“Without much experience to draw from, I had no idea that friends weren’t supposed to want to crush each other.” A short story that chronicles a desire in its excess…
by: Sarah Horner
The habit started my first summer in Memphis. I was eight years old. Our new house rested just outside the city in a neighborhood with grass so green and flat it looked fake. There were hardly any trees, and when our AC broke in early July, my tiny shoebox bedroom began to boil me alive. Looking out the window felt like peering through the little glass rectangle in an oven, only in this case, the outside was nearly as hot as the inside.
With no artificial way to escape the heat, I forged my own refuge by making a stick fort next to the stream a few blocks away. I liked to pretend I was an animal who burrowed itself into the earth, using only mud as an antidote to the sun’s hot glare. I would camp out there all day, palming through comic books, playing checkers with myself, and sucking on sour jawbreakers. Frogs croaked out songs from the murky water. I watched their throats pulse and expand from my spot on the ground, made more comfortable with a strawberry-stained gingham blanket I took from the trunk of my mom’s car.
One evening, walking home, I spotted a boy laying on his front lawn in swim trunks. Until then, I hadn’t seen any other children my age in the neighborhood. There were speeding teenagers and wailing babies, but nothing in between. The boy eyed me as I walked by, the snapping of my flip-flops backtracked by screaming cicadas. He, like me, was covered in dirt.
“Hey, have you ever seen a doodlebug?” he asked me. I stopped walking and shook my head. He motioned for me to come closer.
“They dig pits in the dirt to trap ants, then grab them with their pincers and suck out their guts for food. Look.” He pointed to a circular hole in between patches of burnt grass. It reminded me of the spiral wishing well at the zoo where you inserted a coin and watched it spin further and further until eventually it was gone. I looked back at the boy. A constellation of freckles was splattered on his nose like paint.
“Well, I know there’s nothing in there now, but that’s because it’s hiding, waiting for its prey. Cool, right?”
“My name’s Chase. What’s yours?” He stuck out his hand, which I shook hesitantly.
Chase and I played together for the rest of the summer. Both my parents and his worked during the week, leaving us unsupervised to do what we pleased. Most days, I rose with the sun and packed us picnic lunches of PB&J, potato chips, applesauce, and juice boxes. I invited him to my fort by the stream, letting him carve his name next to mine in the tree that held up the sheltering sticks. Eventually, he was no longer a guest, but a resident, just like me.
I was overjoyed to have someone to share things with. My previous summers had been lonely ones spent at daycare or in my family’s old apartment, watching from the third floor as the other kids played in the courtyard. We moved around a lot, and it was difficult for me to make and keep friends. Chase was the first person I connected with in many years, and because of this, I felt like I was choking on my affection for him. I wanted to grab his little wrists and squeeze, leaving a mark on his skin so he could never forget about me. Without much experience to draw from, I had no idea that friends weren’t supposed to want to crush each other.
On a rainy day, I went over to his house to watch Madagascar. Content with simply being in his presence, I didn’t tell Chase that I was uninterested in vivacious hippos and giraffes with hypochondria. Instead, I watched him out of the corner of my eye, then mirrored his reactions at the appropriate moment. When he laughed loudly, his lips separated to reveal a big gap where his front tooth should be. I chuckled along with him, but my voice sounded hollow, like I was hearing it from another room. An unfamiliar pang hit the wall of my stomach. I liked him so much. I felt as if something feral was lodged in my chest cavity, trying to claw its way out by any means possible. As I shifted closer and closer to Chase, I prayed my movements were subtle. But even if I leaped toward him with limbs flailing, it wouldn’t have made a difference — he was so entranced by the screen it was like I wasn’t there.
Before I really knew what I was doing, I leaned into his neck, my mouth lined up perfectly with the soft spot under his ear. I bared my teeth and took a bite, gently at first, then added more pressure. There wasn’t time to linger in the feeling, but I was astonished by how pacified I felt. I couldn’t register anything other than how close we were at that moment, linked together in a way I found undeniable.
“Ow!” Chase said, pulling away from me. He seemed more confused than afraid, touching the spot I had bitten. When he registered the blood on his hand and me, mouth still slightly ajar, his eyes grew panicked.
“What did you do? What’s wrong with you?” He jumped up from the couch as I cowered in the cushions like a frightened dog.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to! I was just…”
“You freak! You bit me!”
Yes, I thought, I bit him. Why did I bite him?
“Get out of my house! I’m telling my parents. What is wrong with you?”
Brain blurry, I got up and went to the door. I didn’t even bother putting on my shoes, just grabbed the tattered sneakers and ran home, feet splashing in the rainwater collected by the curb.
