By Steven Tagle
“I never planned to become a pi junkie. I never thought I’d become intimately familiar with the Holy Grail of geeks and math majors, or know that its sixty-forth digit was three. But handsome Derek made me learn it, digit by stubborn digit, as we raced up the stairwell of the psychology department each morning on our way to class.
“Let’s go, Sammy!” he cried, leaping over the railing and onto the stairs. “3.1-4-1-5-9…”
I hurried after him, clinging to the railing as if it were the lone cable strung over a bottomless pit. The staircase filled me with a continuous, numbing terror. The steps were made out of concrete, rectangular slabs precariously attached to a skinny white beam. As I climbed them, I could see through the stairs and through the stairs below them to the first and second floor landings. Climbing so high, so fast, activated my eczema. I scratched my arms for relief and focused on Derek’s calf muscles. They pumped up and down hypnotically, pistons beneath the skin.
“…2-6-5-3-5-8-9-7-9-3-2-3-8-4-6…” We counted between breaths.
“Faster!” he said, “faster!” He lifted his chin and swung his arms, coaxing numbers out of me like notes of music. Only Derek could make me recite sixty-four digits while running after him up a stairwell. As I trailed behind him, I thought once again that he should have pursued his master’s in drama, not psychology. The boy was almost twenty-five, but cute enough that he could still be immature and get away with it. Girls ran to him like well-trained rats, and he flirted shamelessly. I had known him for two years. The thought came to me often, flickering through my mind like some great accomplishment. Two whole years. My parents knew each other for less than a year before they got married. The first sixty-four digits of pi contained seven twos.
“…2-6-4-3-3-8-3-2-7-9-5-0-2-8-8-4-1-9-7-1-6-9-3-9-9-3-7-5-1-0-5-8-2-0…” There were ninety steps in the stairwell, each step—each gap between the steps—a little piece of hell. I wondered what the ninetieth digit of pi was. An elevator soared past us, and I could hear its happy chiming through the walls. It chimed to the beat of pi.
Some jerk posted a sign on the third floor landing that said “NO RUNNING.” It was shiny and new, with letters in bold caps, serious as a heart attack. I pointed it out to Derek to see what he would do. Grabbing the railing, he leapt onto the wall, tracking dirty sneaker prints across the sign. I kissed the “O” that his shoe missed, transforming it into a pair of thick, red lips.
“You’re such a beauty,” he said.
“Am I?” I wanted to hear him say it again.
He cocked his head at me. “For a girl.”
“…9-7-4-9-4-4-5-9-2-3!” I said. That was it. Sixty-four digits of pi.
“3.1-4-1-5-9-2-6-5-3-5….” he replied.
I grinned at him, and he grinned back. This guy better be worth it, I thought.
If I concentrated hard enough, I could remember snippets of our life before pi. Taking the stairs each morning was one of our pre-pi rituals. That, too, was Derek’s doing. About a week before the quarter started, he accidentally hooked up with Blaine “Rabbit” Crawford, a guy from our lab he found adorably repressed. I had never paid too much attention to Blaine. I only knew him as the Rabbit King, a tall, pale guy who studied anger suppression in bunny rabbits and said “obviously” a lot when he got nervous. He was a six, a seven tops.
“You should’ve seen him afterwards,” Derek moaned, nuzzling his face into the gap between my neck and shoulder. It was my first night back from a summer abroad, and we lay side by side in my bed, listening to the sounds of our new apartment. “It’s like I’m not meant to have any guy friends, like I’m unable to suppress the mildest attraction.” He hugged me tightly, and I struggled to be more present in his arms, to calm him with the simple pressure of my body against his. Boyfriends and hook-ups came and went, but friends filled beds when lovers were gone. “Why can’t they be like you, Sammy?” he said. “You’re more of a man than most of the guys I date anyway.” The guys he dated inevitably hurt him, and when he was soft and broken, he came to me. Consoling him was what I did best.
After he hooked up with Rabbit, Derek gave up the elevator. I didn’t blame him. Throw me in an elevator with one of my ex-hook-ups, and I’d scratch my arms off before the doors closed. When the quarter started, he somehow convinced me to join him on his morning aerobics, running up and down five flights of stairs to class. “Come on,” he said, “we need the exercise.”
After Derek crammed the sixty-fourth digit of pi into my brain, I lost the cognitive capacity for politeness or tact. The average person can fit about seven random digits into his short term memory. Sixty-four was a beast that had set up shop in my head. All this work for Mr. Pi the Pi Guy, and I still didn’t know any juicy details about him. We sat in the fifth floor conference room, waiting for Professor Owlan to arrive, when Derek prompted me to begin our twelfth repetition of pi.
