From Everyone Remain Calm now available from Joyland and ECW Press.
How it ended was, I got drunk. Like falling off the bar stool. Like lying on the floor and laughing at nothing. Like getting pulled to my feet by some random guy and falling over again, so he had to wrap his arms around my waist to keep me up. “Thanks,” I slurred. And, “You’re really ssstrong!” And, “You’re cute, too. You got a ssshaved head, and a sssweater, and that’s a lot of sssss’s.”
So of course I took him home, and we were making out in the street in front of my apartment—pawing, groping, chasing each other up the stairs, kissing on the floor in the hall, and there we were at the front door, slobbering all over each other—good drunken anonymous fun that always makes sense at the time and he said, “Should we go inside?” He had me pressed against the wall and I couldn’t stop laughing. “We can’t,” I remember saying, sliding my hands down the back of his pants and nodding sideways towards the door. “He’s in there.”
“What?” the guy said, pulling back. “You live with your boyfriend?”
“Oh no,” I said, still laughing. “There’s no boyfriend anymore!”
“Well then, who?”
“You’ll never guess,” I said. “Guessss.” I was really cracking myself up.
“Tell me,” he said.
“Tell me,” he said again.
“Tell me!” he insisted, so I said, singsong, “Okaaay. But you’re just going to think I’m dru-unk.”
He waited, and I leaned in close to his ear and whispered, “The Incredible Hulk lives under my bed.”
He pulled away and looked at me, one eyebrow raised. “I’m serious,” I said. I squeezed his butt and tried to wink. “You wanna come see?” And then I was laughing and we fell through the door and clothes started flying as we stumbled down the hall: jacket, jacket, skirt, shirt, jeans, tights, all in our wake across my floor. I stopped in front of the bedroom and turned to face him in just my underwear. “Look,” I said. “I haven’t been in here in two weeks.” I was trying to be serious but I had the whiskey giggles. “You see,” I explained, “we had a fight.”
This guy, he doubled over like that was the funniest thing in the goddamn universe. All he had on was socks, and I watched him laugh, and then I was laughing, but I also wanted to cry, and run, and touch him, and all these feel- ings bubbled, sixty-proof, in my stomach. “Just remember I warned you,” I said, and then I opened the door.
It was dark in there, but enough moonlight was coming through the window to illuminate everything—silhouette of a dresser, outline of a closet, bed in the far corner, naked guy in socks. He tiptoed across the room and squatted down beside the bed. “Here?” he asked, rooting around beneath it. Now, maybe it was the liquor, but I swear I heard music then, that uh-oh, something’s going to hap-pen track, like in the movies when the pretty girl opens the basement door. “I’d get your hand outta there,” I said. The music was getting louder, beating at the back of my skull. “Are you scared?” he said, and the music got louder, louder, and as I opened my mouth to tell him Get back, just back away! a long, thick, green hand shot out from under the bed, grabbed this guy around the ankle and yanked, his heavy, naked body disappearing in one smooth pull. The bed started shaking then like it was possessed, the blankets lifting up and falling down, the springs squeaking and groaning, the headboard slamming into the wall and there was yelling and growling and screeching, and then—just as suddenly—silence. Maybe you’re thinking I was just drunk. But it was for real. I swear.
How it started was my mother threw the television off the back porch. We were up on the fourth floor then, and I remember standing on my tiptoes to peek over the ledge and look down at the shattered tv on the pavement below. I don’t know why she did it—I was five then and didn’t understand their fights—but every time my dad came home with a new tv, my mom would wait until he left the apartment, calmly unplug it, push it out the back door, onto the porch, and over the ledge. No yelling or threatening or retali- ation worked, so my dad did the only thing he could—he hid one. When my mom would leave on Saturday mornings to go shopping, Dad would unlock the cabinet where he kept his hunting rifles, take out the secret television, twist aluminum foil around its rabbit ears, and we’d watch The Incredible Hulk. When David Banner would turn into the Hulk, his muscles all flexing and ripping through his clothes, my dad would roar and run around the living room pounding on his chest. He’d pick me up in the air and toss me all around, saying, “I’m that tough, aren’t I, baby? I’m as tough as the Incredible Hulk!” He loved the Hulk, my dad, so much so that when he took off on Mom and me, he promised that I never had to worry, because “The Hulk’ll take care of you, sweetheart. He’ll always look after you.” He was sitting on the edge of my bed as he said this. It was the middle of the night and from the light in the hall I could see suitcases packed and ready to go. I was six years old, and that was the last time I saw my father.
