spark would leap between us. Then we would sneak into the Y, fuck on the squeaky tile, with her bent over a stack of kickboards, or underwater. But she was impossible to read behind her glasses. Our dates were like the ones I had in tenth grade, the tense drive to the mini-golf place, the exhausting formality, the burps unburped.
She spoke in the manner of a kindergarten teacher, softly, a bit too clearly, though when she took up Spanish her lisp blossomed and the tip of her tongue danced along her teeth. I felt sure this animation was a sign of some secret life behind her reticence.
What were we, exactly? Friends, I suppose. Companions in a certain lonely, postgraduate phase. Markers of time.
Besides, there was Jo, beautiful Jo, who called me every other weekend, who seemed to be remaining, in her final year of college, faithful to me, assuredly against the counsel of her friends. And who, true to her word, did appear, just a few weeks after her own graduation, marched up the jetway in red suede boots and nearly tackled me. Everyone just stared.
How nice it was to have a beautiful woman tackle me, to feel the eyes of the world upon me again, to have a long, soapy body over which to kvell. And how romantic I made El Paso seem. The plaza! The dollar movies! The oceanic desert! I took her to the lookout point at the top of the Franklins, where we necked and, amid the high schoolers and clumps of creosote, made the sweet foolish talk of love renewed.
A few days after she’d flown back East, Jo called. “I bought my ticket,” she said.
“I’m coming out there. To live.”
There was a pause, during which I tried very hard to recall whether we had discussed this plan, while also recognizing that I was expected to make some perfectly spontaneous sound of approval, thanksgiving, hosanna, and, in fact, even as I grasped this, grasped that I had failed, let the moment pass and would now be held accountable, asked to explain, possibly more than once, why I hadn’t, didn’t I love her, hadn’t I wooed her for a year solid, questions which seemed perfectly reasonable but which I felt incapable of answering because my head was full of pudding.
That Sunday I took Claudia to the Metalfest at Bayshore, an artificial lake in the middle of absolutely nowhere, New Mexico. Children tended to drown at Bayshore. No one knew why. The lake was only three feet deep.
Heavy metal is an indoor genre. It requires reverberation, darkness, forced proximity. Without these, the crowd loses the sense of itself as a powerful tribe. The elaborate fantasy world of smoke and tinted lights and catwalks just doesn’t work on a stage overlooking scrub.
The headliner, Jon Bon Jovi, seemed to recognize this. He took one gander at the pallid crowd and began casting about for a trap-door. His bangs frizzed in the heat; his tights bunched. His falsetto drifted up and away with the dust. The show felt forced, and, in the way of such things, a little sad.
Afterward, I drove Claudia back to town. ‘so anyway,” I said, “it looks like that friend of mine from college, Jo, is going to be heading out.”
Claudia looked down into her lap. “I guess I won’t be seeing you as much, then.”
“Don’t be silly,” I said. “Why shouldn’t I see you?” We hadn’t done anything, after all. We were just ” whatever we were.
“She’ll be living with you?”
“Yeah. That’s sort of the plan.”
“When’s she coming out?”
“Next Sunday,” I said.
There was a difficult pause. Claudia stared out the windshield. The tops of her ears looked tender from the sun. “It doesn’t seem fair,” she said finally. She glanced at me and smiled a little. “You know, you get something, and I lose a friend.”
“I don’t know why you’re saying that,” I said. “It’s not like that.”
Claudia called me at work the next day. She wanted to have dinner on Saturday night.
“Sure,” I said. “Where do you want to go?”
She giggled. “Why don’t you make me dinner?”
Claudia showed up in a black dress and blue eye shadow. Her voice seemed oddly pitched, a bit too exuberant. She gulped at her wine and let the hem of her dress ride up her legs, which looked polished. I didn’t have much to say. Nor did she. We were just waiting around for the alcohol to spring our bodies.
We moved to the couch, where we leaned and leaned and finally fell against one another sloppily. I slid my chin down her belly.
