I met Marcus one night when I was out with my supervisor at the biker bar on the east side of town. The bar had one fluorescent stick for light and was filled with men whose tattoos looked homemade. After midnight, this was the only place open in town, and I saw the same faces in there night after night, but I hadn’t noticed Marcus before. He was tall and black, with long hair he’d brushed out. It floated around his head.
Jerry approached Marcus. I couldn’t hear their words, but when we left, Marcus followed us out the door.
Probably I was drunk. Probably I ordered two beers at last call and walked out with the one I hadn’t finished stuck up in my sleeve. We went down the block to my Accord, and Marcus swung into the front seat. Jerry sat in the back and touched my neck. “Take him home, Katy,” he said, and I rolled my eyes. There you go, I thought. Using my car to get in good with some dealer.
This was in late August, 1999. I was twenty-two. Biracial. A mutt, is how I described myself. Black father, white mother. Though I would have liked to simply call myself black, I was often mistaken for white. I had pale, yellowish skin, black hair cut short. I liked to dress and walk around like I was tough, but Jerry knew another side of me. “Sweet girl,” he called me, though never in front of other people. He was nearly twice as old as I was and liked to say he was a hippie, but to me he looked like the other white men his age in the bars. He had his jeans from Kmart, grimy white sneakers with Velcro, T-shirts with holes, a ponytail I wanted him to cut off. I asked him to keep the sex we had a secret.
Marcus lived on the West Side, in the largely black neighborhood that stretched between North Street and the lake. I drove past rows of rotting wooden houses and turned onto the block he told me to. When he got out of the car, he walked around to my window and leaned in.
“Thanks for the ride.” His voice was calm, and it seemed that his face pulled suddenly into focus—that I was seeing him with absolute clarity, and that he was seeing me. He had thin features and narrowed eyes. I thought he was what I might look like if I were darker and a man. The question was there in my mind, as it was when I knew anyone was looking at me: can he tell that I’m black? I wanted him to be able to know without any explanation. Yes, I see who you are. For an instant, I was sure he would kiss me. Instead, he turned and walked off down the street.
“Who’s he?” I asked Jerry.
“Marcus? He’s from around. Why? You like him or something?”
“No.” But Jerry was right. I did like Marcus. I already had a fantasy of how it might be to be with him. He would know, absolutely, who I was. Whoever I was. We would waste no time speaking, the way Jerry and I were doing now.
Back at the house Jerry shared with his brother Dennis, we sat on the couch smoking the usual meager and yellowish crack rocks. It occurred to me that Jerry had probably gotten them from Marcus but I didn’t ask. We used a pipe Jerry had made from a water bottle, tinfoil, and a glass tube. The smoke was dry and thin, with a chemical taste. When it hit my lungs, I felt a snap up through the top of my head, as if a hand had smacked me into alertness, and the promise that this feeling could get better. With another hit, it would be better. On Jerry’s TV, Xena rode into battle. This show was like porn to Jerry, who liked domineering women. He used to tell me to hold him down when we had sex, to bite him as hard as I could. Nothing I did worked when he’d been drinking. “Just give up,” I’d tell him. I would be numb and drunk, barely able to feel him inside me.
It was another early morning like that, and after he stopped trying, I lay with my head on his chest. Since moving out of my parents’ house, I’d been living in a studio apartment a few blocks from Jerry, but I didn’t like to sleep alone. I spent most nights with him, and his bedroom was now more familiar to me than my own. Light filtered through the lacy curtains, a white haze of it. These curtains, the doilies, the family pictures on the walls, had all been put there by Jerry’s mother, who had succumbed to emphysema over the winter. This had been her room. She’d died in the same bed we lay on. As soon as she was buried, Jerry, who’d been sleeping on the couch following his divorce, took the room over. He hadn’t cleaned out his mother’s closet yet, and sometimes I’d think about his homemade crack pipe sitting where he stored it under his mother’s sad and faded dresses in their plastic sleeves. She hadn’t liked me, had called me, for reasons I never understood beyond my tannish skin color, “that girl from the islands.”