But true to his word, every time I had a problem the Hulk would appear. I got picked on in the schoolyard, and suddenly he was there, big and green in split red pants, picking up bullies and tossing them over jungle gyms. I took a really hard test, and there he was, squashed into the kiddie desk behind me, whispering answers over my shoulder. I got into a fight with my mom, and he’d be standing just behind her, sticking his green tongue out, doing the chicken dance with his fingers up his nose, anything he could to make me laugh. It was like I was some celebrity with a bodyguard, how he followed me around all the time, right up until I met Jerome my second year of high school. Jerome wore Birkenstocks and woven shirka parkas and beads made out of fimo clay, so not long after I started dating him I had flowy drawstring skirts and dreadlocks. See, I was love. That’s what Jerome said all the time: “Shelley, you are love. I don’t just mean I love you, I mean, you are love,” and I’d say, “Because of you.” Jerome and me, we were all those things Shirley MacLaine talks about. I was going to meet him over and over again, life after life, all through the eternal wanderings of my soul, so you can imagine how I must’ve felt when he dumped me our first year of college. We were sitting across from one another at the Bali Café, drinking herbal tea, and he reached across the table and took both my hands between his own. His voice was very serious. “With you, I laugh, but not all of my laughter,” he said. “I cry, but not all of my tears.”
I said, “Huh?”
He said that institutionalized education was the displacement of the higher mind and he was going to Paris for real intellectual didactic.
I said, “What?”
“I don’t want any negative energy, Shelley,” he said gravely. “What we had—”
“A real connection and—”
“I thought we were love,” I said.
Jerome brought his hands together in Namaste and said, “I think we
should just . . . be . . . friends.”
I’ll tell you what: I didn’t feel much like love after that. I felt like bitter burning hatred, like sending anthrax to retirement homes, like giving machetes to babies, like pushing tourists off the Sears Tower observation deck and watching them fall like sinking stones through the atmosphere until they hit the pavement below and splattered grossness on everything in a ten mile radius, that’s how I fucking felt! I ran back to my apartment, grabbed a pair of scissors, sat down in front of my mirror, and cut my dreads off one by one. When they were gone, I sat there with stubs growing out of my scalp and watched myself cry. That was when I heard it—knocking from under my bed. I sat perfectly still.
A few minutes passed, and then, again. Like knuckles on a doorframe. “Hello?” I said. Nothing. I waited, then slowly stood up and walked to the edge of my bed. “Hello?” I said again.
Knock. Knock. Knock.
I stayed frozen for what felt like a long time, and then, slow-motion-slow, got on my hands and knees and lowered my head ’til my cheek was on the floor and I was staring underneath my bed. Nothing.
And then, before I could stand up, there was a hand grasping my wrist and another hand locked around my ankle and I was yanked into the dark- ness beneath my bed, beneath his body, chest to chest with I didn’t know who, his legs pinning mine down, one of his hands pressed over my mouth to muffle my screams and the other wrapped around my neck. We were eyeball to eyeball and I struggled under him, but it was too tight down there, he was too big, and the hand around my neck let loose and started moving down, over my chest, my stomach, down, down, his eyes still boring into mine and everything seemed to change all of a sudden, like the thermostat got turned up ’cause it was getting hot and when I realized what he wanted I stopped struggling against him and tried to help him get there: I lifted my hips up so he could get my jeans down, underwear off, all the time staring at him, and then he took his hand off my mouth and we were kissing and rolling and pressing and then I felt it—I gasped—and was blinded by a lightning flash of bright green light.
“You’re not going to believe this,” I said to my friend Celeste the next day at dinner. Her fork stayed suspended in midair during the whole story. “I couldn’t really see anything,” I said, “but I think he started out as Banner ’cause he just felt like a regular guy, you know, but after the green flash he just started growing. I mean . . .”
