He came to church just to have something to do. He took pictures of his pecs and sent them into the ether of the early aught internet to secure modelling contracts that never materialized. He put his hand on my lower back as if it were a casual thing, and told me it was embarrassing to make sandwiches for your friends at Blimpie when you could be the freshest face of Givenchy. He told me that he could hear my virginity, glutinous, in the hills and valleys of my voice.
I tried to disguise it. I pulled only the seediest guncotton through my stammering dial up for clues on how to orient my thighs, how to close my eyes exactly halfway, so that I could appear like a girl who got out on Saturday nights, instead of fantasizing about breaking the Sabbath in a pair of high heeled shoes. But all the boys heard it when I spoke. They would turn while in gym class, while folding prayer meeting programs into cootie catchers, and pause, see in me all the places never touched.
My father watched him closely. The white boy, who waited calmly at potluck to initiate small-talk, whose charm emerged neatly from his teeth, like the Marlboros he smoked when my parents weren’t around. I told him that he could quit smoking if Jacob could wrestle an angel. He said I would feel differently about everything, if I let him touch me. He was a stained glass echo of a Caucasian Christ, with his wine stained lips, middle part in his greasy, corn colored hair. I would have let him put the yellow pill he promised over the phone, on my tongue. But I would not kiss him. I would not ride in his car. I searched through the binary crawl for tips on how to be alone with a man.
The day I was finally ready, I painted my nails, curled my hair, and took two buses to his town. At the bus-stop I listened to his voicemails over and over, audited them for breath. But it was too late. That Sabbath he was kinetic energy, a shadow with sticky fingers in a stranger’s house, running down Main St. with one bloody eye as sirens splashed through the dark. That night,
Jesus was on the news, hands raised, palms scored with stigmata.
While riding the train toward his house, she could still imagine him as a handful of different men. This was the good part. To imagine a man on the bones of a few awkward interactions was always where her bedroom began. He could’ve been a gentleman. He could’ve been a monster too large, too still, to distinguish from the sky. But when she opened the door, he was only a revised version of the monster, resourceful enough to replace the sky with the eggshell walls of a six floor walk up. He didn’t answer questions, or give her the option of not answering his. He was a single muscle, looking for the muscle resting unused in her mouth. He was putting a drink down, confiding all of the things his ex-girlfriend wouldn’t do. It wasn’t unusual to realize she’d made a mistake, just as a man was slipping off her shoes, just as he was putting his cigarette between her lips. But this was a mistake she could not afford. It all came down to this—he had been reaching out for something to steady himself, and only grabbed what was near. She was that thing, but she would wear his fingerprints for years. The morning after, she was five eyelashes on a glue strip, canted towards her cheek. The morning after, she left his house in shoes that could not support the night before, and so bought three dollar sandals, and then a croissant that once arranged between her hands, curled upwards like a smile.
She heaves herself from the ocean floor onto the stage. The men arrive in pinstripes. When she circles the stage, sometimes they don’t seem human. They are reptilian as their pupils halve. They are sloops shimmering in the distance, shadows with teeth and money clips.
When her number comes, she pulls her head from a cloud of Aqua Net, clears the loam from between her toes, and straps on her platform shoes. When they ask her what her story is, she gazes into the strobes and smiles. She wants to tell them that clam shell bras and mermaid tresses are the result of a long game of telephone via sailors’ diaries, that women like her actually live with floor fish, the vampire squid and Pacific vipers, which like her, evolved a specific aesthetic most suited to the dark. The idea that there has to be a story sticks between her fingers during especially buoyant turns around the pole. She tells the men about egregious APRs on student loans, about pliés, and the Bolshevik, about a soft spot for 80’s glam, or about whatever stooping figure ruined her capacity for true intimacy.
She maneuvers between half-truths until she is fluid. She works her triceps and makes sure the baristas put out fresh chips. She gazes into the eyes of hungry men without showing the hunger in hers, and feels through the apparent vulnerability of her naked body, something powerful. She is the sigh that pulls a man into the sea. She is a blackout hair flip hanging at 45 degrees, the confetti sweat spray under stage lights, and the idea that a commodity can dictate its own price.
Though admittedly, there is nothing noble about what she does, nothing inherently subversive about climbing with bare breasts towards the ceiling, watching the cash tumble through the air like flotsam. Still, she is in her truest form during these moments, self-sufficient. When she looks out into the dark sea of faces, it is not for a prince. And when she catches herself yearning for one, she thinks of an old story in which a prince sees a fish and falls in love, even though it cannot say a word, or perhaps because it cannot. She thinks of how the fish ambles from the sea, bloodies soft, fetal arches in hot sand. She thinks of how the fish lies in bed for days crushed by the land’s gravity, how the prince thinks this means she wants to be crushed by him. How the fish cannot say otherwise.
During the day, Raven Leilani works for a scientific journal. At night, she is either down a nostalgic Funimation rabbit hole, judging Lois Lane’s investigative journalism skills, or working on her first novel. Her writing and paintings have been featured in New Haven Review, Granta, Psychopomp Magazine, Silk Road Review, and the Columbia Literary Journal.