The first days of August were my last days in Rockville, and so I spent my time driving all over town, down the big roads and curving little neighborhoods. I discovered cul-de-sacs I’d never known. I spied on people. I tried to feel sentimental, as people say they do at times like that. Most of the time I drove slowly, but on the big curves I liked to hit the gas and feel pulled sideways toward the open windows, as if something out there knew I should be flying away into the green late-summer haze. College waited.
A week before I left, I passed Peter running. He surprised me when he came jogging up the sidewalk on the other side of the street. I pretended I didn’t see him and drove by, but still I spotted the flash of sweat and knew he’d seen me. I was both watcher and the watched. After that, I saw him at least once a day, like a word I’d heard once and then couldn’t quit hearing. Maybe he never stopped running, and I only had begun to notice. Each time I pretended he wasn’t there. I suppose if I had just waved at him the first time I could have kept waving until I was gone from town for good, having addressed the question of our ending with a wristy twinkling of my fingers. By ignoring him I guess I was saying to him, Not now but later. I will talk to you when I’m ready.
We’d known each other since forever. Once, we had ruled the hallways of the Palisades apartment complex where tracks ran down the middle of gray carpets like trails in a forest of dusty plastic dragon trees and philodendrons and fluorescent light. I was in seventh grade when my mother and I moved out to one of the neighborhoods with real split-level houses. Peter and I still went to the same school, but there were so many strangers in the hallways it was hard to hold onto what you knew. I collected new friends, all of them girls. Sometimes I’d see Peter at the strip mall across the street from the school, and I’d say hey and he’d say hey, but my new friends would pull me away.
He had his obsessions. He always had to have something to consume him totally. Usually he’d wring everything from whatever it was, exhaust himself, and then quit with no warning and total finality, like he’d been possessed but had survived the exorcism. Photography had been like that. First he was the next Diane Arbus or whatever, and then he was smashing his camera and lobbing it piece by piece into the dumpster.
Since the end of junior high, his obsession had been running. Like everything else, he did it way more intensely than most. My Peter, the little, fearful, weak boy I should have tried to protect back at the Palisades apartments had become a creature of muscle and sharp angles. He’d grown tall and powerful looking, and yet he still had the big brown eyes, the sensitive face, and the quiet voice. He had become interesting. Twice he’d made all-state in cross country. I heard that he could have gone to college on running. Some schools recruited him, but the one big school with the famous coach only offered him a letter—an invitation to walk-on the team with no money—so Peter was like, fuck it, no running in college; fuck it, no college. Nothing ever happened halfway for Peter, and everything was personal.
Peter was twelve when Jackie Morris moved out of our apartment building, never to be seen again. Would I say he molested Peter? Do I mean he was a molester? What a polite word. The truer words were raped, attacked, tricked, forced, hurt, abandoned. Put all that into a child and it becomes dread and fear, it became jumpiness. Peter’s bouts of mania got him excused from school for a semester. The horror went on without end. Sometimes I heard our classmates ripping him for his terrible hand-me-down clothes and the way he flinched from them when they spoke. I slapped a few on his behalf, and afterwards he wouldn’t speak to me for days. He confused me. I have seen Gina is a BITCH on more than one locker room wall, and I took pride in it. I thought that meant I was good, a saint bearing his burden. When we were younger, this is what I thought: I could take some of it from him; I was strong and he was too fragile. When we were younger, I knew Peter carried weight. It was tricky to see, but I spotted it in his bent shoulders and the weird way he stood perfectly still sometimes, as if he were pinned down. I thought I could take some of this weight, even before I knew much about what it was. But it turns out I couldn’t take just some of it. After Jackie Morris moved out, Peter let me hear everything, he handed over every dense and backbreaking word, and here’s the thing: this was not sharing the weight, which could not be shared, but multiplying it. He told me and no one else, but he never seemed relieved or lighter. I just became heavier, and the bearer of something he wouldn’t be able to purge from the earth without also purging me. The monster remained in me like a time capsule. Peter and I became less recognizable to each other, and it became more comfortable to stay apart and hide our two versions of the monster out of sight. That way you could at least pretend it had disappeared without a trace.
The day I finally pulled over, Peter had caught up to my car in slow traffic near a stoplight. He ran alongside on the sidewalk with his head cocked to the left, looking straight at me blankly in the way that he knew had once made me laugh. I turned up a quiet street and pulled over.
