Kathleen Gullion

2021, Poetry

I CAN SHOW YOU HOW

They could be talking about anything. I’m only paying attention to whether or not I can picture their fingers in my mouth. But they’re giving me a history lesson about Bridgeport and they have been for the past fifteen minutes. The gangs. The best shaved ice at 31st and Halsted. The Daleys. We’re tucked away in a booth. Robin sits across from me in black overalls and a black button-down. When we met here fifteen minutes ago I told them they looked like a business casual farmer. I think they thought I was negging them. But really, it’s a good look. 

Colleen’s is an Irish bar. Wood-paneled, the occasional shamrock. The only other patrons are here for the White Sox, slumped over High Lifes at the bar. 

There are so many characters, they say. Even the liquor store guy, okay, the liquor store guy. He always talks to me about his cat’s psychic. Apparently the cat used to be a dog in a past life. Why do I know this?

That’s funny, I say. 

All I have to do is let them talk and say things like, oh wow, yeah?, and that’s so funny. Whatever to keep the conversation light so we don’t slip into personal territory and become betrayed by some horrible information that would make it hard to sleep with each other. We’re doing a good job. Draining our drinks and learning nothing about each other, other than the way their hands wrap around a glass, and how my lips look parted in surprise. 

Something good must have happened on the screen because the men cheer and bang their fists on the counter. I look up and see all of them running. 

Robin watches me watch the men. I went to a Sox game last month, I say. I play with my bra strap. This guy in the front row got hit in the face by a fly ball. 

Now it’s their turn to say it: oh wow, that’s crazy. 

It really was, I tell them. It was like this. I lean across the table and form a fist, then pretend to hit them in the nose. Pow. They grin placidly. 

You’re supposed to say ow, I say. I’m slightly annoyed they aren’t playing along. 

Ow, they say, clutching their nose dramatically, and I forgive them. 

Exactly. Guy broke his nose. There was blood everywhere. Anyway, are you done with your drink? We should leave. 

As soon as we do, they slink their arm around my waist, the night air giving them the permission Colleen’s wouldn’t. The gesture is proprietary and I like it. They live just two blocks away — that’s why I suggested Colleen’s, they explain as we walk, don’t think that’s a haunt of mine — and we practically skip down them. I feel like a kid out past curfew, even though it’s only 8:30pm. This is how I always feel on dates. Defiant, giddy, slightly guilty. I almost don’t want the walk to end. 

But then we get to their apartment, a three-flat. That’s mine, they say, pointing to the second-floor window, which is framed by string lights hanging inside. Looks cozy, I say. We disentangle our arms and grow quiet as we walk up the stairs. I hang behind as they unlock the door in the dark hallway. No one looks sexy unlocking a door, and I don’t want to see it.

Sorry, it’s messy, they say, tossing their keys on the table by the door, which is piled with papers, dishes, a tangle of cords. The living room is a gray futon and a wooden chair piled with jackets. A few cardboard boxes stacked by the window. 

New apartment? I ask.

No, why?

I shrug.

I try not to look around as we walk to their bedroom. The mattress is on the floor and the black sheets are covered in a thin layer of white fur. Was there a dog I missed? Across from the bed there are some books stacked on top of a large plastic tub. There are no decorations except for a pothos in the window whose tendrils are so long they sweep the floor even though they’re draped over the curtain rod, creating a frame of green. And next to the bed, on the nightstand, are a collection of candles, some fat and white, some thin and green, some reduced to wicks in glass jars, clouded black. 

They sit down on the bed and I join them. I glance at the door before I sit, half-expecting a sheepdog to push through it and bound towards us, white fur fluttering from it as it runs.

A soft hand cups my cheek, and there are their eyes, intense under half-closed lids, and their lips. At first it is all wrong, their mouth wide and tongue probing, but I use my lips to teach theirs subtlety, about small kisses that turned into bigger ones, of tongues that trace instead of thrust. 

They pull away, out of breath. Heavy breaths turn into an open-mouthed smile, then their eyes dart to the head of their bed. Can I tie you up? They ask. 

Oh. Sure.

They crawl toward the head of the bed and stick their hand between the mattress and the wall and pull out two long black straps, which are attached to the bed somehow. Take off your clothes and lie down, they say, and I do as I’m told. I undress slowly. Their gaze makes everything grander. Gives elegance to fumbling with shoelaces and shimmying out of jeans. I leave my bra and underwear on. They are lace and expensive. When I’m down they’re on top of me, legs pinned to my sides. They wrap the straps around my wrists, securing them by velcro. I think the last time I wore velcro was on these Cinderella sneakers I had in kindergarten, and I almost laugh. But when I try to move my arms, I can’t. I’m really restrained. 

They turn off the lights. Pale moonlight gives contours to the objects in the dark, and I can see the edges of them illuminated at the foot of the bed. They stand there for a moment, larger in the dark, and I feel like something wild, a creature tangled in a shrub. My heart beats between my thighs. 

They walk to the side of the bed but don’t get on the mattress. They hover over me, and produce a matchbox. Friction makes flame. They light one of the skinny black candles from the bedside table. In the dark, the candle disappears beneath the flame, and all I can see is a tiny fire and their face changing shapes as it flickers. 