I dropped my eyes down to my lap and looked back up at her. “Everywhere. Like, I had my hands on his back and I could feel the muscles in his shoulders tighten and expand, could feel each ripple in his six-pack pop into place against my stomach. Like, suddenly he was three times as heavy so we had to flip over so I wouldn’t be crushed and”—I whispered this last part— “his penis just inflated right up like he’d taken a bicycle pump to it! It was amazing!”
Celeste put down her fork and cleared her throat. “Shelley,” she said. “Are you . . . doing okay?”
“Okay?” I said. “I’m fantastic!” I’d gone to a salon that morning and traded the clumpy chopped dreadlocks for a little pixie cut, and had spent the afternoon giving my new Neiman Marcus card a workout.
“It’s just that . . . I mean . . . sweetie,” she said. “You’re telling me you’re in love with . . . the Incredible Hulk.”
“I didn’t say I was in love,” I told her. “I said I got laid.”
From then on, I kept the Hulk to myself. I didn’t tell anyone else about those nights with him under my bed, so there wasn’t anybody to tell when they stopped. I just woke up one morning and he wasn’t there anymore. That was the day I met Kyle, in a psychology class my junior year. A few months into our relationship we were making dinner at my apartment and he asked why all of the artwork that I owned was still stacked on the floor.
“You’ve been living here forever,” he pointed out. “Do you need help hanging this stuff?”
“No,” I said. “I haven’t decided on the right spot yet. Like, if I put the Bosch poster over here, above the fireplace, I’ll want to switch it to the hall, and then . . .” I trailed off when I noticed the look on his face. “What’s wrong?” I asked.
He sat me down on the couch next to him, reached over, and took both my hands between his own. “I’ve really enjoyed the time we’ve spent together,” he said.
“You’re talking in the past tense,” I pointed out.
“I just think we’re looking for different things.”
“And what is it with guys grabbing your hands?” I said. “If a girl is going to drop a bomb in your lap she says, ‘We need to have a talk,’ but with guys it’s grabbing your hands all the time.”
“Shelley, I’m at the point in my life where I’m looking for a commitment,”
he went on, and was going to go on more but I cut him off.
“And I’m not?”
He let go of one of my hands in order to wave one of his at my paintings on the floor. “If you can’t even commit to wall space you’ll never be able to—”
I kicked him out. Then I found a hammer and banged the goddamn Bosch into the wall, lopsided. I went to my room and laid on the bed, on my back so the tears poured down the sides of my face and into my ears. That’s when I felt it. A poke, like I had laid on a rock or something. I stayed very still and then, cautiously, I crossed one leg over the other and let it dangle just slightly over the edge of my bed. Nothing happened. I shook my foot a little. Nothing. I shook my whole leg, really rattled it around, like I was doing the hokey pokey. Nothing. You’re a fool, Shelley, I said to myself, it was a figment of your imagin—but before I could finish the thought a green hand reached up, wrapped around my ankle, and pulled me down below. For years, that’s how it went. When I was with somebody, the Hulk was gone. When I wasn’t, he was there. I mean, really there. There in your head as you fall asleep at night. There in your fingertips when you feel alone. There after the others have all gone: the one who thought you were cold. Who thought you were fat. Who was a drunk. Who couldn’t deal with your job. Who wanted to be with you but just couldn’t right now. Who was too busy. Who was not in a good place. Who just wasn’t feeling it. I’d look down at my fists clasped tightly between theirs and think that something incred- ible was a hell of a lot better than reality. In fact, I started rushing through breakups so I could hurry up and get under the bed.
“It’s not you, Shelley,” Carl said. I was twenty-five years old. He was Number Nine. We were sitting in his living room and—surprise!—he was holding both my hands.
“I think you’re great,” is what he said. “Really great.”
“Okay,” I said. “And?” My libido was revving, like somebody had just taken their foot off my brake.
“I really enjoy talking to you,” he said, “and hanging out and stuff—”
“Right,” I said. “And?”
“It’s just that—”
Hurry up, man, spit it out!
“What I think I’m trying to say is—”
I don’t have all night, I’ve got places to be.
No, I don’t think you do, Carl. This is something you couldn’t possibly understand.
