I spent the morning on myspace looking at pictures of my dead ex-boyfriend. The phrase my dead ex-boyfriend is syntactically ambiguous you can’t tell from it whether this boyfriend and I were together when he died. We were not. We’d been broken up for about two years. We were together for three then apart for two then he died. He died in a car crash that’s how he died.

Myspace is still with us. You could dogear this page literally or figuratively bookmark it set aside the volume or magazine or swipe to a new screen new beginning and find my myspace page or yours assuming you were aged fourteen to say twenty-five in the early oughts. The reason myspace failed isn’t because it was populist or ugly or bought by news corp but because it was hard to talk about: my myspace is harder to say than my facebook. The uncooperative cadence of the phrase my myspace page perfectly encapsulates the awkwardness of the early oughts when our story begins.

 

His name was Jesse but in the years between our breakup and his death he went by Jesse Ray meaning his new friends and his new girlfriend called him Jesse Ray. I never called him Jesse Ray. No one from our old group ever called him that. We all grew up together don’t talk about him much now maybe because we don’t know what to call him.

I remember his body best of all because it was covered in tattoos. Not covered that’s lazy. His body could not have been covered in fact because his tattoos were a secret from a few important people – his parents mainly and the people in their church. It’s not that his parents didn’t know him as I thought then but the him they knew was not the him I knew. There were at least three Jesses at the time of his death: Jesse, Jesse, and Jesse Ray. His parents knew one I knew another his new friends and new girlfriend knew a third. The only person who knew them all was probably his biological mom K she lived in Elko and knew everything. Jesse and I once fucked in the sacred vestibule of the Mormon Church in Ruth Nevada while his grandfather’s ninetieth birthday was taking place in the multi-purpose room down the hall and she knew about that for example. K had been a waitress her whole working life she was basically omniscient.

Clothed Jesse was just a tall lean white guy. Long feminine fingers goofy mop of glossy brown curls he was vain about a stupid soul patch sometimes sometimes a mustache eyelashes of a fawn. I’m still attracted to men like him. But when he undressed he exposed torso biceps and thighs crowded with ink: a scarecrow and graffiti he photographed in the Reno railyard and his own let’s say underaccomplished drawings. His collarbones read i love you but i’ve chosen darkness. with a period as in end of discussion. We’d been friends of friends in high school where his stepmother was a biology teacher who didn’t believe in evolution. I’m being unfair. She was a lot of other things too – my own sister – but the combination of her courses’ difficulty and her stern piety made her stepson’s secret rebellion first-rate gossip. And he’d had many of these tattoos done with an improvised apparatus built of a bic pen.

Jesse was on the football team wore eyeliner and sometimes other makeup with his jersey on home games suit on away-days. He dated evangelical girls who would only permit him anal sex another secret from his parents theirs too I assume. His father was a bearded giant a/c repairman taught karate led a Saturday night home church of his own strict eccentric doctrine. Their study was based on a code he had developed for unlocking the secret meanings of the Bible something about every seventh word or fourth word and each in their small congregation had their own three-ring binder with highlighted decryption glyphs in plastic sheaths. Jesse’s father had had a shipping container buried somewhere on their property stocked with supplies to wait out the days between y2k and the rapture. All this I gathered from Jesse for though at that time I still possessed my anal virginity I was never recruited. This could be because my stepfather rocked prison tattoos on every region of his corpus including his neck and hands but was probably because my family didn’t have a church. Work was our church my mother said though for most of my childhood she attended her Friday night AA meetings religiously.

I paid little attention to Jesse in high school because he was a rollerblader and I preferred skateboarders suspected him gay. I was fifteen sixteen seventeen and didn’t know how to spend time with a boy who didn’t want to fuck me. Then all of a sudden it was August and all the swimming pools in town gone mouth-warm so you didn’t even want to swim until after sundown and Jesse was back from college and I was headed off to the same one in a few weeks. He was working a/c wrung out from crawling under trailers in 120-degree weather in long sleeves so his dad wouldn’t see the markings on his arms.

We were at our friend Sean’s drinking budweiser with clamato Sean’s dad made us – where I come from if you work you drink, no matter that we were eighteen nineteen years old. By dusk Jesse and I were alone in Sean’s parents’ semi-above-ground pool. I gave him a shoulder massage – his shoulders pallid his neck and face sun-leathered save for little white hyphens at his temples where the arms of his sunglasses rested. After the massage Jesse said, in the voice of an animated luchador from a web series we all watched then, ‘Maybe you want to take your top off ?’

