E
Jul/Aug 2018 Fiction

What Happened on Brandt Street

by Melissa Lewis-Ackerman

Image courtesy of British Library Photostream

Image courtesy of British Library Photostream


I was sweating through the worst interview of my life. Austin Kelly sat across from me mumbling over my vita, "If you joined us at Exile, you'd of course expect a lot of reading. Though we're a small operation, we receive hundreds of submissions each quarter. Hope that would work with your professorial load."

I nodded that it would, but I wasn't in Austin's office two minutes before I was certain he'd never hire me as a part-time editor on his team of ten for The Exile Review. He didn't bother to rise from his seat or shake my hand when I introduced myself. He appeared frustrated and wearily disinterested as he began asking obligatory questions about my professional life that included my editing for an online journal.

"Tell me why you think you're the right person for this editing position, Miss Livingston?"

I was considering my answer when he bulldozed my thoughts. "Take a breath," he said, You're not running for Congress."

Embarrassed, I rushed to respond, "I've wanted to work with Exile since its inception ten years ago. Exile is particularly meaningful to me because of its edgy, darker publications. I'm a terrifically qualified editor with letters to back this up. I've worked with three of your most frequently published writers. I helped Andre Miller edit several short stories for LA Turnaround. I've edited for Malcolm Birch and Terry Whitfield. I'm a writer myself. I believe I'm exactly the right person for this job, Mr. Kelly."

"Just, Austin," he said, wincing at his own name, before his face flooded with recognition. He came to life skimming the last page of my vita, exclaiming, "Oh, yes. I forgot. You're a writer, too. I think I've read something of yours. You wrote a piece about your mother, a bartender, recently. Right? Of watching her behind the bar of some pool hall when you were fourteen. She was flirting with the man who'd become your fifth stepfather."

"I did. That piece was published with Arrant Brothers Press."

"You were afraid of this stepfather because of the way he looked at you when your mother wasn't around."

"Yes," I answered, but not without concern. For a person who'd just remembered I was a writer, he had more than excellent recall.

"Carrie? Can I call you, Carrie?" he asked, with a higher, false swing to his voice. In moments he'd gone from mumbling over my resume, not giving a shit, to acting like we were going to be real good friends.

I nodded my consent.

"The essay's left open ended," he said, removing his glasses, rubbing his eyes that were strikingly blue. "Would you mind telling me more about what you were trying to convey to your reader?"

"I don't understand. I wrote all I wanted to convey to the reader."

"Why that essay? Why that topic? You're in the bar. Your mother's picking up a guy. She turns away as he gives a warmer, more connected look at you. I felt left hanging unnecessarily. I would've liked to know more about what happened once your stepfather moved into your house."

"But I didn't want to write about what happened after he moved in. And I'm sorry, but does my written work have bearing on my getting this editing position?" I'd read that Austin Kelly had been educated at Columbia. That by his late 20s he'd published a crime novel or two. That everything had come easily for him. He could've asked anything else about my written work, my editing experience, or my time spent as an English professor.

"My questions are pertinent to my understanding how you think about writing," he said. "From the looks of what you write about, you might get a thicker skin."

"Wow," I said, shocked by the way he spoke to me. "I examine my thoughts and feelings. I depersonalize things that have hurt me most by pouring them out onto the page. I don't take myself through every sordid detail of the things that happened to me in my early life, and I have no intention of taking a reader through them, either."

Austin shook his head, "How could anyone depersonalize your subject matter? I don't mean to be insulting, but you've got to be in some kind of denial?"

"I'm analytically hard wired," I said, working to control the anger in my voice. "I find the way I was shaped by my life with my mother to be interesting,"

"Really?" he challenged.

"Yes, really! I find the things that happen to all of us, how we respond to adversities, fascinating. We bend. We break. We're made different."

"That's crazy."

"Well then, I'm crazy."

"I'm intrigued, Carrie," Austin said, appearing momentarily vulnerable. "What value and meaning is to be found in being bent, broken, and made different by a man wanting you in the way your stepfather wanted you? You were just a kid!"

