“It’s the blood I remember most,” I said. “He nearly slipped when he came to get me.”
Kemma’s body tightened. Her eyelashes fluttered against my neck in a rapid staccato. I pulled the coarse sheet up and over her shoulder.
“Why you always say that?” she whispered, tapping my chest with a finger. “Why talk about the blood?”
It upset her to be reminded, but the killing was what drove me to do what I did. The blood had been all around us: on the walls, on the painted floor of the gymnasium, on our clothing. It was in our hair and our lungs. The dead were the lucky ones. They were spared what was to come.
I only wanted to save as many of the children as I could – not out of duty, or some high minded idealism – just instinct. I stared at the man with the gun, daring him to select me. I hoped another execution would satisfy his bloodlust.
We had been herded onto the benches alongside the basketball court. I whispered to the older ones to keep calm so the younger ones would not be afraid. I held a small boy to my chest. Perhaps he thought I could save him, when actually being close to me placed him at higher risk. I was the only teacher left alive.
Mrs Goldstein lay sprawled by the double doors, one arm extended to the side, one shoe detached from her heel. There was no blood around her head, but her pose had a finality that was the more chilling for the lack of explanation. In the weeks following the attack the children would joke that she was a vampire because there was no blood in her body.
Miss Ozkan and Miss O’Neil lay motionless where the coloured lines of the basketball and badminton courts intersected. They had been dragged out, forced to kneel, and silenced with two sharp retorts that filled the hall with violent stillness. Their skulls shattered, the blood and brain matter ran together in a quick, seeping lake. They had both tried to be dignified, but the cruelty and wantonness had been designed to rip their roots from the soil. Their eyes, in those final backward glances, had shown the uneven shame of it all. Why me? Why now?
I could smell urine. The boy I was holding shook like an abandoned puppy. I was glad of the excuse to push him away.
“What happened next?” Kemma asked, as she always did.
“You know what,” I said, the memory stirring me in ways I found difficult to fathom.
Kemma’s hair smelled of coconut. She was like warm honey poured over fresh bread. “Tell me,” she said, curling her toes along my shin.
“He stepped over Miss O’Neil’s body and nearly slipped,” I said. “I thought the gun would go off.”
The man had a rifle on a sling that kept catching in the black and white shemagh around his neck. The children shrank back as he approached.
“What did he say then?” Kemma said after a while.
I imitated his voice. “You! You fuck her!”
Sometimes in my mind I have it that he was pointing the gun at me. Sometimes I have it that the gun was slung by his side and he simply pointed with a gloved finger. But the result remains the same. I had to walk on shaking legs to the semi naked girl lying in a foetal position on the gym mat.
I fell silent recalling those intense, drawn out moments. The children didn’t know where to look. Either we would have sex in front of them, or Kemma and I would both be killed.
The mat lay untidily in the D at the near end of the basketball court. The man had already pulled off some of her clothing. She was trying to hide herself with her arms, huddled up, crying. Her face was bruised. I was unsure why they had picked on her. She was underfed, half-caste, inchoate. But as I knelt by her feet I could feel the animal determination to survive.
At this point our recollections always took different paths. Kemma scowled. “Why you didn’t want to do it?”
Every time she remembered a little more, each fragment of memory escaping from the well of repression like a skittering lizard. For my part, each second was as vivid as the next.
“I was trying to save you,” I said.
“He was going to shoot me!”
I held her tight.
“I was offering myself. To save you,” I said.
As she processed the implications of my words, she wriggled, then lifted her head to place a sharp chin on my shoulder. Lying like this, her face assumed a childish innocence, the eyes too close to focus on. I placed my hand on her cheek to stroke the side of her nose with my thumb.
“What do you remember most?” I said.
“The eyes,” she replied without a pause. “All the little kids, looking at us.”
Fucking Kemma was, from that very first time, something of a religious experience. There was a smell about her that reached down inside me. She unlocked a passion I could never have thought possible. It may have been something to do with how we were thrown together, or how we helped each other through, but there was also something transcendent about us as lovers.
For a start, I liked her as a person. Some years previously she had been serving in a grocery store near my apartment. She was not from the area – few people of colour live where I do – but she recognised me and carried my bags to the car. I thanked her and she waved me off with an imitated and unpractised farewell: “There you go, Mr Collins. You have a nice day now.”
A year later, at the same store, she was being harassed by three white boys on bicycles. I got out of my car and approached them with the purpose and certainty of a teacher. When they saw me, they spat on the tarmac and rode noisily away. She said thanks, placing a hand on my arm. It was an intimate act, one that felt too grown up.
Despite her youth, there was nothing naïve about her love making. She must have started young and I often found myself wondering how much of her education had been voluntary and how much had been forced. There was a guardedness about her, a sense that she only did what she chose to do. But when opened the gates to herself, what she revealed was extraordinary. Nothing ever felt mundane. Every time there was a magic that made each second special.
