Two Cans and a String

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Two Cans and a String  

by Jack Murnighan  

While she fucks me she makes me talk on the phone with various members of my family. Multiple
conversations with my mother, my brother, my aging grandmother. And then the ex’s, the coworkers, the

credit card agencies, the pizza deliverers. I ordered the electricity for our new apartment with a shoelace tied
around my balls and the back of her teeth dragging up and down my cockhead. On my hands and knees on the
parquet making dinner reservations with my pants around my calves and her thumb up my ass. On my back
and immobilized cupping the receiver tight in my hand telling Mom the highlights of my week at work
trying to keep her from hearing the steaming urine splash off my chest and stomach. When the phone starts to
shake in my hand and I feel the exigent tightening behind my balls, I breathe deeply through my nose,
holding back through each anxious throb, only to release all at once beneath the cover of a throat-clearing
cough. “I’m sorry, Grandma, I must of swallowed funny. Excuse me.”


My name is Lucien. I am a line cook. I spend my evenings bent over a commercial grill tending to a
massacre of meats. My days I spend with Alice; her evenings — her evenings she spends. I am thirty-eight
years old; I don’t know how old Alice is. She says twenty-two or twenty-three or twenty-five depending on the
situation, but it’s clear that she’s older, perhaps much older. Quite some time ago I gave her the keys, and she
normally doesn’t arrive until I’ve already made the coffee and stirred the eggs in the bowl and am sitting
distractedly at the table waiting for the sound of hard heels in the stairwell, the sound of her smoker’s wheeze
as she tops the final stair, the turning of the lock as she gasps her last breaths to try to conceal that she’s
unfit, sleepless and entirely overplayed.


She comes to me because I never ask. Never ask if she will come again, never ask where she’s been,
never ask what she’s doing or how she can do the things she does. When she first saw me, she saw what she
hoped to see in my hands. Broad, pale and hairless as a child’s. She thought I’d be thick and pliant, a sizeable

block of workable clay to shape with the insistence of her needs. And this is what I’ve been for her: a neutral
page on which to write her dramas, to play out her fantasies of security. She didn’t know, she still doesn’t
know, that the hair on my fingers and the sides of my hands is perpetually burned off by flame-ups from the
grill. She knows that I cook, but doesn’t know anything about it. What would I tell her? That you test a
steak with a two-fingered push like a doctor percussing a patient’s chest? That you turn a chicken breast when
the liquid starts to puddle in its center? That when I come home at night and manage to fall asleep, I dream
not of golden meadows or armed assailants, but panic my way through forgotten entrees and dropped dishes?


She comes in drunk and often with smudged lipstick, wearing clothes you never see during the light
of day. She hurries in and kisses me on the cheek and flops into bed and lets me bring her coffee with her
cigarette. Soon thereafter I bring her the omelet but she eats only a bite and then if she’s tired she goes right
to sleep but if she’s drunk enough she pulls me toward the bed with her ashtray mouth and puts my hand
under her skirt and rubs my knuckles against her and moans in a way that I can’t quite trust. And then she
pulls me closer and slides my cock out of my undershorts without really looking at it and rolls over onto her
knees. And suddenly I’m inside of her, and I don’t have anything on and I don’t know if she’s protected or if
she’s been careful but she’s moaning so heavily and pitching against me so hard that my fears kind of get lost
in the spectacle of her rising ass and something just kind of takes me over and I can’t even stay in my mind
long enough to figure out if she’s really enjoying it. And then I lean my head back and put a hand over my
eyes and from my chest to my knees I feel opaline and electric and then my ass tightens to a pinch and I
quiver and twitch and just give out inside her like the time-slowed lilt of an airborne leaf.
When I open my eyes I can see that she’s been panting and clawing and it seems that maybe she too
has been delivered. She knows I’m looking and turns her neck and flashes me a smile of playful
commiseration that I don’t let myself question. Then she wipes herself with her hand and jumps up to go to
the bathroom in a dash, leaving me with a peck on the cheek as I get up to do the dishes, awash in the
fullness of it all.

God it had been a long night, such a long night already and it was only like two or something. I had been
fighting with my ex, had totally fucking had it with him, had to get away or I was finally going to tell him
what was going on. I mean, why are they all such creeps, why do I never meet a guy who doesn’t turn into a

creep the minute I leave his bed? On my way out, he keeps repeating, “Alice, Alice, Alice,” and I’m
screaming and carrying on and I manage to tear my tights on the edge of his bed frame but I keep going
anyway, taking my bag off the kitchen table and telling the fat fuck to go to hell.


So I’m lucky to get a cab and I just tell the driver Midtown, and as we’re racing up Flatbush I’m
looking at the lights thinking, How the fuck did I let my life get this fucked up? Oh God, what am I doing?
What am I doing? What am I fucking doing? And each time I think it, it’s like the words start to tremble and
get more insistent, and I’m about ready to start crying right there in the cab and I take another swig of brandy
and then I think, Oh fuck, I’m not supposed to fucking drink or this medication is never gonna work, and then
I’m ready to cry about that too, ’cause I’m itchy and it hurts to pee and it’s been two months already and I can’t
even quit drinking long enough for the medicine to have any effect.