“Tell me his name or get lost,” I grumbled. Rabbit crouched at the front of the room, struggling to plug his clunky gray laptop into the projector so that he could present his research on anger suppression. He got so adorably tangled in his VGA cable that I found myself completely unwilling to help him.
Derek swiveled his chair to face me. He didn’t seem phased by my demand, but when he opened his mouth, he broke into a smile so wide that the whole shape of his face changed. For a moment, he had difficulty forming words. “You won’t believe it,” he said finally. “Sam. His name’s Sam.”
I’d often fantasized about Derek bringing home a guy named Sam. “We have the same name,” I’d say when I hugged him at the door. “We’re like twins, you and I. Derek’s indispensable Sams.” If I could share enough traits with him, maybe he could share the experience, the feeling of being with Derek, with me. If Sam and I were close enough, maybe I wouldn’t grow to hate him. Almost of one mind, Derek and I had very similar tastes in men. Take Rabbit, for example. He was too tall and too pale, but not altogether unattractive to the discerning eye.
“So how’d you meet him?”
“At the café. Monday, after you left.”
“Monday?” On Monday afternoons, we had coffee at the Brokedown Café. We ordered Daily Dysfunctions, tripio espressos with dashes of rum. He always paid.
“I was trying to recalculate the figures for my grant, but this guy in the booth behind me kept spouting off random numbers. So I turn around, and I’m like ‘Listen, buddy.’ And this guy’s totally hot. Like in a way that represents America and all that.”
“Does he have good skin?”
“Well, he scratches, but you can hardly tell.” I looked down at my arms, splotched red from our run up the stairs. Where was my hydrocortisone when I needed it? I felt an instant bond with people who scratched like I did. Maybe Sam and I could share something.
“So when he turned to me, naturally I was like….” Derek let his jaw fall slack and his eyes glaze over.
“That good, huh? A ten?”
“At least a twelve.” He grinned at me. “I’m totally keeping this one.”
Rabbit was still fussing with his laptop when Professor Owlan came in, late as usual. I watched his cursor wander across the projection screen and toggle the volume settings. You won’t get sound, I thought, without an audio cable. What a space cadet. At the end of his presentation, Rabbit started his silent video and sat down next to me, eyes closed, passing a week’s anxiety. His rabbits twitched their noses furiously on screen, demonstrating “covert anger behavior.” Derek refused to take notes in pen; he stealthily reached into my bag for a pencil, but I kicked him away. I didn’t like people fishing around in my purse. Rabbit leaned over to me. “The screaming,” he whined, “you can’t hear the screaming.” He had a deep voice, deeper than you’d expect from a man who played with rabbits. On my other side, Derek hiked up my skirt and scrawled “Sammy wants Rabbit!” across my thigh with his pen. I laid a reassuring hand on Rabbit’s arm and laughed softly in his ear.
“Rabbit seems healthier,” I said, cleaning up after a quick lunch. The compliment screamed high school crush almost as much as the smudged-out pen marks on my thigh. Hoping that Derek would be at least a little jealous, I absorbed myself in washing plates, meticulously scrubbing each tube of macaroni down the sink.
“He’s not your type,” Derek said. He shoved a hand down his pants, scratching himself as he handed me his plate.
“How do you know?” I asked. People always hassled me for falling in love with gay men. They made it sound like I sought out gay guys to turn them straight. That was completely off base. It just happened that most of the guys who interested me turned out to have the hots for other men.
Derek yanked bottles of cranberry juice and vodka out of the fridge with both hands. The cranberry juice still had a red bow tied around its neck. “You’re going to break those girls’ hearts,” I said. The undergrads in Derek’s section fell so easily for his sly, boyish smile, his hugs that were warm and cryptic. Every quarter, they invited him to dinner in their dorms, and I made him bring me back juice mixers. He’d tell them that he was a poor grad student with a weakness for cranberries, then return to our apartment with three or four bottles tucked under his arm.
He squeezed a lime into my Cosmopolitan, licking the juice off his fingertips. “It’s just a game,” he said. “Besides, I dress way too well to be straight.” I pitied these girls, but mooching off their dorms’ cranberry juice made the drink that much sweeter. I could see what attracted them to Derek. In my opinion, he wasn’t really gay. He liked men, but everyone liked men nowadays. There were guys in our department who thought that being gay entitled them to high heels and a tiara. I liked this one guy in developmental until he asked me to help him paint his nails. He wanted to have a “girls’ night out.” After that, I avoided him like Brand X pads.
