The Shape of My Mouth
by Roxane Gay
I am ten. He is older but still young. His skin tastes bitter. His body is tight and lean and hard. His laugh is ugly. He is young but there is no kindness in him, none at all. His name is James but he likes to be called Jimmy Jimmy Lightning Jimmy. I call him James. He is a city boy, from Boston, moved in with my family because his parents worried he was mixing with the wrong element. Our mothers are sisters, never really close unless they need something from one another and then suddenly, they are best friends, on the phone for hours at a time, reminding each other of everything that ever went wrong between them and how to make all that right. When my parents told my brother and I cousin James was coming to live with us, I said, "Like the TV show?" My parents nodded and smiled and I thought it was a good thing, an adventure in my own home. I was excited to tell all my friends at school about this boy from the city but then James came talking about how he wanted to be called Lightning Jimmy and he wasn't anyone I wanted to introduce to my friends.My brother Felix fell in love with James immediately and became his shadow. The two of them worked in tandem with Felix doing James's bidding in a smaller package with a higher pitched voice. They liked to tease me for being born in one of those Midwestern states known only for breeding corn and cattle. When I pointed out Felix was born there too, he shrugged. When he was with James Jimmy Jimmy Lightning Jimmy, he was a cool city cat who wanted no part of the likes of country me.
James's room was in the basement and he kept his door locked at all times, didn't want anyone in his room. He was not a unique boy. The walls were covered with posters of heavy metal bands and scantily clad women. My parents didn't object because, they said, James had lived a hard life. I didn't understand what that meant and it angered me, how my parents mostly ignored James, how his loud music made the walls of the house tremble, and the stench of the weed he smoked drifting to the upper levels through the vents. My parents did not mind boys being boys.
Along one wall of James's room, there was a twin bed and across from the bed there was a dresser on top of which James kept a pristine model of the Millennium Falcon, a picture of the girl he claimed to loved from back home and his track trophies. James was a sprinter. He was fast and lean and mean which helped him win so many trophies. In the far corner of his room was a big desk with a computer where James played video games and chatted online using the modem and tying up the phone line for hours. The desk was angled creating a void between the two walls and the desk.
I knew all about the void, its darkness, its dimensions. I knew about the sticky white wad of gum stuck to the back of the desk and the gray streak on one of the walls left by my sneaker when I still had fight in her. James liked to keep me in the void behind his desk. He would stand over me, grip my shoulders and force me to my knees. He would say, "You're going to take real good care of me." He'd unzip his jeans and the sound of those metal teeth coming apart made me sick to my stomach.
James ran like there was a fire in him, my father said. Come springtime, we would spend our Saturdays at track meets all over the state watching James in his yellow and green uniform, dashing 50,100, 200 yards, always leaving the other boys behind. Felix made signs that said things like, "Go Go Lightning Jimmy," with big block letters and a lightning bolt across the bottom. He and my parents cheered so loudly they made my ears ache. James loved to run, knew it was the only thing he was good at. When he wasn't lying around his room, he was outside running. When he came home after his runs, he was always dripping in his sweat, his hair pasted to his face and neck. He'd try to hug me and cover me in his sweat and when he pulled away, you could see the damp outline of his body on my clothes. He disgusted me.
The first time, James said, "I'm going to teach you how to make a man real happy someday." My mouth went dry. His room smelled like weed and cheap drugstore cologne and sweaty running boy laundry. I said, "My mom's going to be looking for me soon," and James laughed. He said, "If your mom cared, you wouldn't be down here right now." I said, "If your mom cared, neither would you." He pushed me against the wall, hard. There would be a bruise on my back, later. I didn't understand anything about that moment.
