When I met Bern she had her hands jammed deep into the pockets of her overalls. They were a size too big, and she had her head down, her brunette bangs and thick eyeglasses hiding her eyes, nervously swinging from side to side.
She smiled big though. Bern was not afraid to show the braces. Didn’t give a fuck.
In my mind, Bern had laid out the choices for me. I either took her, or I did not.
I chose to take her. In response, Bern made compromises. I made compromises. So it went.
I turned from my desk to stare at her. Bern lay in the bed, wearing only her black and gray striped panties, deep into Exile and the Kingdom by Albert Camus. Cotton balls were jammed between her toes, the stench of nail polish remover pervading that side of the loft.
I had begun writing a poem. To her. “Never feel uncertain/of the words you need/me to hear.”
Without looking up from the Camus, Bern spoke. “You hear but never listen, Mark.” She had an uncanny habit of knowing what I was thinking, and when pissed off expressed it in a sneer.
My fingers returned to the stolen Olivetti we bought from the thieves’ market on Second and St. Mark’s.
Pounding with fists. I was mad. “/to take you back/from the dark places/of our hearts intertwined.”
“I know you are writing about me,” Bern said.
“Do you want me to stop?
Rhythm, rhythm, rhythm. BAMBAMBAMBAMBAMBAMBAMBAMBAM.
Bern—Bernadette, yes, that’s me, in spectator heels too nice to wear for work but have to because I wore out my flats, purple silk dress skirt flying behind me—best frock I got, climbing the last flight of stairs toward the loft in the apartment my sweet boyfriend and I share on Ludlow Street.
I carry a screwdriver in my right hand. Shit happens in this stairwell.
My boyfriend’s name is Mark.
He is my escape and my prison.
He holds me down, and brings me up to breathe.
I love him.
I am getting frustrated and angry with him. But again—I love him.
Either he is not home, or being an asshole. I bang on the door to no response.
I love him, so—
—I jam the first key into the bolt, and turn it with both hands while grasping the screwdriver. This is the scary part of entering our home. I always look up first to see if anyone is lurking. Usually it’s empty. Efren, the building’s super, tends to clear out the creepers and criminals by waving his silver .38.
Efren has rage issues. Last Tuesday, he pistol-whipped a junkie in our entryway, dragged him by the hair to the sidewalk and shoved the gun in his mouth, pulling back the hammer. The guys on the block got the message. No one in the stairwell to the roof since.
I do not scare easily regarding the obvious, but everything else terrifies me.
The second lock is opened.
I turn the last key and grasp the chrome knob that opens the sliding bar on the inside. I have to use both hands. Hurts like hell sometimes.
We don’t have a phone. I can’t call Mark from the booth downstairs to tell him to help me.
I open the door.
Against the wall, Bern’s face was half under the strobe, its right side burning white as the full moon, and half in deep shadow in the balcony above the dancefloor. It was Mod night at the club, and they were playing The Small Faces.
We were not alone. Another couple was fucking in the shadows several feet from us.
They inspired. We wanted. Bern took my hand, leading it to against the crotch of her black Lycra pants. She wore my green sport coat, and opened up the button to expose her purple corset. I bought that for her birthday. She picked it out.
She recognized the song playing. Holding me close, Bern whispered, “It’s hurting, deep inside me.” She bit my ear.
We made love to the rhythm of the music. A rough sex ballet grinding against the red brick in a Chelsea warehouse.
Afterward, we went down to the dancefloor. The DJ had switched to The Fleshtones. As “The Dreg” played, Bern danced as a goddess enflamed, a big tornado, and her grey-green eyes piercing through the swinging beams of light spinning from the ceiling strobes.
She moved toward me with her right shoulder going up, dropping down, her hands on hips, my green jacket on the floor between her black patent stilettos scraping the concrete floor, daring me to take her again. Now.
