by Jacinda Townsend
Ruth had thought nothing of Clarisse’s registering for History 203 that spring semester, even though it was so far afield of her Biochemistry major: though African-American History Through the Harlem Renaissance counted, for Ruth, as a course within her major, almost every other Black undergraduate on campus would run through it at some point for Arts and Humanities credit. She and Clarisse sat in the large second-floor lecture hall every Monday Wednesday Friday at 11:00, their Jordache jeans strategically ripped at the knee and their spiral notebooks adorned with Public Enemy and Steel Pulse stickers. They re-scrunched the spray of their curls with the palms of their hands, hoping to look like the Black queens whose history they were studying, if not Hatshepsut and Nefertiti, then at least a pair of flappers on Black Vaudeville.
In the ladies’ room after the midterm exam, with the scent of jasmine coming through the window Clarisse had propped open in disgust, Clarisse kissed Ruth, full on the lips, pressing against her so hard, Ruth had to step one foot back to keep her balance. Afterwards, Ruth entered a stall and tried to urinate politely and quietly into the toilet, but knowing Clarisse was standing there, listening and appraising, Ruth felt ridiculous enough that she only halfway emptied her bladder. She didn’t wipe, even, because she didn’t want the noise of her struggling with the oversized metal tissue roller, though she regretted it immediately—of course, Clarisse would have noted the omission of this step; of course, Clarisse had heard her zipping her pants without wiping, and deduced terrible things. And too, Ruth thought of the thicket of Black students standing just on the other side of the wall, her and Clarisse’s entire social universe, congregated after class like a Baptist church meeting. She just wanted to hurry home. She flushed, but when she exited the stall Clarisse was standing right there, inches in front of her. She pressed her lips against Ruth’s before Ruth could even get to the sink to wash her hands.
Still, the shock was physical rather than emotional—they’d grown up together, after all, and though the boys had liked Clarisse, it had always seemed to Ruth that Clarisse didn’t quite like the boys. Where other girls bantered about the ass on this football player or that one, and constructed in the air the long, elaborate flow chart of who would go to the homecoming dance with whom, Clarisse kept indifferent silence. Where other girls planned, months in advance, the series of passive-aggressive and aggressive-aggressive steps they’d take to secure a prom date, Clarisse waited until the week before and asked her third cousin once removed. When he said no, she queried no further.
“I’ma sit over there with Josh tomorrow,” said their friend Lisa, during fourth period lunch. “If he asks me to sit there again the next day, I’ll know it’s time,” she explained, as if she were a pharmacist doing prescription counseling. “Then I’ll reach over in homeroom and stick my phone number in his chemistry book.”
“You know it’s not a graduation requirement, to lasso and spear a prom date,” said Clarisse.
Lisa looked at Clarisse with disgust. She’d had a new round of connectors put on her braces, and saliva collected in the corners of her mouth as she asked, “Why all the acid? Who even are you anymore? You better get your own date together, is all.”
But Clarisse had wrecked Lisa, and Ruth was embarrassed enough for her that she didn’t speak. She concentrated on sawing apart her fiestada, which left a pentagon-shaped outline of grease every time it moved across her school-issue tray.
And there in the University of Kentucky’s pink-tiled ladies’ room, Ruth finally realized: the chase had never interested Clarisse because Clarisse hadn’t had a taste for the prey.
Though Ruth wondered if Clarisse wasn’t kissing her in the way of a simple, hungry person. A person always looking for the kinds of adventures other people never had—Clarisse herself was fond of saying she wanted to “ride life’s big fat ass.” The kiss might have been kissed for its own novelty. Clarisse might, after all these years, have simply wanted to witness a certain look on Ruth’s face. Ruth acknowledged her own shock but determined to shake it off because she felt, as they climbed the stairs to the first floor, that she wasn’t supposed to think anything of Clarisse’s advances not even five minutes after they happened.