Stung then by the realization that maybe I wasn't really being interviewed for Exile at all, that for some reason beyond my comprehension, Austin was just screwing with me, I answered from my angry gut, "I don't get how people like you only look at the smallest part of an unbelievably larger picture."

"How's that? What larger picture can there be after such bleak ceremony?"

It was like Austin didn't even hear the insult. I wanted to smack the sudden smirk off his face.

"My stepfather bettered my life! He got me into a good school. He taught me about art and literature. He stepped in front of my mother who was a monstrous, violent drunk, each time she went to slap me around in the three years he lived with us. Most importantly, he never laid a hand on my mother. He cared for her. Before he came, I was powerless, watching and screaming while drunk men beat the shit out of her."

"Why do you think he did it?" Austin asked.

"Which part? Helping me? Being good to her? What?"

"Why do you think he cared for your mother? Wasn't it just to have you?"

Eyeing my purse at my feet, I couldn't decide whether or not to flee the room, but the part of me that didn't want to be responsible for walking away from Exile caved. "I really couldn't say. She was childlike. She had an innocent, pretty face."

"Like you," Austin said, and I must have looked undone because he quickly added, "I just mean that your resume reads that you're 37, but I thought you were in your early 20s."

"Look. I don't know why you're behaving this way, Mr. Kelly. I sure as hell don't owe you anything, but I will say that I believe my stepfather was ill. That he couldn't help the things he did. I was afraid nights when he'd come to my room. I saw it in his eyes how my fear made him despise himself. My stepfather apologized. He showed remorse. He wanted me to love him anyway, and I did!"

"It's just Austin. What good was his remorse? What good were his apologies?"

"Other men forced me into bed, and I felt defective, bad, and responsible. My stepfather's show of remorse gave me relief from feeling defective, bad, and responsible."

"Remorse is huge then? Apologies are worth something?"

"The remorse gave me a chance to understand how layered people are," I said. "This started my addiction to analyzing the more meaningful, less obvious aspects of people. It's a look on someone's face when they think no one's watching that gets me. The drawing back of the chest when a certain word is spoken. The way people use their hands is particularly interesting to me."

"Why hands," Austin interrupted.

"There's an honesty in them. Like they're separate from a person's being altogether. They fumble when we lie. They reach for our hearts and faces when grief reaches the point for us of irrecoverable desolation. My stepfathers the reason I'm sitting in your office today."

"You're brazen. I'll give you that. Takes a lot of guts to turn a life like yours into something," he said, turning from me, looking out of his broad windows toward the Chattanooga aquarium.

"I'm not looking for your approval, Austin. I don't see what any of this has to do with my editing for Exile?"

Turning back, he said, "My questions are still pertinent to my understanding how you think about writing."

When I didn't respond, he added, "So you'll join us here? I was considering two other people, but I think we can give you a try."

Mystified, hiding absolute elation, I answered calmly, "I don't think it's a position I can turn down. I don't know anyone in my place who would!"

"Good, then. I'd like to see some of your work, too. You never know what may be right for Exile."

Reaching for Austin's extended hand, I felt both leery and dumbfounded by his cavalier offer of the editing position. I felt equally leery and dumfounded by his request to see what I'd written. Of course I wanted to publish with Exile, but felt the prospect many years off. I didn't put myself in the same league with writers who published in Exile.

Walking out of Austin's office, I wouldn't let myself dwell in natural, righteous anger over what it took for me to get any kind of job from a man without a shit load of hazing.

 

I'd been seeing my shrink Scott for two years. He probably shouldn't have been a shrink, or maybe he just shouldn't have been mine. He met me each week disheveled in khaki pants, a white or tan, wrinkled, button-down shirt he didn't bother to fasten at his wrist. His messy office was covered in remnants of cigarette ash that fell like dust over everything. His five o'clock shadow that never went away was darker than his short dirty blond hair. His flinty brown eyes were unreadable. Basically, Scott always looked like he'd just stepped out of a detective novel. All he needed was a gun holster strapped over his broad shoulder, and he'd have been the sexiest man alive.