Their eyes hold mine as they bring the candle in a position over me. Wax pools under the wick. With a quick tip of the candle, a few drops of wax spill onto my stomach. I shudder at the quick blast of heat. The wax quickly cools and congeals on my skin. They repeat the gesture — pool, tip, pool, tip, pool, tip — and the wax droplets collect on me like moles. I’m not sure if it feels good or not. It feels medieval. I try to pretend we’re in a church on the moors, while monks chant in the distance. But I can’t make it stick. I could never get into all that roleplay stuff. They drop more wax on me. I decide it feels good, not for the heat, but for the way it feels when it cools. 

They place the candle in a holder and it casts a warm glow over us. They look down at me. I look down at me. All golden and lace, made delicate by the low light. I never feel delicate, but now, especially against the rough denim of their overalls, I do. From above I must look like string stretched between fingers for a game of cat’s cradle. 

Then they’re pressing and thrusting themselves into me and I remember that I’m not a string but blood after all as I’m filled with it and how suddenly words are so useless. What I want is not harder or faster or gentler but to have my edges obliterated, for a merging. My desires swirl in my head like black wind. 

But then we’re unmerging. They take off my underwear in a swift motion and perch over me and fuck me from that position. Their hand is like how their tongue had been at first: rough and probing. I wince. They readjust, but still it’s wrong. When I think of how to explain to them what I want it’s all black wind, so I just look away. For them, sex is probably about the wax, the restraints, the show. This part is probably obligatory. It’s probably an embarrassing necessity. So I accept that this isn’t going to be good, and will myself to end it quickly for their sake. I summon a rolodex of fantasies in my mind and somehow, I come, but the waves flow like stale honey. I hear moaning in the distance and realize it’s ours. 

The sound of velcro. The restraints are off, and Robin is by my side, wrapping their arm around my waist. They are still fully clothed. Shoes tied. Those damn overalls. I remember how I told them they looked like a farmer and it’s newly hilarious and I’m laughing and suddenly we are co-conspirators again, kids out past curfew. So I kiss them in my own way and unbuckle their overalls, preparing to straddle them, to show them I’m not just going to lie there and take it! But they gently grab my wrist and push it away. My hand freezes, a claw. In a soft voice they say, Don’t worry about it. You don’t need to. I’m more of a dom.

I look at the ceiling. I don’t feel like a co-conspirator anymore. I just feel like a girl. 

That was amazing, they say. They lean over me and light a few candles with a long lighter. Beside us fills with flickering. I’ve been studying something called relational theology in school, which says the divine can be found in the erotic.

That’s interesting, I say, and flick off a bead of wax. 

So sex is a method of attaining transcendence, of encountering the supreme otherness of God. And as queers, we’re a kind of otherness as well, so queer sex is even more of an encounter with the divine. That’s my thesis.

I look at them while they speak, and their eyes are wide, full of light. They’re so firm in their convictions. It makes me want to believe in something, too. Maybe sex isn’t just a way to fill the void. Maybe it’s a way to pass through the void, become intimate with the unknown. Maybe the two of us just didn’t get it right this time. Maybe there is something holy here. Maybe I just have to keep looking. 

You’re going to love this. I actually have a key to First Unitarian, and during the week it’s usually empty, so if you want, we could fuck there.

I see us ducking into the church, giggling and touching elbows. Mid-afternoon, sunlight streams through the stained glass, turning the dust in the air to glitter. They lay me down on the altar, and the wood digs into my shoulder blades — no, it’s surprisingly flexible wood, it feels fine — and where they should be I see an illuminated archway, through which I can plunge towards the divine. 

That sounds hot, I say. 

I had a feeling you were the kind of girl who’d be into that, they say, and kiss me with a lot of tongue. I close my eyes and try to focus on the archway until they pull away. 

My dad is a minister, and he actually came out after my parents divorced, and it was hard at first, mainly because I missed my mom, but if anything, it just showed me how queerness and faith are inseparable. Being gay and loving God are one in the same. 

You’re not trying to convert me, are you? 

They laugh. No, no, I respect all ways of interpreting the universe. I’m just telling you my story.

I’m relieved for a moment, but then I feel like the creature caught in the shrub again. The desire to scamper comes first, then the smack of betrayal. Where is this coming from? In the bar, weren’t we desperately trying not to know each other? Now I see that’s not what was happening at all. They were just waiting until I was vulnerable to spill their self onto me, and I feel sticky with it. I think of the way I acted: twirling my bra strap, letting them have their way with wax. It was only fake as long as we both understood it was an act. I see that version of myself as an outline in their mind, and even its existence there feels dangerous. I need to go. I have to go, I tell them. 

You’re not going to stay? Their face makes all the shapes of pout, arched eyebrows, wide eyes. I collect my clothes from the floor and dress quickly. I promise to text, confirm my excitement about the church fucking. They kiss me goodbye at the door and I nearly run down the stairs and into the clean outside air. 

No one is out but me. It must be later than I thought. I walk east towards the bus, hoping it’s still running. I walk past fountains that are shut off for winter. I walk past bushes netted in Christmas lights. I walk past windchimes, softly clanging. Past pink garbage cans, past cigarillo wrappers, past birds sleeping in trees. I walk past a sapling in someone’s front yard. Blue bottles have been placed over the ends of its branches. I stop and look at it. The bus comes and goes in the distance. I keep looking. The glass shines against the sky.


Kathleen Gullion is a writer based in Houston. She earned an MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and her work has been published by Coachella Review, Esthetic Apostle, F Newsmagazine, and others