A monster stands guard at the door of the house of love.
That monster is me.
I know it’s me because the monster has my hands. In my mind, I am tending a landscape of lavender flowers for someone to lie down in. In my mind, I am making a bed out of soft grasses for someone (me and — ?) to make love in.
But then I look down. My hands are digging a foul trench in the dirt. I’m retching into the hole, and my own offal comes out. A kidney, chunks of intestine, my heart. Things I do not need and do not know how to use anyway.
Animals come to the door and when they do, I kill them. I kill them without excess cruelty but without hesitation, and indiscriminately. A lobster comes to the door, and I flip it on its back, slice it head to tail. Two yellow birds come to the door and I fracture their sternums with two powerful snaps of my index finger, leaving them without keels. When they attempt flight, they whirl in the air like ticker tape, flutter into the dirt, and die.
Another bird—a small green and blue bird with scars where mites have bitten its beak—comes to the door. This one I cage above my bed, and sleep under it. I like this bird. I read to it at night, my chest rumbling calm tones. I am religious about reading to the bird, but I do not feed or nourish it. It takes two weeks to die quietly, but die it does. A cat comes to the door. I feed it copious amounts of cheesecake and dark, salty pastrami—rich food for a small cat body to absorb—until it dies. An orange and white dog with big ears comes to the door. It likes the same things I do: heat, clean sheets, a good bowl of pho. I share these things with the dog. And then I hold it down and poke needles full of chemicals into its arm until it dies.
One day I left the door unguarded.
It was the end of my shift. It was winter and the sun was setting over the landfill that wreathed the walkway to the house. The refuse heated up, releasing a scent like curdled water on a bathroom floor. The red sunset lit the capillaries inside my eyes, and I looked out through a scrim of beating vessels.
A sheep was approaching the house. I considered the sheep. Its black legs stalked up the path. Its bushy torso rocked from side to side, silhouetted by the setting sun. Sheep take a long time to kill. Their wool protects their bodies so well I had often wondered why armies weren’t outfitted in thick, curly wool armor. My hands ached from the cold of the day, and from the strangling and stabbing I had been doing since the morning. I do not mind killing animals, but that day I was tired. I pretended not to see the sheep, and ducked inside.
It was warm inside. There were many soft garnet colored couches and thick rugs woven of angora and silk. I went to one of the couches and slept.
I slept for a long time, and when I woke, you were there. You were sprawled out on a facing couch; your skin gleamed against the purple of the fabric. I asked if you lived in the house, and you said no, you’d never been there before. You had been living underground for many years, breathing in the tiniest little gasps, lapping up oxygen from the interstices of dirt. You had not been lonely there—had developed symbioses with many underground friends. Blind, wet worms would wreathe your fingers and wind between your toes, cleaving to your perspiration, bathing and turning in the crevices of your skin. Canny millipedes would clear out little domed arenas in a circle around you. They would repose there, arching up on their hindquarters like tiny cobras to watch you with suspicion during the day, their bobbling eyes squinting at you on waving stalks. At night, the millipedes would protect you, strike with lightning precision any approaching earwigs, swallowing them whole, pincers-first. Oh earwigs. The greatest delicacy under the soil, their carapace richer than saffron, tangy with salt. The millipedes’ legs would flutter as they ate in unconcealed joy.
You told time by the millipedes. During the day, they rested in their little hollowed out domes, watching you skeptically, hunching and staring. They became active at night. And when they did, you would go to sleep.
One day—today, you supposed—when the millipedes scurried to their sleeping holes with the dawn, the powerful one you had come to call Brrrr (because that was the sound his legs made when he ate), displaced an unusual amount of dirt when he made his way back from night-hunting in the grasses. Male millipedes are smaller than the females, more compact. But Brrrr was large for a male. Muscular, if you could call him that. With thick legs. He liked to storm around the dirt, funneling through in a way that was almost sexy. You were partial to Brrrr.
Anyway, when he zoomed down through the earth, he left a tiny hole gaping open behind him. Light peeked through, a golden shard penetrating the soil.
You remembered the sun then, and dug upward. You found yourself at the edge of the house’s foundation. The door was open and you had come in. You found me there, asleep. You said that I slept as if I were in pain, my face crinkled and my mouth half open, a tooth glinting against my lip.
