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Malcolm Graham Cooper
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cassavetes1.jpg
Art by Kevin Duncan © 2016

A New Cassavetes

By

Malcolm Graham Cooper

         

 

          When Daniel's sister asks him to film her wedding, he is already storyboarding before the words penetrate his ears. He sees the flowers on the walkway in full black and white, slow motion in a saturated lens. If they are wilted, even better. The project begs textbook realist, cinema vèrité to the capital V, a tribute to his favorite director: John Cassavetes. No script should be utilized, of course, only the natural vulgarity of language via the mouths of his family. The camera in his hands -- a Panasonic AG-HMC40 with full HD capability--morphs into the ultimate token of artistic freedom. He moves his fingers over the cool plastic, caresses the crisp punch of the buttons.

          "That's a rental," his sister says, pushing up her stockings under the wedding dress. "Don't drop it or anything. God forbid."

          A rental? O! how the artist suffers at the facist hand of limitation! But Daniel comforts himself in the thought that the greatest directors shined under pressure. Cassavetes would scoff in his signature New Yorker, tough-guy accent, "A rental! Life is a rental -- so we capture it before it wiggles from our fingers!"

          Daniel looks through the lens and feels free for the first time.

          "Just film the vows. Make sure we're in the frame."

          Daniel forgets the vows; the bride and groom are not in the frame. Instead he craves something raw, something that can stand as a microcosm for the insincerity of the entire event; pangs of artistic delight shoot through his chest as he films his grandpa Marty scratch himself and fall asleep. I'm giving them gold, Daniel thinks. But the reception will be the real material -- his family and acquaintances shedding their professional skins, revealing the lustful animals beneath; people unrestrained, a filmmaker's dream.

          The focus of the event, though, would be his mother's friend, Isa Doyle. In the five years following his discovery of masturbation, at age twelve, she has been his muse of choice, his angel of sex; her image burns itself within Daniel's mind, under the sheets at night, in the bathroom on frantic afternoons. On the way to the reception, Daniel shoots some b-roll from the window of his sister's limo --the desert, barren landscape with an occasional weed, cacti beyond cacti and dirt beyond that.

          When Daniel enters the room, he can't help but stare at her: the scar, the story, the mouth upturned in an inviting benevolence despite a rugged, downtrodden air, the broad forehead hidden by straight, rigid bangs the hue of morning espresso. For all of his life Daniel has known her as his mother's best friend, the only person attuned to her secrets, which Daniel convinces himself she has never possessed. Daniel mouths her name -- Isa Doyle. Isa Doyle, Daniel mutters to himself, you wear your tragedy on a rhinestone sleeve in a dark corner of a ballroom. As if on cue, she turns her face up and presses her hand against her chest, giggling like a baby cries; she is surrounded by a group of women--older women, more frumpy and plain women more his mother's age.

          Daniel isn't surprised to see her here. the marriage of his sister Cassidy brings together the family's four generations of desert business-class fervor; Daniel takes stock of those he recognizes: business relations from the law office of his father, his mother's hairdresser Fredrico, the entire women's book club (a front his mother uses for wine drinking and novelty cheese eating), golfing friends, boating friends, cigar club dinosaurs who possess the largest paunches Daniel has ever seen, and even a select few babysitters from his childhood. They huddle in one giant mass of tuxedo fabric in the ballroom, most leaning at the bar, the others stoic at large banquet tables adorned with diamond glasses. The soiree's most callously sloshed careen on the hardwood dance floor; they turn, they gyrate like lost birds of prey. The music booms out of the loudspeakers and swallows the air--controlled anarchy. Daniel smiles at his uncle Tom who, under the fractured light of a disco ball, dips a young woman, not his wife; her hair hangs for a second and he bites her on the neck.

          Daniel walks to the bar; drinking: any director's favorite sport.

          He sets the camera on the bar and orders a whiskey.

          "On the rocks? Neat?" the bartender asks, wiping a champagne glass.

          "Neat, I guess," Daniel replies. He scratches his head.

          The bartender's thick, grey eyebrow perks up. Daniel's skin tightens--alright, the jig's up, take your camera and turn around. He readies his feet for the pivot.