“I can’t go on like this,” Jerry said in a whisper. He was trying not to wake Dennis, who slept in the next room. “I know you’ll leave me.”
“I won’t,” I said.
Neither of us could sleep. Neither of us had energy. The drug kept my mind awake, but my body felt drained and useless. One of us would speak and then, after a long interval, the other.
“Am I pretty?”
“You’re my heart.”
“I wish I was darker so that people could tell.”
“You’re the only one concerned about it.”
“I don’t fit in anywhere.”
“You fit in with me.”
“Please,” I said, repulsed suddenly by the smell of the dirty sheets and the ashtray two feet from my face. Of course that’s what you would say, I thought. Only a person who doesn’t think about himself as being a race could come up with the shit you say.
In the wash of these nights, certain fragments still stand out like signposts. Many of these I wrote down in a notebook I kept at the time. “You fit in with me.” I saw Jerry’s words as a kind of plea. He was insecure about his age. Even his brother had told him I’d eventually find someone younger. But later, it became hard not to see his words as threat. Even now, looking back, I don’t know the extent to which I changed conversations in my journal to portray myself the way I wanted to be, unmoved by Jerry yet safe with him. I can’t be sure how much I’m changing now in the retelling. Yet how else to explain what happened between us but that we talked to each other in this way, without ever really understanding what the other person was saying?
“I think Marcus could tell I’m black,” I told Jerry.
He bit my shoulder. “If you mess with that skinny motherfucker, I’ll kick your ass,” he said, and I laughed because I wanted to sleep with Marcus, and I was sure that Jerry would do nothing about it.
By the time I met Marcus, my relationship with Jerry was eight months old. We’d hooked up when I started work at Underbrook Educational Center, a residential treatment home for emotionally disturbed children. The students were minorities shipped out to the Massachusetts countryside from rough neighborhoods in Albany, Boston, and New York City. These were the children no other institution would take. They’d been prostituted, beaten, seen parents murdered, set fires, tortured pets, molested younger siblings. Child care workers like me kept order through a system of time-outs and physical restraints. Most shifts were a controlled war between staff and children. But the Underbrook students loved Jerry. He was very fair, yet strict with them. “I’ll keep you safe,” he used to say when they got scared and violent. “If you can’t keep yourself safe, I’ll do it for you.” Then he’d slam them face down on the floor. When I first saw him do this I thought, that’s what I need.
But he wasn’t like that with me. He let me do what I wanted. “Just love me,” he’d say. Jerry was forty-two and living in what seemed a prolonged state of rebellion. He’d lost his license driving drunk, and it was as if we were teenagers. When he was still sleeping on the living room couch, we had sex in the woods or in my car. I liked that he liked me so much. Or said he did. I didn’t really believe him. I thought that when he said love, it was a euphemism for the same feelings that kept me with him: loneliness and need.
Several months after we first slept together, I learned Jerry smoked crack. He’d tried to keep this from me because he thought I was too young. But one night I showed up at his house unexpectedly, and he had a dealer in there and three guys I knew from the bars. They were smoking off of a piece of tinfoil, and there was something terrifying about the intensity of the men, all eyes on the person who smoked. After the others left, Jerry took a bag out of his pocket and smiled at me. That was the way he was. He’d spent months shielding me, but now that I’d found out, he’d make sure I joined him.
Jerry said no one knew he smoked except for me. Why tell me, I wanted to know. “Because you have my back,” he said, and I felt even closer to him than I had before. It was an honor, I thought, that he’d let me in on his secret. I was sure that what I now knew about him could ruin him at work.
“You love me,” Jerry told me. “No matter what you say, I can see it.”
“No,” I said. But I thought he might be right. Jerry was like a brother. He was like me, or what I might turn into if I didn’t watch out.
The second time I saw Marcus at the biker bar I got nervous. There he was, standing against the wall, talking with the other dealers. His detached expression was one I read as strength. I tried not to stare. How long had it been since I’d had a crush? Certainly I hadn’t ever been this attracted to Jerry. I didn’t know how to act. If I talked to Marcus, he might guess how I felt. I decided to pretend I hadn’t seen him. When he walked over to me, I didn’t look up.
