On the Pros and Cons of (In)Visibility in a Life

by Shaker tarian

[Content Note: References to childhood abuse; descriptions of sex that may be NSFW, depending on your workplace.]

We were talking, once, about lovers past and present; and he said, sympathetically, "You like the broken ones, too?" It took a few days to sink in, but I finally caught the epiphany: of course I do, they're the only people with whom I have anything in common.

I was in town for a week, integrating software at a customer's facility, and took him up on the offer of a place to crash. Although we've been dating off and on for the better part of a decade, I'm never entirely confident that I'll be welcome. Not for keeping, that one; you make a space in your life, and sometimes he occupies it. And yet, with the invitation, my control slipped. Not good enough at keeping the expectations out of my mind.

I arrive a little after midnight. Something about walking into his presence always twists my soul; he's easily the most beautiful person I've ever met, male or female, and there's a radiant intensity about him that would make me self-conscious if it didn't overwhelm my senses instead. We talk for several hours while my equilibrium catches up; about the fourth or fifth rephrasing of "I'm not in a very social mood these days," I finally realize that he's directing the statement at me and not at some nebulous hypothetical crowd of people that one might find at four in the morning. All right; I'm an introvert, too, and have a lot of practice at making myself unobtrusive. And I'm supposed to leave for work in a few hours, in any event. I curl up in a corner of the room and sleep.

Two days of rubbing along the edges of someone else's life, working fourteen hours out of twenty-four, and over dinner he gets a phone call. It's his local girlfriend; they've been dating for a couple of months. They chat for a while. She's sort of new to the poly thing, apparently, and would like to meet me. Sensible enough. I ask for the usual synopsis: 26, artist, degree in theater lighting design. Met at game night "at the right time," which apparently means that she slipped through his current hermitage unexpectedly. I'm predisposed to like his otherloves; he's got eclectic but compatible tastes in women, and after all I started dating him after I'd gotten involved with his (now ex-) wife. He laughs, a little; "I think I've been getting too much sex lately." The characteristics of a new relationship, and an apology, of sorts, for the as-yet platonic nature of my visit. I don't know how to reply.

She lives up to expectations; the three of us wind up back in his room, talking (although it's mostly she and I, assembling enough common ground to support these odd triangular relationships). In the way of late-night chats, the conversation ranges, ignoring most of the usual hello-we've-just-met boundaries. A lull; she's interrupted by fingertips brushing the side of her neck. He looks over at me: "I want to give her a vigorous romping before I send her home. I'd like you to watch."

Frozen. In lieu of feeling, I start down the usual checklist. To her: "Are you okay with that? I can leave, if you'd rather." He's kissing the back of her neck, now, and her eyes are closed. "Mmm. I think I'd be okay with anything, right now." They make a beautiful tableau; my mind feels as though it's greying out around the edges. "Am I allowed to touch, or should I just watch?"

Pause. Finally, he replies, "You're allowed to touch me, if you like." She offers her mumbled consent; so I go slowly, then, and look for lots of feedback. In the midst of all this he's been expertly divesting them both of clothing. She's one of those people who I find even more attractive out of clothes than in them; narrow waist and perfectly curved hips, soft skin almost pale enough to be luminescent.

The problem with two-person sex is that you don't have enough hands, some part of my mind observes. Clinically detached, analyzing responses and choosing an appropriate next motion. "Helping," we call this, when two people are making love and a third adds extra hands and tongue as necessary. And yet there's something compelling about the scene; I am helpless against the pull of beauty, against this contrast to my daily aesthetic wasteland. No wonder I'm absent from so many of my dreams; it is enough. It is enough. It'll be enough, I tell myself, and almost believe it.

Hours pass; they're lounging against one another, passion replaced with lazy caresses. I fish around, locate my phone, check the time. Four a.m. again. "All right. You kids have fun, I really need to get at least a couple hours' sleep." I'm still fully dressed; I squeeze out the door and go find a couch. With luck, I think, I'm too tired to dream. Wrong again.

The next day I arrange to work a little longer, get done, and leave on the next plane out.

It's finally sunk in, I guess.

My image of myself and the reality have been divergent for many, many years. I know what sort of thing I should be; the form in my mind's eye compatible with all the things I believe of myself. This belief has held me, has obscured my thoughts, has…been. My subconscious has finally caught up to reality, it seems. The last few dreams…I only have three dreams, really; through all the forms and torment my mind creates for me to live, all these things collapse into a very few states. There's the surreal dream, in which the world-as-it-is vanishes to be replaced by any number of impossible universes. There's the dream of longing, the one I have most often and am therefore most comfortable in; it follows reality, but consummates my endless wish. In nearly all of these dreams I begin as an observer, and then occupy a role...and die, by my own hand or someone else's, and go free.

And then there's the erotic dream. Most of these have been surprisingly chaste; I pursue someone, and perhaps find time for a kiss; and then chaos happens, and I am unable to follow up on the connection. My subconscious is a tease.

This, though: I dream of your small square room, where I huddle in a corner, and you, magnificent; you were always infinitely passionate, to the point where passion and compassion merged and the fragments of me could finally awaken at your touch. And you look at me, and see me, and those dark eyes that were the window to your soul and the mirror of mine...look away. And the walls dissolve, and you stand and walk into the distance, and the faceless horde surrounding these paper walls (will they laugh?) does not laugh; they don't see me.

The laughter catches in my throat; laugh or cry, merged into a crow's harsh call. Butterfly wings, I am pinned to the board with a crude tool. I don't blame you. I wouldn't keep me either. This is not a chrysalis.

This is not rest. I stay awake too long, immerse myself in work, find new distractions, read. Some of the time it works, and I either dream of endless streams of numbers scrolling across a computer screen; or equations, the other end of which holds the secrets of the universe, if only I can follow long enough. Some of the time it doesn't. I wake up every forty minutes, every couple of hours, trying to short-circuit the needs of my subconscious.

My mother arrives on one of her random visits. The rest of the family comes along for the ride. This is the first time my extended family has visited my house; we get into arguments over artwork, contents of the bookshelf, linens and drapes. There aren't enough closet doors to deal with this problem. The family goes back to their hotel, my mother stays. We sit at the small table in the sunroom, drinking margaritas, conversation on a chaotic trajectory that's increasingly unlikely to end well. It comes back to my childhood, as always, my mother seeking forgiveness and me trying to find a way to tactfully fail to grant it.

"Did he ever sexually abuse you?" I'm a little floored by the question. This would be my stepfather we're talking about, and I'm torn between a faint and perverse glee at being given the opportunity to hurt my mother again, and a dull sense of confusion. That she might have guessed, and still stayed with the man for seventeen years. I was twelve the last time he asked, "Will you still strip for me when you're thirty?" and I finally found a response: "I don't think you'll be alive by then."

For some reason I can't seem to muster the appropriate degree of rage on my own behalf, though, and so I respond, semi-truthfully, "I don't remember." "Oh, God." She buries her head in her hands. I go get the tequila and refill her glass; with any luck, I can ensure that she won't remember this conversation in the morning. I have no idea where that shred of compassion came from.

I sit outside on a moonless, clear night, and gaze up at the stars. My sense of direction inverts, dangling from the belly of the earth, falling towards the universe; it calls, and I have no choice but to answer. The universe doesn't care, and at this and every moment I find comfort in that.

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