Sex and sex and sex and sex. More sex. At 17, when we met, I got so excited I rubbed my legs together while standing talking with him outside the record store in Austin. I had an orgasm in the middle about how much we liked The Jam. While my last boyfriend was the epitome of boy, Mark was a man bursting from his shell. He was overwhelming, filling me with poetics and philosophy.
He made me tremble. He scared me. Dangerous for a girl who wanted to be controlled but didn’t fully know the language to say I wanted it.
Wanted that. Grabbed him. Our first date was The Clash. We got so damn sloppy in public, people around us thought we were faking.
My dad caught me talking dirty with him. Got bad after that. His mother didn’t much like me either. It got very hard for a while, but when I fulfilled my graduation requirements, I got a job working mornings in inventory at the downtown Scarborough’s, and after my shift I would pick him up from his high school and be close.
The night we decided to run away from Austin and come to New York, we went to see them at the Armadillo World Headquarters. I was in a purple top and a black slit skirt, with my fishnets and black pumps.
Paul Weller came out in tears, and the band burst into a fierce, driving version of “Going Underground”. The rush exploded in our heads. After making love in my car we decided to leave.
I was already 18. I am six months older than him. I had already graduated high school. Mark’s birthday was eight days away. He said he was too smart for high school, and I believed him, then.
We plotted and planned, lied early and often, and packed three suitcases and a trunk with all we could jam inside. I parked my car on Sixth Street, left the keys in the ignition and the windows rolled down.
Greyhound to Port Authority. We didn’t know what the fuck we were doing. We did not care. We needed to be free. I wanted to be with him.
We dragged our bags and the trunk to the taxi stand. We had the address of a cheap hotel near 23rd Street. Stayed there for a few nights and the setting wasn’t quite the romantic scene I fantasized. We made friends with another couple who told us about the apartment on Ludlow. Bunch of artists lived there, they said. One of the guys came over and liked Mark’s poetry.
We got the upper loft. For some reason, no one wanted to live there.
Bern can be quiet, at times secretive about herself. But she makes everything alright. Yet she can raise the tension in the air like holding a slingshot, stretching it until that last moment before the rubber snaps before release. She can entice and repulse, be placid and terrifying but would drown herself in a kiss and then curl up in the corner, ignoring me except to eye me warily.
Bern hurts. Sometimes she shows it. Other times she engineers complicated coping mechanisms that I am not smart enough to understand. There are daily rituals that I witness in the morning after we wash the dishes after meals. Her organizing skills are quite complex and often show tentativeness. I watch her arrange the pots on the stove, moving them over the burners until I sense she has them placed to her satisfaction. Bern then stops, arms crossed with hands over her elbows before stepping away to move on to her next task.
Often she writes in her journal. She puts it in her purse before going to work. I am not allowed to look in it.
I did find the journal once, in the bathroom. I was too scared to open the cover. I do know it is wrong to pry. I am also afraid to see what she wrote, what she thinks of me, what she may be planning on doing.
I wonder if I am good enough for her. Or I am a boy best erased, a mistake made but not yet acted on because maybe Bern feels she is too young to add regret to her hurt.
I write that I hang on to her for dear life.
She read the poem. She asked to hold on to it. I made a Xerox in the office and gave her the original.
Sometimes Bern cries in the bathroom.
I got a job at a vintage store on Second Avenue. I have been there for a year now. In the meantime, Mark managed to bullshit his way into a mail office assistant’s job at a publisher. Really, all he does is carry boxes, run errands, get coffee and get yelled at. He has to wear a tie. I steal clothes for him to wear. He dresses hot.
At work, the customers find me charming. Here I am, little punk rock girl who glams up Monday through Thursday and on Sunday I am utterly gutter trash. When I open my mouth to speak, they stare, because I am a prairie rose. I am not exactly sure if I know what that means. I’ve more red dirt Oklahoma in me than Texan, but Mark is romantic and so am I. Would be nice if he brought roses though.
Jerry Hall came in the shop on Monday. Early. She’s big, and lives two blocks away with Jagger on St. Mark’s. My boss freaked out and started preening over her. Jerry was polite and asked me about the vintage Betsey Johnson dress hanging above me behind the register. It was an awesome dress. It is a one-of-a-kind she made for Candy Darling. How my boss ended up with it is anyone’s guess.