“Oh, Sammy,” Derek said, frowning as he handed me my glass. Checking my right hand, I discovered a large, crater-shaped cut in the dry flesh between my thumb and forefinger. A shiny film of plasma or something covered it, so I figured it was fresh. I didn’t notice it this morning, I thought huffily. Even with the ointment I religiously applied, I often scratched in my sleep.
“It’s because you never cut your nails,” Derek said. “I know they’re pretty, but guys’ll never notice them if you keep scratching like that.” He took my hand in his, and while stroking it with strong, square-tipped fingers, he held it up as proof. It looked a lot like a slab of raw meat with a French manicure. God, I thought. I hated the public nature of skin.
“I’ll pick up some of those moisturizing gloves the next time I’m at the store,” Derek said, sipping his Cosmo. “Sam told me they’d do wonders for your skin.”
“You told him about my skin problem?” Derek’s boyfriends entertained me like the characters on TV sitcoms. I watched them, but I didn’t know they watched me back. And even though Sam scratched as well, I planned to bring it up myself. Now we’d have one less amazing similarity to bond over when we met. My hands were getting hot. I absentmindedly rubbed my knuckles against the sides of my wrists. The noise it made was dry and comforting.
“I thought he might have some tips,” Derek said. I hid my hands in my lap and scratched some more. I enjoyed picking at the tough, tingling scabs.
Derek took our glasses, rinsed them once, and left them in the sink. “We need wooden hangers too,” he said. “For button-down shirts, Sam says they’re a must.”
It had been a long time since I last derived pleasure from numbers. I first learned about pi in the fourth grade, but didn’t really understand that it was a number until the sixth grade, when Mrs. Steinberger declared March 14 official Pi Day. She insisted that we memorize the first ten digits as homework the night before, and that day in class, she threw a giant pi party. She helped us move our desks to form that funny-looking symbol, and we sang our ten digits to the tune of “Happy Birthday” while we danced between pi’s legs.
After sixty-four, the digits came easy. Derek and I chanted them as we climbed up the stairs, rocketing to the fifth floor in a flurry of numbers. 3.1-4-1-5-9-2-6-5-3-5-2-3-8-4-6-2-6-4-3-3-8-3-2-7-9-5-0-2-8-8-4-1-9-7-1-6-9-3-9-9-3-7-5-1-0-5-8-2-0-9-7-4-9-4-4-5-9-2-3-0-7-8-1-6-4-0-6-2-8-6-2-0-8-9-9-8-6-2-8-0-3-4-8-2-5. We reached ninety digits, then one hundred. Derek became a math department groupie. He started giving his lab presentations without notes, spouting off percentages, correlation coefficients, and standard deviations like designer brand names. Sometimes I wondered how Sam rewarded him for learning pi. Did he round a new base at every hundred digits? The possibilities were endless. Although I wasn’t as good with numbers, I too began to crave them. One hundred digits were, come to think of it, insignificant in the grand scheme of pi. I wanted to know two hundred, three hundred. Pi held the promise of mastery and possession, each number offering itself up to be my next thrilling conquest.
The day Derek and I broke a hundred and fifty, we lay sprawled out on the fifth floor landing, struggling to catch our breaths. I now knew that the ninetieth digit of pi was a five, and could casually dangle my hand into the rectangular space between the stairs. The cold concrete tickled the back of my neck, so I inched my head up onto Derek’s stomach. It was only 9:22, the earliest we had been to class all quarter. Not bad, especially for a Monday. In two hours, Derek and I would be sitting down to our Daily Dysfunctions at the Brokedown Café.
“Sam says that pi is like poetry,” Derek mused, smoothing the wrinkles in his rolled-up shirt sleeves. “They’re both overanalyzed to death.” I closed my eyes and listened to him talk, imagining us back in bed instead of lying awkwardly in the stairwell. My head lolled to the rhythm of his breaths, falling from ab to ab. He was the perfect headrest.
“Hmmm?” At the moment, it was all I could manage.
“Is it okay if we don’t do coffee today?”
“What?” I sat up to face him. “What do you mean?”
Derek squirmed up against the railing. “Sam wanted to go to the Brokedown Café today.” He blurted the words out quickly, shutting his eyes in terror of me. Derek and I hardly fought, but when we did, I gave him a thrashing.
“Take him tomorrow!” I yelled. It made me even angrier that a part of me found him cute backed up against the railing, cornered, like a rat. I realized that I had been scratching at a dry patch of skin on my arm and scattering tiny white flakes into the rectangular abyss. Derek was toast. I leaned in for the kill.