She was so much smaller than Jo, almost delicate, but when her knees slipped behind my head they clamped me so hard my bottom row of teeth bit into the underside of my tongue. I could taste my own blood and this mixed with the slightly acrid taste of her. Gradually, her legs sagged to the bed. Her pelvis vaulted into the air. I followed her up, pressed harder, and suddenly there was a warm liquid coming out of her, a great gout of something sheeting across my cheeks, down my chin, splashing onto the comforter. I figured, at first, she had urinated. But there was simply too much fluid coming out of her. By the time Claudia had regained her wits, and lowered herself to the bed, the puddle on my comforter was two feet across.
“Are you okay?” I said.
Claudia nodded bashfully and stumbled to the bathroom.
My second theory was that, as a lifeguard, pool water had somehow accumulated inside her and been released when her internal muscles relaxed. But the liquid was as tasteless and odorless as rain.
And you know what? I was goddamn thrilled. It was such a freakish thing she’d done. Claudia, this quiet little mermaid, with her spectacles and her lisp, with her dull brown eyes, who never so much as touched herself so far as I could tell, had not only surrendered her body to me but expelled, spumed, ejaculated some mysterious orgasmic juice all over my face. I felt like doing a victory lap around the puddle.
* * *
Jo felt my basement apartment was, as she put it, “the kind of place where a serial killer lives.” She needed sun, she explained. And a porch.
Our new place was on the fourth floor of a brick building in Sunset Heights, El Paso’s historical district. The neighborhood sat on a small rise overlooking the Rio. Locals once had watched Pancho Villa’s forces battle federales on the plains below. The view now was of the colonias, the sprawling cardboard cities that enveloped Ju’rez proper.
Our apartment was bright and dusty. Every day a new piece of furniture appeared, or a houseplant. Jo made forays into Ju’rez, carrying back masks, wall hangings, a black leather whip I hoped to employ in some splendidly incompetent sex game but which was instead suspended tastefully over the divan. The kitchen began to fill with utensils–not just forks and spoons, but garlic presses and salad spinners. With a great, perhaps even vicious, efficiency, Jo erased the vestiges of my bachelordom. Closets became places where clothing was hung.
I arrived home one day to find the bed decked out in new colors. Jo wandered in from the other room. “What do you think?”
“Nice,” I said. ‘very colorful.”
“I knew you’d like it.” She hugged me. “It’s Guatemalan.”
I paused. “What happened to my old comforter?”
“You gave it away?”
Jo slipped her hand into one of my back pockets and gave me a playful squeeze. ‘don’t you like this one? We can give it a test-drive if you’re not sure.”
“Yeah. No. It’s nice. I just don’t understand why you needed to throw the old one out.”
“I didn’t throw it out, David. I gave it to charity. It had a stain.” Jo began unbuttoning my shirt.
“A huge disgusting stain. Right in the middle.”
I felt a fizz in my chest. “Whatever happened to washing?” I murmured.
“If you loved the thing so much,” Jo said, “you should have washed it yourself.”
Mostly, though, we had this beautiful new life. We went to a lot of parties. We took road trips along the rambling old highways of New Mexico and stopped in obscure towns for pie. We slept in on Sundays.
Sometimes, late afternoon, we would lie in the hammock strung across our balcony and watch thunderheads lip over the Franklins, releasing spindles of lightning. Everything changed when the rains came: the desert turned a rich brown and threw up the mulchy scent of creosote. Boys fluttered like salmon in the flooded gutters below. The slag heaps behind the smelter gave off the dull wet sheen of solder. Over in the colonias, mamas filed out of shanties to wash their children and fill metal drums with drinking water and thank the Lord.
Afterwards we listened to the world trickle and waited for the honeyed colors of dusk. With the sky suddenly cleared of smog, we could see all the way to the sierras south of Ju’rez, which looked like giant bones against the thirsty soil.
