by Gloria Zhang, October 10th 2022
If Robert was going to drown her, now would be the perfect time. Elsie was floating on her back in her parent’s pool. She heard nothing but her own breathing and even that was muffled, the workings of her lungs trapped under layers of water particles. Her body was so light in the water, despite the chalupa supreme combo from Taco Bell she’d just eaten. She floated as if there was no seasoned beef in her stomach. There was not even a body attached to her. She was just a head, bobbing around mutated in formaldehyde.
There would be no better time than now. She would never see it coming.
That morning she woke to a text from Robert. He had had a dream, and it was about her. ‘u were lying naked on the kitchen floor and wearing a christmas hat in a pool of blood i didn’t realize i had killed u until i woke up and remembered the feeling of plunging the knife in to your stomach many many times i think like 18 or something.’
If she ever dreamt of Robert, she did not remember. Her dreams were always too abstract for her to put into words, just discordant images of half-digested foods and unspoken prayers. But that night, while Robert stabbed through layers of her skin fat muscle and tissue she dreamt of a family of deer at her door. Elsie remembered the doe the best, most vividly. She was grooming the buck’s antlers, like a mother cat would to her kitten. Her tongue was pink and soft-looking. She licked with careful precision, getting in between the jagged bone without any shame. “What do you want?” Elsie said this, or the doe did, or maybe no one said it at all but she woke up with the words ringing in her head just as her phone buzzed.
Water broke the surface of her face. She stumbled upright, expecting rain, saw Robert staring at her from his perch on the side of the pool, his submerged feet both the guilty and the weapon. He had that look on his face, and then she had no room to be mad. Her brain began to buzz, reminding her of the psychosomatic sickness that used to leave her gagging on the sidewalk in front of church before she walked into confession. Her two solid feet on the ground brought her back to her actual density, and with it, Robert’s hurt feelings, the things she’d have to do to repair them. The problem was that she did not know the crime, and so there was nothing for her to lie in. There was just the pull of gravity, always and forever, and Elsie doing her best to float away on her back, denying it.
Robert was the most grounded person she had ever met. He wasn’t like any of the boys she knew, the ones who sat meekly in church but threw themselves around everywhere else, dicks out, desperate to be seen. He wasn’t anything like her.
In high school Robert said nothing to anybody. He smoked pot in the parking lot every morning before class. She would wake up an hour earlier for those fleeting few minutes before the students started slamming in, to hear the bass of his music from his car, to see the outline of his head through the smoke pressing up against the windows. It was just the two of them and the empty parking lot becoming a ritual of religious value. She imagined washing his rough-cut hair and feeling the texture of his tongue. She thought that the God that commanded his life must have been a kinder one than hers, and dreamed of knowing Him through him.
It was three days into their flirtations that he told her he believed in no god.
Elsie realized her whole life was going to change their sophomore year of high school, during Geometry class. Robert was good at proofs. He put the variables here and the solution there before she could even copy the problem down. It wasn’t his mathematical skill that made her want him but that he pointed out where she had gone wrong. It was at the very beginning. “You’re saying this midpoint is given but it’s actually not. Look here,” he said, leaned over, pointing, and she smelled his boy smell, like her brother’s smell but attached to someone she would marry, “The angle is given. The midpoint is your own conjecture. You’re two steps ahead. Start over.”
His voice made her take the command easy, like swallowing a big gulp of cold water to down a pill she didn’t want but needed to take. Sitting there, last block of the day, both of them sweaty from the promise of summer vacation just two weeks away, Elsie realized she’d been given a boy that would take every part of her. Her fears, her secret faithlessness. The shame in her heart that every confession only seemed to grow, rather than lessen. The way she masturbated everywhere, all the time, even at church rubbing herself through her ankle-length skirt, when she was thirteen and staring at the emaciated body of Christ etched in brilliant colors. That deep bottomlessness in her own self that no man had ever penetrated, Elsie knew it well. As she erased her previous work and wrote in Robert’s solution like a new scripture, she knew he would too.
Over the years she wondered if she had been a prophet. No one knew her the way Robert did. It was why he was so good at making her come and also forbidding it. Recently he had taken to eating her out, getting her there just there, then biting down when she was about to tip over the precipice.
The pain was not a turn-on. It was surprising, because she’d been the one to ask him to choke her. She’d bought the handcuffs, she’d told him harder, faster, harder. When she felt like she was dying the orgasms were more intense, sometimes so much so she would wail, blindfolded and bruised, feeling like a raw open wound that he held together with two pinching fingers. One morning she checked her underwear and found blood from an oozing cut on her labia. Still she did not protest. All she did was close her eyes when it was about to happen and imagine she was fucking him the way they fucked in high school. Then, his penis inside her vagina was a sacrament, a reminder that God hadn’t abandoned her after all. She wanted to live in that place where flesh and flesh joined together to make something finally real. It was the same place that Elsie stood in when she held her baby sister in her arms as the priest baptized her, the holy water dripping onto her older skin, birthing them both clean and new.
There was one day when he started going down on her while they watched Anthony Bourdain eat buffalo meat with old Thai people that smiled at him like they knew how he would die. She wished she had the chance to look at Anthony Bourdain like that. She wished she’d been there, in that hotel room, to slip the noose off from around his neck. Or she could have blown him. Robert always said that her mouth was the closest thing to God he ever knew.
