June 9, 2007

“Doesn’t Jesus say to love your enemies?”

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remember taking the picture. She wriggled and rolled about, trying on one face after another, crawling limb-over-limb from one pose to the next, and periodically broke character to ask how she looked. I remember how she looked but I don’t remember how I looked at her. And Ben, the boy in the bushes, how did he look at her, and how did he come to see her? I should wonder about him but I don’t. I wondered at the time how God could be love, and I wonder now only why in my memory Ben’s baseball bat has distended and grown the alternating rings of a piñata stick. How its end has swollen like a healthy cucumber’s. The only questions that matters are what she was doing and why it didn’t work? I don’t know how to ask. Instead we will talk about the Polaroid, where it is and how it got there.

At 11:15 on a Thursday night in an Illinois March, Ben was laying in the bushes with cracked brown gloves that stank of transmission fluid and the baseball bat lying beside him. He had the Polaroid pinched between his enormous sausage fingers. For us it was only misguided, but for Ben it had become illegal on his eighteenth birthday, just weeks before he received it. Laying there, in the stinking mud under the rainspouts, in the soft week-long absence of snow, his whole posture was as graceless as his oven mitt hands or his cubical jaw.

The picture he was kissing and rubbing as he waited for me was a cropped Polaroid of a sixteen year-old girl sitting on a bed, hands gripping her knees. No matter what we made her or she made herself, despite the precocious nose piercing (it was only 1995) and the reputation that followed the picture, it was a photo of a thick-waisted, corn-fed, prairie princess. Stripped of her t-shirt, necklaces, and her obscenity, her yellow freckled body was only secured against its own flabby sweetness by what she had cultivated as a menacing smile. As she leant forward and dropped her gaze just beneath the viewer’s, her freed undercut dyed hair fell in a straight line above the ears and across. Her unmade eyes gazed down at what must have been my shoes. That gaze was averted, but bracing her knees, she aimed her pussy directly at the camera as if she was going to piss a stream of Greek fire at the men who passed the picture around. Laying in the bushes, Ben somehow returned that stare as he waited for me to emerge.

As the town Satanist she was a public functionary, so it made sense that our romantic entanglement left pictures in other people’s wallets. In a smallish town, the duties of a town Satanist were almost entirely limited to owning a copy of Anton LaVey’s spicy purple book, and attending church more than twice a year, never without a quiet sense of ironic indifference. She told me once that she and I believed in the same God and the same Jesus, and I figured she was right. The rest of her was mere garnish to most of the city. That her father was a Cuban refugee and a cripple, and that she had smoked Pall Malls since she was eleven, playing a tiny woman whose ID was always in the car, were rarely discussed. That she identified with Penny from Inspector Gadget, and that she wanted to be a reporter, that she collected pewter teaspoons with inlays of different national monuments, that she had an uncanny facility with mazes, were actively hidden.

By the time the night of the piñata bat came to pass, I loved her as much as Jesus would ever allow me to love anything—but the picture was a relic of a different week. I had not loved her then, I was driven by a motivation which is apparently much easier to find in Jesus: The idea was to become rich. The walls that had kept America Online a safe city for exchanging text-based screensavers and visual basic games had fallen, and the news warned us that in this larger world there were men who would pay for pictures of children. The news told us that those men were out there, but not how to contact them. As children, we thought we could send up a silent flare. They were tricky and ever present, these men, and they’d find us no problem once we had pictures to sell. The value of these pictures was beyond dispute. Across the slow invention of masturbation it had become clear that the television channels, the books and the magazines, both scientific and recreational, grew more and more expensive as they drew closer and closer to exposing the pussy. Even the public school curriculum was arranged in concentric circles around that day in sex-ed when English, science, gym and art finally conspired to reveal the great line-drawing projection. We knew from how clothes were cut, from the way television husbands joked about marriage, and from the tickertape parade of censor blocks that began to fill public television during that time, that the vagina was a currency, the sign of a club. They called it the “money-maker”. Aside from the great encouraging crowd of panting boys, there were three of us: a boy with a scanner, my young self (the only one willing to look at a vagina at close range), and Andrea herself, who possessed that mystery.

As I stood there with my father’s Polaroid camera, her body argued against itself about itself. She stood and sat, made face after face into a blue hand mirror. She crawled on all fours, stood, squatted, and posed as if walking. In every pose her breasts were clumsily askew, they received no more attention than her belly. Through that experience which she never clearly enumerated to me, those secrets for whose silence I am still bashfully grateful, she knew that her breasts were not the point of these photos. Finally she sat down and said, “Okay, count to ten.” One, two, three, she finished her tiny adjustments, pushed her hair straight, four, five, six. She grabbed her knees, seven, eight, and glared down at my shoes. Nine, she held her breath, and smiled.