The cabbie starts to take us onto the Manhattan Bridge and I see the downtown skyline
off to the side and the Brooklyn Bridge and the East River and Lady Liberty and I’m thinking,
What am I doing in all this shit? How did I let it happen this way? Why can’t I just close my
eyes and make it all be over?

She feels she must test my silence. She tries to draw out my sighs, longs to shake me, to tear me from my
moorings, to draw me into her. But then she never notices how my hand lingers when she turns away,

doesn’t know the savagery of my morning coffee spent wondering if I’ll hear the footsteps on the stairs,
doesn’t know how my stomach drops — from relief or fear? — when I hear the turning of the key in the lock.
She would have me lose myself, to consign myself to her without reflection, and sometimes I think she only
asks it of me because I would find it the most unnatural thing in the world to do.


I had had lovers before Alice. Quiet and timid girls who I held in my arms without words or
understanding. Our sex would unfold at the snail’s pace of my own initiative. They would hesitate to touch
my cock, and then only touch it furtively, like a hot cup of coffee or someone else’s diary. I would love them
with my body in a rhapsody of my own unconnectedness. I would see our bodies in a haze, gazing abstractly
like I was watching a ritual I didn’t fully comprehend. Their pleasure seemed aleatory to me, a function not of
my acumen but of their having decided, long in advance, that I was the one. I would listen as their breathing
accelerated; I’d hold steady as they lifted their hips from the bed and bit their thumbs forcefully; I’d press my
forehead to their shoulders and shadow their movements as they’d buck and spasm and relent. And then I would
say, I would always say, as they opened their leadened eyes, “You are beautiful. You are so beautiful.”

So I got the cabbie to drop me off at Roddy’s and there was this guy sitting at the bar alone, and even though
he had B&T written all over him, he was so big and looked so uncomfortable in his ten-dollar tie, it was like
he had to be too fucking dumb to start any bullshit. He had one of his oversized mitts wrapped around a
whiskey sour with the cherry and the straw still in it and I don’t think he realized it’s a woman’s drink, and
then I realized that he probably had no idea what to drink in a bar, and suddenly it all became clear to me that
this guy probably works in Hoboken and lives with his bedridden mother and was supposed to meet some
coworkers here or something but they blew him off or he got it wrong and he was trying to make the most of
a broken evening, his first one out in months, and that I could make this guy very happy and maybe what I
needed was someone to make me feel normal, to make me feel clean, like it was me that lived in some tickytack house in the suburbs and worked a 9 to 5 and had a kid and a car payment and plans for the future.


When I sat down next to him, he looked up at me with bovine, disbelieving eyes. He was the
opposite of what I normally find attractive, but I was thinking, Fuck, all I ever pick are assholes, maybe it’s

time to try something new. So I turned on my bar stool so he couldn’t see the tear in my tights and I asked
him for a light and he fumbled in his pockets but it was obvious he didn’t have one so I told him to buy me a
drink instead and I ordered a whiskey sour and he laughed, saying, “That’s what I’m drinking,” like I didn’t
already know, like I didn’t totally fucking have his number, the dumb piece of Jersey shit.
I’ve never gotten over how easy it is, how much they’re willing to believe. At first I thought it was
a kind of magic, that I could be anything I wanted; then I started to see that the only reason they had stars in
their eyes was that they were not really looking, that they didn’t see anything at all, that they were looking up
my skirt and down my shirt and saying yes, yes, but they weren’t seeing shit of me. And the sensitive ones
would pretend to listen; and the smart ones would finish my sentences; and the rich ones would tell me they’d
get me something nice, but I was never anything more than what they wanted me to be, their fantasy of the
tramp they’d save or the angel they’d fuck up the ass.

The day I gave Alice the keys I thought back to an evening I’d spent with some people I met through a
dishwasher at work. They were passing around a joint and one of the women wanted to play this game. You
were supposed to say, if you were shipwrecked on a deserted island and could bring one animal with you, what
it would be. My first thought was a dog that would protect and love me and whose love I’d never question,
that would follow me and be loyal to my death. But then another idea insinuated itself, truer than the first: I
thought of a falcon, that I would fear, but respect. That would return to me, but I wouldn’t control it. That
would sit blinded on my arm until I’d set it free, to go and kill, and come back only if it so wanted. And each
time as I placed the hood back over its head I would wonder why it ever did.

He was so odd, so sad and nervous. I had to keep talking to keep the conversation going. I’d ask him questions
and he’d answer in three words then sit silent again and stir his drink. I asked him his name but I didn’t really
understand what he said — it sounded like “Lucid” or something — and then he didn’t even ask for mine back.
And part of me is thinking, This guy is a total fucking loser, but then another part of me thinks, Maybe he

just doesn’t know how to win, and that’s when I decided that I’d fuck him in his own car that night and see
how long it took him to tell me that he loved me.


