By conservative estimates, there are currently enough wrongfully convicted people in prison in the United States to fill a football stadium.
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In Tibetan the word for “heart” and “mind” is the same because it is believed that the mind is located in the heart, not the brain, where we Westerners place it. It was a notion I quite liked but didn’t know what to do with on a daily operating basis that summer. The East Village was frenetic then, still half crazed from the towers going down, and the days were so hot that I dressed mostly in short skirts and flip-flops and little T-shirts — not exactly appropriate gear for a forty-year-old.
But then, most of what I was doing in those days was inappropriate for my age: going back to school to study journalism at Columbia; catching up on the one-night stands I’d missed out on in my married twenties; involving myself in various backroom activist groups, hoping, as I had in my youth, to make a difference in the world; and, most notably, flirting with a twenty-something guy who made my morning juices at this little East Village juice bar — and who, despite our obvious differences, seemed to flirt back. But then, he lived with his girlfriend and their infant son. Not that he was in love with her. He was afraid that if he left, she’d take the baby, and he’d never see him again because of a longtime heroin habit, of which he was cured but which she’d more than likely bring up in court. At least, that’s what he told me.
He’d greet me at the counter, leaning a bit too far forward on tattooed forearms, his face close enough that I could see the scar that ran alongside his girlish upper lip and smell last night’s dreams clinging to his skin. “What do you need?” he’d ask, as if we were discussing something much deeper than my morning beverage. Then he would push himself back, veins popping through his ink-drenched flesh, to slice oranges, wash berries, and peel bananas, looking over his shoulder now and then and saying something almost inaudible over the whir of the blender or the swoosh of the juicer, the tied string of his apron resting atop that little ass of his. He moved about with perhaps too much force, as if hoping that I wouldn’t notice he was the size of a kitten. I wanted to kiss him lightly on each eyelid and maybe whisper his name, like the hiss of a radiator, in his ear.
When he first told me about the live-in girlfriend with the child, he lifted his shirt to show me how he’d tattooed his son’s name over his heart. Both his nipples were pierced, and he had a fine line of sweat rolling down the curve of his chest. His son’s name was written in an elegant, old-fashioned script, unadorned. I longed to touch that tattoo. I longed to tug on his piercings and watch his skin gently extend under my influence. But there were customers all around — mostly women, sighing with impatience.
“That’s because he’s my fucking blood,” he said with great finality, almost as if he expected me to argue. But argue with what? Family is mighty; of this I was certain. After he pulled his shirt back down, I saw the outlines of the nipple rings pressing through it and wondered why I’d never noticed them before. The woman behind me shifted in frustration.
On the way out I thought he was a little jerk to have flirted like that for weeks when he had no intention of backing it up. Like taking your kid on a hot summer day to the drugstore to buy flippers and a mask, then driving him home to watch TV. I considered that this was more than I was equipped to handle: the girlfriend, the baby, the desire to pin him against my kitchen wall. I absolutely believed in love, and I imagined that his girlfriend and their child could, if he let them, bring him great joy. I didn’t want to mess with that.
He went by “Mick,” short for Michelangelo. He was Italian — or part Italian, at least. His other parts were some kind of wild blood that made his eyes shine, and I knew in the dark he would smell like the woods your parents told you not to go into at night. It had been six years since my divorce, and I wanted to be in love again, but the notion of trusting someone, of giving any part of myself over in a meaningful and sustained way, seemed ludicrous. Plus the baby tattoo had set me back. So I bought my juices elsewhere for a while, some mornings skipping them altogether.
A month later I returned. I couldn’t keep Mick off my mind. When he saw me, he leaned into the counter and smiled. He was wearing baby blue above his crisp green apron. He wore baby blue a lot, I think because he knew the combination of it with his chocolate-colored eyes and hair took women’s breath away.
“Where’ve you been?” he asked.