“There’s a flow to it,” she said. “Feel my rhythm.”
She kissed differently to the way I was used to, tugging at my lips with hers, rarely using her tongue. She smiled as she did so, delicately holding my face with sharp fingertips. Between kisses, she giggled tunefully.
“I like that you can be with both men and women,” she said. “It has a nice feeling.”
I was terrified of course, that first time. As I knelt on the mat, I whispered, “Do you want to do this?”
Had she said no, shaking as I was, I would have stumbled to the wall to let the gunman do his work. But she sat up, undid my tie, and picked at the buttons of my shirt with shaking hands.
I felt the smooth skin of her thighs as she opened her knees. “I don’t know if I can do this,” I mumbled. “A man can’t always…”
“Work with me,” she hissed, as she unbuckled my belt. Undoing the zipper of my pants, she reached into my shorts and took hold of my balls as if weighing a bunch of grapes. Her hands were warm.
I was acutely conscious of the man with the gun, and the twenty children who were being horribly educated about adult life.
“Look at me,” Kemma said. “Keep looking at me.”
This became a feature of our interactions from then on. We would sit for an hour looking into each other’s souls.
The politics of eye contact in a big city is an awkward phenomenon. In the newspaper kiosks there’s a peremptory flash of appreciation as you collect your change. On the sidewalk there’s a careful dance between not wanting to be considered rude and yet wishing to avoid protracted chatter. On the subway there’s an unwritten protocol that you never stare. If contact is made, it’s quickly broken with an apologetic downcasting.
With Kemma, eye contact was like poetry. I could stare into her and have her stare into me without saying a word. A sense of predation would rise and fall, followed by a queer submissiveness. Once we had reached a point of equilibrium, we could happily remain in perfect balance and I could enter her body with my spirit.
This was noticeable because, on the face of it, we were far from equal. She was in her mid-teens and older than her grade because she’d missed a year due to illness. She was more mature than her peers and consequently somewhat friendless. She would babble excitedly about films I would never watch – the X-Men franchise, for example – but her mind had a clinical precision that elevated her ability to interact. She also loved flowers and, oddly, Rahmaninov (something she had picked up at a Summer Camp). But she never watched any of the movies I leant her. She wanted to discover life in her own way and would not be guided by me.
She was from a single parent family. In a rare moment of openness, she told me that her father had been killed on the railway, drunk, when she was small.
By contrast, both my parents were very much alive and I had inherited all the advantages of an Eastern Seaboard education. My parents lived in Vermont. We went skiing every year in Banff, Canada. I went to MIT and, as a Quant, did not need a parental guarantor for a mortgage application. I was fifteen years older, and engaged to be married to Robert, a man I had been with since my early twenties.
But when I looked into her eyes, when I smelled her skin, our differences meant nothing.
I adored her body. Fine bones formed deep wells at the base of her throat, behind the clavicle, between the sharp angles of her shoulder blades. Her breasts were small but the nipples dark and strong. She liked me biting them and when I did so, she groaned in my ear.
I loved running my hands over the square expanse of her hips. She had a delightful, doughy belly, like Botticelli’s Venus, and her hairlessness was a novelty for me. It excited me that she was so confident in how she talked about herself. She used words I thought women hated, and she used them with a deliberation that could never be affected.
“I want you in my cunt,” she would say, sweeping her hair back over her shoulders. Then she would lean forward to fix me with her spell, allowing her hair to fall around us like the long tendrils of a weeping willow.
She would pose for me, standing with her feet crossed so I could study the Y of her groin, the patterns of bruises that always decorated her thighs. I never asked how she got them. I would look into her eyes, then trace her thin arms down to the deep cavern of her belly button. She would pluck at her nipples and chastise me for favouring one over the other.
“I’m left handed,” I explained.
“Well this titty wants attention too,” she said, before stroking the cleft between the pads of her labia and licking the tip of her finger.
“Let me taste you,” I said, sticking out my tongue as if waiting for the sacrament.
“No,” she said, and there was no point pressing. If she wanted something, she got it. She begged like a spoiled child until I relented. But if she didn’t want to give, she closed up like a clam.
As we learned to trust one another, it became apparent she had chosen me to fuck for pleasure. It would be easy to assume that being watched excited her. But this alone, making a porno movie for example, would not have captured the essence of her desire. What she relished was danger.
Once, in my car, she had me pull over and reverse up a side alley between two brownstones, where they store the dumpsters. It was broad daylight, and people were crossing right in front of us, but that didn’t stop her leaning over to felate me, while I suppressed her hair from view through the windscreen. Another time we did it on the roof of the apartment block. It was one of those sticky summer evenings when the stars were yellow and flickering behind the planes descending into La Guardia. I took her from behind, thumping her rhythmically against the parapet as she looked up at the sky.
