DOUBT, A LOVE STORY
Ariel slid her phone out of her bag to check the time and saw she had missed a text from Dan.
“Congrats, you’re a free woman. Wanna get a drink later to celebrate?” Ariel smiled to herself. That’s sweet, she thought. I could use a drink. There was only her dissertation left. She felt dizzy. This would be her first time stepping out of the climate-controlled environment of academia into the unpredictable real world and she was scared shitless. School she was good at: everything else? No clue.
“Sure! Mardi Gras?” She slipped her phone back into her bag and tried her hardest to pay attention to her professor, Claudia, who was wrapping up their final workshop. Claudia finished her piece and the other grads began to move toward the door. Ariel shuffled the stack of poems in front of her, feeling uncertain and trying to take in what it felt like to be a student one last time. Then she stuffed her papers into her bag and headed out.
“Ariel, wait!” It was Claudia.
“Yeah?” Ariel spun around. Claudia pressed a manila envelope into her hands.
“This was submitted to the literary journal. I think you should read it.”
“Um, thanks.” Ariel was surprised. Her entire two years in this program she’d always found Claudia cold toward her. If Claudia caught the puzzled expression on the younger woman’s face she didn’t let on. She pulled Ariel into an uncomfortable hug.
“Good luck. And Ariel? One thing I want you to keep in mind: we are not all destined for greatness. You have to want it. And I don’t think you’ve ever wanted anything enough to make a difference. Get out there and get a taste for it.” Ariel pulled away. There it was, Claudia’s disapproval lingering under the surface of her language. Claudia never thinks my writing is good enough, Ariel thought, remembering what Claudia had told her after reading the first poem she’d submitted for crit in her course: that she lacked desire. What hurt the most was that it wasn’t a critique of her work so much as a critique of her as a person. Her poetry would never be good enough, would always fall flat, because of this lack.
“Thanks for the poems,” she said cooly, backing out of the classroom.
Ariel was waiting for Dan with a half-finished drink. She hadn’t intended to drink half of her greyhound already but she’d been absently pulling at it through the cocktail straw while scrolling through her Facebook feed and it had disappeared without her even noticing its diminishing. Shit, I’m gonna be drunk by the time he gets here, she thought. She took the straw from her drink and held it like a cigarette between her fingers, inhaling through its narrow length and then exhaling toward the ceiling, closing her eyes and pretending to be some other kind of writer, lost in a cloud of tobacco smoke and thought.
“Need a light?” She turned, blushing, catching the sharp edge of the straw on her gum, tasting blood. A girl around her age with short hair and sharp features held out a lighter and a cigarette. She tilted her chin at the cigarette – a question. Ariel blinked at her for a second, then brought the straw down from her lips and nodded. Why the hell not? She was a free woman. The girl placed the cigarette between her lips and lit it. Ariel breathed in, bringing her fingers up the take the cigarette from the girl’s hand, which was still resting on her lips.
“Anytime.” Over the girl’s shoulder Ariel saw Dan enter the bar. She quickly brought the cigarette down from her lips, hiding her hand behind her thigh. The girl glanced toward the door and then turned back toward Ariel, grinning widely.
“Keeping secrets, are you?” Ariel nodded. The girl hopped off her stool and started toward the back of the bar, pausing to take the cigarette from Ariel’s hand.
“Well your secret’s safe with me.” She slid her hand into Ariel’s pocket and winked at her, “One for later.”
Dan was scanning the bar. He caught sight of her and waved. She waved back, attempting to match his enthusiasm.
“Congratulations, babe!” Dan grabbed her into a bear hug, sighing contentedly into the top of her head. She hugged him back, trying to feel the comfort in him that he felt with her, but her mind was buzzing. As she sat back down she looked around for the girl and saw her weaving her way toward the back of the bar with a beer.
Dan began to tell her about his day, his morning run, a new project that they were starting for this big client, his lunch meeting… Ariel drifted, feeling around her gum with her tongue, searching for the source of her blood. She traced the end of the straw along the line of her gums, pulling slowly on her cocktail, enjoying the sting of vodka and citrus.
