We Lock Lips

That gripe of the city women with the men that tell them to smile—I do sympathize.

I’d accidentally joined a cult, at about nineteen. The members had claimed they’d help me find myself; I’d had no clue what ‘finding oneself’ might even entail, and so I’d figured I was the ideal candidate.

The company had created all of these personal development programs, and healthy lifestyle bootcamps, and all the more countless intensives. I had come to find, in the decade following, that finding oneself should be right down to the bone.

A similar sentiment was expressed to me, too, in more literal terms.

It would just be like digging into myself for gold, I thought; I knew I’d be happy if I was as thin as the others, that they were keeping me accountable in a way I couldn’t alone. I had paid a small debt, too, when I didn’t do my readings; my friends were only paving the roads on which I could push inward.

They did stop pretending, eventually, that the digital parts of my debt weren’t going up the ranks to the one man in the company—the only man, of course, that we’d ever need. Kenneth even broke the gap by texting me directly and often, asking for more pictures whenever he’d heard I’d eaten more than appropriate.

Though it was all innocent I was also all the way attracted to him, I will admit. How couldn’t I have been, knowing his mind, an aphrodisiac? Kenneth was playing Mozart by the age of six; he’d invented a new mathematics at just fourteen; he’d written books of philosophy in his twenties and boisterous prose. He knew he’d solve the hunger crisis as soon as he had the right influence; which teenaged girl wouldn’t worship such virtues no matter how aged?

So, like the others, I stared at every movement of his mouth as one would the Louvre’s latest.

Still, something was inexplicably wrong within me.

You don’t look too happy about it, Kenneth had responded to one November photo, just as I was turning back toward the road home. He had me stop in my tire tracks, again, to keep trying for a grin genuine enough for judgment.

I couldn’t understand why I kept screwing it all up, in the first place. I’d thought of him for so many miles of drives, had often rocked too far into the gas pedal; this task, for me, should’ve been easy. And yet ever since the start of our one-on-one classes I could only hold heat in my stomach.

Even once I managed an acceptable photo (good, but shave yourself when you get home, he’d reminded), I couldn’t feel the same indestructible that I had after his first teachings. The first part of myself I’d sent him had left me high, really believing maybe I could do anything;

It was devitalizing, not reaching something I’d once so easily held.

“So, did you finish your journal?” Alice asked when she found me loading the fridge.

“Yes. Almost,” I mustered for her.

“You know that I wanted it earlier.”

“Of course. But you asked me to fetch the groceries.”

“You know that making excuses only holds yourself back more,” she spoke, in almost a song. “I think I want you to get an early start tomorrow."

Early starts were always exactly four, inconsiderate of night classes prior.

“That isn’t really fair. I just couldn’t do it today," I retried.

But Alice no longer acknowledged me—and so I only put food away as she ate toast.

In a predictable pattern, I couldn’t enjoy my bath that evening either. My skin was still much hotter than the water surrounding me, my eyes still wetter.

Why couldn’t I get comfortable with anything? I had to wonder. What was I missing? Why was I not by some universe allowed to have what the other women had much more?

For months I had tried to tell Alice that I needed intervention—some extra guidance (please, I really needed it)—but she only ever told me I should work harder. I was the only one who could ultimately decide my own fate, with some help from Kenneth whenever he spared it.

After that, things had only seemed more hopeless.

Yet I started to think that if I acquired some proof that my concerns were solid, or a concrete example of how deeply my mind was wounded, then I’d only have to wait for our next family photo and then, she would see. (It was as I was moving my razor up my thigh that I had the quivering idea.)

Nothing happened, initially, when I moved the handle the wrong direction; I did it again just before the blood appeared, bringing with it a ringing pain. I gasped, the water around me.

I was on earth again, escaping.

A different panic came shortly, of course: there was no way Alice should see what I’d done. What an idiotic idea had overcome my idiot head, in its upset; now, everyone would come to see the cuts, and whether she would sympathize would depend on her mood.

Leaving the tub, I held some wet toilet paper against myself and searched the cabinet for some first aid. There was just one bottle of hydrogen peroxide, which bubbled and burned along with my stifling throat.

Later, I settled for toilet paper held up with tape.

There was no group photo for a few days thereafter, and so the first to see my marks was Kenneth at our next meeting. I was surprised to find he didn’t respond to my disrobing but to ask,

"What is it that you were punishing yourself for? Did it help?”

At that, I didn’t want to say anything wrong. “Not smiling well enough,” I mumbled. “And yes, I think it did.”

Kenneth nodded, and the most surprising part—the one that spread up from its cage in my chest through my neck—was when he lifted his head from its place between my legs and stood.

It was the first time I’d seen something in his pants, aroused.

I practically ran when he dismissed me, my vision all in swirls. He was supposed to be celibate beyond human capacity; he’d claimed he never took pleasure from the techniques. They were only for my benefit, meant to help me solve my issues with my body, with general vulnerability.

What had made his hardness too hard to conceal, this time? Was it my cuts? The idea that I’d bled? That I’d bled for him?

If it was just pain that made him bloody in one place, then, how could it be true he wanted us all to find joy?

Alice approached me the next morning, told me she’d like to go over my cuts with a cauterizing pen—to prevent infections, because of our minimalist healthcare, she justified—and I suspected she was making an excuse to brand me for him.

“You finally went out of your comfort zone this week. Let’s keep that rolling,” she was saying, with a coffee-stained sigh at my resistance. “If you get through this most intense pain, think about all the pain that’ll be so manageable in comparison.”

If I were to deny her request or, God forbid, leave entirely, I’d be more punished and my photos spread like spider legs. The cauterizing collateral. That video of me, forced to moan for my deceased father—it’d release like my body never could since the filming.

I had no choice but to take Alice’s advice, one way or another.

So, I accepted it not quite the way that she’d described.

I cut again, much more in the bath that night—this time all over the arms, again showing skin, finding myself in all of my blood and of course bone. Should I have gone even further?, I am wondering. Carved myself into the tiny thing of a woman Kenneth so desired?

Had he been taking secret pleasure, too, every time he’d kissed all of our cheeks and then our lips?

I went to the backyard before dawn and pushed my arms into the wet dirt, digging. I ran some blocks north, did the same in the garden of Blair and Beth and Jenny. I repeated and repeated. Digging for tetanic treasure. Looking for some lockjaw.

My roommate said I looked psychotic when she found me on the stairs, covered in my dirt, red in the eyes. I don’t doubt that I did, and still do; it might even help things out. When I feel the first pain, when the first bud of the strongest possible smile starts to crack, I will go to Kenneth giving him what he wants and also a deep cut, a long big kiss on his gash.  

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