Her point wasn’t that she wanted to kill him. That wasn’t at all what she was trying to say. That wasn’t at all what she had said. Her point wasn’t that she wanted to kill him – but rather that she was afraid she might. And they weren’t the same thing. They weren’t the same thing. She said that to him twice. She may have said it more than twice. Her voice was growing quieter, tighter and quieter, and he was starting to lose track of what she had said. They aren’t even close to the same thing, she said viewing him with a slightly wide-eyed look that might have been taken for pity if it hadn’t been just a little bit tough, a little more heated than pity would imply. Do you even understand the difference? she asked. But then she didn’t pause to breathe, didn’t pause for his response but she asked with a change he couldn’t quite hear — not word for word — but that he nonetheless distinctly felt. An important shift. Don’t you even understand the difference? she asked. And the boy didn’t speak. He just looked at the floor. He stared down at his own sneakers, each precisely filling, end to end, one square of the gray linoleum floor; and he noticed that only one of his shoelaces was tied.
The girl pushed her long, straight hair back over her shoulder, which caused the bed to bounce, her twin size dorm room bed on which they sat, and, just a little jostled, distracted away from his shoes, the boy looked up at her again. Palms down on the mattress, arms straight, her chin just forward above her chest, she asked him if he was able to follow this very simple point. But again she didn’t wait for him to respond, just asked him right away — as though he had admitted that no, no he wasn’t able to follow this very simple point — she asked him right away why he wasn’t able to follow this very simple point. She asked him why he couldn’t seem to grasp what she was saying. Why couldn’t he ever seem to grasp what she was saying? Why? Why not? She asked him both at once. And he didn’t know what he was supposed to say. He didn’t know what she wanted from him. What did she want from him? He almost asked her that. What do you want from me? He had no idea. But he experienced it – he experienced her — in those terms. There was something he was supposed to do. Or maybe supposed to say. Or quite possibly that he was supposed to think. This much was clear to him. But he didn’t know what. So he looked back at the floor and he saw those two worn strings trailing onto it. He wondered if he should re-tie his open sneaker or just kick it off. He wondered if he would be leaving her room any second now; or if he would be staying with her for the night. He didn’t know. He didn’t even know whose decision that would be. He couldn’t imagine, at that instant, the mechanism through which such a thing would be resolved. But the thought, those two alternatives – stay or leave — began to root themselves into his consciousness, as he stared down and kicked his sneakers together, one tied and one untied. She asked him something else that he didn’t quite catch. But she asked it with an unmistakable narrowing tone in her voice. A tone that seemed to be homing in on something, a real heat seeking missile of a tone — as if the conversation might just detect its target and change direction then and there, take a big loopy u-turn and suddenly be — as was increasingly the case these days – a conversation wholly about why he couldn’t follow what she said. And not a conversation about the hunting knife at all. His hunting knife. Not a conversation anymore about her accidentally killing him. About her being afraid she might mistakenly murder him in her sleep. But a conversation only about why he couldn’t ever seem to follow what she said. Why couldn’t he ever follow what she said? He knew that was the next question she would ask. But he also knew that he could. That was the funny part. He could. He could follow what she said — better even than she could. He could follow her tracks, her conversational tracks, like the hunter that he was. Like the hunter he believed himself to be. He could stalk her, turn the tables on her, and stalk her like his prey. He could anticipate her moves. So he sensed that u-turn coming. He sensed her gaining a hungry momentum on the subject of his inability to follow what she said. And had he closed his eyes, he could have — would have — pictured her circling around and around, in smaller and smaller circles, tighter, tighter turns, zeroing right around the meatier issue. The heart. And he knew that soon the accusation would emerge. The real accusation. Not why don’t you understand this? But why don’t you understand me? So he braced himself for that certain shift with a tension that stretched against the inside of his skin, his inner lining strengthened and toughened by the calculus running through his head: the question of whether the whole thing was worth it any more. It. Her. This trailing every night from his room to hers; or hers to his. This growing accusation he couldn’t quite understand. This perpetual sense that he was letting her down, despite the fact that he seemed to be giving in to everything she required. He stretched this question across his entire being – stay or go? – stretched it protective, private and taut between himself and the barrage of her voice, constructing a shelter of sorts for himself, a tee-pee built for one. For only one. He let this question, this doubt about her continuing value to him, this final power he believed himself to hold, protect him from her words, while she asked him all these questions, while she gave him that pitying angry look. He stretched this skin inside himself, this tough impermeable hide he believed she couldn’t detect; and he toyed with the satisfying fantasy of telling her just to go off and fuck herself. And leave him the fuck alone. Jesus Christ.
