This is where the evening splits in half, Henry, love or death. Grab an end, pull hard,
and make a wish.
—Richard Siken, “Wishbone”
A girl walks into a bar.
She grabs her forehead and yells “motherFUCK” and the bar and everything around it except for the girl explodes in a blast that vaporizes half a city block and does minor to moderate structural damage for a radius of roughly two miles.
It’s not that simple. It’s never that simple. There are rules to these things but they’re utterly arbitrary and to the extent that they can be understood at all, understanding them can take years. Longer. I lived with it for well over a decade before I got it.
Now, in this moment when I start to get it, when the joke starts punchline-first, when the girl walks into the bar and gets drunk on rail shots, gets into a fight with another girl over a bad penalty called in the hockey game on the flickering TV in the corner, when the joke becomes a cliché of a cliché and the two angry girls take it outside and start hurting each other, and that’s when I start to get it. The joke. On me, on her. Ha ha.
No, it’s not really that funny. It’s not that kind of joke.
Let me paint you this picture, set the scene. The setup is nine tenths of the joke, said someone once who was probably in a better position to know than I am. I’m twenty-four. I’m fresh out of college. I’m in a shitty little corner bar two streets over from my shitty little studio apartment, it’s a rowdy Friday night. No one’s allowed to smoke in this bar anymore but people did for like a hundred damn years, and nicotine is soaked into the fabric and baked into the wood, turning every breath a baby-shit yellowish brown. Smell of light beer and dark beer and beer so thick you have to shovel it into your mouth with a spoon. This is the quintessential Bar, I think, knocking back my second shot, the Bar of Bars, the Ideal Type against which all other bars are measured. Sweat, age, stupid longing, and fear, viciously sharp like a paper cut under your nose. Alluring in a way you could never begin to explain.
I don’t even like hockey. That’s part of the joke.
So okay, yeah: Maybe I was looking for the fight more than anything.
I suck at fights. All fights. I suck at debates, I suck at the holiday dinner-table arguments I used to get into with my parents back when I saw my parents. I suck at yelling at people on the goddamn internet. I’m just straight-up bad at them, okay? I’ve worked at that. I’ve tried very, very hard to be bad at fights, because the alternative is too horrible to contemplate.
The alternative is a girl walks into a bar and the bar goes boom.
I suck at fights but here I am, tumbling headlong into the middle of one, and the last remaining lucid part of my brain is screaming that I can’t do this, I don’t know what will happen but I know what could happen, and the rest of my brain is screaming at her, aloud, shrill and raspy as she delivers a punch and it glances off my shoulder and sends me stumbling back into the alley.
A gauzy red curtain is descending across my perception; I know she’s followed me because I hear her boots splashing in the puddle I just splashed through and then I feel her hands on me, grappling more than hitting, fingers clenched in my shirt and my fingers clenching in hers as we spin in a clumsy circle. She took that sharp smell out of the bar with her, wove it over her skin like jagged chainmail. Cursing her with an exhale and on the flipside breathing her in. Black hulk of a dumpster, the buzz of its tenant flies. The only light I see is far ahead and far above, and smeared across the insides of my eyelids when I close them.
The brilliant explosion as her fist finally—finally—connects with my jaw.
A secondary explosion; maybe I’ve been hit again, but no, no—that’s the grit of brick against the back of my skull. She hasn’t released me but she’s stepped back and she’s gaping, teeth and eyes glittering, and when I spit blood it spatters in black droplets across her lips and chin. Wider eyes and more teeth as I ram my knuckles beneath the arch of her ribcage.
This is the punchline: When she goes down, she drags me with her.
When we hit each other at the same time, the dumpster explodes.
There’s no neat way to describe this. You ever been next to a dumpster when it fucking explodes? Then you know what I’m talking about. If you haven’t, try to imagine what it’s like when a massive chunk of metal and trash suddenly hurls itself apart in all directions in a hot, stinking shockwave and hundreds of extremely surprised flies.
A plague, I think. I’m not coherent. Again, stand next to an exploding dumpster and try to be so. As experiences go, it doesn’t lend itself to coherence.
I’m hurting. It’s a sullen pulse in my jaw, metastasizing to my gut. I’m also super pissed off and more than a little scared, hissing through my bared teeth, just drunk enough to have lost control and just sober enough to know what losing control means.
She doesn’t look shocked, is the thing. She looks exactly like I’m fucking feeling. Holding herself. Panting as iron rains down all around us—and of course it doesn’t leave a scratch, because when I rend the world this way, the damage has somehow always spared me. In the distance, someone shouting. Maybe sirens. If not now, there will be soon.
