n the opposite side of the pool, Elvis sulked.
I was being punished. The night before I’d dared to bring a man into my apartment. I hadn’t slept with the man but Elvis was treating me as though I had. Avoiding my eyes. Avoiding my hands. Avoiding the curve of my hips and slope of my neck.
It was a small pool. 18’x36’. From my vantage point aside the diving board I could make out his familiar pout: reddened mouth, gnashed lips. His eyes, however, were obscured from me by an overhang of bangs and a pair of cheap sunglasses he’d likely stolen from the corner drugstore and for this I was thankful.
We’d been over this before. My needs. His limitations. I’d outlined rules. A goddamn declaration of independence for us both to sign and follow. I told him I’d been the possession of one man for nine years. I told him I had no intention of belonging to anyone else ever again, least of all some kid barely through puberty. Lying like the man he had yet to become he stared at me unblinking and said he understood. And I chose to believe him. They always lie and we always believe and everything’s fine and everyone’s happy until one day you bring someone else home and the shit hits the fan.
Elvis was waiting for us on the sidewalk. Waiting for me as I stepped from the man’s truck. I pretended not to notice. I walked on toward my door, the man’s hand gracing the back of my neck. Elvis whizzed by us on his skateboard, a blurred image of frayed denim and slumped shoulders, knocking the keys from my hand. The man stooped to retrieve them and hurriedly we went inside. For a time the man and I made attempts at conversation. We began and then faltered and began again. But as the night wore on and our willingness to fail waned, we tried our hand instead at affection. The man clumsily moved toward me in the darkened room while I steadied myself beneath him, anticipating the lips I neither felt compelled toward nor repelled from. They never reached me. A sound outside, on the other side of a half opened window, distracted us from our awkwardness on the couch. It was a guttural sound, not unlike the call of a wounded animal or mournful woman, and I knew at once that the sound rose out of Elvis.
I slid open the back door and called his name and when he appeared, red-eyed and disheveled in the bare bulb light of my patio the man asked, “is that your son?” and to make things simpler I answered “yes” and wrapped my ringless fingers around Elvis’ wrists, pulling him inside and to me. I sat down on the couch, Elvis’ head lost in my lap, and the man backed away and out the door. Then, almost as soon as he had gone, Elvis sprung from me, spitting ugly names in my face before running back out into the night, leaving me to wander my apartment alone, past the ghost child’s bedroom where I dared not linger and into my own.
I slept alone that night, the first time in months, having shut and locked the backdoor to both the cat and to Elvis each of whom was accustomed to coming and going as he pleased in the hours between dusk and dawn. I heard the faint sound of their wails in my sleep, their pleadings and requests. I heard them but did not wake nor stir. I did not rise to them but buried myself yet deeper, to a place their voices did not reach.
I’d gone inside long enough only to piss and pull a diet coke from the fridge. I’d been inside two goddamn seconds and look what the fuck had happened: That little slut, Brandy. That little slut was back and Elvis was in the pool with her, floating on his back beside her, their fingers intertwined like they were goddamn Romeo and Juliet or something. So this was what he wanted. Some thirteen year old whore with hair down to her ass and no tits to speak of. She’d cheated on him in the spring, fucked around with his best friend then spent the summer in our shadow, a near constant vision of silvery eyeliner and overly lacquered lips in the periphery, just waiting for Elvis to give her the time of day. Thing was, he couldn’t stand her. He laughed whenever she walked by, laughed like she was the funniest goddamn thing in the world, and she didn’t even know it, or didn’t care. And now here the two of them were, her bony limbs wrapped around his neck and waist, bobbing around that pool like they were in the middle of the fucking ocean and we couldn’t all see exactly where their fingers were going. This was my punishment: Watching them. Watching her watching me. Watching Elvis act like it was her body he wanted inside of, not mine.
