Ace places his hand on the Bible in front of the judge and swears to tell the truth. But Ace is an atheist.
Don’t you have anything more meaningful for him? I want to ask the old woman in the black robe, her expression as hard as her gavel. A fresh pack of Parliaments? A brick of coke? What about a Penthouse centerfold? A New York strip running red into his plate?
Ace has sworn to tell the truth to me before. The photos of tits in his phone were ancient. He absolutely was not high. The college girl slept in his bed because she was too drunk to know her own address; he just wanted to make sure she was safe. He loved me. Until the end of days.
The judge asks Ace to please remove his sunglasses, but I know it doesn’t make a difference if he looks you in the eye or not.
When she grants the order of protection, I fold it up small and keep it in my wallet’s newly empty space–where his picture used to be.
At Planned Parenthood, with a salad tong inside me, the technician makes conversation. I tell her about my boyfriend, Ace. I correct myself. EX-boyfriend. It’s a hard pattern to break–calling him one thing for two years and now he’s something else entirely. They say it takes twenty-eight days to quit a habit–will twenty-three more nights away from Ace make me clean? I tell the technician how, once I learned about the first girl he cheated on me with, stories of women kept popping up. Relentless blonde weeds.
Was the sex with those women unprotected? she asks.
Maybe. I say. Probably. I mean, I don’t really know.
Did he ever have sex with other men? she asks.
On instinct, I spit No. But after some time I realize–I mean, I don’t think so. But I guess. I don’t know?
Did he ever share needles? she asks, as a man I once loved blooms backward into a stranger, and I become a rotted bouquet of I don’t knows.
We wake up at noon in his apartment in Brooklyn. A black fitted sheet over the window serves a dual purpose: it silences the alarm-clock sun, yes, but also, if the fitted sheet is hanging, he does not need to figure out how to fold it.
With the lights on, his room seems much worse than last night, when we were drunk and just amazed that there was a bed, and each other. Just amazed that we’d figured out how to get home from the bar at all.
Now the details sharpen: the ashtray on the nightstand where a book should be. The laundry that only knows if it is clean or dirty upon a sniff test, and even then isn’t sure. The wires for the computer, the PlayStation, the power strip. It’s the knot of those wires that bugs me most. The entanglement–how impossible it seems to get out.
I give my body to him. Five times. I let him do it without a condom because we are monogamous. Because he is good at advocating for sex without one. I’ve never been on the pill, and Ace doesn’t project the image of a habitat for gifted swimmers. He’s a billboard for tobacco, alcohol, food that comes wrapped in foil. He’s practically phosphorescent with Mountain Dew. What I mean is, I am safe.
What I want: a glass of water. A coffee. A shower. An egg and cheese sandwich from the bodega down the street. What he wants: my body, a sixth time. This morning.
No way, I tell him. It will hurt. It hurts already. Let’s get breakfast, I say.
Ace considers something. His face shifts into a small disappointment, nothing major. Like his coffee was made wrong, with skim milk instead of full fat. The moment is watered down.
Maybe we’re not a good match sexually, he says. We should figure it out soon, or we probably have to break up.
For Ace, soon means now.
My clothes are in a pile on the floor beside his bed. As if a girl was in them, but then she disappeared.
Ace insists I come down to the city for the weekend, leave my upstate liberal arts education behind. He promises to help me study for my midterms while I’m there. You’re young, you need balance. Talk to me about your essay over a drink. He pours his invitation into the phone, and I open my throat. I get wasted on being wanted. He gives his address, and I write it inside my palm with a ballpoint pen, which stabs a little. On the bus ride down I plan to read my textbook, Our Bodies, Our Selves, but fall asleep instead. When I wake up, I’m in Hell’s Kitchen.
I can’t believe you brought me to a titty bar to talk about my women’s studies essay, I say to him, sliding into a ripped pleather booth, pulling papers from my backpack and straightening the ones that came loose. I go to lay my stack on the table between us but worry they will stick to the thin layer of grime that preserves the authentic scent of the dive, so I rest them in my lap instead. I am not uptight, but Ace is so unravelled it makes me look like I am.
It’s not a titty bar, he corrects me. It’s a bikini bar. He’s right, I guess. That’s what the neon sign outside says. Beside the sign is a red awning that advertises free hot dogs, which Ace takes advantage of and I do not.
I’m writing about the male gaze and how it perpetuates rape culture, and you expect me to do it here? I gesture to the bar with my chin as a businessman leaves his tip, not in the bartender’s hand, but in the waistband of her cut-off shorts.
