Despite the Dark
By Tiffany Clarke Harrison
I ran and didn’t look back.
As soon as the first flicker of red and blue bounced off the alley brick walls I turned and raced for the fence. Feet shuffled and scattered behind me like birds, breaking loose in forty-five directions, jumping over bricks and barbed wire onto the wet pavement. Shouts rang out over my shoulder, ‘run,’ and ‘go, dammit. Go!’ as I hustled up and over the fence. My sneakers rattled the broken links of wire, the vibrations moving from my legs to my fingers until I landed on the other side and began the run.
Neither Tony nor David was behind me. We’d met for the deal on Turner St. at the old grocery store that burned down the past summer. Ben’s Barbershop was just up ahead. The candy- striped pole spun and I became dizzy, entranced with the red and white blur as I sprinted into the warm night. I ran past the shop and even further down Evan Ave., through the park and cracked asphalt of the basketball courts. It seemed like hours, days, years, like I was old and dying, but that heartbeat kept pounding the words into my head, you’re alive, you’re alive, you’re alive.
I ran and I saw woman. She was Asian and brown. Her hair was a mass of long, knotted waves and ringlets rushing down her back. She stood at a bus stop smoking a cigarette and yet I knew she wasn’t the kind of girl who took the bus. As she flicked the burnt embers of her cigarette into a stream of water idling beneath the curb, she lifted one side of her mouth into a confident, half-smile. She didn’t look like the kind of girl you told ‘no’, or to wait.
The skewed period of my life when I fought for money, when I tried to ditch the life that had been forced upon me, began with her when I was nineteen. Her name was Mirren, though I doubted this from the very beginning. She found me playing hockey on a basketball court with my friends. She was in a car, some three hundred yards away, but I could see her sly, half-small and manipulative wave through the chain link fence despite the man who sat next to her, his excessive girth blocking most of her wiry frame. I would soon learn that this was ‘Joe.’ He ran a scam in the basement of one of his restaurants in New York City. Took hungry kids and filled their appetites with promises of money in exchange for a lie. His eyes were narrow, brown, set deep in his fat face that wobbled above his shirt collar each time the car struck another hole or bump in the road.
We threw fights for him. During my fourth or fifth fight I was forced to throw, as some bastard broke my nose with a planned right hook to the face and I was splayed on the concrete floor, shirtless, barefoot, and barely conscious while jeers from the drunk crowd descended upon me like subsequent blows, I realized what I’d become: a whore. All of us kids looking for an escape, we used our bodies like whores, titillated the sensibilities of well-to-do assholes by wrapping ourselves in the thick drip of dysfunction and confirming their perceptions of disadvantaged life across the bridge. These men bet money and we threw fights for a cut of the profit. We broke ourselves for money, to prove to ourselves that what? That we could attain better? That we were somebody other than ourselves?
I opened my eyes as I was lifted from the floor, each arm flung over the shoulders of two equally battered kids. They dragged me through the boisterous crowd, smoke swirling and drifting between each sweaty head, and I saw clouded, wobbling glimpses of Mirren at a table. She was laughing with a gaiety I could not have imagined on her, a lightness that did not seem to fit our surroundings in the pit of that restaurant, among the dregs of society, as some suit-and-tie asshole slipped his hand along her thighs. Her desperation was palpable. But, then again, so was mine.
I don’t remember what time of night it was, but the restaurant upstairs was closed. It was dark except for the kitchen (if there was one rule in my life during that time it was not to go upstairs. We only snuck up there when the cooks below had left for the night and we hadn’t had anything to eat.) I opened the refrigerator and pulled a half-eaten sandwich from a plate wrapped in cellophane. It was ham with some sort of green sauce and foul smelling cheese. I took a bite.
Mirren stood in the doorway to the stairwell, her legs crossed at the ankles as she leaned against the wood frame, crossed her arms in front of her flat chest. Freckles were splattered across her face as if they had been thrown at her. The sharp edge of her pelvic bone pushed against black stretch pants. She was straight, narrow, like a prepubescent boy.
“I’m pretty sure that’s my sandwich. I can smell it from here.” It was the first time she had ever spoken to me.
I held what was left of the sandwich in front of me. “This is your sandwich?”
“Yep,” the high pitch of her voice contradicted her belligerent stance and I held the final three bites of sandwich out to her. “No thanks,” she uncrossed her arms, brushed past me to the refrigerator and retrieved a bottle of water. “You’ve come this far enjoying what isn’t yours, you might as well finish.”
“I was hungry.”
“You aren’t even supposed to be up here.”
“Are you going to tell on me?”
She laughed and her teeth were too small for her mouth, a dimple formed on the top of her right cheek and when I said ‘you’re the girl from the bus stop’ she shook her head. “I don’t take buses.”
“I didn’t say you did.”
She chugged the water, threw her bottle into a recycling bin and released her hair from the bun just above her neck. A frizzy cloud of black hair expanded behind her. “I assume you escaped whatever you were running from.”
“I guess.” I took another bite of Mirren’s sandwich. “You’re the one who told Joe about me.”
She bit the sides of her peeling nails, played indifferent. “I don’t know. I guess I liked you. The way you were running that night. You seemed like someone I could be around. You have a kind face.”
I set the plate down. I was uncomfortable beneath the intensity of her stare, the subtext of her words. Something about her seemed to weaken.
“What were you running from that night anyway?”