But then the next word that came to him was sex. That improbable word flew ripping from his consciousness, tearing cleanly through the toughened hide. Sex. And he felt the shelter fail. Because that was the point of this, wasn’t it? There was a point to this. Sex. That was what they were doing. Wasn’t it? That was a word for why he was here. And it wasn’t a vulgar word that came to him — not fucking, not pussy, not cunt — but simply “sex.” A child’s word actually, a word that exists only to be outgrown and replaced by something more intimate, more personal, dirtier, juicier, riskier, less generic. Better. More true. But this was his word: sex. A placeholder of a word, good enough for starters perhaps, but really only until the gap between language and experience can be closed. He, however, was still years away from that. And in fact, this boy might just never close that gap. So he used – even in his own head, even when entirely alone in that hidebound shelter of solitary thought – he used the word that teachers and parents use, at least in part to hide the truth. The word of sanctioned instruction manuals. The first word he’d learned, when he was just a kid, for what it was they did together. He and this pretty girl. Sex. An almost meaningless word, so distant is it from what it signifies; though as it hurled itself into his stream of thought, the boy believed it key to this moment — which it may well have been. But not just the word. And all he had was the word. Sex. Just the word. Just a word. Not much good at all – except as a clue, an important clue, a critical window onto the boy’s default innocence, his actual ignorance about why he was sitting in this dorm room, unable to grasp precisely what was going on. A clue to his all too real inability to understand. As his girlfriend told him she was afraid she might just murder him with his own hunting knife. So could he please hide it from her? Please? Could he put it somewhere where she wouldn’t be able to find it? Just in case while sleeping one night an uncontrollable, weird desire comes over her. Because until he did, she wasn’t staying in his dorm. His pretty girlfriend with her long straight hair. She wasn’t staying in a room with a knife that big and sharp. She was afraid of what she might do. Without meaning to, of course. But she was afraid somebody might get hurt. Somebody might get killed. Sex. That was why he was still here. He tried to focus back in on what she’d asked. What she was asking now. He looked directly at her, readying himself to assert that he wasn’t as clueless as she clearly thought he was. That he did understand her. That he did love her. And that he knew she didn’t mean to hurt him. Knew that she would not. He braced himself for the exchange he was absolutely certain would come next. The accusation, just moments away, he believed. Why don’t you understand me? It was only a matter of her articulating the words.
But the boy was wrong. Not about the potential for that conversational turn; that potential had been there sure enough, right there swelling and pressuring the girl along, pressuring her from somewhere deep and hollow and sad and even doomed inside herself; but still he was wrong. Wrong because just at that moment she changed her course. It was something she saw in his face. As he watched her, and she watched him. It was the look of earnest confusion on his face that stopped her in her tracks. A look that seemed to be inviting her in — toward, not away — a look she liked. The way his glistening eyes narrowed, the soft round cheeks raising up, and the way his lower lip drooped open, slightly damp. The fact that he seemed a little puzzled, a little confused. She saw this expression on his face. She found this expression on his face. Found it as though she had been seeking it all along. This puzzled, mixed-up look. So instead of following the energy, the rhythmic, regular, pulsing energy of her own words, she simply stopped. Stopped talking. And watched the boy. Pushed down the momentum, pushed away this longing inside herself, this craving to get through to him in some new way, to be heard, to be understood. Stepped away from this need in herself for what they did together, their routines, their exchanges, this need in her for it to be somehow better. More urgent. More intense. More personal. More about her; though of course she never put it that way to herself. Or — obviously — to him. But more about her, in fact. Much more about her. And more painful too. More about sharing pain. She left all of that behind. She stopped.
And then she began again, more gently. More tenderly. She began again to explain about the knife. She repeated the central theme to him. Got back to that. Her thesis. She reiterated it. It wasn’t that she actually wanted him dead. It wasn’t at all about being angry at him. Or wishing him ill. Because she wasn’t angry at him. Not one little bit. How could she be? She loved him. She loved him so much. But still, she was afraid she might commit the act — by mistake. Maybe in her sleep. Maybe in some kind of fugue state. Definitely without meaning to. And not because there was anything wrong between them. She told him all this. Once again.