Chase and I weren’t friends after that. I never walked by his house again, and I only went back to the fort to knock it down. My embarrassment colored my life shades of red. The glow in my cheeks, the swimsuit-shaped sunburn on my shoulders, the blood from sticks scraping my skin — all of it reminded me of what I had done. And though I knew I should’ve felt remorse for hurting Chase, my overwhelming emotion was not regret, but longing. I wanted more. For this, I felt guilty, but I was also strangely energized by my newfound desire. I kept thinking about how it felt to touch him like that, to be close enough to taste him. It was a fleshy and wonderful indulgence I had never before thought I could have.
The second boy was named Isaiah. We were in the fifth grade. For months, he had been bothering me, teasing me the way boys did when they liked you. That was what my father told me.
“If a boy’s mean to a girl, he’s got a crush on her,” he said when I complained about Isaiah calling me an ugly grandma, or kicking me through the cutout on the back of my chair during class, or stealing food from my lunchbox in the cafeteria.
“I hate him. He’s so annoying,” I insisted.
But once I thought there was a chance Isaiah liked me, I began to see him differently. I realized that maybe any attention, even teasing, was better than no attention.
Wanting to stand out from the other girls in my class, I tried being mean back. I tripped him during gym class and made him spill his milk at lunch, then offered him my own sweatshirt so he could cover up. My hope was that his scent would get tangled up in the fabric and when he returned it to me at the end of the day, I would have a little memento of him, maybe even a few of his hairs — but he declined and changed in the nurse’s office instead. I thought he looked dashing, even in the communal emergency basketball shorts that had certainly once been covered in vomit.
He and I were sitting side by side in the hallway with our backs pressed against the brick wall when it happened. We were something like friends at the time, working together on a math assignment neither of us understood. Our workbooks were resting on our knees. I watched him try to solve the word problem, his nose scrunched up close to the paper. It was endearing. He had finally started to let his guard down around me, losing the tough-boy act, and that made me feel special.
“How did you do that?” I asked, eyeing his completed long-division equation.
“I’m not sure if it’s right.”
“It’s better than what I’ve got. Which is nothing.”
Isaiah reached over and started drawing out the equation on my paper: dividend quotient divisor. He was close enough that I could see each of the fine little hairs that covered his arm. It reminded me of the fuzzy skin on a fruit. I felt the urge building in my chest, like it was a sneeze I had to let out. When he shifted slightly to get a better angle for his pencil, I took the movement as an invitation and clamped the O of my mouth just above his elbow, tasting the pure boyish skin. Isaiah’s was different than Chase’s had been — more earthy, like the forest during a storm. His turbulence took root in his flesh. I felt his hand on the side of my face. At the time, my brain registered it as a caress, a confirmation of our growing intimacy. It was only after the fact that I realized it was a slap.
My teacher told my parents I bit one of my classmates and they were briefly baffled.
“I mean, what the hell, Cassie?”
“You haven’t bitten anyone since you were breastfed — nearly took off my nipple with your little teeth, might I add. Hopefully that poor boy had his shirt on.”
I got grounded for a week, but my mom and dad never brought up the incident again. I let them believe it was an act of aggression brought on by Isaiah’s teasing, even though by that point, I knew it was something entirely different. It was confusing. I failed to understand how this me and the other me — the one who liked to play Nintendo with my dad on Saturday mornings, who adults always called quiet, who delicately removed bugs from the house in cupped hands rather than killing them — were the same. The “main” me would never be so out-of-control, so ferocious.
My sense of self began to blur, and I wasn’t as quick to kick my habit as my parents were to forgive. The urge only got worse as my body rounded out. My first period came when I was twelve. The sticky blood made me angry and desperate. Like with food, it took more and more attention for me to be satisfied. There were several other boys, including:
- A Polish boy named Antoni I met at summer camp when I was thirteen (We hid out in a cabin that stunk of damp wood and puberty, kissing while the other kids dug worms from the ground for fishing. His tongue was wet and moldy, but I liked it so much that I couldn’t stop myself from breaking it open)
- A boy, older than me, who invited my friends and me to a party, then got us drunk on cheap Coronas (In the bedroom, me loose and dizzy, barely fifteen — I am glad, in retrospect, that my teeth took him out before he took from me)
- Colin, my junior year prom date who later spread the rumor I had a weird, animal fetish for fingers (I bit his hand when he was stroking my hair, us intertwined on the sweaty basketball court/dance floor)
- Joe from the drumline, who messily took my virginity on my parents’ peeling leather couch (It was so uncomfortable that the urge was subdued until a later date, when I had a bite of his shoulder from the passenger seat in his Chevy)
Word got around, eventually, that I was a whore, a kink-fueled freak, a wolf-girl, a vengeful misandrist. Girls stayed away from me; boys poked me with a stick, hoping for a reaction I’d never give them. I knew they wanted me to lose control, to tear up the dusty carpet and howl with its limp remains in my mouth. I knew they saw me as wild.