Arial woke in the middle of the night and carefully extricated herself from Dan’s sleeping form. On the fire escape she lit the cigarette and sat there for a while turning the manilla envelope over in her hands. She could hear muffled music coming from a house party down the block. College kids, enjoying their first night of summer, probably. Suddenly, she was crying. That part of her life was over, and where was she now? Everything she’d known, everything she’d been decent at… She looked back through the window at sleeping Dan and the apartment they shared together. Weren’t they happy? Wasn’t this all – bookshelves, lamps, plants, kitchen mixers – didn’t this all mean anything? Didn’t this make her comfortable? Wasn’t all this what she desired? She looked at the envelope in her hands.
Inside was a manuscript:
The Author’s name was Sharpied out. Rookie mistake, Ariel scoffed. Everyone knows you have to submit anonymously. She turned the page, dubious. What followed was a series of intimate poems, all about a girl named Doubt. Doubt as the surest thing in the poet’s life. Loving Doubt. Wanting Doubt. Caring about Doubt, etc. The voice was female.
Why had Claudia thought she should read a series of sapphic poems? Did these poems contain for Claudia that element of desire hers were so terribly lacking? Well, she’d show her— Ariel paused. There was no one to show anything. Claudia was no longer her professor. Ariel was just a girl who almost had a Masters crouched in an oversized t-shirt and pajama shorts on the fire escape still holding a cigarette that had stopped burning twenty minutes ago, incensed that her now former professor had thought she might get something out of a manuscript of girly love poems. Ariel started to laugh, faintly at first, and then with the hysterical certainty of someone who knows how inappropriate her laughter is and doesn’t care.
Ten minutes later Ariel was climbing into the shower with the dual intention of inducing sleep and washing the scent of smoke from her body. Warm water drenched her. She found herself absently running her thumb over her lips so she turned the gesture into an imitation of the hero from Breathless. The girl in the bar – she’d had the same haircut as the American girl. Her fingers had rested… here, on her lips. And when she’d slipped her the spare cigarette… here, on her right leg.
Before Ariel realized what she was doing her fingers had slipped between her thighs. She straddled the smooth bulb of her clit with two fingers, massaging it rhythmically as her other hand searched her mouth frantically for the blood spot. She collapsed against the shower wall, entering herself with as much of herself as she could, eyes closed, water hitting her eyelids and leaving red dots in her vision. She wasn’t thinking about the girl anymore, only her own hands, her own breath, coming short and fast now. She dropped to the floor of the tub, curling in on herself, concentrating on the pulsating dot that had appeared in the blackness between her eyes, forgetting what it meant to think in words.
Ariel rose from the shower floor like a monster from the deep. She felt older than myth, older than language. Dripping with shower water and her own flowing juices she walked trance-like over to the bed she shared with Dan. She dragged the sheets from the bed and lowered herself onto him. He half woke up, confused to find this wet, warm Ariel on top of him. He opened his mouth to protest but she clasped her hand over it, then slid her fingers, slick with her own wanting, onto his tongue. With her free hand, she moved his hands onto her body, directing him, wanting him to want every discreet part of her: her neck where it joined to her ears; her nipples, standing high on her perky breasts; her hips and hip bones; the soft arc of her tummy. She slid his fingers down to where hers had been only moments earlier, gasping when his larger, longer fingers entered her.
Dan grabbed her around the waist and rolled her over so he was on top, his hand still buried inside her. She rocked her pelvis against his hand. His cock was hovering inches above her abdomen. She took hold of the head and used to to massage her clit, bringing herself to the cusp of orgasm. She yanked his fingers out of her by the wrist and thrust his cock inside her, coming almost immediately and then again and again in cascades of bliss.
Claudia was already parked at an outdoor table with an open laptop and an iced coffee when Ariel arrived at Espresso a Mano, flush from her bike ride over. Immersed in her screen, Claudia didn’t notice Ariel take the time to order a coffee and compose herself before sitting down opposite her.
“Hello, Claudia.” Claudia met her gaze with a warm smile.
“Wonderful to see you, Ariel. I take it you liked the poems?” Ariel felt her face growing hot. She looked down at her lap, picking off an imaginary piece of lint. When she looked up again she saw Claudia was laughing.
“What’s with the shame? You’re alive! That means learning new things about yourself every day.” Ariel shook her head.
“It’s not that… it’s— how did you know? About the desire thing, I mean.” Claudia considered her. She seemed to be preparing what she was about to say.