We talked all that day. You argued with almost everything I said. Half the time, you would start shaking your head before I had even begun a sentence. Why did this appeal to me? Your certainty about my wrongness was married with a certainty about my potential to do better. About our potential. You had some kind of grasp of the future—a loving and perhaps insane ferocity to make it do what you wanted it to do. I will plant jasmine along the path in the spring, you said, alarming me with your conviction that we’d know each other even beyond that afternoon. You unnerved and relaxed me in equal, excruciating measure. You used one particular word that conjured forth a being I had not, until that point, imagined could ever exist. You called this being—amazingly enough—“us.”
You appeared to be spending the night.
At some point, after I had gone outside, killed the sheep, and cooked mutton for our dinner, you came to sit next to me on the couch. You took my clothes off. I didn’t want you to do this, but the way you touched me, I wanted to be near you more than I didn’t want you to see me naked.
I was not a man. You maybe had been expecting a man, but when you got my clothes off, it was very apparent that I was not one. But you touched me as if I was. Tracing the veins in my forearms, placing the palm of your hand on my sternum, sliding into my lap. Wriggling in my arms, pressing against me.
It felt good, but I could not do that again. I touched you after that with all my clothes on. Though let it be known that I touched you with devotion, frequency, and gusto. We developed languages, words to bridge the gulf between our bodies. I described to you what I was doing to you, how I was inside you, even when I wasn’t, exactly. You seemed to appreciate this approach, is all I will say, out of respect for our once-precious privacy. And it was beautiful. Our contact was an animal that came to life only when we watered it with language.
But I wanted to feel you. I thought of men who had done so before me, and I was tormented. I would look at you and wonder if you wanted it, too. I was on the other side of a high, thick hedge of branches with vicious tips. I could not come through. And you could not come to me.
You would wake with terrors. Where were your friends? The worms. The millipedes. You would look at me with wild eyes, where is Brrrrr, you would say. Do you think he is ok? you would ask. Did he get sick? Can millipedes get pneumonia? Maybe something is going around down there. Maybe he is sick and that is why he hasn’t come.
I said, He hasn’t come because that is his home. He lives there and he has a millipede family. You looked disconsolate and miserable when I said this. You were capable of feeling abandoned by anything. Even by a millipede. You are projecting, I tried to reason. They are bugs. Brrrr is busy with bug things.
I would have killed anything for you, but you didn’t need anything killed. You needed things brought to life, protected, preserved from death. I would press myself against you. I am here. This did not soothe you. But you’re a killer, you said. That’s what you do.
It was true I was a killer, but I didn’t know the difference then, between being a killer and being a lover. I thought they were the same thing. I will kill off everything bad that ever happened to you, I said, heroically thrusting my hand inside you. You looked at me with sadness. I thought it was over. Both of our misery. Forever.
I wanted to lie next to you, but my breasts were in the way. I handed you a knife. You have to become a killer too, I said. But you said, no, there were some killings that were a protecting. I said, that’s what I’ve been saying; that’s what I can do. You said, that I didn’t know the first thing about that, but that you loved me anyway, even though I was an idiot and dead inside.
I think you thought that if you took off my breasts, I would learn how to love. That is the simplest way to understand it. I thought that if you took off my breasts, I would learn how to feel. And that might be related to love.
You prepared one of the couches with cling wrap, and I laid down on it. I drank copious amounts of cold water, pretending it was sweet Lebanese arak, pale and cloudy. There was no arak in the house of love, which really was an omission, I thought. We both thought this.
I was shivering with my shirt off, but I wanted you to do this so badly. I’d heard that for centuries they’d been performing mastectomies on people without anesthesia. Frances Burney had undergone one in the eighteenth century due to a lump in her breast, and lived to journal about it. I explained that Burney said the worst part was not the cutting through the veins, arteries, muscle, and fat. The worst part was the “scraping” after the main incisions, the relentless tidying. I told you not to “scrape.” This isn’t a mastectomy like that.
You didn’t scrape. You were so gentle, and I could feel the tissue come away from my chest under your capable hands, blood running down my ribs and pooling in the couch. Burney also said that she fainted twice during her operation, and she knew this because there were two “chasms” in her mind. Periods of time she could not account for.