But she didn’t tell him everything. She didn’t tell him how easy it was for her to imagine how it would be, this act. The color of it. The red. The sight of his flesh gashed like that. She didn’t tell him how well she could envision what one might do with a hunting knife. How her arms could already feel the moment at which flesh resists blade. And then nothing. Nothing at all. Nothing. Nothing. And then gradually, from that nothing, the sensation of seeping warmth. She said none of that. She disowned it as they spoke, disowned all of that certain knowledge, that imagery persistent inside of her. She just told him matter-of-factly, as if it were a matter-of-fact thing to discuss, that she was afraid she might murder him by accident. That’s all. As if by this trick of casual conversation she might just convince him that this was no big deal. It’s no big deal. She was simply afraid she might take that knife of his and without meaning to, without any actual intent, she might do him harm. Simply that. And he nodded. As if he really did understand. And as if he agreed. As if he agreed that what she said made any sense. Though he didn’t. He emphatically did not. Not at all – because the fact was that either you mean to hack away at someone with a knife or you don’t. That seemed indisputable to him. Either you mean to do the things you do, or you do other things. You do other things that you do mean to do. You just don’t do things that you don’t mean to do. Really. That is what this poor, beleaguered boy believed. What this innocent boy still believed sitting there, nineteen years old, and in way over his head. You don’t do anything that you don’t mean to do. That was one thing of which he was sure. One thing he was certain that he knew.
But they’d been together for more than a year by now. And it didn’t ever pay, this kind of argument. Arguing with her. It wasn’t much good. So he just nodded and said, I think I understand. Which didn’t have the girl the least bit fooled – in part because his lower lip hung there, loose and damp, and his eyes hadn’t yet regained their full size. So she knew he was still confused. And a part of her liked him a little bit confused. A part of her liked him to be just a step or two behind. She wanted that. It was why she had been thrown so far off course by that slack-jaw expression on his face. She wanted it. A part of her, at least, wanted that. Confusion in the boy. But more urgently, more importantly, right now she wanted the knife hidden away. Hidden away from her. Because she was genuinely afraid she might kill him in her sleep. So with what felt to her like patience, she tried again. She tried a different approach. I just don’t understand why you have a hunting knife at school, anyway, she said. What if I just tell you it scares me? It just scares me, having that thing around. I’m afraid of it. Why do you have it here, anyway? And the question – which was meant to be rhetorical – was the first she had asked that the boy could answer. The question, which really wasn’t one at all, set the boy on something close to solid ground. Because he knew precisely why he had brought the hunting knife to school. Or at least he thought he did. He had brought it because it had belonged to his grandfather, who had left it to the boy. And the boy, who didn’t have much of a father, not a father he could admire, not very much at all, had greatly admired his grandfather. And the grandfather had left the boy his knife — with a piece of masking tape wrapped around the rough black handle, and the boy’s three initials written there. An eleventh hour legacy, committed in the shaky, wavering hand of a very old man, a man who at nearly a century old, decided he wouldn’t leave this symbol of manhood to his disappointing son. A gesture more about skipping this middle generation, than about believing that his grandson should have a hunting knife. A last second impulse of an ancient dying man; the oldest member of a line of wavering men who put domesticity off well into middle age, skeptical and resistant to committing in their youths. A line of men who found it all too easy – or arguably just easy enough – to stretch that taut fibrous hide across their inner selves at critical moments, at potential turning points. Men who bought and then returned rings they thought better of offering. Men who left short notes on pillows at dawn, and drove away. Men who could stare a woman down and profess their love for her, while hearing the clock to departure ticking down. Stay or go? Men who never knew until they had done it which it would be. So having well outlived his expected lifespan, the man left his eldest grandson a knife, while leaving precious little to anyone else. No money to speak of – wealth having come and gone and come again through the generations in not uncommon swells and gullies of famine and feast. The boy’s father a money maker, a saver, a practical man – but the grandfather not. But a scraper. He’d scraped in one way or another throughout his life, much the way this boy also might, as the years passed on. Might find accumulating wealth, accumulating security of any kind, a difficult task. As had the old man who willed to him the knife. Black handle, steel blade. The very knife with which the grandfather had hunted, four and five and six and seven decades earlier. Hunted and killed. Adventures gradually rendered both vivid and invisible by all the years that had passed. Phantom legacies of cold weather stalking through graying November woods. Carrying a knife. A knife with which he skinned and severed prey, deer, hare, maybe birds as well – the boy wasn’t clear on the prey. Deer for sure, though. Beautiful and strong, that golden brown skin on which the hairs lay smooth and shined glossy, close in to the haunches, spread ridged across the powerful chest. Shot through with arrows, felled and cut, blood red against the drained faded landscape. Cut with the same knife that now lay beside his own dorm room bed, just next to the tiny German alarm clock and the itty-bitty book light he had forgotten to pack and his mother had mailed to him. A knife. A hunting knife. His knife. Meant for spilling blood and carving the useless away.