We set off a bomb. You don’t get to do that without someone noticing.
I might be about to run. I have no idea. I never get to find out. She grabs my hand, so hard the pain flares, and as I snarl at her every window above us bursts outward in pretty crystalline rain to join the metal.
But she’s not letting go. She’s dragging me down the alley, deeper into the dark. Accompanied by the howls of frightened cats, tearing through that red curtain, I follow her.
My place. We don’t make it as far as the shower before I’m flat on my back on the floor and she’s straddling me, literally ripping my button-down shirt open, buttons skittering across the bare wood.
She’s rough. So I’m rough too. Hair-pulling and scratching and gripping that’s sure to leave more bruises. When sparks scatter across my palm I realize I’ve slapped her; she slaps me back and I taste blood. Turns out maybe I am good at this, and when she crooks two fingers in my pussy and bites viciously down on my nipple, every fuse in the building blows at once.
I mean, I assume it’s every fuse. Going by the noise and the darkness.
We lie side by side in the tangle of our clothes and stare at the ceiling. This is another cliché, I think, the point at which cliché and joke bleed into each other. Funny in the kind of way that makes you groan, roll your eyes. We’re not smoking cigarettes. We’re smoking, acidic destruction curling lazily into the air. Hot metal and blood. When you tear open the laws of physics, it’s a full-sensory experience. It’s decadent. I feel like I’ve done something so deliciously wrong, because I have.
I’ve done what I told myself I never would. I walked into that bar. I punched that line.
This, incidentally, is why I don’t masturbate. I figured it out pretty quick. Electricians just shrugged, and my parents got tired of replacing all the light bulbs.
I thought I was the only one.
This is the first thing you say with something like this—the first thing you say, when you’re exchanging words as words and not just as punches. In the after-dark, angry cries still echoing through the halls outside, very close. A whisper can drown out all other sound and right now it’s all I need to hear. The weight of another body has an ethereal quality when it’s the first time in a long time, and for me it has been so fucking long.
Bare, sweaty skin and all those bruises. These are things I never believed I would enjoy, but this is a kind of pleasure I’ve been terrified by. Bet your ass I was scared of it. You ever think about the people who can kill other people and enjoy it, and know that about themselves, so they never do?
Now they have a taste for it, they say, so I’m licking blood from the corner of her mouth, sucking it off her tongue. Forming the words against her lips, not even a whisper.
I thought I was the only one.
Surely the world wouldn’t abide more than that. Except you really get to thinking about that, about the state of the world and the logic that governs it, the hideous, disgusting logic that keeps it all spinning, and you start to wonder why the fuck there aren’t millions.
Christ knows there’s more than enough pain to go around.
Late morning sun. Cold pizza in bed. I’m not going to work today. I’m honestly not sure I’m going to work ever again; reality is a different shape than I thought, and I’m not certain work can be incorporated into it.
Reality is the curve of her waist sweeping from her hips up to her tits, elegant and agonized. This time I’m straddling her, pressing a tomato-saucy finger between her lips, and she bites. The tall windows beside the bed are instantly spiderwebbed with cracks, delicate as frost. I wrench my hand free and in a fit of ecstatic insanity I haul back, grinning, ready to slap her, shower us both with glass, and her hand snaps up and clamps around my wrist so hard the bones grind.
Gradually I lower myself down on top of her, face pressed into the pillow over her shoulder. Red sauce smeared across the white sheets. Virginal blood; they used to produce the stained sheets as proof of the bride’s purity. I didn’t bleed, at least not that way, but yeah, last night was the first time. First time it was real.
Circle of sauce around her nipple. She laughs.
I wonder what else we could break together.
Here’s the thing about I thought I was the only one: It’s so easy to not even be sure what it means.
On the surface it’s simple. What it says on the tin. I know what I am, what I can do; I believed, because of ample and consistent evidence, that I was the only person who could do that—or the only person that happened to, depending on how you want to distribute the agency, because the vast majority of the time it wasn’t something I was going for and it sure as shit wasn’t something I wanted.
Like, except for a few very specific exceptions.
So that part is easy to wrap your head around. But then there’s something deeper, and it has to do with knowing how you got here, which requires knowing where you came from, and I have no fucking idea. My parents? That’s completely unhelpful. What I mean is that I have no idea when I discovered this power and/or defect. What I mean is that I don’t remember the first second it appeared. I don’t know what the trigger was. I don’t recall whether I understood any of what was happening, and I don’t recall whether I was scared or exhilarated.
Both, I assume. That’s how it always is.