I felt nauseous and pushed myself up onto my elbows, my first attempt at preparing myself to retreat back inside, back into my damp, dark apartment with the ugly tan carpet and empty beige walls. But Janet, who lived in the apartment above mine, had seen me and waved herself over. She pulled up a chair and sat down beside me, her heavy bosoms spilling out of her top. She had information to share. She wanted to tell me about the latest legal battles with her ex. She wanted me to pretend like I gave a shit. There were so many of us then. A whole building full of divorcees, refugees of bad marriages, displaced women and children, each one more eager than the next to tell you her story. Only Elvis’ mother and I kept our mouths shut. Her ex husband was dead. A fifteen year old suicide. Mine was alive, but there wasn’t much to battle about without a living child to dismember.
I watched Janet’s mouth form words while pushing the bile back down my throat. Her kids were in the pool with Elvis and Brandy, diving and splashing around them, indifferent to the vile acts taking place beneath the water’s oily surface. They kicked and screamed and called out “Marco” and “Polo,” oblivious to dick hardening against Brandy’s spread thigh. The sun was in the center of the sky, excruciating without the luxury of clouds to obscure it. My forehead dripped sweat and I thought I might faint from the heat yet I couldn’t bring myself to step foot into the pool. I excused myself to Janet and stood to make my escape. I hesitated beside my chair, grasping firmly to its back to steady my head, which was swimming both with the warmth and confusion.
I did not notice Elvis’ head turn as I walked past as I’d hoped it would. Nor did I feel his wet hand on my shoulder, commanding me to stop where I was, urging me to come along with him instead. I stumbled up the grass alone and went inside. I did not bother to shut the door. I did not lock it. I walked to my bed and climbed into it, dampening the sheets with my wet suit and perspiring body. I closed my eyes and succumbed to the darkness within, fighting back the realization that I was not, as I’d hoped, immune at last to loss.
I awoke some time later to the sound of muffled voices. I opened my eyes expecting light and found only dark. The sun had set while I slept. The day had vanished and night brought newfound terrors (or perhaps the same terrors magnified now by the absence of light). I wrapped my arms about my near naked body and walked down the hall. The voices called to me from the child’s room and at first I did not answer them. I stood outside the door listening, hesitant to open it. But with the recognition of one of the voices I momentarily overcame my fears and went inside. I made my way through the maze of boxes, each with her name spelled in red marker across it. I walked carefully so as not to come into contact with any of them. They stood where the movers had dropped them a year and a half earlier, half stacked and still sealed. I could no more bear to part with them than I could open them. I crept toward the far wall and pressed my ear against it. I held my breath and listened to what under normal circumstances would have amounted to nothing more than the mundane sound effects of uninspired teenage lovemaking: His intermittent grunts. Her repetitive yelps. Neither varying in intensity or beat. Both carefully scripted. But the circumstances were not normal and with each staggered exhale and every conscious pant my stomach leaped back into my throat forcing me to choke it down again.
Elvis and his mother had moved in six months earlier, in the dead middle of winter. The apartment they took, the one whose back walls I shared, had sat empty so long I’d convinced myself it would stay so eternally. When the moving truck arrived that day, backing up to the walkway which led both to my apartment and theirs, I feared the worst: a family, children, god forbid—a baby. I was unsure I could stomach the unavoidable calls and cries of a child under five. Janet’s boys, at nine and ten, had already surpassed the age of high-pitched squeals and uncontrolled laughter; the sounds that splintered my already shattered heart into yet tinier pieces. It was with great relief then that I listened through the laundry room wall to the profanities traded back and forth on that first night between Elvis and his mother.
What I wouldn’t have given for them now, backing away from the wall, backing slowly out of the room. And while I thought myself careful, each step purposeful and calculated in my exit, I somehow managed to trip, falling wholly atop a stack of boxes marked “clothing,” before staggering first to my feet and then to the kitchen. I was horrorstricken and shaking as I poured myself a drink. In my previous life, in my life as a dutiful wife and mother, I’d been a teetotaler, refusing even to lift a glass of champagne for a toast. There’d been, first, the baby in utero to think about, and then, after its birth, the milk that for two years filled and weighted my breasts. Now my breasts were empty and I didn’t so much drink as flush my insides. I drank to wipe them out. Irrigation seemed key somehow to the cleansing of my decayed organs. Whiskey worked okay but Scotch worked better. I poured it now into a juice glass and drank it down, still standing at the counter, waiting for its effect. It didn’t come, or didn’t come soon enough, and I hurriedly poured another. I picked up the glass and carried it with me into the bedroom and sank down atop the sheets.
