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Girl Overboard

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 PERSONAL ESSAYS

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Girl Overboard by Maura Donohoe

The three of us were living in a co-op with sixteen other people: a big messy, pink place overflowing with porches and Joni Mitchell CDs and sticky notes in the refrigerator reading, “Please do not eat this cheese.” They were the kind of couple who kept breaking up in public: in the middle of cooking dinner or during a house meeting. She was beautiful, with gold rotini curls. He was a drummer. And at first, it was she who’d wanted the open relationship — she had a theory about nonpossessiveness and a crush on a guy at the store where she worked — but that cheery candor (“I just want to make sure things are aboveboard!”) fell apart almost immediately. She demanded that he and I end the affair.

    

But it was too late: although we stopped sleeping together, I’d been hit like the goatskin on one of his African drums, and I kept vibrating through the summer, the fall, November, December — eye contact, fingertips brushing when he passed me a dish, collusive shoulder-shakes across the dance floor. If he flirted with another girl, I seethed; if he was going to cheat, it should be with me.

    

Then one night on the waterbed that served as a couch in the messy shared living room — our legs gliding together under the afghan — it started again. But this time it was secret, and there was no place that was private. We’d lock gazes, and then exit through separate doors. Meet in the parking lot. Load his canoe on top of the car. Drive to the lake, unload, drift it into the
water, get in, paddle out, recline against the ribs of the wood and roll toward
one another.

    

It wasn’t as hard to balance as you’d imagine. The bottom was flat, and the night air was perfect, that forgiving spring weather New Englanders appreciate more than anyone else. He’d lie on top of me like the second layer on a cake, moving slowly, his tea-brown, silky hair falling against my face, invisible waves lapping the sides of our boat in the darkness, silent, my hands running over his lips: shhhh. Or I’d go down on him, knees lodged against the oar-hold. We’d paddle into the tall reeds, where no one could see us, and then strip off our clothing. He had ropy, beige drummer’s arms and a thick putty-colored scar that ran up his belly, the remainder of an emergency splenectomy he’d had at thirteen. It brought out the affection in me, the trapped tenderness. I liked
to run the tips of my fingers up and down its numbness.

    

He was numb himself, stoned, very slightly, every minute of the day, and seemed simultaneously more sensitive and more detached than I could ever be. His girlfriend was away a lot, taking lessons in herbalism. When she was there, I lowered my eyes like Hagar in the kitchen, passed the bread, made apologetic moues. The disloyalty was a constant sour strain in my arousal, a swirl in the batter. I had waves of panic. I was having bad dreams: in one, I lied that I’d had an abortion, just to see his face. In another, she beat me up in the co-op stairwell, her tiny fists a hail of pebbles bouncing off my chest, a terrifying fast-motion sequence he watched from a distance, shrugging, saying nothing.

    

But the sex, oddly, was getting better and better. We grinned as we were doing it, grabbing at each other for fistfuls of flesh: it was impossible to be unhappy in the midst of it. It was as if the secret itself were making our bodies disintegrate, like cold water seeping in, an icy, stimulating tickle.

    

One weekend, when she was away, I stayed with him in their bed. We clawed one another: tilting, tilting. The bed was more stable than the canoe, and it brought out the acrobats in us, so that we shifted aggressively from position to position, like sleepers trying to get comfortable. But hanging over the edge, my neck against the metal box spring, I felt dizzy and clammy, giddy with nausea. I found myself giggling. I had always been a good person, moral and kind. Now I had been knocked off my high horse. In one way, I liked it; it was a relief from all that strained helpfulness. But rocking, near orgasm, heat spreading upward in my belly, I arced back and lost balance, and at last he fell out of me, and I out of him, my head hitting the wooden floor — knocking some sense in, maybe, the way I knew it would, having chosen this position in the first place.


©2001
Maura Donohoe and Nerve.com