I don’t remember the beginning. It simply seems to arrive in my memory, not there and then there and fully active, and terrifying. Sitting with her at a little table outside a Starbucks, iced latte sweating a gleaming circle on the pitted metal, I’m like, you get this, right? Elementary school is one long series of triggers and it only gets worse from there. I have no idea how I didn’t bring down entire buildings. It was a damn miracle every single day.
You had more control than you give yourself credit for. She sips her own latte and licks her lips, and I want to bite them. I have to focus. She’s saying something important. She’s saying that fear is its own form of control and it’s immensely powerful. If you’re different—and they can tell, they can always tell—they’ll punish you for it. Pound down the pin that sticks up. Scare you straight.
Laugh. Both laughing, grimly. We don’t have to make the joke explicit. We get it. You arrive in your high school years and all at once scared straight takes on a much more literal meaning. I know it’s better now but sweet lord, back when and where I was it wasn’t good at all.
I’ve never caused an earthquake, but it might be fun to try.
Sitting there, motionless and staring at her. She stares coolly back. She couldn’t possibly be less bothered, and I know she knows exactly what’s whirling through my head. We share a story, because we share something bigger. Neither of us remembers how it started. But we both remember how it ended.
How it ended for then. For a while.
Girl walks into a bar. Girl walks into a fucking fist, head explodes in blinding white light far too sudden for pain. Girl walks into it, rather than it swinging into her, because later she will feel certain that everything that follows was her fault. Girl actually won’t remember much, is the truth, but enough.
Shared story but not an identical story; there are some variations. Weeks together in which to tell each other stories in the dark, listening to electricity humming in the air, particles laced with ozone. On the street, in another bar—two girls walk in and say make mine a double—and in bed. On the floor. We whisper stories we never told anyone. We whisper stories we never told ourselves, stories of fiery blood and the face of the world ripped open and the cosmic immensity of potential. We tell our horror stories and we compare notes. We are volcano girls, living magma domes, and the pressure can only build so much for so long.
I’ve never caused an earthquake. But I’ve watched a building burn down.
They said it was something in the wiring. Stray spark hit just the wrong thing. And I guess it could have been. It could have been that. Standing there with my cheek puffing up and their laughter dying in my ears, watching the windows belching flame.
They split us up, dismantled the student body. Piled us into busses and shipped us all off to different schools. Girl walks into a different bar and for a while she’s a stranger, and she can sit in the corner and nurse a drink and no one bothers her.
Like I said. For a while.
But after that, no matter what happens, the girl somehow keeps a lid on it. Crusts over the magma again, and nothing else burns. For a long time, the girl’s abnormality is reassuringly normal, and eventually even the most persistent ones get bored and drift away.
So what was it for you? Not fire. Pause. Almost exactly the same, but a tornado. Not a big one.
Just big enough.
We were insane for stopping, I say. Insane. Was it worth it to suffer like that, and be all responsible about it, like mutants in a bad fucking superhero movie? Was it worth it to take the pain and give nothing back?
What exactly did we gain?
She laughs against my mouth, and I already know what she’s going to say, and I won’t argue because I don’t want to, because she’s right.
I probably never would have met you.
Freedom tastes like blood. So be a fucking vampire.
They teach us not to be angry, she says. Y’know? Heard it in a Women’s Studies class in college, and yeah, there was some bullshit in there, but that rang so true, like a fucking bell in my fucking head. They teach us not to be angry. No one likes a bitch. Be nice. Smile. No one likes a sourpuss, missy. Don’t get bossy. Don’t get aggressive. You catch more flies with honey so be a sweet little thing.
She laughs and leans back on the park bench, cheekbones hard in the lamplight, and blows a stream of silver smoke into the air.
They made it seem so terrible. They made it seem like I would be some monster. They made me so afraid of myself, before I even knew there was something to be afraid of. Now I know, though. She smiles—hey, what’s wrong, honey, smile, I just want to talk to you—and digs her diamond stiletto nail into my forearm until a bead of blood rises like a jewel. Every leaf shivers.
Now we know who should have been afraid.
Girl walks into a bar and finds the honest-to-shit love of her life. How about that.
And the joke is, that girl and that bar and that love is how everything dies.
And one night, somewhere in the middle of this, we walk into a bar and walk out again, drunk and leaning on each other and laughing, and this is the joke, because it’s ridiculous, because it’s a fucking cliché: Three burly dudes shaped like inverted triangles start following us down the street.
We don’t have to ask them why to know exactly why. You’ve heard this joke before. You don’t need me to get as far as the punchline.
