Published on February 6th, 2017 | by Liz Asch1
THAT SMALL BLACK NIGHT by Liz Asch
That small black night I pushed my t-shirt over my head, slipped my bra off, slid my underwear and shorts to the pier, suddenly bare in the darkness. A gleam of skin in the summer air, a knife glint flicker on a black shag of forest.
A girl shape rippled on the lake.
Do I dare?
I make love to la mer, la mer, la mére, la mére, Laeti used to croon, laughing with remembered pleasure, drunk off her rocker, high on cocaine. Laeti used to say she went home to France to step into the sea off the coast of Brittany to make love to the water. After slow dancing me to Stevie Wonder in my studio apartment, after brushing strands of hair from my forehead with the back of her wrist, after pushing thumbfuls of foie gras she’d snagged from work into the small cave of my mouth, and clinking glasses of bubbly wine, after pressing her naked body atop mine on my red velvet duvet, after fucking me with her fist until light burst through my body and blanched me stunned and bright as the end of a reel of film, the celluloid flapping frantic as a whip. I want to take you home with me to Bretagne, Laeti told me in her throaty French English, so you can make love to my ocean.
The breeze nudging me, the air thumping with summer insects, my clothes a husk I’ve stepped out of. And then water. Slip into black milk. Submersion. The cold electric thrill of being in my skin.
Memory, a bold glow in the darkness.
I was eleven years old, cast as a chubby boy in our school musical, except I was small, so my costume was stuffed with polyester quilt batting. One performance, right before my cue, the stage mother noticed my lumpy presentation and re-stuffed my chest with quick vigor. The mother’s cold clunky wedding ring scraped against my chest, activating my nipple hit with a shiver. This little sleeping bud on my body I’d hardly noticed, suddenly awakened, tingling, aware. She gave me an odd look. Did she notice? I’ve done something wrong. It only occurred to me then that I should be wearing an undershirt or better yet a training bra like her daughter wore. Somewhere inside me I was alive in a girl kind of way, but I hadn’t known yet, and here I was naked on top, unaware that all the while I was being seen. Hot shame filled my cheeks. Her careless touch. My body mistakenly nude under my costume. And then the blinding lights, as I stepped onstage, and tried to form words in my mouth.
Each morning after selecting my school clothes I used to step into the closet and close the door, so that I could dress beneath the hems hanging from the closet bar, in a small space in the pitch-dark, so that no one in my empty room could see me naked, so that if there were eyes spying through the crack in my bedroom door, or if there were ghosts peering down through the stratosphere—if anyone was looking, then I would be invisible.
In the lake, in Connecticut, the sounds of laughter, shrieking. Oh, the water is cool. I swish my arms, tread with my legs so I am bobbing chin tipped to the skin of the lake, my breath in ripples. The chill laps at my collarbone. The smell of green algae in my mouth like an aftertaste. It’s in the air, in the water, in the night.
I want to be dark.
I want to be lost.
I can sense the edge of the lake wrapped far around me. I venture out towards the center. I am beginning to disappear.
One night, late, in high school, when I was supposed to be sleeping at a friend’s house after a theater performance, we all went streaking, let loose to the suburban wild of a midnight golf course, scattered along a line of tall oaks, black lace leaf print on the grass. The sounds of laughter, shrieking. The quick slapping of sandaled feet sprinting through grass, the clomp-clomp of combat boots chasing after, the faint chick-chick of the sprinkler system. Dodging yellow-brown pools of light, my shirt bunched up and pressed to my chest, my 32A bra gritting its teeth at my spine, my pants buttoned snug at the waist. Pressed to the shadows, my chest jagged with breath. I would say later that I went streaking like everybody else, that I ran untethered in my own skin. I will even remember it as such, that I took everything off, that I spun myself wildly and didn’t care who saw me, that water ran over my shoulders and down my spine, that I gave myself to that small black night.
The sky, sleepy eyed, weighted blue-black with the syrup of summer heat, its breath sighs over the water, surrounds me in a ripple. Star-spattered, I don’t know how to read it. How odd that it stays so still. This flattened picture of something more vast than I could ever imagine, bright with faraway light, a light we’re told isn’t of their heavenly bodies, but some old reflection, held in the space between us, an illusion.
As little girls my sister and I ran naked after baths in towels pretending to be bats let loose upon the house. We squealed and chased each other through the halls, down the stairs flapping our towels, our little bodies perfumed with soap bubbles, stringy wet hair. “Yours is brown!” I pointed to the spot between her legs. “Mine is pink and yours is brown!” I shrieked, alerting her to a difference, a problem, a flaw. It wasn’t brown. I don’t know why I said it. She folded her bat wings over her, no longer naked, now injured. That night. It’s hard to recall the rampant glee of early childhood, but I remember that image, and I can still feel the shame of that exchange. It clouds my insides like ink dropped in water and a stain remains. That moment of nakedness and the way I took it from her.
I didn’t know.
Ma petite crevette, Laeti whispered into my ear, my little shrimp, she slurred, in French, despite my irritation at her chosen nickname, she said it anyway, ignoring my explanations that the term was not an endearment in America, for me, who was always the smallest kid in the class, who was called shrimp in a rude way. Laeti took up so much more space than I, with her sumptuous frame, her wide teeth gleaming bright beneath her umber skin, the thickness of her hair that was fastened in long stretches by women at the salon into tight tamed braids. Laeti, even her hair a lashing. In her element, at her restaurant, always a magnanimous welcome, a sharp heel spin, broad smile, loud clap, dance move, strong-armed embrace, to her chosen family of customers. The shea butter and cologne smell of her skin. Her magnetic gleam. Her fine clothes. Her body heavy in my space. Stumbling into my apartment, uninvited, at three in the morning, laying her iron weight atop me in my sleep, making her way inside me, unlacing me from my dreams, her sour breath, ma petite crevette.
