[img_assist|nid=4347|title=”Tongue Tied ” by Aloysius, © 2005|desc=|link=node|align=right|width=150|height=326]Once Sara was gone, Aislinn folded the bed back into a couch and surveyed the aftermath of their impromptu romp. Sex with her semi-ex-girlfriend always left Aislinn breathless and disoriented, as though Sara had passed her a dubious pill rather than a wad of already-been-chewed Juicy Fruit on the crest of her formidable tongue.
Aislinn pulled on her T-shirt and began blowing out the candles still burning along the wide, paint-flaking windowsill. It was a sweltering summer afternoon—the third day running to hit the nineties—and still Sara had peevishly insisted on lighting candles.
“It smells like Cracker Jacks in here,” she’d said, sniffing the air suspiciously, wearing that infamous scowl of hers like a facemask. “Cracker Jacks and cat piss, with—what—a splash of Listerine.”
Sara’s sense of smell was legendary among their small circle of friends. She could correctly identify a perfume from clear across a crowded bar. Not that many of them even bothered with perfume. Often they camped it up with self-parodic fixative-sprayed wrists, a dab of linseed oil behind each ear. They were art students, after all. That was image enough.
Aislinn hadn’t really expected her unofficial roommate to appreciate or understand—or even respect—her period of self-imposed celibacy. But neither had she quite counted on Sara waging an all-out war; the woman had used every weapon in her sizeable sexual arsenal, from propagandized pillow talk to the twin atom bombs of her eyes, to recapture a small but strategic piece of land that, arguably, had never belonged to her in the first place.
She went to the freezer and reached for an Otter Pop—her favorite, Little Orange Annie. Sara had found a case of them at a bulk-rate food warehouse somewhere in South Jersey, not far from her parents’ house. When she was young, Aislinn’s summer diet seemed to consist of nothing but flavored frozen water: ink-soaked Sno Cones the texture of rock salt; art deco “rocket pops” of red, white and blue; paper tubs of Italian water ice and their makeshift wooden spoons. The cartoon clique of Otters, though, had always been her favorite; they were worthy of their own Saturday morning show.
As a kid, once Aislinn had finished sucking the last of the fruit-flavored ice from their plastic packets, she’d slip the empty tubes onto her fingers and put on a sticky puppet show for her brother, drops of iridescent juice streaming down her slender fingers, some traversing her wrists and making it as far as her elbows. She’d done the same for Sara (who tended to lick her clean). In fact, when Aislinn first told Sara that she would not, after all, be moving in with her in the fall, it was Alexander the Grape who broke the bad news. Aislinn wasn’t fond of disappointing people, even though disappointing people appeared to be her forte.
The person Aislinn managed to disappoint most often seemed to be her mother. Aislinn knew Agnes O’Connor would have something to say about her decision to leave school, for sure. And, contrary to her conveniently dismissive It’s-A-Mom-Thang-You-Wouldn’t-Understand posturing, she knew why. Her mother was adamant about her children knowing exactly what—and who—they wanted. Needless to say she knew nothing about Sara. She’d wasted her own youth on a man whose name, for all they now seemed to have in common, she could just as well have drawn from a hat. Aislinn’s parents hadn’t divorced when she was twelve, but to hear her mom tell it, they’d come “thrillingly close.” These days Agnes appeared in a mad rush to make up for lost time: often she materialized, wild-eyed and winded, with merely the upper half of her mouth smeared with some age-appropriate shade of lipstick, one lone eye dusted with shadow. It wasn’t completely unheard of for Agnes to neglect to brush her chemically enhanced thundercloud of hair.
Aislinn could deal with her mother’s self-styled aberrations of fashion. The real problem was that her mother’s recent influx of nervous energy was precipitated by her realization that she had nearly ruined her life and was now, at forty-nine, quickly running out of time to salvage it. It dictated Agnes’s behavior in all aspects, not just her dress. Aislinn knew that her mother viewed her children as genetic victims of her own indecisiveness and well-hashed life-defining mistakes.
Aislinn finished the Otter Pop and chucked Little Orange Annie—who no longer looked so orange—in the trash. She almost apologized.