“Hey stranger,” he said. “I’ve been looking out for you.”
Did he mean he’d been trying to find me or that he’d been watching over me? It was hard to tell from his expression, intent yet oddly distant. His arm on the bar was as thin as mine but wiry, stronger. I imagined him resting that arm on my shoulder, and I was drunk enough that for a few moments it seemed this fantasy was actually taking place. Then I realized Marcus had moved on over to the pool tables and that he was talking to someone else.
For the rest of the night, I watched where Marcus was and who he talked to. He asked me for a ride at last call and I said yes. As usual, Jerry rode with me but I took him home first.
“So that’s how you’re going to do me?” Jerry asked when we got to his place. He put his hand on my cheek. Then he got out of the car and slammed the door shut. In the rearview mirror, I saw the flash of Marcus’s lighter. Smoke from his cigarette filled my lungs.
“Get in front,” I told him. “You’ll make me nervous.”
He climbed out of the car and came around to the passenger seat. “I don’t want to do that,” he said.
In the silence that followed, I did begin to feel uncomfortable. I was used to Jerry talking and talking. All the stoplights were flashing yellow, as they did after midnight. We pulled around the rotary and down North Street, passing the darkened, junk-filled windows of the rental appliance store, the Salvation Army, the various health service offices. Soon we turned off into the West Side and then onto Marcus’s block, a road as thin as an alley. He asked me if I needed to get back to my man.
“Jerry’s not my man,” I said. “It’s not like that.”
“Then what was that little display back there? You think I’m stupid?” Marcus asked. His eyes fixed beyond me and I had the unsettling feeling he was talking to another person who stood just beyond my shoulder. “Yeah, I can see it. You been watching me all night thinking, he’s just a stupid motherfucker trying to get his dick wet. He’ll do what I want. Well, I’m not playing into your head games with your little boyfriend. I’m telling you right now.” His tone was harsh and flat. “I’m not whatever you think,” he said. “You want to deal with me, you best come straight.”
“Fine. What makes you think I want you anyway?”
He pushed back his hair with his long, thin hands and took a breath in. “Because I can read people.”
“OK, but why do you care?”
Marcus glared at me, biting his lip, and I felt as attracted to him as I had the first night I’d seen him. All I could see was his mouth and the teeth sinking into his skin. He’s going to kiss me, I thought, and a rush of anticipation followed, a sickening wave.
Marcus opened the car door. “See you around,” he said.
At work, Jerry caught me smoking during shift change. I was supposed to be up on the floor so that the day staff could leave. But there I was in the designated smoking area, a wooden gazebo set off in the field behind the main building. I saw Jerry walk toward me across the yellowing grass, but I didn’t try to avoid him. I was irritated by my shift assignment to Team Ten, a group of the six oldest girls. Jerry did staffing for the three-to-eleven shift, and he’d put me there to punish me. He knew Team Ten intimidated me. They were sixteen through eighteen, almost as old as I was, and each outweighed me by at least thirty pounds.
“Are you going up on the floor or what?” Jerry asked, letting the gazebo door slap shut behind him.
“Sure,” I said.
“So go.” His face seemed to shake slightly as he spoke. “Let me smoke this ciggy in peace.”
I ground my cigarette out and stood up. “I didn’t spend the night with him.”
“Get up on the floor.”
“Why’d you put me with Ten?”
He shrugged. His eyes jumped everywhere but on me. “Do you feel unsafe?” He asked this in a high, mocking voice. It was what the kids were taught to say when they were scared: I feel unsafe. “Good luck,” Jerry told me. “That team’s been rocking all day.” He began to sing to the tune of The Gambler. “You better know when to scold ’em. Know when to hold ’em. Know when to walk away. Know when to run.”
Contrary to what Jerry had anticipated, Team Ten was cool that night. They were happy I was working with them because I was lifeguard certified. That meant they could swim in the shallow, circular pool. After dinner, I took the girls who had privileges, three of them, out to the pool. The other girls were on restriction for threatening staff, which meant they couldn’t leave their rooms.