“This is so amazing,” she kept saying. Then she pointed. “That one’s Betelgeuse,” she said.
Becoming besotted with her was not something I enjoyed. It upset my sense of balance, my control over life. It was as though someone had invaded my apartment and moved the furniture. I saw reflections of her in television adverts, songs on the radio, people on the subway. Everything became unstable, tilted; and yet I weathered the yawing and pitching because doing so released flavours and scents that I never knew existed.
Whereas sex was, with my fiancé, an infrequent, short, and habitual affair, with Kemma it was protracted and deeply physical. I would change position, change stroke, change speed, change direction, bite her nipples, grasp her throat, or circle a finger round the slippery, gently contracting sphincter of her anus.
“It’s a conversation,” she said. “It’s really beautiful.”
But for all our talking, sex was, for both of us, about control. She would only come if she wanted to, and I would never stop unless it happened. So we fought, constantly and vividly for dominance.
When she allowed herself, the violence of it was extreme. There would be a ripple that started in her navel, shuddered down to her knees, then reverberated back to her shoulders. Her orgasms were like climbing a mountain. Peak followed plateau followed peak, each time stronger and more aggressive than the last. Then, finally, when the convulsions were so powerful as to knock over the bedside lamp, she would grip my shoulders with small, strong hands and present her body to me as a gift.
Her climax was entirely her own, but she honoured me by letting me bring her to it.
“You’re good,” she said, in a whisper as reedy and thin as spring ice. It was her personal voice, not the one she used in public.
After I came, she would laugh, and wrap me in her arms. She would hold me inside her until I withered, then nestle into me. I liked the soft vibrations of her snoring, the innocence of her face. But these moments rarely lasted. Both of us found it impossible to rest with the other at hand. The more we fucked, the more I became addicted to her. She made me question the whole premise of my impending marriage.
“I can see a future for us,” she said once. It was the closest she ever came to saying she loved me. “I put aside stuff for you.”
I was horrified and excited at the same time. Did I want her to be a part of my life? Could I leave her after everything we had been through?
In the gymnasium, that first time, I lay on top of her with my eyes closed. I was breathing hard, my weight supported by my elbows. I became conscious of cold air on my buttocks. The children were completely silent. I waited for the man with the gun to speak, to shoot me, to laugh. I looked round, and he was gone.
I pulled out of Kemma and hastily zipped up my pants. “Say nothing of this,” I instructed the children. “You must never say anything, or Kemma will be in very big trouble.”
Most of the kids lived, like Kemma, along the Sidings. Life had taught them authority figures defined what was right and wrong by what they said rather than what they did. If Kemma didn’t report me, they wouldn’t either.
“We keep you alive,” Kemma snapped at them. “You feel me?”
Her voice was as taut as a racket string. Her street self had returned. While she lifted her ankles to slip her panties back on, I peeked out through the crack between double doors to find a ring of blue lights and a SWOT team in position ready to assault. The man in the shemagh lay motionless in the stairwell. I had not heard a thing.
“Don’t shoot! I’m a teacher!” I screamed. “There are children in here. We need an ambulance.”
It could never have continued to be so bountiful without becoming destructive.
About a month before the election I tweeted something to the effect that Hillary Clinton could not be trusted. She was visiting one of those rust-belt swing-states and made a promise to keeping jobs that was utterly unbelievable. In that ugly, tribal campaign, my comment invited her supporters to attack me. I was quite famous, of course, by that time. I had been on the news; the Wall Street trader and volunteer teacher that saved some kids from a school shooting. At first I was met by stunned silence, the twittersphere surprised that I should be anything but a democrat. But the silence didn’t last. It soon became a storm of hate mail. I stuck to the line, in my waspish responses to the vitriol, that people in power had to tell the truth, unpalatable though it might be.
But proselytizing only invited the trolls to expose the lie I was hiding.
A hacker accessed my Ebay account and from this got my aol log in. Obsessed, I had written Kemma long-winded emails recalling our moments together. He found them, and before long I was once again in the public eye.
Robert saw it on twitter, accompanied by my facebook photo. Pedophile Trump Supporter Exposed! it said, followed by a link to a website that sent any computer protection software into a blind panic. The irony, that I was the last person on earth who would ever vote for Donald Trump, came too late to be funny.
About this time, some of the parents had started asking questions about the stories their children were telling; stories they had not dared to believe. What really happened at the school? Why was I not killed?
The press started calling. Kemma was not a minor, so it never became a legal issue, but I had been employed in loco parentis and therefore it became a disciplinary one. I lost my volunteer job, and so much more besides.
Robert was, at first, characteristically forgiving. He put it down to the exuberance of a bachelor crossing the big three-zero threshold.