"What part are you playing today, Carrie?" he asked. I'd entered his office with my dark hair falling around my shoulders, wearing green frog pajamas, light pink bedroom slippers, and an oversized, white sweatshirt. He lit up a smoke, knowing I didn't mind. I was nostalgic for a chain-smoking dead mother who'd never loved me.

"The abandoned child," I said. "Today I'm the eternally lost orphan." I let out a long, fake sigh.

"You do make an adorable orphan. You look ten when you come in dressed like that," he said, grinning, before blowing out a long puff of smoke from behind his desk. I plopped myself down on his high backed yellow sofa. "I like it when you're dressed like a banker, too, but my favorite is when you come in as the two dollar hooker. I like the heels."

"You know you can't say that crap. You're supposed to be helpful," I chided. "And I'm not trying to look like a banker. Sometimes I have to wear those suits when I teach." I didn't dispute the hooker part. Once in a while I did like to dress a little trashy in skin-tight jeans and three inch heels. I was going for an outlaw-ish, smoldering hot authoress look, if only in my mind. I had no real friends to bounce these concepts off of.

"Sweetheart, you've been on my couch for years. I don't know what else to do for you," he laughed, like he always did, like it was just a little bit painful. He stood up from behind his desk, rubbing out the cigarette, before stepping around to sit across from me in his huge black shrink chair.

"Are you lying back today?" he waited.

"Not unless you plan to climb on top of me."

"Maybe next time."

I kicked off my slippers, pulling my legs up Indian style in front of him.

"What's new for you, kid?" he asked. This was when I knew Scott was getting down to business. When he called me kid and slipped on his thick framed reading glasses that made him look much older than fifty. He had a notepad on his lap, but in all the time I'd known him, the pages had been left blank.

"I'm still thinking a lot about my new editing chief at Exile," I said.

"Oh yeah..." he chimed. "How much is a lot?" He removed his glasses, chewing one arm that wasn't even the shape of an arm anymore.

"Why is that important?" I asked, defensively. "A lot is a lot. At first I despised him. I guess I still do, but now I can't get him out of my head. We rarely speak, but there's this new weight to the world since I've met him."

Scott shook his head, faking high drama. "Listen to you. I knew it. The pajamas! The slippers! You're losing yourself again."

"I was tired. I didn't feel like dressing," I snapped.

"Bullshit."

"What do you mean, bullshit? Should I be dressing for you now? Because you sure as hell don't dress for me."

"Down goes another good man," he slapped his leg with an open palm. "Jesus, Carrie. I'd hate to be on your mind."

"Hey, watch it! What kind of exemplary life are you living? Mister smokes three packs a day! Who can barely get out of bed in the morning from his last gin and tonic!"

"He will love you. And you will let him love you. But Carrie, you gotta know you won't love him back. You can't love anybody back who actually might think you're worth a shit. We've been down this broken, Georgia dirt road so many times before."

"Fuck you! What does my having grown up in Georgia have to do with anything? You don't know what you're talking about."

"Trust me," he winked. "I know exactly what I'm talking about. It's all right here in my notes." He tapped the blank notepad.

 

I was getting used to my new routine with Exile. I liked collaborating with other editors on the theme of an issue. Meetings were short, taking place once every week or two in the evenings until we were close to an end quarter deadline. I enjoyed reading through submissions that were divided between me and colleagues. It was easy to weed out almost immediately those works that wouldn't make the cut. Amateur writers struggled with honesty, with focus, with craft, with varying voices in their heads about who they were as people that had nothing to do with what they were writing. I loved those writers, amateur or not, who showed promise, which to me meant they were able to lay themselves bare on the page.

The only troubling part of my experience at Exile was my dealings with Austin. In his presence I felt incapable of keeping professional composure. He was not antagonistic like he'd been in the interview. He was kind and professional even as I stumbled over words in group meetings. I became overly fascinated with him. I liked his darkish red, receding hair. I found his middle-aged masculinity sexy. I was taken by the way he used words sparingly like he only had so many left for the length of his life. His lonely restlessness started to feel like my own lonely restlessness creeping through my center. And there was the odd way that when we'd meet unexpectedly, like we'd run into each other moving in opposite directions down a hall, we'd act so polite and surprised.