I took Jo to see M”tley Cr”e. Probably it would have been better to start her off on Poison, one of the ballad bands. She kept looking at the front man, Vince Neil. He wore a suit of studded black leather, elevator shoes, a choker. “He’s kidding,” Jo shouted. “It’s a joke, right?”
Neil leapt onto a speaker. “How many of you guys are gonna get some fucking poooontang tonight?”
The crowd went apeshit. The bass started in, along with the drums; the plastic seats began to quiver. Then a noise like wheels hitting a runway, which meant the guitars, churning down to their appointed chords. Jo looked as if she’d been struck in the back of the head with an eel. I’d given her a pair of earplugs, but the affect of 105 decibels is as much seismic as auditory. Strobe lights popped. Neil howled. His voice was a rapture of violent want, released to the crowd and returned in ululating waves. All around us, skinny boys emptied their bodies of sound. Everything about them banged. Bang bang bang. Their hair whipped the air, their slender arms knifed in around us.
I found Jo on the steps outside the arena, head between her knees. “If they could just turn it down a little,” she said.
“Go ahead and take the car,” I said. “I’ll catch a ride from the night editor.”
I figured Jo would be asleep when I got home. But she was sitting up in bed, a towel wrapped around her head.
“Feeling better?” I said.
“Yeah. How was the rest of the show?”
“No big deal. Nikki Sixx flashed the crowd his weenie, so that was pretty cool.”
Jo took a sip of tea and fixed me with one of her concerned looks. “You don’t really like that stuff,” she said.
I had hoped this might be one of those times where we let our differences be. “You sort of have to get into the spirit of the thing,” I said.
“What spirit would that be? The spirit of misogynist inner-ear damage?” She shook her head. “You don’t like it. You’re just being ironic.”
“Okay,” I said. “I’m going to go brush my ironic teeth.”
“And that singer guy,” Jo said. “What a getup. He looked like a piece of bad furniture. What’s he supposed to be, some kind of stud? Some kind of big ladies’ man?”
“It’s a show,” I said. ‘showmanship.”
“What gets me is that kids are paying money to listen to that crap. It’s so indulgent. In a place like this, with so much real suffering.”
“You shouldn’t take it so seriously.”
Jo waited a beat. “You do,” she said. “You spend half your life interviewing these guys and critiquing their shows.”
“Reviewing,” I said. “It’s my job to review them. I’m the reviewer.”
“I’m sorry. I know it’s your job. But isn’t it a little sad?”
“I think you’re missing it,” I said.
“What am I missing? Is there something really deep going on, David? Please, educate me.” Jo pulled the towel off her head and let her hair fall. She was acutely aware of her own props.
“The music helps certain kids sort of get in touch with their feelings.”
“Their feelings? What, exactly, does poooontang have to do with their feelings?”
“The music itself. The physical part.” I had, at that time, grown my hair into a rather unfortunate mullet: short in front, long in back. And sometimes, in the dim light of one or another arena, the notebook would fall to my side and the music would surge through me and I would bang softly. “What is it that you want from these kids, exactly? Can’t you just let them have their thing?”
Jo looked at me with her big green eyes. “They should grow up. They should learn to have some respect for themselves and quit trafficking in such lousy fantasies.”
“Easier said than done,” I said.
I took Claudia to see Ted Nugent. She didn’t like metal much, either. But she was quieter about her contempt and didn’t say a word, even as we arrived back at her place, undressed, and reached through the dark. We knew what we were doing. It was disgusting and terrific. Afterwards, I washed up and slipped my clothes on and felt an odd sense of buoyancy, of floating awkwardly into the authentic and forbidden.
On our six-month anniversary as cohabitants, Jo fixed portobellos in a cream sauce with saut”ed shallots. I wanted to check out this new local band, Menudo Anti-Christ. Instead, we were going to see Ray Barratto. That was what Jo liked: Latin jazz. Any kind of jazz. I couldn’t understand the stuff. I would sit there and listen and listen and wait for the songs to begin.
We were with a bunch of our friends, Jo’s friends is what they were, people brimming with statistics and good intentions, people engaged in projects, people who used words such as empowerment and nodded meaningfully when they talked to you.
