TW: Violence, suicide, self-harm
Jo, my roommate, sits topless on a wooden chair. Our other roommate, Jackie, sterilizes a needle by holding her lighter under it. She jabs it into Jo’s nipple and Jo screams — Jackie can’t get the needle through. She pushes it and it is slow; the nipple resists, resists, gives. The needle slips through and so does the hoop. Soon, the other is done too.
I turn away.
Badass! One of them cheers. Jackie smiles, admires her work. She wants to become a professional piercer one day. She has nipple piercings herself and various earrings, an eyebrow piercing with black points, a hoop in the right side of her nose, a tongue ring about which she makes all the stock good-kisser and if-I-was-a-lesbian jokes. Jo similarly has a nose piercing, but on the left side of her nose, and she has other piercings, too — a tongue piercing with a green ball, various ear lobe piercings.
Soon, she and Jackie will have more piercings, but that they’ll do themselves: rook, conch, tragus, cartilage. Jo will let Jackie pierce her eyebrow, Jackie will shove the same needle through her own ear. They’ll start to pierce people at parties, ask me to help get the plastic balls onto the ends because I won’t let them pierce me. They’ll entertain the thoughts of getting hood piercings because they’ve heard how good it can feel.
Jackie will say, the first thing I’m going to do when I get my piercing license is pierce my mom’s clit.
But don’t worry, Jackie will say, she wants me to do it.
Jo and Jackie were my first off-campus roommates when I was in college. We met working for Sodexo, the campus food service. Jo and I met first. We worked the same shift in what I like to call The Feeding Trough — a place in the student union that had stands offering various foods like pasta, “Mexican” entrees, fish under a warming lamp, salads, and sub sandwiches. During the shifts we shared, I worked at the pasta stand, which was my favorite place to work — you could actually cook there, make up combinations of sauces and vegetables and meats. I learned how to flip foods without a spatula and how to cook several meals at once without burning them. And I got to work with fun people, too.
One of those people was Jo.
When we started working together, I had recently come to grips with the fact that I was attracted to women, and I had a thing for Jo. She worked at the stand that served Mexican food or breakfast, depending on if it was the weekend. I liked her blue hair and her worn-out, drawn-on Chuck Taylors and her skinny jeans and her wallet that she carried in her back pocket on a chain. I liked her nose ring and the men’s hoodies that she wore over camis when we weren’t working. I liked her purple glasses, the script tattoo across her back, the infinity symbol on her arm, the quote from her own poem on her leg, how she spelled “blue” “bloo.” I liked her general tortured nonconformist presence.
I started talking to her more often. Brought her bloo Mountain Dews at work and UV Blue on weekends. We played Guitar Hero and dumped Malibu in orange juice and drank it out of coffee cups. I read all of her poems and a book she self-published. We took trips to her hometown, where we saved a stray cat and where I first thought, maybe I can save her. We sat on her bed, a mattress on the floor, and talked about our pasts, her first crush on a girl, and a boy she loved and would never get over. We took late-night walks and smoked Marlboro reds and talked about what it’s like to kiss someone when you’re both smoking, the rush that comes when you breathe in their smoke and blow it out through your own nose, how it’s somehow more intimate that way. She said sharing a cigarette is like a kiss and then lit one, offered it. I took it and when she smoked, I tried to breathe it in.
I noticed Jo’s scars early on — dark brown marks here and there on her arms, lines in a row on her legs. She had circles on her wrists the size of cigarette tips. I knew what the marks meant. You don’t have to, I said, ran my fingers over the ones on her forearm.
But that’s what everyone says.
Jackie also worked for Sodexo, and Jo knew her a bit from seeing her around, though they didn’t work together. When I met Jackie, she was working a Sunday shift in the campus mini-grocery store and I was working in the coffee shop next to it. I’d stopped in for an energy drink and asked if she was new. You seem pretty cool, I said, and introduced myself. Anyway, what are you going to school for?
“I want to be an M.E.”
I must have looked confused.
“A medical examiner,” she clarified.
I see, I said, not sure of how to answer that. She looked like she fit the bill. She was 300 pounds of muscle — I’d later find out she was an ex-rugby player — and looked tough. No makeup, a hard-set, masculine jaw, piercings, thick hands, and pronounced, pointy canines. She had dark-brown, almost empty eyes and hair slicked back into a ponytail, military style. Her head was thick and even her dimples looked ominous. She looked as if cutting open a dead body would be as easy for her as opening up a book.
Still, she was charming. She had a flicker of brightness in her eyes and every time she laughed it was one of those deep, genuine belly-laughs. She’d look you in the eye and seem genuinely interested in what you were talking about. She seemed upbeat and positive and like she enjoyed living.
When she scanned my energy drink, I noticed a deep scar on her arm at an angle near her wrist, about the width of a finger.
“Suicide,” she said. “But I’ll never go back to that place I was in.”
