Clara Jayne liked secrets. For example:
1. She liked sliding onto the wet spot after sex with Richard, her husband.
2. She didn’t want to have a child with Richard, or anybody.
3. She didn’t mind he’d gained twenty pounds since the marriage, though he didn’t believe her.
4. There was a knife next to the bed.
She took the knife out now. Richard had just risen, the mattress swelling with the forgiveness of his weight. He paused at the bathroom door, the light behind him throwing a shadow on the outline of his taut belly. A stiff, wiry hair, strong as an antenna, pointed from his middle roundness. Clara Jayne had the overwhelming urge to pluck it. Maybe even to suck it. He said, “I’m so glad we’re doing this,” “this” meaning the child he wanted and she didn’t.
“Me, too,” she lied.
Richard bowed his head for a moment and softly shut the door. She slid onto the wet spot and let her eyes fall, feeling the kelp-like slipperiness against her lower back. Ever since her first sex when she was fourteen with a disturbingly thin boy two years ahead in school, she’d liked going onto the wet spot. He was a nice boy, a vegan who cut down trees, and had shared mutual violations with him for four months before moving to a bigger, bulkier boy who worked on the line at the BMW factory outside town.
On the other side of the bathroom door, the medicine cabinet opened, then shut, and Richard’s urine tunneled in the mouth of the toilet. She had enough time, so she opened the drawer beside the bed and took out the knife.
One problem: it was dull. But she wanted it, yes, so she placed it to the soft, white flesh above her inner arm. That is baby’s flesh. That is ripe flesh. The blade was cold like a key, but it was the key to another world.
The toilet flushed, and she knew he’d return in a moment, so she sliced hard, hard once because it was dull, hard again because she needed it, hard a third time because it was her secret. Everything dropped as if from a high ledge: room, house, husband, bed, body, and in its stead, a waterfall, silver and sharp: white light.
The husband ran the water in the sink. The husband coughed. The world revolved like a cube, spun, and settled around her again. The room. The bed. The drab darkness.
The husband, she finally remembered, was named Richard, and he was washing his penis. Clara Jayne returned the knife to the drawer and promised to buy a new knife tomorrow, her own knife. Where would she keep it hidden? Another secret.
The next day in the main square in Downtown Spartanburg, she met a boy. What was it about this boy?
1. He was alone in the main square, near the fountain.
2. His face was shellacked with acne, and he had circles under his eyes that
reminded her of a buzzard.
3. He wore a long white-sleeve t-shirt with dots running up the sleeve that resembled a trail of red ants.
4. He could become her secret.
Clara Jayne took a bench and placed the package with the recently-purchased knife next to her. They’d hung big planters full of flowers from the lamps to revitalize Downtown, but For Rent and For Sale signs still littered the windows around the square. The holdout was Delaney’s Irish Pub, where Richard had taken her on their first date.
They’d worked together around the corner at Denny’s Headquarters, though Richard worked in another division. She was an assistant and wore skirts that accentuated the sides of her thighs, her best feature. She’d had only one fling in the office with another employee, another wiry man two years her junior who worked in Food Science. Cutting was slowly coming back into Clara Jayne’s mind, and after she’d asked this guy if he’d ever cut, he never texted or called her again.
Richard sat on the corner of her desk one day, then again the next week, commenting on how much he liked her bangs, and then he’d asked her out and took her to Delaney’s, where he ordered Guinness. She’d seen the black beer but had never been with someone who drank it. He ordered her one and said, “Maybe we can go to Ireland someday.” She liked that.
Clara Jayne sat patiently, and the boy dug at his arm. Summer thunder clouds roiled like cotton candy in the sky above.
“You like doing that?” she said.
He stopped and shuddered like a wet pigeon, his buzzard eyes wide with distrust. “Doing what?” he said.
“I’m good,” he said, and then studied her with those recessed eyes. “They just scabs and can’t help myself, like wiggling a loose tooth.”
“I hear that,” Clara Jayne said. “You don’t have a cigarette, do you?”
