Her fist plunged into the socket of his right eye. ‘What the fuck!’ Steve yelled, jolted awake by the punch. His outrage woke Anna, too, who asked, ‘What happened? What’s wrong?’ as Steve, barely containing himself, said, ‘You punched me, that’s what’s wrong, you punched me in your sleep,’ which Anna immediately denied, saying, ‘No, I didn’t, I didn’t punch you,’ and though she couldn’t see him in the dark, she could imagine his face getting redder as it so often did, like his head was threatening to explode.
‘Yes, yes you did. Your fucking fist is still in my fucking eye!’
This was an argument that Anna, in her grogginess, had not expected but which she found irrefutable – there, indeed, was her fist, the fingers curled tight and hard around the emptiness inside.
And that’s when she couldn’t help herself. She wasn’t even sure where it came from, but there it was sure enough: the laughter that began somewhere in her belly and echoed and reverberated up through her oesophagus and out her throat, the laughter that persisted even as Steve grew more irate, saying, ‘You think this is funny, you think this is funny, punching me in the fucking face?’ But she kept laughing even as Steve was yelling, until something in his brain clicked and, before he knew it, he was still yelling, but suddenly he had taken on the voice of Joe Pesci in Goodfellas and he was saying, ‘What you think I’m funny, eh, you think I’m fucking funny? What am I, some kinda clown to you, eh?’ And then he was laughing, too, and they were kissing.
This, Anna thought, was good. Something she could tell her psychiatrist on Tuesday, which he would no doubt see as a healthy and adult example of conflict resolution. Anna desperately wanted to convince her shrink that she was an adult. Still, there was the punch. Anna wasn’t sure what he’d make of that. Certainly, it had to be some unhealthy expression of the unconscious, because that’s what dreams are, aren’t they, pathologies we rehearse in our minds so we don’t have to do them with our bodies? But now her unconscious was directing her body. Perhaps it was better not to mention anything about it at all.
The important thing for now was that Steve wasn’t angry. Steve was always angry. About everything. Like hitting too many red lights in a row or the fact that Burger King’s smallest drink size was a medium. He wasn’t angry now, though, and that was all that mattered.
‘I love you…’ Anna let the phrase hang like a question.
‘You’ll do for now,’ Steve laughed, and kissed her on the forehead before they went to sleep.
For his part, Steve thought he was pretty good to Anna. Not on any objective scale or anything, but based on how he’d treated his girlfriends in the past. He at least made an attempt with Anna to ask her about her work and the things she cared about, and he tried to pretend he was interested in what she had to say about these things. This was progress of a sort.
Plus, he’d only cheated on her once and that was just with some girl who worked on Capital Hill, this Suzy girl, a friend of a friend who he’d met after a punk rock show in the enormous downstairs cacophony of the Black Cat. She bought him a drink and then offered him another one at her house. She brought him to her room and told him to take off his clothes, and then they were having sex.
The sex was nothing, really: twenty-odd minutes of directionless flopping, thrusting and grunting. They were both too drunk to use their bodies to any particular purpose. Finally, Steve had to stop when he realised she was expecting him to finish up, to come. ‘I’m sorry,’ he said. ‘I can’t.’ He had vague recollections of the Porter’s speech in Macbeth as he fell asleep with this strange body in his arms.
He hadn’t bothered to use protection. Since Anna (being prochoice in a larger political context only) both took the pill and made Steve wear condoms, he felt that this somehow balanced everything out.
‘So, are you afraid you have the high five?’ his friend David asked him the next day after Steve offered his confession.
‘The what?’ Steve asked.
‘You know,’ David said, ‘the hive? The HIV? The Aids?’
‘Oh Jesus,’ Steve replied. ‘I hadn’t even thought about that.’ Steve was still young enough not to be completely reconciled to the notion that his actions might have consequences.
‘You gonna tell Anna?’ David asked.
‘Oh,’ Steve paused. ‘Oh no. God no.’
Steve was still stuck in the memory of waking that morning hungover, hot and blinded by the sun shining through the window. That’s when he noticed the wetness in the bed, a pervasive dampness and a slightly acrid odour, the telltale sign of involuntary nocturnal urination. He immediately grabbed his clothes and shuddered out of the little room. He never spoke to Suzy again, nor was he ever able to settle the issue in his mind of whose urine it was that had soaked the bed.
Anna met Steve at the upstairs of the Black Cat, during that terrible eighties Britpop dance night where twenty-year-old styles shoplifted from thrift store racks mingled with designer labels, where you could tell how hip a girl was by how big her hoop earrings were. Half the guys were wearing sportscoats over t-shirts and jeans, their hair consciously unwashed for several days so it would droop in a manner that seemed fashionably messy and unaffected.