I was somewhere between willing and compliant. Down we called it as in she’s down short for down to fuck or DTF which is what it said beside my name on the wall in the football locker room Jesse said. claire watkins = dtf. Inked as an insult but I’ve never taken it as one. I was indeed down to fuck. I was curious liked exploring other bodies I also liked to be liked who doesn’t.

‘This is why I have no respect for rapists,’ Jesse said, cupping the white triangles of my boobs and glancing into the house to see whether anyone was watching at the sliding glass door. We couldn’t tell didn’t care.

Jesse said, ‘Girls are really nice. Most of them will do whatever.’

I told him that was because he looked like white trash Ryan Phillippe.

He blushed turned the color he would ask me to dust across his cheekbones some mornings in the bathroom in the one-bedroom guesthouse we rented behind a halfway house off I-80. ‘You just have to ask. That’s all they want. All consent is is asking. If you can’t even ask, you’re a pussy.’

‘You’re using that word wrong,’ I said lifting myself topless to the edge of the swimming pool.

‘What, “pussy”?’

I pulled him close worried about my stomach rolls. I had probably been reading my mother’s copy of Our Bodies Our Selves. ‘You’re using it as an insult meaning weakness,’ I murmured into his neck. ‘The pussy – by which I assume you mean the vagina, vulva, clitoris, cervix, uterus, and ovaries – is the strongest muscle in any body. The clitoris has twice as many nerve endings as the penis.’

Jesse had freed his from his swim trunks. ‘No for real pussies are tremendous,’ he nodded.

‘Also,’ I said, ‘it’s a term that belongs to a community. Like the n-word. I can say it but you can’t.’ I pulled the crotch of my swimsuit to the side and we kissed.

I said, ‘I can use it as an insult or in reference to my anatomy. I can say, “Fuck my pussy, Jesse.” Or, “Let’s fuck, you pussy.” ’

 

All this was mostly fun and erotic though we rarely came but it was also my survival strategy. You could question its efficacy since it made sweet boys afraid of me so that I always ended up with the crazies but in this manner I went from being raised by a pack of coyotes to an academic year on the faculty at Princeton where I sat next to John McPhee at a dinner and we talked about rocks and he wasn’t at all afraid of me.

Anyway I didn’t like sweet boys. I liked filthy weirdoes who scared me a little and I still do.

Someone eventually shooed us out of Sean’s pool and Jesse and I drove out to BLM land and lit off fireworks and fucked a few times in the back of his little pickup where he said, ‘How do you like it?’ and ‘No, I’m asking’ then we were boyfriend and girlfriend and then we lived together up in Reno working retail and fast food and taking night classes and Jesse quit drinking and proposed on Christmas and I reneged on New Year’s and Jesse started snowboarding and going to shows and doing hard drugs and I started writing and Jesse fucked a girl in a tent up at Stampede Reservoir and another girl at the Straight Edge house and I tried to fuck a kid whose dad had an amazing cabin at Tahoe but I chickened out and in this manner Jesse and I broke up about a dozen times and eventually tacked a curtain across our living room and that became my bedroom where I would occasionally find Jesse napping in my bed because he missed my smell or on my computer without my permission doing homework or jacking off.

Jesse lived like he was dying a saccharine nugget of pinspiration terrifying to actually behold. Take it from me you do not want to room with anyone who lives like he’s dying. His body was coiled with eros, anarchy and other dark sparkling energy. He looked for fights at shows or by wearing eyeliner and little boys’ superhero shirts he bought at walmart to strip clubs waited for someone to call him a faggot and then he beat their ass. He had been on the club boxing team before he dropped out and snow bros in town for bachelor parties did not expect his long arms nor his gigantic martial arts father. After he went to awful awful for an awful awful or a buffet for prime rib.

He got gnarly nosebleeds all the time and our best talks happened with him in the tub letting the blood slide down his face and red the warm water. He was in the mug club at the tavern around the corner an investment he called it not because a mug club member received his beers in a grand customized stein though that was appreciated but because members could purchase another pint for a friend for a dollar which Jesse did often and then sometimes he smashed the pints on the floor to emphasize a punchline or one time into the side of a guy’s head because the guy called Jesse’s favorite milf waitress a cunt.

