Words by Ezra Théodore Tillett
Feature image by Kaitlyn Davison
“Oh,” Noah’s mouth has pulled away from mine, and his hand is holding my chin, twisting my face away from him. “That’s dark.” His thumb strokes the side of my neck and up rises the ghost of his teeth from an hour ago, plucking my skin like a bowstring in his incisors.
“Oh, fuck,” I tug the shower curtain to one side and eye myself in the mirror. There’s a deep blotch settling just left of my carotid. “Why’s it so high?”
“Wear a scarf,” he chuckles against my shoulder, still loose-limbed and a tad uncoordinated from the activities previous, even though I’ve now tensed back up. He pulls me back into warm water and peppermint steam. “I didn’t know you bruise so easily.”
“Well, I did, I suppose, it’s just,” I roll m,y eyes at myself “I haven’t had a hickey since I was a teenager.”
I flick his ear when he laughs at me again and he says he’s sorry, but he isn’t really.
While he’s brushing his teeth, I slip into each of my collared shirts to check which offer me back a modicum of dignity. One. Noah comes back into the bedroom while I’m checking different ways to arrange a scarf to casually hide the stain on my neck and he eyes my lack of trousers. “Interesting look.”
“I look ridiculous.”
“Well,” he comes and gently unwraps the scarf, throws it over the doorframe. “If you go in just like this, I’m sure people won’t even notice your neck.”
I flick him on the opposite ear.
* * *
Despite the bruise humming like a sordid brand on my neck, the brisk morning means no one looks twice at my scarf. I rattle to work and back on the train without being bothered, my neck only prickling warmly on coffee breaks in the stuffy backroom. Later, when it’s blustery, I wind the wool tight enough to smother me as I lock up the store, every errant gust sending my fingers to clutch at the tassels.
The next day I wear the buttoned shirt with the highest neckline. One of my co-workers cracks jokes and the other casts judgemental looks between sorting stacks of new books, but it’s fine—I’ve not done anything wrong. By midday I’ve washed my hands so often the skin is papery. That’s just the dust, of course. My break times start falling naturally into gaps when the backroom is otherwise empty. The feeling of dirtiness subsides if there’s shelves to hide their eyes and my face.
There are drunken men dancing on the platform and my entire body thrums like a livewire when I pass them, half convinced they’re about to start shouting slurs at me. Once the turnstiles are to my back, monotony returns. Off the train at Central, two blocks South, one East, nose out of book just long enough to cross with the throngs at each intersection and board the bus. I finish a chapter and flip the page but before the letters register, a sudden barking shout from the farthest seats throws me back eight months. The words aren’t words anymore, my hands are shaking and there’s the carcass of a cry in my throat. My heartbeat is erratic; I can’t breathe; can’t think; need to undo my top buttons (shouldn’t have done them up) before I hyperventilate—but some part of me still recognises the reason it’s there. If I take it off, I’ll be too exposed, purple letter too dark, neck too pale, the shape too much like a target. Far more dangerous than asphyxiation. I get off early and walk the rest of the way home, armour buttoned up to jugular even after my breathing is even.
Noah and I go for dinner together. In between plates of nigiri, he compliments my turtleneck and is met with a scathing look. I do feel safe with him here, even if I’m overly aware of how close our chairs are. That night in bed I straddle him, and he cracks jokes in between kisses, until I forget that I’ve been upset for even a moment this week. It doesn’t take long before I’m naked and his boxers are across the room and he’s pressing up in between my thighs and I’m moaning, but when he kisses my neck, I scramble off him. I’m suddenly just sticky and naked. There’s a burning behind my eyes and in the back of my throat. When I calm down enough, I try to explain—“It’s not that I don’t want to,” it wasn’t anything you did, it’s just me, I’m too stressed and in my head—all just meaningless clichés, because I’m avoiding the issue. “I’m…”
“No, not that,” I don’t want it to be that, it’s not that. “I’m anxious, like, fuck, I’m so anxious. But it’s not even that it’s this—” I can’t bring myself to really acknowledge the mark on my neck. I gesture vaguely and then feel incredibly childish for doing so. “Like, I know I’m Out, but I don’t like to be… blatant.” I bite my tongue hard enough to taste copper and shake my head because we both know how it sounds.