Guys kept putting tequilas in front of Jo. They wanted to see her poise on display. She got up to dance and now the whole club watched, the young cats sipping gin and the lonely Corona dykes and Barratto himself, the droopy old conguero, long past such uncomplicated pleasures, tittering at the motion of her hips, bidding her this way and that with his thick fingers and his drum.
She wobbled in her red suede boots and laughed and insisted she was fine. Then she and a friend went to the bathroom and only the friend returned. Gallantry now demanded that I enter the ladies’ room. That was fine with me. I liked the idea! I imagined a bright alcove full of dishy women putting on lipstick and talking cock. But the place was empty and smelled sort of disappointing. A gurgle came from the far stall. Jo looked as if she’d been dropped from a helicopter. The tile pressed against her cheek. Her legs were bent in a few directions. She smiled the glassy smile of the non-ambulatory. On the drive home she threw up twice more, dainty little strings of puke.
How stunning she looked laid out on our bed–like a beautiful corpse! I pressed a washrag to her forehead.
“I’m dying, David. I’m going to die.”
“You’re not dying, sweetie.”
“I’m gonna fall asleep and throw up and drown on my throw-up. Like that guy from the Doors.”
“That was Hendrix,” I said delicately.
“I’m going to die, David. Tell me you love me.” Jo closed her eyes. The lids were round and soft purple. They made her look terribly vulnerable. ‘don’t lie to me,” she said. “I love you, David. Don’t lie to me.”
“Yes, I love you.”
“How much lot?”
“Infinity lot,” I said. “Infinity to the infinity power lot.”
Jo smiled. Her teeth were totally unstoppable. It seemed inconceivable to me, at that moment, that I would fail her. I could see what she had in mind: the settling down, the having of children, the long, good promise. Motherhood would make her glow like a planet.
“Gimme kiss,” she said.
The tequila was coming off her in yellow fumes I found not undesirable. I began, then, to undress her. She squirmed. Moonlight hung in the window and advanced along her body. The skin over her heart flickered.
“Where are you going?” Jo said.
“I’m just going to take my clothes off.”
“Don’t. I’ll fall asleep. I’ll drown.”
“I’m right here.”
“You can’t ever leave me. Kiss. Mmmmm. Kiss again.”
Claudia couldn’t cook. Her specialty was flautas, which tasted of burned lard. She said the recipe was from her mother. There was always never much to talk about. Her sister was getting engaged. Ozzy Osbourne was coming to town. We drank wine from green jugs.
Without glasses, Claudia’s face looked naked. She blinked a great deal. Her skin smelled faintly of chlorine at all times. Our coupling remained hurried and incompetent. Claudia preferred the lights low. We never, ever spoke. But always, there came a moment when her body unclenched; her eyes lost focus and the torrent began. This was just how she was built, though I was convinced it meant something.
The idea I had was to do it in the bathroom. I liked the way her thighs bulged against the white of the sink. I liked the light, which was a little too bright, which fringed our skin in yellow, lent us a crispness I associated with interrogation.
I knew there was a complicated person living inside Claudia’s body. A reason she wasn’t living at home, a reason she was involved with me. She had her own hopes stashed somewhere. But I wasn’t interested in those. I wanted only an accomplice.
I reached down and Claudia threw her legs a little wider. Her mouth went sloppy. Her eyes half closed. Water began gushing down the soft skin of her thighs. I pressed forward, and the water, wanting out, pressed back. The sensation was warm and almost painful. Then I felt myself begin, and pushed in all the way. Claudia shrieked. Her head thumped the mirror. There was a sharp crack, a rapid downward motion, and water. Geysers of water, gurgling up, sweeping down. We lay tangled on the floor. I could see blood threading the puddle near my head. Claudia, I was certain, had exploded. Then I saw the sink, toppled nearby. The leads to the water pipes had snapped clean off.
Jo met me at the door. This was maybe one in the morning. I was pretty well sobered up by then.