“You know how they say ‘poetry is sex’? Well, Ariel, lets just say I’m well-versed in the different ways you can fake it.” Ariel searched her tone for a trace of smugness, hating the sincerity with which Claudia spoke. She felt her defenses rise, didn’t have anything to say to counter, so sipped her creamy café au lait in silence.
“You write well, Ariel. I always thought so. But empty words. Pretty. Sad. Self-suffering. You talk about sex and love and pain and sadness but you don’t understand wanting. You don’t understand that wanting is everything. It’s living.” Claudia turned the laptop to face Ariel. On the screen was a poem Ariel had written spring semester of last year, a poem she considered to be one of the most intimate and personal things she had written. Why did Claudia have to do this to her? This torture should have ended a week ago with their last class together.
The poem was about Dan, written at a time when every time they were cuddling at night and and she turned to him, or when he was leaving her bed in the morning for work, she felt and ‘i love you’ forming on the edges of her tongue that never quite made its way out of her mouth. It wasn’t that she had been afraid he wouldn’t say it back: she was sure of his love for her. She just knew Dan wanted her to say it first and she was being stubborn about it. It was agonizing, the sort of turmoil she knew to be the root of all poetry: these sad, faltering moments of hesitation that stretch infinitely, a looped space between possibility (i love you), and reality (falling asleep, front door gently pulled shut behind him). Nothing. She read it again: a poem in which nothing is said. Empty words staring back at her from Claudia’s screen.
“Tell me who wrote the manuscript. I need to find her.”
“Doubt, or the poet?”
Ariel took the long way home through the cemetery, alit was the possibility that Doubt was a real person. Why hadn’t she considered this? The air was muggy and soon she could feel sweat beading at her temples, rolling down her chest, making her thighs sticky under her skirt. Thinking about Doubt was making her hotter, sticker. She pounded the pedals to a half-formed mantra: love her love her left right love her.
With every stroke of the pedals, her weight shifted against the seat. She angled herself strategically as she climbed the cemetery hill, pumping hard to inflate herself with pleasure. Her underwear were soaked with a mixture of sweat and her own milky wetness. Only this thin piece of fabric filled the space between her clitoris and the leather point of her bike seat.
Ariel came as she crested the hill, her sudden, sweaty presence starling a group of deer. The fragile creatures froze, only their heads following her movement as she drifted down the slight incline toward the cemetery gates, breathing hard.
You don’t know me but I am also a poet. I received a copy of your manuscript and it touched me —
Ariel closed the email window after her seventh failed attempt to draft a coherent email or hit the send button. She pulled up a new browser tab and pulled up Craigslist. Ariel loved Missed Connections, loved being privy to this wealth of wanting that was going on in her city. What prompted the feeling that there had been some connection to start with? Strangers holding eye contact for a moment longer than usual? A wave? A few words exchanged? Her favorites, the ones she saved, were the ones written about women out in the world alone. A woman by herself at the movies, or sitting in a restaurant with a book, alone at a bar. Was it because it’s easier to insert yourself into an empty space than a space taken by another man? Is it easiest to project your own loneliness onto a woman alone?
There were almost none written by women. The majority were written by men for men. These, too, interested Ariel. They were so direct: I want to swallow your load, I want to fuck that hairy ass, I’d love to service that big cock. She tried the words out, saying them to her empty kitchen. Cock. Ass. Load. Cum. They felt weird on her tongue, so she said them over and over until they weren’t words anymore, just nonsense syllables repeated. And what came before this direct language? There seemed to be a secret language for men to communicate these desires to other men in a public space. The Missed Connections often referenced these markers. Even ‘discreet’ men are able to check each other out and, with just a look, let each other know they want it. Ariel tried this too, on her aloe plant. Then she got up from the kitchen table and went into the bedroom so she could practice in the mirror. She looked her body up and down, lingering on her breasts, spun around so that she could check her ass out and catch herself looking. It felt right.
Ariel made herself some tea and sat down again in front of her computer. Direct. Sincere. She could do this.
You don’t know me but I am also a poet. I was given a manuscript of your poems about Doubt. I would love to meet with you to talk about poetry and life and sex etc. Coffee’s on me.