Though in reality, the hunter he was – the hunter he believed himself to be – had no true understanding yet of blood, fresh blood, sinew and innards spilling out in still warm spurts and pools. And so the boy used the word knife as he used the word sex; in absolute innocence of the truth. With an enormous, leaky, emptiness between his language and the truth. I brought it because it reminds me of my grandfather, he said, thinking this might somehow end the whole thing. But she only nodded, a little distractedly now. Because she didn’t really care about why he had the knife – though she had asked him that; and in other circumstances she would have liked to hear about his grandfather, of course. About loss and sadness in the boy. She would – in another situation – have welcomed the chance to have him open this wound of his up to her. This grief. She would have very much liked — another time — to have him confide in her about how upset he had been. How he missed the old man. Usually – but not now — she would have encouraged this type of talk, her own instincts being that this kind of opening, this sharing of pains and wounds was what bound them closer together. That this was where their hope for a future together lay. Her well-formed opinion being that this was what it was really about. All of it. Love. A series of exposures pulling you toward each other. That relationships, really, weren’t they nothing more than a series of scars? Like scar tissue building up? You tear at each other – you don’t even mean to, but you do – you tear at each other, sometimes at yourself, you have a fight, you have a cry, you share something bad; and out of that grows strength. Hurting. Arguing. Even fucking. Even fucking, she believed — she consciously believed — was like building a tough, unbreakable scar tissue that stretched between yourselves. Opening, letting go, giving yourself over to it all. Giving up. Giving in – though not to him. Never giving in to him. Using him. Using him while he uses you. To jump off that cliff. Any cliff. Though not into any kind of free fall jump. Not in an airy, clean dive. Not a smooth, predictable fall. But a rough, angry ride from that initial jump. Fucking. A tough agonizing descent into oneself. Down, down, down, down. Until you hit nothing, the nothing inside. That place of absolute still, of solitude, of pleasure. Here and gone. Split second death. And then back to life again. Until you find one another. Don’t you? Struggling and straggling back into your skin. Beaten up, shattered. Aren’t you? But together again. More together. Together more. Scarred. Scarred into each other. Even fucking, she thought, was finally, ultimately another kind of sharing of one’s own pain. Binding yourselves together by ripping yourselves apart. And loving, well, loving was just pressing your ragged edges together and finding strength in that. Wasn’t it?
But the boy wasn’t done. He really wanted me to have it, the boy went on. It was important to him. He thought I could be a hunter too. Like he was. And the girl got snagged, her attention spiked by that. But could you be? she asked, her voice energized again. Could you be a hunter, too? She was staring now, right through him with her hard, flinty eyes. But then when he said yeah, yeah, I think I could, she looked away because all the girl could hear was that enormous gap. That leaky, drafty distance between the words the boy spoke to her and the truth. Please just hide it from me, she said to him then. Done trying to explain. Done trying to explain herself to him. Please just don’t leave it lying there. Just lying there, like that. And he shrugged. He shrugged with what she hoped was his assent. With what she thought must be assent. With what had to be assent. It had to be assent. And after just a moment, she lifted her gaze again from where it fell, and viewed the boy. And this time there could be no mistake. There was pity in her eyes as she picked one hand up off the bed, drawing it toward his face and pressed it there, soft against his upper cheek. Pity in her eyes as she lay her hand across the transition from smooth skin to downy stubble, growing in. Pity, as his eyes narrowed, his lower lip regained its confident line — the look of confusion replaced by another kind of openness to her.
With the back of her fingers she stroked toward his jaw, just traced that downward curve, the barely rough downward curve on this boy, this boy of hers, from solid bone to sinewy neck. Down, down, down that neck until the sparse whiskers disappeared, and all she could feel was his soft, youthful skin.
Just hide it from me, she repeated, leaning in to kiss his mouth; and the boy kicked his open sneaker off.
Robin Black’s collection If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This (Random House, 2010) was a finalist in the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Prize. She is at work on her first novel and will be the Distinguished Visiting Writer at Bryn Mawr College in 2012.