The Old Crow’s Dark Eyes
This story ends with a bottle of whiskey, as any good story should. This story begins in a basement.
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.
I always hated saying God, but people looked at me funny when I didn’t, despite the dedication to higher power freedom. I found myself in basements of random churches and mansions quite often in those days. I had started to come to terms with my addiction to drink and drug so I joined the ranks of Alcoholics Anonymous. The way I got there is not this story. That story is for a later time.
His name was Jo. I had seen him outside meetings before. He never stayed through the whole hour. He stood in the car lot and smoked cigarettes. He was usually wearing a Misfits t shirt, sleeves cut off, marked with paint. I imagined him a tagger. I never paid much attention to him; I didn’t want to be in those rooms so I kept mostly to myself. He was pretty enough to look at, but I never put my hand out to him. I was so afraid of making friends that I barely put my hand out to anyone.
I worked part time at Portland Bagel Works in the Nob Hill shopping district of Northwest Portland. The owner had given me a chance despite my lack of qualifications because I was in recovery. The pay sucked, and the working conditions were worse, but it was something. I was two months clean when I relapsed the first time, and I almost lost my job. Upon the promise of sobriety and hard work she gave me another chance. It was, indeed, the second chances that saved me; that saved us.
I locked up the store one evening and walked across Glisan Street to the Plaid Pantry for a pack of cigarettes. Pall Malls; they were cheap just like our boss. It was a late surge summer; the temperature hadn’t risen above the high eighties until that week. It was mid August. I could barely wear more than cutoffs and crop tops. Everything was bare skin and thin lace that summer. Jo was standing to the right of the doors into the market with another guy. His friend was well built. He had bad piercings and worse tattoos. I didn’t recognize them at first, and Jo quietly asked me for a smoke on my way back out of the store.
“Asshole,” I thought. Of course I had a fucking cigarette. He had been eyeing me through the tall windows. I handed him one. While watching him light up I noticed how attractive he was. He had a strong jaw, dark eyes, and full lips. He returned my lighter and I started to walk away.
“Hey, are you from Eugene?” Upon hearing the full volume of his voice my knees went weak. The rest of the conversation was muted. I watched his mouth move. He asked where I was from, if I “you know, kicked it with the punks downtown,” what my name was. I barely answered. I turned, flustered, and crossed 23rd Avenue to the bus stop. Bad Piercing/Bad Tattoo Friend followed behind me and sat down on the bus bench. He looked over at me, smiled, and started to talk.
“My friend is a coward. He only asked you that shit ‘cuz, ya know, he thought you were hot. I mean…you are a babe.”
I have always hated when men called me a babe. It’s always felt uncomfortable, paternal, inappropriate. Like the name caller was pissing on my leg and claiming me as his territory. While I was in my head thinking about how much I hated being called a babe I realized where I recognized them, and probably where he had recognized me. The Serenity Prayer passed behind my eyes.
+ + +
Text message read: “wut r u doin ltr?”
His text shorthand made me cringe, but he was beautiful so I let it slide. Jo and I started talking outside meetings a few nights after the Plaid Pantry run in. He came into my shop and asked for my number. He asked me for a piece of paper and pen, on said paper he wrote “gimme ur #, don’t make this weird.” That was when I should have walked away, but I had been dreaming of unzipping his pants for days and I’ve never been good with self-control.
I received this potentially propositional text message two hours before I had to lock up the shop, dump out the stale coffee, and give mixed bags of bagels to the neighborhood bums and traveling kids.
My text message response read: “I’ll be off work in two hours. Meet me here. I have bagels. Bring good coffee. I’m taking you to my house.” I’ve always been proud of my full-sentence, fully-spelled text etiquette.
Our bus ride was uncomfortable; silent. We watched each other cross and uncross legs. I fidgeted with my fingernails; pulled on chunks of hair. We might as well have torn each other’s skin off.
When we got to my house (my father’s house, another second chance thanks to my newfound sobriety) I made more coffee, packed my Pall Mall 100’s and went to step outside to smoke. He had been watching me closely, quietly, the entire time. He stood from the recliner which had once belonged to Johnny Cash and grabbed my hand. I hadn’t noticed his hands till then; they were strong. He had tattoos across his knuckles that read GRAF LIFE in Olde English lettering. Apparently my tagger identification had been spot on. The palms of his hands were rough. His fingertips were callused. He was so young I couldn’t imagine him ever having to work long enough to get his hands to this state. I wanted to grate them across my cheeks. I wanted to kiss them, taste them, and listen to their stories. These hands had tales to tell. This was not the time for telling stories though. I realized this as he smashed his open mouth around mine.