I sat on the wooden platform overlooking the water and watched staff walk from the dorms to the smoking gazebo. Sometimes the supervisors ran from their office to the dorms, once to Team Ten’s dorm. The girls I was watching grew uneasy. Who was getting restrained, they wanted to know. They started guessing.
“Mind your business,” I told them. “Unless you want pool restriction.”
“You can’t give us pool restriction for talking.”
“You want to bet?” All I wanted was to get through the shift without a restraint.
I had the two Latashas and Becky. Latasha Davis stayed on the platform, dipping her foot in the water. “Ooh,” she said. “It’s warm like they pissed in it.” Latasha had a squat, powerful body. She sat up straight, throwing out her large chest, and spoke loudly, almost in a yell. “When I get out of here, get back with my boo,” she said. “The things he does, girl.”
“Don’t even get started.” I was thinking about Marcus, as I had been all day.
“You like black guys or white guys?” Latasha asked, and I knew she was testing to see if she could upset me. If I lost my temper, she’d get scared that I wasn’t strong enough to handle her. The staff she knew could keep her in check were the only staff she felt safe with. “I bet you like white guys ’cause you so light.”
“It’s not about race,” I said. “Just find someone to take care of you. That’s what my dad says.” My father had never told me this or any advice along these lines. It was his guidance that I still longed for, especially regarding race. With his light skin and wavy hair, he was often mistaken as being Indian or Hispanic, and he seemed to prefer this. I never heard him refer to himself as a black man. He’d moved away from his relatives, was estranged from them. His avoidance of talking about them or his past was nearly total. When I asked him if he thought he was black—thought I was black—he would grow irritated and say I was focusing on the wrong thing. I was pale enough to pass as white was the implication. Why not go ahead and do it? His silence was the featureless wall against which I felt myself projected. It always surprised me when someone spoke to me as if I were black, the way Latasha had. It was as if she were pulling me forward, giving me definition and shape.
Now she rolled her eyes at my suggestion about finding a man. Her focus seemed to have shifted. She began telling me a story. When she’d lived in Brooklyn, girls she knew told her about a man who liked to hurt prostitutes. “I got in the car with him once,” she said. “This white car. We was all on the street and he pulls up, and when I get in, he like, let’s go to my crib, sugar. But I was looking in the back and I seen this baseball bat. Yo, I jumped out the car. It was moving, too. He came after me, but I ran up in my aunt house. She like, I know you ain’t trying to take her out this house. That’s why I say she saved my life. My auntie. Later on I hear other girls been beat by him. Maybe not the same dude. But they said he had a white car, too, a long car, like a car service car.”
Latasha stopped talking. I became aware of the quiet. The story was sad to me because I’d read her intake. Her aunt had been the one who prostituted her.
Jerry came by the pool to break me. He handed me the one lighter allowed on campus.
“Go kill yourself,” he said into my ear.
When I got back from the smoking gazebo, Latasha Davis was in the water with the other girls. They circled the pool in the same direction to create a current. Then they fought against it yelling, “Whirlpool.”
Jerry stood next to me on the platform, watching them. “I know some things about that skinny motherfucker,” he said.
“I’m sure you do.”
“You know he’s been locked up? You know what happens in jail?”
“So what. What else do you know?”
“Things.” Jerry held out his hand for the lighter, grinning at me for the first time that day. “Wouldn’t you like me to tell you?” He walked off, still smiling.
From the platform, I watched Jerry enter the gazebo. He sat on the bench inside and smoked two cigarettes in a row, bent over like an old man. Forget him, I told myself. He’s weak. But the longer I watched him, the more worried I got. The way he’d smiled at me was mean, I felt. For the first time since I’d known him, we were enemies, and I pictured my life without him, working my shifts under his hostile supervision, hitting the bars, falling into sleep and waking up alone.
It was getting dark and bats darted out from under the dorm roof and into the cooling air. The girls whispered to each other, looking up at the sky. Their faces seemed younger, smoothed out.
