I flew from JFK to California for my brother’s wedding and the second I left the plane, as I took my first breath of California air and felt, as always, how it relaxed me, my phone rang. It was Del. He’d been picked up and was waiting to be processed. I wondered why, of all the people he could call, he was calling me, his ex-girfriend. They hadn’t told him the charge. They don’t have to when you’re on parole. He said they came to his house in the early dark, searched drawers and closets, pockets and pillow cases. They told him to take off his shirt and they examined his body but didn’t say why. (That night, his Auntie Maria Bo in Queens explained that the girl said she cut and stabbed at her rapist with a knife. They were looking for scratches.) Del was clean when I saw him two weeks later. “Lift up your shirt,” I said first thing. He pulled up the hem and it was delicate in his rough fingers. He had soft, smooth, skin the color of a See’s butterscotch lollipop, arms painted with tattoos, and I didn’t see any marks. No scabs, no abrasions, no bruises. The accuser said the guy spoke Spanish. Del didn’t speak much Spanish. His aunt said that when they told Del the details he started crying, saying only a monster does something like that and I’m not a monster.
I was coconut-tan and thin that summer, a 23 year old living in Brooklyn with my old college roommate. (Those were better days than we gave them credit for: jobs that asked nothing of us; a third-floor apartment on Sackett between Union and Court; three-dollar pizza slices and Chardonnay with ice cubes on the steaming roof; cigarettes out the windows at 3am, cat callings boys as they tumbled home from bars; our little cat, Jack, who kept the mice away. We were as dreamy and bright, as fresh and ambitious and easygoing as we ever would be, though how could we know it?)
Washington Square park was one of my favorite places. I liked to sit on the green benches drinking iced coffee and watching street performers, the toddlers in the fountain, judging the roaming NYU kids, wondering how rich you had to be to live in the buildings near the arch, and daydreaming about how I’d be that rich someday. I planned to marry up.
I saw Del. He was walking near the fountain, maybe 20 feet from me. He looked black, lightskinned. The Angels cap on his head was turned to the side. I noticed the bright, spotless white of his undershirt and then his ink-sleeved arms. His jeans hung at his hips and the sneakers he wore were white, like he’d just worn them out of the store. His gaze changed directions and we were looking at each other. We both grinned. My hand flew up and waved. He waved back, his big-lipped smile spreading, and kept walking, all swag and long stride. He disappeared at the other end of the park.
The exchange felt good. It was bright and tingly. In New York, where people avoid eye contact, it felt like a minor miracle of the human spirit. I was replaying how freely we’d acknowledged each other when someone tapped my shoulder. I turned around, it was him. He said he’d been on his way to the handball court to play with a friend, and when he got there, as they waited their turn, he mentioned he’d just seen an honestly beautiful girl in the park. Did you talk to her? “No,” he’d replied, “We smiled and waved, but I was coming to meet you.” Man, you’re an idiot! His friend refused to play unless he tried to get my number. He joined me on the bench and we talked until the sun set, watching its slurred, orange descent between the trees and skylines of Greenwich Village.
We told high school stories. I described my black nail polish and dog collar days, how I was afraid to tumble and always skipped Aikido, buying cigarettes from the vending machine on Fourth Street, filling my peeling Coup de Vil with 2-dollar gasoline and listening to mixtapes of Rage Against the Machine and Prince. He talked about math exams and crushes and football injuries from the first two years, and then the next two, rougher and hazy, half-remembered hilarity circled around blunts, strong-arming girls in nightclubs for the cocaine in their tight jean pockets, parking lot fights that ended in bloody shirts, and a burglary.
We were like magnets and iron. We talked for hours every night. We blew off work to spend 30 minutes together on the subway steps. He came over at 5 am when his night shift ended to snuggle in my bed until my alarm went off at 7.
I knew Del had been in prison before he told me. I knew it before I knew it. I knew it peripherally, in the blurry pocket of consciousness that hindsight slaps into focus. Eventually he told me himself, then asked me if I still wanted to see him on the weekend. We’d planned dinner and a movie. I said yes, I’d still like to. We saw Ray and ate pancakes with fake syrup at a diner and it felt normal, though I got up after the waiter brought our clinky cups of ice water to swallow a Xanax in the bathroom.
I took Xanax on our dates, or just before them, more than once. The second time was when he suggested we go for a walk in Battery Park, which was unlit and deserted at 9 on a chilly evening. I half-wondered—back in that fuzzy, shaded corner of my mind, both wise and unreliable—whether I was going to be raped, by him. But it turned out that there was a restaurant on the water he’d wanted to take me to, and the only way to get there was to follow the path through the park. The second time was when he wanted to get on the ferry and go for a ride through the harbor. Looking back, his earnestness was heartfelt and sweet (though, in the end, he wasn’t entirely harmless). But I looked at the water, and the quiet boat, and the far lights of Staten Island, and my lower intestine turned slick and then to mush. I felt guilty for refusing to go on the ferry, saying I got seasick. Then I opened the pillbox in my purse with my fingers, pretended to cough, and chucked the crumbly, bitter pill into the back of my throat. I wondered whether he would taste it when we kissed.
working on this one, more to come, thanks for reading, y’all!