Anna saw Steve dancing to Pulp’s ‘Common People’. He moved awkwardly, with too much energy, like his body was being jerked around in every direction by a drunken puppeteer. Steve had noticed her, too. Or rather, he noticed her dress. Otherwise, she was fashionable – she had the right spiky new-wave hairdo and wore excessive eyeliner – but her red floral-print dress was all wrong. It wasn’t polyester or vintage; just a summer dress. Something you might wear to a barbecue in Idaho. Unlike everything else in the room, it was real. She was real.
So he did the only rational thing: he waited until the song ended and then walked up to Anna and said, ‘Hi, I just got out of prison today, can I buy you a drink?’ It was then that Anna noticed Steve’s shirt, which had ‘Buy me a drink!’ written on it. ‘Shouldn’t I buy you a drink?’ she asked, gesturing toward the shirt.
‘Yes,’ Steve said. ‘Yes, you should.’
She got two Miller Lites (the only brand roughly compatible with Anna’s South Beach diet) and handed him one, asking, ‘Did you really get out of prison today?’ It was then that Steve heard the nasal twinge of a Midwestern accent and suddenly everything – the dress, just everything – made sense. She was perfect.
‘No,’ he said, ‘I didn’t get out of prison today, but I think it’s absolutely essential to lie about everything that isn’t important.’
Twenty minutes later, they were making out against a column just below the disco ball. This is young and modern, Anna thought while Steve’s tongue probed her throat like he was looking for an anomaly around her tonsils. I am young and modern, she thought.
‘I love your dress, by the way,’ Steve yelled into her ear over the thumping house remix of Duran Duran’s ‘Hungry Like The Wolf ’.
Anna had moved out to Washington a year earlier with a friend of hers from Youngstown, Ohio. They paid too much rent for a two-bedroom apartment in a complex just a few blocks northeast of Dupont Circle. Steve liked to come over and watch cable and complain about how the whole building was filled with yuppies, that all of 17th Street had been gentrified, that it was nothing but fags with dogs and that if anyone in this city had the least bit of integrity we’d all move back to wherever we came from so that the poor black people could move back in and go back to the business of selling drugs and shooting one another without all these rich white folks disturbing them.
Steve’s cultural critiques always had the tendency to snake back in on themselves like this, so you couldn’t tell if he was actually complaining or making fun of someone who would complain like that. Eventually, Anna realised he only did it to fill the time during commercial breaks with the sound of his own voice. Also, sometimes it meant he wanted another beer.
‘Do you want another beer, Steve?’ she asked.
‘Yes,’ he said. ‘Yes, I do.’
When she returned, Steve was complaining again, saying, ‘And they keep talking about how you the viewer can be part of the Idol Phenomenon, but they’re saying it with no irony, not realising we’re all sitting here experiencing the phenomenon of being idle the whole time, but for them to suddenly draw attention to that, even unwittingly – it’s so frustrating.’
‘Just watch the television. Why can’t you just be happy like a normal person?’ Anna asked.
‘But I am happy when I’m complaining,’ Steve replied.
Steve didn’t really care that Anna didn’t know what kind of music to listen to, or that she thought high-cut denim cargo shorts were okay to wear out in public. But Anna did. She was always bothered that she never got Steve’s friends’ jokes, and was always afraid to tell him that she’d liked a movie she’d just rented or tell him the name of the book she was thinking about buying. She knew he’d groan and say how he hated it – but, of course, he didn’t really. It was just that Steve had opinions on everything and, as far as he could tell, just about everything sucked.
But Anna liked things, she even liked Ohio. The people were friendly there and someday, when she got tired of the whole east-coast urban thing, she might move back, have kids, raise a family. But it screwed her, too – liking Ohio, being always an Ohioan out on the east coast – because she could never quite get things right, and she knew it. She always disliked the wrong things, or disliked the right things for the wrong reasons, and sometimes she really actually liked the big Hollywood movies that she rented from Blockbuster, and no, sorry Steve, she didn’t care if the movie Pearl Harbor was somehow an ex post facto justification of American imperialism, whatever that means. And where did he get off, anyway, when he’d never even bothered to vote all his life except for his favourite contestants on the reality television shows that he despised?
Yes, Anna did like things like pottery and photography and knitting. And yes, she had friends who were hippies, but they were nice people and they liked things, too.
The only time Steve ever got really mad at Anna about these sorts of differences was one day when he was organising his records in the upstairs bedroom of his run-down townhouse. Anna watched him put away the semi-rare printings of second-tier, late-1970s punk bands and asked, ‘Why do you listen to all that weird music and why do you listen to records? Don’t they have all that stuff on CD, now?’
Steve glared at her, and said, ‘Well, I suppose if you mean that it is a contradiction that I take a basically archival and pedantic approach to a genre of music that was originally meant to be revolutionary and opposed to commodification, then yes, I suppose it is quote-unquote “weird”, as you say.’
This was how Steve talked. Anna was used to it. But she could never figure out how someone who could use so many big words never managed to say what he really meant.