Sara had come by ostensibly to retrieve Walter Ego’s Proto-Indo-European Vibe. She claimed she couldn’t paint without it. Music was essential to the creation of Sara’s art. Sara often claimed to lack imagination, but Aislinn disagreed. Still, rarely had she seen Sara work without her trusty iPod, and the benefit of a garage band shouting mantras or some self-proclaimed pixie cooing encouraging words in her ears.
But even more than music and making art, Sara thrived on sex. For Sara sex was sustenance. There was simply no other word for it. She insisted on getting off once a day, and preferably not at her own hand. It was no accident, then, that she’d shown up at Aislinn’s wearing a plain Hane’s tank top. Sara was well aware of Aislinn’s weaknesses and often made no bones about preying upon them. They both agreed that there was nothing sexier—perhaps nothing more subversive—than a woman in a “wife-beater,” especially a woman with Sara’s sinewy arms and strong, elegantly tapered back. Sara cracked her knuckles, flexing every muscle along her taut, lovely arms. They hit the futon in no time flat.
“Three weeks,” Sara said, once they were through. She consulted what Aislinn called her Batwatch, a cross between a doorknob and a dial of birth control pills. “Three weeks and, look, record time. I still got the touch.”
For all her in-yo’-face sexual prowess and kamikaze resolve, Aislinn knew that Sara’s ego was as fragile as blown glass. Sara couldn’t get it through her head that the prolonged break-up had nothing to do with waning physical attraction or sexual incompatibility. In fact it had nothing to do with Sara, as a lover, at all.
“I’m not leaving you for another girl.”
“That’s what worries me,” Sara said.
“I’m not leaving you for anyone,” scolded Aislinn. “So quit acting like I am.”
“What?” Aislinn asked.
“I hate this.”
“So do I,” Aislinn said, but it was a half lie; after all, there was a measure of comfort to be found in control.
“Then don’t do it.” She stroked Aislinn’s wealth of red hair. “Choose me,” Sara said a moment later, reaching for an enormous, ribbed bottle of water. “I’m sorry, I have to stop pressuring you.”
“You have to get that self-portrait finished, is what you have to do.” Aislinn, like her mom, was a skilled subject-changer.
“I know, I know. Exactly when is it due?”
“Uh, like, an hour ago.”
“Shit.” Sara sat up, began rooting around for her clothes. “I took this course for you, y’know. So we could be together. I’m not so gung-ho about finishing in four years. And I’ve got better things to do with my summer.”
“Better than making art?” Aislinn knew it was a rhetorical question.
“Other people’s art? Fuck yeah. Definitely.” Sara found her pack of cigarettes, lit one up. “So how’s yours coming?”
It was one of those lame, masturbatory exercises the semantics of which art teachers stayed up late tweaking: Paint yourself as others perceive you. Talk about pointless, Aislinn thought. She had no idea how others perceived her, and [delete] nor did she care. She had no intention of completing the assignment—another week and she’d be gone—but she couldn’t tell Sara that, not yet. “Fini,” she said with a flourish.
“Bitch.” Sara looked away, and then looked out the window. She took a drag, expelled a perfect stream of smoke. Sara looked like an ad for something; though it wasn’t perfume, or cigarettes, or even sex, Aislinn couldn’t put her finger on exactly what. Reluctantly she followed Sara’s gaze and saw that the sky was clouding over. It was the color of Agnes’s infamous mushroom soup.
Sara checked her watch for real.
“In a hurry?” Aislinn accused.
“No.” Then, after a beat, “Well, okay. I guess I am.” She met Aislinn’s gaze. “Look, I’ll be honest.”
Sara didn’t smile. “Cute. The truth is, I’ve kind of got a date.”
Aislinn tried to hide her surprise even as she felt her eyes widen, her brow furrow, her jaw slowly begin to drop. She knew she looked like a parody of her mother now, whose exaggerated features had always struck her only daughter as cartoonish, slap-dash. “Kind of?”
“Let me explain—”
“What’s to explain?” Aislinn cut her off. “You’ve got a date. You come over here, fuck me knowing full well I’ve been trying like crazy not to get fucked, in every sense of the term, and then tell me you’re fucking someone else.” She shrugged. “Crystal clear.”
Sara frowned. “We are not fucking.”