“—Just . . . be . . . friends,” he finished, and in a flash, I was on my feet. No beating of my breast, no ripping of my hair, no why, why, why did it all go wrong? No sir, I had places to be. I said, “OkaythanksCarlitwasfunbye,” ran past his confused look and emotive hands, got out the door, into my car, and hit the streets at the corners, speeding all the way. See, I knew what would be waiting for me when I got home. It was always there—one, two, three, nine times—and I thought This is perfect! I’ll never be hurt again, because the Incredible Hulk will always take care of me. But then something happened that I hadn’t anticipated. I fell in love.
I didn’t mean to. I’d done everything I could to avoid it, dividing my time equally between work and Hulk. But there was, of course, the occasional night out with the girls, and that’s when I met Jimmy. We were at a karaoke bar in Lincoln Square because Celeste needed to get a little Pat Benatar out of her system. While she sang, the rest of us drank, and cheered, and yelled for more and by the time she got to “Love Is a Battlefield” the place was packed and everyone was hammered.
I pushed through the crowd towards the bathroom, slowly realizing how drunk I was by the effort of walking. I made it to the back and was going hand-over-hand down the wall when a voice behind me said, “You’re not leaving, are you?”
Now, I know that everybody looks good when you’ve had a few, but when I turned around and saw this guy, I almost fell right over. He was beautiful. Beautiful. But, Shelley, if you go back historically, so were Breakups Two, Five, and Six. And Five, Seven, and Nine were tall. Two through Five had good tattoos, and Three had soft thick hair and Four and Six had big brown eyes and Six, Seven, Eight, and . . . which one? Three, yes, Three made you swoon when you first saw them, so . . . you see my point?
“No,” I said aloud. “I’m not leaving.”
He smiled, and ohhhhh, the smile (see Two and Five and Nine, please), and said, “Good. ’Cause it’s my turn pretty soon, and I’m dedicating a song to you.”
I made it into the bathroom before I died, threw some water on my face, and looked at myself in the mirror. “No more,” I said sternly to my reflection. I pointed my finger at me and tried to look threatening. “You said no more.” Then I found my friends and said, “Come on. We gotta go.”
“Are you kidding?” said Celeste. She had lipstick on her teeth and cigarette butts in her hair. “I’m just warming up!”
“Yeah, Shelley, what’s your rush?” they all said, and I said, “’Cause that guy,” and I pointed at the guy, the beautiful one, the one who would be Number Ten if we didn’t get out of there quick, “is going to sing me a song.”
This was excitement. This was information that can really ignite a table full of girls, and they immediately started taking bets as to what he would sing.
“John Hiatt, ‘Have a Little Faith in Me,’” Liza said, and Celeste said, “Are you crazy? Look at that guy! He’s not ‘Have a Little Faith in Me’! He’s ‘I wanna fuck you like an animal’!” and Becky said, “You can’t karaoke Nine Inch Nails!” and Celeste said she’d gladly prove the falsity of that statement, and Kelly said, “Ten bucks on ‘Rocket Man,’” and everybody was like, “Elton John?” and money swapped hands and shots went all around the table and we were laughing and silly and suddenly, booming through the speakers came his voice, saying, “Okay, so . . . there’s this girl.”
“Yeeeah, Jim!” yelled one of his friends in the back.
“Shut up man,” he said, and then he looked at me. “She knows who she is,” he said, “and if I don’t sing to her I’ll regret it for the rest of my life.”
Celeste poked me in the back then. That poke was girl-code for Ohmigod did you hear what he just said? We all want them to say that.
And then the music started. It was “The Joker” by the Steve Miller Band, and everyone in the room cheered, and sang along to the part about the space cowboy and the gangster and the zoop zoop—everybody always does the zoop zoop—and who cared if this guy Jim had a good voice ’cause there was one stripe of hair falling across his eye and I thought No more, I said no more, and then I looked up, and we locked eyes, and it was the part in the song that goes right here, right here, and I was hooked. I’d like to pretend I’m tougher than that. That it takes more finesse to woo me. More time and thought into my seduction, but at that moment I felt like I’d been whacked over the head with a two-by-four. By the time he got to the part about the peaches, I was ready. I would have followed him to the ends of the earth. The backseat of his car. Whatever. When the song was done he came over to me. He stood very close. I remembered to breathe.
He opened his mouth to say something, but no words came, and he stared at me for a thousand million hours ’til finally he said, “So, I’m trashed, and I don’t want to meet you like this so I was hoping we could get together tomorrow?” at which point Celeste poked me really hard and I knew they were listening, all of my drunk girlfriends splayed out behind my head like giant peacock feathers.