“Busy.” I blushed. I wanted to touch him. I rested my hands on the counter, and he nestled his over mine, something he’d never done before. They were warm and sticky, the cuticles dyed green and purple from the juices. I liked this and was afraid that if I twitched, it would end.
I’d thought through my decision to return: Why should I make myself responsible for what he and his girlfriend had going on? Not that it had been a rash decision by any means. I’d been studying Buddhism for about seven years by then and was worried about the bad karma I was potentially welcoming into my life for the sake of one good fuck — sweet though it could be. I considered bringing the situation up with my lama, but his freehanded notions on sexual conduct often confused me. I was in search of a set of rules that would clear up all my ethical dilemmas for me, and I’d begun to think they didn’t exist — at least, not in Buddhism.
“What do you need?” Mick asked, keeping his hands over mine. His breath reeked of apples, strawberries, bananas, and that protein-shake powder.
I was tempted to answer with the truth: I need you to fuck me so hard that I forget everything. Instead I ordered the usual. He removed his hands, and I wiggled my fingers. None of Mick’s co-workers acted as if it was odd that he’d been holding my hands for several minutes, but I wanted it to be. I wanted to think that his cupping my hands and asking about my whereabouts meant something.
“That magazine have you harassing rock stars again?” he asked as he peeled a banana. Every sentence I tried to form made me think of his strawberry mouth on the back of my neck. Then, of his girlfriend and baby.
“Things have been a fucking mess,” he said with a sigh when I didn’t answer. “I’ve been going crazy.”
“I’m running it here now. There’s a lot of shit to figure out.” He righted his shoulders as he spoke and seemed earnest about his new management position. There was a moment, a flash, in which I saw how ridiculous this all was, how I was going to have to work too hard to make him into the person I wanted him to be, but I stifled that insight. I was lonely in a deep, gnawing way.
“Congratulations,” I said.
He smiled as if my sentiments had truly touched him. Then he dumped my juice ingredients into the blender and flipped it on.
A few weeks later Mick and I were walking down Second Street from Lenny’s Juice Bar to Lenny’s Restaurant, where he did whatever managerial paperwork was required of him in his new post. It was still unusually hot. The route was on my way home from the magazine where I worked as a photo editor, one of those checkout-line numbers that never pass up a shot of some famous actor picking his ear. Our walk had developed into a routine: I’d stop by the juice bar after work and walk with Mick to the restaurant office, then continue on to my apartment. At first it was odd to see him out from behind the counter, to watch him move more freely. Though it soon became commonplace for our skin to touch, it never lost its thrill.
When I’d first moved to New York with my ex-husband, Banks, this neighborhood had been full of drug addicts and poor Puerto Rican families with no place else to go. Now it was buzzing with new shops and new people who considered these streets their own.
“I was telling my friend about you the other day,” Mick said. His shoulders were in a perfect square formation, as if sandwiched between two pieces of glass, yet there was a looseness in his hips, like clouds rolling in, that kept him from looking too military. A gigantic book bag hung over his shoulder and fell repeatedly against his left hip. I wondered what he carried in it.
“Really?” I liked that he’d spoken to someone about me.
“Yeah, I was telling him how you went back to grad school and how it doesn’t fucking matter how old you are — you can always change your mind on what you want to do with your life.”
“I’m not that old.” I caught a reflection of us in a store window as we passed. It was clear I wasn’t walking him to school.
“No, but, you know, this kid thought that every decision he made was forever. So I told him about you.” He added a thick furl to certain consonants like f and d. It forced him to speak slowly. Something I could say in twenty seconds took him a minute, maybe more.
“Forever is a hefty word.” I laughed, part in earnest, part in sorrow. Then: “I’m really not that old.”
As we approached the office door, Mick’s shoulder knocked against mine, causing his book bag to bang my hip. A couple of sparrows joined us from above.
“I didn’t mean you were old,” Mick said. He was so close I could have kissed him by merely shifting my body an eighth of an inch.
“I just meant you’d done something fucking cool.”
