Baby Girl wants to move but she can’t move. Her body has stiffened into position, the backs of her thighs shaking like pine needles from the tree in her parents backyard back home. She wonders if everyone in the class can see her shake, can see the fact that she hasn’t gone to the gym more than three times in her life—if they can see her vulnerability like a dirty band aid that’s been left on for a little too long. But she doesn’t know how to take the band aid off. She closes her eyes and imagines she’s in a garden full of jacaranda trees, tiger lilies, and ivy wrapped around all the trees and roots sticking out of the ground. A light breeze wafts above her belly—there are no humans around her.
Someone begins playing The Velvet Underground’s “Sunday Morning,” except it’s not Sunday morning—it’s a Thursday night inside K’s art studio and his friends are smoking shitty cigarettes they rolled themselves while sketching her naked body in the middle of the cramped room. She’s standing on a dirty sheet that she and K had sex on a few days before and she knows he didn’t wash it. She knows his cum is on it still, she can feel it with her toes. She didn’t cum, though, so she knows it’s just his. Everything is just his.
She closes her eyes again. There’s a dog running around, maybe chasing a squirrel. He’s barking now, clawing at the tree until his barks become more and more violent, his mouth foaming. The dog waits until the squirrel stumbles back down, catches it as it tries to dive away like we all try to dive out of the mouth of the thing we fear, and he eats it. He stares at Baby Girl right in the face while he eats it.
“Time’s up,” K says as he stops the duck sounding alarm on his phone. Baby Girl hates the sound of the duck, because it sounds so artificial. She calls it Robot Duck. He brushes his hands through hair half-shaved head, the black curls falling around the left side of his face. When you don’t know K, you think he looks angelic, Baby Girl thinks—it’s easy to fall for it. She knows better now. She slowly opens her eyes. The dog is gone. The garden vanishes like it never existed—because it never did.
“Another pose or are you guys done for the night?” K asks, half looking at Baby Girl, half looking at his drawing. The other guys shrug, puff smoke.
“I’m cool calling it quits. Want to get a drink downstairs?” P says, scratching his arm as he puts his charcoal down. P starts to rub vitamin e over his new tattoo, a phrase that is barely legible but says something like “America Is an Artifact” three times on his forearm. Most of his body is covered in tattoos—his girlfriend is a tattoo artist so she does all of his work, but Baby Girl would never actually admit to anyone that she’s just not every good. She tattoos at some place in Bushwick, but not the cool part of Bushwick—the part that’s really far where no one ever goes.
It’s so cold in the studio because there’s no heat on and it’s only October. Baby Girl quickly puts her black stockings on and slips on her dress which is a slightly different shade of black—but who’s actually going to notice?—and she puts her hair in a messy bun, but redoes it several times so it looks properly neat and messy all at once. They linger in the studio for a few extra minutes as P rolls a spliff. K rearranges his pencils and charcoal, stuffs a devil paper mache mask he made into his backpack for a performance piece he’s doing in a few days. He puts on his leather jacket, leaves it open.
When they get to the bar, everyone orders beer but Baby Girl. She orders the house red wine because she never drinks beer. P’s girl Shell shows up reeking of menthols and complaining about her boss at the shop. Shell hates every boss she’s ever had.
“You’re quiet tonight. What’s up? You look like you’re far off in some upside down galaxy somewhere,” K says, taking a sip of his beer, but not quite looking at Baby Girl, not looking into her eyes. She doesn’t know what to say—because he’s right.
“I’m fine. Just kind of tired—thinking about all the work I have to do for Bill’s show. He’s so anal, I’m just kind of nervous screwing it up, you know?” Baby Girl says. It’s not entirely a lie—Bill’s opening is next Friday and while he’s pretty chill for being her boss, he’s also a mess during his openings and drinks too much and ends up flirting with every other woman but his wife.
K takes her word for it, like he does every time, although deep down, he knows something else is wrong—something having to do with them. But he doesn’t want to know, not right now. Maybe not ever. He takes another sip of his beer and starts to talk to P about his next show—Baby Girl can only hear bits and pieces because the acoustics in the bar are shit and it sounds like a flock of goats have gathered around the bar, their sounds echoing continuously.
“Yeah man, this one is going to be even crazier than the last one. I’m going to tie some of the models up and keep re-painting their bodies. I’m gonna introduce a new persona too, but I don’t wanna give too much away, you know?” K said, his voice raising a little out of excitement. P was listening intently, but Shell was picking out the dirt from under her long, sharp fingernails. They looked like witch claws.
They were only at the bar for maybe an hour, but Baby Girl felt like it was an eternity—that this was her life now—and had always been her life. She desperately wanted to wake up from this dream, but was afraid waking up would only send her into another dream where she was tied to someone’s bed and gagged and wouldn’t be able to get up ever. She dug her fingernails into the palms of her hands, trying to think of the beach, of the lighthouse at Montauk, of the Fourth of July fireworks, of the taste of watermelon on the hottest day of the year. Those are the things that make it easier for her to breathe.