There were chasms in my mind, but they had nothing to do with the operation. I had them before the operation, and after. It had to do with my propensity for killing. It was what enabled me to kill. I identified with Burney, but this was because my whole life was a chasm. And I thought maybe if we could dive to the bottom of this one—the chasm of my chest—we would come out whole somehow, and together. Surface the way you did that day towards the sun.
You talked to me the entire time, telling me what you were doing. I kept reminding you not to scrape. You shushed me and kept cutting, and there was a lot of blood. I was delirious and babbling. I told you to lick the blood up, like a cat. I wanted this proximity to you. I wanted your spit inside me, sewed up inside me, like a watery organ. You said that was very dumb and not sanitary. I begged you to, and as a compromise, you licked up some from the cling wrap on the couch. Even in my state, I could see how sexy this was. I held your head down into the blood, not hard, just pressed down, and you peeked up at me, so submissive, such a good girl.
Then you were sewing me up, which Burney had not mentioned also hurts an awful lot. By then, I was sobbing and I had puked on myself twice. The masculine equivalent of fainting, I guessed.
The scars took a long time to heal. And there were infections. You had closed up my chest with rough brown twine that ached and itched every time I breathed. Pus collected in small puddles around the twine; tiny irises of bright green goop, like little septic spotlights in a line cutting my torso in two.
I had wanted the breasts off for sex with you, but what I soon found was that the sex wasn’t even the best part. It was holding you to my chest afterwards, at night, your hair arrayed across me, dark and soft. I could feel your cheek against my skin. This, to me, felt like a small miracle. And it caused me to resent cis-men more than I already did. They had been doing this with you for years. They didn’t even have to fight for it. They didn’t have to bleed just to hold you. I hated them very much.
I learned to forget The Before. I learned to forget the feeling of my always-shirts. Now we were always against each other; I could feel your heat. I lost words in the feeling of proximity. I did not need them anymore. You wanted me to still speak to you, to tell you how I wanted you, to keep narrating what we were doing. I did not know words anymore. I could not give you that kind of beautiful anymore.
I lost my clothes in the couch. I never found them again, and soon I gave up looking.
I will stay here, you said finally, after a certain amount of time had passed. I think it was too late by the time you said it, but you said it anyway. I will stay with you.
You were no longer anxious and melancholic about Brrrr. You had planted one plant—a succulent harvested from the path outside—into the window box. We had named the plant Claw, for the curled red fists he had begun to sprout.
I had not been worried that you would leave, but now that you said you would stay, I began to worry more, not less.
Do you have anything to say? you would ask. You used to write me such long letters.
I am, as I have been for so many years, albeit never in any way that ultimately did you any good, yours, I said.
This did not come out as the reassurance I had intended it to be. More like a burned birthday cake, smeared with thick frosting and held out on trembling, apologetic arms.
What the hell is that supposed to mean? You looked over at me while watering the plant.
I tried to make a joke about what Leo Jogiches’ long-lost replies to Rosa Luxemburg would have read like as tweets. But it was a stupid joke, and I couldn’t get the words out anyway. I tried to say long-lost, but I kept saying lost-lost, and you looked at me like I was crazy.
Do you even remember language? you said.
Are you going to have to kill me now? you continued, while I sat there silent. You had a joking tone, but your eyes were wide. You meant, was I going to have to kill you, now that you loved me. You meant, Now that we no longer water the space between us with words—but we water it with breath and skin—are you going to have to kill me?
You meant, Your speech was the only thing that made you not a monster, and now you’ve lost language. You meant—and I could see you thinking it as you stroked Claw’s red fist —Are you going to have to kill me, now that you are an animal of lust¹, of proximity, of silence.
* * *
¹Our household, growing up, was a traditional one.
We practiced our faith in perfect freedom – our parents having marooned (they said “protected”) us in the free village of Swathtown, ringed round with oysterglass they and the other Firsts had harvested and boiled down from the shells at the bottom of the Erie Canal after the water dried.
Father was strict but wanted the best for me, training me with rigor, even in my leisure hours, in History, athletics, and the scriptures, with equal time spent on each discipline.
Mother harbored a fierce commitment to pacifism.
They were not physically affectionate in front of me, but they stood together in every decision, every move we made as a family unit. They had syncopated in this way long before I arrived on the family scene, and they remained so until my father’s death of a heart attack quietly in his armchair after church on an otherwise unexceptional Sunday.