“Hey Pete,” I yelled through the window. I tried to sound surprised so that we could at least pretend I hadn’t ignored him a dozen times before while driving around on my errands that summer. He had his shirt off, exposing his tan, his deeply muscled legs, his elegantly curved back and the dimples above his waistband. Beads of sweat ran down the channel of his chest and disappeared somewhere I was ashamed to look. As we’d gone through high school I’d heard of many people who wanted to see Peter naked, to put it politely, and I guess I should be counted among them. And I was essentially his sister; so sick, sick, sick.
“The fuck do you want?” Smiling, deep voice, deeper all the time. I looked for his scars, found them up and down his arms and across the back of his neck. They oriented me and I didn’t have another lurid thought about him for a while. I remembered when we put those scars there, new and fat, red with blood, but now they were just little scribbles and thin white crosses. Mine were on my upper arms where I could hide them, but Peter showed his off as if they were all that he wanted seen. Just the surface.
“Not you,” I said.
“Not me what?”
“The fuck I want is not you.”
“He smiles,” I said.
“What is he doing?” I said.
“He is running. He is getting ready.”
“Whatever happens,” he said.
Peter moved so quickly then. He unlocked the passenger door through the open window, opened it, shut it hard, and slumped down before I could do anything but flinch and punch him in the shoulder. He didn’t look at me.
“What if I’d wanted to hurt you?” Peter said. “You should be more careful.”
That’s the thing that pissed me off about Peter and the thing that made me want to leave him behind for good. Not the jumping into the car uninvited stuff, and not my essentially incestuous lust, but the conviction that if we all—meaning him, specifically—were just a little more careful and watchful, a little tidier, a little less weak, bad things wouldn’t happen. This is what he’d learned, and it made me afraid. I had a different point of view, having over the years fled with my mother from the apartments and houses of her various men. What I’d learned was that sometimes there’s no time to pack and prepare, only time to run.
“Do I need to get you a towel?” I said all light and breezy, but I really did want him to quit sweating on my seats. I also didn’t want him to think I was the kind of person who cared that much about car seats. He rolled up the tinted window, wiped the seat carefully with his t-shirt, and then pulled it on over his head.
“Sorry about your seats,” he said.
“What?” Now I had to play it off. “It’s cool, who gives a shit?”
“You do,” he said. “Hey, would you just drive? I’m sick of running today. Wherever you’re going, I want to go there.”
“You can’t.” I was thinking about college. I think he knew that, too. Now he had to play it off.
“You’re on a top-secret mission today? Are you buying birth control, Regina Maria?”
One of my errands that day was to buy myself a giant backpack that could fit everything for whatever came up, at college or wherever.
“I’m getting a backpack, Peter,” I said. “Boring, boring, boring.”
“OK,” he said, and laid his hand on my shoulder, where he kept it for most of the ride. He settled back and closed his eyes.
I make him seem such a basket case, such a burden. Maybe I was a bitch. Was I a bitch? I loved him, I should make that the clearest thing of all. He wore me down, that’s all. I failed him. I have guilt issues. The things in his mind were beyond me now, he was no longer a child. I saw tightness in his neck, I felt the car get smaller with his bulk, I smelled his bitter smell. I hoped this wouldn’t be his ultimate form, that this wouldn’t be the husk he left behind when he metamorphosed and died. I wished he was softer.
When we were just into middle school, he’d befriended a mouthy little kid standing in a grocery cart outside the Safeway, ignored by his mom while she smoked with the vegetables guy. He talked to the boy about why the Redskins sucked, and then pushed the cart straight into parking lot traffic. Peter would have continued just standing there, watching the cart and the screaming boy, but I dragged him away. Later, when we were hiding in Mike’s Liquor Store and Deli and wondering if he would be arrested, he said he loved that kid. I didn’t like the way he said love. I asked him how long he’d known the boy, and he told me he’d known him his whole life.
“Whose life?” I said.
“Mine,” he’d said.
“Don’t be fucking stupid.”
“You don’t know shit, Gina. OK? He’s all right, I saved him.”
“You shoved him into traffic, Peter,” I hissed.
“His mother got him, didn’t she? She hardly cared, and now she cares. My work is done.”
“And what if she hadn’t tried to save him?”
“He’d have been better off dead.”
