Blair had never kissed anyone, ever. And, of course, no one had ever kissed him. That seems obvious, but when people kiss, it’s never really clear who is doing the kissing and who is being kissed once their lips meet.
I met him at a craft fair in Camden. He watched me weld the edges of a copper sculpture together. That wasn’t odd in itself – lots of men like to watch girls weld. Something about the goggles and the gloves and stuff. They stand there and fantasize about what’s beneath it. Or maybe it’s the torch. Kind of like girls with guns. Fantasy crap. Sometimes I get guys who want to talk shop, discuss the relative merits of different rods, but that stuff doesn’t interest me. I only taught myself to weld because I wanted to make the sculptures. I’m not fetishistic about it. It’s just a means to an end.
But Blair wasn’t one of those guys either. I could tell he didn’t really care about the process. He was antsy and impatient for me to finish, shifting his weight from foot to foot, crossing and recrossing his arms over his bleach-stained black t-shirt. The first thing I noticed when I took my goggles off and looked up was that he was sporting a lot of ink, everywhere.
“Hi,” he said. “Is this your art?”
If I couldn’t tell that he wasn’t in the market for an art piece by the tone of his voice, one look at his face clinched it for me. It sounds awful to say he was hideously ugly, but that was the truth. Underneath all the ink and the piercings and shit, he might have once been a handsome man. I could have overlooked the Christmas tree worth of stuff hanging from his ears and jammed through his lips and eyebrows, but the swastika on his cheek did it for me. It was impossible to ignore and impossible to look at. My very first thought was ‘asshole’.
“Yup,” I said tightly, turning back to the work.
“I like what you do,” he said.
“Can I buy you a coffee, or a pint?”
I kept my eyes down. “Nope.”
I found the next piece of copper to join to the structure and shook my head. Blunt is always best, I figured. “I don’t like your face.”
“I don’t like yours much either.”
“Good, then we’re done.” I said, pulling my goggles back on and reigniting the propane torch.
I started on the next join. The goggles cut peripheral vision and I figured that if I just ignored him long enough, he’d move on. But when I’d finished and pulled off my goggles again to inspect the weld, he was still there, still shifting from foot to foot.
“Don’t you take commissions?”
I sighed and looked up at him. “You’re kidding.”
“No. I’m not.”
“You can’t afford me.”
“Yes, I can.”
It was impossible to see beyond the mess on his face, the patchwork of symbols and icons. Some of it was cliched and almost funny – the spider web covering his left temple and his cheek, barbed wire motif across his forehead, the Frankenstein bolts at his neck, the tear-streak – as if some emo twelve-year-old had had a go at him. But the swastika on his other cheek, the bullet piercing through his eyebrow… that wasn’t funny. It was revolting. It was a challenge. It was a big ‘fuck you’ to anyone who looked at him, and I got the sense that he was perfectly aware of it. “Look, I’m really not interested.”
“I wouldn’t ask you to make anything you’d find offensive.”
I sat on my haunches and put the torch down. I was broke. It wasn’t like I was overburdened with commissions from rich collectors. The last one I’d had was for a primary school south of the river, six months before. I’d only sold two pieces since then. My money was running out and I didn’t want to suffer the humiliation of signing on for the dole again.
“What exactly do you want?”
“I’d rather not discuss it here.”
“I thought you said you didn’t want anything offensive? I’m not bloody making you an eight-foot Nazi sculpture for your living room. I’ve got ethics, you know.”
He looked dismayed. At least I thought it was dismayed. It was hard to tell with all that junk on his face. “It’s nothing like that. I just…” He glanced around. People jostled him as they brushed past. “I just don’t want to talk about it in a public place.”
* * *
It wasn’t really the prospect of a commission that made me relent. It should have been – I needed the work – but it wasn’t. What finally prompted me to pack up my gear, store it in the locker beside the stall and walk up to the pub on the corner with him was his ugliness, the handsomeness it was hiding, and curiosity about what a man like him could want. I have always loved a good puzzle.
That’s what I was thinking as I sat at the pub table and watched him order our drinks. People allowed the man his space. Up at the bar, bustling with punters, they gave him a foot’s clearance on either side. The bartender kept his eyes on his work and barely looked at him when he handed Blair his change. What would it be like, I thought, to go through life with a face that pushed people away? There were situations in which it might be very convenient, but in the end, I thought, it would be fucking lonely. Why would anyone in their right mind consign themselves to that kind of exile?