Happy, happy — I was going to make him so happy. So I walked him out to his car and got in
alongside him and he started to ask where we were going and I just raised a finger to my lips, “Shhh,” then
ran it down his, then down his chest, and then when I reached into his pleated navy pants he came all over my
hand. I felt the laughter rising up in me, and the shame on his face made the cruelty rise up too, but I forced it
under and leaned over and kissed him on the mouth and said, “Oh baby, I’m ready to burst now too,” and then
I ran his come through his hair and laughed and said he looked like James Dean and pushed him back on his
seat and told him to close his eyes and I put my hand back between his legs and took him in my hand like it
was a broken wing and worked beneath his balls until he started to groan and move with my touch and I told
him to keep his eyes closed while I pulled my skirt up above my garters and climbed over him onto my knees
with my ankles pressed to the edge of the seat and I held myself open with one hand and guided him in with
the other and he started saying, “I can’t, I can’t, I can’t,” but I pushed my tongue into his mouth and pulled
down hard on top of him and was grinding back and forth until, a minute later, he was ready to lose himself
again. And then I stopped on a dime and pulled off him and said, “Uh uh,” waving my finger back and forth
like a schoolmistress.


And he tried to speak and I said, “Tell me your number,” and he said, “Hold on, let me find a pen,”
and I said, “No, just tell me; I’ll remember,” and he said, “I work late,” and I said, “I know,” and he said “226
2809,” and before he could get his pants zipped back up I was out his door and across the parking lot, getting
into another cab.

On the first night we fucked; on the second night we were in the car again, and again when I was about to
come she lifted herself off me and looked away. But this time she didn’t leave, she just turned in the seat so

she was on her knees looking out the passenger window and pushed her ass firm against my face. She was wet
and sticky and told me not to press so hard and while I was fumbling around trying to figure out what to do
with my tongue she just rubbed against me and tucked one hand between her legs. I don’t know if anything is
scarier than a woman taking her pleasure when you’re just sitting there not knowing where to put your hands.
So I just ran my tongue up and down her sweaty cheeks trying to stay out of the way until she finally came
and looked back at me and gave me a deep heavy kiss. You’re the best, she said. And I looked at her and had
no fucking clue what I had done.

All my life I’ve wanted something. The tiara that would make me a princess, the pony I’d ride into my
dreams. Later the horse had a rider, and he’d lift me out of the cosmic mess I had made and take me to his
castle in the dunes. But then the real men would come with their glittering watches and I’d look the poor
fucks in the face and think, Is this what I get? Is this all there is? But Lucien seemed so neutral, so average
and grounded that maybe I could get lost in him like in a big field of grain. Just close my eyes and take five
steps and never find my way out again.

It’s like looking up from under water, seeing the lights flicker above the surface, reaching up with your hand,
and not grasping. I have lived my life this way: wanting to desire, holding back. I am weary of dodging
experience. It’s like as a wind too brisk to be born; I close myself and turn away. Perhaps for some passion is
a thing both viewable and viewed; for my part, I would rather not dream than dream and be denied. When Alice

touches me I flutter. A window opens and, in a blink, closes. She feels me retreat. And like a huntress she
pursues. She pursues, not to find me, simply not to be eluded. And ever the acceleration, as if the trigger of
my great abandon were simply around the corner, dependent on some key code of positions or perversions.
She pulls off of me, turns me over, sticks something in, pours something over, binds or bites or burns me
until my well-confected moans convince her she’s hit it, that she’s touched that part of me she thinks my fear
would have me hide. She thinks she can work me like she works every other man, but I see their faces, bent
over her, frozen in vulgar masks of pleasure and I feel very far away. Over and over I see it; I see her with all
the others, the ones who don’t understand her, never cared for her, would take and take and take from her and
never bother to find out who they were taking from. Maybe I’m wrong; I’ve never fucked a man. But then I’ve
also never met one who wasn’t selfish. They don’t realize that Alice is like a butterfly: if you touch her, you’ll
rub the dust off her wings and she’ll never fly again.

He doesn’t even seem to care. I stroll in at any hour strung out of my fucking head and take his coffee and
wait for the burning words, the hard hand that never comes. He just looks at me with that pathetic,
understanding, impassive face, as if to say, “Don’t worry, honey, it’s okay, I know you’ve had a long night,”
and I can barely fucking stand it. I want to scream out, to smack him in the face, to wipe off that smirk, to
humiliate him, to knock him off his angel’s peg and make him feel what it’s like to feel ashamed. He thinks
he’s doing me a favor by always being there and “taking things in stride” and doesn’t even see that he only sits

at home ’cause he’s too scared and lost to go out and all his so-called devotion to me is just his need to have
someone else call the shots and treat him like a dog and give him the chance to show how noble he is ’cause
he keeps coming back for more. Oh, my big hero, how I need you. I need you I need you I need you. And I
keep repeating it over and over under my breath as I kneel down and unzip his pants. And he comes, thinking
that he loves me.

I wonder whether love is anything other than giving. To lose yourself in commitment, to bend beyond your
needs for the other, to be perfect and beautiful and true. Everything else is shit: shit to fuel our ego, our
vanity, our greed. With Alice I have learned that events of beauty are hand-rungs in the succession of time; we
climb toward the bright window and hope to find stillness.

©1998 Jack