“People who don’t have kind faces,” I brushed crumbs from my mouth and hands. I pointed at her sneakers. The laces of her right foot were dirty from wear and coming untied. “What were you running from?”
I wasn’t prepared for what happened next, for Mirren to cry (it was the only time I would ever see her cry), crumple to the kitchen floor, fold her body inward as she groaned into her shirt and confessed that she and Joe, her misguided lover of several years, had argued and she needed a place to stay. These were the first of Mirren’s many faces (Detached Mirren, Desperate Mirren), each of them uglier than the one before it, each of them false and yet I fell for them.
The rest of my young life with Mirren was a series of these awkward encounters, confessions of things and proposed actions that I wasn’t sure how to handle and, because of my inability, I either handled them badly or not at all. Months later when she showed up at a party where I was spinning she’d started an argument with a woman she insisted belonged to a regime of human and drug trafficking operatives. This was ‘Belligerent Mirren.’
“No, I don’t know her,” I’d responded, lied to a guy I also didn’t know.
I sneaked outside hooking the neck of a beer between my thumb and index finger where I sat until I could no longer hear her callous accusations. Mirren was living with me and my mother by then, returned to my mother’s house that night and said nothing of this woman who I knew she never believed was involved in trafficking of any kind, but pouted about my disappearance, my lack of interest in her temper tantrum.
She wanted me to want her. She was less than subtle about this. Men wanted her so, I was supposed to want her too. After a long night of fights Mirren would undress in my bedroom, in front of me. My mother worked or partied nights and my father was gone. He said I was a burden, too sensitive with my music and art, and too fucking skinny. ‘Faggot skinny,’ he’d say. My mother agreed far more than she should have.
I did not trust Mirren. I hardly listened as her fingers moved along her clothes and she chatted from across the room about the night’s fights, about the night’s earnings—the stack of money she threw onto my bed that she couldn’t be bothered to count, about the gashes in my knuckles, my broken pinky finger, my bruised right eye nearly swollen shut. She removed her strapless white dress. It slid down her body in an effortless escape, crumpled on the floor as she unhooked her bra and pulled her panties along her thighs, over her knees and off each foot. It was a dance—a woman’s dance when she wants a man who will do everything he can to refuse her.
“I don’t love you,” she said.
“I didn’t think you did.” And I went to sleep.
I woke in bed, startled by a giggling in my ear. Her breath was against my neck and a warm drip careened down my back. I flipped from my stomach to my side, and when I saw a spreading blotch of black seep into the sheets I grabbed her by the shoulders and shoved her out of bed. “Look,” she said from the floor, raising a hand into the night. I rubbed the sleep from my eyes, focused on her hand. It was wet, shiny and black. The distinct odor of blood set inside my nose. “Now you see me,” she said, her hand still held above her. Blood scurried down her wrist. She laughed and she was high. “You were sleeping so deeply and I needed you. But you only come to me when I’m hurt.” She turned her hand, held it close to her face and studied the wound. “I may have gone too far.”
Disoriented, I panicked. I threw the sheets back and jumped out of bed, grabbed her by her unwounded hand and pulled her to the bathroom where I pressed a t-shirt against the cut until the bleeding and her peculiar laughter ceased. Mirren sat on the toilet in her underwear, makeup was smeared across her eyes and oddly placed freckles. She looked like a child, like a mythical villain with her little ears and pink lips. Her mischievous grin was wet with saliva. The bathroom light reflected in her eyes, placed drops of yellow in the cloudy, brown iris. The cut wasn’t as bad as I’d thought, wouldn’t need stitches, and I began to dress it in gauze and tape. She yanked her hand out of mine, unraveled my work.
Mirren didn’t say anything. She looked up at me and those drops of light glinted in her eyes. She tucked her cut hand into the warmth of my boxer shorts, curled her blood-stained fingers around the curious and hard, bobbing shaft of my penis. Her hand began to move. I should have stopped her but, I didn’t. Instead I switched off the bathroom light. I didn’t want her looking at me. I didn’t want to see her doing it. I didn’t want to see her at all. Each gentle tug erased more and more of my resistance. Not my resistance to her, but my resistance to even a semblance of pleasure, my resistance to feeling okay. She moved faster, her firm grasp gliding along with each flick of her quick little wrist. My hands wanted to reach for something, hold on to something, hold on to a woman, but they refused to hold on to Mirren. I gripped the corners of the bathroom counter, hunched my back with each wanted yet unwanted stroke.
Mirren stopped. Despite the dark I could see her looking directly at me.
“You think you’re better than me,” she said, my penis still throbbing in her bloody hand. “You’re not though. We’re the same.”
“We’re nothing alike.”
“No?” She grinned. “Are you still in my hand? Is my open cut about ten seconds from filling with your DNA? It is. The very thing you judge me for is exactly what you’re doing now. We benefit from other’s loss and suffering even though we are lost and suffering ourselves.”
“That’s not what happened here.”
“Whatever you have to tell yourself, Lucas” she removed her hand from my shorts. Blood smeared from palm to fingertip. She picked up the t-shirt, the gauze and tape. “I might be everything you never wanted, but I’m all you think you deserve.”
“You’re a liar.”
“And you aren’t?” Before I could answer Mirren punched me, threw her fist into my eye, laughed. “It’s been fun, Lucas.”
She left the house in a bloodied t-shirt and underwear. She left.
tiffany writes fiction and poetry, and is currently pitching a novel to agents. you can find her on instagram @tiffclarkeharrison. love yourself, love others, stay human.