He liked to sing classic rock karaoke and uproot street signs and use them to smash too-nice cars parked in our bad neighborhood. He once shit his pants while skateboarding to work then worked his whole shift like that. He owned three skateboards two snowboards and about a dozen books in a crate beside his sleeping bag until he read Walden and said I don’t need this crate! We had taco night at our apartment every Tuesday for all the runts and strays in our friend group and Jesse cooked the meat. He cut all the lilacs from the bushes on campus with his leatherman and piled them on my unmade bed even though we were broken up because the previous spring we’d been walking together and I guess I’d stopped and smelled them. He was very good at keeping secrets. Needless to say he became a junkie junked out on all sorts of things near the end but he was also very much alive.

One day I came home from my new job forging signatures for my butch women’s studies professor at the subprime mortgage company she owned with her partner and Jesse was at my computer a piece of shit dell I’d maxed out my credit card for. He must have gotten a nosebleed during because he was jacking off covered in blood. I let him finish kissed him during then told him it was time to get the fuck out and he agreed said he would after the World Cup because we’d gone halvsies on the cable.

There is no story – he was there then he was gone. I am a dumb lump scratching my head baffled by this basicmost constant the ultimate fact: he was there then he was not.

I found out he’d died from my sister who found out on myspace. His current-now-suddenly-former girlfriend was in mourning black hair black clothes black makeup long all caps passages of pure screaming grief. No syntactic ambiguity. You want to know whether I hated her I did.

People die on the internet now really die we can watch them die in real time every gruesome frame if we like and sometimes if we don’t. Periscope into dorm rooms into cars off bridges black people executed by the state unarmed fleeing autistic hands up fathers mothers children sisters star in snuff films screened in airports.

Of Jesse I have only pictures – his body on myspace. I like the selfies best you can see his gaze in them see what he thought was hardcore what he thought was punk. The last he posted before he died are of some operation he had throwing metal horns beside staples in a savage line from his sternum to his navel then around the navel a few inflamed sutures beneath the navel disrupting the outline of a new tattoo on his abdomen one I don’t recognize not a very good one never to be completed.

There was a car crash someone was fucked up probably everyone though I don’t know that for sure. I heard Jesse was thrown through the windshield flung into the desert off the highway on the way out to BLM land the place we first made love. I’d like to put it that way.

He kept secrets hated condoms. I watch his then-current-now-ex- online for signs and symptoms. I check his myspace and I know she does too since she is me is my own sister. We have the same thing living in our blood now. I am not doing a good job of this.

Jesse always let me be the good guy. He did not pay much attention to what I was doing and this is the version of freedom I have grown most accustomed to most protective of. He saw I was a watcher and gave me something worth watching. He was not violent but he enjoyed violence he was a vandal and a fighter but he was never mean never tolerated meanness. He was the person I called when I was afraid. He walked me anywhere I asked him to though he admitted the only time he felt unsafe on the street was anytime he had a girl with him. He always let me be the better person even though I wasn’t better than anyone. He wasn’t cracked up but he let me be the steady hand made me make myself feel safe. When I was with him I was always in control and this was true somehow even the night we drove to Berkeley to see radiohead and after drove a little stoned across the bridge and slept at my sister’s place in the tenderloin on the living room floor because we were twenty twenty-one.

He was harmless there the street was noisy and the living room was lit orange from the soda streetlights and we collapsed into a mess of sleeping bags and yoga mats and pillows and somewhere in there my sister’s cat making my eyes itch. I woke up with Jesse rolled atop me wanting sex. I was tired didn’t want it he was not at all violent but also not relenting his body unyielding his long arms beefed up from snowboarding all winter and from lifting boxes in the stockroom at work. He held me down.

I remember thinking in italics. Is this when it happens? And then I answered myself. That’s up to you. I decided that it wasn’t it was simpler. I was determined to make it out of college unraped an actual goal I had though before I even started college I met a kid in the shoe store where I worked who invited me to a party but the party was just playing cards and so I was playing poker a tourist’s game with him and some other people and drinking a corona then I woke up and it was morning and I was on the bathroom floor sore with my pants around my ankles. I walked into the master bedroom looking for this kid the kid who’d invited me whose apartment it was the only person I knew at this party. He was in bed asleep with an erection no blankets and another girl I didn’t recognize naked spread eagle on the bed her hands were tied to the bedposts I think but I could be wrong. I didn’t want to wake him wrote my phone number on his bathroom mirror with what I am just realizing now must have been her lipstick. This was in Los Angeles.

