Look at how one pile of clothes leads into another. Trace the layout of clothing as an archeologist traces ruins of by-gone cities. What is the story built into the layers of fabric, piece on top of piece, laid down as if a carefully executed act of urban planning, a city of fabric leading towards the story of last night?
You might notice that the trail begins by the table, with a pair of black corduroys, a single white sock, and a baby blue thong. Look at how the satin thong rests like a patch of sky against the pant’s black ribbing. See how the pants turn out slightly, as if an invisible body might rest there still. Can you tell by its imprint if the body inside was hesitant or hungry? And what about that pile by the bedroom door: a low-cut, red sweater, now crumpled, and another black bra. How soft the sweater is; how it holds onto the faintly wild smell of a woman, with its traces of florals and musks and sweat. And what about the missing clothes? What secrets are woven into the lost socks, the other shirt, another thong?
Could you find the story simply by following its tracks? Could you tell, for instance, if it was her hand that first touched the small of my back, and if I shivered from her cold fingertips, their newness and mystery? And did she kiss my neck at first or go right for my lips, lifting my red sweater and bra until both came over my head in a single tug, and I stood topless before her and let her look at me: I-still shivering, her gaze -a powerful caress?
Or was it me who grabbed her fiercely the moment we stepped in the door, pulling her towards me, kissing her delicate, girlish lips, hungry for the feel of her. Maybe I slowly unbuttoned her jeans, slid my hand down between cloth and skin, down further between satin and soft hair, down even further where she was already warm and wet to the touch. Maybe I wondered, as I let my fingers brush against her, how she would respond, if she would close in around my fingers, if I would be able to feel her heartbeat through my fingertips, if I would find fear there. Maybe her breath felt hot against my neck as her body gave up just a little, and I pushed her against the wall for support as my finger, tentative at first, pressed up into her.
Or maybe I ripped her fly open and pulled her jeans over her thighs in one rough, hurried movement when we first stepped in the door. And maybe I didn’t even wait for her to get out of them, but dropped to my knees and went straight at her with my tongue as she writhed, trying to break free from her pants without falling over. Though maybe she did fall over-or I pushed her over or pulled her down to the floor-and pushed her legs as far apart as they would go. Maybe right there on the hallway floor I licked her feverishly, long licks up and down, then pushed inside her with my tongue.
But if that’s how it happened, why were her pants in a pile by the table?
If you were a good archeologist, the best, could you trace the trail of clothes back down the hallway, out the door, down two flights of long, winding stairs, which I led her up merely hours before-her hand smaller than mine but not by much-out the front door of the apartment-with its heavy, clunky sounds of opening and closing, down the block, to the corner where I had the cab leave us off, to inside the cab, to me on my hands and knees as she waited outside while I picked up the things that fell from my pocket: lip gloss, pocket change, a napkin carrying a stranger’s number, to even further back, to that moment when things were decided-when I told the driver my address as she kissed me between my words.
In the cab, I pressed her against the door and felt her hips shift beneath me. This woman, once an acquaintance, was now a stranger to me in the moment her body became mine to touch, her long, black hair, her soft lips, markers of some seismic impulse that ran between us. City lights illuminated her cheek bones and the curve of her neck as I brushed her hair aside. The cab sped wildly towards Brooklyn, my place, a morning marked by a search for clothes: a fossil field of bras-is this mine or yours?
But, could you trace what happened all the way back to the party at the bar, to she and I dancing, just after her friends left, to when she first kissed me and went to lift my shirt right there, while everyone was watching, to my embarrassment and excitement as I said, “We should go somewhere.” And could you trace what happened back to that moment before the kiss, before anything happened? Did our bodies somehow know before we did? Was there some underground tremor, a fluctuation in body temperature, an invisible fault line leading towards a kiss?
And could you trace it back to the first bar, when we were both talking to other people? Did our bodies know even then what would happen later, as I talked about work with Thomas and she blew out birthday candles on homemade cupcakes?
That is, if the story even lies in what happened that night.
