Rain falls like needles, but Carla’s parents’ back porch, sheltered by a lean-to roof and enclosed by a tight green net, keeps us dry. I want to sleep outside, catch cold. I want to share disease and shudder. Carla wants to brush her teeth. She likes the smell of bathrooms, mirrors, warm toilet seats. Toothbrush, towel in hand, Carla pushes open the screen door and seeks linoleum.
I run around the back porch, trying to keep warm. I unfold the sleeping bags, unroll them on the wooden floor. I fluff up our backpacks like pillows, tucking them into the mouths of the sleeping bags. I push the bench out of the way into the corner of the porch. I rearrange things, stomp on floor boards. I get under the covers and wait for Carla.
Rain beats on the roof like footsteps, splashes puddles at the edge of the porch. Thick streams of water run down from the slanted roof. The porch net sags, drips rain water, and slaps against the sleeping bags. The porch is like an underwater cage, and I think of ripping it down. I don’t want to be damp. I want to be soaked. In the darkness, surrounded by water, curled up in the sleeping bag, I feel like a fish. I swim around on the floor, breathe in rain. The roof leaks, and rain sucks through like thread.
I stand, lift up the net, jump from the porch onto the ground. I trample about in puddles. Water swirls around my ankles like skirts. Mud covers my feet, gets between my toes. Rain batters my head, soaks it. I crunch snails, step on worms, fear birds with large wing spans.
“Where are you?” Carla calls.
She tries to adopt a casual tone as she searches, but she’s worried that I’ve left. I haven’t left, yet I like her dependence. I crouch low, move through the fierce rain, the mud, and pools of water to the base of the porch. I reach under the net, grab cold flesh. She screams, holds her breath, screams some more.
“Shhh,” I say.
She screams as if she’s transcending orgasm.
“Shut up,” I say.
She kneels down, pushes my head into her lap, runs her fingers through my hair.
Dirty, wet, likely to catch a cold, I climb up on the porch. Carla says I’m a mess. I agree. She has an eye for detail. She says I’m likely to catch a cold. I agree with this, too, and sniffle, coughing loudly. She looks untouchable, almost pretty. Like a child I smear my hands on the bottom of her bathrobe. The rain washes the porch like waves. The porch is a ship.
“Avast, matey,” I say, “raise the mainsail, fasten the halyards.”
I run around the porch, then put my shoe directly under the leak in the roof, tying the net to the beams. I’m the captain. Carla’s the bitchy passenger.
“Everything’s wet out here,” Carla says. “Let’s sleep inside.”
“No,” I say. “The rain will stop soon.” I hope the rain will last until morning. It’s sticky, intolerable. “It’s nice out here.”
I shut the door to the house, jiggle the doorknob, and pronounce the door locked and impenetrable: a barrier. It shuts us out. I want the outside, the wet, the miserable.
“How do I look?” Carla asks.
Gathering her hair and tightening her bathrobe belt, she slips out of her slippers.
I crawl into my sleeping bag and feel protected. I’m tired of fighting nature, quarreling with Carla. I want to sleep.
“How do I look?” Carla repeats.
“Good,” I say.
I search my mind for adjectives. I want to please her, choose the right ones by being descriptive. “Kissable. Dreamy. Exquisite.”
Carla gets under the covers and lies down next to me in her sleeping bag.
“How do I look?” I ask.
The wrong question. I don’t want to be told that I’m ugly. What beauty I have is intangible, in all likelihood simply not there. Carla laughs and avoids the question. Whenever she asks me how she looks, she knows that whatever I answer, she’s irresistible. I know I’m not handsome, but I want her to fake it.
She looks into my eyes, feels my face, its bumps and deep crevices. With her fingers, she picks at my scabs, squeezes blackheads. Cold sweat spills from my oily forehead. Carla presses down on my skin until my face stretches and opens like a wet mouth. She says nothing, lets me sweat a little more. My face is flushed and inflamed. She turns on her side in the sleeping bag and brushes her hair out of her eyes. Her hair is fluffy and soft and snarl-free. I look for her pimples but find none, only unspotted white skin. She takes a washcloth out of her backpack and cleans my face with it, rubs until my skin burns. Carla hates my pimples, is offended by them, wishes they’d go away.
She wants me to be handsome, but I’m not. My pimples won’t go away; I won’t go away. I am who I am. I’m not handsome. Carla knows that. She can see. She’s not blind. She loves me, nevertheless. She loves me for the beauty of my soul. Anyone can have clear skin, dark eyes, wavy hair. I believe in the human heart. My heart is cold as ice, black as clouds. It malfunctions at times, beats crazily. I’m not worried. I’m blessed with deformities. Without my deformities, I’m nothing. Without them I’m Carla. I don’t want to be Carla. Carla reveres me, asks me questions, takes down what I say. I lie; she believes me. Beauty craves the Beast. I’m not beautiful. I’m the beast.
“How do you look?” she finally says. “The same.”
“You look good,” I say.
“But I don’t?” I ask.
“No,” she says, “not really.”
“Even in the dark?”
“The night makes you look even worse. It exaggerates your worst features.”
“Your nose, your pimples, your—”
“Enough,” I say.
“I said I’m sorry.”
Our eyes have become accustomed to the darkness. I feel wise but have nothing to say.
“You don’t deserve me,” she says.
I agree again.
She stares up at the leaking porch roof, curses the rain. The underside of the porch drips rain like a child peeing. Soft light rain trickles down from the sky. I press my face to hers: We rub noses, cheeks, necks. Then she pushes me away from her.