How very second wave of you, Ace corrects me, taking a sip of his piss-colored beer. They are all being paid to be here. They want to be here. I thought you believed in a woman’s right to choose.
So not only is Ace nine years older and smarter, but he is also a better feminist than me.
I sigh. It’s not so much the bikinis but the clientele that the bikinis attract. In the window, there’s a sign that reads, No Sleeping. One third of a doe is mounted on the wall, her eyes seeing and not seeing at all. The patrons gaze in one of three directions: the television where men fight for control of a ball, the valley between the bartender’s breasts, or the bottom of their pint glasses as if searching for whatever was lost there. But Ace looks only at me.
I get what you mean, he says. But we’re here, and we’re studying! Ace leans across the booth to kiss me. His kisses are always carbonated; there’s a laugh inside of them. The hair above his thin lip is wet, sticky, like a frat house floor. I relax a little after that.
You are such a good student, Ace says, and he’s right. I am learning so much.
I am finally twenty-one.
My birthday is at Ace’s favorite bar in Manhattan. Savage Honey is the name. Another round for everyone! On Ace. It’s the year that I have whatever he’s having. Vodka Cranberry. Make it a double. I use my own ID for the first time, slap it down on the bar like a winning hand.
When it’s last call. When all of my friends have gone home. When my hair’s curls have fallen limp. When it’s time to pay the tab, Ace’s card declines.
He turns to me, the birthday girl, and asks about my father’s VISA.
It’s for emergencies, I tell him. The bartender braids his muscled arms across his chest.
This is an emergency, Ace says, coolly. Opens his fist towards me and waits. He is so smooth, I think, handing him the card. It’s as if he wrote the script of this moment, knew exactly how it would go. The bartender slides over a long receipt. On it, Ace signs my father’s name.
He’s going to kill me, I tell him on the walk to the train.
Babygirl, don’t worry, he replies. You know I always figure it out.
In the morning, in his bed, he has me dial the fraud department.
I think I lost my card yesterday, I tell the agent, who sounds kind and maybe a little slow. I try to guess where his accent is from. Maybe Oklahoma.
I mean, it’s possible I just misplaced it—can you let me know if there have been any charges?
Ace snickers. He did not give me that line. I came up with it on the spot and he is proud. He has taught me so well. The agent asks, So $400–at Savage Honey. That’s–not you?
Oh god, no! I say. Savage? Honey? What is that, a strip club? I am good at this. I am surprising myself.
Pleased with my talent, Ace pulls my pajama shorts down, buries his head under the covers, consumes me.
Golly! The agent sings. Well, let me just compute that here and cancel this card right away and refund ya. I can tell it wasn’t you, Ma’am.
I try not to laugh, or come, or breathe too hard into the credit card fraud department’s ear. I hope they catch that thief, the sweet boy from Oklahoma says before hanging up.
But the thief is right here, between my legs.
Ace has a job in Manhattan operating the phones for a company that sells humidifiers, purifiers, filters, cleaners, machines that comb the air for pollen, mold, particles of flying disease. When people ask what my boyfriend does for a living, I say, He makes it easier to breathe.
Still, he’s always overdrafting his bank account. He likes to spend his whole paycheck the night that he gets it, like tomorrow is a gamble, and sometimes he even spends it on me. He’s got it under control. He takes out quick loans from different banks, just a couple hundred here or there, that he pays back with interest by the time his next paycheck comes. Some nights we are broke, some nights we are rich, but every night is an adventure.
We are walking from Penn Station to catch the F train downtown to Alphabet City, to a friend’s book release party. My metrocard has enough on it tonight to get us both there. Beside the venue there are options: a dart game, a trivia night, a bodega with scratch-off tickets behind glass. Ace intends to win one of those things, anything, in order for us to get home, or at least to whatever is next.
But then, amidst the string of yellow taxis, he spots a limousine, like a sophisticated Jackie O in a city of Marilyns.
What are you doing? I ask, as he approaches the passenger side of the car, and the driver rolls the window down to talk to him.
Get in, bitch! he laughs, holding the limousine door like a gentleman. And then he winks at me. He always winks at me, and it feels like the bulbs of paparazzi cameras combusting with light. We arrive in style to someone else’s show, but Ace has a way of making every show his. Ours.
We are at this six-course vegan restaurant in Manhattan where I can hardly afford the water, and this is definitive proof of how much he loves me. Ace is the type to sport t-shirts that celebrate bacon. To not find the story of veal less digestible than its meat. He is the type to try and convince me that carrots wince when they are pulled from the earth. That I am a carrot murderer.
So the roast is made of something called–SATAN? he laughs. He swirls his red wine that sloshes like a sea in a storm, a god over the current in his glass.