Then she returned to Craigslist.
Doubt, are you real? I read a book and you were the subject. Practically a deity. If you see this, please meet with me. I want to know what it’s like to be you.
Dan came home late that night to find Ariel soaking in the bath, eyes closed, hair haloing around her pink face. He stood in the doorway of the bathroom watching her, not wanting to disturb her but wanting to take her in. Her eyes flicked open. He registered surprise on her face, but only for a moment. Holding his gaze, she lifted her hand from the water, drawing it across the two islands of her breasts, then down onto the half-flooded plain of her abdomen, into the seaweed forest of pubic hair. Her finger was a reef diver circling her submerged pearl, hunting it out. Ariel kept her eyes locked on Dan’s, her expression steady. She wanted him to watch only her face, to feel everything through her. This is my pleasure, this is for me, she thought. He can watch, but this pleasure is mine. She dove into her tight, underwater cave, forgetting to breathe, then coming up for air, coming again and again. She forgot to hold Dan’s eyes, closing hers. Her face slipped underwater and she moaned in air bubbles that broke over the surface. Everything was dark and warm and alive.
Dan was naked, pulling her up from the tub, carrying her wet and limp to the bed. He was hard. He lay her down on her stomach and slid himself into her from behind. Ariel was so heavy she could only whimper. Dan moved in and out of her and she was a sand bank, waterlogged and shaped by rough tides. She felt like she might evaporate or collapse into a billion pieces.
When Ariel woke the next morning, Dan was already gone. She was glad. She didn’t want to see him. She threw on a pair of leggings and a sweatshirt and walked to the gas station to get a pack of cigarettes. While she was walking back she felt a wetness in her crotch: Dan’s semen dripping out of her. She hurried back to her apartment and peed, trying to relax her pelvic floor and let the rest of it leave her. She wiped herself with her leggings and threw them into the pile of dirty clothes.
It was time to start working on her thesis, her own book of poems. She opened the folder of poems she’d been editing. There were 27 poems in total, in varying states of doneness. She wanted at least eight more. They were all feminist works that spoke about what it meant to be a woman, topics like body positivity and relationships and girl friends. She read through them again, making sure they still fit with each other. They did. They made sense together. But they didn’t seem to fit with what she was feeling now. They were too literal, not imaginative enough.
She closed her laptop and went out on the fire escape to smoke. Having read through her poems, she felt bored, but not undetermined. Cigarette in hand, she imagined again that she was a beatnik poet. Ariel would write like a man, feel like a man. Like the gay men on Craigslist, like Bukowski. Cum. Fuck. Ass. Cock. Pen to paper.
Thanks for reaching out to me. I would be happy to meet up with you, but it would have to be either tonight or tomorrow. Sorry for such short notice, but I am leaving the country for a residency on Sunday. Let me know if that works for you.
Diane was younger than Ariel. She hadn’t expected this. A 22-year-old kid with a bachelor’s degree. They met at Lili. Ariel arrived first and waited nearly twenty minutes for Diane, drinking her coffee too quickly and scanning the face of everyone who came in. Then this young girl with long, black hair burst in, looked around wildly, then came directly over to Ariel’s table. She threw her book bag down roughly and thrust her hand out at Ariel.
“Ariel? I’m Diane.” Ariel abruptly spilled her coffee.
By the time they finished cleaning it up, Ariel could meet Diane’s gaze. Two hours later, Ariel and Diane knew each other’s life stories. Doubt’s real name was Taryn. She was the first girl Diane ever loved, the first girlfriend she’d introduced to her parents, the reason for her coming out, the reason she left home, or rather, was thrown out. Now she’d graduated, published a chapbook, finished a manuscript, and was about to start her first residency in Mexico City.
But her bio could have told you that. More interesting were the way she gripped her coffee mug so hard her knuckles turned white when she told Ariel about her mom’s reaction. Or the way her hair fell in front of her face whenever she felt embarrassed about something she was saying and looked down, then brushed it behind her ears again revealing red, defiant cheeks.
By the time the café was closing, Ariel knew she was in love.