Ten, snap. Immediately, she jumped up and snatched it from me, throwing it on her dresser—“Let’s go outside. I have to smoke.” I put down the camera and continued to stare. There was one of those light-spots on my eye and as she pulled on a pair of jeans I thought about it. Andrea laughed and punched me in the back, “What the fuck, man? Cheer up.”

Outside, I wished I knew how to smoke. “Hey Andrea...”
“Call me Penny, I fucking hate my name.”
“Hey Penny, do you have a boyfriend?”
“No,” she put her elbow on my shoulder and blew smoke over my head, “Why?”

It was true, I guess, Ben was never really her boyfriend or anyone else’s. Periodically the scandal would emerge that one of the fifteen year-old skater girls he drove around had been fucking him. Among these girls, the teasing was somewhere between what she would get for a night of embarrassing puking and a bad haircut; it was stupid but no one cared. Until that night that was all he had been to me. As the friend of a friend, I knew he had a car and all of the prestige that it brings among ambitious, economically-disadvantaged freshmen.

At first Penny hid the Polaroid in her cigar box stash under her bed, but she knew that her mom knew about that one, and decided not to break a tenuous harmony by adding new crimes to it. So we placed it in an enormous gray suitcase instead and called Ben to drive us to the scanner kid’s house. The elegance of a well-cleaned Corsica arrived in minutes and Andrea and I got in the back seat silently. The scanner kid stared and panted but wouldn’t touch it: “I was thinking, maybe this is illegal.”

“Hey, Ben,” she pointed at the suitcase, “in the case is something we want to sell, but can’t keep in our houses. Can you keep it in your car for a bit?” He nodded and she kissed him on the cheek.

A boyfriend, in high school, is not a friend with whom one has dates, but a stranger who becomes stranger because he rubs you with his little sweaty hands and kisses you. Over the next month she and I played at being a couple, occasionally going to movies, and I became a public functionary somewhat less important than a town Satanist. As a self-proclaimed Christian and regular church attendee, I became a precious and greatly threatened thing, a healthy boy too close to a sick and sickening girl. I was required to stand for eight minutes about once a week in a deep hallway at church or school to receive instruction from one of our city’s willow-stick matriarchs. She would approach, pulling the hair back from her eyes and softening her features, “Vince, I’ve been praying [alternately, ‘thinking’]…”

My response was consistently successful within the rules of flat-headed high school theology, the same ones that made the Jesus/rock-music problems compelling. That is to say, it quickly brought about a throwing up of hands, and released me back to what I was doing: “Doesn’t Jesus say to love your enemies?” The response was the most surprisingly consistent, given the hundreds of tiny variations which no one ever made: “I don’t think Jesus meant like this.” It seemed unlikely to me that Jesus only meant that we should refrain from physically beating our enemies, and offered no more comprehensive system for loving. The consensus of the women who taught me about love in hallways was that Jesus did not have any general rule for love, but a series of particular rules for particular sorts of people. Jesus would have us be yoked equally with believers; Jesus would have us respecting parents and political leaders, love being a sort of contractual agreement sometimes as well. Beyond this, loving enemies meant that those who we may want to electrocute should instead be given fair trials and dispassionate punishment, but I maintain that it was not ridiculous to think that Jesus may also have supported bettering our favor towards those who are not our enemies. Perhaps we could extend tenderness to people who may seem better passed in silence. This, I argued, did not compel, but did leave room for, romantic love with Satanists. How the phrase “God is love” also inevitably found its way into my argument is no longer clear to me. Perhaps it was merely a flourish after the references to Mary Magdalene and the life of David in the hills among the disaffected and the debtors. But I was right.

In the theater darkness Andrea would mouth hotly on my ear or tooth on my neck and I would freeze staring at the screen. Sometimes she whispered, “You were so brave with the camera.” It didn’t matter. I could kiss her because I had done that before, but when she began to slide her whole softness all over me, placing my palms on her tits or belly, the contrast of her heaviness would remind my body that it was balsawood. Just kissing strained me to the edge of my abilities. You could tell that it was a point of pride for her: she kissed wildly. She ran her tongue over and around my molars. I had become better at these kisses since we started dating, but she told me that she had been kissing them since childhood. It was a kiss that kept me from seeing Ben that night, I remember: she had driven her tongue into my mouth as if to choke me with it, to press out my teeth. If she hadn’t been crushing my cheeks into my jaws, and if my eyes hadn’t been watering with the force of her tongue and the cold, I would have seen Ben there lying on the ground, waiting.