I’m no great beauty myself. There was a time when I’d been angry about that. I saw just how much easier it was for pretty girls to have the things they wanted given to them. But then I saw that being given things had its downside. I watched the pretty women I knew make so many compromises, get snarled up in webs of expectation and obligation. And it turned out that being pretty was never enough in itself. People wanted to possess that beauty, to say they owned it, to consume it, to wear it, to employ it to enhance themselves. At worst, beauty made you a public spectacle. At best, someone always expected a blowjob as well.
I came to the conclusion that getting what you wanted for yourself was less complicated, and you didn’t owe anyone anything. I only had to suck dick when I felt like it, and I still got laid as often as I felt the itch.
Blair sat down and slid my pint across at me. For a while we just drank in silence, and I looked at his face. Really looked at it. And the more I did, the more the swastika and the bullet piercing his eyebrow and the inked noose around his neck and the kitschy tear-streak of a scar down from the corner of his eye to his jawline stopped offending me. The spider-web at his temple, the enigmatic numbers on his upper lip, the badly inked Frankenstein bolt on his neck. It was like sifting through the contents of a charity shop.
“Most people don’t look as long as you.”
The movement of his face was a bit of a shock. I’d been lost in my scrutiny. “I bet. They look away, don’t they?”
“Usually. Or they end up bleeding and unconscious.”
I put my pint down. “Is that a threat?”
“No. Just a fact.”
It’s not like I was actually worried he’d hit me. “Were you as angry before you got all that crap done?”
He met my eyes and worried the ring in his lip with his teeth for a moment, then settled his mouth into a thin smile. “I got the crap done because I was angry.”
“It didn’t help, did it?”
He shrugged. “Can we talk about the commission?”
“Sure,” I said, rousing myself and pulling my notebook and a pencil out of my rucksack. “What were you thinking of?”
“I need a pair of lips.”
I smiled. “You already have some, underneath there, somewhere.”
“A pair of metal lips.”
“Like the bloody Rolling Stones thing? With the tongue lolling out?”
“No. Just a pair of lips.”
“Do you want it flat or in three dimensions? Like, plumped out lips, or more like a cartoon?”
He thought for a while. Closed his eyes - recalling, I guessed. I waited. Around us the pub felt damp and boisterous, sour and yeasty with the smell of spilled pints.
“I want…” He hesitated, then opened his eyes. That was the first time I noticed his eyes. In seeing them, all the markings receded a little. They were coppery brown, with little flecks of gold and green in them. Gilded foliage, like an autumn garden trapped in his head behind that graffiti-covered wall. Although he had those thick, dark lashes that men always seem to have and women would kill for, the moist skin that rimmed them was red, as if he didn’t sleep much. But they were sad, warm eyes, the kind that make your own tear up a little, in sympathy. Sexy eyes. “I want a kiss.”
“A kiss?” I repeated, mechanically, because I was unable to look away. Once I’d noticed them, amidst all the other distractions, I couldn’t stop. It was a shock to realize I did want to kiss him. To close my eyes and feel the warmth of that flesh surrounded with all the detritus. To feel the cold bits of metal interrupting contact with flesh. There was something so chaotic about all that anger. I thought I’d be able to taste it on his mouth.
“Yes, a kiss.”
I gnawed at my own lip, feeling its plumpness. “Well, lips aren’t really a kiss. But, I guess you want pursed lips, yeah? A kissy mouth?”
Glancing down at my notepad, I sketched furiously, quickly drawing a series of lip outlines, pursed for a kiss.
“It needs to be very simply done. Just enough lines of metal to make it obvious that it’s a kiss.”
“Stylised?” I muttered, continuing to draw all sorts of kissy mouth shapes. Plump ones, thin ones, mouth open, closed.
He moved closer along the bench and looked down at the pad. “Yes. Not too plump. Not stupid. Just… real. As close to real as you can.”
Then, he put his index fingertip down on the notepad on top of one of the sketches. “That one.”
“Okay.” I glanced up at him, back into those coppery eyes. His skin smelled coppery, also. Of pennies clutched in a damp hand, too hard and too long. .
He moved away skittishly along the banquette and then over onto the stool across the table. “Yes. Exactly like that,” he said, taking a pull of his pint and turning his head towards the crowded bar.
I guessed that whatever momentary bonding we’d just done was over. “What kind of metal?”
Puzzled, I shook my head. “I don’t work small. I don’t make jewelry for piercings. But I’m sure you could just go out and buy something like that.”
“No,” he said. “I want it big. Not for a piercing.”
“I want to mount it on a wall.”
