by Kristen Roupenian
Our friend came over last night. He and his terrible girlfriend finally broke up. It was his third breakup with this particular girlfriend, but he insisted it was going to be the one to stick. He paced around our kitchen, working his way through the ten thousand petty humiliations and torments of their thirteen-month relationship, while we cooed and fretted and bent our faces into sympathetic shapes in his direction. When he took a break and went to the bathroom to collect himself, we collapsed against each other, rolling our eyes and pretending to strangle ourselves and shoot ourselves in the head. One of us told the other that listening to our friend complain about the details of his break-up was like listening to an alcoholic complain about being hung-over: yes, the suffering was there but good God it was hard to muster sympathy for someone with so little insight into the causes of his own problems. How long was our friend going to continue to date terrible people and then act surprised when they treated him terribly, we asked each other. Then he came out of the bathroom and we mixed him his fourth drink of the evening and told him he was too drunk to drive home but that he was welcome to crash on our couch.
That night, we lay in bed together, talking about our friend. We complained about how small our apartment was, about how we couldn’t have sex without him hearing us. Maybe we should do it anyway, we joked—it’ll be the closest to getting laid he’s come in months. (Withholding sex had been one of the manipulative strategies of the terrible girlfriend.) Maybe he’d like it.
The next morning, when we got up for work, our friend was still asleep, his shirt half-unbuttoned. He was surrounded by crumpled beer cans; he’d clearly kept drinking alone long after we’d gone to bed. He looked so pathetic, lying there, that we felt bad about how meanly we’d joked about him the night before. We made extra coffee and fed him breakfast and told him he could stay at our apartment as long as he wanted, but when we got home we were nonetheless surprised to find him still on the couch.
We made him get up and into the shower, and when he was clean we loaned him a fresh pair of clothes and then we took him out to dinner, where we refused to let him talk about the breakup. Instead, we were charming. We laughed at all his meager jokes and ordered a second bottle of wine and gave him life advice. You deserve someone who makes you happy, we said. A healthy relationship with someone who loves you, we continued, and we looked at each other appreciatively before turning the full force of our attention onto him. He was like a sad little dog hungry for friendliness and praise, and it felt good to see him lap it up; we wanted to pat his soft head and scratch him behind his ears and watch him wiggle.
After we left the restaurant we were having such a good time that we invited our friend up to our apartment with us. Once we were there, he asked if he could crash with us again that night, and when we pushed him he admitted that he didn’t like being in his own apartment by himself right now, because it reminded him of the terrible girlfriend. We said of course, you can stay as long as you want, it’s a pull-out couch, that’s what it’s for. But behind his back we gave each other a look, because even though we wanted to be good to him, we were not going to endure a second night without sex—for one thing, we were drunk, and for another, acting so charming all evening had gotten us kind of worked up. So we went to bed, and even the way we said good-night to him probably made it clear that we were going to fuck. At first, we tried not to make a lot of noise, but soon it felt like our efforts to be quiet and then giggling and hushing each other were probably calling more attention to what we were doing than just doing it the normal way, so we did what we wanted and we would be lying if we didn’t admit we were sort of into it, the idea of him out there, listening to us, in the dark.
The next morning, we were a little embarrassed, but we told ourselves, hey, maybe that was what he needed nudge him out of the nest and back to his own apartment, and besides, it might motivate him to get a girlfriend who would sleep with him more than once every two months. But that afternoon, he texted us and asked us what we were doing that evening, and soon, most nights out of the week, he was coming over.
We would feed him dinner, and then the three of us would drive somewhere, us in the front, him always in the back seat. We joked about giving him an allowance, about giving him chores; we joked that we should adjust our cell phone contracts to add him to our family plan, since we all spent so much time together. Besides, we said, then we could keep a better eye on him and stop him from texting the terrible ex-girlfriend, because even though they were broken up, they were still in touch and he was always on his phone. He would promise he would stop, swear that he knew it was bad for him, but then he’d slide right back into texting her again. Mostly, though, we enjoyed the time we spent with him. We liked fussing over him and taking care of him and scolding him when he did irresponsible things like texting the terrible ex-girlfriend or missing work because he’d stayed up too late the night before.