She allowed herself surprise a bit later, on the May morning after she’d taken her last final and turned in her last paper. She’d boxed up her one bedroom full of things, and Clarisse had come to the echoing-empty apartment to help her load the U-Haul. Clarisse helped her shove the fifteen boxes of her things against the west wall of her bedroom, and then they lay together across the permanent groove Ruth’s futon had pressed into the cheap carpet. Clarisse spooned Ruth and Ruth let her. Clarisse put a clammy, tentative hand on Ruth’s breast and Ruth turned slightly so that she could lean further into it.
Clarisse kissed Ruth’s shoulder, adding ever more insistence to her motions, until finally she took the hand that Ruth hadn’t rolled over on and forced it up through the underwire of Ruth’s bra. Ruth turned all the way into Clarisse, locking her into a tongue-chocked kiss, and Clarisse tried, in the coffiny space of Ruth’s bra, to handle her breasts.
“Set the girls free,” Ruth whispered, and Clarisse stopped, her kiss going slack as she concentrated on unhooking Ruth’s bra. Ruth marveled at the paradox—men always thought a bra should somehow snap instantly open for them, so it took them a clumsy forever. Women knew. There were three hooks, and the only way around them was through them.
Out of fear, Ruth let Clarisse do all the work—Ruth hadn’t wanted to expose her lack of same-sex experience, so Clarisse it was who wound her tongue across Ruth’s freckled left nipple, Clarisse it was who dropped her tongue into the cave of Ruth’s belly button, and then into a place that lighted a moment Ruth liked more than anything that had ever sexually happened to her. She had an inner flutter, as of a disdainful bat, that she might be gay, that she’d have to come out of a closet whose existence was just now presenting itself to her, that she’d have to cut her hair and tell all her friends and forget about working in corporate America. Clarisse moved down to kissing her knees, and Ruth edged her hips forward as a hint to maneuver herself back. Clarisse did, and then Ruth was bursting inside, as a jellybean did when you finally bit down on it.
The summer wore on in this way of a morning sex routine that neither Clarisse nor Ruth ever once alluded to out loud. A routine they choreographed while it was still relatively dark out and the birds still screamed at the sun—there came days when Ruth thought she might function better with thirty more minutes of sleep but in the silence between the final cricket chirp and the first bird call she always woke, her heart racing. Every single morning that summer, she and Clarisse opened the day by dipping into each other. The morning Clarisse had to take a day trip to Louisville for a job training, she woke Ruth at 5:30 with a gentle hand along her thigh: Ruth happily pleasured her.
They watched each other’s eyes across tea candles at Sonny’s, Ruth marveling that she’d found, wedged deep within kinship, love. It seemed like the perfect ending to the part of their history that had been soaked in tragedy, and the beauty of it was that they could maintain their silence so easily. They had been and still were friends, after all, and no one thought anything of two women going out for a beer. Straight women held hands all the time while walking down the street. Straight women helped with each other’s hair in the restroom at the club. Straight women shimmied down each other’s thighs and danced together at house parties, the world thought, as a sexy joke, because they were actually aiming at the fantasies of straight men. Ruth thought she and Clarisse could go on fooling the world forever, move in together after college, buy a RAV-4, adopt a baby from Guatemala.
Then came the second shock, when Ruth knew none of that would happen. The first time she came at the same time as Clarisse, but felt less like a jellybean and more like a lollipop someone had dropped and left stuck to the street. She found herself in bed, mopping sweat from her cheek with the back of her hand, looking not to the future or even to the present, but to the bloody, screaming past. The shift launched her into a crying jag, and Clarisse circled an arm firmly around her waist, pulling her close. “You okay?” she asked.
Ruth felt Clarisse’s face, so close to her own; when she turned to look, she found the smug satisfaction that would end the whole thing. A satisfaction she remembered, for in the small, sexy way Clarisse’s upper lip curled, Ruth saw the same inappropriate affect Clarisse had worn on her face the day Ruth’s father was killed. Clarisse had shown up with her parents at the police station and taken temporary custody of Ruth. “Since your dad’s in the hospital,” Clarisse said, “we get to have a slumber party.”