 

"You're madly in love with him," Scott said, rolling his eyes in one of our sessions. "And you're being somber, which I hate."

"I'm not somber, and I'm not in love with him," I replied, lying back, bouncing a blue rubber ball from one set of finger tips to the other. "Why do you always confuse introspection with my being somber or morose?"

"Don't change the subject. You say he's different from the men you usually pick. Leaving out the fact that he's married, because this is very typical of the men you pick. Isn't this change in your patterns something worth exploring? You do seem to be reacting to him in ways I've not seen with all the others."

"ALL, the others. Really? Why the jab? What's your problem lately?"

He rolled his chair forward, snapping my blue ball out of the air so fast that it was like it was never there. "I believe you could be in love with Austin Kelly. And I'd like to add that it wouldn't be a tragedy for either of us for you to embrace anything at all that might make our sessions more interesting." He set my blue ball down on the center of my belly.

"Don't screw with me," I smirked. "I'm fully aware of how little you believe in love."

"And of course you're right," he nodded, sadly, moving his chair back in to place. "Now, you wanna join me at Gabby's? We haven't been in a while. I'm starved."

"Na, I'm pretending to keep things professional here."

"Suit yourself."

 

With most men I knew from the first moment I saw them if I wanted them or not. Not want them in the sense that I had to have sex with them, or have them for a boyfriend. But want in the sense of being allowed to witness a man's most private aspects revealed. I liked discovering what moved men. I wanted to feel an honest connection with a man from time to time.

At some place like a writer's conference, I'd seek out the most vulnerable looking man in a room, watch him from afar, noting a safe lack of aggression. Mainly men who wore glasses and concerned, thoughtful expressions. When I asked this kind of guy to meet for coffee, he never assumed sex was involved. This gave me all the power where sex was concerned.

And it's not that I wasn't interested in sex. I was cerebrally interested. But cerebrally interested was all I could be. I couldn't feel pleasure after penetration. I knew nothing about orgasms. I enjoyed the feeling of fullness, mostly because I felt empty. Gold for me was having a man expose himself to me on multiple emotional and psychological levels without his realizing this was the erotic point for me.

I didn't have the guilt, shame, and self-loathing, during or after sex, that is common to women with a similar sexual history to my own.

I felt beautiful and animal-like in the act of sex. I felt I provided a service. I allowed gentle, lonely men into my bed whom I believed needed more than physical release. Like maybe they needed to be free to take something for themselves, or to forget themselves in the act, or to let go of some pain they carried through aggression they wouldn't have allowed themselves to express with a different kind of woman.

It upset me that sexual desire and the anticipation of release vanished for me at the first pressure of male entry. Whatever gorgeous feelings that had come up in my body during foreplay, vanished with the act. I couldn't recall in those instances after penetration the glorious feelings I'd felt before it happened.

A gentle man in his late 40s, Kevin, is a perfect example of my sexual life. He was tall, dark haired, and a little too skinny. We'd known each other six months when he stepped into my Boston hotel room with an expensive bottle of red tucked under his arm. When I lowered the lights and began removing my blue silky slip of a dress as he kissed me, I thought it was going to be the time my body wouldn't betray me. An unbearable ache expanded outward through my hips. I was close to something that made my teeth chatter. I wanted the thing I couldn't conceive of that was supposed to come next.

I whispered into Kevin's ear as I unfastened his pants, "You have no idea how much I need this."

I couldn't have been more ready for anything as my back hit the bed, as Kevin braced himself over me, but then... nothing.

 

I'd wanted to publish with Exile. That was always true. Along with the fact that writing had always been my life when I had nothing and no one.

In the stillness of my work, seated at my small mahogany desk, I felt I had a special relationship with memory and time where all the years, days, and hours I'd lived floated in clear detailed images before me. All the things that had happened to me that set me apart from others, that had left me feeling so incredibly alone, that altered the possibility of who I might've become had I been allowed to grow as a healthy person, were not lost to me. I could reach out, take time up in my hands for closer inspection before releasing it out again. While writing I no longer felt I was living in a self that couldn't love or be loved. I became this person with possibility. A person who might one day be able to make the things that happened okay enough through some kind of deeper understanding that I might eventually feel like something good. What I accomplished professionally hadn't conquered my low self-worth from various early life trespasses.