“Definitely,” I said, and he kissed me, fast, and then was gone, and when we all stumbled out of the bar that night singing Zooop zoooop, I felt so good I thought I’d cry. The next day was wonderful.
My favorite thing about it was there was another day after that which was equally as good, and after that there were more, and all those led to a single, perfect moment, sort of like how every river feeds the ocean. It’d been a couple months since we’d met and we were at the conservatory in that little outdoor garden in the back. It was one of the last warm days of fall and the sun was bright, us telling stories, us laughing, flowers everywhere all purple and perfect, and I kept thinking that word—perfect perfect perfect—and then there was a bee.
The thing of it is, I’m allergic to bees. I was stung once when I was five, and I puffed up bright red and kept swelling bigger ’til they sent me to the hospital. One of the few memories I have of my dad before he took off is him picking me up and driving straight to a friend’s farm on the outskirts of the city. “I won’t have you afraid,” he’d said, and he took my hand and we walked right into the middle of a beehive—wooden frames with honey- combs in the middle set in circles across the lawn like a little Stonehenge— bees flying back and forth between them, around our heads, on our arms, in my hair, in my eyes like they might tangle in my lashes. I was still groggy from the drugs and very much associating these yellow and black bugs with all the needles they’d stuck in me. I opened my mouth to scream, but my dad crouched down in front of me, put his big hands on my shoulders, and said, “Shhhhh. Be still, baby.”
We stayed there like that, me and my dad, eye-to-eye, blue-to-blue, bees on our faces, light feather-touching across my skin, Shhhhh, be still, and I wasn’t afraid.
But Jimmy, there in that garden? He was jumping all over the place, waving his arms to get the bee away from me. I put my hand on his chest, palm flat over his heart. “Shhhhh,” I said. “Be still. It won’t sting you if you’re still.” I felt his heart thump, felt that beat travel into my hand, down my arm, pounding through my body and I knew I loved him. I was sure.
That night, before I went to sleep, I sat down cross-legged on the floor next to my bed. With two fingers, I lifted the edge of the blanket so I could see underneath—there was dark. And dust bunnies. A book I’d been missing. One sock. Couple of stale crackers—and that was all. “Goodbye,” I whispered, and, yeah, I felt a little silly doing it but we’d been together for so long that I felt I owed him at least that. “I’m glad you were there,” I said.
“But I don’t need you anymore.”
“We’ve got to talk.”
Jimmy and I were sitting across from each other in some bar and out of the clear blue sky his hands were reaching over the table, snaking around the empty beer bottles and ashtrays and drink menus. My heart started to whack against the inside of my chest and I told myself Shhhhh, be still, but nothing was and I wanted to throw things—the empty beer bottles and ash- trays and drink menus—just pick up everything I could and hurl it across the room. I wanted to cause some huge ruckus so everyone would turn and stare at us, and then, he wouldn’t be able to do it. The hands were still coming at me, and I locked mine together and stuck them tightly between my thighs.
“Shelley,” he said, and I couldn’t breathe.
He said, “Look at me, will you?”
He said, “Come on.” And out of my peripheral vision I saw his palms resting on the tabletop in front of me. “Come on,” he said again. “Give me your hands.” My stomach was sinking fast and I felt the tears, those stupid ones that you can’t force back.
“No,” I whispered. “I won’t,” and then it all burst out: “I won’t give you my hands, Jim, because of that night we couldn’t wait ’til we got inside so we made it on a couch someone had left in the alley. And I was looking for a pencil in your desk and found a list you’d made called Life’s Goals, and number three was Be a good dad. And when we first got together you told me you wanted to take it slow and you’re the first guy who’s ever said that, who hasn’t tried to get into my pants in the first fifteen seconds that we’ve known each other, and I am not ready for this to end!”
With that, I stood up, grabbed an ashtray, and flung it across the room. It slammed smack into a neon Pabst sign, which shattered into a thousand glass shards all over the floor but was still plugged in and buzzing. That was the only sound in the room. Everything else was silent. Everyone in the bar was looking at me, and I felt so goddamn mad I saw red. Actually: green.
A very familiar green.