“Myself and…this other person, I mean. We haven’t slept together.”
Sara guffawed. “You’re a trip, Linn. I mean really. You’ve dumped me how many times now? No one’s ever dumped me in my life! Ever. Then you say you’ll see me, but no sex. No sex. And you know how I am, you know I’ve got needs—”
“Oh, I know.”
“Well what do you expect? What is it you want from me, anyway? Do you even know?”
Good questions, all, thought Aislinn. Which meant they deserved good answers.
“Yes,” Aislinn began, getting both their hopes up. She paused, unsure of how best to proceed. “I want to know her name.”
Aislinn really didn’t want to hear Sara say the words Josie Scarpone, even though every sound in the room, from the humming fridge to the ticking clock to the rapid beating of Aislinn’s very own increasingly confused heart, seemed to count off the syllables of the woman’s name.
“It’s nobody you know. Just some girl.” Sara took Aislinn’s hand. “I’m not telling you her name.” She was downplaying the intensity of this new attraction, but Aislinn had her doubts.
Sara shrugged. “She asked me to the fireworks and I said yes.” Then she leaned in close, which usually worked on Aislinn, even when she smelled less like Channel and more like a carton of Luckies. “I said yes to her, but I wouldn’t say no to you,” she cooed.
Aislinn knew that Sara falling for another woman was the only foolproof way of ending their relationship. She tried convincing herself that it was a good thing that her semi-ex-girlfriend had a date. She knew that without the intercession of Josie Scarpone or Becca Brownstein or the Rastafarian woman who waxed the floors of Royer Hall, Sara would never take no for an answer. And, despite her insufferable flip-flopping, no was the very answer Aislinn was intent on giving her.
Still, the thought of Sara falling hard for someone else, and so soon, was unbearable; for a full year now the two of them had seemed to defy gravity.
“Well?” Sara was saying. “Can you make it?”
Aislinn glared at her, but not without love. “This sucks.”
“I know. I’m sorry.”
“Plus you and your needs need some serious help.” Aislinn screwed up her face; she was giving in.
“No argument there.” Sara reached for the ashtray—her ashtray, a plastic mug molded in the likeness of the Nestlé Quik bunny—and toppled it in the process. “Shit. Sorry again.” She regarded Aislinn. “I do more apologizing in this apartment….”
“That’s okay. Penitence becomes you.”
Sara made a kissy face, then got up and quickly began pulling on her clothes—jeans, tank top, bad-ass motorcycle boots; she never wore shorts of any kind, though slinky dresses and leather skirts were not unheard of, reserved for those occasions when she felt the need to make a very specific kind of statement. Shielded by an oversized throw pillow, Aislinn walked her to the door.
“I’ll meet you at the Circle,” Sara said, “this side of the fountain.”
Aislinn smiled. “Why can’t you just leave me alone?”
For an instant Sara almost looked hurt. “I tried that, remember. It didn’t work.”
“It didn’t work for you. I would’ve done just fine, if one of us had just had the guts to end it.”
“Brava,” Sara said after a moment, slowly clapping her hands. “You almost had yourself convinced that time.”
“The Circle,” Sara repeated. “Get there early. It’s going to be mobbed, and I can’t sarcastically oooh and ahhh all night in unison with a relative stranger.”
“It wouldn’t be the first time,” Aislinn quipped.
“No,” Sara agreed. “But it would be the last.”
“Oooh, now I’m scared.” Aislinn dropped the pillow and gave her soon-to-be ex-girlfriend a playful shove.
“You should be,” laughed Sara, lightly shoving her back.
Aislinn pretended to busy herself with the dried paint under her fingernails. Nakedness was not her natural habitat, but she resisted the urge to scoop up the pillow. She was playing Sara’s game now, a game in which full disclosure was a prerequisite and coyness did not apply. “Okay, I’ll be there.” She shrugged. “I don’t have anything better to do.”
Sara regarded her skeptically. “Cool,” she said finally. “Very cool.” She pulled Aislinn to her and administered the kind of kiss intended to fill the void in her absence. “Don’t be late. I’m all about the pyrotechnics.”
As if she didn’t know.