When he sensed me near him, Derek pushed his forehead against mine and gave me the saddest puppy dog look in the history of the world. His furrowed eyebrows tickled my forehead. Though his face blocked out the light, I could see the line where his contact lenses separated the white of his eyes from the brown, and his breath hit my nose in cool, minty gusts. It was so close to a kiss. My hands flailed around wildly until I found the railing.
“Please?” he whispered. He looked even cuter when he needed something; begging gave him an excuse to flirt with me. I wondered if he thought I smelled sweet. Derek threw his arms around me and pulled me to him. We lay roughly horizontal on the landing, and he started gnawing playfully on the collar of my shirt. When his nose nudged my neck, goosebumps broke out like bad acne. I couldn’t believe I was going to let him ditch me.
“I love you!” he said, “I love you!” Now he was going on a real coffee date with a real guy. I felt so stupid for always pretending that our dates were real, that our traditions were sacred. We were the greatest things that ever happened to each other. Samantha and Derek. Professor Owlan even called us “The Twins.” I gazed at Derek’s strong, smiling face and inhaled his minty breath, thinking how little I had that was truly mine. He leaned in and planted a sloppy kiss on my cheek.
He didn’t come home until late that evening. I was reading Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams on the couch when he rambled into our apartment, slightly buzzed, his arms lost in the sleeves of his half-buttoned shirt.
“Hey beauty,” he said, “I got you something.” He pulled a pair of white cotton gloves out of his back pocket and thrust it at me. “Courtesy of Sam, eh? Eh?”
I looked him over with a prudish suspicion that instantly and painfully reminded me of my mother. “What’d you guys do?”
“Drank. Hung out. Made out.” Derek rambled towards me, but I held an arm out to stop him. He needed a shower badly. Sweat stains darkened the armpits of his favorite shirt.
“One of your buttons is missing.”
Derek grinned. “Sam’s fault.” Then he pushed past me to his room, slamming the door shut behind him. Minutes later, his nasal snoring filled our apartment.
I tried to keep reading. I tried to appreciate “The Dream as Wish-Fulfillment,” but Derek’s snoring was just too loud. After shutting off all the lights and appliances, I decided to go in and check on him. He lay on his bed, outside the covers, with his soiled shirt hanging limply from his arm. He had managed to get it off, but forgot that final step of shrugging it to the floor before he conked out. His snoring was unbearable. I knelt down at his side and tugged the shirt loose from his grip. The fabric was damp with sweat, but it wasn’t all his. Holding it to my nose, I could smell the odor of another man quite distinctly. It smelled too sweet, like a lollipop melting in the sun. I didn’t like the way it mixed with the subtle fragrance of Derek’s musky cologne.
Why hadn’t Derek introduced me to Sam yet? He talked about Sam less than he talked about any of the other guys he dated. I knew that Rabbit wore pink boxer briefs to bed. I knew that alcohol made him lithe and graceful, that I’d probably like the pale beanpole even better when he was smashed. What did I know about Sam? Zippo. So he liked pi. Big deal. He was still an abstraction, as remote to me as pi’s millionth digit, whatever it was. I hypothesized three reasons for Derek’s silence. Hypothesis 1: Maybe Sam was in the closet. I knew lots of guys who pretended to be straight while they ran around with other men. Hypothesis 2: Maybe Sam was abnormal. Maybe he was obese, or paraplegic, or a transvestite. I didn’t like Hypothesis 3: Maybe Derek and Sam are better off without you. Maybe their relationship is none of your business, so you should back off.
Derek’s snoring died down to a low whimper, so I turned to watch him sleep. He looked even more like a boy now. Sleep relaxed the overactive muscles in his face and drew soft brown hair down over his eyes. How would it feel to be loved by this boy? How would it feel to be the one he desired? I wished that for once I could be the one he talked about, the one who gave him pleasure. I could give him the best blowjob, I thought suddenly. Right here, right now. I glanced up at his thick, heaving chest and dared to trace his ribs with my fingers. Derek likes guys, I told myself sternly. He wants blowjobs from guys. What was so great about guys anyway? If he knew, I wished he’d tell me. I wanted to know him so desperately. I wanted him to let me in on his secrets. Being straight was so ordinary.
That night I slept alone, fleshing out Derek’s body with my blankets and sheets. By now, I instinctively assumed a sleeping position that accommodated him, turning on my side at the edge of the bed and bunching my down comforter around me to mimic his arms. It helped me cope with the enormity of my twin bed, helped me sleep.