“Thanks,” I said. Everything felt sad in that moment, even the tiny hops of the birds. I left Mick at the office before the sun flared red.
Later I thought about what he had told his friend: about forever being malleable. Was it? I’d terminated my previous forever with Banks. At Parsons we’d both been the darlings of our departments — painting for him, photography for me — brought together by a matchmaker professor and our shining desire to make people remember us. But then there were bills to be paid, trips to be financed, paints and chemicals to be purchased. Banks couldn’t work a day job: he’d already been reviewed by Art in America; Mary Boone wanted to include a piece of his in a show at her gallery; there was a certain shade of blue he needed for his next canvas, a shade that might take him weeks to find. While he slept off late nights of painting and Guinness, I rose early and worked my way up the corporate ladder of my “temporary” job, helping to decide which celebrity would become more famous and who would be skipped that week. The plan was, once Banks was making money with his art, I’d be able to pick up my camera again. When we parted, after twelve years and two miscarriages, he was still the only practicing artist. I was the painter’s wife.
© Jennifer Esperanza
Mick called me on my cell the day there’d been an explosion at a power plant, and fighter jets were circling the city as a precaution against terrorist attacks. He was walking his dog in a different neighborhood, and the jets flew over his head first, temporarily muffling his voice.
“You know, my girlfriend needs to fucking change her life plan,” he said when his sky was clear and mine was starting to rumble.
“Why?” I asked with caution. I didn’t want to be his advisor; I wanted to pin him against my bed.
“When I get home, I’m tired, you know. I fucking work hard.”
“You do work hard.”
“There’s always dishes and laundry and shit. I mean, it’s crazy. I don’t know what she fucking does all day.”
I wondered what his girlfriend was doing at that very moment, while Mick and his dog circled the block and fighter jets circled our heads.
“Well, she’s probably taking care of the baby, right?” I said.
“I don’t know. I mean, I put him in his seat near the sink, and I wash the stack of dishes, and if he cries, I give him a toy. He doesn’t need attention every second. He’ll grow up to be a fucking sissy.”
“Maybe she’s depressed. A lot of women, after they first give birth, get really depressed.”
“Yeah?” he said as if I’d told him something new.
On hot nights that summer I would lie awake in my bedroom, overlooking one of the remaining community gardens that hadn’t yet been converted to a generic condo building for rich twentysomethings, and in the darkness I would feel that place people went when they were no longer here — not the dead place, not the floating in between, but the place you went when you weren’t alone in the dark anymore. I’d been there often with Banks. It sparkled and trembled and smelled of pine trees even in summer. And you had to rest frequently against the trees’ roots, which were fat and gnarled and above ground, the way our hearts were then, because we were young and didn’t yet know it mattered.
Sometimes, when it was very late, Banks and I would go on the roof, our bodies warm from a sleepless night beneath the covers. We’d bring the cats and watch them chase each other for a bit, then stretch. They didn’t know all the things that we knew: how far away the stars were, or what the greenhouse effect was. I wondered what life would be like if they knew and we didn’t. Most likely we’d still have been on the roof together, only it would have been them who carried us up, gingerly pressing us against their bodies as they negotiated the ladder and stretched through the flip-down door — the kind you find in attics — letting us tumble free onto the sweating tar. Then they would sit with their knees tucked beneath worn T-shirts and smoke cigarettes and drink beer, and Banks and I would stare at the moon and rub our heads against their legs.
In July Mick and his girlfriend took a trip to the West Coast to “show off” the baby to a few friends. If his home life was as bad as he made out, I thought maybe the pressures of travel would be their ruin, and I wouldn’t have to worry about infidelity and morals anymore. But apparently they survived. On his first day back he and I were walking again. It was another exceptionally hot afternoon, and Mick was sweating so much his hair was flattened against his small oval skull. His fluorescent orange book bag thudded against his hip.