After he received the photo, the skinny girls with their sandwich breath had begun to murmur, and the heavy-handed and heavy-metal kids began to rattle about how Andrea and Ben were fucking. This, unlike his usual acts of reciprocal desperation, seemed worth talking about if only because she might be someone who could actually love him, and of course because she was my girlfriend. He began to follow me in rumor. Under the same weedy overpass where she and I kissed, and where she first grabbed me through my jeans, they had been fucking regularly. The rumors put them on the park benches and in the movie theater. I can not say why, but the rumors never triggered any emotion like the accusations of Jesus’ disappointment in me did. Every time I defended our relationship I loved her more, and as we drifted towards the game that the teachers assumed we were already playing, I can’t say why I didn’t mind that everyone said she was already playing it with him. Or that it was true. I didn’t see Ben much and I didn’t mention it to her at all.

Instead, we went to the Spring Turnabout Dance, a yearly festival made dangerous by the very suggestion that girls should invite boys, though there were no reported cases of this ever happening. We went in a sort of low commitment drag. At the filthy card table in the middle of her kitchen, she brought me a black floral dress and sat on my lap in a business suit, softly creaming on my lipstick. I sat quietly, amazed by her perfect weight on me. The costumes were her idea, though I also broke the official tradition by doing the inviting.

We were only away from that table for three hours, and when we returned she had kissed off my lipstick already, and Ben was hiding in the bushes with his club. Myself being sleepy and she a little shiny off of tiny bottles of vodka, we must have stumbled right past him up the back steps. This time she cleared the card table of her mother’s ashtrays, remnants of fast food, and her father’s crutches. Smiling another carefully crafted face, Penny turned on White Zombie, kissed me, pretended to look down the front of my dress, and asked me to wait a minute. She was back before the guitar solo, wearing a long black t-shirt and gray cotton shorts. We were still in costume for the dance. It seemed I should run off to some secret room and return in a comfortable nightgown. “The parental units are asleep. They sleep hard, you know,” Penny sat on the counter and smiled.

Everything that had never happened, happened at once. I remember so little. I remember the cold of the folding metal chair against my still mostly-hairless ass, my boxers around my ankles and my dress pulled up. I remember the way she threw herself up and down whisper-shouting, “Fuck me, fuck me, fuck me,” into my face. I remember being aware of our strange hand gestures, her circle and my double line, and wondering why she wanted it so bad. I wondered how it would make it so different. She could see it right there, my splotchy, skinny dick, she could feel its tiny redundance. To actually press that tenuous cane into her seemed like the only idea worse than the one our hand’s breadth of separation allowed. “Fuck me.” As it was 1995, I remember sincerely wondering “What Would Jesus Do?” Would Jesus fuck her? The harder she bounced against my hand, the louder she panted, the less sure I was. Maybe.

A partial memory hangs over the door, something very particular about the moon. I was wearing my jeans again. It was nearly three in the morning, frost covered and silent. She held a hand on either side of my face and kissed me.

“I won’t ever forget tonight, Penny.” She stared. It was awkward, but it must have been true. Maybe the feeling I had just then, the tingling and humming, was of the needles running over the tin plate in my chest. Nonetheless, true or not, she stared at me blankfaced, unclear as to what this was a request for. She took me again and kissed me again. She kissed me to split my lips. She ground the slick stones of her teeth into mine, she wound her tongue to crush me. I gasped into her. Somewhere behind me Ben was laying there with his bat, and with my chance for a real memory of it. Maybe it was like a roll of silver dollars, but I only saw it through a wince, and through tears of confusion and cold.

On Monday the same kids who usually talked about where Ben had been fucking Penny were laughing instead about how he had fallen asleep in the bushes with a bat waiting for me. I imagined him there, leaning against the bat, watching us, the banality of our clumsy intimacy and the cold lulling him into a trance. I had been reminded so often that Jesus was watching and for a moment I worried that he, too, may have been bored by the whole affair. The snapping of gossiping braces-wire stopped as Penny approached. Not really sure which babble about herself she was missing, she threw the middle finger into the crowd, and grabbing my ass stuffed a folded sheet of paper in my back pocket. I opened it and gasped.

“Take care of it,” Andrea who I called Penny kissed me and went back to her class waving a yellow hall pass. I nodded furiously.

Of course, within three nights we were fucking furtively with some consistency. Of course too, my tragic virginity lost all of its appeal after it was gone, and she soon left me for a boy who had a car and a goatee. But she never asked for the photo. Not sure what to do with it, I hid it inside of the Daniel volume of my blue-bound Book and Bible Story collection. It was a moment, deciding where it belonged. I considered the great narcissism of placing it in front of the picture of the lion’s den, and smiled at the spear of the guards closing it with a stone. It was out of the question. I thought maybe she should have held her knees and pointed her pussy straight at the ghostly image of Jesus floating in the furnace. Again, it was wrong, an insult to a woman I had loved only days of hours before. So I put her in front of that great statue with its clay feet. I put her with that image in a dream, that image ringed with bands of alternating color, its great headdress bulbous like the end of a healthy cucumber.

contributed by Vincent Gonzalez

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