As a young person, I did not think of my father as a sexual man. But looking back, this could only have been the effect of my not having an articulated sense of what sexuality was, at the time. I now believe that he was as committed to sexual fulfillment as he was to woodworking, scriptural study, and brisk walks. He was intensely physical: well-built, and possessed with an athlete’s grace and power, a quality I regularly saw demonstrated to great effect whether he was coaching my soccer games, pitching the massive tents at our congregation’s annual summer retreats, or single-handedly creating, from what appeared an impenetrable tangle of scrubland, a Prayer Labyrinth in the Belleville Lane lot behind our town church. He wasn’t even afraid of the corpsebots that prowled the edges of the backwoods.
But perhaps the most indisputable evidence of my father’s physical prowess came one moonlit night in April.
On that evening, I had snuck out to the front yard to play a game of hide and seek with a neighbor, Anne Sennett. Maybe my call of come out come out wherever you are had been too loud (or too desperate?). Or perhaps our shadows cast a disturbance over my parents’ window as we zipped across the lawn, silhouettes flickering against the streetlamps. Whatever it was, just as I discovered Anne crouching behind a stand of saltbush and dragged her out into the open—and just as she emitted a hoot of despair and went limp under my hand (a performance? I found it sexy)—the front door cracked open and my father, roused from his bedchambers fully naked, wandered onto the lawn. It seemed he was sleepwalking, as I’d been warned too-intense study of the scripture could do to a mind. His eyes were open but cloudy, unseeing.
He was magnificent. Ginger fur coated his thighs, thickening to a dark, knotted grove at his crotch. His penis swung as he strode forward towards Anne—who had broken away from me in flight, and now cowered back by the saltbush, her face contorted into a hectic mug of terror at the sight of the not inconsiderable penis advancing, its weight evident as it slapped heavily at my father’s thighs—to crouch down onto his haunches and put his fingers to his own lips.
Shhhhh, my father hissed, his light blue eyes unblinking. The tip of his penis brushed the tips of the grass.
Then he stood, turned and paced back into the house. His comfort with his body, even in sleep, rattled me. Utterly unashamed—perhaps even proud?—of his nakedness, which signaled his ownership of the house, the property, and all of us upon and within it. It was clear he was unaltered. Unlike what we had heard of the city-dwellers, all his flesh was his own. He grew hair where cashflesh could not. His buttocks were accoutered in the same ginger as his front. They were at once softly furred and powerful as hard marble. He was entirely comfortable. I realized then not only the alien power of the penis, but also that nakedness must be my otherwise inexpressive parents’ comportment towards one other in private. I could not fathom such intimacy. And worse, seeing my father’s penis instituted a shameful split upon my consciousness; an inescapable and miserable awareness of my difference from him. More plainly put: I felt as if I were falling into a howling pit. Seeing my father’s penis reinforced to me, somewhere deep in my unconscious, the distance between the kinds of expectations harbored by my male schoolfriends and soccer compatriots for easy, flourishing, elaborate future adult intimacy—and the expectations (or lack thereof) I might harbor for myself. (Did I want to terrify Anne the way my father had? In any case, it didn’t seem fair that I couldn’t. And thus I couldn’t be the one to soothe her with my terrifying part, either).
Gender, according to our faith, is not natural. Rather, it is the result of sin—a punishment visited upon mortals until the day of our salvation. Not many people outside of our tradition know this, but for us, Adam and Eve enjoyed total mutuality and a lack of hierarchy in Eden. Once the apple was bitten, gendered labor was a punishment visited upon humanity. Thereafter and still, we suffer the imposition of gender divisions.
We strive to equalize this difference. In our household, labor was split equally. Mother and father alternated making dinner, washing dishes, and gardening. Similarly, I was also treated with absolute equality. I learned to cook as well as repair oysterglass, garden, and also operate a chainsaw. If I asked for a basketball for Christmas I would—resources permitting—receive. And, needless to say, I always asked for a basketball. Or some variation thereof.
But all this equality in the home could not keep the world at bay. After that day on our lawn, I could not return to our teachings in the same way I had beforehand.
Simply put, seeing my father’s penis made me doubt the existence of God.