Jerry picked up my accent right away. Told me I reminded her of a model friend from Abilene. I replied I was born outside Lubbock, but grew up in Austin.
She told me I was pretty. I blushed.
She asked me what I wanted to do with my life.
I said, “I want to be alive.”
Jerry nodded, a little sad, and with understanding. We talked a lot about Texas. I asked her about the song Bryan Ferry wrote about her, telling her my boyfriend calls me his prairie rose.
She giggled. “You know we broke up.”
“I’m working hard to keep mine.”
“Do try. I landed well. But not all of us are lucky.”
After I got home, I stared at my face. The acne flared up again, mostly on my upper back and face. Taking off my bra was fucking painful. My forehead pattern had spread discernibly since I woke up this morning.
Before we left Texas, I used Desquam-X from my dermatologist. I can’t afford that anymore. I tried tea tree oil, but it burned my skin, no matter how much I diluted it. So I have this spotted face, blackheads and sores on occasion. The breakouts occur before and during periods, and whenever I feel anxious. In the mirror, I stare into the eyes of a fucking leper.
I do not see myself as pretty, but Jerry Hall thinks otherwise.
This means a lot to me right now.
We don’t have a car except when Bern’s friend Sandy lets us drive the gray old Volvo she had found abandoned on the Bowery. A bunch of us in the neighborhood share it. Sandy is a model, fifteen, and lives in a rooming house but technically is still in foster care. She has to visit her social worker every week while the latter calls the high school about her attendance.
When Sandy was thirteen, she took her mother to court and had her parental rights removed. A couple who works in the fashion industry sponsored her as foster parents until this year when the caseworker approved she could live on her own. At sixteen, she will go back to court and be emancipated.
So Sandy gets occasional modeling jobs, takes us out to dinner and covers shows and has a car with stolen plates.
Our main ride is the white Lambretta scooter. I am a Mod, but I cannot afford to be one. Bern takes clothes she likes from the donation bins at work and dresses me.
I look money without it.
The scooter is actually a piece of shit with scraped fenders, and only two mirrors. Bern likes to ride it, holding me tight as we travel through the Alphabet and the Lower East Side.
During the summer we go to the beach on the Hudson. We don’t dare venture too far from the neighborhood. The plates on the scooter are stolen too.
We sit on our blanket and stare at the Colgate sign across the river. We make out. We read. Mostly we sit and talk. Bern opens up to me and tells me what hurts. Not everything, but enough to teach me to love her better.
Bern needs to teach me more. I want the sentences between us to be complete, and the silences filled with love.
Last night, I felt ignored at Space at Chase, and this bothers me.
Mark’s thing is Mod, which I am kind of also into, but he likes to show me off as a punky sex kitten. That I love, though going to work I have to put up with shit from men, especially guys clucking their tongues. I really resent Mark for not being there for me, though I know he is at work.
At night though, this is a far different story.
Up on the balcony at Space, he kind of stood there and stared at me. I got annoyed and grabbed his hand. I took him. I never did that before. It excited me.
Afterward, I wanted more.
I threw down the sport coat I borrowed from Mark, and danced to seduce my boyfriend. I wanted him to take me like he always does, drag me to a dark corner and goddamnit, love me.
Mark didn’t get it. Just stood and watched. In response, I felt I was losing that connection between us. This was what I possessed, and drove me to journey with him to this alien landscape that really isn’t all that was promised to me.
I wanted him. So I stopped thinking about him and went rhythm, rhythm, rhythm, rhythm and got wet thinking about someone else. Someone I made up. This felt good, but horrible afterward.
On the ride back on the dirty, exhaust-spewing Lambretta, bumping along on cobblestone streets, I wondered if there was something changing deep inside me.
