James Allen Hall
I LIKED YOU BETTER BEFORE I KNEW YOU SO WELL
“Your smile melts me,” he says, from his side of the bed. The windows are open, unblinded to a New York City evening in sweltering May, the heat seeming to rise from the concrete and surging forward, through the unscreened windows, lodging in our bodies. Even the chardonnay we’d had at dinner needed an ice cube halfway through. Now, though, we are in his bedroom, undressing with the lights on.
“I bet you hear that all the time, you little slut.”
I laugh. “I can count the number of guys I’ve had sex with on one hand and still have fingers left over. This one,” I say, raising my middle finger.
“You are a saucy boy. Someone should teach you a lesson.”
He did not rape me that night.
This is not what I came here to tell you.
I drove from Pittsburgh to New York City to meet M., excited about a man for the first time since Brandon and I broke up. M. had just moved from upstate New York back to the city to take a new job. When I asked what it was, he would only say, “I do research for a university.” His pictureless online profile listed him in New Jersey. His accent was South African. He sent me shirtless pictures, but he would not reveal a last name. “I’ll tell you when we meet.”
He is muscular, fit in the way that feels good to hug.
He teaches music, reads contemporary poetry, composes music.
This is our first date. We are in his bedroom after dinner. The supple sweep of his chest as it stretches and then flexes back to rest makes my mouth go dry. He watches me, too, and when I blush under the gaze, and smile at his appreciation, he encourages me with that line: Your smile melts me. He is what I want in a man: sincerity and lust and athletic musculature. Someone I can melt. You little slut.
“My dick is hard-wired for fucking,” he writes in an email before we meet. “If you want to come, you should do it while I’m fucking you. After I come, I usually want to go to sleep.”
What am I that this excites me? Almost as much as the snippet of Breyten Breytenbach that follows as his signature line: “exiled memory is the slow art of forgetting the color of fire.”
A man who loves poetry. A man who knows exile and coldness have direct correlation. This is the man who would rape me.
But not yet.
His bed: best night’s sleep I’ve ever had.
I remember the sunrise in the morning. What I remember about it: the way the light gave his body back to the world.
I am afraid to write my rapist’s name.
One theory holds that names contain their descriptors: the name is always inside, waiting to bloom up from its seed, to be extracted from its deep essence.
Another theory: names are imposed, and once the name settles on a thing, it cuts away, occludes other possibilities. Name as wasp, name as poison. To render anything denatures it. Stains it the color of render. This theory believes we yearn toward our names, whereas the former says our names yearn toward us.
Either way you want it, any way you undress it, you find desire pulsing at the center of the name.
When we meet, he is dressed in a green polo shirt and khaki shorts.
He says he is going to a friend’s mother’s funeral, he’ll be back the next day.
He is letting me stay in his apartment, a one-bedroom that he shares with his best friend, but just until the friend “can find his own place.”
Who dresses this way for a funeral? What kind of funeral is overnight? Why is the best friend in all the photographs in the apartment? These questions belong to some unknown realm of fact, the name of which I do not know.
He comes back early, while I am sleeping.
I am startled awake.
He is an excellent kisser.
rape (v): To transport with delight, to enrapture. Obs.
Months later, months after we stop knowing each other, I am surprised to see him: at the grocery store in Pittsburgh, at a rest stop in Missouri, ordering a bourbon in a bar called Plush in Tucson, at a McDonald’s in Cicero, NY. He strides down the frozen foods aisle in a pea coat. Down the sidewalk in boot-cut jeans. Across the room at a party, eyes alive with too much bourbon. Always, shoulders squared and nonchalant. Time slows and quickens at the same time, behaving like one of those movie montages when the heroine sees her crush and suddenly the camera focuses-yet-hazes. I forget not how to exhale, but that I have breath in me at all. This is how I knew I was ravaged: time has entered my blood stream, marching the rigor mortis minutes ahead in my arteries. I see him everywhere. He is everyman. I want to run.
If only he’d left me with legs.
The first time we meet, I stay with him for three nights over the Memorial Day holiday. During sex I say, “Fuck me harder,” and he asks me to please be quiet, then puts his hand over my mouth when I am unwilling or incapable of obeying.
The first time we meet, we eat green tea ice cream for dessert, but “only one scoop.”
He lives in the same building as Dr. Ruth; I see her in the elevator but don’t say a word. I imagine her listening to us on the other side of his wall, taking notes, holding up scorecards.
His friend sleeps on the couch in the living room. He is chubby like me, with a handsome face. There’s a picture of him and M. on the nightstand, dressed up as cowboys, sepia-toned. One night, the friend makes dinner for the three of us and M. goes out for more ice cream. The roommate turns to me: “Just FYI, buddy, I have been the constant in his life. I’m The Mother,” he says, the capitals squarely drawn in Times New Roman air. The next day, after breakfast, The Mother asks, “Could I pass for twenty-eight?” his computer open in front of him, his cell phone out to take a photo. “I don’t think so,” I say, contemplatively, trying to be honest. “But I’m actually really bad at the age game.”