But they didn’t understand; I was not a violent girl. My mouth acted out of hunger, of pure, white-hot want. There was some toothy part of me that longed to savor these boys, to take their soft parts and brand them with my tongue. I wanted so badly to split open their skin, suck out their masculine nonchalance, and use it for myself so I could, for once, feel fully satiated instead of walking around waned, my clothes soggy with desire. Desperation dripped off me and I thought to myself, this is why no one will ever stay. My craving for closeness was so carnal that it couldn’t be tamed and it scared them.
It scared me a little too.
By the time I left for college, I was thrilled at the prospect of leaving my feral self behind. I moved away from the South and its humid drawl, trading Tennessee suburbs for the beating heart of Boston. The coastal city was foreign to me. Used to being landlocked, I felt equally free and frightened by my proximity to the ocean.
For a while, my gluttonous habit felt successfully contained. I consumed modest amounts of food, liquor, and pleasure. I made friends. We spent Friday nights cramped in neon-lit rooms that smelled of smoke and sick. I hooked up with boys that would barely even touch my body before entering me. Afterward, they would throw away the condom and leave me to clean up, washing my sheets in the dorm laundry room and scrubbing my skin in the communal showers. As the hot water scalded me, I would touch myself furiously, hoping to feel some sense of release — but the climax would never come.
I began seeing the graduate TA from my philosophy class, Mitchell, several months into my sophomore year. We first talked over coffee when I said I needed help differentiating realism from pragmatism. He was well-built and smart and had a tattoo on his bicep. At this point, I was so desperate for his attention that I didn’t care how blatantly I came on to him. Everything about him made my body buzz. The imbalanced power dynamic between us, no matter how slight, turned me on. I was tired of skinny boys my age whose hesitation was palpable in the way they moved, the way they spoke. They dulled me.
We almost always met up at his place. I would take the bus there in the dark after my evening class, one of only a few people on board, watching the city quiet down through the dirty window. Mitchell’s apartment was cramped but homey. There were empty bottles of liquor functioning as decor, ceramic bowls with fruit in them, vintage band posters on the walls, and unshelved books stacked in every corner, which I liked to analyze when he wasn’t looking. Sometimes I took one and buried it in my bag to read when I got home. If he noticed, he never said anything.
He fucked me the way I’d always wanted, with control and vigor, edging me toward something monumental. I found him reaching an untouched part of me, scratching an itch nothing else had ever come close to. We left marks on each other’s skin, the indent of his fingers decorating my ribcage like ornaments, my mouth stamping spots on his chest. My appetite didn’t frighten him — if anything, he encouraged it, obliging with everything I asked for. I felt reborn, rejuvenated. I imagined myself a freshly birthed creature, just breaking through the amniotic membrane that had encased me all this time, preventing me from really experiencing the profuse, tangible, undeniable ecstasy our bodies can provide. I knew the high was temporary, but, determined to make the best of it, I gave myself up entirely to the feeling.
I was in bed reading when Mitchell texted me and asked to come by after he left work that evening. Eager but embarrassed by my apartment’s troubling, decrepit state, I tried to make the space more hospitable by turning the lamps on and the ceiling light off, pushing my dirty clothes into the closet, and pouring two glasses of red wine, which I set on the coffee table. My heart did somersaults in my chest. I pictured it rolling down a hill, gathering more and more momentum as it approached the bottom.
When he arrived, he was dressed in dark brown jeans, a plain white shirt, and a tan collared jacket. He smelled like moss and leather. Immediately intoxicated, I kissed him while greedily fumbling with the zipper on his pants. My knees met the ground. I was desperate to get as much of him in my mouth as possible.
“Wait,” he said. “Slow down.”
I looked up. Even from this angle, his beauty was palpable. I could see flecks of stubble tucked in the shadow of his chin and the sharp peak of his Adam’s apple, which vibrated under his skin like something alive. He was glorious to me. I felt as if I were worshipping a large, carefully crafted statue — a work of art akin to the godly sculptures carved by Phidias.
He removed my hands from him and refastened his belt. “Cass, I’ve been wanting to talk to you,” he said, gesturing for me to join him on the couch.