We sat down to rest in front of a bar that had caught on fire the week before. A man had burst onto the sidewalk in flames after a co-worker’s cigarette had ignited a chemical. Fortunately he’d died quickly. Mick handed me a green glass bottle of the water we always shared on our walks. We’d grown more comfortable with the proximity of each other’s bodies, and, playing around, I lifted the back of Mick’s shirt and revealed a tattoo the likes of which I’d never seen before.
“Jesus, Mick,” I said. “What does your girlfriend think of that?”
The tattoos on his forearms were standard-issue naked women — tits, ass, long hair — but this one across his back was different. A woman’s head was nestled near his left hip, her deep black hair trailing toward his ass, her feet intertwined on his right shoulder and held together by thick black rope. Her lascivious mouth was gagged with complicated, medieval-type gear, some sort of steel ball jammed between her lips with several layers of metal latches to render everything secure. Long red needles blossomed from her open pussy like stamens.
“Nothing,” Mick said. He was watching ants on the sidewalk as he spoke.
“She doesn’t care?”
“Nah, she doesn’t even notice. You know, when you have so many tattoos, they just blend in.”
True enough, but how could she not notice this one? I wondered what his son would think of it before he was old enough to understand what it meant — and then later, when he was old enough. I wondered what painful things had been done to Mick to inspire him to cover his body like this. And I wondered how I could save him. These were the type of thoughts I’d specifically been trying to avoid.
I touched the tattoo woman’s bright lips and felt Mick’s muscles respond. Then I traced my finger along the curve of the gear that kept her words, her screams, even her sighs of pleasure locked within. It was the gag that mesmerized me. I wanted to feel outrage, yet I felt strangely seduced.
The next evening I rolled up a sock and shoved it between my lips. The sock was too large, so I extracted it, wiped my tongue with my hand, and instead balled up a lace hankie my grandmother had given me many years before. That fit better, though I could still make fairly understandable words. I was certain Mick’s tattoo woman, with her metal ball, would be utterly silenced. I felt foolish, and I wanted it to be otherwise. Could I be jealous of the sort of women who allowed themselves to be gagged and enjoyed it?
I whipped out the hankie — it left my mouth dry — and thought about Mick and what he was doing as I was wadding my grandmother’s handkerchief against my tongue. Then I thought about his girlfriend and wondered what she looked like and if she let him gag her. I pictured myself fitting a leather-ball gag into Mick’s mouth and latching it into place with a buckle by his ear. I pictured him vulnerable, just his eyes to guide me through what he wanted. Then I tried to imagine him gagging me, but I couldn’t hold the image.
I tried the sock again. I thought it might be interesting to masturbate with a gag in place, but the sock quickly became damp and about as provocative as a mouthful of steamed spinach. So I removed it and got off thinking about Mick in my apartment, naked, crushed against my bed.
The next time we walked, Mick went right past his office.
“Playing hooky?” I said.
“Are you following me home?”
“Do you want me to?”
At my building I asked, “Are you coming up?”
“I don’t know. Things could happen.” He smiled.
“It’s up to you,” I said. I could picture him standing before me as I circled his firm body, gently kissing the hollow at the base of his neck, touching the warm crack of his ass. I wondered if there were any scars left from the heroin needles, tiny sunken impressions that I could hush with my tongue. “You’re welcome to come up.”
Upstairs in my apartment over the garden, Mick wandered from room to room. He touched everything, all the various objects that had once belonged to Banks and me: the horseshoe from the ranch in Montana with the white ponies and the cabin with the missing windowpanes; the peeling red chairs we’d tied to the top of our car and brought home from Kansas; the tiny, tiny shells we’d collected when we’d lost our way somewhere near Coney Island.
“You’ve got some fucking pretty shit,” Mick said.