I looked down at my exposed body, at the leathery surface of my sun-dried skin, wondering what, if anything, he’d told the little bitch. I wondered if he’d told her how I refused to let him inside me; how I let him watch me instead and sometimes, after I’d finished, watched him as well; how we never touched until afterward and then only in slumber. I would murder him for telling. Rip his eyes from their sockets, the flesh from the arms that held her. “She’s terrified of getting pregnant again,” I heard him chuckle and my teeth ground into a fine powder in my mouth.
I tilted my glass; let the remainder of foul smelling liquor drain down my throat into my otherwise empty stomach. Offered up my veins to it, waiting for the alcohol to flood my bloodstream and overtake my consciousness. It had all been a big mistake: My belief in my own autonomy. My belief in Elvis, a mere child, not yet sixteen. My assertion that any life, even the life of a somnambulist, is better than no life at all. Every belief I’d ever held had been wiped out; abolished either with her death or in its aftermath. And I was left now with only this knowledge and the resurrection of pain that accompanied it. All I had was sleep and the bottle on the counter. And now, even sleep did not seem enough.
He came back. He came back to me on his hands and knees. I woke to his breathless sobs, his hands outstretched to me, a child’s silent plea. I pulled back the sheet and patted the space beside me as though summoning the cat and he crawled into bed with me, his back pressed to abdomen, my arms encircling him. I held him like this for some time, listening to his sobs, counting his breaths. He smelled of gasoline and cigarettes and I was reminded of that day last April when I’d happened to look out the window and see him sitting with two other boys in the dirt behind the dumpster, a Ziploc baggy passed between them and held to their noses. I’d felt a wave of nausea pass over me, as though one or all of the boys belonged to me and I as their mother were helpless to stop their secret act of self-destruction.
I rose from the bed and walked quietly to the bathroom. I bent down on my knees and turned the faucets left and right, waiting for the water to warm. I watched the water spill into the tub, the steam rising above me, saturating the air all around. I shut off the water and called to Elvis and when he didn’t come I went to him, pulling him to his feet and into the bathroom. I stripped him of his clothes and lowered him into the water. He made no movements to wash himself and so I wetted a cloth with soap and water and set about to do it myself. I lathered and rinsed and scrubbed at his body and hair until I could no longer smell the scent of gasoline or smoke or Brandy’s cunt. When I was satisfied I dried him and guided him back to bed.
We sat beside each other as the predawn light filled the room, illuminating our desolate features. I removed my bathing suit and we studied our naked bodies as though seeing them for the first time. His penis began to harden beneath my gaze and my hand reached for it, as though propelled of its own freewill. I felt my fingers travel up and down his shaft before wrapping themselves gently around it. He grew there in my hand and I looked to his face for approval but found only a mixture of surprise and pleasure and horror instead. I left my hand to him and watched as it moved in synch with his body, causing his face to tighten and contort until finally it fell slack and my hand was warm and wet with him. Neither of us moved or spoke but looked instead downward, at the mess we together had created, and as we did so our cheeks became damp and our mouths moist. Without a thought to our soiled bodies I turned onto my side, wrapping myself about him. I wanted to envelope him with my being, to wipe from his mind any thoughts of right and wrong, past and future, man and woman, mother and child, and replace them instead with the singular purpose of seeking warmth. I wanted to tell him there was nothing to worry about, that we still had every option open to us: our naked bodies, the bottle open upon the counter, a Ziploc baggy passed back and forth…I stroked his matted hair from his face, shhhhing him into sleep, rocking us both with my hips, finding warmth in the small space where his body met mine.