Ruth tried a feeble smile. It had been six hours since the police officer had shot her father four times, and the short pop-poppop-pop, nimble as the treble clef of a sonata, was on instant replay in her mind. She’d been lying outside in the grass watching the sky for low-altitude flights from San Francisco, and when she heard the report of the gun, she flopped wildly over to her stomach, thinking the shots were coming from across the privacy fence, from Mrs. Cortopassi’s cactus garden. The moment in which she hesitated, the moment it took her to figure out the shots were coming from somewhere within her very own house, was the moment that would never let her alone. Should she cower out of sight, she wondered, should she save herself. And then she thought her father, her father, her one living parent, and in the next second she was running, screaming Dad? Dad! Dad! because she already knew, and for a long time she’d think she knew because she held her father just that closely in her consciousness but years later, in college, she’d take Psychology 4 and learn about distant sensory perception, and she’d wonder if she’d heard, on the wind, a disturbance of sound wave as Bob Bradley scaled the fence to get to her bedroom and her father argued with him and a neighbor saw this entire sequence of events and called the police, had she smelled, on the air, the fine, microscopic particles of gunpowder as the sheriff took his high-range rifle, got out of his cop car, and aimed at the darker man’s chest.
By the time she ran through the back door, through the kitchen, through the living room and out the front door, her father was stooped in the driveway. He wore his favorite shirt, the white one with intersecting, purple, green and gray stripes, the shirt she liked to think of as graphing paper, and she could see the circle of blood breaking more and more of the ninety degree angles the stripes made, spreading across his shoulder like the sample stain in a Wisk commercial. From behind him, she could see the policeman still pointing his gun at her father, she could see Bob standing with his hands straight up in the air, his hazel eyes turned almost grey in the sunshine, tears easing out of them. From behind, she saw her father’s arm bent at the elbow where he was clutching some part of his own anterior, and she saw the defeated sag in the legs of the brown pants he’d worn the day he spoke to her sixth grade class about accounting as a career, and the day he told her and Wendy to go outside and rake the leaves in the front yard or else, and the day he picked Russell up from his sixteenth and last stay at Riley. She saw her father fall over, she heard his head smack against the blacktop of the driveway he’d just resealed with Henry’s, she saw the blood fly out of his mouth, little droplets of her father’s heart turned to beads of airborne liquid.
Time slowed then, in a way she’d always be ashamed of, and it wasn’t until she heard the crackling voice on the cop’s car radio that she screamed. She ran to her father in big gulpy steps but then there came three cops ricocheting against her chest before she could even touch him: they wrestled her to the hot asphalt alongside her father and someone clicked open a pair of handcuffs. Someone sat on the back of her legs and wrenched her shoulders backwards, and even as the pain shooting through her brain blocked out almost everything else, she heard the second metallic click, of the handcuffs they would put on her father. His face was a foot away from hers. Dad, she said, or thought she said, Dad, I won’t let them hurt you anymore, but then they were dragging her to the cop car, dragging her before she could even stand, so that first her knees and then the toes of her tennis shoes skidded against the pavement, the sidewalk, the street. She tried to kick and when she couldn’t, the screams came, and then they were shoving her in the backseat of the cop car that smelled of corn chips and stale vomit, the female officer telling her better watch that little head, nigger, and then she saw, from the back seat, through the windshield, her sister Wendy, who’d been upstairs working on her Chem II model, shoved into the cop car ahead of her.
She saw two cops handcuffing Bob Bradley while a third took his statement into a minirecorder, she saw a fourth officer unwinding yellow tape from a roll, and nowhere, nowhere, nowhere did she see an ambulance. “Did one of you motherfuckers call 911,” she asked the cop driving her, but the cop just told her to watch her mouth, she asked him five more times and never would he answer her, and then they were off, far across town in the police station, which she’d never seen.