I drove to the bar by myself. As soon as I got inside, I saw that Jerry was already there. So was Marcus. I’d hoped he would be, but now that I saw him, I felt like leaving. He noticed me before I could.
“Don’t run off,” he told me. He’d had his hair braided in cornrows. I thought he looked good like that; better, even, than with his hair out.
The bartender poured me a shot of gin. I paid and drank. Jerry was playing pool on the other side of the room. I kept expecting him to walk over and confront me about flirting with Marcus, but he didn’t. For what seemed a long time, I explained to Marcus that Jerry was not my man. We had sex, yeah, but it wasn’t a serious thing. Anyway, I thought that it was over between us. The longer I listened to myself, the less convincing I sounded.
Finally, Marcus interrupted me. “Why are you telling me this?”
“Because of what you said about me playing games.”
We walked through the bar to the door. Jerry was still by the pool tables, and I knew without looking that he was watching us leave.
I drove us to Marcus’s house. We went in through a side porch. To get to his room, we walked up a flight of stairs, past an open door.
“Mom,” he called. “Mom, it’s Marc. I’m home.”
Someone grunted from inside.
“She worries,” Marcus said, when we were in his room. He switched on a lamp. “You could sit on the bed,” he said, pointing to the mattress on the floor. The room was barely large enough for it and a few boxes of clothes.
I sat down. Marcus took a manila envelope from one of the boxes and sat beside me. He began showing me photos: His mother in front of a yellow house. Pictures of him as a scrawny child. I realized he was trying to teach me about himself. “What about you?” he asked. “What’s up with you?”
“I hate my fucking job,” I said. As soon as I heard the words, I knew they were true. But I couldn’t remember saying or thinking them so clearly before. I started telling him that my parents lived only a half hour away but that I didn’t get along with them. My father didn’t like me. Or maybe it was that he didn’t like himself. In any case, he never seemed to want to talk to me. I hadn’t seen either of them for months.
“Check this out,” Marcus said, handing me a newspaper clipping. “Drug Ring Busted in Operation Clean Sweep” read the headline. One of the mug shots below was Marcus’s. “They called it organized crime,” he said. “Like we was the Mafia or some shit. I got locked up behind that, three years, almost four.”
So Jerry was right about Marcus being in jail. But he wasn’t ashamed of it, the way Jerry had insinuated he should be. I leaned back against the wall. The room seemed to shift, then right itself.
“Why don’t you sleep here?” Marcus’s voice stayed level, as if he did not care where I slept.
“You’ll think I’m trying to get with you.”
“Well, you are.” Marcus stood up and walked around the room, folding clothes. He took off his shirt, folded it, and put it on top of a pile of shirts. He was so thin it was shocking. Two fat scars, maybe an inch and a half thick, ran across his stomach. There was a longer scar on his back. I pictured my hand on it, sliding, an image that told me how drunk I was because of the sensation going with it, a warm glide along my own back.
“I think I’ll go home,” I said. Then I lay down on the mattress. Marcus got in bed beside me and switched off the light. We lay there, not touching, until he shifted so that his shoulder pressed into my back.
“I’m not going to get with you,” I said, against the longing I had for my whole body to be as connected and warm as the spot where his shoulder touched me.
“You said that. Anyway, there’s more important things.”
Like what? I wanted to ask. I could think of nothing more important than sex, except maybe this feeling. This one, of not being alone, with my limbs dead weight, a buzzing underneath my skin. The image behind my eyes was the scar on Marcus’s back and what he would feel if I touched that black, smooth, raised mark.
“It was over money,” Marcus said. “I was fourteen.” He might have been answering a question I didn’t remember asking. How had he got those scars?
He was stabbed by a dealer from the Bronx. It was why he was so skinny, he told me. He’d been in the hospital for weeks, had been unable to get his weight up ever since. “I don’t even remember it, you know that?” His voice was close in my ear. He described the park where it had happened, asked me if I knew it, a narrow strip of grass, a swing set. “They found me ten blocks outside that park, so I must have crawled. I guess I wanted to live.”