I got home fast and burst into my bedroom, the door slamming into the wall and leaving hinge marks. “I know you’re in here!” I yelled. I stood in front of my bed and stomped my feet. “I know you’re supposed to save me, but I don’t want it anymore! I want—” and that’s when the hand shot out from under the bed, bright green against the white blankets, and locked around my right ankle. “No,” I said, “not this time!” and I stepped down hard on his wrist with my free foot, really pounded on it, over and over ’til the bed started shaking and a muffled growling rose from beneath it. He pulled hard and my feet flew out from underneath and I was on my back, dragged, watching as my body disappeared under the bed—first my feet, then my calves, my knees, thighs—I slammed both hands up against the sideboard and pushed back, trying to slide myself out—there were my thighs again, my knees, my calves—the growling was louder, louder still, the grip on my right foot iron-hard and groping for my left. I tried to remember the self-defense class I’d taken after Breakup Number Three and started kicking, aiming for where I knew his groin was, and, when I knew I wasn’t hitting the mark, I flipped over onto my stomach and aimed my left foot at his face. That got results: my heel connected with his mouth, two hard kicks to the teeth and one more to the nose. He screamed then, lost his grip, and I crawled out from under the bed, arm-over-arm towards the door, and once I was all the way out I started to stand and that’s when I heard it—the roar—the same one my dad had imitated Saturday morning again and again—loud and deep and raw and I turned and saw the hand, the wrist, the forearm, the elbow, the bicep, bulging, the shoulder, reaching out from under my bed, across the floor towards me. The electricity was going hay- wire, lights turning on and off, and suddenly everywhere there was noise— doors slamming and wind blowing and the bed dragging, dragging across the floor as he tried to get at me, lunging, roaring, screaming, almost on me, I couldn’t move fast enough—he was there—no, I was free—no, he had me—my hand on the doorknob—his hand at my back—but I was through. I was out. I was slamming the door, sinking to the floor, covering my ears with my hands to block him out.
I didn’t go back into my bedroom for two weeks. I wore the same clothes. I had bruises on my legs from my fight with the Hulk and a huge purple welt on my hip from him pulling me to the floor. It hurt like hell and I slept on my side, on my couch, huddled into a ball at night listening to the sounds coming from behind that door—banging, roaring, tremors. What I heard during the day was no less disturbing: Jimmy on my voicemail.
“Shelley, are you all right?”
“Shell, what’s going on?”
“You’re freaking me out, Shell.”
And finally: “It’s been a week. I’m coming over.”
I was sitting on the floor when I heard that one, backed up against the wall with my knees pulled into my chest. There was banging in my bed- room, Jimmy wanted to break up with me, was on his way over, hadn’t slept in a week, hadn’t showered in longer, and I panicked. I did the only thing I could: went to the bar down the street and got drunk. Brought someone home. Took him to my bedroom
You know this part, I already told you. But what I didn’t tell was that I woke up the next day, slumped in my underwear on the floor, and every- thing was normal. My bed was made. The doorframe hung. No bruises. The only clothes on the floor were mine. Nothing was under the bed, or in the closet, or the pantry. Not in the cabinets. Not behind the couch. Not in any of the thousand places I could imagine something horrible—not in any corners fear could find. Everything was as it should be and my phone was flashing. I hit the voicemail button and got this: “It’s me. It’s Jim. I can’t
make you talk to me, but I need you to know that—”
I didn’t hear the rest of that message, ’cause I’d picked my coat up off the floor, grabbed my keys, was out the door, into my car, hitting the streets at the corners, speeding all the way.
“Listen,” I said, when Jimmy opened the door. He looked a little startled, and I tried to imagine how he was seeing me: barefoot, coat, no pants, hungover, hair wild, eyes wild, mind racing. “I know what you’re thinking,” I said, rushing through the words while I still had the courage to say them.
“You think that I’m not good for you. You think you should leave. You think it won’t work . . . but what I need you to know is, what’s really there is so much different from what we think.”
I didn’t know if I was saying it right, but I was trying, and that’s more than I’d ever done before. “In the end,” I said, “we think too much.”
And you know what he did, this guy? He reached out and put one hand on my chest. “Shhhhh,” he said. “Be still,” and I looked down and watched my heart pound into his palm.