Envy Isn’t Something You Hold
Is self-harm a kind of language? If so, what are Ed’s arms telling us over the table?
Ed stretches his arms out over the table. “This thick one here was the first one. I overshot it.” I glance at Lars across the table as Ed speaks. “The skin split open and I saw all this red rise out.” Her lower lip hangs, puffy and peeled, under a glint of white teeth, just as when she writes. “The flesh went white along the edges, almost frothy, like frog’s skin.” His arms disappear under the table as if reaching for a surprise. “There’s some here, too.” He strokes his thighs in long sweeps, speaking rapidly and ecstatically, a force of joy as he says: “I did those after you cheated on me for the first time.” I wait for Lars’ reaction, for her face to suffer some change. I want her to see where this all began, my story, Ed’s skin, thirteen, Miami.
Each breath of cold air cuts my lungs. I have last night’s dinner on my mind when I leave the house before sunrise. The zipper of my jacket counts my steps on my chin. It’s March. It’s Ed’s second day here. He told me I didn’t have to take off from work. I only now realize he meant I should have.
The dog shit smeared on the sidewalk. The shards of mirror in dirt plots. My face on the unlit storefronts. Everything blue in the soft dark of the morning. I have grown to appreciate the emptiness of the streets at this hour, to anticipate this rare moment when I can pretend I’m not a gentrifier, that these blocks are mine alone. The idea of having Ed visit came on one of these mornings, commuting from Flatbush to Chelsea to open at the hotel cafe. I admit I’ve been lonely.
I still talk to Ed after all these years for a reason, I think, as I pull my sweater over and tuck it into a shelf behind the counter. A reason that might break me open if put into words.
Lars spends the day at home with Ed. In between customers, I sneak peeks at my phone to read her texts. She likes him. She says it’s nice letting her darkness rub up against Ed’s.
At the restaurant, Ed orders a dish of squid strips.
When the plate is set before Ed, I’m still thinking of his open skin, the white and red, the blood flowing out of him in long ropes in Miami, in a bathroom, on a cheap rug, on any given Sunday when his mother was out working from sunrise to sunset.
I forget that there are things we don’t know about each other, that we aren’t the same person anymore, that we never were. I’m so close to Lars that I sometimes forget that we’re not the same person, too. I keep making this mistake.
Ed explains to Lars, who was never a cutter, that if you slice vertically along the arm there isn’t any danger. Cutting, if you will, is a language.
What are Ed’s arms telling us over the table?
On the third day, there’s drinking, drinking, drinking – we’re drunk in a gay bar in the East Village. Eastern Bloc. All the guys wear jock straps. Hairy, tall, white men dancing in place, in one mass, a colony that from the outside appears motionless. Everyone looks like they know each other, I tell Ed at the edge of the crowd holding my coat to my chest. Like they come from the same place, a place we will never see, Ed. We take our clothes off and I’m thankful I put on cute underwear that morning, then upset when I notice the cuts on Ed’s thighs, the thin ones he had talked about over dinner, glowing pale pink in the neon bar light, almost as if freshly done. After I cheated on Ed for the first time, he slept with the same guy, the same guy whom we later found out was actually thirty-five. Now we laugh, we had a pedophile.
In between drinks, I check Grindr and Scruff underneath the bar ledge.
Ed calls me out: “There’s nothing more depressing than being on there. It’s like advertising your loneliness.”
I’m on there scrolling through the grid of men even as I’m with him. Waiting. Waiting for another man to hold my pain, which is Ed’s pain, Lars’ pain, my mother’s pain, so much pain.
Under the glow of the bar, the cuts on Ed’s wrists call attention to themselves, new and pink, I count them, like tally-marks, then try to read them, like letters. For the last four years, Ed has been torn about his last boyfriend, Nassir. I’m both surprised and unsurprised that he still misses him, since Ed was the same after our breakup, except this is longer, except I’m not a part of this. We have the same conversation about Nassir, that Nassir left him because he decided to find himself a wife, have children, make a life that his family in Palestine would accept.
