She wore a small heart dangling from a thin gold chain around her neck, and one summer evening, a few weeks after we had become lovers, she asked for something a bit unusual. She spoke French fluently, and that night she slipped into the language while breathlessly encouraging me.
"I don't understand—"
"The heart, take it in your teeth," she said, "rip it away."
"Are you sure?"
We continued, and in the frenzy I took her heart in my teeth and pulled the chain away just as we collapsed into one another. I wondered briefly whether her neighbors, perhaps confusing the commotion for assault, would call the police.
One evening in early fall she treated me to the first of many readings. "'Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul.'" Pacing about, she drew on a joint that she waved like a conductor's baton marking the cadence of Nabokov's words. Approaching the couch, she passed me the joint without a break in stride or story. "'Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, exhibit number one is what the seraphs, the misinformed, simple, noble-winged seraphs, envied. Look at this tangle of thorns.'" She wore nothing more than a t-shirt with a faded image of Elvis Costello, although she had chosen a Chopin sonata to play quietly in the background.
She floated across the worn wood floors from living room to dining room and into the kitchen. Nabokov's words continued over the sound of a cupboard door opening and closing and water running at the sink. She returned, her expression animated, Nabokov's words carefully enunciated. She taught kindergarten, and I pictured her reading to her students, a tight half circle of small, upturned faces gathered before her. She approached again, extending her hand, and I passed her the joint. "'I leaf again and again through these miserable memories, and keep asking myself, was it then, in the glitter of that remote summer, that the rift in my life began; or was my excessive desire for that child only the first evidence of an inherent singularity?'"
She looked up at me and smiled as she turned the page.
"Do you like it?" she said, and in a familiar gesture brushed back her bangs, the pageboy cut framing wide set, large brown eyes and an equally generous mouth.
"You're really something," I said.
"I've heard that before." She smiled and resumed reading. "'When I try to analyze my own cravings, motives, actions and so forth, I surrender . . . '"
"Cut the tip," she told me one winter night as a wind out of the Dakotas rattled the old double hung windows of her apartment. Outside a heavy snow swept the streets of St. Paul of all but the most foolhardy drivers. She handed me a single-edge razor blade and offered up her right index finger on which she wore a ring of braided silver. She loved jewelry. "Now taste me."
The next morning I awoke to something tickling my ribs and she stretched out beside me, a dozen or so fresh cherries spread about her stomach and hips. "Breakfast," she said and giggled. I wondered where she had found cherries in January. "Take them. One at a time with your mouth. And bite as you do."
I did but very gently, taking one cherry after another, and somewhere amid her giggles I wondered how many of her numerous lovers had done the same. Full on the sweet, purplish-red fruit, I rose up and leaned over her, studying her face. Even among our crowd, I sometimes wondered whether she was slightly unbalanced. I noticed then above her head, where the mattress had moved away from the headboard, a short length of broken gold chain and the heart dangling from it.
"You found my heart."
She laughed. "You're very sharp for so early in the morning."
"Just trying to keep up. Can I have it?"
"You may, but you're not finished." She laughed.
"There's one more cherry," she said and smiled. "Hidden."
"Order me a beer and a shot of tequila," she said as we took a table near the stage. "I'm going to the Ladies room."
I looked about the club for a waiter. I saw a guy across the room at a table against the far wall. A friend of a friend in an extended circle of people that frequented the same clubs and parties and shared a taste for drugs, casual sex and liberal political causes. He nodded to me, stood and began making his way across the crowded room, weaving between tables. On stage the guitar and bass players exchanged notes, tuning their instruments. The drummer struck three sharp beats on the snare, leaned down for a towel at his feet and mopped his face.
"How's it going?"
"Good," I said.
"Seen Bobby lately?"
"Not for a week or so." I considered but decided against telling him that Bobby was in Chicago. He was picking up a load of pot from a Vietnam vet who ran Columbian weed into South Florida and up to Chicago in U-Haul trucks.
"Tell him to give me a call when you see him," he said.
"She's something, isn't she?" he said, nodding toward the back of the club, toward the bathrooms.
"You know," he said, flashing a smile that suggested I knew precisely what he meant. He ran his fingers through long black hair and pulled at a silver hoop in his left lobe. "You know, she's wow!"
"Hey, be cool. I didn't mean anything, except—"
"Get out of here."
He frowned and walked away.
When she returned, I stood before she could sit.
"I'm tired," I said and kissed her lightly. Over her shoulder I could see the guy seated again with two women, one smirking, and another guy, all looking across at us. I hugged her and behind her back flipped them off. "Let's go."
She once said we seemed to spend most of our time in bed. But we shared other interests. Driving back roads along the St. Croix River, sometimes up to Stillwater. B horror movies, which she treated as comedies. Plays at The Guthrie in Minneapolis and good writing. Irving's The World According to Garp came out that year, and she read it to me.