When the waitress asks for our order he simply says, I’m the last guy on Earth you’d ever expect in a vegan restaurant, so, convert me. Ace has a way of making every pretty waitress more than just her job. Today, she’s his missionary.
When he cuts into the seitan, the cruelty-free meat, Ace seems disappointed even before he tastes it. As if he wanted it to bleed.
It is definitely possible to be in love with two people at the same time, I confess to my mom, who helps me make an informal pros and cons list between Ace and my actual boyfriend.
My actual boyfriend is Joshua, but I call him Boy Scout. Something bit me in his bed once, and he pressed his lips to my belly and tried to suck the poison out. He is a gorgeous poet who does not know he is either, which is my favorite kind of poet and my favorite kind of gorgeous. He has a chest so hard that I could drag a strike-anywhere match down it and get fire. Beneath it, a heart so soft, you know his father must be dead.
Ace is the centerpiece of every room. Even the college parties he’ll never age out of, like the one I met him at, where he pulled me to his lap and said, Call me Uncle Ace. He moves like a tornado, spinning mad, collecting bits of the world in his orbit and spitting them back out: shots, and girls, and cigarettes, Sunday Times crossword puzzle answers, opinions, compliments, cackles. I imagine him kissing the hand of a queen and sucking the jewels out of her rings without her even noticing, so blinded by that charming fellow before she realizes she’s been robbed.
Joshua makes a list of every beer he tries and what he thinks about each brew. He carries this notebook in his back pocket. He writes me a letter while the students at his substitute teaching job take a test. I’m staring at a fishtank, he scrawls, and thinking of you in the ocean.
Ace and I have not kissed yet, but he calls me Babygirl regardless. He shows up to my first day at my bartending job and drinks twelve PBRs in a row, doesn’t care how they taste. He makes a point to find my boss and pretend he is just a stranger, as though I don’t wake up to his rummy voicemails asking why I’m not there as he stumbles through a party, shouting, None of these girls are as pretty as you. As if last week he didn’t take my forearm and draw an exact replica of the tattoo on his–a Chinese character which he claims means Loyalty. He tells my new boss that he’s never seen a more attentive bartender. Keep her, he says. Before he leaves, he presses a $100 bill into my palm.
Joshua lives with his mother, in his childhood bedroom–a country home with a wood burning stove. He loves his grandmother. He doesn’t get cell reception out there in the pines, so he has to walk to the top of a hill outside his house to reach me. Ace lives in a basement apartment. With his girlfriend. Of five years.
I know Ace loves me. He would leave her if I asked him to. He always calls me in transit, on trains before they go underground. You’re my morning and evening commute, he says. Before talking to you, I used to drink coffee. But now I don’t need it. You wake me up, Babygirl. You’re like–sexy caffeine.
I know Joshua loves me because, on our first date, he took me on his favorite hike and, at the top of the Adirondacks, pulled a small manuscript from his backpack. His dead father’s poetry. He had never told anyone his father was a writer before. When he met me, he decided it was time–I was the one. For Christmas, Joshua transcribed the entire book for me. If he could have afforded it, it would have been bound in leather, I think. But it’s in a cheap white three-ring binder that I cherish still, as if something had to die for it.
Sometimes love is quiet, my mother says, casting a ballot in favor of Josh, who loves like he’s braiding a whisper into my hair. Ace loves like he’s changed the lyrics so that every love song on the radio is written for me, and he’s playing them all at once.
But what breaks the tie, I think, is this: when Ace sees me, he puts his hands around my waist and lifts me up, like I don’t weigh a thing.
(she/her) is a queer author of three full-length poetry collections, most recently Drive Here and Devastate Me (Write Bloody Publishing, 2018). Falley co-wrote How Poetry Can Change Your Heart with poet Andrea Gibson as part of Chronicle Book’s acclaimed “how-to” series in 2019. Her chapbook, Bad Girls, Honey (Poems About Lana Del Rey) won the 2015 Tired Hearts Prize. Megan’s online writing course, “Poems That Don’t Suck” has been lauded as “a degree’s worth of knowledge in only a few short weeks.” While primarily published in poetry, you can expect more nonfiction from Megan very soon. Find more from her here.
Art by Aiden Layer
Film photo print
Aiden Layer is a Nashville-based interdisciplinary artist whose work plays with object and ritual, language and symbol, and the deconstruction of archetypal forms and meanings. He holds a B.S. in Studio Art and in Human & Organizational Development from Vanderbilt University, and is the recipient of the 2019 Margaret Stonewall Wooldridge Hamblet Award. Find out more at aidenlayer.com.