He was telling her about how the park had a reputation and maybe she didn’t know him well enough to be walking with him so late at night. That’s a pretty rotten thing to say somebody, she said. That’s a garbage kind of joke. They had been walking in loops around the park and she had lost count of how many times they had passed the jungle gym with a slide, the jungle gym with swings, the chain locked bathrooms, the jungle gym with ropes and pull-up bars. She matched her stride to his longer one, stretching her arms out to test for rain, thought she felt a small drop, then two. He said she walked strange.
They stopped again at the water feature—a man-made waterfall, clotted with moss and slick rocks. Three geese waited at the water’s edge, one more rumpled than the other two, like it had been picked at. That one’s looking at you, he said. Maybe here’s where you learn to punch. Earlier she had asked him if he had ever been in a fight. He pointed to his nose and the bump on its bridge, his limp pinky finger, even took off one shoe and a lint-stubbled sock to show her the odd bent to some of his toes. She had never hit anyone before but she told him about the time in middle school where they only made the girls learn self-defense.
They took us into the gymnasium, she said, and they’d put out all these blue mats. You know the ones? They’re kind of tacky and soak up all the B.O. And anyway they brought in this guy all padded up and showed us moves to fend him off. They even made us run scenarios with him, like he was a teacher who massaged our shoulders, or the pervy uncle whose hugs lingered too long. I had the pervy uncle. She remembered too the girl who had started to sob, uncontrollably it seemed, when the padded up man slipped his arm around her limp shoulders. The girl had to be taken to the office, snot dripping in thick rivulets down her face, her shoes squeaking against the waxed wooden floors of the gym, as each middle school girl tracked her path out into the hall. Some got it sooner than others. She didn’t want to think about that other girl though, so pinched her fingers together and pretended to jab for his eye; tilted her heel up and went for the nose; bounced her knee toward an imaginary crotch. He laughed and pretended to deflect her blows, caught her hands between his and squeezed, hard.
They had met on this app that matched people by literary taste. She liked meeting guys that picked books like Bad Behavior because she imagined they thought she was emotionally damaged somehow, or was into kinky sex. She liked pretending. She liked looking for that little glint in the men’s eyes, the moment they thought they had one over on her, like they had her all figured out. You don’t get it, she wanted to tell them, I’ve victimized myself, but she always stayed quiet, just watching that throbbing glow in their pale eyes. Her last date had asked to choke her, his hands circling feebly around her neck, barely pressing into her throat, in the middle of their protracted, overly dry ‘corking,’ as he had called it, which should have been her first sign. It had been hard to act like it was working for her. That guy—Marcus, she thought—had apologized the next morning for being too rough. This one though, he didn’t look the type to apologize much at all. He was tall, a good seven inches on her, and thick around his middle, like he moved furniture for a living, or had an overused bench press in his basement. He had a beard too and black hair flecked through with threads of silver. He wore a baseball cap and kept twisting it around on his head, bending its bill with his right hand. She wondered if it itched.
They watched the geese for another minute, then kept on their circular path. The sky was turning purple and the other birds were already going. It wasn’t even that late yet, but it seemed the city was already preparing for dawn. He turned away from her a moment, pulled a packet of loose tobacco from his coat and gestured it toward her, as if to suggest she take it from him, roll her own cigarette. He looked at her, his eyes like black pools, and said, I like ending my night with a spliff, what about you? She could smell the tobacco, like the woodchips and shavings kept in hamster cages, but something else too, a sweet smell that reminded her of long afternoons in college spent lying on a hill in the center of campus, lolling in the grass, threads of smoke between much younger fingers.
You don’t really look the type, he said. He had already rolled it—a tiny, pathetic joint—and turned away from her to light it. She was fourteen the first time, getting high at some senior’s house in high school in his backyard, because some boy had offered it, because it was there to try. Mostly she had felt nothing, a little lighter maybe, like she was floating outside of the party and she could see everyone in it but she wasn’t really there. She had made herself a ghost.
He let out a breath of smoke and tilted the joint back to her. She thought about not taking it. She thought about being made a ghost here in this dark park with a strange man. She thought about the kind of woman she wanted to be, or the kind of woman he might expect her to be. She took it. They did another lap. The three geese were in the water, even the picked over one, pumping their webbed feet through the dark.
He stamped out the roach on the concrete path and asked, What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done? She smirked a little, wondering how bad he wanted her to be. She still felt like herself, maybe a little warmer around the middle but that could easily be the beers from earlier. She thought about making something up, something extreme that would shock him and make him stand up straight, or pull a face at her, or tell his friends about that crazy chick from the park last night. But in the end she went with the truth.
It wasn’t even something I did really, she said. But in grade school we had this whole show and tell bit. Every kid had to bring something in and tell about it.