We also shared a passion for good food, and one evening she made a wonderful quiche and promised a special desert. I hoped it would be one of the berry pies she made from scratch. Instead she brewed two cups of Earl Grey, and as I took the last swallow, she told me she had laced our tea with windowpane acid. She smiled and set on the table before me two tickets to a Dead concert that evening.
We were not long in our seats, the first rushes of the acid pulsing through me, when she whirled about, arms and hands trailing ribbon-like streamers of color. "If you kick my seat again, I'm going to beat the shit out of you," she said. I began laughing, thinking the moment some odd mix of comedic improv and hallucination. But turning, I saw a tie-dyed hippie couple and two shaggy friends already on their feet, shuffling for safer seats.
She turned to me and smiled. "Are you feeling anything yet?"
One afternoon in early spring, as the old elms celebrated their first leaves, as she and I teetered, kindling about to collapse into the rising fire, she began pleading in French.
"What?" I said. "Translate, translate."
She leaned down and bit me. "Slap me," she said. "Hard."
I touched at my neck and saw a trace of blood on my fingertips. I pushed her off, gently. She pouted, turned away for a moment but returned.
Afterward, I watched as she drifted toward sleep, a light sheen glistening on her stomach, her chest and neck still flushed. I tried to imagine a time I would be able to look upon her without thinking of her many lovers.
She mumbled something.
"What?" I said. "I couldn't hear you."
"Spending more time together, not just weekends." Her words came thick and dreamy with fatigue. "Do you want to move in?"
I felt a rush of cold air. Like the sudden drop in temperature just before a storm breaks on a hot summer afternoon.
"I still love her." The words leapt from me, and I didn't even need to name the woman. She had been part of our same crowd, and left me when she grew weary of my aimless ways. Moved to Chicago but asked me to visit after I had landed my first real job, writing for a small newspaper. "I just want to be honest with—"
"I wouldn't have left you, never hurt you like she did."
Even as I began to speak, I knew I would lie again. Even as I felt the inexorable pull of a new love, one all consuming, edgy, unpredictable, purplish-red with suggestion, I strained against it.
"I'm sorry, but she's—"
"What are you afraid of?"
I didn't expect the question and said nothing. She turned away, drawing up her legs and wrapping her arms about them.
"Leave," she said.
"I want you to know—"
I pulled on my t-shirt and took my jeans off the floor. I checked the pockets for my keys and noticed something in the small change pocket people once used for watches. It was the heart. I had tucked it into the small pocket the morning she gave it to me, and then forgot I had it.
I rose and set the heart on the dresser amid a scattering of her jewelry.
"Why is it so easy for you to leave me?"
Outside the club I realized I still held the beer mug. My hand shaking, flecks of blood spatter on my knuckles and the mug. I set it on a window ledge near the front door and wiped the blood on my pant leg.
The door swung open, and a couple walked by. I rubbed my hands together, warming them against the late spring cold snap. I wanted a shot of something but couldn't go back into the club. I didn't know where to go.
Another couple left, paying me no attention. I walked a few paces and stopped. I'd struck the guy so suddenly, maybe nobody even noticed in the nearly empty club. It was early. Maybe, I thought, because it was over so quickly, nobody much cared. I looked around, still unsure where to go. I leaned against the front of the club and shoved my hands into my pockets. I felt a wad of crumpled bills. I slipped a finger into the small change pocket, even knowing it would be empty. The door swung open and Bobby stepped outside.
"What the hell got into you?" he said. "You could've killed him."
"I don't like the fucker."
"He's in the head cleaning up. You should get going."
"Do you have a cigarette?"
"You know I don't smoke."
I tried to remember if I had met Bobby at the club or driven with him. I checked my pockets for keys. Nothing.
"You OK man?"
I kicked at a small rock on the sidewalk and watched it skitter across the street.
"I really liked her."
"Yeah," he said. "I thought you two were going to stick."
"I don't know. It's all kinda. Fuck, I don't know."
"I loved watching her. The way she moved through a room. Her smile. Everything about her. I liked watching her fall asleep."
"Sometimes I'd get these flashes, start seeing her with those other guys, like that prick inside. See it in my head."
"It was about you and her, nobody else."
"I couldn't get it out of my head."
"She's a good person and—"
"It's not her; it's me that's not right. But I can't—"
The door swung open and the guy walked out, his legs still unsteady. He almost walked right into us but stopped abruptly a few feet away. His long dark hair was damp and pasted back, an oozing cut maybe three, four inches long showing above the temple. I could hear him again inside, asking how she was, his tone sing-songy, taunting. I felt like dropping him again and ripping the fucking silver hoop out of his lobe.
"Go on, I'll catch you later," Bobby said, pushing me down the sidewalk, away from the club. "Here, you left these on the table."
I took my keys and turned and began walking. I still couldn't remember driving to the club and wondered where I'd parked. It didn't matter. I just kept walking. I had no idea where I was going; I only knew where I had been and that there was no way back.