We pull off at the side of the highway in Somewhere, Maine looking to sing to the snails. There's a deep shoulder of gravel here, so we assume it to be a parking lot. The sky and the water and the ... [+]
How I Learned to Stay Alive
This story contains adult themes and is not appropriate for young or sensitive readers.
I met Sarkas at a club called Pose. Rolling on molly, eager to swallow the world, dancing with our hips and mouths pressed together before I even knew his name. Light ricocheted off sweat-slick skin and sticky concrete. I felt driven to pieces by this light, my skin turning to beads of glass like the car window I smashed back in North Carolina before I escaped to this small, cold country, halfway around the world.
A go-go dancer walked by, naked except for a harness holding a bowl of lollipops and condoms, his skin glowing a Grecian gold, his nipples pierced with silver arrows, a tattoo reading CUPID in florid script over his heart. What did it mean to find such torture erotic? Why did I want to mouth the sutures in his skin, the piercings of his most sensitive parts?
Sarkas, yet unknown, reached over and took a fistful of both from Cupid's bowl, turned to me, and slipped a lollipop between my lips. He grabbed my hand and pulled me into the silvery glow of the streetlight, the city wet and cool against our bodies.
In Russia, men go to sweat lounges and throw themselves into the snow, Sarkas said. He revealed a pack of cigarettes from some hidden orifice in his clothes. The smoke and the drugs and my own millennial childhood made him resemble the caterpillar from Alice in Wonderland, though later I would learn that Sarkas avoided both drugs and Disney.
Why do they do that? I asked him. I accepted a cigarette.
He slouched against the building, his white t-shirt pressing against the folds in his abdomen and chest. In the nicotine-stained light, he seemed older, his reddish hair receding sharply, his skin ruddy and pocked. I didn't find this unattractive, but surprising.
They beat each other with tree branches, he said.
You're lying! I exhaled and smoke danced toward the thin grin of the moon.
They do all of this naked.
I thought of the strange customs in my own homeland—Wal-Mart; the obsession with the Jenners; golf carts; hot-dog eating contests; pharmaceutical commercials with old people sitting in bathtubs on top of mountains; mega-churches; schoolteachers instructing their students on the surest ways to stay alive.
Are you hungry? Sarkas asked. I know a place nearby.
He led me to a kebab shop on a desolate corner, on the edge of the city center where the road meandered up a tall hill. I wasn't hungry, not in the body, but the desire to feel all these textures with my tongue made me ravenous. Each new sensation felt like a promise.
We were not the only customers in the chippy. A couple of lads stood before us, maybe nineteen or twenty, Primark pleather bombers and dingy runners, fat smartphones sticking out from tight back pockets. Nothing like the kids I knew back home, with their oversized blue jeans and Carhart jackets, mud-and-shit stained boots, tobacco-stained teeth.
The boys looked at us, snickered at each other. They whispered back and forth, tipping their heads like sparrows at a feeder, staring, grinning. Their teeth small and brownish white. The man behind the counter looked tired and bored. He would not help us if it came to that. He focused on slicing doner from the spit, thin layers ribboning down to the platter.
In my haze I imagined the spit down my own throat, the heat singeing away my skin until I was tender and fleshy and malleable, peeled and thrown out into the snow, the lads beating me with branches, Sarkas standing in the doorway with the man behind the counter, saying, In Russia, In Russia, In Russia.
The boys took their orders and left; door chiming shut behind them. The man behind the counter pulled two more cardboard cups from his stacks, filled them with flatbread, tomato, meat.
Halfway up the hill, Sarkas stopped at a small liquor shop and purchased a thin plastic bottle of gin. In a park at the top, we sat on a bench next to a sign that read NO ALCOHOL and CLOSED AFTER DARK.
I laid my head on Sarkas' lap and felt the warm thrum of his penis along my cheek, next to my mouth, separated from my tongue by black denim and maybe a thin layer of brief. He seemed like a brief man.
Sarkas petted the side of my face and sometimes lifted my head in order to feed me small sips of gin like a baby bird. The whole time we sat there, he talked. He told me about how he fled to Berlin as a young man after his father found him with another boy in a garden shed and whipped him in the face with the garden hose until his jaw shattered. The other boy tried to run, but Sarkas' father caught him as well and hit him with the hose, over and over until the police came and his father was arrested.
The whole time, my mother stood there, weeping, Sarkas said. He took a long sip from the bottle; the food in the bag grew cold.
Sarkas told me that he lived a sad and lonesome life in an efficiency apartment, until one day, he took all his money from the bank and hopped a train to Vienna, Berg, Lyon. He slept with older men he met at clubs to save on hostels, stole food from supermarket dumpsters, skipped the ticket booths at train stations. He made it all the way to London before his money ran out. Stood in the Heathrow airport with not a pound to his name or a person who remembered him. Went outside and begged for change from passersby who refused to turn away from their rain-soaked destinations.
This is where, I thought, my luck ran out, Sarkas said. I thought, maybe this is it.
My life seemed incredibly small. What did I have? A middle-class, American upbringing, prom and drama classes and months of dating a smart, blonde girl named Chloe; parents driving me out to NC State one summer, mom crying as she unpacked the car, dad standing with his hands in his pockets, shoving me a handful of condoms; realizing my own interest in other men, their backs and pelvises, their dicks and scrotums and the balls of their feet; breaking up with the smart blonde named Chloe; coming out over text message to my mom and dad, to declarations of love and acceptance—we just want you to be happy; flying over to the UK for four months of study abroad, weekend trips to Loch Ness, London, Glasgow. Classes on Shakespeare, Mary Shelley. The club, Sarkas, here.
Shit, Sarkas said. We forgot about the food.
We took a cab to Sarkas' hotel, the dark beginning to turn at the edges. Sarkas unlocked the door and flipped on the lights. I saw that the room was very posh, much nicer than the places I stayed on my small getaways, hostels with fritzy hotplates and mice mining the walls.
The bed was enormous, large enough for a harem of men. Sarkas, despite his flabby paunch, dappled with liver spots, declared that he liked to fuck with the lights on. He wanted something to remember for later. In bed, he changed, no longer the sweet and unobtrusive man with whom I'd spent an evening, stroking my hair and feeding me gin. He became a man who would whip others with branches, or garden hoses, or his own fists. He gathered my wrists in his palms and bit my shoulder till I bruised. I begged for more. He held my throat in his hand and I looked up to him, his dark eyes, his red face, and I thought of the boys in the garden shed, their thin, pale hands searching the shadows, Cupid piercing and tearing his own, perfect body, the lads in the chip shop with their many teeth, the man behind the counter with his column of roasting meat, spinning, spinning, as he decides which pieces to keep, and which to slice away.