I wasn’t trying to get his attention. He was a senior, and I wasn’t even thinking about boyfriends, not for real. Billy was delivering the line, “There’s only one thing that’s been in as many hotel rooms as I have: the Gideon Bible.” He looked around at the audience to accept their laughter (which you’re not supposed to do, as an actor, not that early in the play).
I was laughing, too, even though I only half-understood the joke. I wore my hair down (I hated feeling the bump of my ponytail against the seat back). I had on a black dress, because I was nearly a woman, as my mother put it, and I didn’t want to worry about bloodstains. Mother said that actually happened to her sister once, in public. Aunt Pietra had to wear a white cotton dress covered in blood on the subway all the way from Times Square to Columbia Presbyterian Hospital. Luckily, she worked in Emergency Trauma, so no one much noticed once she got there–and on the subway, Mother says, no one notices anything. It’s not as bad a place to be a woman as people might think.
I may have looked older than thirteen, in the black dress, with my hair loose and the house lights down. And maybe Billy was pretty high on himself. Whatever the reason, when he caught my eye, something hungry and electric passed between us, and even though his gaze didn’t linger, I knew. I’d seen him, and he’d seen me. It was on.
Mother had tried to explain this feeling to me, as she helped me into my black dress. “When you’re nearly a woman,” she said, “all that’s needed is your first encounter. Someone’s going to come along very soon, and you’ll know it’s time. You’ll feel something turn on inside you, and you’ll know what to do.”
At the time, I’d had no clue what she meant. But at Billy’s glance, that disorienting zing went through me, and I knew.
Sure enough, even though I wasn’t really looking for him, he found me by the bake sale table after curtain call.
“What’s your name?”
“Same as yours,” I said.
“Billy?” he said, incredulous.
“No,” I said. “Sky.”
He laughed and put out his hand. “Come fly with me,” he said.
I shook his hand. He was warm. Like most people I knew, he was lighter-skinned than me. Sometimes that makes a difference to men. Sometimes not. Billy didn’t particularly care. He just knew I was young, and impressed with him. He knew he’d soon come down from his performance high, and I was like an extra whiff of upper. A little something to keep him feeling good about himself.
Tonight, it’s happening again. Open Mic night at a bar on the edge of gentrified Newark. The singer-guitarist introduces her drummer as Hap. We all applaud, because he’s good, or because she’s good, and she wants us to like him, but it’s me that Hap notices. That look passes between us. Must be something about brown-skinned long-haired girls in dark dresses that makes us look like ideal groupies.
I’m eighteen now, passing for twenty, but that’s as good as twenty-one in this particular bar. I’ve been a woman a long time. It’s a hard, hungry life. The hunger sharpens my vision. I can see Hap much more clearly than I could see Billy.
I see, for instance, that Hap is not happy. He backs up a woman, on the drums. He never feels big enough. He feels like people don’t see him in color, larger than life, the way he wants. This singer makes money, and her money keeps him performing. If he could win by pushing her down and getting in front of her, he would do it. But he can’t. So he stays in the background, in unhappy grayscale. When the gaze passes between us, I know all of this, because of the hunger.
I know that he notices my darkness, along with the way my loose hair frames my gaze, and the way my black dress falls into the little “v” in my lap. He takes pleasure in my darkness. Perhaps it allows him to perceive himself, in grayscale, to be superior. He is luminously pale, under the single stage light, fading to nothing. But imagining himself with me, he perceives himself as ruddier, his blood hotter. That’s fine with me. Dream on, dear Hap.
A woman allows her partner to believe whatever he wants. A woman’s life is easier that way, Mother told me. I was wise to behave with Billy as I did, she said.
Billy was not rough with me, only insistent, because I let him believe I wanted him. Like I said, I was only a little something to keep him feeling good about himself. Had I tried to protest, around the shoulder he pressed against my mouth, it would have been a struggle. More difficult. His whole weight on me. My hands held tight in his, at my sides.
He was having a pretty good time, just before I broke his grip and tore out his throat.
He didn’t get to take me where he wanted, not quite. But maybe he died still thinking that he’d conquered me.
Maybe. I have no idea. The hunger only sharpens my vision up to a point. And perhaps the hunger doesn’t care.
Before the beginning of the end of the night, Hap and I take a selfie at the bar. I still have it. He’s looking off to the right, off toward whatever pleasure palace he’s planned for himself. He’s like, yeah baby, it’s on!
My face tips up at the camera, at that three-quarter angle that makes for the best selfies. Had he happened to look at this moment, he’d see how dark I really am, and how much more luminous than he. The camera sees. The selfie catches me mid-transformation, as my woman’s hunger takes over for just an instant. (In public, how could I let that happen? Just like Aunt Pietra.) One eye rolls up, like an angry dog’s. One cheek shimmers, luminous, bloodless. One eyetooth points toward my chin.
Hap didn’t see. Not in time to save himself.
I shift on the hotel sheets. The Gideon Bible resides in the bedside drawer, as always. Beside me, Hap does not dream. I let him pass out from too much whisky before I rent him open from throat to pelvis. The damp of the blood has lost its warmth. The drying bits are sticky; they will be difficult to wash off, if I lie here much longer.
I sigh. I delete the selfie. I shower, emerge clean of blood, and stretch out on the other bed, the one where Hap would have probably slept after having his way with me. If I hadn’t had him first.