James held my chin in his hand. He said, "Open your mouth, sweet girl," and he said, "Don't you bite me." I opened my mouth. I hated swallowing medicine; my throat always closed up and I choked on chalky bits of Flintstones vitamins or St. Joseph's aspirin. When James put his hot, salty cock in my mouth, I threw up orange juice and pink bits of hotdog. He got angry, kicked me in the stomach. He went to his bathroom and grabbed a bottle of Fantastick and a washcloth, threw them at me. He said, "Clean your mess up." I did.
When I went upstairs, I sat on the back porch. It was hot and quiet outside, a little windy. I loved the sound of wind in the leaves, how it sounded like whispering. The smell of Fantastick stayed on my fingers for hours, days, the rest of my life. I still can't stand the smell. It was sharp, terrible and made my nose feel wide open. After a while, I pulled my knees to my chest and rested my forehead against my arms. I sat like that until my mother came to get me for dinner but I couldn't eat. I sat quietly watching James and Felix cracking jokes, watching my parents joke with each other. I thought about calling my best friend Marley but Marley hated boys.
A few weeks later, my parents went out dancing on a Saturday night. They loved their children but loved each other more. They also loved to dance—ballroom, Latin, swing—so long as they could move each other around on a dance floor they were happy. My parents went out a lot, always left smelling like hairspray and cologne and perfume and came back smelling like cigarette smoke and wine. When James moved in, my parents went dancing a lot more because they had a teenager in the house who could look after their children. After Felix fell asleep, James told me to come watch a movie with him on Cinemax. My stomach felt funny and tight. I said, "I'm not allowed to watch that channel," and James laughed. He patted the empty space next to him on the couch. He said, "Come closer, sweet girl." I shook my head. I was neither sweet nor a girl. James said, "Don't make me angry." Slowly, I unfolded my legs and stood. It was hard to move, hard to think.
I sat next to James and he rested his hand on my thigh. A movie with more music than words came on. There were naked bodies and big hair and loud moans. James pulled my hand between his thighs. He was hard. I flexed my fingers, tried to pull my hand away but he was stronger and he would always be stronger. I knew that. He told me to lie down on the floor and I did. He lay on top of me, and I was surprised by how heavy he felt, how hotly his body covered mine. He kept his clothes on and he left my clothes on. He started grinding himself against me, straining his neck to watch the movie at the same time. He started pressing himself into me harder and harder until I thought I would disappear beneath him and then he groaned loudly, just once, and stopped moving, just lay on top of me, sweaty and limp. A cold wetness spreads across my jeans.
I am eleven and he is older but still young. Every day after school, I go to James's room. I wait, on my knees in that dark place between his desk and the wall. I take him into my mouth and open my throat while he holds my head in the palms of his hand. I never fight. I never throw up, not anymore. Sometimes he smells like sweat or stale piss. I try to breathe around him. When he asks me to do something, I follow his instructions. I have learned. I am smart. The best way to make him finish fast, like Jimmy Jimmy Lightning Jimmy is to do exactly as he says only better. He likes when girls do exactly as he says. He calls me sweet girl over and over again. I hate the words. I hate him. I hate everything. I am no longer chubby like I once was. James says, "You're slimming down. I like that."
One afternoon, Felix catches us just as James finishes. I stay crouched behind the desk until I'm told I can leave. James quickly pulls up his jeans and runs after Felix, brings him back to the room with his arms around Felix's shoulders. He says, "We're cool, man, right?" Felix looks at him strangely and looks at me, then looks back at James. My brother shrugs out of James's embrace. He says, "No, we're not," and I feel so happy, the kind of happy I didn't know was possible. I stand. I try to say something but I don't know what to say. James grabs Felix. He pushes my brother against the door. He said, "You say one word, little worm, and I'll kill both of you." We believe him. Felix says nothing. I say nothing. The three of us, we share a secret. Felix holds my hand as we leave James's room and go upstairs, outside, where it is clean and bright and filled with light.
We climb a tree along the southern edge of our property. We hide among the leaves and branches. Felix tries to come up with a plan. I tell him there's nothing we can do. I tell him I'm fine, I'm used to James, it's not so bad. Felix believes me because he is still young enough to trust.