I wasn’t sure how to respond to Marcus. None of my stories were as dramatic as his, but to offer shock or sympathy would prove me as removed from his life as he probably thought I was. “My dad wishes I was white,” I finally said. “Jerry thinks that’s my problem.”
“Don’t talk about Jerry,” Marcus said, and it seemed that the warmth in his voice sank into my skin. I practiced a breathing relaxation technique that staff taught the Underbrook children: One. Deep breath. Two. Deep breath. Three. Deep breath. I wasn’t going to have sex with Marcus. I was safe with him. I was going to sleep.
“What are you doing?” he asked me.
“Sleeping,” I said.
A little later, I was sleeping. In my dream, Latasha and Marcus made a whirlpool in the Underbrook swimming pool. It was night. They circled, two dark forms in the glowing water. To come in, they said to me, you have to get stabbed. I have been, I said. Look at this. OK, they said together, if you think it’s enough, then that’s cool. But you don’t think that.
In the morning, I woke to see Marcus lying next to me and was momentarily confused. His eyes were open and I had the feeling he’d been watching me.
“What race is your dad anyway?” he asked. “Black, right? In this light I can see it even more.”
I was embarrassed and glad at the same time. “Usually people can’t tell. Or white people can’t tell.”
“Yeah, that’s how it is. But we know our own. Could Jerry tell?”
“I thought you didn’t want to talk about him.”
“Oh, so he couldn’t, right? I bet that still pisses you off.”
I found myself laughing. “Yeah,” I kept saying. “Yeah. It does piss me off.” In my mind, I was trying to record Marcus’s tone of voice and the language he used. We know our own. When I got back to my apartment, I would write down this sentence and other words he’d said: “Reup.” “Bet.” “Stay,” as in, “I stay smoking” or “I stay by the West Side.” I would work these into my own speech.
“You’ll be out tonight?” Marcus asked me, and I said that I would.
But Marcus wasn’t in the bar that night. Jerry was, and other staff from work. I talked to them. Jerry and I ignored each other. At last call, he came up to me.
“I’ve had enough of giving you the silent treatment,” he said.
“Good.” I was drunk by this point and disappointed that Marcus hadn’t shown.
“You can’t help it you’re a nympho,” Jerry said.
I might have tried to punch him. If I did, he would have liked it.
We walked back to his house, leaning into each other to stay upright. I was much drunker than usual, but I remember the streets slick with rain and car oil. There was a small white guy standing on Jerry’s porch when we got there. I’d seen him before but I kept forgetting his name. After that night, I would forget it again. He was about my age. This guy was a crackhead, what I thought of as a real one, always chasing it. Jerry must have told him to meet us there.
Inside the house, they got ready to smoke. I went upstairs to use the toilet and fell out on the bathroom floor.
The next thing I knew, Jerry was standing over me. “Wakey, wakey,” he said. He kept talking as he helped me get up. The guy was going to have sex with me in exchange for crack. That’s what Jerry wanted. He needed my help. “Do it for me,” he said. His room was bright with the bedside light. Then he clicked off the light, and I fell onto the bed, as if pushed. I don’t think he pushed me, but he might have.
“You owe me,” he said. I remember that he said that. “After all your shit with that skinny motherfucker.”
When the guy came upstairs, I was half naked. I think Jerry slid my jeans off and my underwear. The guy leaned over me, a narrow shadow in the dark room. He started kissing me. For a while, I kissed him back. He lay between my legs and tried to get his penis into me. I put my hand down to guide him. I was on autopilot, had forgotten who this guy was. For a while, I was sure he was Jerry. But there was another shadow beside me. Jerry. When I felt his mouth on my neck it was as if I woke up. I pushed the other man off me with both hands. He seemed to weigh very little and he fell off the bed, swearing. Then I was in the bathroom, locking the door. I puked all over the linoleum and in the toilet. Jerry’s brother Dennis came out into the hallway. He yelled at Jerry. What was all the noise? Who was in the bathroom? I heard footsteps on the stairs: the men walking down, then up; the two brothers’ voices, still arguing.