I had grown so accustomed to seeing Mick outdoors in the sunlight, it was odd now to see him indoors again, enclosed, my belongings all around. I eyed his book bag and wondered if it was full of objects he’d nicked from other women’s apartments. Perhaps there was a whole series of us (and how would he define “us”? Older women? Lonely, abandoned, wanting?), and he carried his conquests with him, banging against his hip as a reminder. A curious tension began forming in my back, stretching from my hipbone to the opposite shoulder blade, as though I were carrying something heavy.
Mick continued walking around my apartment, touching the books, the dishes, the telephone, the map of Tibet, the dried flowers, the cats. He wandered toward the bedroom.
“What do you want to listen to?” I called after him, moving toward the stereo.
“I don’t care,” he said, touching the walking stick from a wooded climb, one of the small paintings Banks had left me, the satin tassel he’d bought me for a birthday. With every object Mick touched, I felt a tingle on my skin.
I followed him into the bedroom, where he was examining a series of photographs as if reading Braille. His fingers, I noticed, were clean — no juice-dyed nails. These photos were mine from my undergrad years, before Banks’s success had become so astounding.
“Do you like to touch everything you see?” There was an edge to my voice I hadn’t intended.
Mick gently placed the photograph back where he had found it and sat on the bed. The weight across my back pulled harder. I wondered what Mick was really doing here, what he expected of me. What I expected of him.
“My son would like it here,” Mick said.
I laughed at the thought of a baby knowing here from there enough to like it. I needed a break. This wasn’t going at all the way I’d envisioned. For one thing, Mick was chatty. For another, he was nice. It seemed such a small and silly word for something that was making me itch inside. On top of which, I was surprised that I was surprised by his niceness. He’d been nice in the juice bar, nice on our walks. Yet his tattoo had led me to believe that, in situations such as the one we currently found ourselves in, another, not-so-nice side of him would appear.
“My back hurts,” I said. “I’m just going to take a shower to loosen it up.”
“Whatever you need,” he said, remaining on the bed, as if my taking a shower with him there were perfectly normal. I still sensed that something was required of me, but I no longer wanted to find out what. I ran the water hot. I really did hope it might loosen my muscles.
Banks had loved to take baths. He would sit in one for hours while a thin skin of oil paint formed along the surface of the water, as if he were a shedding snake. He would beg me to join him, grabbing my wrist. “Stay,” he would say, his body beneath the water both distant and vulnerable. I never did. After he moved out, no matter how often I scrubbed the tub, a faint waterline — a greenish, yellowish, brownish blue — remained around the porcelain.
I sat down now and let my back fall against it.
Just then Mick sauntered into the bathroom. I thought he was going to join me in the shower. I remembered the moment he’d first lifted his T-shirt to show me the tattoo of his son’s name: those piercings, that line of sweat, his skin. That was the feeling I was after. But instead he turned toward the toilet. Through the plastic curtain, I watched him raise the seat, unzip his fly, take hold of his cock, and point it in the direction of the bowl. It was a moment that I hadn’t shared with a man since Banks. I’d had lovers, but none of them had stayed around long enough to achieve this level of casual familiarity.
When Mick was finished, he took a piece of toilet paper and wiped the end of his dick. I’d never seen a guy do that before. I wondered if most did, and I was simply unaware. Banks certainly never had. He, at most, shook. Was this what falling in love felt like: this tiny wisp of hysteria that left me feeling both oddly connected to Mick and utterly lost? I’d fallen in love with Banks so long ago it was impossible to remember the exact emotions. I was suddenly and brutally overwhelmed by the desire to be drunk, quite drunk, so I wouldn’t have to feel any of this.
When I walked into the bedroom after the shower, Mick was back on the bed. He’d slipped off his shirt but still had his pants on. I sat next to him.
“Feel better?” he asked.
I nodded, and then he kissed me. Would you believe me if I said I didn’t want to kiss him? I certainly didn’t want to sleep with him anymore. That months-long desire had washed away for reasons I couldn’t yet name. I wanted to take a nap, or have Mick stay and watch a video while we cuddled. I wanted to sleep with him later — another day, another afternoon, when I hadn’t just watched him pee. I wanted to start over, lock the bathroom door.