Anna had not had sex with very many people. Steve had, but Anna felt that, for someone who had seemed to sleep around a bit, he was not very comfortable or confident in bed – he always seemed awkward, like he was taking a test to get his driver’s licence. Anna knew that their sex life wasn’t great, but she felt it was respectable, or, at least, efficient: they had quickly developed a routine where, following a reasonable amount of foreplay, Anna got on top of Steve, grinding away until she orgasmed and then Steve flipped her over until he came, too. This was fine. This was enough for Anna, she just wasn’t the sort of person who needed more than that, who needed to be swept away, to be romanced. . . Of course, romance is nice, but too much of it can be a little impractical.
What always surprised her, though, was that Steve did not just turn away and go to sleep afterwards, like she thought he would. Rather, he always tried to stay inside her for as long as he could and even then, when he couldn’t any longer, he rolled onto his side and grasped her body as tightly to him as he could, so tight that sometimes his embraces were almost painful. But it was okay, even this little pain, because it meant more than the moments when he actually said ‘I love you’ with a straight face, because she could feel him clinging to her, clasping her, like she might fall apart at any second, like his arms were the only things stopping her from flying away into space. And even when they slept, he would still cling to her this way, wrap himself around her so that it was unclear whether she was his security blanket or if he was trying to be hers. But either way, Anna knew what it meant. For once, Anna thought, Steve was thinking about something other than Steve. He was trying to tell her something – he was trying to say that he needed her.
Still, there was one thing about Suzy that had haunted Steve, which was one moment when she was on top of him and he looked up at her and she smiled, and somehow – he’s not quite sure how he could see it in the half-light of the darkened room – he saw her nipples were an almost perfect shade of pink, like no nipple he had ever seen, where they contained no hint of redness, no purple, no variegation, just two round circles of a uniform lightness.
Everywhere he looked now he saw them, two perfect discs floating like little UFOs in the upper realm of his vision.
But Anna decided she felt okay about the punch, because she was not the only one whose dream-self had been behaving badly. A few months before, on the night of his twenty-fifth birthday, Steve had gotten ungodly drunk. This was something Steve did from time to time. Anna didn’t like it, and her shrink told her it was pathological, but he never did anything too bad – well, until this. Anna awoke in the middle of the night and she felt the absence of Steve’s clinging, and right then she knew, she wasn’t sure how, but she just knew. He was doing something bad.
And there he was, naked, legs spread apart, pissing straight into her open sock drawer. ‘Steve, what the fuck!’ she yelled. But he murmured something in the language of sleep and waved her off nonchalantly with his right hand. She got out of bed and dragged him away, as his piss trailed onto the carpet, shoving him into the bathroom to finish. Then she herded his drunk, half-awake body back into bed before placing the socks in her laundry basket and beginning to wipe down the carpet. She didn’t know what else to do, so she cried. And cried.
The next day, Steve refused to believe he’d done it – but the reek of urine off the socks was indisputable. ‘You need to learn to control your urges,’ Anna said.
‘I was just marking my territory, baby,’ he replied. Anna stared at him. ‘No, really,’ Steve said calmly, ‘I was just having a dream where I was Zeus, and you were Danae – I saw myself coming to impregnate you in the form of a beautiful shower of gold.’ Anna looked down at Steve, who was still kneeling and holding one urine-soaked sock up in the air between his forefinger and thumb. She wanted to cry, but she laughed instead. Steve did, too, as he picked up the basket of desecrated socks, whisking them down the stairs to the machine, where the memory of their wetting could be washed away in a whirl of water and bargain-brand detergent.
It was Tuesday evening. Anna had been to see her shrink and decided not to tell him about the punch. Sure, counselling was about self-discovery, but sometimes it’s better not to know some things about yourself, she thought.
Anna was meeting Steve after work at a bar around the corner from her apartment, the last straight bar left on 17th Street, The Fox and Hounds, where the paint cracked on the walls and the drinks were so stiff your straw stood straight up in them. When Anna walked into the tiny back room, Steve was the only one there, smoking and reading a book. He already had a drink waiting for her at the table.
Anna sat down across from him without saying hello, and as Steve raised his head, she saw it: the enormous black circle around his eye that looked like it was threatening to spread out across his face. ‘Oh God,’ Anna said, ‘Oh Jesus, Steve, I’m so sorry.’
‘No, no,’ Steve said, ‘No, it’s okay. Look, Anna I deserve it, I . . . Anna, I’m not a good person, Anna, it’s okay, I . . .’ He paused and looked up at the television. He knew Anna would be crying soon, but he didn’t want to see it.
‘I’m sorry,’ he said. ‘I’m sorry.’ And his eyes glossed over the television screen as the muted evening news showed a replay from last night’s basketball game. One of the Lakers – Steve wasn’t sure who – slammed an enormous dunk over a dumb-footed defender. The crowd went wild.