Soft | Fiction
This story appears in full in the short story collection, You, Me and the Rest of US: #NewYorkStories. The book is available in ebook and paperback at all major retailers.
Peter never imagined that bare-knuckles alone could cause so much ruin to the human face. He had seen an average amount of violent TV shows and action movies, but expertly applied liquid blood to the lip of a trained actor had only given him the faintest idea of the ugliness that a strong punch created in the real world. In the dim, afternoon light of his childhood bedroom Peter saw, with vivid detail, what a punch could do, and there was no screen between him and its after effects to mask the reality of what had been done.
It was Karen who had been hit. It was he who had hit her. Peter stared at Karen as she lay on the floor, remorseful and crying; he could see that the skin on her cheek was torn slightly by the force and friction of his fist; her face began to swell right before his eyes; with each second her jaw filled with fluids that caused a sad looking asymmetry in the face of the girl Peter said he loved. She whimpered, “I’m sorry" over and over again as tears fell down her face, and mucus from her nose ran into her mouth.
Looking at her like that broke Peter’s heart, but he didn’t budge from his aggressive stance—fist still balled up and casting a shadow over her while the rest of the room lit up with orange afternoon sun.
The punch itself was more out of reflex than anything else.
Earlier, the two had been in Peter’s bed. With his parents out of town for the weekend, they indulged in awkward teenage sex. Still figuring out the contours of their own bodies, Karen and Peter kissed and rubbed in out-of-sync rhythms that they weren’t old enough to feel embarrassed about. Energy spent, they giggled without much self-reflection and lost themselves in Peter’s sheets, panting.
After a few quiet moments, their breathing normalized and Peter questioned, by way of a statement, “You still have your socks on.”
Karen looked down and they both laughed. “I didn’t have to take them off” they laughed again and she continued, “And it was a little cold in here.”
“You want me to put the thermostat higher or something, babe?”
She turned to him with an all-encompassing sweep of her eyes that lovingly took in all his facial features. It started at his full lips, moved to the freckles on his cheeks, then stopped at his blue-gray eyes. Peter recognized a longing in Karen’s gaze as she said, “Nah. I’m warm now.” He kissed her forehead and went back to playing with her loose, but tightly curled black hair as she reached over little to take off the socks. She threw them across the bed where they landed on his pants—pants that, before the sex, had landed on his chair.
From his peripheral view, Peter could see Karen’s gaze move from socks to pants, and then stay there as her head lay sideways on his chest. For a moment Peter thought that her focus on his jeans stemmed from his inadequate performance, but he dismissed that idea as soon as he thought it. Karen got more out of their sex then he did and told him so in a roundabout way months before.
She had said, “It's like, when we’re together—when I feel you inside of me—I get this warm tingle… I can’t describe it. It’s as if I can feel that you love me.”
“That sounds like it belongs in a high school poem,” he chuckled, “but I like it.”
“Okay, well the most accurate thing I can say is that when we have sex, it feels like I’m wanted. It feels like… I’m home.”
He nodded at her the way people do when they understand that something important has been told to them, but Peter wasn’t at all sure what she meant. From what he knew, it was obvious that Karen hated her actual home and made every effort to avoid being there—sometimes even hiding in Peter’s room so his parents wouldn’t suspect an overnight guest. Though he only saw her father briefly during winter break at Buffalo last year, her mother lived in the city and he met her enough times to find her pleasant, if only a little distant. On one occasion he asked Karen about her need to always be out.
It was during one of her secret sleepovers. Instead of answering the question she said something vague about him not knowing everything and then pulled his pants down to avoid more talking. She put him in her mouth while he lay on his bed, noticing the sobs that Karen tried to muffle with his penis, but which he heard anyway.
It was with that same hunger for “home” that Karen slowly rubbed her hands over Peter’s flat stomach, trying to avoid looking at his jeans. Peter knew, if only unconsciously, that having him around made Karen feel healed. Despite his moody ways, she needed him. But as she rubbed his body, trying to stitch closed hidden wounds, she just couldn’t look away from his pants. Eventually she said, “Peter, some of your clothes are just so sloppy. You know, you don’t always have to buy them two sizes bigger.”
With a smile he said,. “That’s just what I’m comfortable wearing. I like my skin to breath.”
“I guess. Well, at least your pants don’t hang off your ass. I would’ve never talked to you.”
“If that’s what you say. But I remember you checking me out pretty hard at that basement party.”
She lifted her head off his chest to look at him with a slight smile and wide-open eyes. “Oh really? That’s what you think?”
“I was looking at you. But I was thinking to myself ‘why does this guy’s T-shirt sleeve go past his elbow. Does he need help dressing himself?’”
“Whatever.” His cheery look disappeared at the slight jab.
“Aww.” She kissed him on the cheek. “You know you’re sexy. Just…let’s go shopping together next week or something.”
“That’s the second time I’ve heard you say that. Babe, I like to wear what I like to wear. It’s my style and I don’t need you trying to change me.”
“I’m not trying to change you. I love you. But how you present yourself sometimes is a little…” She searched for the right word and said, “Rough?”, not sure if she had found what she was looking for.
Karen hopped out of bed and walked around to the closet, which was closer to Peter’s side. She opened its door and said, “Baby, you live a few streets away from the Guggenheim. Your parents own half a block in Brooklyn. Your neighbors look at me like I’ve got a disease whenever we leave the building together. You come from money, so, you know, you don’t gotta look like you’re living in a rap video.”
Peter’s calm, brought on by his earlier orgasm, was being replaced by an uncomfortable tenseness. As if Karen’s words were a physical thing, he could feel his chest being poked. He looked at Karen as she stared into his closet with an expression of disappointment—the corners of her mouth were tight and stretched sideways.
*Thumbnail Image Courtesy Den Quinsay
A full version of this short story appears in the short story collection, You, Me and the Rest of US: #NewYorkStories. The book is available in ebook and paperback at all major retailers.