I watched the shadows on the ceiling flicker as people walked by the streetlight outside our apartment. Even at three in the morning, there was always a handful of rowdy undergrads roaming the streets and laughing as they passed my window. My mind wandered. 3.1-4-1-5-9-2-6. My mom bought me a red leather purse when I was six. It was a rich, Revlon Red, like the lipstick when it’s first applied. I stuffed it with jewelry, Lego men, and fake food, carrying it with me everywhere. I wouldn’t let the kids at school see what was inside. Only I knew—I carefully handpicked each toy. One day I was chasing after my friend Jeremy and left my purse hanging on the jungle gym. By the time I finally remembered and ran back for it, a group of girls in fluffy pink skirts had emptied it out into the sandbox. They buried my Lego men in sand pyramids and served my plastic fruits to each other with rocks on plates of sand. The blonde, wide-eyed girls wore my rings and my beaded necklaces, so I screamed at them and kicked sand into their faces. I sent the sand and food and girls flying everywhere. Jeremy stood by the swings, watching me. He was my first crush.
I fell asleep without rubbing hydrocortisone on my skin. That night, I scratched passionately and woke up with blood stains on my pillow. My wrists were raw.
Derek was getting on my nerves.
“We need to pick up the pace on pi,” he said. “3.1-4-1-5-9-2-6-5-3-5-8-9-7-9-3-2-3-8-4-6-2-6-4-3-3….” We knew two hundred and forty-two digits.
Each number landed with a thud on the stairs in front of me and tumbled through the cracks to the landings below. The thought of pi, interminable and unwieldy, made the climb that much harder. Blame it on perceived self-efficacy or low self-esteem. For some reason, I just couldn’t do it anymore. I couldn’t remember whether the two hundred and twenty-third digit was a four or a five because the numbers sounded so similar, and when you recited them that fast, who could really tell anyway? It bothered me that even if I did recite the numbers wrong, no one would be able to tell. I could just make a sequence up. Who cared if it was a four or a five? It didn’t really matter. Pi stunk of infinity.
“Sam said there’s this guy in Japan who’s memorized 42,195 digits.”
I was so sick of Sam. Sam cuddled. Sam scratched. Sam wore sweet-smelling colognes and had a black backpack he wouldn’t let Derek into. But—news flash—so did I! I had the eerie feeling that Sam was somehow commandeering my personality to get into Derek’s pants. Our Monday afternoon coffee breaks were officially dead. I tried to be happy for Derek, I really did. But happiness was such an impotent emotion, such a lame reason to not be angry. Was Sam really that much more appealing just because he had a penis? Was this stumpy, unimpressive appendage really that important? There were differences between men and women, and then there was just silliness.
After we reached three hundred digits, Derek began sleeping over at Sam’s apartment. I stood in the bathroom for ten minutes that morning, wondering why there was so much space on the counter. It took me a while to realize that Derek’s essentials—his gel, toothbrush, and shaving kit—were all missing. That week, I took long showers and spent whole afternoons moisturizing in my bedroom. My pillow was a mess. I scoured the apartment for band-aids, and when Rabbit saw my mummified hands, he twitched his nose with concern.
“Rabbits,” I told him, “their rage was too great.”
After class on Monday, I stole a piece of chalk out of the conference room and started to write out pi on the side of the railing next to each step. 3.1-4-1-5-9…. I couldn’t bear to memorize another digit. This is it, I thought. This is the last time I’m ever reciting pi. Marking up the railing offered me little comfort. The spaces between the steps seemed to widen beneath me, as if they were being stretched from both ends. Then I was vomiting pi, regurgitating all the useless numbers, and as I stumbled from slab to slab with both hands gripping the rails, I thought of Derek and Sam smiling at each other over coffee. They were there now, sharing a Daily Dysfunction at the Brokedown Café. He probably paid for Sam’s drinks too. The empty stairwell mocked me. Pi wasn’t getting me laid. My bandaged hands were so stiff and raw that the chalk kept slipping out. Eventually, I pressed so hard that the chalk snapped in my hand. One piece rolled through the concrete slabs, and I got so mad that I chucked the other piece over the railing. I watched with pleasure as the two halves raced each other down five flights of stairs to the brown, pebbled floor.
“Everything all right?” Rabbit peered down at me from the doorway on the fifth floor landing. I didn’t even want to know how I looked to him—a crazy girl with bandaged hands crouched in the stairwell chalking pi.
“What are you doing here?” I asked.
“I just wanted to check on you,” he said. I was wrong; he was at least an eight. “Where’s Derek?”
“Not here, obviously.”
