The Ugly Parts
It wasn’t love, but Elena was fourteen and thought otherwise. She had reasons. Reggie drove her to Rhode Island once, just because it was the middle of a sick grip summer and she wanted to be somewhere that wasn’t Bridgeport. They got a room in a Motel 6 with a pool—miracle and a half. The two swam circles until the early part of morning, when clouds glow red around their edges. Then Elena followed Reggie back to room 309, to the cracked mattress where the fleas knew their names.
And they screwed. As people do.
Reggie was twenty-nine. His body had softened but his face was strong—a thick jaw and long, narrow eyes. She liked the way he kissed, sucking her bottom lip between both of his. And he was nothing like the boys from the block with their bald chests and ten second erections. No, Reggie was experienced.
Afterward they lay there, post-sex and glowing. Elena’s hair was wild. He turned to her and grinned, reaching for his folded-up Levi’s. There was a pill bottle in the back pocket. He shook two in his palm, two in hers.
“What do they do?”
Reggie placed them both on his tongue, swirled saliva between his teeth and knocked his head back.
“One makes you bigger,” he said, wiping the back of his hand across his mouth. “The other makes you smaller.”
She swallowed both and stayed on cloud nine for hours, forehead sweating and swollen, the topography of the ceiling breathing overhead. When she came down that afternoon it felt like she’d been wrung out and pinned to the clothesline. Born again.
Elena turned twenty-nine on the first Monday in February. Two weeks later Bassick High kicked off its Drug Awareness Week. She wouldn’t mind so much if she could stay in her room grading papers, but they made everyone go to the assembly in a single file line. Her students snickered behind her. They looked like crickets with bobble heads. Still picked their noses and passed notes. Annoyed the shit out of her,
She looked over her shoulder, nodding in Oshay’s direction. Yes?
“Yuh ever do drugs, Miss Diaz?”
Jesus Christ. Elena turned away, locking eyes with Mr. Drummond. Jackson. He leaned to the left and winked.
Once in the auditorium the kids rushed to find seats with their friends. Jackson joined Elena against the wall, leaning back and crossing his legs at the ankle. His wing tipped shoes winked in the overhead light. Sharp dresser—tweed jackets and thin ties every day. Elena wore peasant dresses belted at the waist. They made an odd couple.
Jackson leaned in, rubbing his elbow against hers. “What do you say about getting out of here?”
He laughed. “Dinner at my place?”
“See you at six.”
Halfway into the presentation the lights dimmed and the projection screen flashed with a movie about the dangers of crack. There were fuzzy shots of teenagers passing glass tubes with rocks packed into the end, smoke flowing through the vein. Jackson laughed.
“They’re way too young for this.”
He was from New Hampshire. The craziest thing he ever smoked was headache-inducing dirt weed. No idea what it’s like here. None at all.
Jackson’s thirty-two and newly divorced. Came to Bridgeport for a new start, which is ironic because that’s the reason most people leave. He started teaching at Bassick in the classroom right next to Elena’s. Soon enough he was stopping by between classes, asking her for drinks on the weekend. Elena had that effect on people. She had a coke bottle figure and long black hair down her back. Pretty, too—flat feline face with wide Spanish eyes. Men lined up to hold doors for her.
After a month of chasing her through the halls, Jackson cornered her outside of the woman’s bathroom.
“Just give me a shot,” he said, and she scratched her number onto his wrist with a BIC pen. That night he took her out for sushi. She hated it.
She dropped her cheater chopsticks on the square plate and crossed her arms over her chest. Jackson swallowed his spicy salmon roll, paid the bill and took her leftovers in a box. They didn’t speak until he pulled up in front of her duplex, where he sighed and stared into the windshield as if a movie were being projected onto it.
“I was trying to impress you.”
Elena watched him swallow the lump in his throat. He really tried that night—bought her flowers, let her pick the radio station, touched her knee with shaking hands when they first sat down. She was being a huge bitch.
“Jackson, you don’t have to impress me.”
He flicked his eyes over. Forced a smile. “Let’s try this again.”
They went to Burger King and left with a bag of fries and matted, greasy burgers. Jackson set placemats on his coffee table and they ate on the rug, legs crossed Indian style. He told her stories about growing up in New Hampshire, the gas station hangouts and ancient sled rides. He spoke as if everything was ironic, but she found it endearing. She slept over that night. Relax—they didn’t do anything other than hold each other. In the morning he made M&M pancakes. Elena knew they had potential.
Then he asked about her childhood and she pursed her lips. Three months later she still hasn’t opened them.
“One time, “ Reggie said. “That’s all I’m asking.”
They walked down Fairfield Avenue, Elena leaving a breadcrumb trail of stiletto footprints in the snow. Reggie rolled her a joint and she balanced it between her teeth, pushing smoke through her nose. It rose in glittering plumes.
“One time,” he said, kissing her on the cheek. “All I’m askin’.”
The apartment was in the P.T. Barnum government housing projects. Elena followed Reggie up a winding staircase. The lights were low. Space reeked of dank. She caught her heel on a crack in the hardwood and nearly ate shit. Reggie caught her by the elbow.
“Easy, boo. Don’t be so eager.”
He laughed and it took all her energy not to spit in his face.