Blair thought. Raised his hands to his chest. Thought again. Did odd things with the shape of his open hands. “About that big,” he said, showing me a distance of about six inches between his palms.
“That’s still a bit small for mounting on a wall. Wouldn’t you like something bigger? And aluminum would be a fuck of a lot cheaper than stainless steel. I can polish it and varnish it so it doesn’t haze over, you know.”
“No. It needs to be stainless steel.”
I shrugged. “Okay. You’re the client. Anything else?”
“Can you mount it?”
“On ceramic or stone or something?”
“Yes, of course. Which would you like? Granite might look good.”
* * *
I did do all the due diligence and took down his contact details and told him I’d get back to him with an estimate, but I needn’t have bothered, because on the way down to catch the tube he pushed his hand into mine, and I ended up taking him back to my loft.
All the way there, the other passengers stole glances at him, looking away when they thought they were in danger of being caught. They left the momentary contact with scowls on their faces, or a shake of the head, or pursed lips, but not the kissy sort. Part of me kept wondering why I was taking this man back to my place. Then I’d glance at him – I did it three or four times – and feel the unexpected tug of him. Half lust, half vertigo: it was all that mad energy, I think, that made me feel that way. The prospect of fucking a whirlwind, like the peculiar fascination of staring up at a funnel cloud. A strange natural phenomenon that was both frightening and thrilling.
* * *
I let him through the door and into my mess of a loft. Bits of metal everywhere, and my workbench. It still stank of hot copper from the work I’d done in the morning before I’d left for the craft show.
“I’m sorry about the mess,” I said, not really meaning it.
I tried to kiss him then, but he turned his head and wouldn’t let me. When I tried again, he pushed my face away with the palm of his hand.
Standing back, I glared at him. “I didn’t ask you up here to see my etchings, you know.”
“So what are we doing, then?”
He was silent for a while, walking around the space, eyeing my bench, and my unmade bed, and the cobbled together kitchen in the corner, until he stepped up behind me and circled my waist with his arm. He pulled me back against him and he was hard.
“I don’t kiss,” he said, smearing his cheek against mine.
“You don’t…” but I never managed to finish the sentence. He’d popped the button on my jeans and slid his hand down the front of my knickers. A man with really good fingering technique can make me forget almost anything.
The ink and the piercings and the purposeful scars didn’t stop at his face. I wish I could remember most of them, but time and other things have faded my memory. I do remember sucking his cock, if only because it was also pierced and I worried my teeth might catch on the ring and do him damage. But it didn’t worry him at all. He simply grabbed a handful of my hair and came down my throat.
It was the fucking I remember. After he’d rolled on the requisite latex, pushed my legs apart, and seated his cockhead between the lips of my cunt, our eyes met. And there it was again, that trapped garden glistening behind the scarred-up wall, but with the black holes of his pupils sucking in the surrounding colour. It was an odd sensation to be so horny, so aching to be fucked, and yet stunned into immobility. As if I’d forgotten what we were doing.
“Don’t look at me,” he said, clipped and angry. “Turn your head or I’ll fuck your ass.”
“Make me,” I said, feeling defiant and scared all at once. Feeling my teeth meet. Feeling their sharpness.
With one big hand, he cupped my face and turned it aside. That’s the way he fucked me. Holding my head so I could not see him. At first, I was so angry, I felt the first thrusts, but it was as if I was out of my body, looking at these two mismached people go at it. Slowly, as he kept thrusting into me and twisting his hips as he seated his cock, something changed.
There was, I realized, no obligation to look at him. No need to make sure my expression was appreciative or benevolent or approving enough. It didn’t matter who he was. Only that I was being fucked and it felt good. For a while, that sense of being outside and beyond seemed erotic in itself. The sheer vacancy of it almost made me come. In a single note of breath, of quiet moan, it changed. I heard it in his sounds first, but then I felt it in his muscles, smelled it coming off his skin with his sweat. His hand shifted from my face and fisted into my hair. It might have been the normal climb towards pleasure that happens every time, but I didn’t think so. It was an awful, inexorable wounded rage. And there was no maintaining that sense of disconnection any more. I was pulled, bodily, into that wound, with its jagged, scabbed edges and its inflamed, unhealed interior. I came just seconds before he did.
Later, after he fell asleep, I sat cross-legged in bed and rolled the one cigarette I allowed myself each day. Asleep, he was beautiful. Without a conscious mind to animate all the signifiers, imbue them with intention or volition, they lost their power. All the wreckage on his surface just floated there, so much litter on a pond, which doesn’t stop the pond from being beautiful.