“If it had been a man, I would never have forgiven you,” he said. “But a girl…”
Sitting opposite me on the sofa, his beard neatly trimmed, he wiped a finger through a thin layer of dust on the base of my grandfather’s Tiffany lamp. He stared at his smeared fingertip, then rubbed it against his thumb with three quick, dismissive strokes.
“You’ve let yourself go,” he said. “I simply don’t understand why you would risk everything for such a cheap little home-wrecker.”
That summarised the situation clearly. Kemma challenged the assumptions on which I was building my life: right and wrong, exciting and dull, ugly and beautiful, solid and void. That she could do so while so young was no surprise. At her age I was listening to those British bands and reading those French novels that captured the existential angst I have always felt. I could grasp the emptiness of life, smell the purposeless of it all. And so could she.
Robert provided the stability and certainty that my mind required. Kemma provided the extremes of experience that my heart craved. What became quickly evident was that the two could never happily co-exist.
After the exposure died down, I continued seeing her on the days when Robert was working in DC. I drove beyond the city limits to a place I know by the coast. There we could hold hands, unrecognised, in the booth of a diner. There we could walk, arm in arm, along the fly-ridden sand, picking up net floats worn smooth by the sea. She found a brown maple leaf, and threaded the stem through the loose weave of her beanie.
She had not been affected by the twitter storm that exploded around me. Unflustered, as calm as the dawn sea, she shrugged it off as meaningless noise.
I told her that each moment was as thrilling as the first, that every second gave meaning to life, that the volatility made me burn with excitement.
“I like you too, Bobby,” she replied.
That hurt. Her ambivalence made me question what I wanted. Did I really love her as much as I did Robert? Did I want her to be an open part of my life, or forever in the shadows? Why would she agree to be that?
The inequalities and imbalances of our relationship only served to excite me more. I relished the dismay as much as the desire, and the heartache of insomnia as much as the tenderness of her touch. Until, that is, she texted from some swamp down south where her grandmother lived.
I tested positive, she wrote. Shit happens.
I barely spoke to her after that. At first I was unbothered by the fact that she had infected me and I had, by extension, infected Robert. I had been playing big boys’ games and so had to play by big boys’ rules. But then I became ashamed of the sordidness of it all. I would have to tell my parents I had been a fool. I would have to promise Robert’s mother to repay the loan, and his sister that I would seek counsel in God.
Everywhere lay the intractable undeniability of disease. I paced the flat endlessly as I waited for my results to come through. I was not afraid, merely sad. But the pain I caused Robert was crushing.
“I feel a bit sickly today,” he said one morning. “I couldn’t sleep a wink and didn’t want to wake you. I slept on the sofa.”
His eyes were swollen, but I was too much a coward to tell him. He would find out after I was gone.
After my results came through, I Facetimed Kemma one last time. She was sitting on a bed in a black tee-shirt, the bedside lamp casting curves of yellow light up the wall behind her. I could hear crickets in the background and almost smell the bitter southern air.
“If I’d known,” she said, “I’d have protected you…”
She was lying. It took me only a few minutes to work out when she had been infected, and when I was. This corroded the bubble of perfection I held her in. She became something abhorrent. I no longer wanted to be near her, and yet thinking about her still made me stiffen. I had, through my own actions, brought my life to an immutable point of balance. I had infected Robert, who was innocent and undeserving. And I had to recognise that Kemma, too, would suffer.
“I put stuff aside for you…” she started saying.
“What have you invested, Kemma?” I snapped. “What have you invested, really?”
I was furious, but also wanted to hold her. Perhaps I wanted to smell her neck one last time. Or perhaps I was like that little boy, grasping for anything that would make the horror disappear.
“I invested me, fool,” she retorted.
We ended the call shortly after that, both of us unable to express the sheer waste of it all. And that’s what brought me here, to this desk, these pills, this bottle.
It’s not the fact that I have caused unwarranted harm to Robert and our respective families. It’s not the fact that Kemma has drifted out of my life leaving a void beyond comprehension. It’s the blackness of choice. I will never know such wondrous superlatives again, and their absence is something I cannot live without.
I will post this soon, on Facebook. It will be fitting to leave it for others to read from a safe, voyeuristic distance. I read somewhere that enforced sex is a common dream. It grants the permission necessary to transcend embarrassment, nervousness, social mores. The reality, having been there, is nothing to do with permission, but with an aftermath in which nothing matches the experience. Magnificent sex, and the concentrated stink of death, are mutually and intrinsically entwined.
If you’ve ever fucked… I mean really fucked, fucked for your very life, watched by the eyes of horrified innocents, you’ll know what I mean.
If you haven’t, you will never understand.
With thanks for Peter Garrett and Rachel Sargeant for their advice.