Ariel didn’t go home that night. She left Lili on foot and kept walking down to the button, a round, concrete platform jutting into the river. She sat there and wrote poem after poem, the words sparking more quickly than she could jot them down. The sun began to sink over the city; it would soon be too dark to write. She chose a flat stone from the bank and skipped it over the water, refracting low-angled sunlight off of ripples. Crickets were beginning to call out. A barge scrolled steadily across her vision.
Ariel put her notebook away, noticing her hunger for the first time that day. When was the last time she’d eaten? She grabbed some street tacos and kept walking down Butler. She felt like wandering.
Ariel ended up at Cattivo, a queer-friendly bar a little ways off the main drag. It was a themed night of mostly Beyonce music upstairs and misc dance music downstairs. Ariel plopped herself down in a bar stool and ordered a whiskey ginger. Chewing the end of her straw, she looked around. She wanted to kiss someone tonight. She wanted to dance against someone. She wanted to fuck. But she could be patient. Like a spider spinning an intricate web, Ariel would weave silken intrigue into her gestures, lines of sideways glances and hands on biceps with her pussy as a locus.
She snagged one near midnight: tall, scruffy facial hair, mid-twenties. His place was in the neighborhood. When she kissed him she could taste alcohol on his breathe. He swung his door open, nearly tripped over a drum set, then led Ariel upstairs to an unmade bed. She threw him down on it and climbed on top of him, kissing him behind the ears, down his neck. Slipping her hands under his shirt, she ran her fingers over his chest and lower back, then pulled his shirt over his head. She kissed his chest now, working her way down toward his waistband, trying to excite him. His belt unbuckled easily. He lifted his ass so she could slid his pants down and fit her mouth around his half-hard cock. It was so easy to make him moan, make him harder, make him want her. He grabbed at her belt buckle and she complied, yanking her pants down and clumsily kicking off her shoes. He slobbered on her labia for a while, then forced a condom down onto his penis and moved it around inside her. After a couple minutes he gave three short thrusts, grunted, then collapsed onto the bed beside her.
She washed up in the bathroom, splashing her face with cold water and watching it drip down her florescent-lit reflection. She’d drained her fly too quickly. Now she couldn’t go home to Dan and she certainly didn’t want to spend the rest of her night in bed with this drunk lump. She called an Uber and within a half-hour she was climbing the stairs of Club Pittsburgh, greeted by the thumping beat of Detroit house.
Wanting to wash the taste of his dick from her mouth, she quickly downed two vodka tonics. They glowed blue-purple under the black lights. She danced and drank, spinning herself against the mass of bodies, naked limbs, gyrating hips, the velvet wall with the grid of LEDs. Then she collapsed onto a chair and the girl from Mardi Gras was there, laughing at her. Or maybe it was another girl with the same hair. She had a cigarette. Ariel had a cigarette. The cherry fell on the girl’s tights. She was definitely laughing. She pulled Ariel’s face in and kissed her, or maybe Ariel fell into the girl’s face. They were kissing against the velvet wall. Ariel’s shirt was off. The girl was stuffing Ariel’s arms into her jacket and they were climbing into a car. More kissing. A couch. Hands. Sleep.
* * *
Ariel woke up at nine and hurriedly sent a text off to Dan: “Sorry I didn’t come home last night. I was writing with Rachel and then we decided to have a girls’ night sleep-over. Catch up with you later!”
The girl came into the living room from the kitchen and handed Ariel a cup of coffee, then sat down on the other side of the couch, folding her legs beneath her. It wasn’t the girl from Mardi Gras. She was too tall, her hair was too short.
“Sorry I burnt your tights.”
“Sorry I didn’t realize you didn’t… you know.” She smiled crookedly and held up two fingers in a v, then stuck her tongue out between them.
“No. Not really.” Ariel sipped her coffee, avoiding her eyes.
“My name’s Hallie,” she offered, stretching out her hand. Ariel shook it, “Ariel.”
“Ok, Ariel, do you want breakfast?”
* * *
Hallie dropped Ariel off a block from her house. She kissed her on the cheek. She had Ariel’s number; she would text her.
Dan wasn’t home, thank god. Ariel climbed into the shower and let scalding water hit her back as she stared at the tile ceiling numbly. Then she made herself some tea and crawled into bed with her laptop to type up the poems she’d written yesterday.
Dan found her asleep with her open notebook and laptop. He moved the computer and notebook aside and took off his shoes and came under the covers with her, curling his body around hers. She stirred in her sleep, pulling him closer.