The boy nodded. His hand disappeared into the pocket of his jeans and returned with a pack and a light in his outstretched hand. She took a cigarette, lit it, and returned the pack. He lit one, too, and returned the pack and lighter to his pocket.
“What’s your name?” she said.
“Horace,” he said.
Clara Jayne blew smoke. “I like that.”
“Used to be common but now is made fun of.”
“Boys can be so mean,” she said. “But it’s a poet’s name.”
“That right?” he said. “You go to school?”
“My mother worked at the rose factory to send me to Converse on the other side of town.”
“That all-girls, right?”
“Yes,” Clara Jayne said and sucked the cigarette. “I think you should have been called poet.”
The sky growled, and a drop of rain hit her forearm.
“Fee-fi-fo-fum,” Horace said, and she laughed.
The fountain sputtered and stopped, then resumed its rhythm.
“Look,” she said, and pulled up her sleeve.
He looked blankly at the cuts along her upper arm and flicked his cigarette into some bushes. “You do that yourself?” he said.
“Don’t you?” When he didn’t answer, she said, “I like these summer storms except the heat. You out of school for the summer?”
“Guess I’m supposed to get a job. Not much luck, not in this town anyway.”
He chewed his cheek, or maybe it was his tongue.
“Maybe we could do it together,” she said.
His leather eyes grew thin. “Do what?” he said.
“You’re just playing games.”
“What game?” he said.
“I know a place,” she said. “I have a car.”
“Like I should get in a car with you?” he said.
“Do I seem dangerous?”
“You got a gun it does,” he said.
“What about a knife?” she said and gestured toward her package. “I only have a knife.”
A smile skittered the corners of his mouth as he rose and started for the corner.
Clara Jayne pulled into an empty spot in the back lot of Converse College and led the boy on a path at the back of the dorms. He walked a little behind her, loping or with a limp, she couldn’t tell which. A green undulating lawn punctuated by large oak trees stretched out to their left, and she saw herself for a moment as if outside herself, a woman returning to the college with a high school boy, going to a grove where they would commit an act she knew was wrong, was ashamed of, but that drew her with the hypnotic force of secrecy and escape.
She cast a glance over her shoulder as the sun skipped through the clouds and down onto Horace’s face. He squinted his brown eyes as a swarm of birds swung above them.
“Boys always talk about coming up in here,” he said.
“Nothing good,” he said, and then a moment later, “I wasn’t one of those boys.”
She remained silent. There had been boys sneaking around, and she knew of one girl who’d been raped, though Clara Jayne was sure there was more. An all-girls college in the middle of a small town in South Carolina with only two security guards was like a fort with no walls and was easily breached.
They went down the lawn, stepping over the cut rings recently left by a mower, into the smell of grass circling in the air. At bottom, they crossed a short, rotting green bridge to a stage with three steps where bottles and cigarettes had been discarded some days before. Just beyond, there was a sanctuary of bamboo and oak, and Clara Jayne paused and switched the package with that day’s purchase from one hand to the other and parted the bamboo and entered.
“Come on in,” she said.
They walked a few feet to sheltered patch, and she sat and watched him enter. He sat next to a burned-out trunk, a pagan pulpit. The clouds above roiled like dough above the swaying tips of the trees. Thunder chewed the sky, and a lawn mower hummed in the distance.
“Let me see your arm,” she said, and he lifted his sleeve to show a matrix of carefully cut lines on his inner forearm, scars imbedded beneath the newer cuts to form a papyrus of his self-mutilation.
“Why your left?” she asked.
“Cause I’m right-handed, I guess. You got any water? I always like something to drink,” he said.
“Why do you do it?” she said.
“If I knew, I’d die,” he said.
She opened the bag, took out the knife, and laid it on the leaves between them. “Just this,” she said. “I want to see you do it.”
His eyes seemed darker somehow. “I never thought of someone watching me,” he said. “Always seemed a private thing, though I did think about showing people once.”