So when I met with Austin late on a Sunday evening to discuss a short story of mine that he wanted to publish for Exile and he yanked the rug out from under me, I didn't take it well.

I'd sent Austin two different pieces of writing in the short ten months I'd worked for him. A short story and an essay. I hadn't invested in whether or not he'd actually publish me after the way he'd acted in our initial interview. But when he emailed that he was going to publish the short story, I was giddy with joy in a way unnatural to my character.

A nervous, happy me stepped into his office. I was taken aback by his agitated state. He was pacing in front of his broad windows staring out into the black, Tennessee night.

My feet weren't firmly planted before he felt my presence, turned to me, and said, "You have to change the Brant Street piece."

"What? There are 15 emails with edits and revisions between us. Surely you're joking!"

"The seven year old in the bedroom. The two men about to enter as she falls asleep. The last two lines. You need to change them."

"No, you really can't mean this?" I shrieked. "Even our teams signed off on this!"

"Change the ending, Carrie. It's too weighted. You go through the girl's life using powerful imagery. You show her in the afternoon wandering her neighborhood until nightfall, riding bikes with friends, looking like any other little girl. But then at home she covers her drunken, passed out mother on the floor with a blanket before putting herself to bed in her own room, which is dark and dank. You can't leave those two men in the end about to push open her bedroom door."

"I can't take out the last lines. You can't ask me to, Austin!"

"You could easily end the essay when the girl covers the mother!"

"No I can't! Maybe you don't understand the point of the story!"

"What? You're telling me the drunken passed out mother isn't enough pain for you?"

"That's uncalled for! What happened to Austin the reader who didn't want to be left hanging?"

"Two different things, and you know it! End with the mother, and I'll publish the piece," Austin said, with finality.

"You're out of your fucking mind!"

"No, actually, I'm not!"

"If you don't want "Brandt Street" for Exile, Austin, you know I can send it elsewhere. I'm not wrecking the best piece of writing of my career yet so you can be comfortable."

"You think I'm uncomfortable?" He laughed. "And why would that be? Maybe it's just that you need to grow up and find a way to put a little light in your dark. No one wants to be traumatized by a short story."

My chin hit my chest. My eyes stung. I felt embarrassed to be alive. I questioned myself in ways I shouldn't have. I wondered then if what I thought was groundbreaking was merely something less, something gratuitous, something manipulative.

"I've gotta get out of here. You've been uncomfortable with me from the start. I have no idea why I'm even here. You're very personal, Austin. You've never had the right to be!"

As I turned to leave Austin pushed past me, slamming his heavy mahogany door. My body grew rigid. It was the door. It was the man. It was the way he was never invited. Little sounds heightened like the ticking of the clock. The smell of his aftershave made me want to disappear into the smallest part of my being.

"I was harsh," he whispered, settling ten inches in front of me. I couldn't look up for fear of bursting into tears. "Change the last two lines. I want to help you rise. But not like this."

My rage overwhelmed my fear of his seeing me cry as I began searching his all-knowing face. "You're asking me to change a piece of writing where the whole of it is leading up to that moment in the bedroom," I hissed. Those last two lines are the story! And what, because you want to help me rise? Are you kidding me? I don't even know you! To me you're just another man who thinks he knows more about what I need than I do!"

Austin shouted with a force that made me cower. "The male who's advising you, Carrie, isn't always the god-damn enemy. I've seen your future. Trust me, you DO NOT want to spend the rest of your life being that writer!"

"What writer is that?" I demanded, foolishly, because of course I already knew the answer.

"The one who's forcing incest down everyone's throat!"

Awash with shame, I screamed, "Do you think I give a shit what people think of me, Austin? What I'm doing has nothing to do with anyone else! I write what I write because it's meaningful to me. Thank you very much for your concern. I'm staying with the last two lines of my story!"

Turning from me, moving toward his desk, he said, "I won't publish it. I can't."