“What the hell happened to you?” she said.
“In what sense?”
“In the sense that you left the paper four hours ago, and your hair is wet.”
“Claudia’s fucking toilet overflowed,” I said. “I had to take a shower.”
Jo stood directly in front of me. She didn’t say anything. I could see the blood in her cheeks spiraling.
“It was disgusting.” I said. “Believe me. You should be glad I took a shower.”
“I want to know what the hell’s going on with that woman, David.”
“Claudia? What’s going on with Claudia? I would guess she’s mopping right about now.”
“If you’re fucking lying to me, David. If you’re fucking that woman–”
“Hold on,” I said. “Just slow down–”
“Look at me, David.”
“I am looking at you. I’m looking right at you.” I could feel an awful, thrilling current inside me. “Now you listen to me,” I said. “If I were fooling around, if I were flouncing off to fuck this woman, don’t you think, did it ever occur to you, that I might be a little more subtle about it? That I wouldn’t try to do it right under your nose?”
Jo took a half step back. “Why can’t I meet her, then?”
“You can,” I said. “You can meet her any time you want. I’ve told you. Do you want to call her right now, and have her come over and you can ask her if I fuck her and then come back here and sleep with you? Is that what you want?” I was breathing through my nose now. My chest was puffed up like a gamecock. “Because you obviously don’t believe me. You don’t believe I could just be friends with this woman.”
“I didn’t say I didn’t believe you.”
“You might as well have.” Behind her rose El Paso’s new civic center, which was supposed to be a sombrero but looked more like a flat tire. Farther out, the barrel fires of the colonias danced like matchsticks. “Look,” I said. “Claudia was part of my life before you came here. Maybe that’s why I hold her apart a little. The truth is she’s a pretty unhappy person. Troubled. And a part of me feels like she needs my company. She’s not like you, honey. She doesn’t have the world at her feet.”
“Who says I have the world at my feet?” Jo said quietly.
I grazed my fingers along her cheek. “You can’t keep doing this to yourself. You’ve got to trust me, baby.”
Was it wrong for me to want to protect Jo from such terrible hurt? From a part of myself she was better not knowing? Was it wrong to preserve her belief in me? After all, I wanted to believe just as much as she did–in my own decency, in our bright future together. I wanted to make her happy. This other business, as I saw it, was just something I needed to work out of my system. It would never have occurred to me back then that behind all my fancy footwork was a darker sin: I didn’t love Jo as she loved me. I knew only that I felt guilty all the time, unworthy and resentful and complicated. And so, every few weeks, I went out and drowned myself in loud song and copulation and this made me feel simple. And when I returned home, I told Jo heroic lies that defended us both from the ruinous truth.
I didn’t love her as she loved me. What other sin is there, finally?
Jo was on the phone in the other room. “Oh my God!” she cried out. “That’s so amazing!” A couple of minutes later, she came in the bedroom, puffy and exorbitant.
“That was Kirsten.”
“Kirsten. My best friend from high school. She’s getting married. She wants me to be a bridesmaid.”
I nodded at the closet, where her other gowns hung. “Peach chiffon or teal?”
“Very funny,” she said.
“When’s the big day?”
“Not this November twentieth?” I screwed on a tight little smile.
‘don’t you dare,” Jo said. ‘don’t you dare pull this shit. I am not going to this wedding alone because you have to review some idiotic band.”
“Guns N” Roses,” I said, “is not just some band.”
You have to understand: I had interviewed Kip Winger three times. I knew the names of his pets. I had memorized, without any intention of doing so, the words to “Headed for a Heartbreak.” Possibly better than anyone else on earth I recognized the depths to which heavy metal had sunk. The intensity and musicianship of its earliest practitioners had given way to pretty-boy schlock. This is what made the Gunners so compelling. They represented a return to the core values of the genre, the angry hedonism, the dramatic release. I doubt Axl Rose would have described himself as an Aristotelian, but that is what he was. His voice ramped forever up, toward catharsis.