I am thirteen and he is older but still young. He was supposed to go to college but decided not to because, he doesn't need more school to learn anything, he's plenty smart enough. That's what he tells my parents and his parents. He still lives in the basement. He still uses my mouth every day. He tells me to pretend I'm saying "ahhh" like I'm at the doctor with a sore throat. I tell him my throat always hurts and he tells me to shut up. He tells me to squeeze him with my lips and trace him with my tongue. He tells me to hold him in my hands. I know one day he will take more from me. Felix glares at him across the dinner table and stands guard outside James's door when I am trapped between the desk and the wall. The three of us, we share a secret. Felix sits in the tree in our backyard with me and holds my hand. He says he's sorry he's not bigger, older, smarter. My parents fall deeper in love. They are the only people in the world they have created for themselves. They spend more time away from home, taking vacations to places like Martha's Vineyard and Santa Barbara and then they travel across oceans. They send us postcards bearing lies like, "Wish you were here."
I am fourteen and he is older but still young. James doesn't go to college so I go to boarding school. I tell my parents I'm smart, too smart for the schools in our small town. They believe me. They write a check with a lot of zeros. I pack my belongings in one suitcase and a trunk. On my last day at home, James tells me I better make him happy enough to last until Thanksgiving. I do what he wants. On the flight to my new school, my jaw hurts so bad I can't speak but I am still a virgin, sort of, so I don't mind. At school, I am quiet. I don't make many friends but am popular with the boys. James was right. I study. I join the cross-country team. James isn't the only one who can run. Felix calls twice a week and I sit in the phone room with my feet propped up against the wall, twirling the phone cord around my finger. My brother doesn't spend much time at home anymore, sleeps over at his best friend's house whenever he can. He says our parents are as happy as ever, that every day they move further into their own world and out of ours. He says James just lays around the house in dirty sweatpants. I don't care what James is doing.
At Thanksgiving, I want to stay at school but the dorms close. On the flight back I talk with a man from Des Moines who gives me his bag of peanuts like it's something more. He has a daughter my age but he doesn't look at me the way a man would look at a daughter. He offers to give me a ride. I take a cab home from the airport, tell the driver to take the long way. The cabbie is an older man. He has a daughter my age. He has nice eyes and thick hands and he is a good driver. When he drops me off, he opens my door and carries my suitcase to our front porch. James is home alone, watching TV in the family room. When he sees me, he jumps up, his eyes shining, bright. He holds my chin, rubs his thumb across my lips. I tell him to take a shower. I have learned things at school. When James forces me into the corner behind his desk, he says, "You've learned things at school." When he finishes, I spit him out on the floor. I don't clean it up. He wraps his hands around my throat, says, "You swallow me every time or I'll start wanting more from you." I believe him.
Everything in my bedroom is exactly as I left it. I lie on my bed and wait until I can return to school where no one makes me do anything I don't want to do, where my jaw doesn't hurt and my mouth doesn't taste sour. Later, there is a quiet knock on my door. It's Felix. He sits on the edge of my bed and looks at me careful and hard. He says, "You've changed," and I shrug. I know. I'm not nice anymore. The girls at school tell me I'm mean because I always tell the truth. Felix leaves my room, heads off to a friend's house. Before he leaves, he kisses me on the forehead. He says, "I understand you." We share a secret, the three of us. We know too much. My parents take us out to dinner. I sit in a cramped both across from James. The menus are greasy. The booths are greasy. The table is greasy. James stares at me. When no one's looking he makes an obscene gesture involving his hand and his tongue pressed into his cheek. I roll my eyes. I ask my parents if I can order a piña colada. They say, "Yes, just one." The drink is cold and slushy and the rum is sweet. I sip it slowly. I tie the stem of a cherry into a knot and flick the knot across the table toward James. He tries to force his foot between my thighs. I grab his ankle and dig at his skin with my fingernails until I feel blood. I smile.