In church on Sundays, I tried to let the sermons about equality, pacifism, and service buoy me, as I saw them buoy my brother and father and mother. When the pastor would tell the story of the initial genocide of our people so many centuries ago—how the true believers were such pacifists that they would never raise a hand, even in self-defense. They permitted their own murder, ran ragged for many days, hunted along the Sootneck River; the town officers storming through the smoke-grey forests of splintered trees, driving the flocks of believers down the slopes and gulleys where they’d pitched themselves one after another into the Old Fox reservoir, there to float, frozen and bloated in the bright aqua currents.
Men and women dove into the deeps together, the pastor said, hand in hand, equal in the eyes of God. This story was romantic to my parents, I could tell. They held hands during these portions of the sermon, bound together in their belief in peace and their mutual value and equality.
But it was all a lie. In the months following that springtime lawn revelation, I would flick my focus over to my father’s crotch and know, deep within me, inescapable truths. We were not equal. The pews would breathe their humid bark breath in the summertime, and I felt alive—as alive as anybody else. The birds twittered outside the steep church windows, the bees hummed against the glazes. We were all alive, inside and outside the walls. All of nature. All God’s creatures. But then I would think on the stamens of flowers, the jellied penises of honeybees—the way my brother and I would find the adolescent ones down at the quarry in the heat of August, bumbling around, sunning themselves on the hot flat shale. We’d learned from a neighbor boy that if you trap a honeybee drone between your thumb and forefinger and gently massage its abdomen, yellow gelatinous horns would explode from its ass, and then something that we referred to as a “tail”—a strangely windowed, completely transparent member—would spurt from between the horns, curling up like a scorpion’s dart. If you kept pressing, white fluid would collect at the base and burble up to the tip, dotting out onto your palm. We called it “bee juice.” We didn’t know what it was. But later I knew, with horror. Even a bee could get an erection.
I brought a bee to my father. He was reading in his study, the room sour with the breath of mouldering books. I pressed its abdomen, and the “tail” sprouted and the “juice” shot into my palm.
“Is it cashflesh?” I asked, of the tail.
My father shook his head. “They can’t cashflesh that. It’s natural. God given.”
I returned the bee to the yard. Correction: I placed the bee’s abdomen under my basketball in the yard and pressed down until I heard it crunch.
If even a bee could get an erection, then there was no equality in the eyes of God. I lost my faith that summer, never to be found again.
When I graduated from high school, I left Swathtown and went on to the U on a full scholarship. I majored in the arcane field of Women’s Studies. Outside of Swathtown, it seemed it was necessary to have an entire field of study dedicated to the history of gendered oppression and theories of castration. I went on to graduate school and earned a PhD in this very area. Outside our oysterglass walls, I came to make a living out of explaining to 18-year-old panic-faced young women that their lot in life had been sown for them before they even knew how to write their own names. It wasn’t much different from inside the enclave, to tell you the truth, except that outside of Swathtown we admitted that the system that severed the girls from a world of power and influence was a net cast over them at birth. After ten years of this, I had become dispirited. My job, essentially, was to explain to every entering student how fucked they were. When I proposed to the chair of my department that I rename all my classes The Dice Are Loaded, they put me on unpaid leave and it was at that point that The House of Love came knocking. Back to Swathtown? Well, I could make more money as a security guard than I ever had as a university professor. Sure, the benefits were non-existent, but with the way things were going, it was clear we were all going to die soon anyway and be boiled down and repurposed into cruorgunk for the ruling classes to inject into their stinking, wrinkled faces. At least there was no hypocrisy to this job. Kill anything that tries to get in. I thought of the bee. I could do that.
And then I met you.
Good god, you.
You who did not believe in castration on either side of the walls. You who harbored an unaccountable belief that my condition could be home-remedied. That I could be added to and subtracted from at will. You who operated on me once. Then more than once. Until I had been Frankensteined into the “equality” I had been taught was my birthright. You gave me the furious power of maleness.
I could be intimate now. But I had reached my humanity by way of an unpredictable subtraction of language.
I made you promise that what we were doing was different. We’re… not cashfleshing? I’d ask, my mouth aching at having to put one word in front of another. No, this is different, you’d say. Stroking my jaw, a flicker of concern darkening your irises. It’s for love.
Image: Nowinski, Maggie. “Untitled Specimen (Rubbernecker)” 2017. Pen and ink on paper, 26″ x 40″.