I saw myself leaving, walking down the stairs. Imagining myself leaving Mark. Going down that first flight of stairs from the loft is the hardest. When we stopped in front of the building, I realized I had traversed it.
I observed Mark pull the scooter into the atrium, wrapping the heavy chain through the spokes of both wheels and locking it.
I consider my surroundings. This city is dirty, dangerous, violent, and overflows with garbage and anger. We rarely have enough money to go out except when Sandy carries us after a modeling gig. We eat mostly in the cheap Indian restaurants on Fifth. 4.95 lunch buffets. I can’t handle my acne breakouts like I used to. The few friends I have aren’t really people I am close to, except for Sandy—and she’s still a kid. There’s a lot about her experiences that make her more aware and older than me, but I am now nineteen and she is fifteen. Sometimes I resent this. She’s free and I am not, I guess. Thinking about how brave she is, standing up to her mother, and here I am wondering what I am still doing here.
I walked away from a scholarship to be with Mark.
The winter I endured was brutal. We don’t have very good heat, and I got really sick for two weeks. I like snow, the magic of the snowflakes transformed into muddy snowbanks.
I realized as we rode home that I came here to be with him, but also to be free. I felt ignored, and what remained was wanting to be free. It was Austin all over again.
I did not come here to feel like I was suddenly back at home. I do not want to go home, again. This is why I am with Mark.
But Mark is becoming familiar.
This smells of psychic death.
I sit in the middle of the floor, manuscript pages surrounding me. Handwritten lined sheets torn from spiral notebooks, freshly typewritten poems straight from the Olivetti, all fitting together in a significant puzzle, and finally they are all making sense to me. I have a body of work. I have enough to reread, choose and cull.
I am going to type the handwritten poems, and make copies of those and the others early morning tomorrow at the office. I am going to filch the manila envelopes, clip them. I add signed cover letters. Address them all and during lunch head to the GPO. Mail. Kiss them up to God.
I am listening to the Suicide EP. I remember how free we were. I remember incredible love.
I hear Bern pounding up the stairs. I know it’s her.
Door opens. I look up to see her looking at me, the pages on the floor.
She turns around to lock the door, wrenching the bar across to secure home.
She sighs, and looks tired.
Finally, she speaks. “We are not past tense,” she said.
I look at her. She made enough compromises.
I stare at her. Remembering Bern when we first met.
I couldn’t help myself. I start crying.
She falls to her knees to hold me in her arms, running her hair through my hair, kissing me.
After writing it out in my journal, changing the copy several times, I typed the note on his typewriter. I took my Honor Society gold key and laid it neatly on the page. Mark would not miss seeing that. He would know why.
My narrative against his—I had a full ride to the university. He dropped out of high school. Oh yeah, so punk rock.
As I walked up the stairs, I recited the words as best as I could recall. “I wish to be talked from off the mountain. This is what I want to have happen to me. For you to talk me off the summit, pull me from the precipice and drag me from peril. I want you to grasp my hand, and wrap your fingers to grip my shoulder, turning me away from the edge of an abyss. Essentially, I want you to rescue me. Take the risk and be my angel of mercy. Save me from this dire fate that I had laid out and insist on marching toward, through the grass of the vale, to and up the hill to the cliff’s edge. Pull me back, and run me far away from an unmerciful fate.”
I am a good writer, if I may say so. Too florid, but I love the Brontës. Mayhap my Heathcliff will hear.
I push open the door and step onto the tarpaper roof, walking toward the chimney by the edge, six floors up above the streets of junky town.
I look to my left, my eyes gazing at the twin towers in the distance through the hazy sky. I lead my vision from there to my right, crossing past the forest of television antennas sprouting from the tenement rooftops.
I watch the kids playing on the roof across the street. I cannot conceive the thought of having a child. Not in this world, maybe the next one.
I can hear the cacophony of Spanish voices speaking from the radio station from an apartment across the street. I lean over to listen. I can pick up a few words. Spanish is the closest language to Vulgate Latin, and I know my declinations. The feminine voice. That would be me.