Robert held her thigh tightly when he ate her out, but there was almost no oxygen in the room. She was fifteen again and Robert’s arm slung around her shoulder in the cafeteria was the only reason why she showered, shaved her pussy, ate breakfast, got out of bed, kept on living. “Let me come,” she whispered, tightening her lower half in preparation for the pain anyway.
He stood up and left the room. She was lying there with her pants off on his gray and blue bedspread, her nipples softened in the humidity.
Elsie put her hands between her legs and finished it off herself. It was so silent. Her clit was engorged but it was a different kind of hurt. Masturbating was worse, worse than the first time he bit her and she screamed, thinking he was killing her, he had a knife and here she was just another girl who would die with a torn up pussy.
It was worse because no one cared about her orgasm. Anthony was too busy waving goodbye to Thai people to look at her. It was the starkest punishment she had ever received. Now, Robert had his arms crossed, boyhood petulance, kicking feet spraying pool water to land on her bare arms. It used to be, when he sulked, Elsie could kiss him, tell him she loved him, and he would soften like a slab of meat left on the countertop on a hot summer’s day, frost shearing off.
“Come over here.” He sounded like he did when she had slept the night on the concrete in front of his dorm building.
It happened after she had tried to end things the first time. It was before he had started to dream about killing her but in the middle of the worst hatred, when he took to punching walls close to her face and leaving hour long voicemails full of panting rage. The break-up lasted for three tearful and terrible days, the fact that he was no longer able to love or look at her rendering her invisible. She stumbled around like a ghost, not sleeping, not eating, talking to and talked to by no one. She was like Anthony Bourdain without a New York slice and a bump of coke. She tried to go to class and saw Robert in every man taller than her. On the third night she abandoned the mantras that had since kept her upright, the affirmations of her dignity, the belief that it was the best for the both of them, and drove the twelve hours into the night to get to his dorm. When she got there he wouldn’t pick up his phone, ignored her texts. She curled up on the sidewalk in front of the door to his building and fell asleep immediately, the hole in her body already beginning to heal, the possibility of his presence a micro-dose which put her down quiet and easy like an old dog.
She did not dream. When she woke up, Robert was standing over her. “What’s wrong with you,” he wanted to know. “Are you crazy, are you clinically insane?” The scorn in his voice broke through her days-long fever. Her body relaxed, sinking into the warm and bright place of his comforting hate.
Now Elsie was cold, hair raising on her neck and arms despite the summer heat. She swam over the length of the pool that separated them, feeling like a stupid little girl kicking her feet in the water, until he was sitting in front of her, his body blocking the sun and casting her in shadows.
“I don’t know why you keep acting like this.”
“Like what?” she asked.
He didn’t answer. His eyes were so angry.
She wanted to scream. What he wanted was an apology but all she did was apologize. Her body was an apology, the site for a penance only she knew how to give. She confessed to him like he was her priest. She fucked him like she’d fuck Jesus; pleasureless, ricocheting between joy and pain and finally landing on pain, pain, everything was pain because everything had yet to be forgiven and yet she could sworn that was the whole point of this, the only reason why she still went to mass every Sunday even though she only believed in God when she remembered old fucks, why she had carved up her ankle after the first break-up and limped around for days, thinking Robert, Robert, Robert, at every step’s stab of pain.
She was not the son, the father, the holy spirit. She was the forsaken one. She would never see the body rise from the catacombs. But didn’t she deserve to? Hadn’t she washed his feet with her tears, then dried them with her hair?
Have mercy on me, a sinner.
She waded close and put her chin on his knee the way her dead dog Mimi, a small chihuahua with crooked teeth, would to hers. She’d pet the velvety head, taking care to lessen the pressure over the soft spongy spot at the very top of the skull. Elsie, with the knowledge that she could slip her thumbs in and end her little life. Mimi’s eyes, bugged out and trusting, almost purring from the affection.
“Robert,” she began, quiet, careful. Robert, have mercy.
The best sex they ever had happened after he’d stolen his mother’s company car and driven them both across the country instead of going to first period. For five days they slummed it in the Everglades, eating the guava and cheese empanadas Anthony Bourdain lived and died for. In that kind of wet heat he looked at her in a way she had never quite been looked at before, like she was the tightest ass in America, like she was a wildebeest running across the savannah, like she was the meat clinging onto a freshly hunted carcass. He fucked her against his car under her sundress and then she realized who had become her god.
“I love you. I’m so sorry. I’m sorry for everything. I don’t know how else to tell you I’ll be anything you want me to be. I would do anything for you. I’d die for you. I’d kill for you. I’d let you kill me like you did in your dream. I’d do anything, Robert, believe me, I’d–”
She had never said anything more honest to who she was. And he looked at her in a way she had never quite been looked at before, like she was a total stranger.
It happened faster than she could blink, her mouth open to continue her prayer, when he flinched his leg away and her chin, leaning its whole weight on his knee, slammed hard onto the concrete side of the pool. Pain burst in her jaw. Her mouth flooded with blood.
“What do you want?” the deer had asked her, as her throat swallowed a length of keratin. She was sucking on it. She was choking on it. How far she needed to go, she’d go.
Like a baby dribbling up breast milk, Elsie opened her mouth and a piece of pink tongue flesh slipped out into her open palm. What do you want was really, what are you willing to do? She looked up and Robert was stammering apologies. Elsie was willing, willing to do anything.
She had never seen him more clearly than through the worst pain she had ever experienced. He was not even a boy, just a collection of flesh color, sunlight backlit and every detail out of focus.
This wasn’t a test of faith. It was just her faith. She looked down at her hand. The piece of tongue she had chewed off was herself.