          "Don't worry, he's with me." His father's voice. Daniel can smell the Brilliantine from his hair. He turns around. His father's face puts him at ease--he clutches an unlit cigar in his smile, his eyes an endless blue, eyes that Daniel stares at in the mirror every morning.

          His father orders a gin and tonic. "Also, get him another," he says, pointing to Daniel. The bartender nods.

          "Thanks dad." He kicks back the whiskey. Pain wrestles his eyeballs.

          "Ah, I remember my first drink," his father yells. The ice cubes in his glass ring like tiny choral bells. "Don't get used to it, or I'll fight ya." He pumps a fist into the air like a tired boxer.

          "Yeah dad, don't worry," Daniel says.

          His father leans on the bar. "Hey bartender, yo, this kid," he points at Daniel with a bent wrist, "is gonna be the next Spielberg. You watch."

          The bartender nods.

          "Spielberg's a hack, dad," Daniel says, picking up the camera.

          "Well, I enjoy his movies. I never get bored. Or stuck reading those subtitles all the damn time. I mean, why you hafta read and watch, I get lost. Damn, you knocked those back." His father flicks at the two empty shot glasses on the bar.

          Daniel wants to tell his father that he learned to drink from him, but he is already gone, dancing through the crowd. Daniel thinks over his father's compliment which, like so many throughout his life, are well-meaning but inherently misinformed. Sure, Spielberg knows how to make people gawk and clap for new technology, but he's smoke and mirrors. All his characters are stock, mere puppets at the whim of some dinosaur or alien. Daniel frowns, convinced that the world needs a new Cassavetes.

          Daniel combs the room for some minor characters. He needs a contrast, a portrait of beauty to accentuate the flawed, weathered lust that Isa exudes. Daniel stops his breath when he spots his youngest cousin Tammy. Why hadn't he thought of her before? She fits the bill perfectly: innocent, pretty, idealistic before life has shattered her dreams. Out of everyone in the room, including his parents, he has always been closest to Tammy; being the same age, they grew up as siblings when her parents died in a car accident. She dances with Daniel's father, holding his hand in a desperate attempt to keep him upright.

 

          The lobby seems the most obvious choice for the type of perfection Daniel has in mind; the smooth paisley carpet looks bright and freshly vacuumed, the white walls glowing as small but powerful bulbs cast their light. Tammy sits on a bench beside a fake palm tree, looking down; she is the lasting photo of her parents: the hair of her mother in flaming red ringlets, her frame scrawny and hollow like her father's.

          "How are you liking the party, huh?" Tammy says, looking up.

          "It's okay. I mean, fine, I guess," Daniel says. He squints his eyes and looks through the scope. "Remember, don't talk to me. Talk at the camera. But not to the camera. Pretend it isn't there."

          "Well, what should I talk about?" She sits straight and adjusts her dress.

          "I dunno. Wedding stuff. Talk about love."

          "Love?"

          "Yeah, love, marriage blah blah life blah."

          She shifts and looks away. Daniel zooms in the shot. He wonders if he can capture the way she exists to him, in his mind: a young, frantic girl who read a lot of books; a girl who held a funeral for her pet frog, even though it was alive; the girl he thought he loved, not knowing the word taboo; the girl he took baths with at night, one time running his hand over her vagina, just to see if it was different from his parts; the girl who let him ride front seat in her first car.

          "Love," she says, as if in front of the class, "is hard to come by today." She takes a breath. "Marriage, contrary to popular opinion, serves as its enemy. Weddings --it's all so fake or whatever. Love has nothing to do with it. It's all glitz and glamor now. Brides see the ceremony as their fifteen minutes of fame, their time to become those celebrities they see on TV. After that, what's left? You stay miserable until you die. There is no one that will take care of you." She looks up into the air and gropes her chin as if searching the ceiling for more.

          "Good," Daniel says, setting the camera on a nearby bench. "Couldn't have asked for anything better." But he knows he has to edit out her dialogue; it's too angry, too controlled in its purpose. The part that he wanted, the part he sought out in her, was always the moment of silence when she shied away from the camera. That timid look, he thinks, that timid look says it all.