Aislinn drew the chain lock on her apartment door. Then she did something she never did after fooling around with Sara: she took a shower. She was well aware of the symbolic implications of wanting to shower after sex, but she got around it by telling herself she didn’t need to feel clean so much as refreshed. She was a painter, after all, not some overzealous English major.
It wasn’t anything Aislinn had ever expected to happen, although Sara had often factored into her reveries as the one girl at Monroe she could see getting close to, closer than she’d ever gotten to any girl. But aside from having survived a grueling Intro to Anatomy class their freshman year; [, comma, not semicolon] Aislinn hadn’t known Sara very well. That is to say, she’d known pretty much what everyone knew: Sara was involved with one of the design teachers, a rather sad-looking woman with very large breasts and an inordinate fondness for paisley. It was an open secret that they were an item, although even the administration at Monroe claimed to frown upon student-teacher sexcapades. Of course Aislinn had found Sara attractive—who didn’t? But when Sara began skulking around her studio, making small talk and bringing her various things to eat from the lunch trucks camped along the curb—soft pretzels, cellophanes Tastykakes, cubist fruit salads—Aislinn had more reasons than most to consider exactly what it was about Sara she found so appealing. Aislinn liked the way Sara’s jet-black hair, choppy on top but shaved smooth as velour in back, accentuated her strong jaw; she liked the set, slightly drawn mouth and the square-tipped “ski jump” nose; she liked the subtle way Sara’s nostrils flared when she concentrated on a painting or—as she soon learned—reached orgasm. And those eyes. Caramel brown, they were sympathetic and smoldering at the same time. The eyes of both hunter and prey.
They’d both been drinking gin, which Aislinn was unused to, and attempting, without much grace, to step dance to the closing fiddle of Sinéad’s “I Am Stretched on Your Grave” at Spring Fling. Exhausted, they fell to the floor, setting off a chain reaction of tumbling dancers. The short version is that Sara accompanied Aislinn to the bathroom and tried sticking her tongue down her new friend’s throat. At first Aislinn resisted, although what had stopped her was the sheer shock of the surprise attack, not a lack of desire. But she soon warmed to the idea of having Sara’s tongue in her mouth and, an hour later, lapping gently between her legs; back at Sara’s, powerless against the gin as well as against that hungry, hell-bent look in her eye, Aislinn was happy to let her new lover lead, if only until she was able to get a feel for the dance, to learn these few unfamiliar, though oddly ingenuous steps. In her zeal, Sara had fumbled with the straps of Aislinn’s overalls so long that finally the latter decided to pitch in and help. Wracked by the giggles, they teetered there like that—neither fully clothed nor naked enough to get much done—for what seemed like days. Eventually they collapsed onto the mattress, a laughing tangle of hair and interlocked half-clothed limbs.
Aislinn pulled on her jade silk robe—a lavish, pointless present from her mother that Sara said made her look like something out of Fitzgerald—and lay on the futon. She plunged her hands into the pockets and felt something crinkle. Just before she retrieved the coarse watercolor paper she recalled what it was: the latest of Sara’s many “presents,” part of a Keats poem copied ransom note-style, in squares of mismatched print, and embellished with scrawls of conté crayon. She’d given it to her three weeks before, the first time Aislinn had tried to break it off. Like most of Sara’s presents—the Otter Pops, the bumper stickers, the raving purple sunflowers—it was as much an indictment as it was homage.
I met a lady in the meads,
Full beautiful, a fairy’s child;
Her hair was long, her foot was light,
And her eyes were wild.
Aislinn didn’t think her eyes particularly wild. If anything they were too small, set too close together. But her hair did reach down to the small of her back. And she had an unintentional habit of catching people off-guard.
When she got to the stanza about the “elfin grot,” Aislinn was reminded of the storage room on the fifth floor of the studio building, where for the first few months of their courtship she and Sara had met secretly. They’d scoured the building for a private place and Aislinn knew that Sara had deemed it as a kind of sanctification of their union when finally they found one. It wasn’t that they were so different, or what they were doing so odd. Still, Aislinn wasn’t ready just yet to join the proudly swelling ranks, to tout her newfound sexuality as many in the college—students and faculty alike—seemed intent on doing. Because they both had roommates, and because the studios themselves were anything but private, she’d insisted that they find a neutral meeting place and made Sara swear, to the best of her ability, to keep what they were doing quiet.