Rabbit rambled down to the step where I knelt, and I slid over to give him space. His eyes scanned the bar of white digits on the railing. “What’s that?” he asked.
“Secret code, huh? Do you have a decoder or something?” He was no fun.
“It’s pi,” I said. “Three hundred digits of pi.”
“Oh.” I could tell he had no interest in math.
“So you and Derek, huh?”
Rabbit stared at me, looking for all the world like one of his stressed-out bunnies.
“Was it good?” I reached over and gently stroked his arm, forgetting for a moment that my hands were covered with band-aids. Rabbit didn’t flinch. His skin was pale and smooth.
“Well…I mean, obviously…” He stopped and sighed. “Yeah.” Images of Derek and Rabbit hooking up flashed through my mind in graphic detail. I wondered if Rabbit knew about Sam. Suddenly, I had the most marvelous idea.
“Look, you want to get some coffee? I know a place.”
Rabbit nodded and took my hand as we walked down the stairs.
The Brokedown Café was the hippest coffee house in town. Its owners bought the place from a crazy old widow and decorated it to enhance the aura of neglect. On warm days, the café extended outside to an overgrown lawn. Word on the street was that the owners were against counterculture—and everything else. People were thrown out on a regular basis for being too artsy, too emo, too sporty, too prep. Derek and I got in because one of the bartenders thought he looked hot in leather pants.
I buried my head into Rabbit’s arm as we approached the café. Derek and Sam were probably still there, and if they saw me, I’d have to give up and play nice. I craved a Daily Dysfunction. It was a sunny afternoon, so Derek probably took Sam out to the secluded side of the house, the side with the dilapidated swing set that I absolutely refused to sit on. Flashing a smile at Brick, the bouncer, I steered Rabbit past the barbed-wire fence and into the café.
Thankfully, the café was full enough that I didn’t have to worry too much about being seen. Wiry intellectuals sat in the booths near the windows where Derek and I used to spend our Monday afternoons. They slouched in the overstuffed seats, studying their menus so intently that they didn’t even glance up when the door creaked. Through the grimy windows, I made out two men swinging high on the swing set. When they launched themselves into the air, the rusty steel frame shook violently. Bingo. I sent Rabbit off to order two Daily Dysfunctions and chose a table in the middle of the house, facing the swing set. Two years ago, the owners of the café smashed in one of the window panes for the waitresses to use as a takeout window. It served as the perfect peeping hole.
Sam looked nothing like the man I’d imagined. Derek described him as 6’2”, athletic but not dumb, but the Sam on the swings was a lean, delicate little fairy with ribboned blonde locks and a pink sarong wrapped around his waist. Derek usually dated effeminate guys, but Sam could easily pass as a woman. Dark eyeliner accentuated his eyes, and his lips were painted a suspiciously familiar shade of red. This wimpy half-man insulted me. I’d give him a two—maybe—without the skirt. He and Derek rode the swings so happily that I thought I was going to puke. Sam’s black backpack lay on the table by the swing set. He wouldn’t leave it in the grass, of course. Not if he was anything like me. I squinted to catch a glimpse of his hands as he swung by. They were blurred streaks that held the chain tightly, straining against the steel links. He let his feet hit the ground, and as his swinging slowed, I noticed that he did have the telltale red splotches. His hands actually weren’t much better than mine, and for a moment, I felt close to him. I started scratching as I watched Sam rub at the dips between his knuckles. Derek calmly reached over, lacing his fingers with Sam’s, and they held hands while they talked.
“Two espressos, coming right up!” Rabbit said. I looked up at him and smiled, hoping he didn’t call them espressos at the bar. His nose was twitching, so I could tell that the bartender gave him a hard time. He was too likeable, I decided.
“Thanks for inviting me,” Rabbit said. “This is…nice.” He squirmed around in his chair to avoid sitting on the nice metal prongs that pierced through his seat cushion. In my mind, I pored over the details that Derek told me about their hook-up. The scenes I imagined swelled goosebumps on my neck.
“So how’s your research coming?”
“Good, good.” He nodded amiably, as if he expected me to change the subject. “I’m trying to induce covert anger behavior with electric shocks. It’s pretty tough, actually. The rabbits enter this state of learned helplessness before they toughen up.” I knew that if I got him started on his research, he could go on forever without much prompting. While he talked, I shifted my attention back to Derek and Sam.
They sat on the swings, chatting up a storm as they rocked back and forth. Derek waved his arms around like an idiot, and then the two of them broke into a fit of laughter. I wondered what they were giggling about. I often found myself laughing at Derek’s jokes even if they weren’t particularly funny. Did Sam do that too, or did he actually think they were funny? I wished I could be the one laughing with Derek on the swings. I’ll sit on them this time, I promised him in my head. I swear I will. They seemed annoyingly perfect for each other.