Dealt with, I felt familiar feelings of being the trashy little girl nobody wanted to play with because they feared contamination by association. I also felt manipulated into that kind of experience, which frustrated me. I wanted to go, but my feet felt bound in cement. It was excruciating having people look at me the way Austin did. And it's not that I cared about someone's good opinion, it was that I hated the idea of being in anyone's consciousness at all.

"If you ever want to talk about "Brandt Street," Carrie, I'm here," Austin's voice softened into a voice I'd not yet heard emanating from him. "I know we don't know each other, but I can't seem to make that matter. You know? And I'm to blame for all this. I knew I shouldn't have had my secretary call you in for an interview after I read that essay you wrote for Arrant Brothers. I couldn't stop myself."

My cheeks burned as what he'd said computed. He'd fucking scorched me in that interview, and I knew something else was going on. I didn't understand the look in his eyes when he turned from his desk to face me again. I ultimately took his look for dreaded pity as I threw with great force a glass of water I'd yanked up from a neighboring table. It shattered against the wall above his head. He was ducking as I walked out.

 

"You're having one of those days," Scott said. "You're almost despondent. You're absolutely boring me," he smiled, getting up from his shrink chair to get his smokes.

"I shattered a glass against Austin's wall," I said. "I've missed two meetings. And darling, you aren't offering any assistance, as usual." I pretended dismay as he stuck out his tongue.

"It's because you don't pay me, Carrie," he whined.

"You've never let me!"

"I know. It's hard for me to think of taking your money when it seems like we're always on the verge of something else. And you started it. You remember. You made it clear you didn't want me for an analyst. I'm just your safe timeout from everything else."

"I remember. Does it bother you that we've become what we've become?"

"Friends?"

"Yes," I said.

"Of course not. I just wish you'd see an analyst for the actual purpose of analysis. Preferably a woman. You might feel more comfortable talking about the scope and depth of what's happened to you."

"I tell you lots."

"I don't think so. I have two woman colleagues who'd be a good fit. Let me give you their numbers."

"I can't bear the indignation," I whispered.

"What are you talking about, indignation?"

"Well meaning women are angry when I tell them about my early life with my mother. They sit across from me visibly shaken by my story. Then when I can't join them in a rage so palpable that the room we occupy grows warm around us, they subtly turn on me. I've spent so many sessions in my life with therapists who've needed to help me find rage I either do not have, or do not know how to have. I swear to you, I can't tell another woman I loved my stepfather."

"You can though. I can tell them for you. Pave the way and all that. You just haven't found the right person."

"This exhaust me. If you don't flirt with me now, I'm leaving."

"Fine, but if you want my honest, professional opinion, I do think you should at least try and explore the relationship with Austin. I mean really, with all your other conquests..." he said, smiling in a way that was open and dirty, before taking a long, luxurious, disconcerting drag off his newly lit cigarette.

"He's left frosty messages. He said what went on between us shouldn't get in the way of my work."

"He shows diplomacy, but you're skipping over the bit about exploring the relationship."

"I can't sleep with him. I find myself imagining holding him. You know, naked, just to think about what the skin on skin would feel like. And I could never tell him about it."

"Why not just tell him? That's some serious romantic shit you got going on in there," he pointed at his temple.

"Because he's a prick. That's why. I'm not giving him that kind of power. And if I fucked him, and that unbearable ache resolved with this particular man, where would I be then?"

"You'd be cured," Scott laughed, uproariously, and I did, too, but only for a moment before he added, "My father's sick. He may die. The sibs call from the hospital daily. I'm not sure, but I fear my problems are bigger than your man troubles today." He said this in a tone you might use to say the postman will be by around 10:30.

"We're all dying," I tried. "And, didn't you say you hated him?" I complained.

"Yes, but you make the hatred seem so empty. He's only the very reason why I'm the brilliant shrink I am today."

"How long did he practice?" I asked.

"Thirty-four years. I'd always wished I was one of his patients. It was one of the larger fantasies of my youth."

"Maybe he won't die. I hope for you he doesn't. Not yet anyway."

"The problem isn't his dying, Carrie. The problem is that when he dies, I won't be waiting for him to love me anymore, and I don't know what I'll do without the waiting when the waiting has made up most of my life."