I remember when last spring break, when I was still in college, I took a tab of acid in Ed’s room past midnight. I had to be quiet and stay in the room through the trip because his mother hated me and I wasn’t welcomed in her house after the Christmas break when his sister and I got in a fist fight. At some point I lie down on the floor, the carpet hot beneath me, and ask Ed to hold a pillow over my face.
“Choke me out, Ed.”
When I come up for air, gasping, I join him on the computer where my face morphs in and out of Ed’s pixels on a Skype window. In the bigger rectangle Nassir’s face smiles sweetly at me, eating breakfast, from his parents’ home in Palestine. During another of my visits, Nassir is back in town and he comes to my mom’s house and fucks me in my childhood bedroom before the three of us are supposed to hang out. The way Ed talks about his cuts, how he remembers their dates, their place, how he talks like he’s happy and proud of them, that’s why Nassir left him and why I never did.
Even one, small cut leads to many more, or in the cases it doesn’t, like mine, the urge for self-harm takes other forms, finds other languages.
Four drinks and we’re out of cash. Four drinks and I’m sixteen again, sneaking out of the house with my older boyfriend to a party where I would find Ed, where we would all fuck in a car, and I would dig my nails into my boyfriend’s thighs, because he was fucking Ed harder than he had fucked me. Ed always said I was the vengeful one. But weren’t we both? We’re drunk and it’s still not enough. I’m thinking about darkness, the darkness that Lars mentioned, the pitch black that joins me to the two of them.
Ed pushes the stool aside and in his underwear runs out the bar in search of an ATM. The doorman pulls him in by the back of his arms and Ed’s body draws an arc, lazy and long, in the cold air.
“Do you want to die, kid?” the doorman asks.
Ed had texted me days before his flight to say that he wasn’t the same kid anymore. I wanted to say that I wasn’t either – though sometimes I still wish I were.
Inside, I make him put his pants on and I wrap my scarf around my waist like a skirt of black marble. At the corner of street, we eat dollar slices doused in hot sauce and he withdraws cash from a bodega ATM and we buy a FourLoko. It’s March. It’s already three months into the year. It’s nine months since I graduated. It’s five years since we drank one of these together. We chug.
After the bar, Ed convinces me to go to a bathhouse in the West Village. It’s my first time. In the locker room, Ed strips down and wishes me luck and it’s only then that I realize we’re not doing this together. I’m alone walking through corridor after corridor of little black doors, naked with my towel slung over my shoulder. Things I see: An anonymous ass in the air. Two guys sniffing a bottle of poppers in a corner. A guy stretched out on a tiny cot stroking a fat cock that in the dark resembles a fist. Little blacks doors and little black doors. I carry Ed’s name on my tongue, where it slides around on its old saliva, as I turn a corner and through an open door, I see him there, in a dark room pumping into a guy whose face is pressed into a pillow pushed down by E’s hand. Choke me out, Ed.
Ed waves, a radiant smile on his face, a bow of lightning in the dark. Meat bangs against bone. I call an Uber and leave without him.
It’s 11 o'clock when he texts me in the morning.
“Hey girl. I’m still alive, leaving soon.”
He spent the night, what was left of it, at the bathhouse. And he’s still there. I watch Lars sleeping next to me. I had gone home. I had failed.
The glow of my phone lights up the cigarette burn on my wrist that I gave myself the summer after my sophomore year of college, before I was close with Lars, when I was calling Ed whenever I felt like dying, because some boy didn’t try to fuck me after a date, or because some other boy fucked me too hard, too intensely, spit on my face, and slapped me, and sent me out the door, cum dripping out of my ass and soaking my underwear, gluing them to my skin by the time I was back in my dorm.
Ed’s most memorable piece of advice from these days: “You don’t actually want to die... You just don’t want to deal with life, especially when you’re lonely, especially when things get hard, stressful, uncomfortable, and so you consider death an easy out.”
Below the burn is the faint scar of a cut, flat and a lighter shade, the only one I ever did. Ed cuts himself and I fuck men that hate me. This, too, is a language.
Two hours pass. Lars left to a meeting with her publisher in Chinatown and Ed should’ve been home by now. I decide to wait another hour. I’m on the couch by myself trying to read Gaitskill’s Veronica and texting Lars after every cruel, exhausting passage. Dead, omg, gagging, so good.