M. told me he was 35.
Google told me he was 42.
Over green tea ice cream, I encouraged him to Google himself so he would find the article that listed his real age. I wanted him to know I knew, that I wasn’t stupid, that I wasn’t shallow.
(I have never thought of art as revenge, myself as vindictive, but now I am afraid that this is turning into retaliation. But so what. Maybe modern writing would be better with a little more blood and flesh at stake. As Anne Lamott says, “If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.”
It’s better that you know this now: even if this were a story, I am not the hero.)
The second time I visit, in August, I have the sense that I am the source of a fight between M. and The Mother.
M. and I have corresponded spottily. There is one long, lushly described email, recounting a run for miles alongside the Rhine. It is the letter I read when I want to believe there is solid land, not some airy kingdom of fluff and cloud, between us. It ends with M. describing how he’d stripped off his clothes—not a stitch between him and the honest God—and jumped into the river, purified in the blue.
But since he’d returned from Italy, I’d heard nothing: not a hello, certainly not an invitation. I only find myself in his apartment again by making up an excuse to be in the city. M. had agreed to one night. Which means The Mother was on the couch again.
In bed, M. says it’s too bad I don’t bareback, hesitating with an unopened condom balanced on his palm, gesturing towards me, as if it were an offering. A sacrifice.
I laugh and wag a finger no.
We are naked on his bed, he is above me, my legs against his chest, my ankles notched in the small dips of his well-defined biceps.
I say, Fuck me harder. He says, Quiet. Inserts four fingers into my mouth. Curls them around my bottom teeth. His other arm makes a bar against my legs and pushes them to my chest. The air flattens out of me. I want to say, but cannot, say no.
The color of fire in my head. It lasts thirty seconds, maybe less, before he fills his condom and collapses. I see myself from above this scene, a third person who knows something is wrong.
It takes a long time before the I I am can reenter itself.
Christmas 2008, we’re at my parents’ house in Indiana, my brother Dustin unwrapping a present from my mother. A door hanger that says, I Liked You Better Before I Knew You So Well, maybe one of the meanest things I can think of to say. Of course I love it, of course it makes me think of M., who still is the last person to have seen me naked. I liked you better when you were my fantasy of you. Before you ruined how I composed you. Demolished yourself with how you are.
Render: v. to describe, to name. To build under one name all the things one can be.
Render: v. to rend apart, to tear apart, to shred into all the things one can be.
In the bathroom, there is a spot of blood swimming in the toilet. A bruise is starting to bloom on my chest.
He is lounging on his bed, one knee up, still naked. The windows are open. Nothing will make them wince.
I crawl in between his legs and begin sucking his flaccid dick until he’s hard again. I kiss up his belly, his chest, bite his shoulder and growl into his ear, “Fuck me again.” He struggles to come, but finally does, weakly, I note, his eyes closed the whole time. Thinking of some other body. This stupid one I’m in goes to sleep feeling victorious.
In the morning, his face is innocent, asleep. I make breakfast, eggs scrambled with mozzarella and spinach. In the hallway, he says good morning through a yawn.
“I made coffee,” I say. There may be too much good morning in my voice.
Then, a full waking in his eyes, he says, “Did I hurt you last night?” There is a half-smile parting his lips.
“You could never hurt me,” I say, jerking my head toward the table.
We eat the eggs in quiet.
I ask him if I can stay another day. He is annoyed, but agrees. We spend the day in separate rooms, composing our different scores. Later that night, we don’t have sex. M., me, and The Mother crowd into the bed and watch something funny until we fall asleep.
Before school starts, I write him to say, let’s see each other more. I make a pitch—two weekends a month, until it stops being fun. He writes back, I can’t complicate my life right now. Everything I knew but kept at bay comes hurtling in through the window.
For six months, I describe what happened to friends and say, “But I didn’t tell him no.”
It’s not like I was raped, I say.
I am ashamed of all the needs living in my body that drove him away. All the drippy sentences I wrote to try to make him love me.
I liked myself better before I knew myself so well.
I stay celibate for six months.
It takes another six months before I can use the word “rape.” Before I can wear the name “survivor.” Rape survivors are
- [BULLET POINT] six times more likely to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder
- [BULLET POINT] twenty-six times more likely to abuse drugs
- [BULLET POINT] four times more likely to contemplate suicide
Winter in upstate New York, snow piled up to the windows, my car stopped, everything overquiet, and I am watching an episode of The Real Housewives of New Jersey when I walk out of my body. Into a field of gleaming snow. A gun’s weight pulling my hand down, the heaviest thing I will ever hold. I walk so easily through the drifts in my red sweatpants and gray T-shirt, out to the edge of the trees behind my house. I do not turn to face the road, but put the gun in my mouth, at first just to feel it split the lips, amazed at how the metal recognizes my teeth, telling them it is superior, and it is, I can’t stop it from gaining access to the roof of my mouth where all the cold stops. I can’t hear anything. The I I am recedes into the sound of snow lying down on snow. Then even that sound starts to echo into the imperceptible….
