I come from flyover country. That’s what people here call it. My grandparents slaughtered pigs. Strung porkers and sucklings up by the feet to bleed out, collected the blood in mason jars that I carried from slaughter shed to my grandmother’s kitchen for Sunday blood sausage. Mitch likes this part of me best—little girl holding jars of black blood, warm in her hands. My gritty farm girl, he murmurs. With hair the color of straw. I like when he calls me his.
I don’t tell Mitch that my dad is a dentist. That my mom drove me forty-five minutes into Omaha to go to a private girls’ school on partial scholarship. Checkered pinafores and white bobby socks. Parties at friends’ parents’ lake houses and bumps of cocaine on granite countertop. That, in biology class, I liked slicing through cat belly, pulling out uterus and pink clump of intestines, inhaling formaldehyde. That my family took vacations to Branson every year, and that, for fun, I stole refrigerator magnets and shot glasses from the hotel gift shop. That I am so terribly unremarkable.
I want Mitch to think I’m special. Any version of me. Milk and corn fed farm girl. Good girl. Middle American beauty.
Mitch has a condo in Park Slope that I’ve never seen. He lives there Thursday through Sunday with his wife, a visual artist, whom he doesn’t talk about, at least not with me. I Googled her, and found out she’s known for a critically acclaimed series of videos she took of herself visiting the homes of old men, stripping down to her underwear, then watching them do the same. Belts unbuckled and pleated pants pulled down to reveal sagging folds of pale skin, faded boxers with tears in the waistband. You think they’re about to have sex, but they don’t. She just stands there, staring at them, like she’s fascinated by how ordinary they are. She has the kind of body people like to call unrealistic to feel better about themselves—curving hips and full breasts, but petite, tight, contained. Almost like a teenager. There are pictures of them on the internet—Mitch and The Wife. At her art shows, at her gallery talks, at her book party. Mitch looks old standing next to her.
When I try to imagine their condo, all I can see are her things. Black lingerie hang-drying from the shower rod, a drained coffee cup smudged with dark lipstick on the counter, stacks of art journals dog-eared on the bedside table, a pair of weathered running shoes tossed in the hallway that probably stink of her sweat.
On the days he teaches, Mitch takes the Metro North out to New Haven and stays in a rented apartment close to the university. In the same red-brick building that George Bush, W that is, lived in when he was an undergraduate here, and isn’t that funny? he once said to me. I don’t tell him that my dad calls the Bushes, “the great American family,” or that, when I came to college here, I didn’t know this was a bad thing.
This is where he brings me. In late afternoons and middle of the nights. I love that I’m your first, he says on sagging couch, Oriental rug, hard mattress. I love to teach you things. And I kiss the gray hairs on his freckled chest, whisper “me too” even though it’s not entirely true. Because, yes, he teaches me things, like how Rauschenberg was in love with Jasper Johns, how it’s pronounced “tamb-er” not “timb-er,” how you’re supposed to drink espresso, not mixed into a blended frappe or sweetened with syrups, which is how I like it, but served in a demitasse with a spoon to skim the crema and a glass of sparkling water to cleanse the palate.
What I don’t tell Mitch is that he’s not the first for his gritty farm girl with the straw colored hair. How, at the end of Fall Semester, I let a senior who claimed to love Ayn Rand lift up my dress and pull down my cotton underwear at a party off campus and take the thing I was told I shouldn’t just give away. How, before he pulled me into the bathroom, he said he went to Horace Mann for high school and yes, he was in a secret society, the famous one and, yes, they did have a private island in upstate New York and he could maybe take me there if I promised not to tell anyone. How I nodded along and pretended to know what any of it meant or why it mattered. Why it made him somehow better than me. How I didn’t particularly like him, but let him to do it anyway to get the whole thing over with. How The Boy called me “whore” right before he came on the inside of my thigh. How it didn’t feel like I gave anything away.
And I wonder if this is what The Boy first noticed about me at that party—the extraordinary malleability of me. Like rubber. Like clay. Maybe this is what Mitch noticed about me, too, that first day in Sculptural and Spatial Practices—quiet girl at the seminar table whose cheeks burn when she speaks.
Mitch buys me lingerie from a store in the city, and brings it out here wrapped in tissue paper and ribbon. Tiny white lace things that are too tight, leave red marks on my skin. Perfectly imperfect you, he says as I put them on, walk the perimeter of the living room and think about video footage of The Wife in matching bra and underpants, how impossibly un-self conscious she seemed. Twirl for me, he says. And I twirl till the room seems like its spinning. Hop like a bunny rabbit, he says. And I press my hands together like rabbit’s feet and hop across the carpet. Bark like a dog. And I drop to all fours and yip. Does she twirl for him? Hop for him? Bark for him?
