I can’t imagine how many girls you must meet. I think you’ll remember me because I had a public case. I was tall and skinny, with an irate mother who was a little taller and a little skinnier than me; we came in April, two years ago, around tax time. Well, in case you do remember, I thought I’d let you know that I’m doing well. I testified against the club owner who hired me, and my dad destroyed the guy in court, but I haven’t changed my mind about Rattle. I maintain that I was consenting and he was harmless. I hope the best for him, even if he’s the reason Mom and I don’t speak.
He didn’t know how old I was till after. I don’t think I told you that. And we were safe, so there was no reason for him to look back or think I’d end up at your establishment. Rattle knew what to say that night and gave me perspective when I needed it, simple as that. Not that I was ignorant and needed some wanderer to ride in on his loud-ass motorcycle and school me to the ways of life, but living in this dying factory town, I don’t meet many people who don’t bore the shit out of me. The interesting folks usually drive right through. In a way, he inspired me.
You inspired me too, you know. I’m a nursing student now; I’m a year in—finally taking the good courses, learning about the brain and lymphatic system. I hope to be a nurse before I turn twenty-two. I think it’s funny that I study pain, that people like you and me are drawn to study a thing like that. But I guess it’s the only way we can address it.
When you met me, I was such a kid, still shaky on my feet, and I wasn’t sure I’d ever get into college. I thought I had something to prove. I didn’t want to bother my parents with my issues because they were both so damn sad all the time, and I couldn’t just walk up to them and say something like, “Yeah, Mom and Dad, I feel like shit sometimes, so I dance for perverts because having a pervert tell me I’m hot makes me feel wanted.”
How could I have said that to my parents? It might have been enough to send them over the edge. When I started at that club, my parents didn’t even notice—didn’t bat an eyelash when I bought them dinner at Morton’s for their anniversary or left at night with a backpack that I didn’t even bring to school most days. What’d they think, that I made that much in tips pedaling triple espressos, third shift? I guess when parents check out, they really check out.
My dad was the worst then. He’d sit at the dinner table and shovel in his mashed potatoes like he was in a hurry, but it was really because Mom wouldn’t let him eat in front of the TV. As soon as he was done, he’d rush to his recliner in front of the flat screen like that was the life he really wanted, the one where everyone slept in makeup and said things that an invisible audience laughed at; or the one where you look into a camera and give a play-by-play of what you learned about each day after very little happened aside from a few quick-witted lines and comedic stumbles.
I hated TV. Still do. Even then, I liked reading about the body and how vulnerable it is; how, if certain bacteria get in, like MRSA, and you fight it off with antibiotics, it stays dormant there, waiting for the opportunity to try to kill you again. How some viruses are strategic, and how there is forever a war going on inside. Really, I should be a doctor. I find this shit so fascinating. Weren’t you blown away, for instance, that if you have your bursa removed, it grows back? Hell, most people don’t know what a bursa is and probably don’t care unless it bothers them. But I do, you do. That’s why they need people like us bedside.
Up till the day you met her, I think Mom’s only pastime was pissing me off, telling me she was going to send me to etiquette school or one of those scared straight programs she saw on some talk show. I guess she eventually did. She was mean then, but she seemed more concerned about me than Dad. It’s strange how I’m closer to him now. He’s my only contact with her. And when I moved out, shortly after I came to you, he tried to help me settle into a new place. He snuck me some things, some money, and told me it’d all work out. He was supportive during the court cases—which drained the lifeblood out of me, let me tell you. Mom still won’t speak to me until I press charges against Rattle; even when I was in school again and feeling good, thinking she’d be proud and expecting her call—nothing, nothing a month later, then two, four.
When we were just outside the clinic that morning, a group of fat, old white men, and a woman who was holding a makeshift sign of the Gerber baby smeared with blood, called us murderers. They chanted it as we walked by. The woman was the one that spit at us; the viscous, pale yellow saliva landed on Mom’s sleeve. I remember how Mom, who I thought would yell and grab the woman’s hair, just looked over coolly. She was smoking a Benson & Hedges cigarette, one of the long ones, and she flicked it past the woman while staring dead at her, daring her to do or say something else. I remember how strong Mom looked then, how ready she was to defend me. When I think about that, I want to call her, but there’s no point now. Not much scares me, but calling her scares me. Last time I called, she asked if I was ready and when I said no, she hung up. Funny how much a dial tone can feel like a gut punch.
I haven’t seen that woman that spit, the one with the rat-brown hair laced with gray, protesting since. I’ve seen the same guys when I drive by some days, but never her. Has she stopped coming? When I think about people like that, I think better of myself. I think people should live and let live. That’s a big reason I can’t be mad at Rattle.