I had explained all this to Jo, several times. But she just looked at me like my head was on fire. “What we’re talking about, David, the issue, is whether you’re coming with me to this wedding.”
“I’m not,” I said.
“This is Kirsten,” she said dramatically. “This is one of my best friends.”
The trick with Jo was to let her self-regard run down a little. Then to pause, always to pause, which conveyed thought. And then to assume a softer tone. “I know it’s important,” I said. “I hear you. But this is important to me, honey. It’s my job. And I know you think it’s just bullshit, but it’s also something I value. Can you understand that?”
We were, all things considered, in a phase of expectant compromise. The paper had nominated me for a three-month stint at USA Today, in D.C., where I hoped to earn my wings in the world of depthy glitz. Jo was talking with Nader’s people about a job. Marriage wasn’t on the table just yet. But–as I now gently reminded her–the end of my metal days was in sight. Couldn’t she give me this one last hurrah?
Later, in bed, she made me promise. “I want Washington to be different.”
“Of course it’ll be different,” I said. “It’s a whole different city.”
“You know what I mean,” she said.
She closed her eyes and smiled a little and for a second I could see her at sixty, with a bolt of white hair and skin too tired to shine all the time.
“Who’re you going to take?” she said.
“One of the sports guys, probably.”
“What about Claudia? I haven’t heard about her for a while.”
‘she’s got a new boyfriend,” I said. “A cop, I think.”
It would be fair to call the show a letdown. Loosed from the studio firmament, Axl’s voice came across as chalky and unmodulated, the bark of a hungry seagull. Slash was so drunk he kept falling over. A roadie had to scurry onstage and prop him up again. This grew disheartening.
My review was indignant. The band was taking its fans for granted, squandering a hallowed opportunity, retreating from the mandates of thus and such. I clacked away on my laptop in the empty cavern of the coliseum as, down below, the roadies broke down the lights and drum risers and mikes.
Claudia was where I’d left her, on a bench near the back exit. When I’d told her about the move to D.C., she’d only looked down and nodded. It was what she’d expected all along, I guess. But now, as I approached her, sitting there in her sad little blouse, I wanted to be able to do something for her, some terrific, unassailable thing that might restore the magic she held as a lifeguard (a guarder of lives!), quiet and secretly powerful so long ago.
“Let’s grab a drink,” I said.
“I should be getting home.”
“Nonsense.” I took her hand. “We’ll have some wine. We’ll go to my place and have some wine.” And as we moved out into the night, with its sooty breath and slender moon, I understood that Claudia was one of those people who is acted upon; that imposing her own desires invited risks she felt unprepared to take.
When I moved into her for the last time, she closed her eyes and lay back and her smell, chlorine and skin lotion, mingled with Jo’s perfume, which rose from the sheets. I was in no hurry. I had dropped Jo off at the airport six hours earlier. She would be landing in New York, combing out her hair, wrestling with the overhead compartment. I gave no thought to the weather back East. El Paso, after all, was sweltering.
Claudia’s knees began to tremble. Her toes dug at my calves and her mouth went slack. With each thrust, I could hear the faint clack of her teeth. And when her hips began to tilt up, I reached down to caress her, that her body might open and bring the miracle of water. I had a vision, even then, with all that had happened, was about to happen, that I might bow my head between her legs and be washed.
When you live with someone, you come to recognize the way they move, the pace and gravity of their gait. It’s the way of our kind: we can’t help but reveal ourselves. Jo always took the stairs two at a time, favoring her right leg from an old ballet injury, executing a little hop-skip on the landings. And now, somehow, despite the fact that she was thousands of miles away, I could hear the dangerous jig of her footsteps drawing closer. Claudia began to moan and her body opened and released the water and I felt my own body reaching ecstatically to repeat itself.
