How badly I want to be naked with someone, to rock back and forth parallel to their body, to shadow their movements and feel again the tender whistle of a caretaker—the knuckles, the neck bones, the jawline, the tongue swiping the earlobe. Touch is hard to find these days, and hard, too, to keep tucked away. Hard, especially, when every time I get close, even arm’s reach from another body, I lose my own skin.
I have fucked without fear. Again and again and again, so that I hardly desire it anymore. I think often about what the bodily encounter is, and why it is imbued with so much meaning. It is as if pleasure requires a heaviness to be felt in all its fullness. And yet the most meaningful sex of my life has overlapped so closely with death that the two feelings are hard to keep apart. Grief and orgasm bound together like two unlikely lovers.
I’d witnessed the slow process of dying before, and I’d been present for the endless afterward, but never the death itself. Not the actual moment when the body slips away.
It was hot on the beach. My skin was shining wet, prickled with little invisible fireflies. The wet beer bottle locked in my fist, and I snuck my companion a playful side-eye. I had known you all but two hours, and knew nothing about the long greasy hair or the lanky strides. I knew nothing about the birds swinging low parallels along the shore. Nothing about the sun’s unfolding out of its eggshell, its crafting layers along my skin. How the sand coarsened under legs. Swim, I yelled, let’s swim, as if you could.
There was something sort of funny in our grief. The way it came like an awkward moment amidst an otherwise playful day. As if we had briefly sidestepped into a film scene—the music suddenly loud, the brights of the sun, the mountains plopped down like a screensaver, the river laid out like a piece of blue fabric with two hands on each side swinging it up and down, up and down, pushing out frothed rapids. Then it is all gone, gone, vanished, gone, and the grey smoke once again chokes you.
In the water, you ask me to teach you a thing or two. A butterfly, a belly flop, a weary paddle. We talk about the different colors of our skin, flinging around big open-mouthed words that make the lips pucker. We say nothing, but we are both thinking about the strange space between our bodies, subtly negotiating whether or not to close it. A man is near us, his boxers wet with saltwater, his penis staining the surface of his leery grin. He asks my companion about me—words between men in a language I don’t understand, but you explain it to me after. He thinks you are my guide. The age difference, he explains, not the skin color.
I wonder what is the fastest time it has taken someone to process a death. Can you do it in mere seconds, or even an hour, or rather, must it take years of accumulated recognitions to eventually take shape? It seems that death is constantly deforming and reforming itself, sometimes into very ugly shapes, and sometimes into a sort of pleasant scent that brings you back to your body.
We waddle back up to the sands, where your eyes latch my body. The beers are hot but we drink them anyway, nervously, as if it were that particular liquid which bound us. The world swimming around lazily, eagerly towards our flirtatious culmination. Life narratives exchanged back and forth casually like balls of dough. Nothing that wasn’t perishable.
This is where it gets thick, where the wire taughtens and the water quickens and everything becomes lighting fast as if it weren’t really happening at all. Ready. A hand waves from the water, you point at it, we laugh together at first, wait, no— then we’re running. Running. I don’t remember thinking much of anything while running. I am the only one who can swim. You watch me uselessly from the shore as I fold myself into the blue. In the water, I can feel the alcohol slowing me down, swimming with me, my clothes dragging heavy like sails in the wind. I am rushing toward a point stagnated in the middle of the river. The face with the hand bobbing up and down above and beneath the surface, like a waterlogged toy lighthouse. I paddle ferociously towards those big pupils, the eyebulbs, I call them.
When we fucked, it was because we had no other options. The grief was a child we swaddled between our bodies. Electric. The way it smelled—like rotting flesh. The way I climbed up your lanky hips and clung to the belly flab, flung my arms over your shoulders, and we kissed like two wet boys.
His pupils were like marbles rolling around inside the whites. Like loose egg yolks dropped in a porcelain bowl. Like two big mouths opening wider and wider as the lungs failed. I had never realized fear had a smell—something akin to urine or puke. The eyes like baby dolls, so round and open. The face—cheeks puffed wide, the jaw slack as a piece of silly putty. I should have giggled, should have said stop teasing me, take off the mask, you’re scaring me, as if he were the one I was about to fuck. Instead I said IT’S GONNA BE OKAY in big fat letters I spat at him. IT’S GONNA BE OKAY.
Straddled all the way up to the top bunk, now a clumsy ascension, now the curtain yanked shut, now fruitless talk of a condom. I didn’t expect you to put your penis in me. I know that may sound ridiculous, because of the bed and the bodies and the naked lips and tongues. But I didn’t expect you to put your penis in me. In fact, I wasn’t sure at first what was happening, which limb of the flesh was inside which orifice, what was filling what. It wasn’t until I saw the way the chest and hips thrusted forward toward me that I knew there was nowhere else to go but deeper inside. And I felt it then, and succumbed. Or maybe, it was I who sucked you up into me like a vacuum, maybe it was you who succumbed. Like I said, we had no other choice.
Immediately after the words tongued the air, I felt them shatter, empty. The hand ducked beneath the surface of the water, then the head fell too. I lunged for an arm and launched him again above the surface where he sat wagging his tongue. Like a little bobblehead, his neck tipped from side to side. Down again, where I can’t see the lips or the pupils or even the scalp. My left hand still attached to his, which feels now like a puppet, just a heavy lifeless puppet. My fingers are sliding one by one out of his. Like a slippery wet fish, I drop him. Or I let him go. Or he slips away. Or he lets go. Or. Or. Then like a mirage, a boat is sliding along the river nearby with six life-jacketed figures bobbing gently. I am screaming unfamiliar words in a language I barely speak, then English, then back again. Gesticulating wildly at the boatpeople, pointing down below the surface where the body has gone. I think I see one of them giggle. He doesn’t understand. I don’t understand. I can’t breathe. I have swallowed water. I can’t see the body anymore. Boat swims away. My body launches itself to shore, alone.
Was it then that I recognized death in all its mythological beauty? Was it that moment that I realized the gone body was not a doll but a once-breathing human animal? Was it when I erupted tears on the shore, as a strange man dragged me away from the water? Was the grief formed in the way I flung my face toward your chest, in my desperate lunge toward your body? Did you recognize loss in my deflated skin? Did you recognize death in the silence of the deadboy’s friends, standing motionless like three little deer eyes-wide? Did the man who yelled at me get the fuck out of here before the police come recognize the disappearance of a body as a death, DEATH in all its permanent and revolting forms?
I am ashamed of the way I took center stage, the noise of my tears drowning out all else. I am ashamed of the way I flung my body to the ground like a spectacle—it is I, the griever, look at me. I am ashamed of making you heave my empty body away from the water, limp like a puppet, a disturbing mockery of the deceased. I am ashamed of the careless way I left my body for others to deal with.
We drank chai, and I laughed, and I rode home thinking only about the way your fingers swam along my thigh, the way your greasy hair blew into my face. Oh, how death didn’t stop me from delighting in the motorcycle ride, in the strangeness of it all, the beauty of the river, the towering mountains. How we fucked and fucked and fucked and fucked and fucked. We got a room together and even when I said I’m too sad to be horny, we fucked and fucked and fucked and fucked.
Mira Glasser is an artist, writer, and bookseller living in Portland, Oregon. She is studying at Lewis & Clark College, where she won the 2019 Dorothy Berkson Gender Studies Writing Award. She has been a featured reader at Survival of the Feminist and Grief Rites Readers Series.