“Well, I’ll try,” she’d said, sounding as unconvincing as she could. “But it won’t be easy. You’re pretty hot stuff.”
They were seated at Sara’s enormous worktable, which was strewn with snail-like tubes of oils and thumbnail swatches of pre-treated canvas. Aislinn stuck out her tongue. Sara lunged across the table and tried to catch it between her teeth.
“Careful,” Aislinn warned, nodding to her left. Sara’s roommate and her boyfriend were in the next room.
“Please,” Sara said a mischievous glint in her eye. “They’re too busy to care about us. Listen.”
The sound of muffled groans and a creaking box spring came from April’s bedroom.
“Nice work,” Sara said. “If you can get it.”
“You get your fair share,” Aislinn countered, a faint smile gracing her lips.
“I’m a greedy girl,” Sara coolly informed her, slowly shaking her head. Her gaze was unwavering. “I want more.”
When they first found it, the door to the grot was fastened with a plastic-coated bicycle chain, but Sara was undeterred. She knew how to pick a lock as well as how to forge a signature, hot wire a car. In fact, it was Sara’s talent for minor criminal activity that, even more than her talent for painting, had impressed Aislinn, a suburban goody two-shoes who only ever crossed at the corner.
They met often after that, three or four times a week. “Meet me at the grot,” Sara would whisper on her way out of Mr. Hellman’s required English course. There in the dark, the jaggedly stacked desks and jutting easels really had taken on the appearance of rocks; the two naked girls stretched out on a flannel army blanket that of drunken bacchanals.
From the windows of the grot they could see the streetlights lining the Ben Franklin Parkway, and above them the huge, neon emblem of the Blue Cross building like something out of the Book of Revelation burning a hole in the night. During storms, those lights were their stars that cross their moon. They fucked under its glow—and munched Smartfood, poring over Eliot’s The Waste Land—their bodies tinted, or so they imagined, with a bluish sheen. Sara always insisted she would paint Aislinn in that light. After a while, word got out. It was a small school, and Sara wasn’t the best secret-keeper on campus. But by then Aislinn no longer cared. For a long time, all she had really cared about was Sara. And caring had rendered the grot obsolete.
Against her better judgment, she finished reading the poem which was Sara all over: dark, accusatory, melodramatic. The woman in the poem relished being on the receiving end of a raw deal. In reality, though, Sara had all the power. Aislinn had never taken her girlfriend’s professions of eternal love seriously, at least not so seriously that she was blind to the way other women continually caught Sara’s eye. But having few illusions about Sara didn’t afford Aislinn any sort of magical power. It couldn’t even keep her from getting hurt. Sara liked to argue that Aislinn, as a bisexual woman—if that was even the right word—was a liability for her: “Double the temptation. Twice as many reasons to cheat.” But Aislinn wasn’t a cheater. And she certainly didn’t feel like she had the upper hand, least of all when standing next to Sara (or even lying head-to-toe in bed). If anything she felt weak. Of course that was part of the attraction, and part of what irked Aislinn so. The problem was that Sara, too, claimed to be in her lover’s thrall. There were two Lovely Ladies without Pity wreaking havoc in this relationship. The poem wasn’t big enough for them both.
Aislinn took a towel to her wealth of red hair and dressed quickly, pulling on a flimsy gesso-stained work shirt and a pair of cargo shorts. Carol would be coming in any minute and Aislinn was in no mood for chitchat. Besides, her roommate was an intuitive girl who always seemed to have one ear cocked toward other people’s problems. One look at Aislinn and she would know what was up. And not even Aislinn knew, exactly, what that was.
It’d been months since she’d been to the grot, and for the first time Aislinn felt a twinge of ignominy as she picked the lock and slipped inside. She wasn’t sure what had prompted her to come here, or what she hoped to find. She half expected to find Sara, munching on an egg salad sandwich and an order of Curly fries from the cafeteria, a smiling I-told-you-so spread across her frustratingly seductive mouth.