She and Wendy were hauled out of their respective cars in some sort of synchronized fashion and taken to two different interrogation rooms, and she wasn’t uncuffed until she vomited from the pain, and they were held for hours upon unkind hours. There was no clock in Ruth’s room but she knew the passage of time because she became hungry, and it felt inappropriate to say so; she was thirsty and thought she might die if she didn’t get water; she asked for it; the policeman chuckled and flashed her a cold stare that said no. She had to pee, she told him he was a sonofabitch and she would piss right there in his chair; he told her to be his guest; she doubted she’d get a change of clothes and she didn’t want to give him the satisfaction; she held it. A fat, bald detective with the moustache of a pervert entered, walked across the polished yellow concrete floor in eager taps, and asked her about her sexual encounters with Bob Bradley; she spilled all, because she was sixteen years old and unsure of what else to do; thinking the detective then owed her something, she asked whether her father was still alive, was told that’s not our concern here.
When she was finally let out into the relatively fresh air of the police station proper, when she saw the Johnses standing, waiting for her, when she heard the words “slumber party” fly out of her best friend’s mouth, Ruth told herself there was no way Clarisse knew any of this. It was possible Clarisse knew very little, or even nothing at all. But she must have known that the policeman had shot her father—that’s why they were all standing in a police station, wasn’t it?—and so the wrongness of what she said reverberated in Ruth’s head for months afterward, until Ruth’s entire life had changed into something so unrecognizable that even her memories would need to be tidied away.
All that had happened became a place deep in her hippocampus, a place no one on earth could ever visit, a place so remote that no one would ever even find it. Bob Bradley had been right there, had witnessed the whole thing, had even, by trying to sneak into a second-floor bedroom in broad daylight, pulled the chain that started the motor on it, and yet his memory of the day stood in a place of its own making. “You understand,” she told him when he asked her to the prom, “I don’t ever want to see or talk to you again.” And he’d respected her enough to take his guilt and vanish—poof.
Clarisse asked Ruth questions that she’d never answer. “It’s too difficult to remember, isn’t it,” she said one day, and promised never to ask again. But it wasn’t remembering that was the difficulty. Clarisse had been warm, on her pursuit of the remote place in Ruth’s mind, but she’d never get there. She was camping somewhere nearby, but behind a large, old tree. Obscured. Obscuring.
And so when she and Ruth came at the same time, sharing, temporarily, some other near-death plane of existence, Ruth knew she’d have to cut a thread. She stayed in her own apartment that night, and the next night, and the rest of the week. She agreed to a Friday night movie date, then waited until Clarisse’s Thursday night telemarketing shift to call and leave a voicemail cancelling the date. She didn’t bother with an excuse. She took Clarisse’s most hotly written love note from under its refrigerator magnet and crumpled it into a wad. She mashed it down her in-sink erator, and flipped the switch that would grind Clarisse’s words into pulpy wet pieces.
“It’s ‘cause you got the hots for Marlon,” Clarisse said, when she called her from a payphone near the movie theater. She’d seen Basic Instinct. They’d read in the Lexington LEO that it was the perfect lesbian flick. Clarisse had elected to go alone rather than miss it.
“Well maybe I do,” Ruth said. She didn’t. Marlon was a socially and physically awkward boy from their African American History lecture who wore a khaki-colored Member’s Only jacket and a badly recessed fade. Marlon was forever asking Ruth to come see his band. Ruth loved ska, but she’d never once said yes.
“You want a man, don’t you. You want to get married and have babies and be somebody’s little woman, just like the world says you ought. It turns out you’re just like every other girl in America, huh.”
“We’re all on a continuum, didn’t you say that? Maybe I slid back a little on mine. Maybe I’m just not gay after all.”
“You brought me all the way across the country just to dump me.”
“Nobody told you to come. Nobody asked you to go to school here.”
“You love me. You do. You just don’t know your own mind. You can hear yourself, Ruth, but you cannot see yourself.”
Ruth traced the circle of her phone’s mouthpiece once before replying. You think if you throw yourself hard enough against a wall, the wall might stick to you?”
Clarisse hung up.
The road back to their friendship seemed like it would be long, unpaved, and impossibly rutted, but when Clarisse herself again took up boys, she called Ruth. “Double date?” she asked. “Or are you still fucking your hand?”