I wonder if I am being dramatic. Well, yes, I am. I’m tough enough to take a punch, but alas, I am much too vulnerable to keep it. I want to let it all go, now.
So, rescue me, Mark. If you dare.
I’m not really going to kill myself. Honest.
I’m not. No.
No, I repeat. I shake my head. Why should I?
I’m giving him a last chance. I am only trying to scare him. But, perhaps not. I’m thinking of a better reason.
I packed no bags, but tomorrow I will ask Sandy if I could stay with her until I can find a place.
This morning, I read a story in Camus’ Exile and the Kingdom. The story about the wife giving up her desires to be with a husband who is more involved in his obsessive work while she begins to feel it is time to stray.
Again, that first flight of stairs was taken. As Mark typed away at his fucking repetitive poems, particularly those about me, replete with childish imagery and obvious tropes, I thought about going to the desert fort and finding adventure with another, just as the wife did. If not, then I will lie on my back and revisit the stars at night, planning my next move.
Which is soon.
Perhaps this last chance is not for Mark. For me, however, I remain uncertain for whom I am doing this for. Still thinking of a reason but right now I am losing control of myself.
I lean against the wall, and stare at the sky. It’s getting dark. Waiting for the stars to appear.
“Hey.” Mark’s voice was quiet, as if at Mass.
Mark sat on his haunches in front of Bern. She sat on the tarpaper, her back against the brick walk. Her head rested on the bolted metal plate covering the top. Her eyes were open, staring at the sky.
He breathed in deeply.
“What’s wrong, baby?”
“Everything,” she said.
“I read the letter.” He was holding it in his hands. Still staring up, Bern reached out into air, and grasped his arm, feeling him tremble.
Bern kept looking at the sky. Waiting for the stars to come out. “Scared?”
“I love you.”
“Really? Prove it. Who am I?”
Mark paused again, took another breath and spoke. “Your name is Bernadette. Even though you are not Catholic, you were named after the saint, because your parents liked the movie. You—”
Bern heard enough. She screamed at him.
“THAT’S ONLY BIOGRAPHY! SHUT UP! SHUT THE FUCK UP!”
Bern stared at him. Both of them were now crying.
“WHO AM I?”
While yelling, Bern saw something new in his expression. Pretty little poet boy saw the unexpected, and about damn time he noticed.
She yanked his arm, pulling him closer to her.
“Who am I?”
Bern sensed Mark was now getting pissed. Good.
“Bernadette.” He stared at her, focused.
She put her hands to his face, holding it like she did when he lost his shit over his manuscripts. “Then who is she? Let me tell you. Let’s start by me saying what it’s like to be standing over a fucking stove finding yourself moving pots and pans around like in preschool playing pretend housewife because you are totally bored, feeling you have no life and you don’t even notice? You know how many times I went to some shithole in the Alphabet to watch you and your pal Dave from Rutgers read to an audience consisting of me, his mother, Sandy, and a couple of junkies there to nod out? Hey, I have my own fucking voice. And it says I want to go to college.”
Bern paused to breathe, then said. “Finally, how come I have to find clothes for you to wear? Sure it is sometimes cool, but I’m acting like your mother and a girl dressing up dolls. Also, I stole them from work. I lied to you. Want me to lie some more?”
“I’m sorry. I got lost in all this writing.”
Bern held him tighter. “When you lose yourself, you are also losing me.”
She picked up the four journals stacked next to her, and turned the page to October 3, 1979.
“Let me remind you,” she said. “And want me.”
“Write stories together,” said Mark.
“Yes,” said Bern, now Bernadette, as she began reading.
Mike Lee is a writer, labor journalist and photographer based in New York City. Fiction in Eunoia Review, Easy Street, Bop Dead City, The Ampersand Review, Paraphilia Magazine, The Airgonaut, Sensitive Skin, Reservoir, The Avenue and others. Photographs currently exhibiting at Art Thou Gallery in Berkeley, California, and a group show at Darkroom Gallery, curated by Bruce Gilden.