He studied his chalky arm and then took the knife and placed it on his skin with the delicacy of a painter applying the last bit of color to a canvas. The tip of the blade slipped easily into his flesh and slid down his forearm leaving a red trail in its wake. She watched his eyes as they turned trance-like, then closed.
A moment later, he blinked, his eyes adjusting to the world again as if coming suddenly from darkness to light.
“Your turn now,” he said.
The weight of the knife in her hand was like an extra blanket at night when you’re cold. She slipped the sharp tip into the pale region of her upper arm. The trees around her dipped away as she led the blade across her skin, and the trees and everything receded into shadow in the corner of her eyes until there was a white light fluttering like wings in the sky.
This is how it happened for the next week:
1. They went to the opening in the middle of a small bamboo.
2. He cut himself first, then she herself, and soon she had cuts on her left forearm, a thatch of pain and release.
3. They drank water when they cut and lay afterwards, not speaking, on their backs and looked at the sky. Guilt was ubiquitous as summer rain, but the silver trance of the silver blade transfixed.
4. She applied make-up and wore long-sleeves at home. Richard asked her why in this heat, this God-awful heat like none he’d ever remembered…
He was sitting at the kitchen table after dinner breathing heavy into the Ovulation
Template in Excel on the computer. He asked when her last period was, so he could chart dates and fertility windows, and she told him the wrong date, five days off.
“You want some coffee?” she asked.
“You should cut down on caffeine,” he said. “And I’m thinking maybe you should start taking folic acid.”
“What’s that?” she said and went to the coffee maker.
“I read it prevents birth defects,” he said as he typed.
She reached for the glass jar of coffee, and her sleeve slipped just as his eyes turned. A maze of perfectly sliced lines met his gaze, too obvious not to notice even with the make-up, which she hadn’t applied with her usual diligence this night.
“What’s that?” he asked. He stood and tried to show his chest.
“What?” She snapped her arm to her side.
“On your arm.”
He grabbed and twisted her arm and beheld the transgression. “What the hell, Clara Jayne?”
She slapped his hand away.
“Why you grabbing me like that?” she said. “What do you think it is anyway?”
“You going to say a cat got you?”
She’d made the mistake of telling Richard she’d cut in college. The other girls at school were so Southern, so blonde and white, like dolls in sweat pants. They touched themselves and each other in the shower, and they touched boys in cars and behind the Science building. They drank Cheerwine and vomited. Clara Jayne was awkward, one foot inward-turning. She studied Milton, Sexton, and Plath while other girls checked the boxes of their educations in order to have these experiences.
Then Mother, who always had a cigarette in fingers sliced from the work at the rose factory, yes, maybe that was an example, had gotten lung cancer, died, left enough to cover all but one semester of tuition. Clara Jayne had no memory of a father, and her mother snarled in her booming smoker’s voice when asked about him.
If these girls touched themselves and others, why couldn’t Clara Jayne? Anyway, the best touching was out in nature, where she could be alone and transcend this world. The knife became solace and secret; the knife was friend.
“It was not a cat,” she said.
“Let me see.” Richard reached again.
“No,” she said and stepped back. “You don’t own my arm.”
The slap to her check was sharp and brutal. Her left ear rang like a whistle, and she realized she’d spun to the floor.
Richard sat heavily in the chair at the kitchen table and stared at the floor.
“I’m sorry, Clara Jayne. I just don’t know what this means. What it means for us and our future. Our child. What kind of mother…”
She was silent as she rose from the floor and smoothed her dress.
“I think you need help,” he said. “Maybe we both do.”
“I don’t need help. You hit me, you…”
As she left the room, the whisper of the word “bastard” floated in the air like old dishes.
The next day, as she and Horace drove past Converse College, she asked what excuses he used. Did he say cats scratched him?
“I got all kinds,” he said. His window was open, and he was smoking. The day was clear, blue, the sky wide like the ocean after land drops from sight. “I fell on barbed wire. I’m a framer, and the glass cut me. The cat scratch is the oldest one.”