Peter opened his eyes and put his hand back on my shoulder when I pulled into the discount center’s underground parking lot. His hand felt strange and I shrugged it off. I let the car idle awhile, cooling his face. I had tried to count the number of girls he’d slept with. Was it two dozen? He had a reputation at Southwood High. Pretty regularly a girl went to test that reputation for themselves. All kinds of girls who never returned to him. Girls who otherwise would stand up and announce their periods because they didn’t give a fuck would get real vague and mysterious about Peter, except to say that he scared them, that there was something wrong with him, that he was not at all as sensitive as he appeared. All he ever said to me about it was that people aren’t as fearless and tough as they think. This was the source of his reputation, that dark silence into which you could imagine anything. Sometimes those girls would find me alone and want to talk. “I’m not crazy, right?” they’d ask me, as if I were his anthropologist and not his friend. “Did you, like, you know, did you ever do it?”
If they had been his best friend back when Mr. Morris was showing him art and helping him with his homework and raping him, they’d have known the answer to their question. No, I never slept with Peter. That part of life had to be walled off if we were to be friends.
Sometimes, when we were little, he would disappear for hours. While I waited, I would sit and write my poetry in the lobby on the one pleather couch. I would stand my pens on the arms in the burnt cigarette holes. I would watch the neighbors shuffle in and out. I should tell his mother, I’d think. But tell her what, exactly? I knew nothing then. I’d think of Peter while I was writing. I would write, “I’m afraid” again and again. After a long time, he’d appear and sit down at the other end of the couch, always carrying something new: a book, a notepad, a record, or a handful of photographs cut out of Interview magazine. One time he brought a bag of fresh chocolate chip cookies.
“Made them myself,” he said.
“How nice for you.”
“Mister Morris says jealousy is low class,” he said. “I’m not low class.”
“Who gives a shit what that weirdo says?”
“Shut up,” Peter said. “Anyway, I’m not hungry anymore, so here.”
Yes, I did take them. I said Thank you as sweetly as I could. He looked resentful.
“Oh, we’re here. Dude,” Peter said. He rubbed his eyes slowly. “I think I need to get something, now that I think about it,” he said.
“I don’t know. Something?”
In the store I watched him looking around, thinking. He looked young again, he was eager. When we were little, he had followed me around like he didn’t want to be out of range, like I was the only person left to him. But now he drifted off down the aisles looking for whatever he was looking for, and I picked out a backpack half my size with three giant pockets, six little pockets, and five loops for carabiners. It smelled so good. I didn’t let the cashier put it in a bag; I just hoisted it onto my shoulders and marched out to the car as if headed for the North Pole. I lit a cigarette and listened to the radio while I waited for Peter. I was seeing how far I could stick my arm into the main compartment when Peter opened the passenger door and got in. He had a bag.
“What’s in the bag, Peter?” I thought I deserved to know, since he’d borrowed the money.
He didn’t say anything. His face had closed up again. He filled the car.
I looked in the bag and saw a knife.
He leaned back in my car and goose pimples stood out on the skin of his arms. He relaxed and let his arms go limp, bathed in the blast of the cool air. “Do you think I’m a monster?” He flipped the knife between his fingers, opened and shut the blade. A basic camping knife.
“I’m afraid,” he said.
“Him,” he said. No name necessary.
“Oh, Jesus.” I was just so fucking done. God forgive me.
“I’m afraid of what he gave me. Might have gaved me. Given me. You know.”
“You mean a disease? I think you’d know by now.” I was a bitch.
The knife fit in the palm of his hand like it had been made for him. He kept the blade shut but kept staring at it. What he meant to say was, Will I be monstrous, will I act as a monster acts? I even had to form his existential questions for him. But I had also wondered if he would become a monster, or if he already was one. That was the question those girls who fucked him had been trying to ask me so clumsily. Had they been with a monster? Was that what a monster was?
“You’re good, Peter.”
“Don’t tell me that. You know better than that.”
I started to reply, but he held up his hand.
“You do know better than that. You know.”
“I have to go.” I put the key in the ignition and started to turn it, but he gently reached over and turned it back.
“Not yet,” Peter said. “I’m glad you’re going to college. I’m glad you’re getting the fuck out.”
“You could get out, too, Peter.” I turned the car back on again.
When he laughed he looked old. So many wrinkles, he was so thin.
“I mean, I’m glad you’re getting the fuck away from me. Don’t come back.”
“I’m not scared of you, Peter,” I lied. “I love you.” That wasn’t a lie, but I wasn’t sure what I meant, either.
“You remind me of him.”
“Every time I see you. He’s here when you look at me.”
I knew what he meant and didn’t know what to say.
“It’s you who scares me,” Peter said. “You can see the monster.”
Now the blade came out, click. And then back. He fiddled and stared at it, opening and closing it.