Noah’s eyes are gentle, their weight on my face is soft, but I can only stare at his chest and the creases I put in his shirt. “We all have internalised shit to deal with,” he’s speaking oh so carefully. “It’s not your fault, and I don’t think any less of you for it. And we should talk about it properly, when you feel ready.”
I hum and squeeze his hand and let him kiss my cheek. But I still have to shower and cover myself in pyjamas before I can let him hold me properly, and I hate myself a little bit for that.
It takes a long time for me to sleep.
* * *
“Lovely view isn’t it?” She asks, oblivious.
The lady is at least 50, and all smile lines. There are faint wisps of grey at her temples, and something maternal in the creases of her eyes. I offer a quick glance out at the various shades of dry brown creek before it’s lost to a graffitied tunnel wall, then smile noncommittally at her. “I suppose.”
“Oh, reading, reading, what book have you got?” I thumb the page and lift it so she can read the cover. She tilts her head this way and that to read the spiralling text in a way very reminiscent of my mother, mouthing the words to herself. “’Allen Ginsberg’, is he any good?”
“Depends what you mean by good,” I say, and she looks lost for how to continue. A moment ticks past, I check my watch and feel something in me droop. I close the book and meet her eyes. “Long day?”
She is delighted to chat, and with thankfully minimal effort on my part, she steams ahead. I tell her where I work, that I’m headed to meet some friends, that I take this train every day; she regales me with tales of quiet rural life, how she’s here for a visit, her husband is back at the hotel, napping. “So, I’m going to see the concert all on my own—in The Big City!” She says it conspiratorially, quite the novelty for her. I ask if she comes to The Big City often, and she tells me her son lives here, so yes, they do quite often. Out comes the photo reel of a blond twenty-something with square glasses and a squarer jaw. She swipes through more than twenty red-eye spotted, blurry pictures, each with an enthusiastic explanation. “That’s all of us on a hike—you go hiking?” It’s a question but she only glances in my general direction before carrying on, “It’s nice you have so much nature nearby, I couldn’t be in a city all the time without nature… and that’s the view from Johnny’s building—he’s in I.T., that’s the 7th floor, you know—oh, and here he is with Marie, his girlfriend, she’s very pretty—do you have a girlfriend?”
“Ah…” How articulate. Why did she have to pause here for fuck’s sake? The discomfort is radiating off of me, but her face curious and waiting, innocently ruddy in the sunset. “Not… Not quite my area. “
“Oh.” She leans back in her seat. “Do you have a… boyfriend?” She holds the word in her mouth as if holding aloft a dead mouse.
“Yep,” I want to curl in on myself but refuse to. She turns back to her phone and keeps flicking through her camera roll with unfocussed eyes. I suppose we are done talking. The urge to ease her discomfort simmers in me, vying for an unwarranted boil. Not my responsibility; not my problem. Shouldn’t be my problem. The light is dimming fast outside the scratched window, the train is juddering over a short bridge and—
“What stop was that?”
I swivel and crane my neck to read aloud from the destination display at the far end of the compartment. “It’s okay, I think you need the next one, right?”
But the lady is staring at the place where cool air is touching my neck.
When I catch her face, it’s switching very quickly from shock to such a level of distaste that she can’t conceal it. The moment her nose twitches I know the direction her thoughts have taken and the way she looks sharply out the window tells me everything else. My throat is a tacky kind of dry and my face is prickling but everything else is cold. I wonder exactly what she’s picturing in her head to make her face pinch up like that. I don’t panic, because I don’t really feel an immediate threat in her disgust. I just let her leave without a goodbye and carry on with the weight of her revulsion still filling the air. It sinks past the skin and stains me without permission. It won’t wash clean for a long time.
When I see Noah again, we drink tea in the park by the pale blue phlox. We go to the library and when his fingers run the spines, they come away greyish. He leaves smears on every page of the stories he reads to me while sat in the section that smells like old parchment. We take off our coats at home and watch a film before bed. I don’t share a word, because I don’t want to stain the moment, and the stain isn’t the issue. I wake first in the morning having dreamt of pages overflowing with words and dusty fingerprints and wonder which is more eloquent. Ink is just as much of a blemish if you’re expecting a clean white page. Somewhen between Monday and Tuesday, the hickey fades to a discolouration so slight it is almost invisible.
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