It must have been hours later that I woke, because the sun was up. I lay on the floor, looking at the showerhead for what seemed a long time. Then I tried to clean up my vomit with toilet paper, but the tissue kept disintegrating in my hands. I got in the shower and washed the vomit off my body.
When I came out of the bathroom, I saw the door to Jerry’s room half open. He was alone in the bed. My plan was to sneak my clothes out, but I couldn’t find my pants. They must have still been in the bed, under the covers.
“Katy,” Jerry said, his eyes still closed. “Come here, girl.” He opened his arms.
“Where are my pants?”
“Are you going to hug me or what?”
I took a pair of his shorts off the armchair and stepped into them.
“I’m so sorry,” Jerry said. “That was a big mistake.”
Outside the window, I saw the clear sky I’d seen so many times before. I smelled the dirty sheets and the smoke and Jerry. “Baby,” he said. And I sat down on the bed and let him hug me. I wanted to be held so badly that I tried to forget what he’d done. We were back in another morning, a morning that had already happened. Except there were no other mornings, because this is who Jerry had been all that time. I just hadn’t known it.
I could have gone to the police. Probably nothing would have come of it. Still, it would have been something to do for myself, a stand I could have taken. But that didn’t occur to me at the time. Instead, I tried not to think about that night. This was impossible. However, I don’t remember crying or telling anyone about it. It wasn’t until two years later, when I was sobering up and in therapy, that I began to try to reconstruct that period of my life. Looking back at my journals, I was confronted for the first time by the differences between what I remembered and what I had recorded. Conversations I vividly recalled, I now questioned—because I no longer trusted my old interpretations of people and their intentions. About that night with Jerry I’d written, “None of this matters much anyway,” a hope that later proved false for me. I’d been as invested in protecting Jerry as the kid who defends an abusive parent.
One evening, I broke down at work. This was a few weeks after what I thought of as the “incident.” I’d gotten that term from the report forms Underbrook staff filled out after restraints. The breakdown became another “incident” in my mind. It seemed the more humiliating because more people found out about it.
I had brought three Team Ten girls back to the dorm from the pool. Latasha Davis sniffed at Latasha Ortiz and said, “Fish.” When I told Latasha Davis to take a time-out, she swung at me. I grabbed her arm and yanked her forward until she lost her balance and fell face down onto the carpet, screaming, “Get off me, nigger.”
I was scared. I was the lone staff in the dorm. If Latasha got loose, I knew she’d hurt me. I leaned against her back, jacking her arm behind her. This was the one-person face down restraint. The pain of the twisted arm kept her on the floor.
“My arm, bitch,” Latasha yelled, over and over.
I had her, I realized. I’d taken her down, and she was powerless. I pulled up harder on her arm. “Stop struggling,” I said.
She kicked her legs, trying to get at me. “I can’t breathe,” she said, and I ignored her. Students did and said all kinds of things in restraints: Their arm was hurting. They couldn’t breathe. We told them that if they could talk, they could breathe. If you can cry, you can breathe. Now, I waited for the fight to go out of Latasha. I waited for her to say, “Can I count now?” Then I’d say yes and listen to the choking, beaten voice. Ten. Deep breath. Nine. Deep breath. Eight . . . Instead, she kept struggling.
That night, Jerry was doing the rounds in the dorms. When he found me in the restraint, he dropped onto Latasha’s legs, pinning them to the floor.
“Who’s on my legs?” Latasha yelled, her voice rising, terrified. I was holding her head down so she wouldn’t bang it, and she couldn’t see Jerry. Suddenly I felt bad for her. All her attitude had fallen away. “Please, please,” she begged. “Who’s on my legs?”
“The supe,” I said. I felt like I might cry.
She stopped struggling then and started breathing, heavily. I knew she was trying to calm down. “Hi, Jerry,” she finally said. Her cheek was raw with rug burn.
“Hi, Davis,” Jerry said. His leg was resting against mine, and I felt the heat of his skin through my jeans. I had a flash of memory: The smell of his room. The pressure of his lips on my neck. As soon as the other staff and girls returned, I got off Latasha and left the dorm.