He spit off the path into the grass and wiped his lip with his forefinger. That’s a pretty common thing. He said it slow, languid, like he’d been before in the bar.
Yeah, but see this show and tell I brought in my hamster. She was this cute thing, really fluffy and an orange kind of color. I called her Sunny. And anyway, we didn’t know it, or the pet store we got her from didn’t know it or didn’t tell us, but Sunny was pregnant.
He raised his eyebrows a little, but stayed quiet. She went on.
So I was doing the whole thing, you know, talking about hamsters and what they like to eat and how she had this little wheel thing in her cage that she loved to run on, especially at night. And I put her down on the carpet so Sunny could crawl around to the other kids, so they could pet her too, see how soft she was, and then she started giving birth.
She started giving birth?
Sunny, she was shaking and she was making this kind of humphing noise, and all these high-pitched, awful squeaks. And then she started birthing out all these tiny red lumps of hamster baby. They were all wriggly, bloody, just awful looking. But it gets worse.
He raised his brows again and started playing with the zipper on his jacket. Worse how?
Sunny started to eat them.
The classroom, she remembered, had smelled like dried paste and warm cheese. And the teacher only wore cotton maxi-skirts and these brown sandals that showed her hairy big toes. Once, she got into trouble when the teacher was standing close to her, those hairy toes just begging to be plucked, and she reached out and pulled at the hairs there and the teacher had yelped, You little shit! Her mother had had to come in—she missed a shift at the clinic and was pissed—and they had to meet with the principal.
At one point the principal had asked her to leave the room, so she could speak with her mother alone. She had waited outside the office, in one of those too little chairs, her legs swinging, banging against the wood. She smacked her heel against the chair, smacked it again and again, harder and harder, until she felt the tears start to well up, until it felt like she had broken her heel against the wood, until her mother came back into the room, her face blanching at the sight of her little girl, wearied and wet and still swinging her legs into the chair.
His face scrunched up. Goddamn Sunny!
Sunny was too fast and the teacher couldn’t stop it and they kept wriggling and squeaking and she ate all of them. All that was left was this red stain on the carpet that the teacher had to get the maintenance man to bleach out. They called it the Hamster Massacre.
Guess she wasn’t meant to be a mother, he said. (He wondered sometimes if he was meant to be a father and though he found this girl kind of weird, rambling on things he didn’t care much about, he kept thinking about the hamster and it eating its young, just the animalistic urge there to gnash on its own babies, to turn weak pink flesh to pulp in its mouth. He knew people looked at him a moment when they learned he had a kid, the scrunch of their brows while they did the mental math, figuring out he was pretty young when it happened—he could even see the exact moment when it crossed their minds, when they realized—and when he saw that look, like they wanted to ask if he wanted something different from it, all he wanted to say to them was to go fuck themselves because they didn’t know anything about anything.)
It was pretty fucked up. Like, the whole terrible life cycle when you’re not ready for it. I think I traumatized some kids that day. I still think about it.
Still hear their little squeaks and screams as their mother ate them?
God, she said, shoving him a little. See, it’s pretty horrible. No more pets at show and tell after that. Sunny ruined pets for us.
They had made another half lap and he pointed—Think we could fit on those? He was gesturing at the empty swings, hanging there listless and shadowed in the purple, evening light. She gave him a once over and said, I think we’ll be fine. They sat side by side swinging, dragging their feet a little on the ground before pumping their legs to go higher.
I used to do this thing where I’d get the chain all tangled and spin around and around as fast as I could go, she said.
All kids did that, he said. Mine did it too.
You have kids?
Just one. But he’s back in Philly with his mother.
She dragged her feet against the rubber turf around the swings, catching and slowing herself, and asked, What’s your worst?
He pulled at his cap and cleared his throat, wouldn’t look at her face. She wondered if he was thinking how to make himself bad. He was a little older than she was but not by much. He was young when he became someone’s father. She wondered if he was a good dad, if he visited his kid on weekends, took him to baseball games or played catch or did any of the lame, cliché things that dads were always doing in commercials and made-for-TV movies.
Tell me, she said, I want to know.
So he started to tell her. And she let him get the words right before asking any questions. She let him get it all out, or what she imagined was all of it. It didn’t scare her, this moment of intimacy, the way he chewed his bottom lip, settling into his long, syrup-like syllables, keeping his voice low and lulling and so quiet on this near-rainy night in the city.
I haven’t really been sleeping with anyone because of the way things went with her, my ex I mean, he said. But when I do, I don’t even come.