 

Austin didn't conceal that he was still pissed and wanted nothing to do with me when I first returned to Exile. If our eyes met in a room full of people, he'd look away. If we were standing in a small circle of peers where it would've been conspicuous if he wasn't cordial, he was barely that.

The bizarre thing was that his behaviors just made me angrier and more careless in my dealings with him. He brought out a side of me that I didn't know. He pitied me. He humiliated me. He clearly wasn't going to publish me. I wanted more than anything to hurt him back for hurting me. At the same time my desire for him was growing with ferocious, confusing intensity.

Sometimes I'd step near him while others were around just to provoke him. He'd move away quickly.

Other times, a few weeks after my return, after we'd both softened, I looked for ways to run into him so I could feel more acutely the arousal building in me for him. The energy was different. He didn't rush away.

Essentially though, I ended up in a not so charming state of crazy where Austin was concerned that was overwhelming for me. I imagined having Austin alone in some hotel room. My breath grew shallow when I thought of him naked on top of me with his anger, with his lust, exposing fully his hidden, private self.

 

One evening at a charity event, with guts I'd pulled up from somewhere, I sidled up next to him, rubbing my shoulder against his shoulder, and playfully asked, "So, how many you had, Cowboy?" You'd have thought I'd thrown cold water in his face. He walked away, beginning a conversation with a man I knew he didn't like.

Of course I knew by then that Austin drank heavily. I understood through word of mouth that he couldn't stand his high society wife, that an important book deal had fallen through, and that he'd lost a young son in a car accident five years before I knew him.

Later that same evening I saw Austin again after everyone had cleared the main room to hear a toast at the far end of the building. The host dimmed the lights leaving Austin a mere hazy shadow as I moved toward him. I'd had one too many. I was coherent but shaky standing. I stepped up from behind, resting my hand on the back of his neck, tracing my fingers over the warm skin below his collar. He didn't budge as I whispered into his ear, "I'm sorry. I wasn't judging. I'm just insensitive. Raised in a trailer park and all. With my step daddy who liked to fuck me."

Austin spun around, took my drink from my hand, and put my back to the wall. "Carrie," he said. "I wish I'd never met you!" He dropped my drink to the carpet, took both hands up my shirt, and moved his rough mouth over mine. I wanted him. I was game.

But in the next instance my head hurt. I wanted to cry. I felt oddly young and afraid. Not of fucking, but of something deep inside me I couldn't get at. I didn't know what it would mean to me if I felt pleasure and release while having sex with Austin. But I knew I wouldn't be able to bear it if I ended up feeling nothing at all.

I hesitated when he pulled me toward an adjacent leather couch, but not enough to where I seemed completely unwilling. He pushed me down and back, collapsing his body over mine on the leather, kissing me so hard our teeth clashed, pushing up my skirt, unfastening his belt.

In rising panic I shoved both my palms into the center of his chest. He broke, stood up, straightened his clothes, fastened his belt, and walked out.

 

What part are you playing today, Carrie?" Scott asked, knowing full well I was in my two dollar hooker getup. I was smokin'-hot, wearing torn, skin-tight, faded blue jeans, three inch heels, and a tight, white, see-through t-shirt, without a bra. I plopped down on the couch with my legs spread wide open. A little far, even for me.

"You don't look well," I said, noticing his face was pale, his hands trembling slightly.

"I'm leaving my practice, Carrie" he winked, bringing his cigarettes from around the desk with him as he took his black shrink chair. He'd left behind his reading glasses and the blank notepad. "You'll have to meet me at Gabby's if you want to hang out."

"Well, darlin', I have to say, I find this unspeakably sad. Why the very sudden need to rob the world of your shrinking brilliance?"

"Oh, shucks, I wasn't that brilliant. Never got you off the couch," he raised an eyebrow.

"This is true," I agreed, as he puzzled me sincerely by tossing the cigarettes aside, rolling his chair right up between my open legs, looking deeper into my eyes than he ever had.

"You planning on taking me before you hit the road?" I asked.