We kept having sex even though he was staying in the apartment with us. In fact, it was the best sex we’d ever had. It became the kernel of a fantasy we shared, picturing him out there with his ear pressed to the wall, all churned up by jealousy and arousal and shame. We didn’t know if it was true—maybe he covered his head with a pillow and tried to ignore us; maybe our walls were more sound-proof than we thought—but we pretended it was, between ourselves, and we would dare each other to go out there right after sex, when we were still all flushed and breathless, to get a drink of water from the refrigerator and see if he was awake. If he was (he always was) we would exchange a few casual words with him and then rush back to bed to laugh about it and fuck again even more urgently the second time around.
We got such a charge from the game that we began upping the stakes, coming out half-dressed, or wrapped in towels, leaving the door open a crack, or a little more. In the morning after a particularly raucous night, we would tease him by asking him if he slept well, or what he’d dreamed about, and he would look at the ground and say he didn’t remember.
It was only a fantasy, this idea he wanted to join us in bed, but weirdly, after a while we started feeling a little bit annoyed at our friend for acting so coy. We knew that if something were going to happen—and how could it happen, really?— we would have to make the first move. We outnumbered him, first of all, and second, it was our apartment, and third, that was the way it worked between us: we bossed him around and he did what we told him. But still, we allowed ourselves to be irritable with him, to pick on him a bit, to blame him for our frustrated desires and to tease him a little more cruelly than we had before. When are you going to get a new girlfriend, we asked him. God, it’s been so long for you, you must be losing your mind. You’re not getting yourself off on our couch, are you? You better not be getting yourself off on our couch. That became a running joke, the idea that he was masturbating on our couch even though we’d forbidden him from doing so. Before we went to bed, we would stand with our arms folded, like we were mad at him, and say, you better behave yourself out here, this is a nice couch, we don’t want to see any stains on it tomorrow morning. We would even allude to the joke, obliquely, in front of other people, pretty girls. Tell her, we’d say. Tell her about the couch and how much you love it, you love it there, right? And he would squirm and nod and say yeah, I do.
And then a night came when we all got drunk, really drunk, and we began hitting the joke even harder than usual, insisting that he admit it: come on, you do it all the time, right, you’re out here going crazy, listening to us fuck, you pervert, you think we didn’t know? And then we froze for a second because that was first time we’d ever said it out loud, that we knew he could hear us, and we hadn’t quite meant to give it away. He didn’t say anything, though, so we tore into him even harder to cover our mistake—we can hear you, we said drunkenly, waving our beers at him, we can hear you breathing heavy and the couch squeaking every time we do it, you’re probably at the door half the time, watching us, I mean, it’s fine, we don’t mind, we know you’re desperate, but God, stop lying about it, please. Then we laughed, too loudly, and did another round of shots, and then a new joke started, and the joke was that since he’d already watched us, dozens of times, it was only fair to let us watch him. He should show us, we joked, he should show us what he did on this couch, our couch, when we weren’t around. For what felt like hours, we mocked him and prodded him and teased him and he got more and more flustered but he didn’t go anywhere, he didn’t leave, he stayed pinned to his seat on the couch and when he finally gave in and began unzipping his jeans we felt a rush that was like nothing else we’d ever felt. We watched him for as long as we could stand it and then we stumbled into our room and did it with the door open, but we didn’t invite him to come any closer, that first time; we wanted him to watch us from the outside, looking in.
The next morning was delicate but we made our way through it by proclaiming how drunk we’d been, God, how completely obliterated. He left right after breakfast and disappeared for three days, but on the fourth night, we texted him and we all went to a movie and on the fifth night he came over. We didn’t mention the joke, or what had happened between us, but simply to all be drinking together, alone, seemed like a tacit agreement that it would happen again. We drank steadily, seriously, and every hour that passed increased the tension, but also our certainty that he was willing, until at last we said, “Go into our room and wait for us there.” When he did, we took a long time finishing our drinks, savoring them, before we put them down and went in after him.
We made up rules for him, about what he could and couldn’t do, what he could and couldn’t touch. Mostly he couldn’t do anything; mostly he watched, and sometimes he wasn’t even allowed to do that. We were absolute tyrants; we got most of our pleasure from making the rules and changing them and seeing him respond. At first, what happened during these nights was a strange, carved-out, unspoken thing, a bubble clinging precariously to the edge of real life, but then, about a week after it started, we made a rule for him to follow during the day, and suddenly the world cracked open and overflowed with possibility.
