“You should definitely start with girls,” my sister tells me. “They’re way easier.”
We’re sitting out in the dark sunroom so Stella can repot her legion of orchids.
“And pick someone nice,” she says. “Nice people are always going to be more trusting. You’re looking for someone who thinks she’s ordinary, but sort of hopes it’s not true. That way, you can be the guy who makes her feel special.”
I don’t ask how she can see all that just by looking at someone. Stella has a way of knowing potential, like who will take her for moonlit walks on the beach, or let her get into the car first. Which orchids will have the most elaborate blooms.
I study the fresh cutting in her hands, all tangled roots and spiky foliage. “Is that how you do it? Make them feel special?”
“I don’t know. Something like that.”
But Stella knows how to carry herself. The paleness is good on her, while I just look frail and unhealthy.
“It’s so messed up though, picking girls. Like . . .” The word I’m thinking is rape, but I can’t say it out loud. “Isn’t it like taking something?”
“Yeah it’s like taking something,” says Owen from the corner. He’s supposed to be shaping Stella’s hibiscus tree, but gardening isn’t his thing. He keeps cutting off the flowers while she’s not looking. “It’s like that because you’re taking something.”
I don’t answer him. He can usually be counted on to sound brutal, but this time, he’s right. This is just what it means to grow up. I glance over at Stella, who’s pouring peat moss into a clay pot. “Is that the only way to do it, picking girls?”
“Well, you could start with kids, but that’s got a whole other set of issues. And not just ethical ones. A missing kid makes people hysterical. They set up roadblocks and telephone hotlines.”
“Yeah,” says Owen. “You could start with kids, if you want to be some kind of pervert. You want to be a pervert, Patrick? You want to be some kind of child-toucher?”
“Shut up,” Stella says, throwing a handful of peat moss at him. “You’re such a dick.”
When she turns back to me, her expression is kind. “Look, you’ve pretty much got two choices. It’s force, or seduction. And you can’t seduce anyone if you’re nervous, so you need to start with someone you can overpower.”
Owen grins, shaking his head. “Not Saint Pat. He’s got a bad case of bleeding heart disease. He just wants them to like him.”
I ignore him, keeping my eyes on Stella. “Is that how you started?”
“No, but I’m good at finding discontented people and giving them what they want.” She smiles and it’s radiant. “I’m nice.”
That makes Owen laugh, brandishing the shears and snipping off another hibiscus blossom. Owen isn’t nice, but he’s honest. “Stel,” he says, “if I had to listen to half the bitching and whining you put up with, I think I’d kill myself. Thank God for daddy issues.”
He drops the flower and grinds it to pulp under his shoe. But he’s not really talking about fathers. He’s talking about black leather and polyvinyl, because he only hunts at a certain kind of club and the girls there can be depended on to live out the fantasy, right until the end. He specializes in biting, slapping, choking.
Stella rests a grimy hand on my shoulder, looking up into my face. “It’s all practice,” she says. “I mean, after awhile, this kind of . . . instinct kicks in. You start to be attracted to the right kind of victim. You don’t even have to think about it.”
The mall is full of harassed-looking people and cold florescent light. I look worse in the glare and all the girls seem to be moving in herds. After two fruitless hours, followed by twenty desperate minutes in the parking lot waiting for stragglers and feeling like a criminal, I find a booth in an all-night diner and order coffee I won’t drink.
The hunger is bad now. My temples throb and my hands started shaking hours ago. I close my eyes and rest my forehead on the table.
“Do you mind if I sit with you?”
The girl standing over me has a sad, hopeful face. Her coat is too big and the cuffs are starting to wear.
I shrug and look back down at my hands.
She brings over a cup of coffee and a dessert plate and sits down across from me. “I’m Alison. I really wouldn’t have bothered you, but there’s just something so sad about eating pie alone, and I thought you looked kind of lonely too, so . . .”
Her coat is open, showing a narrow slice of her throat and collarbone. Her skin is strangely insubstantial. You can see the veins right through it.
When she sees me staring, she slides around to my side of the booth, offering her plate. “Do you want some?”
I shake my head and she pushes the plate closer. “It’s okay, really. I mean, I don’t have germs or anything.”
Her mouth is making a strange shape, bottom lip trembling, and I’m faced with a choice. I can take the pie, but it will taste sweet and rancid and probably make me sick, or I can tell her no and probably make her cry, because the offered pie somehow represents everything else that does or does not exist between us. She’s holding out the fork, sticky with pastry and red syrup. It’s too easy to hurt her feelings.
I look away and shake my head, trying to seem smaller. “No, it’s just—I don’t feel very good.”
And like that, she softens. As she lowers the fork, her sleeve pulls back, showing bruises on her forearm. They look like they were made by fingers.
When she leans close, her breath is sickly-sweet like the red cherry filling. “What’s wrong?”
“My dad,” I say, feeling for the tender spot, an angle from which to win her sympathy. When her eyes stay a little too distant, I back up. “Stepdad. We had a—an argument. He kicked me out. I don’t really have anyplace to go.”
She nods, looking indescribably concerned. After a second, she reaches for my hand. Hers is small and warm.
By the time we leave the diner, I’m so hungry I’m almost staggering. I stumble across the parking lot to cut through a narrow alley, and Alison follows me, lagging behind a little until I slump against the wall to rest. Without warning, she kisses me on the cheek, fast and breathless. When I turn, I can feel my expression—shocked, distrustful. She moves closer and kisses me again. Her mouth is warm, and I can feel, actually feel the blood vessels in her lips and tongue.
“It’s okay,” she’s saying. “Everything’s going to be okay.”
The sad part is, she means it. She’s not hoping for solace or rescue, not trying to take anything from me. She’ll cradle me, hold me in her bruised arms, and live out the fantasy right until the end. She’s the daydream of petty con-men and junkies, because she’ll always try to save them. She’ll hide needles and bruises, hide the evidence, make excuses. Someone is always going to hurt her, and not like I’m about to do. With them, it’s going to last hours, days, maybe years.
I pull her close and bury my face against her neck, letting her soothe and comfort me. The smell of her perfume can’t cover the smell of copper, and her skin is too fragile. When I find the artery, I barely have to press. The surge of blood is like cherry pie and sunshine.
It’s not about giving people what they want.
Alison is sinking, going limp and heavy in my arms. She walked into my hunger willingly, so determined to take care of me, to love me. All she wants is to love someone, and I can’t give her the thing she wants, but I can give her what she needs. Her blood is hot and tastes like the whole glittering world. I know my place, my purpose.
Here in the narrow alley, in the protective circle of my arms, this is me saving her.
Photo by fd