“I’m actually starting to think that there are two types of anger behavior,” Rabbit said, “Covert anger behavior and overt anger behavior.” I nodded, hoping he wouldn’t ask me what I thought later. I needed my Daily Dysfunction right now. A waitress walked up to our table with two espressos. Like all the drinks at the Brokedown Café, the espressos were served on porcelain shards rumored to come from the old widow’s kitchen. The waitresses weren’t allowed to wear gloves and often cut their hands on the shattered plates. I waited until she set the drinks on the table and then sent them back. Rabbit apologized profusely for mucking up the order.
Outside on the swing set, Derek stroked Sam’s chin and slowly leaned in to kiss him. They paused, savoring the nearness of their lips, then closed their eyes and kissed tenderly. It wasn’t making out. It was much simpler, silent and still, the way a kiss should be. I didn’t know Derek could kiss like that. They twisted to face each other, ducking under the steel chains, which crisscrossed and groaned above them. The gentle rocking of the swings brought them together, and they swayed back and forth, floating above the ground. And suddenly I didn’t want to be there anymore. I didn’t want to sit alone and watch them through a crack in the glass like some voyeur. I wanted to go home. A new waitress brought out our Daily Dysfunctions. Rabbit gulped his down, so appreciative for the experience that he even cut his pinkie on the cracked saucer. I stared down at mine, letting its steam billow into the brass café.
I was mixing up a second-rate Cosmopolitan with the last of our precious cranberry juice when Derek came home for the first time in a week.
“I got these for you,” he said, waving a box of wooden hangers at me. He walked straight past the kitchen and into my room. “Geez, what a mess,” I heard him say. Then I heard my closet door sliding across the carpet and the distinct chink of my wire hangers as they bounced off my side table and ricocheted around the room.
I threw down the Cosmo and ran after him.
“What the hell are you doing?” I screamed. Cranberry juice and vodka seeped into the cuts on my hands, stinging painfully before dripping off my fingers. Derek stood by my closet, cradling the wooden hangers in his arms. Five of my new dresses lay in a pile at his feet. They were dresses I bought at the mall a few weekends ago when he spent the day with Sam in the city. I hadn’t even told him about them yet. I planned to keep them a secret, hidden in my closet on the off chance that he might ask me to the Winter Gala in January. It’s good to be prepared, I thought when I bought the dresses. Who knows how long Derek and Sam will last? I tried them on late at night while Derek slept. They still had their tags, all except for an elegant white dress that I fell in love with that day at the mall. It was like a wedding dress. Simple satin body, form-fitting and elegantly cut. Why couldn’t anything be truly mine? Why did people keep stomping on my secrets? Seeing the gown in a pile at his feet reminded me of my red purse in the sandbox. It stirred an impulse to destroy.
“You’ll love these hangers,” Derek said, “They maintain the shape of your clothes much better than wire ones.” I watched him dig my new white dress out of the pile and jam one of his hangers between the straps. He was about to stuff it into the closet when its label caught his eye and he pulled it back out to examine more closely. “Is this new?”
Black wire hangers were strewn over my bed and lodged between rows of our framed pictures. I grabbed a hanger off the bed and began whipping him with it. I struck at his perfect arms and his chest, hoping to raise welts under his thin blue shirt. “Get out!” I screamed. “Get out! Get out! Get out!”
His face froze in surprise and terror as I forced him from my room. I slammed the door and locked it shut behind him.
“I’m sorry, Sammy,” he pleaded through the door. His voice was horrible and small, but the pity he stirred in me only fueled my anger. It would take a lot more than a sloppy kiss to soothe me this time. Derek paced back and forth in front of my door like a child locked out of the house. I watched his shadow shift across the bottom of the door frame. “I saw you at the café,” he said finally. I sat on the floor with my ear pressed to the door until I heard him leave.
Late that night, I awoke to the heaviness of Derek’s hand on mine.
“I told you to wear the gloves,” he said.
“I did,” I mumbled groggily. “They must’ve fallen off.” Then I remembered throwing the gloves away the day I found the bathroom empty. I held up my hands and squinted at them in the dark. They didn’t look so bad. A little puffy, but nothing a dab of hydrocortisone wouldn’t fix.
Derek stood over me in boxers and a t-shirt that read, “Trust Me, I’m a Virgin.” I turned on my side, making room for him in bed. He slid in without a word, and I wondered if something happened between him and Sam.