Stopping in the middle of the Katy Perry song we’re semi-singing, gripping my arm and leaning close and giggle-whispering at me. They’re almost on us now. I can practically feel hot breath on the back of my neck—hot but dead in a way her own hot breath against my throat and ear never could be. I feel so much, though the bourbon should have numbed me up, but all I hear is her.
Let’s pretend to be scared. It’ll be fun.
Oh, lover, the joke is so decidedly on you. Because I am scared. I never stopped being scared. You and your cockiness, your bitch-courage, your balls, you were always my Platonic Ideal. You were and are the thing against which I measure myself, and I always come out wanting.
God, wanting so bad.
I’m already laughing when a hand like a boned slab of ham clamps around my wrist and yanks it up behind my back, and the laughter is probably what escalates things so quickly, because they aren’t expecting it, it’s not part of how this joke goes, and that throws them off. Freaks them out. Very rude and they want to punish me for it, hauling me into the shadows, that hot dead breath reeking of light beer and stale bar nuts and coming at me from two sides. Her grunt echoing mine as she’s slammed face-first up against the brick, and I catch the wicked flash of her grin.
You know how they say some girls are asking for it? Yeah.
It’s very late. This is not a residential area. There’s no one around. We could scream at the top of our lungs and very likely no one would do jack even if they did hear. That’s what one of them is whispering to me, rubbery lips against the rim of my ear—just relax, no one’s gonna bother us, just take it easy and it’ll be fine.
And I know where this is going. I know what she’s walked me into. Not this specifically but all of it, the door she opened and dragged me through, how I wanted it, how she made me want more. All those shambling ghosts of the past, stupid and cruel, the fantasies of getting our own back. The promise. Never explicit. I didn’t realize until now.
This is not the first time this has happened to me. I’m not strange that way.
Probably yet another thing she and I have in common.
Let’s pretend to be scared. It’ll be fun. But I’m not pretending, suddenly fighting, throwing my whole weight backward and trying like hell to knock my head against his jaw. Yelling you fucking idiot, you don’t know, you don’t know what you’re doing.
I’m trying to help you.
I shouldn’t. That’s the absolute last thing I should do.
They deserve it, she’s snarling at me. And the thing is, she’s right. They do. I do indeed want this. I said it would be fun to cause an earthquake and I’m sure it would be. The night around me already crackling ozone, the previously dim streetlights flaring brighter and brighter like expanding stars. I hear the rattle of chainlink. I hear the clatter of brick on pavement. It’s not just about the body. It’s not just about the kind of pain that sparks your nerves.
I get that now.
All there with us, each one who ever made us hurt becomes an invisible crowd poured into these three brutal vessels, turning, grip slackening as they look wildly around. I relish the panic I see twisting its way across their features. They’re attractive, I observe with reptilian coolness. They’re good looking guys. They’re the kind where people say he could have had anyone he wanted, why did he take it like he did.
You don’t remotely understand. I know why. They do want what I have.
But it’s not what you’d think.
I don’t even see her anymore. Knowing she’s there is good enough. Hey, assholes. I’m not exactly brimming with wit but it’ll do.
I’m not good at jokes, except this one.
They’re whirling back to me, back to us, and I stand beside her and feel vomit burning into my throat and every streetlight shatters and the pavement cracks wide as I pull back my fist and punch blood into my own fucking mouth.
I used to think about killing them all. I was a murderous child and it continued from there to now. Like I said before, I suspect there are a lot of us and no one never knows, because we never act.
And you can decide for yourself exactly what I mean there.
But I could have. That’s the difference. I could have done it and it would have been easy. The hard part was stopping.
I did them such a favor. I saved their fucking lives. I was a hero.
I thought I was the only one.
I feel my front teeth break under my split knuckles, and that’s when all three of their heads explode.
Maybe she did it. Maybe it wasn’t me. That’s a dumbass thing to think but you do what you have to do in order to keep your shit together. Her standing there covered in pink-red jelly and shards of bone, dripping from her chin like spit, laughing and laughing as their bodies crumple and the ground swallows them whole. Cracks snaking up the walls of the buildings across the street. A few blocks away, shouts of alarm from the bar, jittery as the world shakes.
Through my bloody mouth I’m screaming what did you fucking do. Or I’m standing here too, looking at her. Looking at you, my lovely time bomb, worked your wires into me and wove a fuse down my spine.
Did you plan this? Did you know beforehand when you would finally make use of me, light me up? Or were you just waiting to see what happened?
Either is believable.
All at once I’m charging at her, ready to use my ruined fist on her face for a change, because I’m so fucking angry and I’m not about to get picky with my targets, but she lunges and grabs me by the wrist—same wrist they grabbed me by before, and pain lances through it and to my left a roof falls in with a groan—and pulls me toward a car idling a few yards away, driver gaping.