          Back in the ballroom, Daniel looks at Isa through the scope -- her tall, lanky body gives accent to its features by means of a tight, long-sleeved dress, sparkling blue; she has no fat to speak of, no extra baggage cluttering the folds of the dress; when her breasts pierce the fabric, Daniel wonders if they are, in fact, all real or some partial restoration project; and of course the scar, the stunning cornerstone of her beauty, thick and bold, a yellowish white that runs from her right eye to the corner of her mouth, and even deeper beyond.

          Daniel comforts himself in the thought that, besides his mother, he is the only one who knows what happened; he received the story firsthand, between Isa's mumbled sobs on his mother's kitchen counter. It all boiled down to one thing: Isa had a husband who broke her heart. The guy's name was Will -- Will the machinist, Will the handyman, Will the creepy guy who lurked in the shadows; nobody was surprised when word got around that he slashed Isa with a knife and then parked his car at the mall and lit himself on fire. People said that he was smiling when he poured the butane over his head, laughing at the way it matted his hair and made his eyes burn. For Isa, a couple of plastic surgeries later and presto, the scar -- the knife's careless and winding trail -- only reveals itself as a darkened hiccup on her pale complexion.

          Known to wear scarfs to cover up the most blatant part of the lightened, raised tissue, tonight she sports a dark blue number that shimmers under the light. Daniel's knees buckle -- she is staring at him: a white smile like glass chiming across the crowded room. He pivots carefully, adjusting his arms to frame her bony shoulders within the lens. His thumb shakes as it flicks the zoom wheel. The frame shakes slightly, which is good—the mobile camera is important, the frame never static. People jostle in the frame as he zooms out, and it takes Daniel a while to realize that she's walking toward him. Oh shit, I'm caught, an adolescent voyeur drunk on lust and blood and film. But it's alright -- when all else fails, point and shoot.

          "I thought you would be filming tonight." She walks with her arms out, like she carries an invisible crate. She hugs him sideways and her breath makes the hairs on Daniel's neck riot.

          "I'm sorry, I didn't mean..."

          "You shan't speak another word, dahling. I was born a star, and I will die a star as long as I draw breath," she says.

          "Katherine Hepburn...nice," Daniel says. He wrestles with his camera, turning it off, looking for a place to keep it safe. Maybe if I don't look her in the eye, Daniel imagines, she can and will refrain from deeming me a complete and utter ass.

          "Nevah heard of the tramp. Sounds like a hussy," she says. Under the light she looks like a mad flapper girl--a sweating cocktail in one hand, lips red and pursed, her frame just skeletal enough to get people talking.

          "Ah well I uh say miss, they sure don't make 'em like they used to." Jimmy Stewart is the only impression he knows, or at least the only one he ever attempted. Last year during Christmas the administration of his high school convinced him to read the announcements in the voice.

          "Oh man, that's great," she says, her voice assuming its natural, hushed cadence.

          "I guess that's what I can show for my obsession for Frank Capra."

          "Look at you. All sophisticated with your name dropping. I still remember when you shit your pants when I babysat you."

          At once his nerves tighten, and his skin feels like it's humping a cheese grater. He stifles the urge to punch her in the mouth.

          "I was five. And besides, you were a lousy babysitter," Daniel says.

          "Well, you're still a little turd," she says, ruffling his hair. "Now dance with me before I find somebody else."

 

          At first Daniel refuses to dance -- he tells himself that he will keep an aesthetic distance from the scene, a vantage far enough away from the moment as to ensure his immunity to the characters' influence on his artistic choices; but he could not see himself disappointing Isa, and besides, it was great research. Know your scene, be your scene, let it drive you. He gave the camera to the DJ for safekeeping. Daniel almost cries out when the DJ -- juggling a mutant-sized pair of silver headphones -- nearly drops the thing. Daniel tried to tell him that it was a rental, but his voice was picked up by the uproar of the room, and the DJ only gave him a thumbs-up and continued to scroll through, assumedly, a large iTunes playlist.

          Daniel's arms wrap themselves around Isa's waist on the dance floor. The disco ball shatters the darkness and illuminates the slow movements of the dancers. The soft croon of Dion Warwick melts through the speakers and signals a slow dance, as if her voice coats the dance floor in an invisible molasses. The die-hard who remain -- mostly twenty somethings and tipsy bridesmaids -- nod in silent agreement and signal their partners with jerks of the head and waves of beckoning.