The door slammed. Our bodies slammed. Jo’s voice sounded out my name. Claudia grabbed at my face for a kiss. One red suede boot appeared in the doorway. I looked down at the glistening contortion of Claudia’s body. I still believed I might have time, that there was so much time left to me, to behave like this. And then Jo stepped into the room and looked at us and the air inside her seemed to crumple.
She began to sob, then to choke on her sobs. Her face turned a deep red. It was clear she could not breathe. Claudia’s hips gave way, fell to the sheets with a damp smack. She was facing away from the door, still lost in the innocent spell of pleasure. Then she noticed my face and her head swung around and she saw Jo and began weeping too, a soft sound like neighing. Her legs drew up and curled beneath her. Her painted toes looked like little dabs of blood. There was nothing to say. There was that room and the three bodies inside it. Claudia was hyperventilating. Jo was not breathing.
Or rather, she was attempting to breathe, to draw air into her lungs, but failing. Her body made a hundred silent hiccups; her lips were drawn over her teeth in a grimace. Her eyes were pinched shut. If we’d had a child, a little baby girl, this is how she would have looked at birth, drowning on the air of some cold white room.
I must have made a gesture toward her, because her body recoiled and she backed out of the room, bent at the waist, like a servant who has intruded unforgivably on the master’s privacy. I stood at the edge of the bed. A draft from the window moved across my absurd little penis. I felt a soft spearing in my side. Earlier, I’d laid down a towel, meaning to slip it beneath Claudia, and now I drew this around me and went after Jo. I had the idea that I still had something to do with her.
She was in the hall, staggering toward the landing. If I could see her face. I so wanted that–to see her face.
“Breathe,” I said. “You’ve got to breathe, baby.” I reached out to touch the scrolls of black hair pasted to her temples. Her throat clicked and her voice, finally catching, produced the thick vibrato of agony. Her hand raked my face.
Then she was flying down the stairs, and I charged after her, yelling wait wait, yelling, Oh God, honey. The neighbors hung from their doorknobs. On the second floor, I got my hand on her shoulder, tried to sort of tackle her, but she threw me off and I landed on my tailbone. A few seconds later the door below clanged. I struggled to my feet and raced down and bounded outside. My towel had fallen away. I was naked in the street, blood smeared on my cheek.
Someone had called the police, I guess, because a squad car was gliding to a stop in front of our building. The cop squinted at me through his tinted windshield and I ducked back, hid in the shadow of the door, watched Jo sprint into the night and disappear.
Claudia was gone, too. Poof. There was only a stain on the bed. I checked the bathroom, the closets, everywhere. And then it occurred to me what had happened: she had jumped out the bedroom window. There would be her body, on the sidewalk, and the police would want to know what it was all about.
But this was only some gaudy male fantasy. There was nobody down below but the cop, standing outside his squad car. He looked mean and confused. His hand rested absently on the butt of his gun. And somewhere farther off in the desert, a radio was playing, Axl Rose’s tiny voice reaching out, singing: Take me down to the Paradise City where the grass is green and the girls are pretty.
And now you listen to me, you people with your poise and careful judgments: These are the things I did. And I was punished for them, as we are all punished, in the end, for the degradations we inflict upon those who love us. Sorrow waits, with the patience of a psalm, for the infidel.
Though what returns to me now is how I felt afterwards, on those certain evenings, driving home toward Jo, sweet Jo, still a little drunk, bearded in the smell of Claudia, weaving the empty lanes of I-10, the warehouses sliding past, El Paso’s downtown like an isle of dinky lanterns, the Rio flowing black, and beyond, the speckled blue lights of Ju’rez. How full my heart was of gratitude! Thank you, I wanted to call out. Thank you! Thank you!
And if, as was often the case, a cassette were playing, the dumb blunt exuberance of the band, the howl and drub of all those fierce desires would gather in the night above me and become one desire and merge with my desire and confirm that I was doing something even noble in the eyes of youth, radical, kickass, seeking love on all fronts, transporting myself beyond the reach of loneliness and failure, into the blessed province of poontang.
It is in these moments of tender and ridiculous nostalgia that I know something inside me is still broken.