He has me take the lingerie back to my dorm, says he doesn’t want it in the apartment, but remember to bring it next time. He doesn’t buy me things I can wear outside.
The Boy wants to take me to somebody’s 21st birthday party at a jacket and tie kind of restaurant on Chapel Street, and I say yes because it’s a Friday, when Mitch is in the city with The Wife and I can’t stand the thought of them in the candlelit glow of a café or his thick, wrinkled fingers intertwined with hers on the counter of some Brooklyn bar. Mitch can fit four of his five fingers inside of me, thinks that by thrusting them in and out I will reach orgasm, and I wonder if this is true for The Wife because it’s not for me.
I wear a crushed velvet dress that I stole from a shopping mall in Omaha over Winter Break, which he doesn’t comment on when he meets me outside my residence hall. Just takes my hand and leads me to the Union League where we dump our parkas at the coat check. Private room and painted china. Chandelier glow and flutes of champagne The Boy tells me is called Krug. He drinks his champagne in big gulps as if it were cheap and plentiful. He says that this is the kind of place you go to when your parents visit, that they love this shit. I try to imagine my parents here—my dad pulling out his cheaters, the kind with the LED flashlight built into the frame, to read the menu, my mom mispronouncing things like filet de bouef and coquilles Saint-Jacques. The sharp-intake of my dad’s breath when the check arrives. I cringe at the thought, and hate myself for it. Because my parents are so the opposite of embarrassed by me. The Boy offers me a canapé from his plate of hors d’oeuvres, tiny, glistening things topped with caviar, and I shake my head, No thank you. Mitch once told me, I love how tiny you are, how easily you bruise.
The Boy and I stand around in clusters of people I’ve seen on campus, but have never met. He threads his arm around my waist, pulls me close to him when he talks, but never introduces me. They talk about Michel Foucault, and I nod along like I know what they’re saying, like I know whether Michel Foucault is a man or woman, like I agree with everything The Boy says as he slides his hand down my back and squeezes my butt. I was the smartest girl in my graduating class, but sometimes, most times, all the time, I don’t know how I got into this school. Simple, wholesome Nebraska girl, Mitch likes to say as he unravels me from the lingerie that he paid for.
We step outside for cigarettes, The Boy and his friends and I. It’s quiet—shop windows darkened and cafes shuttered for the night. The street is still lit up in Christmas lights, the sidewalk slick with black February slush. It’s cold as fuck, one of the boys says. A lamppost near us is covered in peeling advertisements for shows at the Repertory Theater, fliers for studies, asking, Are you a binge drinker? or, Healthy, lean, and sedentary? I notice, in the layers and crinkled folds of advertising, a poster for an Art Department talk next week. I step to the lamppost to get a closer look. The Wife. A still from one of her videos—tiny body in a schoolgirl costume, hint of cleavage, lips offered up like pink candy. In block letters—The Wife: Fever Dreams. I tear the poster off the lamppost, tuck it away into my coat pocket. Just to have a piece of her. What’re you doing over there? The Boy asks, and he comes up behind me, slides his hands around my waist, and I wonder if he can feel the rumbling in my belly because I couldn’t bring myself to eat in front of him, to reveal the depth of my appetite—I could have devoured those plates of oysters and pate and all the other fancy, fatty things on silver trays and still been hungry.
I want to leave, I tell him. And, despite the cold, we walk back to the house he shares with his friends on Dwight Street. You look really nice, by the way, he tells me, that dress is so sexy. I wonder if by sexy, he means slutty. I wonder if he means any of it, or if it’s just part of the sloppy choreography of bringing a girl back to your place. I’m not sure it matters either way. I realize we’re only one block away from Mitch’s apartment, and I tell him, let’s take the long way home.
I’m not sure about that, he says, it gets pretty seedy at night.
It only takes a few blocks off campus to end up somewhere bad, to end up as the moral-of-the story in some university police email about mugging or gunfire. I can tell that this is what he’s thinking, and I feel powerful in knowing that he’s afraid and I’m not. I’ve walked this path hundreds, no, maybe dozens, of times in the middle of the night. Whenever my phone lights up with a text from Mitch, Come over. It’s the reason why I sleep through my morning lectures. Why I’m failing everything except Sculptural and Spatial Practices. Why I’m probably going to lose my merit scholarship next year and how will I tell my parents?
It’ll be fine, I say, to The Boy and pull him down the street to the red brick building with the faded green trim. We stand in the front yard, in the melting piles of snow and I say, this is the building where George Bush, W that is, lived when he was an undergraduate here, and isn’t that funny?