When we met, I thought I was too good for him. But he turned out to be sweet. He was like a sugar packet that sweetens your coffee until you get diabetes and have to pass it up for the yellow or blue stuff that tastes like old spoons. Once you get used to the yellow or blue, or even the pink packages of faux-sugar, the white ones just don’t matter anymore. You don’t forget about real sugar, and you still dislike the metallic aftertaste of the others, but you’re used to it, so you just don’t give a shit. Or think you don’t. Yeah, he was deceptively unimpressive at first.
First of all, who goes by a nickname like Rattle at forty just because he has a rattle snake tattooed on his back? I’m half his age, and I wouldn’t go by a nickname like Butterfly just because I have one tattooed on my hip. Meanwhile, there he was when I met him, working freelance gigs, a biker, totally comfortable with a juvenile nickname. It was all a little too much, and I wouldn’t have talked to him at all outside of the dance, but he was there and oddly charming.
It was the same day I went to apply at the community college, and I couldn’t make myself speak for anything. It was the craziest feeling. I became mute with the school administrators and grasped around inside my own head frantically for questions, but I didn’t know where to start. How do I get financial aid? How do I sign up for classes? It seemed too much. I felt so ridiculous just being there, struggling with what everyone else seemed to pick up so easily; all I had to do was fill out an application and talk to a guidance counselor about what needed done to get into the nursing program, but I freaked, had a sort of panic attack, and thought I might as well not do it at all.
That was the headspace I was in when I showed up to dance that night. I wasn’t into it, and he could tell. After all the girls danced, and most went home for the night, I stuck around and had some coffee at the bar. Rattle sat next to me and asked me what was wrong.
An hour later, we were on a fold-out couch in the basement apartment of the same building that held the bar. Rattle’s tattoo was huge, it covered his back. I found it excessive but beautifully done. I mean, it was a stunning tattoo, and I see a lot of tattoos. The colors were so bright and rich against his deep skin. I think the way I looked at him must be the way men looked at me. All I wanted to do was be there, have him move in front of me, have him indulge me. And he did exactly that.
Do you remember how hard it was for my mom to sign those consent papers? I remember thinking for a minute that she’d back out, but when I tried envisioning myself with Rattle’s child, I just couldn’t. Mom never cried that day, but I think you saw her storm out. We were arguing over something silly. She wanted a honey bun from the vending machine, and I told her how bad those things are for you, and that’s when she lost it. She started yelling about how I didn’t know anything about choices, and she couldn’t handle me anymore. Later, she told me I’d have to move out. I remember her in that fit of emotion, how animalistic her eyes went—pupils dilated, eyes jolting back and forth—like she was about to attack me. She looked at me the way she’d looked at that protester, and I’d never seen her like that.
You came out and took my hand, and you were so gentle. You led me back into the room while another nurse calmed her down, and you told me it would be okay. I didn’t have to say anything, and you told me that I was strong and would survive this. You kept reminding me that it was a day, one day.
I know that you recommended I press charges that day, but I mean it, I know it would have been the wrong thing to do. See, when I told Rattle I was seventeen that night, he looked shocked, as most people did because I am so tall and have a sort of angular face that makes me look older, especially when I have on makeup. He said he was disappointed but not angry, and I could see it was true. When his face fell though, it didn’t stay fallen. He was transparent that way. He just seemed to be unable to be anything but what he was, unable to dwell. He forgave people quickly and he got over women fast. And I didn’t feel objectified by it; I felt more like I was objectifying him.
Odd, I know, but Rattle had this sort of innocence. It was the way he spoke, he said things like this: “I’m a trusting person, and people don’t seem to want to be trusted. I’m not talking bad about you, kid, just in general. People like disguise.”
Trying to be cute, I remember telling him I stripped off my disguise every night. Then, like a Ping-Pong game, he knocked the conversational ball right back at me before I had a chance to prepare.
“Seems to me like the more naked you get the more of a disguise you wear. You’re a girl who lies about her age to impress old fuckers like me. I’m not mad or anything, but it means you’re obviously not comfortable with who and what you are. Taking your clothes off just means you’re exposing more of your skin to a harmful environment. It doesn’t mean anything more than that.”
“A harmful environment? Look, it means I want some money.”
“Well, get your ass into school then. It’ll lead to a job.”
“Okay, Mr. Knows-it-all. And what till then?”
“Don’t waste too much energy.”
I was a little pissed because I didn’t want to think about it. Who wants to think about the reasons one strips? Who wants to admit that it’s, well, dumb and not really filling the void. I don’t know who, but I sure the shit didn’t.
I don’t know about how your teenage years went, but I was through with mine before they were through with me, and I didn’t feel alone in my decisions. I mean, a lot of the girls I went to high school with would have been right there with me if they’d had the right shape or look. We were all confused.
I remember watching Rattle as he got ready to leave. I took in his body. He stretched his arms, making a Y shape before he slid on a black t-shirt. I consciously stapled that image to my memory, the prefrontal cortex for short-term storage and then the hippocampus, to keep him around forever like a poster in my room—not in a romantic way, but in an appreciative sort of way. Yeah, he was in shape, but the strange thing was that he didn’t seem to be wearing his skin. It was part of him. Even the tattoo was like his memoir, right there on the surface. He was the kind of person that I didn’t think existed in real life; he was exactly what he appeared to be. You know, I feel the same about you.