What’s your family church? Jesse’s father asked me the one time in three years I had dinner at their house. We don’t have one I said or maybe I said work. Work was our church and laughter too. Farts and laughter and work and words. Rocks and photographs and dogs and TV. Breaking into houses for sale viewing things at night building materials casino decor landscaping elements once some mature water lilies and some koi. My sister my mother and me around the kitchen table bullshitting. The earth the body the sisterhood.

 

My husband has a dead love too. We traded them on our first date by my count the night we were the last two left at the bar and we walked to the united dairy farmers on high street for ice cream and took those to a hipper bar open later where we sat on stools playing footsie and drinking beer and eating sundaes with the ghosts and thereafter went home and dry humped without kissing in my bed where eventually Dap slept with his jeans on. This was
in Ohio.

It was the first real conversation we had as intimate with another person as I’ve ever been. I told Dap about Jesse which was my way of telling him about my mother. Dap would not know her name for months.

Dap’s love had been in grad school. She went on a research trip to South America something with biomes spores got an infection but didn’t know it. She came back to the States and died in her sleep. Her roommate found her in the morning cold in her own bed. She’d had bulimia some thought and that compromised her immune system possibly.

Dap never got to see her body. I never saw Jesse never saw my mother. She was cremated while I finished my midterms. By the time I got home she was ash. We spread her in our garden at the Tecopa house the so-called Watkins Ranch on supposed Sunset Road. My sister and I put some of her ashes in the backyard at the Navajo house at the tree she planted where she’d buried her beloved hound Spike.
I don’t know where Jesse is now.

Jesse, I wish you were here. America is violent and queer as fuck. The snowbanks are rising and every morning I drive over a frozen river past a mosque an elementary school this week sent a letter threatening a great time for patriotic Americans. I pass a kid who looks like you walks like you did I pass a sculpture by Maya Lin called Wave Field which is like a bunch of waves made of grass covered in snow so like a bunch of bumpy snow. Pretty cool. I drive to a strip mall and smoke weed in my SUV and do rich bitch yoga with these fierce old dykes and Indian grandmas and public ivy sorority alumni and other basic traitorous cunts and for $20 each we all come out an hour later looking like we just got fucked all of them my sisters.

Maya Lin also designed the Vietnam Memorial. Ross Perot called her an eggroll remember? We were kids. Did you ever get to see the Vietnam Memorial? I don’t think you did. I’ve seen most of the monuments in DC. I’ve been to New York and Paris and The Hague and Antwerp for a night and London and Toronto and the Amalfi coast in Italy and Wales twice. I’ve had coffee with Margaret Atwood lunch with Justice Stephen Breyer and a beer with the Game of Thrones bros while Anne Enright sang hymns. Once I was talking to Michael Chabon at a party and Ira Glass interrupted Chabon to talk to me and then – then! – someone cut in to talk to Ira it was Meryl Streep.

Sorry. I only have so many people I can talk to about these things.

My sister came to visit and she had this strange look on her face and I said what what and she said do you realize that our parents could not have afforded the dollhouse version of this house? I spent the morning looking for you on myspace and trying to untangle a sad mess of white cords made by slaves and this too is America.

We have electric cars sort of and any day now the tesla gigafactory outside Sparks will be the largest building in the world. We have virtual reality headsets and as you predicted people use them mostly for porn. We have HD porn. My sister knows a woman in Albuquerque who was raped repeatedly by her husband and he liked to watch porn on his VR headset during. I can’t shake that.

I can’t shake the pictures you posted of your body hundreds of them on myspace. In some you are Jesse Ray alive but dying actively dying looking dead choosing darkness. In none of them in an unnamed album you are finally truly dead. You are a torso beneath a sheet in the desert. There is a shattered windshield a cop car an ambulance a fire engine tilted on the soft shoulder of the highway lights blazing. The sun is rising and the mountains are indigo above you. Someone has tucked you up so none of you is showing so we don’t have to see the parts of you we don’t want to.

You were here then you were gone.

Jesse, Jesse, Jesse Ray, my dead ex-boyfriend, my son, my stepson, my own sister, mom, Martha Clair, I have a daughter now she knows your name.

 

Photograph courtesy of the author

What Terrible Thing It Was
Two Poems