Why’s it funny? he asks.
I don’t know, I tell him. Because I honestly don’t know why it’s funny.
You know he was in our society? The Boy says. I don’t look at him when he talks, won’t look away from the black windows of Mitch’s apartment on the third floor.
Bush. H.W, too, he says. You know, my Junior Year I was Chief Whip of the campus Tory Party? He sounds so earnest when he talks. And this is what pulls me away from the black windows.
I was secretary of the Young Republicans group at my high school, I say. But this is a lie. There was no Young Republicans group at my high school. I just like the way his eyes light up through champagne and cigarette fog, the way he seems interested in me beyond the curve of my butt or the cheap appeal of my dress.
No shit! The Party hosts weekly dinners. You should come to one, get involved. We’re always looking for new members.
Yeah, maybe, I tell him. But I have no intention of going. I feel The Boy slip his mittened hand around mine. Like he really likes me. I look back at the windows of Mitch’s apartment, at the wrought iron fire escape where we sometimes sit, wrapped in blankets, and drink tiny servings from his bottle of single malt scotch. How good it tastes. How good it feels to lean my head in the crook of his arm, to have him look down at me with his tired, middle-aged man eyes, like I am fascinating. Did he look at The Wife like that in the beginning? Does he look at her like that now? I have an idea, I say. I pull my hand out of his and walk through mounds of slush. I grab a rock from the frozen flowerbeds and slip it into my pocket, the same pocket that holds the folded up Art Department poster.
What are you doing?
I pull down the ladder to the fire escape and begin to climb. Come on, I say.
I don’t know, he says. Let’s just go back to my place.
What are you scared, I say. And it’s enough to get him to follow me up the fire escape, to the third-floor landing, to the window that opens up to Mitch’s living room. I push my hands up against the glass in the hopes that it’s unlocked and will slide open—Mitch says this neighborhood isn’t actually all that dangerous. But it doesn’t.
What are you doing? The Boy asks. Whose apartment is this?
It’s not important, I tell him. I pull the rock from my pocket and hand it to him.
I’m not strong enough, I say.
I really don’t think this is a good idea, he says.
I put my hand on his thigh, and I can feel the muscles tensing underneath my fingers. Come on, I say. Do it. For me. It only takes one try for the rock to shatter the glass completely.
We both laugh—The Boy at his own strength, me at the ease of it all. We scrape the remaining shards out of the frame, and climb inside. Without Mitch here, the apartment looks different—Spartan. The bed is made, sloppily, and I imagine him on Thursday, pulling up the sheets and comforter before leaving to catch the Metro North back to the city, and it seems so compulsory and sad. I return to the living room where The Boy is scanning the bookshelves. Are you ever going to tell me who lives here, he asks.
What difference would it make if I told you? I ask him. And he doesn’t respond. I go to the bar cart and grab the bottle of Scotch, almost full. Let’s get out here, I say with the bottle in my hand.
Whoa, that stuff’s like $500, he says.
I know, I say, I know all kinds of things.
We leave through the front door and, once we’re far enough away, The Boy shouts from all the adrenaline and tells me, that was so badass, I can’t wait to take you home and fuck your brains out. Which I let him do until he rolls off of me and falls asleep in stained sheets.
I climb out of his bed in the early morning. I take the bottle of Scotch left on his desk, and notice his copy of The Fountainhead, the spine cracked and splintered. I take that, too. Not to read, just to keep. I walk back to campus when the sky is something between pink and lavender and the air is extra dry and extra cold. I stop at the 24-hour bodega and purchase a double cheeseburger. In my dorm, I unfurl myself from parka, velvet dress, snagged stockings. I sit cross-legged on my desk chair and eat the cheeseburger and sip scotch from my enamel coffee mug emblazoned with the university crest. I do this while looking at the windowsill I have lined with the weathered copy of The Fountainhead, the $500 bottle of Scotch, the crumpled poster for The Wife: Fever Dreams. Maybe I will go to that talk next week. Sit in the front row, and, during the perfunctory Q&A, raise my hand and say, Do you know your husband calls me his gritty farm girl while he fucks me? Or maybe I’ll say nothing and watch Mitch squirm in his seat because I could ruin everything, hang him up to bleed out just like those porkers and sucklings in my grandfather’s slaughter shed. Either way, the choice is mine.
Amelia Hawkins lives in Urbana-Champaign where she is pursuing her MFA in Fiction from the University of Illinois. She is the recipient of the 2016-2017 Sherwood Anderson Fiction Award from the Mid-American Review. She is currently at work on a novel.