I thought about leaning over and kissing his cheek while he slept, but I didn’t. It occurred to me that there was something unethical about that. Like robbery. I lit my fag instead.
* * *
I completed my commission for Blair the following week. A cut and incised steel form of a pair of lips in the act of a kiss, mounted on a lovely slab of black granite that contrasted nicely with the work itself, and I’d worked the mounting bolts into the design. I was pleased with it. Not exactly crazy about the symbolism, but I’d been a perfectionist about the finishing. It would look nice mounted on a wall, even if it was a little small. But I’d raised the lips enough from the stone to allow it to cast a neat, clean shadow in angled light. It would look just as good sitting on a table, with the lips floating above it. I wouldn’t have called it a work of art, conceptually, but it was a very satisfactory piece of design. We’d spoken during the week, but he’d never mentioned anything but the sculpture and, taking my cue from him, I’d kept it strictly business.
“Would you like to come and pick it up at my loft?” I asked, when I rang him. I admit to being hopeful of another evening in bed.
“I was hoping you could bring it over to my place and help me mount it on the wall and…” His voice trailed off.
“And other things?” I said. I’ve never really believed in beating around the bush with someone I wanted to fuck.
“Yes, other things.”
“Sure. What’s your address?” He gave it to me and I agreed to meet him there at seven in the evening.
“Bring your propane torch?”
“I don’t need it. I’ll bring a drill and some brackets to mount it.”
“Bring the torch.”
* * *
Lugging my tools, on top of the sculpture on its base, on public transport seemed almost impossible. So, after a bit of begging and the promise of a pair of custom-made drawer handles, I talked my downstairs neighbor, the carpenter, into lending me his car.
The address surprised me. I guess I had expected him to live in a squat somewhere, but he lived on a thoroughly middle-class street of the quiet Victorian variety. The sort of place where housemaids used to get knocked up and kicked out, and now people run wife-swapping soirees that eventually end in divorce. I pulled into the gravelled forecourt in front of red brick house with lovely pseudo-Gothic arches on the windows. Blair met me at the door and helped me carry my things inside.
Inside, the place was eerily empty. No carpet on the floors, no furniture, no pictures. Nothing. It was all painted a prim, glossy cream, but that was the extent of the decor.
“I thought you lived here,” I said.
“I do. I just don’t use it. I have a room upstairs. I mostly just live in there.”
“Are you trying to rent it out?”
“So where would you like the sculpture?”
“Upstairs. In my room,” he said. He caught my eye, briefly, then stared over my left shoulder. He jutted out his chin, working his jaw, chewing on some invisible future prospect.
“You don’t want it here in the living room? It would look very nice on that wall, above the fireplace,” I suggested.
“No. Upstairs. I’ll show you,” he said, picking up my duffle bag of tools and starting up a winding, wooden staircase. “Bring it.”
His room on the floor above was at the front. It was big and high-ceilinged and almost as bare as the rooms on the ground floor. There was a mattress on the floor, and I was pleased to see he was just as domestically challenged as I was. Against the back wall he had a desk with a laptop on it, and a small bookshelf full to the brim with tattered novels. There was one large photograph on the wall opposite his bed. It was framed like an art photo. The subject was a smiling young girl, standing on a pebble beach with the sea churning in the background. Even though the photograph was in black and white, it was obvious by the light that it had been a grey day. The girl had struck a rather glamorous pose and her cotton dress and long dark hair were both caught up in the wind coming off the sea. There was something familiar about her.
“It’s a marvelous picture,” I said, setting the sculpture down on the floor and moving closer. It was an old photograph. It had that ’70s grain to it, and the dress was a-line, with a Peter Pan collar. “Did you take it?”
“No. My mother did.”
“Who’s the girl in the picture?”
“My sister Emily.”
“Oh, yes. She looks a lot like you. I can see it in the cheekbones and the forehead. And the mouth.”
“What about you? Where are you?” Because it struck me in that moment that when people had twins, they were mad about taking pictures of them together. As if they wanted to capture the phenomenon of sameness over and over again.
“I’m over to the right,” he answered. “Not in the picture.”
“She didn’t want me in it.”
I laughed, looking at the little girl’s glamour pose. “Your sister? ”
Blair said nothing. It made me feel unaccountably guilty, as if my question had bruised the silence before it had even filled the room.
“No,” he said, finally, it a low, flat tone. “My mother.”