“He caught me yesterday,” Clara Jayne said.
“Thought you was using make-up.”
“Even so, it doesn’t cover the scabs.”
His cigarette disappeared in the passing wind. “What’d he do?”
“He hit me. Then told me I should see someone. A professional. We slept separately last night.”
“He hit you?”
“I got married because it seemed like I should. Whatever friends I had were all getting married. It was safe and comfortable. I had no one else. We worked together, told me I didn’t have to work.”
“Why don’t you leave him?”
“The whole thing is bankrupt.”
“What do you mean?”
“Life. We are told to want this-or-that, and then it’s empty.”
She could feel his eyes on her. They passed a row of ramshackle homes, each with an American flag drooping in the humidity before the Oakwood Cemetery at the back of Converse College.
“You know what we do ain’t normal?” Horace said.
“He told me I didn’t have to work. That we should have kids. He took me.”
At the entrance to the cemetery, gravestones chiseled by the best masons in South Carolina bore the names of the city’s most prominent families. She passed a large fence, on the other side of which was the Converse Field House. Above the scoreboard a large sign said, “Home of the Valkyries.”
“Can they see all these dead up here from down on the field?” he asked.
“No, they hide it with those bushes there,” she said. “I had no idea this was up here for the longest time.”
Next to a tangle of forest at the back of the cemetery, she pulled onto a dirt patch and turned off the car. Birds whistled and danced in the trees above. She got their kit from the trunk: water, the knife, and blanket wrapped and tucked in a duffle bag.
She led him down a path, and there were graves here, too, but marked with bricks and tin signs with red, hand-painted lettering with the name and dates of the deceased. One was, “Carrie Harris July 10 1884 Died Dec 1 1961.” A few steps on, another tin sign in the same hand read, “James M. Harris, Feb 6, 1885, Died, Nov 8 1954.”
“Now go on and tell me why they ain’t next to each other,” Horace said.
“Probably took what land they could get back here,” she said.
Soon, little flies began flicking at their eyes and ears, and they waved their hands to swat them away.
“Let’s lay down for a second,” she said, and pulled out the blanket and laid it out. They got on their backs and watched the intricate patchwork of the tree limbs above.
“I used to sit in my room when I was a little girl,” she said, “and I didn’t think much of the world. Didn’t care for it much, either this way or that. But then I started sneaking out at night to look up at the stars. I saw I was nothing, but for some reason that made me feel something, and I went out every night I could to look at the stars.” She expected him to say something, but he was silent. “Later, I started doing this, and felt I’d finally found something.”
“Can I do it to you this time?” she said, sitting up. “Maybe somewhere new?”
She took the handle of the knife.
“Like where?” he said.
“Down instead of across?”
He moved his sleeve up his elbow.
“I haven’t felt like this in a long time,” she said.
“I don’t know, something like… I can’t explain.”
She dipped the knife into his arm, and he arched his back under the pain but said nothing, didn’t move, his eyes rolling in those brown pools.
“I think I see what you saw,” he said. “I mean, when you were a girl. Nothing.”
She kept the knife moving but stopped at the maze of veins above his wrist. He opened his eyes.
“Go,” he said. “You have to cut across, not down, to do any harm,” and he breathed a long sigh.
She saw the purple and green veins beneath the delicate layer of his pale skin, and she let the blade slip forward across them. He pressed his other hand into the damp earth, and the blood bubbled, then ran down his wrist.
“You alright?” she said.
He hummed and sighed. She removed the blade from his arm and wrapped it in a towel stained purple and bleach. He began to breath heavier, like a patient.
“The best ever,” he mumbled.
“Horace?” she said. His eyes looked like the gnarled bark knots in a tree. “Horace,” she said, and then kissed him on the forehead. He was warm. “Horace? It’s your turn to do me,” she said.
She watched his face as it turned even whiter.
“Horace? I’m just going to lay down here and put my head on your chest, if that’s okay?”
He whispered “Yes’m” from somewhere far away.