They reached the room and Reggie opened the door, giving her a gentle push inside. A fat black man sat on a weathered sofa, smoking from a bubbler. When he saw Elena he smiled. He was missing his two front teeth.
“Whoa,” he said.
Reggie patted her on the ass. “Tell me about it.”
The fat man led Elena into an adjacent bedroom. He laid her on a twin mattress, pulling her dress up past her breasts. She wasn’t wearing any underwear and he cheered like he’d just won the lottery, lowering his face to the space between her legs.
“You need to shave down here, sweetheart,” he said.
Elena burst into tears. She stayed this way until he finished, pulling out and coming on her chin. Then he stood up and left the room, slamming the door behind him. Elena wiped her face on the sheets, pulled her dress back down and followed. Reggie was counting a fistful of bills. He looked up at her and winked.
Jackson made Elena pasta with butter sauce. They drank cheap, hot pink Moscato and played footsies under the table. Jackson was the imaginary author of an imaginary book titled, The Shit I Put Up With, and he was quoting from it.
“As I said in The Shit I Put Up With, ‘if I see one more kid sticking his hand down his girlfriend’s jeans during study hall, I’m going to lose it.’”
“Hormones are a terrifying thing,” Elena said, sipping from her glass. She hadn’t drank in a very long time. The wine made her forehead warm and her teeth slick with sugar.
“That they are.”
They were silent for a moment. Jackson eyed her up and down.
“Tell me you’re full.”
She laughed, jumping up and racing him to the bedroom. They tackled each other to the mattress, kissing and tugging at their clothes. But Jackson knew better than to get his hopes up. The second Elena’s dress dropped to the floor her body went still as a board. He kissed her limp tits and her shoulders but she didn’t respond. It looked like she stopped breathing.
He poised himself in a push-up position, hovering over her.
Elena tried nodding but she could barely move. She flicked her eyes so they locked with his.
I’m sorry, she mouthed. Jackson rolled over, pushing his stomach into the small of her back. He buried his face in her hair.
“It’s okay,” he said, and she almost believed it.
The fourth time was the worst. Her client, the same fat man as before, finished himself off and came on her face. She was used to it. Reached for the sheet to clean herself off, but he beat her to it. Knocked her back on the bed, shoving the neck of a beer bottle inside of her.
“We’re done here,” she said. “Stop.”
He didn’t. Pulled the Heineken in and out, rubbing her clit at the same time. Reggie was outside in the living room and Elena screamed, but he didn’t come. She stopped and closed her eyes. Let the feelings wear into her like waves beating beach sand.
She had an orgasm. The type that puts you in therapy for the rest of your life.
After Reggie counted his money they stepped into the hall, where Elena politely informed him that she was never, ever doing that shit again.
“Really,” she said, biting the inside of her cheek to hold back from crying.
Reggie paced around her, flicking his eyes from her heels to her head. When he stepped back in front of her he froze. Reeled back and punched her in the face, hard enough to break her nose.
She got a restraining order. Saw him only once more, outside of a 7/11. Got back in her car and drove away.
Six-month anniversary. Jackson took her for dinner and drinks at a steakhouse in Westport. They ate thick, dripping meat and drank California Red.
“You know, I wrote about you in The Shit I Put Up With,” he said, reaching across the table to push her hair behind her ear. “I said that I find it very alluring when you eat like a bear.”
Elena giggled. A candle on the table flickered, shading the space above Jackson’s eyes and his lips. She ached to get home, to kiss him.
Fast-forward an hour, naked on the mattress, Jackson blue-balled for the hundred and fiftieth time.
“Is it me?” he asked, turning to face her. “Is it something I’m doing? I just gotta know.”
Elena stared back at him, the stubble on his chin, his hair gelled and cow licked. She touched his cheek.
“Can I ask you to do something weird?”
“Anything,” he said.
"As hard as you can. In the face.”
He shook his head. “I’m not gonna punch you, Elena.”
“You said anything.”
He eyed her up and down. Elena leaned back, giving a full view of her chest, hips and thighs. Winked. Jackson bit his lip and raised his fist, keeping both eyes trained on hers. He looked like he wanted to cry. Swung back, then caught himself. He dropped his hand onto the soft of her thigh and rubbed in a small circle.
“I can’t do this.”
Elena knotted her eyebrows. As if he was the only one sexually frustrated. Six months? He couldn’t handle six months? Try fifteen years. Try dozens of failed relationships. Try having a beautiful body and not being able to use it. She was giving him the key to her most intimate spaces and he wasn’t taking.
“Do you want to fuck me or not?”
Jackson shook his head in disbelief. He sat up and walked to the light switch. Flicked it on. Elena became aware of her nakedness. She pulled the duvet over her chest. Jackson rubbed his temple. He let out a bewildered laugh and looked up, staring her in the face.
“You need help,” he said. “You need real, serious help.”
Elena grinned. He was finally getting it.
About the author:
Julie Bartoli is an English and journalism student at the University of Connecticut. She is the winner of the Jennie Hackman Memorial Award and the Edward R. and Frances Schreiber Collins Prose Prize. Her work appears or is forthcoming in Inwood Indiana, Dual Coast Magazine, Carnival Literary Magazine and others.