You seemed to genuinely care when we were in that room together; I know you had questions that you had to legally ask, things you had to legally suggest, but you were also there for me as a person. I could see that you were genuine. I think Rattle and you both came into my life for a reason. It wasn’t just one or the other of you. I needed both of you then. I hope that’s not insulting to you. I mean it in a good way, not a crazy way.
It’s funny. I remember asking Rattle about his nickname and tattoo in a sort of ironic way, expecting a lame answer. He told me he used to catch the snakes for a scientist in Arizona, and I still didn’t get it. I teased him: “I used to catch garden snakes. I like snakes. But so you caught them, so what? Why’d they mean so much to you?”
He told me it wasn’t the snakes, really. It was who he was as a person then. He said he was going through transition, realizing who he was and getting a little freaked out about it. He said in Arizona he realized that we all just survive until we’re not supposed to survive anymore, that life is simple as that.
Then I said something childish like, “And a snake taught you that? I’d think a life lesson should come from a bigger, scarier animal. A bear,” and roared, lifting up my arms.
Still half-naked, he looked up and to the right as though trying to escape this smart ass seventeen-year-old in front of him and revisit his past. He said, “I’ve been around a lot of predators. No bears.” He said he worked in Australia for a time though, and it was in Alice Springs he learned to fear predation. He seemed to have gained a life lesson from everything, so I pushed him for more details, asking what he’d done there.
“Tile and grout,” he said. I remember thinking that this was the most boring answer imaginable, but he went on. “I was on a break. I smoked back then, and I was smoking. I saw a saltwater croc, thought it was a mossy rock or something and almost went right up to it, to check it out. Man, that thing kept its cool. He was keeping so still, and I could see it—it was in those dead eyes—hunger. But I backed away. I kept smoking. And he didn’t charge me. Walking backward, away from that thing though, kid, I’m telling you, if I’ve ever been scared. I think that’s how I quit smoking, actually. You don’t smoke, do you?” I told him I smoked only when I drank. He nodded disapprovingly. “Don’t. Crocodiles will eat you.”
“Ha. Nice. Returning to the old man lectures,” I told him and asked why the hell he would go to Australia just to work with grout.
“I like to travel, and then come back. Like a boomerang. I always come back here, to the Midwest. I feel my roots here, or if not roots, a sort of strange connection to the bedrock. But, truth is, kid, now that I’ve slept with a minor, I might not return, ever. Prison isn’t in my cards.”
I told him not to worry about it, that I wouldn’t say anything, and he said he trusted that was true but he presumed I had parents somewhere and that they wouldn’t be as willing to keep our secret. He pulled on his jeans then and leaned in to me like he wanted to kiss, but he stopped short. He had a short beard. His breath smelled like cinnamon and hot sauce, and I wondered how that combination was possible so early in the morning. He said, “You can do better. I mean, in general. Lecture or no, I mean it. Quit lying to old men.”
And that was it. I don’t know why I’m telling you what all led me to your clinic that day. I really don’t. I guess I just wanted to tell that story to someone, and I trust you. He really didn’t mean harm, but the courts don’t always recognize that. And, of course, Mom would never understand that.
I remember telling him, just as he was about to go, “There are no more men like you, young or old.” But I might have just thought it and stared. I remember he smiled at me before he left, and I wished he would have kissed me that one last time, but I knew he never would again. He asked if I needed a ride; I said I could find my own way home. The morning romance was gone just like that.
Then, I said, “Rattle, I really am sorry.”
“I know you are, kid, me too. You have a quick mind, quicker than mine. You can probably stay put and do some real good shit. People forget the past. Remember that. Don’t think about the past. It’s over.”
Simple as his advice was, potentially-patronizing or self-preserving as it was even, I knew it was true. I told him I’d stop lying to old men, and I meant it. The metallic taste returned shortly after he left.
And yeah, life tasted like that for a while, especially the day you met me; but I’m pushing through. When I dial Mom’s number later, I’ll tell her that, if she doesn’t hang up first. And if she refuses to accept me, it’s okay. I’ll give her time. I know to do this because I’m becoming an expert on pain. Just like you. And I’m starting to realize that sometimes you just have to keep your hand outstretched and wait it out.
JEN KNOX teaches and writes in San Antonio, Texas. Some of her writing can be found in A cappella Review, Apt, Bombay Literary Magazine, Bound Off, Burrow Press Review, Istanbul Review, Gargoyle, Litro, Narrative, NPR online, and PANK. Her short fiction collection, Don't Tease the Elephants, is forthcoming from Monkey Puzzle Press (2014), and a sample from her first novel, We Arrive Uninvited, can be read at WIPs Journal. Jen's website is here.