“It’s a big city, full of distractions,” Lars reminds me over text. Three more hours pass. I watch the chimney of light move across the living room, from the black Ikea table, to the bookshelf that looks like a cage, to the couch without legs Lars brought from her old apartment. Light chases the dark into the empty room in the center of our apartment. Dark out now. In another hour I’ll be walking around the West Village, stapling missing person signs with Ed’s face on trees, handing them to strangers, going back to the bathhouse and asking for him. But for now I go on Scruff and find a distraction to come over and fuck me while I wait for Ed who is possibly dead. My distraction is thirty-two and has a long term partner who doesn’t know he’s cheating on him with me.
“Can you keep it DL? Is that cool? Are we terrible people?”
I wrap my legs around him, pull him in, tell him no one’s ever fucked me like he does.
Ed arrives at six, doesn’t say a word, simply strips his clothes into a neat pile in the corner of my room and disappear to the bathroom. When we were young Ed was obsessed with Sylvia Plath. He used to quote her and I thought he was a genius, then, shouting his pain in someone else’s words. A million soldiers run, redcoats, every one of them.
I knock on the door and ask Ed to let me inside to pee. When nothing comes out of me I sit on the toilet intent on waiting the silence out until he explains what happened last night. A long silence. His silhouette softened through the curtain. His hands lift water over his head, moving gently. This is any bath, any day. Waiting. I imagine that inside him the small metal ball is spinning, the one I heard when I was thirteen, the one that’s always been there, going faster and faster, clearing space for the trauma of last night, where it will be buried along with the trauma of every other night. Nothing comes out of him either.
I leave the bathroom and swipe through more distractions on my phone. Even last year, Ed and I were still sleeping with each other. Ed leaves the water standing in the bath and goes into my room, where I watch him pull the wall mirror off the wall and lay it on the rug, then crouch over it, and then examine the underside of his thigh with two careful red hands.
On the sixth day I work at the cafe again. Around noon, Lars texts me to say that she cleaned Ed’s wound. Six, inch-long lacerations cross his legs in a row, like train tracks, like if he sat down on a radiator last night – like... She can’t imagine what else would make something a mark like that. I spend all day at work thinking about why I keep Ed in my life. What is it that brings me back to him? For a while I thought it was a desire for the Miami years. But it’s more than that. I admit I’ve spent hours looking at his pictures on Facebook, imaging his life – a beautiful, bold life – privately wishing it could somehow belong to me. Like I sometimes do with Lars now. I admit I’ve been lonely; I admit I keep making the same mistakes. Before I get on the train back home I get another text from Lars. She says that she can’t wait for me to get home. Ed’s darkness is too much, a pit black and dark, sucking her in.
At night, I try to have the three of us sleep in the same bed, like we did the first night, like we would every night if I had my way. But Ed is restless and I never get my way. He keeps turning and turning in the sheet I brought out for him because he said he didn’t like Lars’. Eventually, with a sigh, he gets up and goes to the bathroom where he slams the door. I listen for his cries and whispers, the inarticulate sounds of an animal. I leave Lars in bed.
One of the wounds is infected. White pus, green lint. Frog’s skin. He says he doesn’t remember how he got them. I soak up the pus with a ply of toilet paper, apply antibiotics, and bandage his leg. I pull close the sliding doors between my room and Lars’ and lay Ed down on my bed, where he pretends, still turning, gasping for breath, to sleep while I stay standing. I pace the room. On the TV stand, I pick up a business card I had not seen before. A white man in his fifties stares at me with a smile set in a square face from the card’s corner. Someone Ed fucked last night. How can he be against Grindr and Scruff and okay with this. The strangers. The little black doors. The dark. I slip the business card under the bed. I lie down next to Ed.
The seconds pass, each one longer, more audacious than the last. He pulls my arm around him, pulls me around his need.
“I love you, Ed.”
His body finally relaxes into sleep. The warmth of him spreads out in the dark around me. I keep holding him, wishing I was being held, wishing my pain were the kind people wanted to hold. But envy isn’t something one looks at and wants to hold.