James hasn't changed. He's the kind of person who will never be anything more than he is. He works part time at a video store, the kind with a badly kept secret room in the back. He suggests we watch dirty movies together. I tell him I'm not interested. When he gets home from work, he hangs out in the basement. Sometimes he has one or two of the guys he works with over, guys who still live with their parents and wear rock band t-shirts from the eighties. The day after Thanksgiving when everyone is still swollen with food, James tells me to blow his friend Scooter and when I finish, Scooter stumbles out of James's room pulling up his pants, muttering, "Goddamn." When we're alone, I tell James he better not ever do that again or I'll scream bloody murder whether he kills me or not. He believes me. He shoves me behind his desk, says, "My turn." He says, "You sure do know how to put the sex into oral, sweet girl." I think, "This is the worst I will ever feel for the rest of my life."
I don't go home for Christmas. I take the train from school and stay at a hotel in New York City where I never have to fall on my knees. I stop going home. My parents send checks, postcards, call once in a while. My junior year, Felix joins me at boarding school. We eat all our meals together and watch TV in my dorm's common room. People can't believe he is my brother. He's always laughing and smiling and flirting with girls. One afternoon, we walk through piles of dried, fallen leaves and he says, "We got out and we're together." He pumps his fist in the air and skips and kicks leaves, running through them as they fall back to the ground. I tell him I'm glad he came to school with me. I start to sleep better.
I am twenty-one but he is older, still young, too old to still be living with my parents. No one says anything about it because they don't really care. I am dating a nice guy who is in a fraternity but doesn't act like it most of the time. He's huge, has a thick body and a fat stomach I love to rest my head on when we're lying in bed. I am a junior in college. We make out on the couch in my apartment, something I bought at a thrift store even though I could have bought something new. I straddle my boyfriend's lap. He holds my waist in his fat hands. He says, "I can't believe I'm with you." I say, "I like big boys." He laughs. He has a wonderful laugh. I love men who are fat with laughter. His hands slide beneath my shirt. He presses his thumbs against my rib cage. He whispers, "Please, baby, put your mouth on me." An ugly pang rocks me. I kiss him harder, start unzipping his pants. I pull my underwear to the side and lower myself on him and he groans, loudly. He forgets my mouth. I understand how any hole will do if they want you badly enough, especially when you're with a man who thinks you're way out of his league.
There's always somewhere to run. I never stop running. I run first thing in the morning and again late at night. I'm running away from Jimmy Jimmy Lightning Jimmy. I get so good at running he'll never be able to catch me again. I run away from a house with no parents and a dark, stifling basement where I spend my afternoons trapped between two walls and a big wooden desk. My boyfriend asks, "What are you running from?" I say, "What makes you think I'm not running to something?" He says, "No one runs that damn fast toward anything." He asks if I love him. I tell him the truth. I always tell the truth. It gets me in trouble.
I am thirty but he is older, not as young as he once was, not so old I've stopped thinking about myself in relation to him. He is a compass point. I have a good job with an office where I can close the door and tell people what to do. I am married to a good man who understands what I cannot give him and loves me nonetheless. I have a child, a girl. Her name is Emma. She talks constantly, loves to wear dresses with sneakers. She is four. Her favorite color is yellow. She hates carrots. She says, "Mommy, you're my best friend." I am happy. I am happy there's still something good enough inside me to be a good mother. My parents invite us home to help them celebrate forty years of marriage. They say, "Felix is coming, Jimmy is still around, it will be like old times." I say we're busy, but they insist. I do not want my child in that house. My husband says it will be nice, says he wants to see where I grew up. I cannot show him that dark corner between a wooden desk and two walls but that's where I grew up, not in that house. He knows I have secrets. I talk in my sleep. He loves me.