* * *
Blair wanted the sculpture on the opposite wall, above his bed, so we pushed the mattress away from the wall and I got out my drill and the brackets to hold the granite. He was very sure of exactly where he wanted it placed. Rather too low on the wall, as far as I was concerned. I explained to him that it would look better just below eye-level, but he didn’t seem to care.
I used a spirit level, marked the corners, and after sinking the bottom brackets into the plaster, got him to help me hold the piece in place as I installed the top and side brackets.
“What do you think?” I asked, stepping back and looking at the piece from a distance.
He smiled and pushed a fold of fifty-pound notes into the back pocket of my jeans. “Thank you. I think it’s perfect.”
I felt the sting of regret. It was done. I looked over at him. “I guess that’s it, then?”
“No. I need you to do one more thing for me,” he said, pulling his cotton long-sleeved t-shirt over his head.
I grinned and laughed. “Oh, I think I can do that.”
Blair tilted his head in an apology. “Not that, actually. I need you to heat it up.”
“Heat it up with your blow torch.”
I folded my arms over my chest and stared at him. “No, I need to know why I would ruin the finish on a perfectly good piece of my sculpture.”
“It’s not a piece of sculpture.”
“Fuck you. If you didn’t like it, why didn’t you just have the balls to say so?”
“I do like it,” he said, sliding his arm around my shoulders. I shrugged it off but he pulled me into his chest. “I just meant that, to me, it’s not a piece of sculpture.”
“What is it then? A fucking door knob?” I said angrily.
“No. It’s a brand.”
“I’m not asking you to do anything to me. Just heat it up.”
I opened my mouth to ask him for an explanation, a clarification. Half convinced I could make him say something else if I played dumb enough. I could pretend not to know what he meant, and he would forget the whole idea, and we could fuck instead. But I shut it when I saw his expression. He had a triumphant sort of look on his face. Like, what did I expect? How stupid was I?
He’d used me. He’d lured me and used me. He’d flattered me and fucked me. My eyes pricked, flooded and then I got angry with myself for being so unbelievably thick.
“Why?” I bleated pathetically.
“I can’t explain it. It’s way beyond words. It’s just something I need. I have to have it.”
“I don’t understand.” But I did, of course. All the scars and the tattoos and the piercings. He wanted one more big, angry mark on his body and he’d manipulated me to get it. And still those beautiful brown eyes, peering out from all that ugly, self-righteous anger. “No, I can’t do it. I won’t do it.”
“Then I’ll just buy a torch and do it myself,” he said coldly.
“It’s fucking big. It’s going to hurt like hell.”
“Then why? Let’s just fuck and forget it. I’ll take the sculpture back. You don’t have to pay for it.” I reached for his hand and he let me take it, curled his fingers into mine.
“It’s not enough.”
He shook his head. “I…” and his jaw worked, trying to pry out words that he obviously couldn’t find. “Please,” he said.
I sat there looking at him in that blank room, with the smug, happy little twin on the wall. And opposite, the thing I’d made. As if there were teeth just beneath those metal lips. What if I let him do it on his own, and he fainted and burned the house down, or hit his head and bled to death?
He smiled and looked relieved. “I’ll pay you for the extra time.”
“Fuck you. This,” I said, trying to put it into words, “can’t be a transaction.”
“No. I guess not.”
* * *
As small as the piece was, it took some time to eat the heat. Still, I worried that it wasn’t holding the heat evenly. It had to be tangerine hot, Blair said, to brand just right, so the skin seared but didn’t split or come away with the metal. My hand shook as I played the torch across the metal surface. I spoke patience to myself and to the steel, sweeping the torch across it with long, fluid strokes from below, coaxing the metal into taking the heat upward to the top of the piece.
“What about after?” I said out loud. “What happens after? Do you have bandages?”
“No. It’s best to leave it open to the air for a while.”
“What if you faint?”
“Then I faint. Just don’t let me fall on you. I’m heavy.”
“Shut up. Fuck. I don’t know why I’m doing this.”
“Is it ready?”
I stood back from the metal, glowing even and pale red, and shut off the torch. “God, I don’t know. I think so.”
He stood beside me and looked at it. “I think we’re good.”
Without warning, he wrapped his arms around me, pivoted, and pressed his back flat against the searing steel.
I knew, as I heard the hiss, as he began to shake, that, in part, he was using my weight to keep himself there. Making me even more complicit than I already was. Sharing out the burden of this small act of self-immolation. Like a kiss. The way – once you’ve started – you can’t remember who initiated it or whose lips are whose. It ceases to be anyone’s fault.
I’d like to thank Rob MacIsaac for his generous editing help.