John had my windpipe in his open hand, in the crook between thumb and forefinger. He squeezed and my blood throbbed against the resistance like an arm encircled in a pressure cuff. Or I was naked, under him, and he pressed the flat side of his hand against my throat until the room went dark around the edges. Or in the middle of the night, still bodies in cool, soft sheets. He turned over and put his hand on my throat without pressure, waking me with a shock of arousal, and then rolled over again, back into his own sleep.
In the morning, I drew the pleasure out into the mile-long walk back to my apartment. Smeared with spit and sweat and cum, blue bruises and black lace under my pea coat, I walked the more crowded streets on purpose. Sometimes I stopped to buy coffee. I handed crumpled bills to the woman at the counter, and then ran my hand over my stiff, dirtied hair. I was high for days.
We mostly saw each other in bars, before sex, and his apartment, during, after. We were not dating. We were not in love, though I did love him in a deep, grateful sort of way. We did not talk about things like that. Even when I was seeing Al at the same time, John only said: It’s just not sexy to me, which could’ve meant I love you or I want you all to myself or It’s just not sexy to me.
When I told him about Al taking off the condom in the dark without my knowing, his voice took on an edge of irritation. Standing in his driveway, he was in an intermural soccer uniform, and I was in shades of anxiety. He stared over my shoulder, past me. This, he said, isn’t what I want.
And so, in my new car, my first car, I drove Al to get an HIV test with me at the free clinic on the other side of town, and only slept with him a couple more times. When it was over, I wrote John on pale blue, handmade paper, quoting C.S. Lewis:
The full acting out of the self’s surrender to God therefore demands pain: this action, to be perfect, must be done from the pure will to obey, in the absence, or in the teeth, of inclination.
And it worked. We were naked again, and then dressed again. Come here. This time, his hands were light around my neck, doing something other than choking. He did not answer the question on my face. Let’s go. He took me to Petsmart and we looked at the wall of dog collars. He had been measuring me. We settled on thin, black leather with a silver buckle. I will keep that collar. My first collar. I will keep, also, the thin, black leather belt he used to hit me; I will steal it from him before I move to the West Coast.
As a child, I got lost sometimes. At the store with my family, I’d pause to look at something. When I looked up, I couldn’t find my mother or the man and their baby. I got lost most often at bulk discount grocery stores. I’d trace my steps back through the mortuary of packaged meat, speed up in the cereal aisle while Lucky the Leprechaun laughed at me, and then run frantic between towering shelves of canned tomatoes. A bird caught in my chest, flapping wildly; I went all the way back to kitchen towels, head turning side-to-side, scanning for them. I always found them eventually, my absence and wet face unnoticed. Sometimes I got lost in other places, too: in the forest of hanging cloth at Joanne Fabric, out alone in our neighborhood looking for the street that I thought might be magic with its yellow brick walkways, or biking around the cemetery.
I’d liked the other man more, the one she didn’t marry, a fisherman who wore flannel. My memories of him are few but warm: yellow light spilling into his apartment, spotlighting the wooden lobster traps in the corner. The “spring celebration” cake he brought me in April after I moped through my February birthday, wanting outside and sunshine for a party.
He was so cheesy, my older cousin said. He would bring oysters for dinner and waggled his eyebrows at your mom. But I remembered that the fisherman had given me a blown-glass ornament in the shape of an iris.
She met this man, The man, in a Jewish singles group. He seemed okay enough. When he moved in, he planted rows of butter lettuces, mint, chives. Japanese beetles were his garden nemesis. He hung strips of fly paper on the side of the house and the green-shelled beetles flew into them, stuck, and made a grotesque polka dot.
They got married and she got pregnant. Or maybe she got pregnant and then they got married, like my cousin said. At any rate, there was a wedding in the backyard. It was her second marriage. My mother wore a peach-colored dress. She wanted the man, and the man wanted the baby.
To get lost: as if lost is something you gain.
The only time they noticed my getting lost was at the beach on an August day when I was four years old. The crotch of my pink one-piece pulled heavy with sand as I wandered away from my mother, who was busy with the man. They were married by then, and she must have been about five-months pregnant, her belly starting to stretch against the Lycra, her breasts swelling under the plastic lace neckline. Next to her, the man’s body was a stack of rectangles and squares matted with sunblock and hair.
Maybe I was looking for shells. Maybe I was weaving between bright umbrellas like an obstacle course. Maybe a trail of cigarette butts lead to the concession stand where we sometimes bought what were called clam cakes in my home state: balls of dense fried dough, dotted with something that chewed like a pencil eraser between your teeth, usually eaten with dripping, wet, yellow mustard.
I scanned for my mother’s dark hair and suit, for the white shine of the man’s greased body. I twisted the crotch of my bathing suit inside out and released a half-cup of damp sand. I turned around and then around again, crossing the unmanned border from one beach to another. My footprints were a deck of cards, scattered and blowing away.
The day turned to dusk. I paced the beaches as if I were the parent waiting for the child to come home late. I would not talk to the sandy-haired lifeguard who finally pulled up next to me in an open-top Jeep as if to arrest me. I was silent when he took me to the lifeguard shack, shook my head when he offered me water from a red thermos, kept my arms crossed over my chest while he radioed the other lifeguards. When he returned me, my mother was scarlet-faced, humiliated. The man read in his beach chair in the fading light.
Sometimes John put the black dog collar on me; sometimes he used other means to pull, push, sit, crawl. Once, naked and thirsty, I slipped out of bed to get a glass of water from the tap. John came in the kitchen, already dressed again. He took the glass I had just set down, and slowly poured the water over the top of my head, down my back, my right shoulder. He turned and I followed him up the stairs.
A couple weeks later, I am driving home but not ready to be home yet. My scraped knees glow; the collar is warm on my neck. I circle the blocks near my apartment. Dazed and slow, I am going the wrong way on a one-way street. I hit another car, a boxy, purple SUV. My head slams back into my headrest. My body slams forward against the airbag.
The neighbors gather. The police come. The other driver, uninjured and angry, glares from across the street. I am not particularly hurt—minor whiplash and burns from the seatbelt—but I am shook, shaken, shaking. My muscle memory takes over; my feet find my way home. And then my body is in the shower. Scalding water beats down front and back. On knees, temple leans against the tile wall. Eyes follow water spiraling into the drain. Breath chokes on steam, and a memory surfaces: I belong to someone.
A rope lets down into the abyss, his name dangling at the end. I belong to John. My bent knees throb. I belong to John. The water is his belt pounding rhythms into me. I belong to John. I stop shaking. I belong to John. I am found.
Hope Henderson is a writer and scientist living in Berkeley, California. Her nonfiction has been published in venues including The Rumpus, Hobart Pulp, and Pidgeonholes, and her poetry has been nominated for a 2020 Best of the Net. Find her literary and science writing at hoperhenderson.com and find her on twitter and instagram @hoperhenderson.