sarah cadence hamm
We tied bags around our heads—we fucked. We drank too much, for too long. My dad used to say that cheap whiskey can stay with you for days. I’d go for a drink and he’d screech over the TV, it’ll pickle your brain! He was right. I felt barely alive for a week after, kicking off my covers in a heap, stumbling around wearing dirty clothes. Laundry didn’t feel right. The dishes didn’t feel right. They tumbled together in the sink, all my bowls and cups and spoons used up, coffee rings, til I just ate out of the fridge. I didn’t have a clean knife for the mustard on my turkey sandwich, so I used my thumb. That’s how British people used to spread their butter. Emmaline told me that, though I think she got it from some historical fiction book about Valley Forge, from the perspective of Martha Washington’s laundress, or something. But that was Emmaline.
I pinched books from the warehouse, whatever I thought she’d like. I started doing it after the second time we had sex, the first time she came on top of me. Packing boxes the morning after, no breakfast and no sleep, I found this book of maritime knots. The kind of book you’d give your grandfather for his eighty-second birthday, when you can’t possibly imagine what a man that age could want or need. Except maybe to speed up time, or slow it down.
But the knots reminded me of the way she’d fixed her hair the first time we met. I waited all night at Dillard’s Place for friends who didn’t show, and on my fourth beer, Emmaline elbowed up, stood on her tiptoes to flag down the bartender. A hole in her sweater. Her hair tied together, actually tied in a knot, spiked with pins. When she leaned forward to get her drink, her tits brushed my forearm. Underneath that shitty sweater, she was wearing a black lace bra, padded and a little pointy. Underneath her jeans, too baggy in the seat, I imagined tiny panties, also black, with little pink bows on the sides. I was right about the bra, but wrong about the panties. I bought her shots of Jameson; we told jokes about The Wire. I got us a six-pack to go, but when we went back to her apartment, she was wearing faded checkerboard underwear, the lace full of holes at the top.
“It’s my period,” she said. After we were already in bed, after we’d been kissing for an hour.
I pulled out the tampon and crooked my fingers inside her. She loved that.
She loved the knot book, too. I began to rip through our surplus box after every shipment. I brought her Thai cookbooks for kids, dictionaries of superstitions, idioms, historical clothes. I brought her giant coffee table art books, pocket-sized collections of poets I remembered from high school. She liked Robert Browning, read me a poem where he strangles a girl with her own hair. A blonde girl, just like Emmaline. That night she took my hand, kissed my palm three times, and put it on her neck, curling my fingers around. I never wanted to do that to a girl.
We did it in her bathroom; we did it on the couch. She got rug-burn on her knees from the bad shag carpet in the hallway. She asked me to choke her, and I did. She asked me to hit her, she asked me to hit her harder, she asked me to think about something I hated.
“I don’t hate anything,” I said.
“What about your dad?” She was on her stomach, neck twisted to look at me. Hair matted a little in the back.
“What do you know about my dad?”
“Nothing. But I bet you probably hate him.”
I covered her in black and blue.
Emmaline sat in an office all day, answered complaints about gift cards. She told me the fluorescent lights made her crazy, made the lines around shapes too distinct. That was why she lit candles, not because it was romantic or flattering. But because it softened the edges of things. She never looked steady, by candlelight. She would be on top of me, face forward, and then suddenly twisted, and then bent backwards, and then with a flicker and a sigh she’d be done, beneath me, and I didn’t know how we got there.
I didn’t know about the train tracks, either. She just took me one Sunday, the kind of Sunday that isn’t any different from Saturday night, because you haven’t stopped drinking. The bottle of Old Grand-Dad rattled across my truck, too big for the cup holders. I parked in the corner of an empty lot, so old there weren’t lines on it anymore, just bits of yellow here and there. We climbed a wooded hill, stepping over trash, the day already turning to night. Branches stung our legs as we passed them. Emmaline brought her purse and the whiskey, but not a jacket; she was always doing things like that. That day, she wore these wild platform sandal things with straps criss-crossing around her legs. She could barely make it up the hill; I had to hold her by the waist, steer her up. She leaned against my hands. I pushed her. She went down on one knee, rubbed her face against my jeans.