* * *
Ariel met with Claudia the next morning to talk about her thesis. The new poems were about animals: jellyfish, spiders, sharks. They were about instinct: to eat, to prey, to breed, to survive. Ariel watched in silence as Claudia read through them, nodding at parts, underlining phrases, crossing out others. When she was finished, she set them down in a neat pile and folded her hands in front of her. Ariel nervously examined a jar of paperclips.
“These are promising.” Ariel looked up. Through the window behind Claudia she saw a plane cut across the sky, leaving a white tail. Maybe Diane was on it.
“I still need to edit them.”
“Yes, but they’re good. You’ve made some real progress and it shows.”
“Thanks.” Through the glass, the straight, white cloud grew wider, disintegrating into the sky. She finally had Claudia’s approval; she tried to suss out how she felt about it. Relief? Happiness? Was it a feeling she could bask in? Claudia interrupted her basking, if that’s what it was.
“Did you ever contact Diane?”
“What?… Oh, yeah.”
“I know. I taught her.” Somehow this didn’t surprise Ariel. Claudia’s tone when she mentioned Diane was motherly. She wondered what influence she’d had on her poetry.
“Two years ago. She talked her way into one of my graduate workshops. Very bright girl, a really promising writer. And so confident.” Ariel smiled to herself, picturing her bursting into Claudia’s office and demanding to be taken seriously. The girl was a powerhouse. Ariel sighed.
“I wish I had that kind of confidence.”
Claudia smiled, “I think you do. Just a quieter sort of confidence.”
“Thanks.” The approval felt real now, baskable.
* * *
Ariel was dressed in a form-fitting velvet dress, heels, and red lipstick that left a half-moon stain on the rim of her glass. Opposite her sat Dan in a button-down and suit jacket, beaming at her.
“Ariel, you look gorgeous.” She rolled her eyes at him.
“No, I mean it.” He was looking at her with puppy dog eyes. It made her heart ache. He’d brought her out to dinner because he felt like she was pulling away from him, and he didn’t understand why. He was trying to romance her; it was all so transparent. And it was kind of working. Ariel kicked off her left shoe and ran her toes up and down Dan’s calves, smiling at him sideways over her glass of wine. She would play along.
“Hello, how are you doing this evening – “ Ariel looked up and nearly spit her wine out. The waitress smiled broadly at Dan and Ariel. “I’m Hallie and I’ll be your server tonight.” Ariel arranged her face into the most natural expression she could manage. Damn, this city is small, she thought. She immediately ordered another glass of wine.
As soon as Hallie was out of sight she felt her phone buzz.
“Sorry I could’t switch tables. Nice lips ;)”
Ariel felt crazy. Throughout dinner Hallie with her adorable smile and perfect cheekbones kept smiling at her and she had to pretend she didn’t know her, wasn’t attracted to her, was totally absorbed in Dan’s talk and Dan’s enthusiastic questions about her writing. It was very distracting. She finished her steak before Dan was halfway through his, then excused herself and sent a quick text, angling toward the back of the restaurant.
“heading to bathroom. meet me there.”
She shut the door behind her and leaned against it, her mind racing. After a minute she heard a knock.
“It’s me.” Ariel took a breath and opened the door. Hallie came in, a questioning look on her face.
“So… are you here to chew me out, or —“ Ariel met her eyes and shook her head slowly. Hallie’s face broke into a wide grin. Then Hallie was on top of her, pushing her roughly against the bathroom wall by the shoulders. Her soft mouth met Ariel’s, her lips parting to allow Hallie’s tongue inside. Hallie was all over her, lifting her dress over her hips, grinding her knuckles against her pussy over her lace thong, her other hand over her breast, holding her back against the wall. Ariel kissed her harder, her hands wrapping around the back of her neck to draw her in. She wanted her badly. She reached down to push her underwear aside, but Hallie grabbed her wrist, then her other wrist, forcing them against the wall above her head. Their faces were inches apart. Ariel leaned forward to kiss Hallie but she pulled back. They stood there breathing at each other. Ariel stopped struggling. Hallie moved both of her wrists together so they could be held in one hand and with her other began to make slow circles on Ariel’s clitoris. Ariel tried to kiss her again, put she pulled away with a little half-smile. She was toying with her. Ariel decided to let it happen.