She asked him if it was more of an emotional thing for him, being with someone in that way, and he nodded. She tried to think of sexual encounters she’d describe as emotional. There was that freshman’s virginity she took in college—as he shuddered, heavy-breathed above her, he’d gently brushed the hair out of her face, stuck to her nose and mouth, all sweaty. Or the woman who’d bought her a drink the other night, one with berries at the bottom, and tongue-kissed her in the back of the bar, and texted her the next morning: I’m thinking of you. That had felt emotional, a kind thing to think back on—but it wasn’t really sex.
But do you still enjoy it? I mean most of the guys I know, that’s all there is about sex.
He rubbed his beard, turned gently toward her, the chains of his swing tangling and catching, and met her eyes. She had been thinking this whole time that she’d go home with him, but she wasn’t sure if he was thinking that too. He looked like he might be, that or not wanting it at all. He wanted to know if he could ask her something, but said it was kind of graphic, and maybe she wouldn’t feel comfortable. She almost laughed, thinking it so stupid when people told you they had something graphic to say and they didn’t want to offend you, so maybe they shouldn’t tell you. Whoever said no to being told something?
He took her hand and brought it to his face, rubbed her palm against his rough beard, the stubble scratching against the tender side of her hand. Is this too much, he wanted to know, if I’m between your legs.
She wanted to smack him, but she found it kind of dementedly charming. Like he was presenting her with a challenge—I never come, but I’ll still make you, and maybe, just maybe, you’ll be the one to finally break me, too. She wondered if other women fell for this little trick, his little manipulations, if they got turned on by the thought of him finally bursting and them being the ones to make it happen.
You’re pretty foul, she said, and took her hand away, gripping the chains of the swing, feeling the cold wetness there. His face brightened, cheeks curling and he grinned at her, impishly, she thought, like he had taken a shit in her bathtub and was overly proud of the shape of it.
I’ve said that to other girls, he said, they didn’t like it much either. But I think it shows I’m caring, right? Like I’m giving. She rolled her eyes at him, then stood up from the swing. It bumped against the backs of her legs. She didn’t know him much at all, wondered if being with him here was really what she wanted. She charted the walk back to the subway in her head: the corner-twists, the long light on Sixth Avenue, the undergraduate place with its interminable lines, even at this hour. She thought back to the bar earlier, how they had sat there and eavesdropped on others’ conversations, guessing at first second third dates, or whether the bankers in the corner, their suits and slicked-gel hair, suggested layers of narcissism. She had liked that man more, not this sad-swinging sack that was trying to challenge her into bed with him. She didn’t need that.
I should be going, she said, and pretended to check her watch, but really was looking up at the sky, the purple there and the fine twists of cloud, the hint of moon just peeking through. He dragged his feet against the rubber turf and his shoes made it squeak slightly and she was reminded of Sunny. She hadn’t told him the worst of it, really, that taking Sunny home and putting her back in that cage, knowing that she’d even eat her young, she had started to wonder if Sunny might eat her too. She had had nightmares about Sunny escaping her cage—even though they put a heavy rock on top to keep her little paws from pushing it open—and eating her face or toes or those tender places around her hips. The squeaking and running on her wheel at night didn’t help much either—she found herself counting each squeak, each clink-turn of the wheel, so that she knew where Sunny was, knew that she hadn’t escaped the pen, wasn’t slowly clawing her way up the bedspread to chew on her skin.
She had stopped wanting to play with Sunny, left her cage to build up with filth, until the poor little hamster was impossible to see through the layers of chewed cardboard, woodchips, piles of dried food. It had started to smell and her mother complained and said she had better take care of her pet, but she’d been afraid to empty the cage, to incur the hamster’s inevitable wrath, to get bitten by Sunny’s little teeth, breaking her skin to blood. One weekend afternoon her mother had finally taken the cage and dumped its contents in the backyard but Sunny wasn’t in the piles, hidden in the folds of wood shavings or old Kleenex houses or clumps of food. Sunny was just gone, not even a body. And so she’d always wonder if maybe Sunny was scurrying around her room somewhere, waiting to exact her revenge, chew her face to bone.
She shivered and tried to push thoughts of the hamster out of her mind. It was a stupid thing, a weird holdover nightmare from childhood that didn’t matter anymore. She didn’t live there and Sunny was surely dead all these years later, had probably just died and decomposed in the dirty cage, and she and her mother had not searched hard enough for the hamster’s bones.
Let’s do another loop, he said, then I’ll walk you toward the subway. He stood up from the swing, zipped his jacket to the top, and looked for a moment like he’d try and reach for her. When people asked if she ever had pets growing up, she always lied. There had only been Sunny and she didn’t want to have to tell people she had killed her pet—killed the little thing through neglect—because killing a pet seemed about the worst thing you could do, in most peoples’ minds. She had told him though, at least the first part, because he seemed like he had done worse, and there was company to be had among people who had done bad things.