Our sex was rushed and hot. My shirt was off before we reached my room, and he didn’t wait for my underpants to fall. His fingers pulled the fabric crotch to the side; I was almost surprised he even took the time to do that. In his haste he could have easily pushed the thin lace into my body. I was sure the sweat all came from his skin, but there was really no way to tell. Both of our bodies were damp; we stuck together. He set his shaved head beneath my breasts, and I could feel his smile.
“Stay with me.” My voice cracked. I hadn’t invited anyone to stay the night with me since I had first joined the program, especially not another sober person. He declined and stood to put his clothes on.
“I just got out of prison, I live in a halfway house with a curfew, and I don’t do sleepovers.” He said this as he descended the stairs from my attic room to the living room. I heard the front door squeak open and slam shut.
It took me a long time to ask about his imprisonment. His abrupt statement was all I needed. That night we sat at opposite sides of the meeting room, we were cordial; it was as though nothing had ever happened. I still had the taste of his fingers on my tongue. It was a desperate taste; salty, erotic.
Our affair lasted longer than I think either of us expected. There were arguments that usually ended in increasingly exhausting sessions of sex. Our fights were mostly about the fact that I told my close friends about our affair. He didn’t want anyone to know, I would get my feelings hurt because I felt like he was ashamed of me, and to prove to me that he wasn’t he would seduce me out of my dented ego. We began exploring each other’s pain thresholds. My body was often bruised in shades of purple and yellow. Deep scratches traced down my back and around the outside of my thighs. My battle wounds were proof of my active and subversive sex life. The girls I went to meetings with expressed their concern; they were worried I’d relapsed or gotten into another abusive relationship. A couple of them knew I had a lover, and those few kept a knowing smile on their faces. They were worried, but they knew better than to think I’d stop. Combating with my will was something to avoid.
Work started weighing on my psyche; tending to the needs of upper-class trust fund hipsters and snobby mothers was a daunting task. Getting out of bed became more and more difficult. I made up excuses like meetings and service work to show up late and leave early. I was a terrible worker and a worse member of AA. My sponsor was failing me as a viable support system, and I began to seek solace in male members of the program. My home life was crumbling; my father wanted me out of his house, and I had nowhere else to go. Jo had finally moved out of his halfway house into a tent in his dad’s backyard and often let me sleep there. I would catch the MAX train out to Gresham and forget about making it back.
+ + +
I had spent weeks in bed with this man, naked and exposed, tracing every inch of his body with my fingers and my eyes. I was having more sex with Jo than I’d ever had with another man. Somehow it wasn’t until I had developed feelings for him and began trusting him that I saw a curious tattoo on the back of his right calf. I had seen many adaptations of this image over the years of living with a mother who was constantly active in race and gender equality movements, and seeing the reverse design as a representation of peace.
A swastika, black and bold, was etched into the skin of my lover.
“What the hell is that?” I glared into his eyes. I searched for the answer so it wouldn’t be said out loud.
“You know what it is.” He was being defiant. I was out of time.
“Yeah, I do. Now get the hell out of my shop.”
Text message read: “hey im sitin outside ur shop, cum talk 2 me. Don b mad. R u mad?”
He had only stepped out far enough to smoke a cigarette. I approached him and promptly noticed the second tattoo. It was on his wrist which was usually wrapped in a black bandana. Another proudly placed swastika.
“Yes, I’m fucking mad. Are you a fucking…Nazi? What the fuck?” I was starting to lose control of my anger. A drink was starting to sound really nice. “I can’t fucking deal with this. Especially not out here. Get moving.” He just sat there looking at me. His eyes were so clear. His beauty was distracting. Those eyes.
“Can I explain myself, please?”
Against my better judgment I let him come back inside and explain his backwards political views to me. I don’t think I listened well enough, or my selective vision was matched with selective hearing, because that night I was back in the tent. He came inside of me and kissed me like we were in love.
The first time I left him my nipples were raw and a blood vessel in my eyeball had popped. The night before we had been in the tent again, all I could think about every time he pushed himself deeper into me were his tattoos, his hatred, how the world would be a better place if he wasn’t alive. I grabbed his hand and wrapped his fingers around my neck.
“Choke me.” He pushed down. “Harder. Deeper. Hurt me.” He did what he was told. He nearly ripped my nipples away with his teeth, he slapped me across the face until my cheeks burned, I stopped breathing, and we came in tandem with my fingernails dug into his back and our eyes locked together.
On the MAX train back into town the next morning, on my way to work, I was putting on my makeup and saw that my eye had turned red; a popped blood vessel. I knew we had gone too far, and I had already begun to question his presence in my life. Despite being the only lover who could keep up with me he was nothing but a constant flow of stress. I left him and he argued. From his perspective all of our problems had been because of me. I had no reason to fight, so I stopped responding to his texts and went on with my life.