“Sammy?” In the dark, he sounded like a kid whose nightmares had gotten the best of him. His breath hit the back of my neck in warm spurts.
“What are all those dresses for?” he asked.
“Rabbit,” I replied, grabbing a fistful of the sheets. I was too tired for truth. “They’re all for Rabbit. Every single one.”
“I’m sorry,” Derek said quietly, wrapping his arms around me. “I didn’t know.” His chest was warm and sticky from a recent shower, and when he pressed against me, heat radiated through my body like sunshine. This must be how it felt on the swings, I thought. His strong arms were smooth and fresh, and I concentrated on all the tiny spots where they touched my skin.
“His skin’s pretty,” I said.
“Your skin’s pretty,” he said, running his hands up and down my arms, “prettier than you think.” His fingers grazed the rough, red spots on my arms, raising wave after wave of goosebumps.
He nosed his way into the space under my chin and began to nibble and kiss my neck. Was he for real? I let myself respond to him, rolling my head up to expose my neck. I could smell no alcohol on his breath, and his stream of kisses flowed fluidly, consciously. I dug my nails into the sheets.
Kiss me like you kiss Sam, I thought. Kiss me like you love me.
The last time we cuddled together, I tried to memorize his skin, the feel of his muscles hard against my back. Now, the familiarity of his skin surprised me, and it pleased me to think that I retained some measure of his body, some trace memory of life in his arms. I could feel him pressing up against my back through his boxers. He was longer than I imagined, big for a boy.
I flinched when he reached under my shirt. I’m not beautiful, I thought. It surprised me how quickly and apologetically the thought formed. His fingers traced scabs around my nipples, cuts in the most private parts of me. I tried to imagine my body as he would, struggling to accentuate the parts that felt most masculine. I held in my breath, tightening the muscles in my abs. My breasts were much bigger than a man’s, and they embarrassed me. More than anything, I longed to turn around to meet his gaze, but his tight hug kept me pressed to the wall. I began to scratch myself erratically, seeking a rhythm.
I heard a rustle as Derek wriggled out of his boxers. Why wouldn’t he let me turn around? Why wouldn’t he let me see him? We won’t be able to kiss like this, I thought frantically. He pressed into me with quiet determination. The pain was overwhelming.
“Sammy,” he yelped, “Oh, Sam….” His whole body was set to mine, and when he quaked, I quaked too.
“Sammy,” I said, “Call me Sammy.” I couldn’t breathe.
“Oh, Sam,” he insisted, “Sam! Sam!” He plunged deeper into me, taking everything. And I could only stare at the wall, digging into cuts that were mine alone.
We fucked to a rhythm, and the rhythm was pi. His hugs and kisses were not mine, and the intimacies he whispered bloodied my fingernails. I would have struggled if struggling would have made him stop. The guy had stamina—I’d give him that. His t-shirt stuck to us both, became invisible with sweat. When he kissed me, I turned my face into the pillow, hoping I too could disappear. Pi was our mantra, our species of seduction. I mouthed it into my pillow, repeating the numbers until morning came: 3.1-4-1-5-9-2-6-5-3-5-8-9-7-9-3-2-3-8-4-6-2-6-4-3-3-8-3-2-7-9-5-0-2-8-8-4-1-9-7-1-6-9-3-9-9-3-7-5-1-0-5-8-2-0-9-7-4-9-4-4-5-9-2-3-0-7-8-1-6-4-0-6-2-8-6-2-0-8-9-9-8-6-2-8-0-3-4-8-2-5-3-4-2-1-1-7-0-6-7-9-8-2-1-4-8-0-8-6-5-1-3-2-8-2-3-0-6-6-4-7-0-9-3-8-4-4-6-0-9-5-5-0-5-8-2-2-3-1-7-2-5-3-5-9-4-0-8-1-2-8-4-8-1-1-1-7-4-5-0-2-8-4-1-0-2-7-0-1-9-3-8-5-2-1-1-0-5-5-5-9-6-4-4-6-2-2-9-4-8-9-5-4-9-3-0-3-8-1-9-6-4-4-2-8-8-1-0-9-7-5-6-6-5-9-3-3-4-4-6-1-2-8-4-7-5-6-4-8-2-3-3-7-8-6-7-8-3-1-6-5-2-7-1-2-0-1-9-0-9-1-4-5-6-4-8-5-6-6-9-2-3-4-6-0-3-4-8-6-1-0-4-5-4-3-2-6-6-4-8-2-1-3-3-9-3-6-0-7-2-6-0-2-4-9-1-4-1-2-7-3….
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