“I’m going out to smoke, I’ll be back in a few,” Baby Girl said abruptly, getting up before anyone could say anything. She got outside and lit her cigarette. She barely blew out smoke, so gently and calmly into the earth, before K came out lighting his own cigarette. He leans in to kiss Baby Girl, but she moves her head to the side, so he kisses her cheek instead. Baby Girl knew this was going to happen the same way she knew when her grandmother died, when she walks down a street and feels a million eyeballs following her body like she’s an alien from some far out planet so distant that it’s not even real. Everything feels like a TV script to her, a trail she’s hiked so much that the roads are the same as the lines on her hands and feet. It’s all instinctual now.
“I don’t believe you. There’s something wrong,” K says. Baby Girl doesn’t say anything, just lets the cars honk their horns in the distance and allow the smoke to swirl around their bodies like snakes dancing into ouroboros.
The air smells like dead things—a mixture of shitty rum and Marlboro reds and dying leaves and car exhaust and blood and vomit. K stood over another man and the man was choking and spitting out blood and saliva and saliva mixed with blood and he looked up and for a second, he looked sorry. But K knew he wasn’t sorry. Or at least he wanted to believe that because it makes beating the shit out of someone meaningful, purposeful in the kind of way that painting something is meaningful, helping someone roll a joint.
The man tries to stand up. He keeps falling. And falling. And K watches him fall for what feels like an eternity, as if he’s only ever watched this man fall for his entire life. He doesn’t actually mind. He kind of likes the simplicity of it, the fall graceful like a swan’s neck only inches away from another swan’s neck.
Without warning, K kicks the man in the mouth until the tip of his boot is all red like someone poured crimson paint all over—it’s a cartoon and everyone is laughing and everyone is bleeding and licking away the blood just to have it happen all over again. Everything is meaningless. It’s better to realize this sooner rather than later, K thinks.
K doesn’t take the subway home. He walks. He walks for miles until his feet become sore—he doesn’t even realize he’s in front of his building until he absentmindedly fumbles for his keys and realizes he has been staring at them for what could have been hours. He walks up the five narrow flights, each rickety step a hazard (which he’s tripped over drunk more times than he can count), and unlocks his door to find Baby Girl on his couch—watching some TV show on Netflix. He’s not sure what. He doesn’t care.
She doesn’t look up to see the blood on his shoes—or the fact that he kicked a man’s teeth out for her. She already knows. She doesn’t know whether to be horrified at the fact that K is capable of violence (as all men are to her disappointment) or feel sickly special that he beat someone up for her, like they’re all in 5th grade and life is still a game. Baby Girl feels both—she knows it’s wrong, and she doesn’t know how she’ll be able to sleep next to him tonight—but she also feels seen, as if someone realizes her own life matters. Maybe more than she does.
K sits next to her, pretending to watch the show and drink a beer and check his Facebook for some meaningless update about someone’s art show or book launch. He puts his hand on her leg and Baby Girl moves the blanket over her arms as if she’s cold, but she’s really not. Really, she’s just covering the fresh scars running down her wrists—they aren’t deep, they’re more like cat scratches than anything, but she’s ashamed. Not of the scars themselves, but at the fact that she’s capable of hurting herself, and worse, that she enjoys it. That momentary rush like waves of cherubs holding you above a storming ocean.
K doesn’t know Baby Girl cuts herself—she pretends even to herself that she doesn’t, that she deals with everything in her life impeccably, without falter. In reality, in that place deep inside the back of her mind, so deep it’s locked behind a million ivy-strewn gates, Baby Girl feels like all she does is falter. As if everything she feels is magnified by a crystalline looking glass held by those same cherubs at the bottom of the ocean that is her body, either directing her to complete destruction or total euphoria. There’s that moment, like earlier this morning, when everything stops and the room is silent. The earth forgets about Baby Girl, and she feels perfect, in control, strangely at home inside herself. She feels everything as savagely and intensely as she wants to, even if it’s churning her insides into a dark sludge.
K kisses the side of her neck and she’s not really watching TV, just pretending to out of normalcy and all she can feel is the man. The man is on top of her and he’s choking her and she’s trying to push him off, but he becomes harder inside of her—as if her struggle makes him forget the world is real and that she is also human. He looks down at her like she is a doll to be stroked at played with—while he understands she is a human that will one day die because her body will stop—it’s easy to forget while she looks so helpless in her dress and dark red lipstick.
He slaps her until she can’t hear, chokes her until she can’t breathe. Every minute feels like a tortured eternity, every minute her mind becomes disconnected from body because it’s easier this way. Everything between her legs hurts—her vagina feels like a drill is pushing in and out of her against sandpaper walls. She can’t wait for it to stop, but she can’t cry. Her voice is so small and distant, it’s not even a voice anymore. He eventually comes inside of her and she wants to throw up. But she doesn’t throw up. She was kind of drunk, but not drunk enough to forget. Not drunk enough not to feel. Baby Girl remembers how small and cracked her voice was when she told K what happened. How she wanted to die. How telling him made her want to die more.
She didn’t want any of this to happen. She didn’t want any of it. She doesn’t want any of it now. K continues to stroke her hair. Inside, she is screaming, one day you will be destroyed.