“Do you remember giving me my scars?” he said. “I remember giving you yours. I’ll never forget it, never. You were better than me, though. Back then I was afraid to cut you, I wasn’t steady with the knife.”
“That was love, you loved me,” he said. “You know me. And you didn’t answer my question. Am I a monster?”
All things disappear, feelings fade. You know things and people–and then you don’t. You forget them, or you lose them because another person disappeared or kicked you out and you left them behind. But Peter had never faded away–not my memory of him nor the knowledge that things could always be worse than you imagined. Peter was the air, the sky, the dark holes in the sidewalk. I didn’t love or hate him any more than I loved or hated my own skin. Yes, I saw monsters when I looked at him. I saw him and me. I saw the naked boy. I saw the girl who had long before guessed the truth of what happened upstairs but did nothing and told no one. I saw her writing her poems, eating the boy’s cookies, and later dreaming that those cookies were the body of the boy himself, a eucharist that united the three of them: man, boy, and girl.
“Never mind,” Peter said. “That’s not the right question.”
I knew the answer though. We’re a monster, I thought.
“What is the right question?”
He paused for a moment, put the knife down between his legs. I thought I might grab it, but knew I wasn’t fast enough.
“How about this, Gina: I’ll answer that question if you do me a favor.”
“You have to agree first: I answer the question, then I tell you.”
“That’s a terrible deal, Peter.”
“You have to have faith.”
He looked at me like I’d gone stupid. “Haven’t you always had that faith? Now you’re leaving, which you can’t quit fucking telling me, OK, I know, I know. Don’t you want to know if you were right?”
“To have faith in me.” He picked the knife up, snapped the blade open. “You don’t know if you were right about that, Saint Gina. But if you knew you were right, then maybe you could quit looking at me like I was something that might transform at any moment. Maybe then you could forget me, and I could forget you, and we could be happy.”
I didn’t remember any time without Peter. I could imagine forgetting that monster–his name, and what he looked like, where his door was, what the apartment building had been like. But forgetting Peter meant, in a way, denying his existence–denying the monster we’d known and carried. I would leave him behind, but forget him?
“What the fuck is happiness?” I said.
“That’s beside the point now. Do you trust me?”
He put me to the test.
“OK,” I said, quietly. Peter nodded his head.
“The right question is: Why did he pick me?”
We sat for ten more minutes, not crying, not doing anything. It took me all of those ten minutes to get my breath back, and to notice that he’d begun to trace something on top of his forearm.
“Now the favor,” he said.
“Let’s go to my house, Peter, let’s watch a movie or something.”
“No. The favor, Gina. The last one. This is it, no more after this. I trust you.”
When he was finished with Peter for good, Mr. Morris stopped letting him into the apartment and acted like Peter didn’t exist. He even quit looking at him. Peter couldn’t stop crying. Back then I didn’t understand, I thought Peter was crazy and maybe perverted himself. Then one day, long after that man had moved away, he asked me to cut him and let out the poison. That sounded like something unfathomable, and also something I could do. So I did it. And then I did some more. Little lines, crosses, all over his back and arms. Hexes against evildoers. Does it make me more of a monster to admit that I felt pleasure when I cut him? He stopped crying. We cut each other, marked each other with X’s, and I understood the thrill, the cleansing, the relief of having something permanent that wouldn’t disappear.
“The favor is this: I want you to cut my arm.”
“With the knife, duh.”
“No, I mean what do you want? X’s, O’s, crosses, what?”
“You can do whatever you want to me.”
He leaned the passenger seat back and laid his left arm across my lap. When I didn’t touch him right away, he turned his wrist up. The fluorescent lights of the garage cast dark shadows where his veins popped and whited out everything else. I’d never noticed how pronounced his veins were, even the little ones. So many in his wrist and forearm, and they got darker as I watched.
He wouldn’t speak. He’d closed his eyes.
I think I really believed that something had changed and everything would be different for both of us, that something was ending. The world unfolded around us suddenly, beyond the parking lot, as if the parking lot were a gate to the future.
It took just a few quick, hard swipes with the tip of the blade and a little digging. Blood ran down the car seat, but neither of us bothered to wipe it.
“There,” I said.
He looked surprised. I don’t think he even noticed that I had turned his arm over so I could stay away from his soft, veiny wrist. And I don’t think he expected me to carve out a perfect heart. It was about the size of a dime.
“Whoa,” he said. I couldn’t tell whether he was angry or about to cry. I didn’t want to know what he thought, so I told him to shut up and blotted the wound.
“My turn,” I said, and gave him my wrist.