In the beginning, the things we told him to do were the things we’d been telling him all along: to get up, to take a shower, to shave his face, to stop texting that terrible girl. But now, each instruction was accompanied by an electric crackle, a shimmer in the air. We added more rules: he should go shopping and buy nicer clothes, which we picked out. He should get a haircut. He should cook us breakfast. He should clean up the area around the couch where he slept. We made him a schedule, sliced it up into finer and finer shreds, until he was sleeping, eating, pissing, only when we told him to. It seems cruel, laid out like that, and maybe it was, but he gave in without complaint, and for a while, he flourished under our care.
We loved it, his eagerness to please, and then, slowly, it started to get under our skin. Sexually, it was frustrating, his unerring instinct towards obedience; once we settled into this new pattern there was none of the friction or uncertainty of that first dizzying night. Soon, the teasing started up again; the jokes about us being like his parents, about how babyish he was, about what he was allowed to do or not do on the couch. We began making rules that were impossible to follow and instituting little punishments when he broke them; bad boy, we’d tease him. Bad boy. Look at what you’ve done. That kept us occupied for a while, inventing new punishments. We were devilishly creative about them, and then they, too, began to escalate.
We caught him texting that terrible girl, and when we confiscated his phone, we discovered he’d been talking to her all along, after he’d promised—sworn!— that they were over. There was nothing funny about how angry we felt then, how personally betrayed. We sat him down at the table, across from us. Look, we said, you don’t have to stay with us, we’re not keeping you here, go back to your place if you want, seriously, we don’t fucking care.
I’m sorry, he said, I know she’s bad for me, that’s not what I want. By then he was crying. I’m sorry, he said again, please don’t make me go.
Fine, we said, but what we did with him that night was too much even for us, and the next morning we were disgusted with ourselves and the sight of him made us feel a little sick. We told him to go home and we’d let him know when we wanted to talk to him again.
As soon he was gone, though, we got so bored we could barely stand it. We white-knuckled it through two days on our own, but without him around to watch us, we felt so dull and pointless it was almost as though we didn’t exist. We spent most of our time talking about him, wondering what he was doing and agreeing about how pathetic it was that he was still talking to that girl, after all this time. We speculated about what was wrong with him, about all the ways he was deeply broken, and then we promised ourselves that if we were going to do this, whatever this was, we’d do a good job of it, we’d do it right, with house meetings and safe words and polyamorous meet-ups. And on the third day after we’d sent him away, we told him to come over again. We had nothing but good intentions, but we were all so hideously polite and uncomfortable with each other that in the end the only way to purge the tension was to go back into the bedroom for a repeat of all the things that had so disgusted us three days before.
It only got worse after that. He was like some slippery thing we had caught in our fist, and the harder we squeezed it the more of it bubbled up through our fingers. We were chasing something inside of him that revolted us, but we were driven mad as dogs by the scent of it. We experimented—with pain and bruises, chains and toys— and afterwards, we’d collapse in pale tangle of damp limbs, all jumbled together like the trash that washes up on a beach after a storm. There was a kind of peacefulness to it in those moments, but then we’d pull ourselves away and banish him other room so we could be alone, and before long the need to take him apart would start building up in us again. No matter what we did to him, he wouldn’t stop us. No matter what we told him to do, he would never, ever say no.
It took us over, ate us up, and to protect ourselves we pushed him as far into the corner of our lives as we could. We stopped going out with him, stopped having dinner with him, stopped talking to him. We returned his phone and summoned him only for sex, brutal three, four, five hour sessions before we’d send him home again. We demanded he be available to us, always, and we pushed him back and forth like a yo-yo: go, come, come, go. When he wasn’t in the house with us, we stared at each other, utterly drained, the same washed-out pornographic movie playing on an endless loop in our heads.
Until the day came when he stopped answering our texts as soon as we sent them. First came a five minute delay, and then ten, and then an hour, and then, finally, I’m not sure I can do this tonight, sorry, it’s feeling really complicated right now.