It was dark and the fireflies were out, flashing points across the field. I walked to the gazebo. Minutes passed. I heard Jerry’s footsteps in the dry grass before I saw him. He came into the gazebo, stood in front of me, and put his hand on my hair. I didn’t move.
“I could write you up for leaving the floor without permission,” Jerry said. He sat down on the bench opposite me and lit a cigarette, which he passed to me. “I know that night bothered you,” he told me. “You’ll probably feel better if you admit it. Come on, girl. It hurt me, too. That wasn’t what I pictured when I set it up.”
I closed my eyes. I wasn’t with Jerry. Or I was, but I was somebody else. I was Marcus, crawling with stab wounds. I was my father, evasive and silent.
“Katy,” Jerry said. “Talk to me.”
I was sitting next to Jerry but I felt nothing for him. He could have been anyone. He was a stranger. “All the kids like you,” I finally said. “They calm down when you come in the room.”
“I know. Because I keep them safe.”
“You don’t keep me safe,” I said. “You never have.”
“You’re not a child,” Jerry said.
I only spent the night with Marcus one more time. On that night, I paged him from a pay phone outside the bar. A few minutes passed during which I watched the empty street, hoping. Then the phone rang.
“Someone page Marcus?” He didn’t seem surprised to hear my voice. He said I should come by his new place and gave me directions I kept forgetting.
The building was two blocks from the jail. He must have been listening for the car, because when I pulled up to the curb, he came out onto the porch.
He led me into the tiny studio. The walls were dirty and cracked. His mattress was on the floor again. “Why’d you move here?” I asked.
“Anywhere I stay too long gets hot. I didn’t want my mom in trouble.” He pulled a rolled blunt out of a shoebox and lit it carefully but as if not quite conscious of what he was doing. He took two hits. I took two hits. Then we lay back on the mattress.
“What did you do to the guy who stabbed you?” I asked.
He jerked his head up. His face was only a few feet from mine, and when he spoke, I felt his breath on my forehead. “I was fourteen,” he said, in his even voice.
“Yeah, but what did you do?”
“He got taken care of, OK? What’s up with the questions?” He’ll make me leave now, I thought. But he began to tell me the story. “It was like this. Dude stayed away for years, but when I was sixteen, I saw him waiting for the Bonanza to New York and I got my boys and we tailed him, all the way to Port Authority. Well, we got him down in the bathroom of McDonald’s and we just cut him up. He was on the floor when we left.”
In the position I was lying, I could see nothing of Marcus but his right hand, the hand that had held the knife if he was telling the truth. I touched his fingers and pulled away, as if the contact had been an accident. “Why’d you do it?”
“I wanted him to know how I felt.” Marcus lay back down next to me. His eyes were half closed and he smiled. “You like me yet?” he asked.
I nodded. I felt that Marcus would listen to me if I told him what had happened with Jerry. Of anyone I knew, he might understand. I believed he was as strong—and yes, as black—as I had ever wanted to be. Maybe he would even do something to Jerry or tell me what to do. And yet, I couldn’t admit what had happened. I hadn’t defended myself. I hadn’t escaped in time. Instead, I leaned over Marcus. My lips touched his mouth and it opened, and then I felt his tongue on my own, a taste of smoke and spit. The bones in his body shifted under mine.
“This is what you want?” he asked.
“Yes,” I said. But it was not what I wanted. I wanted to be him, inside me.
In the morning, I walked down the sidewalk to my car. Behind me, Marcus stood in his doorway. When I looked back, he raised his hand.
“Don’t be a stranger,” he said.
“All right, then.” I knew I wouldn’t call. There was no point in it, I realized. No matter how much time I spent with him, or with anyone, I would inevitably be thrown back into my own skin and looking out of my own eyes.
It was barely six o’clock and the streets were empty and bright. The eastern walls of the buildings glowed with the pale sun. I drove quickly. To a watcher on the street, I might have looked like someone who knew where she was going.