Maybe the story lies further back, way back, to another time and place. Could you trace it back to that summer day, when I was twelve-or thirteen?-and I took Sarah, the family dog, for a walk in a Providence graveyard-a hidden expanse in the middle of the noisy city. Sarah would run off, but never far, her shameless paws prancing on the dead. I kept to the path, noting markers of bodies long gone, feeling cushioned by car noises and buildings while safely out of their reach. On this day-the day the story might begin-Sarah barked and ran towards a car parked on the path on a hill. I yelled for her, but she kept going, so I followed, running across grass and headstones, apologizing to the dead as I ran. I stopped suddenly, as Sarah ran back and forth uneasily next to the open passenger door. A low moan-from either pleasure or pain-came from inside the car and I could see a writhing form-legs? Arms? I did not move. Something froze me to that place as if I had already known, even then, about the fine line between pleasure and terror. Slowly I took a step, then another, my eyes taking in faster than I could make sense of things, trying to find recognizable forms in the mess of flesh hanging out into, then pulling back, from the open air.
As the moan became a cry, my mind raced to imagine what someone could be doing to the woman. I clapped my hands and Sarah ran back to me. As I bent down to grab her collar, I saw inside the cab with eerie clarity. It was a woman-one woman-touching herself, her bare skin sliding across the vinyl seat as she thrust her fingers in and out of herself, grabbing the steering wheel with her free hand. I watched as her legs kicked this way and that, and I could almost feel that vinyl against my skin, the cool outside air flooding into her, carrying with it street noises from beyond the border of graves.
Maybe the story lies in the woman’s moan, or in my wide eyes taking everything in. Or, if you were a good archeologist, one who can see in the dark, you might be able to see what’s invisible, what’s lasting. You might find that the story lies inside me, in that private space opened up that day. You might know how I began to see evidence of private worlds everywhere: sly glances between lovers, hands brushing against knees under a table. You might be able to read the map beneath the geographical markers of mountains, highways, land mass, rivers: an underground map of subtle fluctuations in energy, of rises in temperature, of slight tremors between thighs. A map of an internal, private space with no witnesses. And yet, if there are no witnesses, where is proof that it exists? Maybe that’s why the car door was left open that day. Maybe the woman knew I was watching. Maybe I was meant to be there, to carry the image of legs wide open, of flesh against vinyl, and the sounds of cars rumbling, of the moans of wind and agony and pleasure with me, to make them a part of my private, internal landscape.
How can I even begin to describe the changes in me, too quick to catalogue? Only in external markers do they find their form: a trip to the hardware store later that summer where I tucked a cold wrench into the waist of my pants when no one was looking. How easy it was to cross the line between privacy and secrecy. If you follow me there, you might see my adolescent body still as cold metal while fear overtook me, and in its shadow, thrill. The cash register rang with each transaction, customers shuffled down aisles on either side of me. You might linger there, for a moment, where my feet were planted firmly on the linoleum floor and I felt eyes all around me, inspecting the fineness of paint brushes, the sleek bodies of power tools, the newness of freshly packaged home appliances. I glanced right and left and scooped a handful of bolts into my jacket pocket, their weight the only witness to my crime. As I walked out the door, past the ring of the register and the cashier’s “Have a Nice Day,” the metal dug into my skin, leaving sharp red marks. Yet my foot stepped easily over the doorway. Despite the pleasure of metal and weight, or perhaps because of it, I felt innocent that day.
If the story begins in the graveyard and carries over into the hardware store, then maybe it continues after the pile of clothes in the morning sun, in what happened after she and I sorted the clothes and said goodbye. Maybe it continues in our secrets, in my phone call after she left in the morning to confirm my date for that night with a man who would not know, who I would not tell. Perhaps the story continues with his hand where hers had been only hours before. Were there traces of her inside me? Some scent left behind? Could he tell a woman had entered me? Maybe, as his body weighed heavily against me and I opened myself to him, felt that rush of light and air and sound enter me, I half-worried and half-hoped that the change would be visible, that it would manifest itself in some physical, tangible way-a new mole, a new shade of hair color, a particular glow to the skin. Would there be new land there? Geological proof of what happened? Otherwise, how would I know the story wouldn’t just disappear?
Maybe it always comes back to this: traces of a soft smell, a night left behind, quick glances that suggest something might have happened between us. But stories have a habit of lying.
Perhaps the story lies in its unfinished sentences, in the unspoken, the undetected, the wondering.
Or perhaps the story lies in the mundane, what it all returns to: choosing a ripe cantaloupe at the supermarket, sitting at the laundromat waiting for clothes to dry, maneuvering deftly over piles of snow and ice on the way to the subway, that first moment of waking up alone.
Maybe the story lies here, where it ends, in the silence beneath the page, in the quiet solitude of an internal graveyard of lovers, these words a map without a key.