My stomach dropped. What was he doing? I shuffled through my memories, struggling to find one to explain this sudden seriousness. I had been so good. He fidgeted with his hands, like he was trying to pluck out words from the space between fingers.
“I don’t think we should see each other anymore.”
I was silent enough to hear the nausea welling up in my throat. I thought I would choke.
“Where is this coming from?” I asked.
“It’s just…it’s unfair to keep going like this when we both know we’re headed nowhere. We want different things from each other.”
“No, we don’t. I know what I want. What do you want?”
“I want that too,” I said, lying through my teeth. I would’ve said anything to get him to stay.
“I don’t think you do.” He put his hand on my knee, then started saying something about how young I was, how I had so many exciting things ahead of me, how he had really enjoyed the time we spent together but it was best that we both moved on now. “It just feels weird to fuck around like this with a twenty-year-old.”
“So I’m too young for you? That’s the problem?”
“It’s not just…you’re in this way deeper than I am. I’ve tried to be transparent with you, to set boundaries and tell you exactly what I want from this, but I feel like you don’t even hear me. It’s like talking to a wall.”
For a moment, his face was unfamiliarly hard, like it was frozen in tandem with my sore, swollen heart. But then it softened again and he touched my hair and told me he was sorry.
“I really think it’s for the best.”
I took a breath, willing myself to remain composed. It was almost crueler how kind he was being, how half-hearted his letting go was. If I had really meant something to him, he’d feel more. He’d be on fire.
“Please,” I said. “I’m sorry.”
He opened his mouth, shook his head. We were still. I tried to kiss him, stupidly, and he turned away once, twice, before finally allowing me a mouthful of mustache. “Please, let me have you. Just one more time. Then that’s it, I promise.” He relaxed a little, as if he were forfeiting. “I promise.” Our defeated bodies still wanted each other.
I fingered the soft spot on the back of his neck, felt his pulse on my palm. He was warm, alive — more alive than me, than I ever had been. I wanted to burrow into his skin. When he touched me inside my jeans, I cracked open, felt the sensation of my body splitting in two to make room for his. It was almost too much, me and him — it was wonderful and harrowing and ferocious and…
“Fuck!” he said, pushing me away. I startled, my mouth unlatched, dripping. He clutched the spot I had bitten. “What the hell was that?”
“I thought you liked it when I…”
“Jesus, Cassandra, not like this!”
I looked down. The wound was deeper than I meant it to be. I could see his pink flesh catch the light from inside the uneven holes my teeth had made. I got carried away. I always get carried away. The small crater on his stomach oozed blood, which he tried to stop with a t-shirt that had been laying on the floor. It was my pajama shirt, the one that said NEED. MORE. SLEEP in thick serif letters — an ironic gift from a friend.
“You’re fucking crazy,” he said. “This is what I was talking about. You never know when to quit. You’re like, some sort of parasite. You latch onto people and leech off them because you have no self-sufficiency. I don’t know how you’re not embarrassed about the way you behave. You’re draining, Cassandra. Literally! I mean, what are you, some kind of sadist? I have a fucking hole in my stomach! Does this turn you on? Does it make you feel good?”
“No,” I whimpered. “I’m sorry, I…”
“I don’t wanna hear it. Stay the fuck away from me.”
My face was wet. I watched him as he got ready to leave for the last time, pulling clothes over his body, that wonderful body I had given so much. It made me sick to imagine the relief he must’ve felt to finally have an irrefutable excuse to abandon me. Deep red blurred my vision. How could he? How could he be so unaffected by our ending after the magic we had made? I did not understand the ability to compartmentalize attraction — emotional, physical, intellectual — all of it got blended up in my brain until it was one hardened glob of longing, too powerful and cannibalistic to subdue. I was tired of trying to domesticate the animal inside me. I was tired.
I reached Mitchell by the front door, his back bent down as he laced up his shoes. My limbs moved without me, silently, cutting through the air in quick, precise motions. The merlot’s neck was choked in my hand. When the bottle met his head, it shattered into a thousand tiny mirrors, reflecting the scene from a kaleidoscope of angles. Blood-red liquid pooled around his outline. My breath was warm and heavy in my throat.
How can I explain it?
I had to learn to feed myself.
Sarah Horner is a poet and writer whose work explores themes such as femininity and mental illness. She currently attends the University of Minnesota where she studies literature, works as editor-in-chief for The Tower: Art & Literary Magazine, and frequently ponders a future in the arts. Her work has been published in places such as Defunkt Magazine.
Header art by Nancy Fouts.