“I’ll be a third wheel,” Ruth said. “I mean, if that’s okay with you.”
Clarisse had, rather curiously, taken up with Felix, the bass player in Marlon’s band, a doughy White boy with a bowl haircut and a wandering eye. The three of them went out to a diner, where Ruth watched Clarisse bury her head repeatedly in the crook of Felix’s neck and giggle—at what, Ruth couldn’t determine. Felix’s wandering eye was a different shade of green than his stationary eye, Ruth noticed. It was the sole interesting thing about him.
“You know, Marlon really likes you,” Felix said, predictably.
“I do know that,” Ruth said, and let it drop. It occurred to her that their point in bringing her out might have been to feel her out on the subject, but then again, Clarisse seemed so satisfied that Ruth was still single. Single, and sitting in a diner witnessing her own grand display of limerence.
Ruth was there for Clarisse when it ended, when it turned out that David had somehow taken his bowl haircut, his tired ska rhythms, and his lack of conversational prowess and gathered a harem, which Clarisse discovered after surreptitiously reading his journal. Of all my lovely ladies, he had written, in what he thought was poetic syntax, Clarisse is the most self-involved.
“What does that even mean?” Clarisse said, sobbing into the phone.
“It means you should never sneak into your boyfriend’s journal.”
“It means he’s a dick, is what I mean. And the only person who likes a dick is another dick, so don’t be that d--- drop him.”
Ruth and Clarisse revved back into friendship, and the romantic vine they’d once tangled themselves around became just one more pocket of the shared past. Clarisse had helped herself to Ruth’s understanding of time as a series of boxes one need never open. So when she called, on the road, suggesting Ruth not visit Rosalind for her own psychological sake, Ruth dismissed the warning. Ruth was post-trauma, she was reckoning—the proof of it was that she’d been more than willing to let a computer password end an entire marriage. Freed of so many notions, she was now willing to wrestle with memory, open the box. Clarisse didn’t know—she hadn’t been with Ruth’s mind for years. She was the person on earth Ruth had known the longest, but they knew each other in the way a sieve might know a parcel of dirt. Since her father’s murder, Ruth had given people only allotments of knowing her. Clarisse’s was the biggest, but it was nothing near a whole.
Ruth pressed her radio’s scan button and caught the tail end of Tainted Love, the part where the chord structure changed and the song became Where Did Our Love Go. She was halfway between Elko and Winnemuca, where she hoped to find a hotel for the night: she was getting ever closer to Reno, where they’d meet the part of Nevada that became the High Sierras, and then the state of California beyond it. In the cover of night, hit by the Volvo’s low beams, the white dashes of highway median were duller, and I-80 became not so much road but so much time, time that wove and dipped like a bird, all Ruth’s sharp moments of pain—prior and present—trapped in its beak.
Already, they’d met palm trees, and though it was still the desert, Ruth saw that they were real palm trees, palm trees somehow turned pink, injected with dye or somesuch to make a toxic, neon color. “How do you think they got that way?” Ruth had asked her daughter Annie. “You think they put pink dye into the soil? Or you think they put it in the leaves?”
Annie had looked over at Ruth with something akin to a glare but not quite, something blank and jaded.
“Did something happen on Snapchat?” Ruth asked her.
Annie looked back through the windshield. “No, Mom. Something’s happened between us.”
Now, Annie snored. Her mouth hung inches open. The innards of her throat zagged under the volume of the car radio. Please don’t leave me/All by myself was such a different lyric than Sometimes I feel I’ve got to/Run away. Ruth wanted to shove Annie to wakefulness and tell her.
Jacinda Townsend is the author of Saint Monkey (Norton, 2014), which is set in 1950’s Eastern Kentucky and won the Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize and the James Fenimore Cooper Prize for historical fiction. Jacinda received her MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and went on to spend a year as a Fulbright fellow in Côte d’Ivoire. She recently finished a novel called Kif. Jacinda is mom to two children, about whom she writes frequently.