          "You're so tall," Isa says. Daniel wants to protest, but his words clog his throat as soon as they surface, pinched off by one startling realization: he hasn't seen her since his growth spurt. Nine inches in one year at the age of sixteen; now at seventeen he stands six foot one. With her heels off, Isa only comes up to his collarbone.

          "We have to grow up sometime," he says.

          "Oh, don't say that. I'm twice your age and I never want to get old. Gross." She burrows her head into Daniel's chest. "Tell me about your film."

          "The wedding film?"

          She nods against his chest, her hair crackling against his tie.

          "Well, I always get really bored when people make me watch their wedding videos. Same old stuff. Boring priest talking, people standing around, lame speeches made into the camera at the reception. And they're always all shaky. Why? If you have eyes, you can steady a shot. You can be steady with movement, but never shaky — that's amateur business. Me, I want to do something original: an arthouse wedding film. No bullshit, the real deal, unfiltered. I want to highlight the forgotten parts."

          "You certainly are very ambitious," Isa says against his chest. The hum of her voice numbs his skin. "But don't you think your sister will want to see herself in her own wedding video?"

          "She's not interesting."

          "Shut up. You love her. Twat." She lifts her head and swats at his face.

          A seamless fade into Telephone Line by ELO signals a continuation of the slow dance period, a slight crescendo in the energy without depriving the lovesick of their meditative swagger. Daniel stops, but Isa leans forward, signaling go ahead, one more song.

          As Isa moves her arms from Daniel's shoulders to the small of his back, he feels his stomach lurch and sting at a realization, every boy's worst nightmare coming to fruition at any second: an unexpected erection in the presence of a woman. He can feel his cock grow against his right leg, pulsing and warm, a runaway train of blood and sponge and hormone. When he was a kid, the standard protocol during these calamities -- often involving lifting himself from his seat in class, running down court in a game, or more often, sitting anxious in the passenger seat of his mother's car -- would be to adjust and maneuver, adjusting his erection at an angle to decrease the angle of protrusion. But where is there to hide here? With the warm hardness of female flesh causing the friction that fuels the cock fire? With an actual vagina -- that hole like a moist, odorous den for his phallic wanderlust -- mere inches away?

          The loose slacks rub against the head of his dick, and Daniel grimaces at the explosion of nerve that follows. Daniel slowly backs his groin away from Isa, keeping in step; if she can't feel it, how can it exist?

          But she has to know it's there, bulging and purple, static and peaceful as the blood continues to pump. Isa pulls Daniel forward, and he allows his body to obey without thinking. Before he can realize the motive behind the movement, she begins to rub her left leg against his cock, each step forward and backward in time with the music and another thrust against his shaft.

          Daniel looks down, but Isa still obscures her face against his chest.

          The music fades into a fast electronic beat, the troves wasting no time in crowding the floor. His uncle Walter -- his mother's older brother, the one without the drinking problem -- sticks his thumbs in his armpits and flaps his wings, strutting through the crowd. Daniel's father twirls his mother -- they are laughing, a rare event. Even his toddler cousin Percy jumps up and down, his arms flapping wildly in a naive imitation of the adults, his miniature tuxedo an uncanny mirror image of his father's.

          Isa covers her face in her hands. "I think I've had enough."

          "Yeah...me too," Daniel says, surprising himself with the swiftness of the lie. He hadn't even enjoyed his brief foray into the adult land of alcohol consumption, the whiskey burning his throat, his mind frightened and broken.

          "You still have to finish the film."

          "I think I have enough. Whatever, they won't even appreciate it."

          "Oh darn, so you're just gonna leave me out? Actresses are so full of themselves anyway."

          "You're in there."

          "Yes, but I was being so boring. God, I can't imagine the look on my face," she says. Her voice whines like a girl half her age, brittle and cracked against her lips. She raises her eyebrows. "Come to my room. Film me in my drunken solitude. I probably need somebody to keep me awake if I throw up, anyway."

          Daniel's stomach lifts with the giddy spark of possibility, yet her intentions are probably innocent, hollow with the encouragement an aunt gives an ambitious nephew; but she is drunk, Daniel says to himself. "You are the star, I guess."