He backed up slightly, taking one of my knees into each of his hands and said straight away, "Carrie, if I honestly believed fucking you until we both saw stars would save me, and in turn make you feel something, I'd fuck you in a heartbeat." He snapped my knees closed, dropped his head and hands atop them, and began to cry. He'd lost his father just moments before I walked in.

 

It was embarrassing running in to Austin after what happened between us at the charity event. We avoided each other for weeks before he announced in a meeting that he was leaving Exile to work on a new novel. He'd made a joke about his not hiding anymore. About his getting back in the game. I lost his dialogue to an inner ear buzzing that overwhelmed me.

There was a hollowness in my stomach the instant I understood he would be gone. I watched him for the next ten minutes, feeling a disoriented rage permeate my body. I felt I was being abandoned after having not fully understood what it meant to be attached to another person. I hated the feeling. I hated Austin for making me feel it.

When I couldn't take the reeling anymore, I left the meeting, moving down an empty corridor, finding an office to hide in.

I don't know how long I sat trying to tear my eyes from the blank white wall that'd hypnotized me. Memories from my early life rose to the surface in gruesome, unrelenting waves. Like how my stepfather died. He'd developed a rare form of cancer. My mother was drunk on one side of his bed while I held his hand on the other. I was 17 and three quarters when he drew his last breath. He was the only person who'd ever loved me.

I didn't want these images. These were not images I examined at my writing desk. These were happenings and feelings I'd put away in tightly sealed boxes. Cluttering my heart and mind. I was living in the spaces between the boxes. I'd created a semblance of a life. I wanted to keep what I had. It embarrassed me to admit Austin was right in my interview when he said it took a lot of guts to turn a life like mine in to something. It was an absolute practice of alchemy.

Eventually I listened to see if the others had left the building. Believing I was alone, I walked through the low-lit hall. I was four steps past Austin's dark, empty office, moving toward the outer doors of the suite, when I knew he was behind me. I stopped. He set his hands on my shoulders. I felt his breath on the back of my neck. I let him ease us backward into his office.

"Can I shut the door?" he asked.

I reached out, shutting the door myself. It didn't matter to me anymore what happened, even though it did matter to me very much. I was once on a plank, but the plank had turned into a tight rope. The rope was then turning to thread.

My solar plexus vibrated wildly as I turned to face Austin, who was more visible than I would've liked in the moonlight. I couldn't stop stress tears from streaming down my face.

"Let it out," Austin whispered.

I hated his comforting me. I felt weak and pathetic as he pulled me toward the couch. Reaching it, he announced, "I'm sitting. I'd like you to sit with me. I'm not asking for anything else."

He took a seat. Long moments went by where I remained standing. But then, instead of sitting next to Austin on the couch, I slowly slid my skirt further up my thighs and straddled him. He didn't move his hands from his sides as I put my arms around his neck. I pressed my cheek against his rough cheek. I brushed my lips over his warm lips. I felt the pressure of his erection through his pants against my thin panties.

My insatiable need for pleasure and release, my insatiable need for something I didn't understand, through power and control over another, mixed with the new feelings of terrifying exposure of myself, were disorienting beyond measure.

"No matter what, I won't move," Austin whispered.

I don't like to think about how what Austin said made my tears flow again, or how I began to devour his mouth to conceal them. I don't like to think about how I wanted to take my power back but couldn't. I desperately wanted to save a little face in the dark. And Austin's generosity—that I wouldn't have allowed had I not lost myself in him—was breaking my heart. With that broken heart came the most acute sense of self-loathing I'd ever experienced.

I unzipped his pants before pulling my panties aside. When I took him in, his hands turned to fists against my thighs. We were very still for moments that didn't feel connected to real time. Our breathing picked up pace. I wanted to stop myself when my body started to move, but I couldn't. I wanted to turn back, but it was too late.

There were flashes of dark and light behind my closed eyes. Grinding vibrations moved through my entire being, forming from my core. There was something terrible and there was something irresistible in being alive that way. I couldn't make out the important points. All I knew was that I wasn't falling from some great height by letting go of whatever had me. I was okay succumbing to the final wash and wave, grabbing Austin's arms, forcing them around me.

 

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