Hallie brought her to the edge of coming, then released her from the wall. Ariel thought her knees would collapse. She lurched forward and grabbed the sink. Hallie was behind her now, pulling her thong up over her ass. It fell around her feet on the tile floor. She felt breath on her lower back and two fingers sliding up inside her, finding almost instantly her g-spot. Hallie rammed her fingers into her harder and harder as Ariel melted into the porcelain sink, her mind screaming. In the mirror above the sink she could see her own reflection. She looked into her own crazed eyes and felt herself tipping into a sea of endlessly refracted pleasure. Behind her, Hallie spread her cheeks and ran her tongue down her crack, probing Ariel’s other hole. Ariel felt herself opening up, becoming a receptacle for a wanting so large she could not chart its edges.
Hallie left her on the floor of the bathroom. She straightened her apron and washed her hands for the requisite 20 seconds. The door swung shut behind her. Ariel wiped the smeared lipstick from her face and redid her lips, then joined Dan back at the table just as Hallie arrived with the chocolate lava cakes.
* * *
“I’m going for a run.” Ariel hadn’t even taken her coat off yet. She brushed past Dan into the bedroom to change into running gear and then burst into the living room and out again through the front door. Halfway down the stairwell, she remembered she’d forgotten her iPod; she would have to run without music.
She hadn’t run in ages and soon she was breathing heavily, her face red and sweaty. Without anything to distract her, her thoughts soon drifted to the tangled mess of intrigue her life was becoming. What was she doing? What had she just done? Why did she have to make everything infinitely more complicated? What was it that she really wanted? She felt lost and small, like she was being tossed around by some tumultuous current. But somehow she was also the current. She pounded her feet into the pavement, frustrated tears seeping out onto her reddened cheeks. Starting down Walnut Street, the sidewalk became an obstacle course of shoppers and dogs, strollers and drunk college students. She barreled through, keeping her head raised so she could look at each of their faces, so they could see hers, tears, snot and all.
And then she ran straight into Claudia, who was stepping out of a restaurant with another woman. It took Claudia a moment to recognize her in this context. They were both startled, but Claudia collected herself first.
“Hello, Ariel. Umm, this is my partner, Karen.” She gestured to the woman. “Karen, this is Ariel, one of my former students.”
Ariel wiped her cheeks with the back of her hand, but it was obvious she’d been crying. Then she held out her damp hand to Karen. Karen was younger than Claudia, and where Claudia was made of all sharp angles, Karen was pleasantly round. “Pleasure to meet you,” she took her hand and gave her a friendly smile. Claudia was looking at Arial sideways.
“Ariel, are you okay?”
“Yeah.” She shrugged. “I’m just working through some stuff, or something…” She trailed off, looking down at her sneakers, not sure how to continue. She could feel the two women continue to stare at her. She refused to say anything else; she refused to move from this spot of pavement. Karen put her hand on Ariel’s shoulder.
“Come get some dessert with us.” They led her to an ice cream place, sat her down, got her a sundae. Karen began to tell stories about their trip to Europe last summer: her incompetence at translating; getting lost amongst sheep in the middle of nowhere, England; clubbing in Amsterdam. She laughed at her own stories, an infectious giggle that reverberated off the walls. As Ariel spooned whipped cream into her mouth, she felt her mood lighten.
After ice cream, Claudia asked, “Where should we take you?” Ariel felt the panic rising. She shook her head.
“I don’t want to go home.”
She spent the night on Claudia and Karen’s couch. They made her tea and tucked her in with a quilt someone’s grandmother had sewn. She slept fitfully and woke early in the morning, before dawn, feeling young and vulnerable and a little cold and unable to sleep. She climbed the stairs and crawled into bed between Claudia and Karen. They held her until morning.
* * *
Karen and Claudia dropped her off at her house. As she got out of their car, Claudia stopped her.
“Ariel, if you ever need somebody, just give us a call, ok? Chin up, sweetheart.” Ariel nodded, shut the door, and watched them drive off before climbing the stairs back to her apartment.
Dan was on the couch, waiting for her.