          "Fabulous. Room 334. Do what you have to and meet me there."

          She's lost in the crowd before Daniel can even reply.

 

          Somebody somewhere told him that you always have to bust a nut before a date that will result in fucking because no guy would ever want to embarrass himself by being too eager, jizzing after only two pumps. Daniel always assumed this to be veritable fact--his virgin naïveté provides no experience from which to contest this piece of male knowledge.

          He leans over the immaculate porcelain toilet in the lobby of the hotel. He stares at his wimpy, soft dick in hands, silently begging it to respond -- twitch, slither, anything. The small freckle under his visible but faint circumcision scar almost taunts him.

          He takes three shaky breaths and pretends he's at his bathroom at home, just like every other time. From the age of twelve to his present sixteen, he slowly developed an eye for the subtleties of various female curves and protrusions, their nuances and variations: color and hue, fluffiness, hardness, softness and coldness. With the aesthetic sensitivity of an art historian or collector of Baroque furniture, he would soak in the abject body of woman laid bare in the glossy pages of his mother's fashion magazines; he would grope the pages in the offensive darkness of his room, and under the covers he caressed an exposed thigh or foot like it was a piece of fruit. When his friend Michael explained to him, in intricate detail, all the techniques and variants of masturbation, Daniel did it constantly; he did it on the school bus, in the back seat under an over-sized flannel shirt, staring out the window at the drivers below in their sunglasses and mugs of coffee at their lips; he did it in the baseball dugout during games, feigning injury, rubbing and watching from behind the bright orange water cooler; he did it alone in his father's office, transfixed on the secretary's long fingers and blue nails plucking at the phone pad, growing nervous staring through the large glass window, hoping his father would stay gone an extra five minutes; he did it together with Michael on the floor of his basement on a hot day in summer, sprawled out on the shag carpet of Michael's father's basement, their legs touching slightly, and after they finished they played video games, both agreeing never to talk about it again even though they nervously chuckled and said it was fun and weird and hilarious; he did it in the bushes of his neighbors' house, peeking through the reddening leaves at the luster of the kitchen light, a skin-tightening breeze moving over his shirtless chest; he even did it at Mass, gently tapping an erection under black trousers with a bible, and when he saw someone looking, he would pretend he was cooling himself off. It isn't the public display that excites him necessarily, although the fear of being caught slowly provided an extra thrill. But it is always like a thirst that can never be quenched, no matter how many times he does it, no matter how sore the skin around his penis grows. He just faces the fact that the thirst will always be there, always grow. In the desert, there will always be more thirst.

          Finally satisfied with the stiffness of his dick, he grips and pumps with his fingers together, regulating the action toward the tip for maximum effectiveness. His mind begins to race for images like a computer doing a file search: a porn star's anus dilated to the size of a baseball, cum dripping slowly as it clenches and winks, tits glossy with sweat and a face with too much makeup silent with moans and delirium. No dice. How about something real, something in the realm of possibility? That always has been a trusty standard. He imagines Isa in her room, waiting for him on rumpled sheets as she spreads her legs, inviting him with the slow, agonizing hum of desire. Oh yes, he would take her rough, he would pull down his pants and hold her ankles high in the air, run his fingers across the soles of her feet. He smiles at the warm ecstasy flowing through his veins.

          The door to the bathroom opens with a creak that bounces around the walls and settles in Daniel's mouth, bitter and hard. Daniel is determined to move on, forge ahead despite this moment of surprise, but he can feel his dick soften. He pumps again, but loses hope. It flops against the toilet bowl that's cold but feels good like mint from a gust of wind. Picking up his trousers, he decides to flush the empty toilet to conceal his abandoned plan.

         

          On the dance floor, his cousin Tammy catches the bouquet. Daniel films in a wide shot, panning haphazardly left, then right. His mind races with disease; he doesn't care about the film anymore, doesn't care about Isa and her drunken lust, about getting laid or growing up, about being an artist despite all the odds. Tammy's face widens with an unexpected flash of light -- a spark, a flicker that's almost gone as quickly as it appears. She hugs him; the camera jostles in his hands.