In bed when I can’t sleep I imagine the top of my head pries open. A long white stream of a ghostwoman flies away into the darkness. I feel better without her. When I look in the hollow of my body, I find a mane of horsehair in her place. It runs through me, a curtain replacing my spine. This is the way I save myself. I see my hands, large, translucent, holding a brush, combing the thick tangles from the hair. The static sound of it, the bristling. The coming sheen. My hands holding the just-brushed hair, cool strands shining. I fall asleep before the mane is fully smooth, before I can part it in three to braid, making it stronger.
On the train, out of town on my own for a short weekend with friends, Laeti’s incessant pleas piling up in my voicemail. Twenty-one messages one after the other. I can’t live without you. I love you. I need you. I hate you. Fuck you. In my mind a chant rumbling: my body does not belong to you I make my own choices I am allowed to leave. Detailing our relationship to my friends over breakfast at their kitchen table, their concerned looks and decisive advice, the reality check I needed to end it. Coming home, I stuffed her things in garbage bags, first in my hallway, then in the street. What kind of spell had I fallen under? Stevie Wonder melting off my heart like falling wax. A short-term vegetarian diet planned for my immediate future. Why could I not find the words earlier? why did I not pay attention to the warning signs? Mutter-screaming at myself, as I wrapped a long metal chain from the inside of the doorknob through the arm of the fridge, rigging it back around the knob, padlocked, tested, before I went to bed. Too embarrassed to ask my landlords to change the locks.
That night we’d spent at Martha’s Vineyard, Laeti and I, over the holidays in a rented house with her fancy friends, two kinds of roast in the oven, where she ridiculed me for undercooking the green beans and opening the incorrect wine, and earlier that day in the rented red jeep we rollicked over sand dunes, the wheel loose in her hands, and I had a raw burning inside to feel the pleasure she exuded from acts of destruction, but, instead, I felt the lace under my skin cinch tighter, and after dinner, bottles of wine and snorted powders and puffed smoke, with all the lights on high and the ceiling fan spinning, there was sex, ferocious and sloppy—like a guillotine, I watched my body cleave and a part of me escape, scrambling up the wall, hopping the blades of the fan to perch there on the swinging hub, a small monkey, with glassy eyes and tiny claw hands, peering down at the bed, watching a woman who looked me like get fucked, her pussy flushed like a radish, her cries letting loose an ocean, the sea outside the door, lapping at the shore, Laeti’s brown spiked eyes, her lips on that woman’s neck, her hand over her mouth.
Dark water, the din of insect talk, wings flapping. The slush slush of water. There is no telling black from black, water from air from the trees in the distance, from swimming, my legs my hands.
Late into my pregnancy with my son, the modesty I’d always had left. My body morphed from thin-hipped, small-breasted androgyny to something new, lush, and feminine. I held no claim on these swollen breasts, these wide hips and painted nipples, a costume of some other woman. I looked in the mirror, unafraid to admire her form. Maybe I should model, I thought, twisting this way and that, in awe of this new weight, these drippy curves, this ripening.
Just before my son emerged from that small cave within me, through that unimaginable tunnel, I had forgotten what would come of it all—the pregnancy, the labor, the delivery. That there, on the other side of the immediate pain, was a child, a baby. My baby. That within this hospital room he would emerge from my body incomprehensibly and become a new life in my hands. I didn’t remember the baby until I saw him, pink and mewling, once the pain abruptly ended and an entirely other sensation flooded my body, absolute wonder, and the fervent desire to hold him.
My son came hurtling into my world like a cannonball crashing through a window. I could try to put the pieces back together but they would never be the same. Turned inside-out, I had stretched beyond my imagination. Motherhood made me the beast I always wanted to be. My body shrunk back to size. Purple scars earthquaked my hips and ass, claw marks on my breasts, wrinkles stretched around my navel.
Camouflaged in the night lake, my skin as soft as water, and then—oh! quick flashes of color. A glimmer, a blur. And then, bubbling through the lake like soda water, everywhere, green orbs of gliding light.
They clustered around me, phosphorescence. My hands, my legs, my toes lit up. Magnetized by an affinity for skin. No feeling them, no different from the water. But I can see their green, I am dressed in it. One arm at a time I wave slowly through the water, treading with my feet to stay afloat, my chin dipping below the surface, mesmerized as the water cleaves with light over and over.
No longer naked.
My head tipped down to see myself illuminated.
I never knew.
I’ve carried that night like a stone kept in a pocket, a river rock rubbed by a thumb. The rise of color from blackness. Life from stillness. Nothing is what I thought it was. Those creatures, drawn to my skin.
That small black night, it lives in my body, a shadow tucked under a ridge of bone, it bobs to the surface when I swim.
Fifteen years after I said goodbye to Laeti and her drunken fits, au revoir, I’m in the ocean, not her ocean, but not far from it. I’m wading out, in the bright light of a blue sky, my clothes in a heap on the beach. I’m a patch of movement in the glimmer, long limbs of arms, transformed to water from the waist down, I’m going under. I don’t care who sees me or who doesn’t see me or who saw me striding the sand or who knows I’m swimming alone in my own skin. My son splashes at the shore, overdressed in a swimsuit and swimshirt, an eye on his mother, that small brown dot disappearing into the waggling lines of blue. Feel it, I beg myself, feel it on your skin, let it in, let it into you. Open yourself! I order my body to crack open like a wishbone. Please, I ask. Make love to it, make love to the sea. Daylight, bluelight, sea spray, crests of foam. Make love to the blue, I insist, to the water, to the salt, to the light.