We lost it, then. We lost our fucking shit. We stormed around the apartment and sobbed and smashed glasses and screamed what is he thinking what the fuck he can’t do this to us. It wasn’t as though we could go back to the way it was before, the two of us, bland vanilla sex in the bedroom with nobody watching, nothing to gnaw on and tear at except for each other. We worked ourselves up into a frenzy and called him twenty times but he didn’t pick up until at last we decided: no, it’s not acceptable, we’re going over there, he can’t hide from us, we are going to figure out what the fuck is going on. We were furiously angry, but mixed in with the anger was a rowdy excitement, the thrill, almost, of the hunt: the knowledge that something explosive and irrevocable was about to go down.
We saw his car parked in front of his building, and the light in his room was on. From the street, we called him again but again he didn’t answer, and since we had an extra copy of his key from the days when we watered each other’s plants and got each other’s mail, we let ourselves inside.
There they were, in the bedroom, our friend and the terrible girl. They were naked, and he was on top of her, pumping away. It looked so simple and plain and ridiculous after everything we’d gone through together that at first we couldn’t do anything but laugh, and then a wave of anger surged up and overwhelmed us.
She saw us first and gave a little squeak of surprise. He rolled over and his mouth opened but no sound came out. It soothed us a little, that terrified face he made, but it was a drop of water on a conflagration. The girl was scrambling to cover herself, and her shocked, high-pitched bleating transformed itself into a torrent of accusations. What the hell are you doing, she shrieked, what the fuck is this, what are you doing here, you are both so fucking twisted, he’s told me all about it, the stuff you do, it’s so messed up, get the fuck out of here, you don’t belong here, you freaks, go, go, go.
Shut up, we said, but she ignored us.
Please, our friend begged her. Please, stop. I can’t think. Please.
But she wouldn’t. She kept babbling, saying things about him, about us, about everything that had happened. Even as he’d been talking about her to us, he’d been talking about us to her; and now she knew about everything, including the things were too ashamed to talk about even with each other. We’d thought we’d exposed every part of him, and yet he’d been lying to us, hiding this from us, all this time.
Make her stop, we screamed, feeling a kind of panic rise up in us; make her stop saying that, shut her up, shut her up now. We locked eyes, us and him, and we clenched our fists and stared him down, and he trembled, his eyes watery and helpless, and then the anger that had consumed us burned itself out, and something cold and iron-like clicked into place.
Make her stop, we said again—and he did.
He fell on her with the full weight of his body, and they wrestled together, flailing and scratching, until the bed shook and the bedside lamp wobbled on its table, and then they steadied and reached an equilibrium, his chest against her back, his arm wrenched across her neck, her face buried in the mattress.
Good, we said. Now, go on. Keep doing what you were doing. Don’t let us interrupt you. That’s what you wanted, right? That’s what you came here for. So go on. Finish it. Finish what you started.
He swallowed, looking down at the terrible girl beneath him, who had stopped struggling and gone still, her hair a tangled nest of matted gold.
Please don’t make me, he said. No.
We’d uncovered it, what we were looking for: that small hard nub of resistance. But it was anticlimactic, in the end, because he was so abject, lying there, so small, and we, we filled the whole world. We could have walked away then, having found it, knowing we could break it, break him—but we didn’t.
We stayed, and he did what we told him. Soon, the terrible girl’s skin was parchment-white except for a stamp of mottled bruising that spread across her thighs, and she didn’t move except as he moved her, and the tight knot of her hand came loose and her pale fingers unfurled. Yet he kept going; as the room darkened and the light came in again and the air thickened with smells, we kept him there, and he did what we told him to do. By the time we told him to stop, her eyes were blue marbles, and her dried lips had pulled high up over her teeth. He rolled off her and moaned and tried to burrow away from her, away from us, but we rested our hands on his shoulders and smoothed his sweaty hair, stroked the tears off his cheeks. We kissed him, and then we wrapped his arms around her and we pressed his face to her face. Bad boy, we said softly as we left him.
Bad boy, look at what you’ve done.
Issue #5 CONTENTS
Keeping it Necroreal
David Van Gough
The Quick and the Dead
The Potters' Field
Shed Shed Shed
Rachel Ann Girty
The Shivering Girls
The Monarch of the Sill Shenoa Carroll-Bradd
The Puzzle Box
Pink Afternoon, Reconstruction
Reflections of a Pissed Off Killown