+ + +
My sobriety waned. I had lost my job, my dedication, and the taste of whiskey was too sweet to deny. Jo had relapsed as well. He contacted me after his escape from Eugene, Oregon, and he wanted to talk. I suggested we meet at my old neighborhood bar for beers, and I showed up early to finish reading my first collection of Bukowski in peace. When I saw him walk through the swinging, creaking door of Biddy McGraw’s I already knew what the night was going to look like.
His eyes were still dark; they were the eyes of a man in mourning. He ordered us beers and sat down across from me with a forced smile on his face.
I wondered how much history was held in this one-word greeting. I was too distracted to care. He was as beautiful as ever and his sad eyes made me miss him even more. We talked for a couple hours; the ever-present shifty smiles and shaky hands underwrote our every word. Suddenly as though we’d both been hit by the same revelation we stopped talking and looked sternly into each other’s eyes.
“Do you want to leave here?” The words were falling from my mouth and I wanted to catch each of them, shove them back down my throat, take them back. I wanted to take the night back, to be alone with my books. Not sitting with my past.
“Yes…Yeah. I’m staying around the corner.”
We stood in his grandmother’s living room, a shot glass hit my mouth, my hair was in his hands, my pants were around my ankles, and he was inside of me. It all happened so fast. This evil: I knew I was smarter than it.
God, grant me the serenity…
He was beating me, clamping his hand over my mouth.
God, grant me…
I could feel him trying to break me. I knew he wanted to take my spirit from me. I fought against it.
We dressed quickly and in silence. His grandmother was standing in the doorway to the living room; her mouth was moving. Words like “Disrespect” and “Get Out Now” and “What Would Your Mother Say” were reverberating against the walls. We walked to his mother’s house, also in silence. I walked to the bathroom and out of the corner of my eye I saw his hand shovel pills into his mouth. He was in tears when I got back to where he was standing: in the kitchen, leaning against the counter. Above his head hung a picture of him and a girl; they were young. He looked innocent, and he had those same sad eyes.
I showed up to school with bruises like before, but this time they were matched with hangovers and I wasn’t proud. I wanted to keep my renewed affair a secret. My classmate and best friend Hatch often teased me for my indiscretions. I confided in him and most of the time he laughed.
“Stop drinking the Nazi Whiskey,” he’d tell me. “It only makes things worse, and you know it.”
He was right; I knew better, and he knew I didn’t care.
+ + +
Jo stumbled up the stairs to my room after a rainstorm. His eyes had emptied since the last time I’d seen him. His skin was as wet as the pavement. From his bag he pulled a six pack of Pabst and a fifth of whiskey. Nazi Whiskey. Old Crow. I had promised Hatch I’d stopped, but I had no ability to turn away from this man sitting at the foot of my bed.
I wrapped my legs around him, my chest pressed against his back. I ran my fingers down his arms, stopping at every bruise. I had seen these bruises on my own skin and on the skin of my junkie loves. I knew he was high; his hands shook. When he kissed me his mouth was dry.
As he peeled off my clothes a feeling of terror gripped my chest.
“Be gentle with me tonight, please,” I begged. My body was always sore for days after he left my bed. I needed to heal. He chose to ignore my request. He had never grasped my wrists so tightly. He ripped hair from my head. The skin across my collarbones bled from his nails. My cheeks stung hot every time he swung his hand across my face. Again, I cried for him to stop. Again, he ignored me. One of his hands crept into my crotch, the other wrapped around my neck. He was so high he forgot his strength. My hands held his face. My eyesight went soft. I suddenly became so sure of my death. I was coming, and I was dying. His face went black.
“Please…” was all I could hear.
I felt a teardrop fall on my cheek, I felt a rough tapping at my jaw, and I heard another plea. Desperation and sobriety poured from Jo’s voice as he begged me to not be dead. I opened my eyes and he was still there, above me, hopeless. My crotch was dripping. Indeed, the orgasms had always been groundbreaking. He began to explain what happened after I passed out. I had a hard time accepting the news of a seizure; that I had, in fact, nearly died.
“Please leave. You’ve been shooting up, don’t think I don’t know, and you nearly killed me. Get out and never come back.” The voice that came from me was not my own; it was terrifying in its conviction. For the first time I asked Jo to leave and really meant it. I still hadn’t caught my breath.
Similar to the way he walked out of my house the first time, he descended my creaking stairs and slammed the door behind him. I pulled my knees to my chest and unscrewed the bottle of Old Crow he left at my feet.