Incubus

By Craig Arnold Craig Arnold
The chain uncouples, and his jacket hangs
on the peg over hers, and he's inside.   

She stalls in the kitchen, putting the kettle on,   
buys herself a minute looking for two   
matching cups for the lime-flower tea,   
not really lime but linden, heart-shaped leaves   
and sticky flowers that smell of antifreeze.   
She talks a wall around her, twists the string   
tighter around the tea bag in her spoon.   
But every conversation has to break   
somewhere, and at the far end of the sofa   
he sits, warming his hands around the cup   
he hasn't tasted yet, and listens on   
with such an exasperating show of patience   
it's almost a relief to hear him ask it:   
If you're not using your body right now
maybe you'd let me borrow it for a while?

It isn't what you're thinking. No, it's worse.   

Why on earth did she find him so attractive   
the first time she met him, propping the wall   
at an awkward party, clearly trying to drink   
himself into some sort of conversation?   
Was it the dark uncomfortable reserve   
she took upon herself to tease him out of,   
asking, Are you a vampire? That depends,   
he stammered, are you a virgin? No, not funny,   
but why did she laugh at him? What made her think   
that he needed her, that she could teach him something?   
Why did she let him believe she was drunk   
and needed a ride home? Why did she let him   
take her shirt off, fumble around a bit   
on the spare futon, passing back and forth   
the warm breath of a half-hearted kiss   
they kept falling asleep in the middle of?   
And when he asked her, why did she not object?   
I'd like to try something. I need you to trust me.   

Younger and given to daydreams, she imagined   
trading bodies with someone, a best friend,   
the boy she had a crush on. But the fact   
was more fantastic, a fairy-tale adventure   
where the wolf wins, and hides in the girl's red hood.   
How it happens she doesn't really remember,   
drifting off with a vague sense of being   
drawn out through a single point of her skin,   
like a bedsheet threaded through a needle's eye,
and bundled into a body that must be his.   

Sometimes she startles, as on the verge of sleep   
you can feel yourself fall backward over a brink,   
and snaps her eyelids open, to catch herself   
slipping out of the bed, her legs swinging   
over the edge, and feels the sudden sick   
split-screen impression of being for a second   
both she and her.   
                              What he does with her   
while she's asleep, she never really knows,   
flickers, only, conducted back in dreams:   
Walking in neighborhoods she doesn't know   
and wouldn't go to, overpasses, ragweed,   
cars dry-docked on cinderblocks, wolf-whistles,   
wanting to run away and yet her steps   
planted sure and defiant. Performing tasks   
too odd to recognize and too mundane   
to have made up, like fixing a green salad   
with the sunflower seeds and peppers that she hates,   
pouring on twice the oil and vinegar   
that she would like, and being unable to stop.   
Her hands feel but are somehow not her own,   
running over the racks of stacked fabric   
in a clothing store, stroking the slick silk,   
teased cotton and polar fleece, as if her fingers   
each were a tongue tasting the knits and weaves.   
Harmless enough.   
                              It's what she doesn't dream   
that scares her, panic she can't account for, faces   
familiar but not known, déjà vu   
making a mess of memory, coming to   
with a fresh love-bite on her left breast   
and the aftershock of granting another's flesh,   
of having gripped, slipped in and fluttered tender   
mmm, unbraided, and spent the whole slow day   
clutching her thighs to keep the chafe from fading,   
and furious at being joyful, less   
at the violation, less the danger, than the sense   
he'd taken her enjoyment for his own.   
That was the time before, the time she swore   
would be the last—returning to her senses,   
she'd grabbed his throat and hit him around the face   
and threw him out, and sat there on the floor   
shaking. She hadn't known how hard it was   
to throw a punch without pulling it back.   

Now, as they sit together on her couch   
with the liquid cooling in the stained chipped cups   
that would never match, no matter how hard   
she stared at them, he seems the same as ever,   
a quiet clumsy self-effacing ghost   
with the gray-circled eyes that she once wanted   
so badly to defy, that seemed to see her   
seeing him—and she has to admit, she's missed him.   
Why? She scrolls back through their conversations,   
searching for any reason not to hate him.   
She'd ask him, What's it like being a girl   
when you're not a girl? His answers, when he gave them,   
weren't helpful, so evasively poetic:   
It's like a sponge somebody else is squeezing.
A radio tuned to all stations at once.
Like having skin that's softer but more thick.

Then she remembers the morning she awoke   
with the smear of tears still raw across her cheeks   
and the spent feeling of having cried herself   
down to the bottom of something. Why was I crying?   
she asked, and he looked back blankly, with that little   
curve of a lip that served him for a smile.   
Because I can't.
                              And that would be their secret.   
The power to feel another appetite   
pass through her, like a shudder, like a cold   
lungful of oxygen or hot sweet smoke,   
fill her and then be stilled. The freedom to fall   
asleep behind the blinds of his dark body   
and wake cleanly. And when she swings her legs   
over the edge of the bed, to trust her feet   
to hit the carpet, and know as not before   
how she never quite trusted the floor   
to be there, no, not since she was a girl   
first learning to swim, hugging her skinny   
breastless body close to the pool-gutter,   
skirting along the dark and darker blue   
of the bottom dropping out—
                              Now she can stand,   
and take the cup out of his giving hand,   
and feel what they have learned inside each other   
fair and enough, and not without a kind   
of satisfaction, that she can put her foot   
down, clear to the bottom of desire,   
and find that it can stop, and go no deeper.

Source: Poetry (May 2005).

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This poem originally appeared in the May 2005 issue of Poetry magazine

May 2005
 Craig  Arnold

Biography

Craig Arnold earned his BA in English from Yale University and his PhD in creative writing from the University of Utah. Arnold’s second collection of poetry, Made Flesh (2008), is “motored by vividly earthy language and disguised philosophical sophistication,” observed Publishers Weekly in a starred review, praising “sequences neither (quite) lyric nor narrative, but erotic and ever alert.” The raw, emotional intensity of Made . . .

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