“Did you ever want children?” he asked, as if this fit the mood of our kissing on my bed. “I mean, when you were married to that painter guy?”
I’d wanted them both, the two babies that hadn’t made it to full term. “We were busy most of the time,” I lied. “We didn’t really talk about it.”
“How about now?”
“Do I want children now?”
Mick’s brown eyes were especially bright as he nodded.
“Like right now? With you?”
“No, no. Fuck.”
“Why are you asking?” I said.
“I don’t know.” He looked like he honestly didn’t. “You seem like you’d make a good mother.”
A fleeting image landed in my head of me holding a baby, catching vomit on my bib-covered shoulder, yet miraculously looking desirable when Banks came home, paint drying beneath his fingernails, baby Declan or Lulu cooing gleefully beside me while I tackled the dishes.
The mattress lifted beneath me as Mick stood up.
“What made you get that tattoo?” I asked. “The one on your back?”
“I just love women,” he said. “I love women so much I have to have them all over my body.”
“You think that tattoo celebrates women?”
“Sure. She’s in ecstasy.”
I suppose it was the way she enthusiastically fondled her overripe breasts that made him feel entitled to proclaim her pleasure. I thought about my grandmother’s hankie wadded up somewhere in my drawer.
“Mick, she is not.”
It was a relief to finally defend her. My shoulder muscles gave as unexpectedly as they had tightened.
Mick turned his attention to my altar. He was touching the various objects on it, holy objects he wasn’t supposed to touch. Briefly I imagined him living here in my apartment, my belongings now his. The ridiculousness of this quickly came to me.
Mick recognized the Dalai Lama and smiled. His girlfriend was a Buddhist, he told me. “Are you a good Buddhist?” he asked. He seemed genuine.
“I have my moments,” I said. Didn’t kissing someone else’s boyfriend while she was at home feeding their kid clearly indicate I had my lapses?
Mick smiled again and rearranged his balls, then sat down next to me on the edge of the bed. He leaned over my pillow and inhaled the scent. It makes me sad now to think of this moment with Mick, so quiet in my memory I can hear every distant bird: all that hurt and loneliness pressing against our stomachs and hands and behind the bones in our faces and how we’d thought we could help each other let it out.
In the March 2011 Correspondence I was struck by Susan McKnight’s strong disapproval of Jane Ratcliffe’s short story “What Do You Need?” [December 2010]. I went back and reread the story to see if McKnight was right that it was neither “thoughtful” nor “uplifting.”
I have to disagree. The narrator’s loneliness after a divorce, her attraction to a younger man with a girlfriend and a baby, her shock that the man would have a tattoo of a woman in bondage — all are thoughtful and candid experiences. In the end Ratcliffe’s protagonist gets the attractive and willing young man as far as her bed but declines to have casual sex with him. I find the conclusion uplifting in the way that so many contributions to The Sun are.
When McKnight’s daughters begin reading the subscriptions to The Sun that she gave them, I think they may feel less appalled than she is at the gritty language and real-life situations in its pages. Yes, I sometimes wonder whether too much space is given each month to the seedy underbelly of modern life, but as Thomas Hardy said many years ago, “If a way to the Better there be, it exacts a full look at the worst.”
I have so loved your magazine in the year I’ve been a subscriber that I’ve not only renewed but have ordered subscriptions for my daughters and a good friend. The Sun is both thoughtful and uplifting — rather unusual in today’s media.
But then I came upon the short story “What Do You Need?” by Jane Ratcliffe [December 2010]. Thoughtful? Uplifting? Hardly. I felt I should bathe after reading this disgusting piece of work, with its use of words like fuck, cock, and pussy and descriptions of bondage and a man urinating. I can’t believe Ratcliffe teaches writing. She brings language down to the lowest common denominator. Is this in the name of liberal thought? If so, spare me. I’m just glad my daughters did not receive this issue.