—And when I come back to my body, to my self, the episode is over, and I am shaking from the cold that has entered my body, that has lived there without warning, without my noticing.
Sometimes, I am in my bed, alone, thinking of well-defined pecs, the muscled arms, the ripples on the abdomen. I am bending space, bending him into a body that suits my need, making him into fact, into an object I can play with.
Until I see his eyes. A blue the color of flame. My hand stops, scalded, I’m embarrassed and looking for a washcloth again.
This ritual, more nights than I care to admit. Starting the most private tenderness. And stopping it.
Or, worse, finishing because I could not stop touching the bruise of his memory.
That first night, alone in his apartment, we looked out the windows at the George Washington Bridge, lit from within its bracing, one long scintillant smear, visible from his view on the ninth floor. I told him about my favorite novel, Another Country, which opens with the main character, Rufus, jumping off that bridge. “That’s why you love it?” he asked, flabbergasted, appalled. I sputtered to explain. Death isn’t more or less beautiful than any other banal pain we experience, he said to me.
Later, M. played a recording he made with a friend of his in an old English church. The sound was unlike anything I’d ever heard a piano make, a beauty so haunted and occasionally discordant it could not contain its reverberations. Each note bled over into the next two. M. explained they’d bent back the top of the old upright piano, exposing its catgut strings. The friend then sat at the bench, striking keys, while M. lay on top of the piano, reaching down to dampen and pluck, changing the vibration by hand.
I think sometimes about the music. That the recording had a warning: key struck, string gripped tight. It became a lesson: when you are changed, you don’t change back. But neither do you stay the form he made.
Over dinner the last night I saw him—the night after he raped me—he says, “My greatest regret is that when I was a kid, as hard as I tried to seduce him, my uncle would not molest me.” Twirling his pasta with his fork, staring at me, the most vulnerable I would ever see him.
Sometimes, when I tell people, they overlay my rape on top of what they know about me.
Sometimes the fact does not settle into the existing frame of me.
Sometimes the fact subsumes it, too-heavy roof, and what I was splinters, the foundation of me buckles, I’m a ruin, uninhabitable because the fact inhabits me already.
I liked you better before I knew you so well.
1. Why didn’t you file a police report?
2. How much breath does no take?
3. Do you think some part of you enjoyed it?
4. Why would you ever tell me this?
It’s Christmas night, 2014. I am at my parents’ house in southeast Indiana. My disabled father has gone to sleep; it’s just my two brothers and me keeping my mother company.
CJ brings up a poem of mine that begins: “One August night a man will cook me dinner/ and rape me in his bed.” CJ wants to know: Is it true? We are brothers who are not close. But he’s asking for an intimacy I do not deny the people who have read the poem online, which is to say, perfect strangers.
I feel strange to myself again. It’s true, I say.
And then, as always, it’s truer.
My mother stops her conversation with Dustin. What’s true, she wants to know.
CJ says, That your middle son was graped.
What, my mother says?
What? I say.
Graped? We speak together, in italics. We look at each other, heads cocked.
Drop the G, he says.
There is a pause, a subtraction added to the air.
Oh, my mother says, turning to me. That explains a lot about you.
What does it explain, I ask quietly. But no one answers.
What does it explain. Louder, and no one answers.
Render: does my body absorb my experience? Is my body a repository of what happens to me, archive of transitive verbs?
Render: if my body dies, am I no longer raped?
Render: the fantasy about the man is made by the fantasy about the gun.
Reconcile: in cases where the offender is a friend of or acquaintance, an average of 71% of rapes go unreported.
Reconcile: in cases where the offender is a stranger, an average of 44% of rapes go unreported.
When the offender made you a stranger to yourself, there is no form to fill out, no way to chart that.
No way to report the parts of you that go missing.
When the offender makes you a stranger to yourself, sometimes you (stranger) turn against you (familiar).
This is another way you learn to love your enemy.
Martin. His name is surprisingly dorky. It means a kind of songbird in the swallow family. Two syllables he over-enunciates, making both syllables stressed. Mar Tin. Two notes struck hard. A spondee, like heartbreak. Almost harmless. Derived from Mars, guardian of soldiers and farmers, father of the Roman empire.
I liked you better when you were the name I knew for you.
I liked you better when you were an unreverberating fact.
I could stand in the middle of you and everywhere I saw, the field made sense.
When you were revealed to me, you changed.
You became a fruit the color of bruise, picked and barreled. Someone’s feet trod you into someone else’s fermented pleasure.
I liked you better when you weren’t broken into.
I liked you better in the well I would not peer down into, before I saw your face down there in the dim light.
I liked you better when I did not have to face the fact of my own humanity, diminished.
Before I saw it was cruelty that bonds us together.
JAMES ALLEN HALL is the author of the poetry collection Now You’re the Enemy. His forthcoming collection of lyric essays, I Liked You Better Before I Knew You So Well, won the Cleveland State University Poetry Center's Essay Collection Prize. Other essays have appeared in StoryQuarterly, Alaska Quarterly Review, and Bellingham Review. He teaches at Washington College on Maryland's Eastern Shore.