My parents are standing on the porch when we walk up. My husband is carrying our suitcases. I am carrying Emma. They throw their arms open and embrace the three of us like we're that kind of a family. Emma is thrilled to have new people to talk to. Soon, she is leading my parents around and they follow her eagerly. That is my child, nothing like me in the best ways. My husband takes our bags to my old room, which hasn't changed, won't ever change. I find James sitting on the couch reading a book, bearing a bloody knife on the cover. He has a round stomach that hangs over his pants. His face has grown longer. His hair is graying lightly but is as thick as ever. He waves at me with a half smile. He says, "Look at my sweet girl is all grown up." My husband comes up behind me, wraps his arms around me and rocks us from side to side, nuzzling my neck. I lean into his embrace. He is a big man, solid, twice James's size, more. I smile at James from the safety of my husband's arms. My knees tremble. My mouth is dry and sour.
At dinner, Emma rattles off a list of all the things she has seen today. She is charming and perfect and not in a precociously annoying way. Everyone at the table smiles easily. Children make it easy to smile. When Emma was born and they put her in my arms and she was still weird looking and wrinkly, she threw out a tiny fist like she was trying to fight the power. I knew my kid was going to be a fierce little thing. I smiled so hard and my husband started crying. He is a man who cries who is naked with how he feels, who is what I need. He kissed my forehead and kissed the baby and wrapped his big arms around us. He said, "That's the first time I've ever seen you smile like that." When James stares at her for what feels like too long, I cut him a look, grip my knife. My hands sweat. After dinner, we all watch a movie. Emma falls asleep on our laps. My husband and I excuse ourselves. We put Emma in a sleeping bag next to the bed. She says she is camping. She falls asleep talking. I tie a little bell to the sleeping bag and one to my bedroom door. I am careful. I have learned things.
My husband lies on his side, propping himself up on an elbow, one hand on my stomach. He says, "What's with your cousin still living here?" I am nauseated. I have been nauseated for hours. I turn away from him but inch closer. I say, "I have no idea." My husband tucks a finger in my navel. He says, "It's kind of weird." My head aches. My jaw aches. I feel wetness on my face, realize I'm crying and then I'm sobbing, loud and coarse and my husband is confused, worried, but he holds me as I shake against him, as I curl into myself tightly. He holds me all night. In the morning he kisses my shoulder and says, "I'm not sure why, but this was a mistake." I turn around to face him.
I run through my parents' neighborhood. James catches up to me on the second lap. He cannot run as fast as me now that he has that gut hanging over his pants. When I try to pull away he grabs me by my elbow. I say, "Don't touch me." He says, "Let me talk to you." I stop, lean over, resting with my hands on my knees as I try to catch my breath. He says, "You have a real nice family." I don't look at him, but I say, "If you even look at my kid," but I don't finish my thought because I don't need to. He throws his hands in the air, says, "I'm not a pervert." I laugh. Even though I can't catch my breath I laugh and laugh and start running again. When I look back, James is standing where I left him. He looks small.
The tree on the southern edge of the property has grown majestic with age. Felix and I climb up to the branch where we sat as children. We watch caterers and party planners mill about the property preparing for the celebration. My brother says, "You know, we're not kids anymore. You can tell now, what happened to you, or I can tell." I pick at some decaying bark. I think about climbing higher to the top of the tree and throwing myself from the branches so I might fly. I say, "There's no point in telling anymore." Emma runs out of the house in a bright yellow dress. My heart seizes and I quickly scan the yard for James. Her father steps out of the house and it is easier to breathe. He spots us in the tree and waves, points at Emma and shrugs, holding his palms open. Felix says, "You'd want your daughter to tell." We watch my child running through the yard for a long time. Finally, I say, "Yes, I would." When I climb down, Emma is waiting for me. She reaches for my hand.