At the top of the hill, she showed me the train tracks, overgrown completely with dandelions, pine saplings, milk thistle just beginning to fluff.
“This is cool,” I said.
She shook her head. This wasn’t the cool part. She brought me down the tracks, to stand beside a crazy pile of railroad ties. Her arms spread wide. The combined roar of fast-moving cars came up at us. In the distance, a scant line of traffic twisted below, disappeared, then came out the other side of the hill, headlights winking.
“I was just driving on 70 one day, and I looked up, and here it was.” she said. And then she said, “I want to fuck like a blind person. But not stone-blind. Gravel blind.”
I didn’t know there were different types—I just thought, if you were blind, you couldn’t see.
She pulled two plastic bags from her purse, the kind that came around take-out. Mine didn’t say anything on it, but hers, in red capitals, said: Thank You. Thank You. Thank You. Thank You. Thank You. She leaned against the railroad ties. She hiked up her skirt.
Emmaline didn’t like to have sex in the daytime. Day was for work, for reading books, for doing whatever Emmaline did when she wasn’t making me hard, scaring the shit out of me. That day on the tracks, her naked ass against the dirty pilings, I tied a plastic bag beneath her chin, like tying a bonnet. Then I tied it tighter, so she wouldn’t have to tell me, and gathered all the extra in my fist. Her hands searched for my belt, pulled me in.
With the fading light, I could see all of Emmaline’s pussy, the hairs she missed shaving, the line of razor bumps on her inner thigh. I put my thumb over them and kept at her. My bag was loose around my head, rustling, blocking out the traffic noise, the top half of her body, the setting sun, the noises Emmaline made, like a porn star but louder, weirder.
I still watched porn, but it didn’t work like it used to. Emmaline changed my tastes; the things we did together, I couldn’t imagine doing to the usual girls; it felt like a betrayal, like something they didn’t sign up for. But I didn’t know the right words to type; I didn’t know how to ask for it from anybody else but Emmaline. I couldn’t watch the amateur stuff anymore without thinking how bored they looked. The way a bank teller looks on the end of a Friday afternoon. They were grocery shopping in their heads; they were putting in time, sorting boxes, answering phones. Paying the rent.
While we fucked on the overpass, I thought of Emmaline in a porn. I made her tits a little bigger, but not much. I made her feet smaller, her toes delicate and straight, so I could put them in my mouth easier, tongue the pad of each one, her nails shining cherry red. Too quickly, though, Emmaline went off-script. She ripped the sheets, avoided the spotlight. She knocked down the walls of our set, and behind them a dirty warehouse stretched forever, full of rows of shelves of boxes of books. Emmaline looked directly into the camera. Emmaline cracked the lens in two.
The bag fell off my face. Under her Thank You’s, I saw her teeth, saw her mouth sucking plastic. Eyes rolled back. I tried to work the knot but my hands wouldn’t listen; beneath the bag, beads of condensation shivered, her breath made liquid. Finally, pushing two fingers in the black hole of her open mouth, I tore the bag right down the middle. When I tried to hold her, kiss the salt from her cheeks, she wouldn’t have me, and made me take her home. Couldn’t fathom why I had stopped.
After that, there were no calls, no midnight texts. I never saw her at Dillard’s. We didn’t know each other’s friends, were never boyfriend and girlfriend. We were never a couple, so I guess we didn’t break up. I left the books I thought she’d like on her doorstep for a while, until they got wet and bloated in the rain. There are days when I don’t think of her. Days when I drive down Highway 70 and I don’t remember. Except now I look up. I always look up
As of 2014: Sarah Cadence Hamm is a writer, baker, and trouble-maker living in Pittsburgh. She claims the South as her own, even if the South doesn’t return the favor. She earned her MFA in Creative Writing from Chatham University, and has taught in Pitt University’s Osher program and in the Words Without Walls program at the Allegheny County Jail. This is her first publication, and she’s pleased as punch about it.
Find Sarah today: If you like unpunctuated bon mots about cookies, you can find her on twitter @saltandyarrow, and if excessive pictures of cats and crooked teeth are your thing, she’s on instagram @saltandyarrow.