Doesn’t take much to kick him out of there. All that blood. All that rage. He saw what happened. He tumbles out the door onto the pavement and scrambles away as a sinkhole opens beside him.
And then we’re driving away as the night collapses around us.
Girl walks into a bar. She doesn’t know how she got there. She doesn’t want to be there. She can’t leave.
It’s too late now.
Blurred lights. I might hear sirens, or I might see them flashing behind and alongside us, because I’m in a place where space and sound and pain crush together into something hot and dense in my head like the heart of a dying star. It hurts so bad. Trying to move my bloody hands, my bloody face; I think my jaw might be broken. In our wake, blast after blast craters the pavement. We’re leaving a trail of bombs.
We are bombs.
She’s still laughing. I wonder if she could stop, even if she wanted to. Fists on the dashboard. I see flickers of white in the churned red that is my knuckles and I know I beat myself to the bone.
You’re going to get us killed, is what I would say if I could say anything, what I might still be saying with the wreckage of my mouth. I was crazy. I am crazy, and I don’t think I can blame that on her. You’re going to get us fucking killed, what the fuck are you DOING.
You’re going to get everyone killed, baby. I’m not a fool and by now I know your body like I know my own. I know the full extent and power of your arsenal. I know what you want. I know you want them all dead.
We hit the grid of streets crammed with erratic Saturday night traffic. Stop and go, lurch and halt so hard I jam my wrists trying to keep myself in my seat. Buildings rise around us like shimmering ghost towers, wavering and unreal. Heat haze. I’m bleeding all over the upholstery. Is she even hurt? How the fuck can she not be hurt? How is that fair?
And that’s when I remember: She knew she could achieve this end without a scar on herself. She got me and she knew. She recruited me and indoctrinated me and all she had to do was hit me and fuck me, and I was all hers.
I reach for her and her hand whips out, seizes me by the back of the neck and smashes my forehead into the dashboard. In a bizarre frozen moment my vision clears as I raise my head, in the seconds before the blood runs into my eyes, and I watch three skyscrapers in the distance ahead of us quiver and lean and in slow motion begin to crumple in layer after pancaked layer to the panicked ground. The dust and the heat and the screaming swallow us whole.
There’s no going back at this point. There’s no saving anyone.
So here we are, sweetheart, locked in this moment like a car all crumpled with the doors folded shut. Pinned. I can’t get out of it. Neither can you. Except in the fire it melts around us and there’s no car, nothing, and all that screaming is purely background. The billowing flames and the plumes of dust, the earth sundered, the seas rising. They’ll look back at this day, the survivors, and maybe they’ll say it was terrorism, or a natural disaster, or the freak act of an insane god, but we know the truth.
There’s terror. It’s natural. Don’t even talk about god.
We’re ground zero, baby. We always were. Free-floating like dust particles, like photons, crashing together, splitting apart in a microsecond cataclysm that washes out the stars. I don’t know if I’ll remember this later. I do remember this now. I remember how it was that first night, the fighting and then the fucking and no clear line between the two, all that pain and how good it felt, and what you cracked open inside me with the force of you.
We never left that alley. We never went anywhere. Nothing ever changed. Girl walks into a bar and that’s all she ever does.
Maybe she saw it ending this way. I never did. I should have—here in the eye of the firestorm, blinded by smoke and tears, swallowing what seems like gallons of blood as she comes at me and I come at her and together we rip everything apart.
That rumble in my marrow could be the rest of the buildings coming down. It could be the quake. It could be anything at all. Her twisted, howling mouth and her nightmare eyes and her hands hooked into diamond talons clawing at my flesh as I claw back with my splintered fingernails. We swing, we rock and we roll. If I could, if I thought it mattered, I would be screaming at her to stop, stop it, Christ knows how many people we’ve already killed, but there’s no point. I’m not trying to stop her. Every millisecond of my suffering is only making it worse but I’m fighting because that’s all I can do, because even odds I’m dead at the end of this but I won’t just lie down and die.
And because maybe I do still want what she wants. Maybe.
And because I love her. Because I love you, you heartless bitch who helped me find my heart, I love you so much and this was never going to end well but I still do. I was always going to be here with you, at the end of the world, because I thought I was the only one but I never was. That’s the joke, isn’t it? All on me. It’s hilarious.
I was waiting to be with you.
I was waiting for you to punch my line.
So how does this end? Girl walks into a bar. That’s it.
That’s all I’ve got.
(Editors’ Note: Sunny Moraine is interviewed by Caroline M. Yoachim in this issue.)
© 2018 by Sunny Moraine