          "Watch it," he says, eyes glued to the scope.

          "I'm going to get married soon. Can you imagine?"

          "Shut up. You're messing up the shot."

          "Jerk." She skips into the shot and out onto the dance floor. Daniel's sister hugs her and they jump, their hands linked, up and down in unison.

           Tammy smiles at him for the first time that night. That smile -- shrouded in innocence, excited with a sense of optimism found only in rabbits beneath the shrubs, outrunning the hunter -- reminds Daniel of the earliest memory he has of his younger cousin. It was somewhere out in a grove, in the shade amid tall apple trees that crowded the sky and kept out the light. She was wearing overalls, four years old, her wild red hair clumped like stagnant fire in two messy ponytails. For some reason they were lost, scared, alone. Tammy leaned down on the dirt path, her toddler fat dismantling her balance, and picked up an apple that had fallen. She looked up at her older cousin, displaying the newfound treasure with a chubby, weak hand, showcasing this new artifact of a previously uncharted world. Daniel took it in his overpowering hands--he was already, at six, large for his age. He took a large bite, his teeth leaving in their wake a yellowish patch of grain like a page out of an old book. Tammy cried for it back, and he handed it to her. She tried to bite into it but her jaw, not exhibiting the agility, prevented her from gripping the round surface. Her doughy face welled up, swollen, so Daniel picked her up as a tractor stirred dust and leaves down the path.

 

          He never thought that filming would be so painful; it's like he had never even seen a film, never even felt the urge to arrange shapes inside a frame, mix colors in the perfect shade, smooth action with the perfect momentum of angle. He packs the camera up in his case and thinks about sitting in front of his computer, studying the frames meticulously in Final Cut Pro. What should he call the project when he saves it? At a Wedding--simple, direct but ambiguous. But the thought of the work needed for such a project makes his body heavy, and he has to conjure considerable effort to lift his arms and move his legs.

          He doesn't know how he gets there in an empty hallway, staring at the numbers 334 on a jungle green door. He runs his fingers over the cool metallic door handle. With a surprising calmness, Daniel opens the door. Through the crack, a warm light somewhere inside stretches across the white wall in the entryway. Daniel pushes the door and lets it swing open with its own weight. The bed, obscured from the entryway, is a wasteland of crumpled white sheets. Daniel hiccups and notices Isa's long, slender legs, their tan hue bold and glistening against the white of the sheets.

          "Hello," he says carefully, afraid that she's changed her mind.

          But she's asleep. Her chest heaves with the heavy breathing of sleep, and Daniel wonders if she is dreaming. Her blue dress is pulled up on account of the fetal position she settles in, exposing a pair of black cotton panties, a modest style, Daniel thinks; he imagined her wearing a neon thong that separated her ass into two glorious pieces of roast. Daniel's skin crawls at the feeling of regret -- regret for coming up here, for missing his chance, for spying on her like this. His muscles tense as he anticipates her wakening, smiling at the ruse and berating him for watching her. His chest warms -- she's innocent, all alone here with her eyes closed; this is the state that only her mother gets to see her in, or maybe her children if they have any, and they would jump on the bed on a Sunday morning and scream for the breakfast.

          He turns the camera off and sets it on the floor in the entryway, but before he can stop himself, he leans at the foot of the bed. Her bare feet look soft and plain with thick toes painted red like cherries. They look unweathered, as if she has worn shoes her entire life -- the soles clean and plain, the skin light. Daniel looks over his shoulder in case someone is there to catch him, and he leans his face up close to the sole of her right foot and inhales; they smell like perfume yet slightly musty, leather and floral together. His chest tightens, but he remains careful and cautious. He runs his tongue along the crevice between her pinky and ring toe. The flavor surprises him with tart earth and sweat.

          The foot moves and nearly flattens his nose.

          "What are you doing?" she says. She stares at him, her mouth pinched, her eyes dark.

          "I just thought..." Daniel says. His stomach feels like a bag of rocks, and his throat tightens.

          She laughs, and Daniel feels even worse. "Here," she says. She takes his arm and begins to undo her bra. 

          "Do you know what you're doing?" she says and puts her hands to her face, covering her eyes.

          "Of course I do. I've done it plenty of times," he says.