It was musty and surprisingly cool inside, welcome relief from the stifling, record-high heat. Everything was just as Aislinn remembered it: desks carelessly thrown together piled every which way; boxes of acrylic and tempera paint stacked to the ceiling; massive reams of newsprint tucked into a corner like some scrolled ancient text. Sated and sleep-deprived, she lay down under the open window and peered out at the gray, late afternoon sky. Typical Philly Fourth of July: it started to rain.
Aislinn leaned her damp head against the folded crook of her arm and watched the overcast sky fade to black.
In her dream, Sara was insisting that she get a tattoo, which was weird, considering she didn’t have any of her own.
“Why should I?” asked Aislinn. “You can’t make me.”
“All the Monroe girls have one,” said Sara. “Some more. Josie’s got five, one on her back, one on her arm, one on each shoulder blade, like a set of wings.” She lowered her voice. “I can’t tell you where the fifth one is.”
“You don’t,” Aislinn countered.
“Oh, don’t I?” Sara tore off her tank, revealing a silk-screened Warhol portrait of Aislinn, but Aislinn circa 1989, as a first grader, in pigtails and thick-rimmed glasses. Suddenly, broken and bare-chested, Sara seemed on the verge of madness, cryptically pleading with her girlfriend, “Tell me what the thunder said before you go, tell me what the thunder said before you go…”
“I’m not going anywhere,” Aislinn said.
“Liar!” Sara screamed. She grabbed Aislinn by her long red hair as she tried to run away. “Liar, liar, snatch on fire! Tell me what the goddamn thunder said before you go!”
But Aislinn couldn’t help her; she’d no idea what Sara was even talking about. “I always cover my ears!” she cried…
Aislinn woke to a muffled boom reverberating around the storage room. She went to the window just in time to catch a trickle of white light dart over the Art Museum and watched as it burst into a myriad of glitter-trailing spangles. These were Aislinn’s favorite; the shy, silently zigzagging fireworks that didn’t so much explode as peter out and pop. Of course Sara preferred the blockbusters.
Rushing to get up, Aislinn tripped over her own feet and hit the floor hard. A barrage of rapid-fire showstoppers lit up the night sky with a wash of apocalyptic color. Then, just like that, the show was over, and the sky filled only with smoke.
The thought of Sara settling for a Josie Scarpone consolation prize left Aislinn feeling like a flattened tin can. She pushed the image away, preferring to picture Sara alone among the throngs of families jamming the Parkway. She envisioned Sara searching the crowd for signs of her iridescent hair, all sorts of disasters—everything from a slip in the shower to an abduction and rape—flashing through her excitable girlfriend’s mind. Aislinn saw the crowd dispersing, a circle of emptiness widening around Sara and Sara, like some spot-lit, heartbroken Irish tenor, pining for her dream girl, for that’s what Aislinn’s name meant. Sara pointed this out to her their first night together: “dream.”
“And yours?” Aislinn asked.
Sara had straightened her back and delicately cleared her throat before answering. “Princess,” she said in an affected tone.
“Wow,” Aislinn laughed, “talk about a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
Aislinn got to her feet and thumbed her nose at the makeshift moon, visible now on the other side of the smokeless sky. She stood there a moment longer than she needed to, regarding her own reflection in the inoperable, unwashed casement window. The translucent young woman who returned her gaze both was and wasn’t Aislinn O’Connor, much in the same way the corporeal girl inside the studio building both was and wasn’t Sara’s girlfriend; both was and wasn’t Agnes’s daughter; both was and wasn’t a third-year painting major at a posh urban art school. Aislinn felt simultaneously crowded and alone, like a person in a packed elevator. She didn’t know which way she was moving, or which floor was hers. She couldn’t even see the tiny lighted numbers, for all the bodies blocking her view. One thing, though, was clear: The ghost in the grimy black glass wasn’t especially impressed by what she saw.
O what can ail thee, knight at arms, alone and palely loitering?
Aislinn slipped out of the storage room without stopping to lock the door behind her. She took the stairs two at a time, feeling lighter by the moment. By the time she reached her apartment she’d be all but invisible. And when Sara called the next day, feeling guilty about her own betrayal but also somehow vindicated, Aislinn, her dream girl, would be nothing but air. Shaun Haurin was raised in the Port Richmond section of Philadelphia. He currently teaches American and world literature at Rowan University. His work has appeared in The Baltimore Review.