“Hi. I’m just gonna take a shower.” He nodded. She took a very quick shower; she didn’t have anything to think about anymore. Then she got out, dried off, and went naked back into the living room. She felt braver this way. She sat down on the couch, leaving a couple feet of space between her and Dan. She hoped he knew what was coming.
“Dan, I think… I want to take a break.” She traced the lines on the fabric of the couch with her big toe, not looking at him.
“Like… break up, take a break?”
Ariel nodded. Dan exhaled deeply.
“Ok,” he said, smiling weakly.
* * *
A week later, Ariel had moved into a shared house with a couple of the younger grad students, Tommy and Jessica. She had a small, pink room with a bricked-in fireplace on the second floor. Underneath the window she placed her desk and covered it almost completely with plants, leaving only space enough for a laptop or pad of paper.
This new setting made her feel like she wasn’t accountable to anyone. Living with Dan, she felt like she couldn’t just enter and leave the apartment as she pleased. She had to always think about what Dan would be doing, planning things with him, telling him where she was going if she was going out. It’s not like he had been controlling, but it was natural to keep him in the loop. She didn’t feel the same way about Jessica or Tommy. Besides, they were busy with their own lives.
She found it difficult to sleep at night. She was out of practice sleeping in a bed by herself. She would stay up late reading or working on her thesis, then collapse onto her bed in the early hours of the morning and sleep until noon. She kept pushing herself later and later, trying to reach a point at which she was tired enough to sleep without missing him being there, but she was losing daylight.
To combat this, and because she needed the money now that she wasn’t living with Dan, she got a job at a coffee shop. She would get there at 5:30 to open, 4 days a week. This is what she was doing with her MFA. In a way, it was the best thing for her.
* * *
It was a Thursday and Ariel was sitting in the kitchen with her laptop, trying to fix a poem that didn’t want to be fixed. She got up and poured herself a glass of wine. She had off Friday morning and she was itching to do something. Jessica was home in the other room Skyping her mother. Tommy was upstairs. She went and knocked on his door to see if he was doing anything that night. She missed having a group of people to go out with. Ever since she and Dan started getting serious, she stopped going out at all, stopped seeing most of her friends from her program outside of class. Tommy told her he and some other grads were going to a punk show at Gooskis, did she want to come? She did.
Back downstairs, she closed her laptop brought it and her wine up to her room. What to wear? Smoky leather jacket, black jeans, t-shirt with the sleeves cut off. She pulled her hair into a greasy ponytail and stood in front of the mirror contemplating her image. It wasn’t right. Something needed to change – something major. She went back to Tommy’s room and knocked again.
“Hey Tommy, can I ask you something?”
“Can you cut my hair?”
“What? I don’t cut girl’s hair.”
“You got a buzzer?”
“Can you just cut it all off?”
“I guess.” He opened the door. She came in and stood in the middle of the room as he searched around his closet for something. He finally found a beat-up cardboard box and an extension cord. They brought a kitchen chair out on the back porch. Ariel took off her shirt so she wouldn’t get little hairs everywhere. Starting with the nape of her neck, Tommy cut Ariel’s hair down to 1/4” all over. She felt the buzzer snag a couple times, but other than that, the sensation was pleasurable. Like a massage.
Tommy finished and she ran inside to look at herself in the mirror. Staring back at her was the plainest head, a bare neutral. She ran back out, beaming.
“You like it?”
“Yeah!” Tommy laughed.
“Good, cause I can’t put it back.”
With her tiny hair, she felt reborn. She couldn’t stop running her hands over her head.
They weren’t leaving for another two hours. It was eight, the show started at nine, but that really meant the first band would start playing sometime around 10:30 or 11. Ariel felt restless. She tried masturbating, but then she came and there was still another hour and fifty minutes to kill. She went back downstairs. Jessica was done talking to her mom and was packing a bowl.
“Wanna smoke?” She did. Then they made some pasta with chicken sausage and kale and talked about embarrassing moments of growth from middle school. They laughed. Ariel felt happy. It felt good to have friends again.
Two hours later they were walking across the Bloomfield bridge toward Polish Hill. It was a beautiful, warm evening, the kind of weather that makes you feel more alive.
Gooski’s created them with a waft of smoky air. They handed their ids to the bouncer and then joined crowd around the bar.
And that’s allllll, folks!