“Say something,” she says. “Don’t just fondle me.”
I’m tempted to talk about the weather, which is always there, is inescapable, is often an interesting topic of conversation. I want to talk about the rain—its noisiness, its incomprehensibility. Carla wants to talk about us. She likes to resolve conflict, understand the past, kiss and make up. The rain has all but ceased. I can’t think of anything to say.
“Good night,” Carla says.
She’s tired. She wants to sleep. She squirms in the sleeping bag, turns away from me, and sighs. I stroke the bottom of her hair, playing with it, smelling it, twirling it on my fingers. I separate it into thin strands, which I spread across my open mouth like a web. I drape her hair between my lips, gather it into a ponytail, wag it, let it fall against her back.
“Are you asleep?” I ask.
She moves her lungs up and down. I grasp a clump of her hair.
“Don’t,” she says. “You woke me up.”
“Yes, I’m exhausted. Go to sleep, honey. I’ll see you in the morning.”
She rolls over, twists her neck, kisses me on the forehead, and rolls back.
The residue of the rain, the enclosed sleeping bag make me sweat. I reach over and take the washcloth out of Carla’s backpack to dry my face. I nuzzle up next to her cold neck, her brittle shoulders, and lean over to kiss her cheek. Carla snaps her head away from me, cleans her messy cheek with her washcloth.
“Leave me alone,” she whispers.
“Good night,” I say.
It’s not a good night: The rain has stopped, Carla is sleeping, and the backpack is proving to be an inadequate pillow. I can’t sleep; I feel cold; I need warmth. The house is locked. Carla’s asleep. I undo the zipper of the sleeping bag, get up, pace around the porch. I poke my hands through holes in the net, lift up the net, crawl under, and jump down onto the ground.
It’s extremely dark—no moon, no stars, only clouds and mist and night like a black rubber sheet. I paw at the thick, muggy air. I make crunching sounds with my boots, hear noises in the distance, fear things around me, but I can see nothing. I think of Carla sleeping, her knees bent into her chest, her hands clasped and folded beneath her head, her body curled into a tight ball. She’s safe, in no need of comfort. I walk further, past the puddles of mud, to the edge of the slick wet lawn. I jump over the short wall.
My feet snap damp twigs. The rain starts up again. The wind breathes rain into my face. Gray rain streaks across the sky, briefly lights the woods. Trees and stumps of trees stick out of the ground—trees like large broken umbrellas, stumps like elephants’ hooves. As I walk, dead leaves crack, soft soil gives; I trip over a cracked gravestone. I trample back across the wet ground and climb up on the porch, crawl under the net and into the sleeping bag. I dry myself off with Carla’s washcloth and crawl back under the covers.
“Where were you?” she asks.
“Scaring away beasts.”
She lies on her side, away from me, resting one hand on top of her sleeping bag near her hip. I rub my palm over the back of her hand.
“You’re freezing,” she says.
I rub harder, squeezing her fingers together.
I kiss her thumb, turn her hand around and trace the lines in her palm. I’m the palm reader. She’s the skeptical customer.
“You’re destined to make love to me tonight,” I say.
“No, sweetie,” she says.
I spread her middle fingers like legs, move my index finger up and back between her fingers like a saw. We touch fingertips, interlock fingers, press palms together like flat stomachs, squeeze tight. I hold the back of her neck, close my eyes, kiss her. Surprisingly, she sits up, kisses me, and then we bump foreheads while I’m undoing the zipper of my sleeping bag and sliding closer to her. She laughs at what she takes to be my clumsiness. I kiss her pug nose. We join lips, twist our heads, make noises until Carla says, “I can’t breathe.”
I look into her eyes and say, “You look Chinese.”
She feels my nose and says, “You look Roman.”
I put my mouth on top of her and open wide. East and West merge. She puts her tongue to my mouth, to my lips. I spread my lips apart. She puts her tongue to my tongue.
“My god,” I say.
“What’s the matter?”
“Carla,” I say, stroking the tiny cleft in her chin, the side of her face. “Feel my heart rate.” I fear clots, fibrillation, the death of heart muscles. I hold her wrist and press her hand to my chest. “Do you feel it?”
“No,” she says.
I put her ear on my heart.
“It sounds like a metronome gone wild,” she says.
Compassionately, she kisses my chest. I slide out of the sleeping bag and lie down next to her. Carla rests her head on her backpack, bends her arms through her sleeves. I kiss her neck, the space between her breasts, her stomach.
“I don’t know,” she says. “It’s cold. I really need to use the bathroom first.”
She gets out of her sleeping bag, gathers up a few things from her backpack, tries the door.
“It’s closed,” I say.
She turns the door knob, pushes the door open.
“Liar,” she says.
“I honestly thought I’d locked the door,” I say.
She closes the door softly behind her while I lie down on the sleeping bag. The porch net covers the bottom of my legs. Outside, tree limbs sway like broken arms and thick sheets of cutting rain make mirrors, erase the sky. I wait for Carla, who might easily be another few hours. She gets lost in bathrooms. She feels safe in them, at home, locked in. She has a toilet kit like a suitcase. She likes to be clean. She talks about towels and soaps and different kinds of tissues—their warmth, their softness. She likes to play with faucets and shower curtains and swinging mirrors. Transfixed on mirrors, she stares into mirrors for hours, scares away blemishes. It’s so apparent to me that bathrooms are warm, sepulchral wombs.