          "Uh huh." She turns up an eyebrow. "Come here," she says. She takes off his clothes beginning with the tie, all the way down to his boxer shorts. She gives his erection a squeeze.

          With a mere sleight of hand — dress right over head, a quick pull and jump out of the panties -- she is completely naked as well, her brown nipples hard. Still, she maintains the scarf, that blue veil she wears like a blanket to cover up memory. He slides on top of her, placing his hands behind her, on her back. Daniel hopes she doesn't catch on to his inexperience, because he knows what's coming, and he feels as if he has to deliver. Just this once. And then after the task, it will get easier from here.

          "Well?" Isa says.

          He pulls his arms out from under her and unties the blue scarf. The skin underneath is dull and wrinkled, a shade darker than the rest of her hollow, powdered skin. He looks at her, at her face questioning him -- eyes distant, looking for an answer. He runs his fingers over the scarred area -- an uneven patch that covers the area of neck from the bottom of one ear to the other. It feels like a dry elbow. In his mind, Daniel recoils slightly, and he struggles with a faint tinge of regret.

          "Is it alright," she says, "does it look terrible?"

          Daniel doesn't know what to say. "You're beautiful," he says instead.

          He leans over slightly and paints his lips to hers, this time with more conviction, as if he has been doing this all his life. Her lips part slightly, and she slides her tongue between his teeth. He touches her breasts and she giggles.

          "Hit me," she says, mumbled in between kisses, her breath hissing into Daniel's mouth.

          "What?" he says, taken aback.

          "Hit me," she says again, "in the face."

          He sits up between her legs, his hair askew.

          "You want this to be real, don't you?" Isa says. She leans on her elbows.

          "Yeah, but...I just...don't think I can do that" Daniel says.

          Isa sighs. "Here," she says, taking his arms, "just put your hands around my neck."

          Daniel takes a loose grip. Her skin feels cold and barren against his fingers. He looks into her eyes, but she closes them.

          "Tighter," she says.

          He squeezes reluctantly. Nervous, he begins to shake. She writhes gently underneath him, responding with soft vocal pants, hidden moans. He tries to think of what to do next, but he can't -- he can't think, can't possibly fathom, at this point, what is expected of him. Should he keep tightening? Should he kiss her? Should he go on with the sex? Isa turns her head quickly, smiling between short, accentuated breaths.

          Surprisingly, he has no problem entering her, a moist tightness at once surprising but incredibly new and amazing. Without thinking about it, his hands have no trouble tightening around her neck, his pace quickening below, her moans rising an octave. Soon they become squeals, shrieks, and Daniel slowly lets go of the grip around her neck. Her eyes, closed, move behind the soft lids, her head jerking back and forth. And then at once, he is repelled outside of her, her body shaking, jerks violent in perfect rhythm. At first Daniel thinks it's a seizure, but he's heard of this before, somewhere from some sex story. Silent, Isa opens her eyes and covers herself up with the bed comforter.

          “I'm sorry,” she says, turning to her right side.

          “Me too.” Daniel slides under the covers and flattens himself against her, cupping a breast.

          When he is sure she is fast asleep — deep snoring, slight twitches that come from REM activity — Daniel gets dressed, tie and all, running a brush through his hair for good measure. Almost as an afterthought, he opens the mini-frig and grabs two miniature bottles of Chivas, the first thing he sees. His family must be wondering where he is.

 

          They are wondering, but too drunk to ask excuses. He rides with his cousin and his parents in one of the rented limos on the way home. The dark tint of the windows makes the desert look distant, as if the night could get blacker than black, as if somehow there's something beyond empty. His parents sit in the long seat in front of him, slurring and helpless as they laugh and drape over each other; Daniel feels jealous of their friends from before, because these parents he has never seen and it's like looking in a time machine. Tammy's head leans against his left shoulder, her hair tickling his nose. When the lights of the city illuminate the window, Daniel lets out a sigh and looks around; they're all asleep. He recognizes the dry wash in front of his neighborhood and tells the driver to keep on going--it's early and he doesn't feel like going to bed.

 

Malcolm Graham Cooper has been published as an undergraduate in Crack the Spine, Scholars, and Rogues.

In Association with Fossil Publications