There's a party. My parents have invited all their friends. Felix and his girlfriend spend all their time making out on the back porch. After we put Emma to sleep, my husband and I get sloppy drunk. The bottles of champagne are everywhere, always chilled, always full. The backyard is filled with Christmas lights hanging from wooden trellises. Music plays and there's a dance floor set up beneath the lights. My parents dance all night, never take their hands off one another. My husband smiles, says, "They are so in love," and I nod. I take a long sip of champagne. I say, "There's a price." He looks at me, raises an eyebrow, I don't elaborate. I keep an eye on James. As long as my child is sleeping upstairs, I will always know where James is. He is a compass point. My husband and I dance. I press my cheek against his chest. I take my heels off and stand on his shoes. I drink more. The night wears on. It is three in the morning, maybe four, when the party finally winds down. My husband has passed out. I helped him up to our room, got him undressed, pushed him onto the bed. He started snoring immediately. I changed into shorts and a tank top. When I get drunk, I get hot. Most of the guests have gone. My parents are still in the backyard dancing. They're going to dance until the sun rises, they said earlier in the evening.
I go to the kitchen, open the refrigerator door, stand in the vent of cool air. A throat clears behind me and I spin around, lose my balance, grab the counter. The refrigerator door hisses shut. I can barely make out his body in the darkness. He says, "I've been trying to talk to you." I hold a hand over my stomach. I feel naked. He says, "Come downstairs with me." I am dizzy. I am ten. He is older. My teeth are numb. I walk behind him. I follow. I do as he says even though I don't want to. I never wanted to. Sweat pools in the small of my back. My cheeks are flushed with heat. In the basement, I stand near his bedroom door. I think about how Felix used to stand sentinel, how if he were down here now, things would be different. James's room has changed—the bed is bigger, the walls have different pictures, the desk is gone. He sits on his bed. He says, "I ruined you. I know that." He rubs his chin. He says, "You never came back." He says, "You just made me feel so good, always did what I asked, I couldn't help myself." He doesn't say, "I'm sorry."
The room starts to feel smaller. I say, "I don't want to be here." I say, "Please, James."
His eyes redden. He looks terrible and old and lonely. He says, "I need your mouth on me. I don't want to force you." I try to back out of the room but he darts up, holds the door shut with his arm over my head. He's still Jimmy Jimmy Lightning Jimmy. He is still strong. It would hurt him more to say no than it would hurt me to say yes. He ruined me in that way. He shaped my mouth and would have tried to shape the rest of me if I hadn't gotten away. He caresses my face, then rubs his thumb across my lips like he used to. He says, "Sweet, sweet girl." I look past him and into the corner where he choked me and used me up. I feel his hardness pressing between our bodies. My skin burns where he's touching me. He says, "You belong to me, sweet girl. You've always belonged to me."
It is a perfect terrible moment. I say, "No, James." I say the words clearly so there is no misunderstanding. The muscles in my throat start to vibrate. He covers my mouth with his hand, says, "Don't make me force you." His voice is harder now. He is crying. I never understood a thing about James. I am calm. It would be easy to fall on my knees, to inhale deeply, throw my head back, open my throat the way he taught me. He ruined me in that way. There is a twinge between my thighs. My arm muscles burn with everything strong left inside me. I push James away and pull his door open. I run up the stairs so fast Jimmy Jimmy Lightning Jimmy cannot catch me. I run up another flight of stairs. In my bedroom, I swallow air until I can breathe. I kneel in the empty space next to my husband and shake him awake. As he wakes, he smiles groggily, says, "I missed you." I am calm.
I tuck my hair behind my ears. I lean into him until my lips graze his face. I rearrange the shape of my mouth and I start whispering about where I grew up.
Roxane Gay's writing appears or is forthcoming in Black Warrior Review, Mid-American Review, Cream City Review, Annalemma, McSweeney's (online), and others. She is the co-editor of PANK, an assistant professor of English at Eastern Illinois University, and can be found at http://www.roxanegay.com. Her first collection, Ayiti, will be released in 2011.