Soon after, Jo and I started to hang out with Jackie outside of work. We bonded over our angst toward men, our love for reading and writing, our traumatic pasts, our struggles with self-harm. We took walks on the campus trails, smoked cigarettes, brainstormed tattoo ideas. Jo and I wore black hoodies with skulls or checkers and dyed our hair black or various purples and reds. Jackie wore Packers jerseys and sweatshirts with the university logo and big, brown Dickies jackets. She kept her hair its natural color and slicked back.
We started to party and smoke hookahs, bring Tequila Rose in strawberry milk bottles to work and take Slippery Nipple shots after. Jackie smoked weed and Jo sold pills and I double-fisted booze straight out of the bottles, put Tropical Pucker in beer bongs because I hated beer. Jo and Jackie drank Coors Original and Bud Lite, full 24 packs in one evening. They bought a beer bong with two hoses and sat on their knees to take it while we all laughed — this was still when we all lived in the dorms and had to devise hiding places for all of our booze and booze paraphernalia because we were underage.
I stopped hanging out with all my other friends and started spending my free moments with Jo and Jackie, and most of those were moments in which we were drinking. We brought flasks to classes and laughed because no one noticed the flasks or seemed to know how drunk we were. We downed Red Bull and Monster to keep us going and to get through classes and to squelch our appetites — eating would kill the buzz and make us fat. Most of all, we laughed. I’d never laughed so much or so often. I’d never had so much fun in my life.
One weekend, we bought airsoft guns and went to Jackie’s hometown in northern Wisconsin, near the Michigan border. We chased each other around and shot at close range because the pellets would make welts, but none large enough to be that damaging — it felt like pranking each other. After, we talked about how Jackie’s hometown was the place with the highest rates of unsolved murders in Wisconsin — in fact, Jackie told us, there were two unsolved murders in the trailer park in which her family lived. Once, she said, she saw someone bleeding on the street — he had shoved a screwdriver through his hand because he had thought he was Christ. Everyone from her hometown was fucked up somehow, she said.
We brought the airsoft guns back with us to campus and hid them under Jo’s mattress.
Every now and then, someone would pick it up and shoot one of us at close range and crack up.
One day, though, Jackie held an airsoft gun to her neck, the barrel digging into her skin.
“I wonder how much it would hurt, this close,” she said.
Awkward laughs. Probably a lot. Don’t do it, I say.
“What do you think?” She nods at Jo. Presses the barrel harder into her skin, so far that you could no longer see the orange snout — it didn’t look like a toy, that way.
Come on, I said. Quit fooling around.
A snap. The first welt. Jackie winced, but smiled, thrashing her head side to side.
Alright, I said. Stop it.
Jo even chimed in, after the third wince. We both tried to wriggle it out of Jackie’s hands.
Snap. Snap. Snap.
A belt of welts around her neck.
We continued to hang out, but I started to retreat, especially once the piercings started. Once, I went to Jo’s dorm and saw pens in the sink that they’d bitten down on to deal with the pain. What the fuck is this? I’d say. They’d laugh.
Come on, Jackie would say, lighten up. It just hurt a little. Anyway, help me get the ball on this.
The cartilage on her ear was red, swollen enough to envelop the earring.
“I need some air,” Jackie said once the ball was fastened. “Let’s go out for a smoke.”
I tried to catch her when she fell. She seemed to faint. Jo said she hadn’t eaten. I thought I saw an eye flutter, as if Jackie had been peeking. I tried to wake her up. Tried not to smack her face. I looped my arms through hers and Jo and I tried to pick her up.
She was dead weight.
In a dream, Jackie is chasing me. We are in the forest, and her body lumbers over logs and limbs close behind. Another Jackie comes from the other direction, closing in — twins. They wear purple sweatshirts with the big, white university logo and brown Dickies jackets. Their hair is tied back and bouncing and they are smiling so big I can see the blue and white balls on their tongue ring. Their feet fall behind me and I start to see myself run outside of my body. They laugh and say they’re going to cut me, from sternum to groin. Like a deer, they say. Like how we’re going to gut our father.
I keep running.
In Jo’s dormroom, Jackie straddles Jo. Smacking her face, holding Jo’s neck tight in her meaty hand.
“How are you going to defend yourself when they come for you?” Jo screams and wriggles under Jackie, kicks her feet.
“What’s the matter?” Jackie asks. “Do I remind you of your dad?”
Jo’s father had tried to choke her once when she was younger. He was generally abusive and wrenched her wrist to the point that it’s screwed up for awhile or forever; I don’t remember which.
Jackie says “they’re” going to remind Jo of Jo’s dad. What is she going to do then?
“You’ll find out soon enough.” Jackie’s face is red and sweat pools beneath her eyebrows.
“Stop it, Jackie.” I say. She doesn’t. She squeezes Jo’s neck, hard.
“I’m showing her how to defend herself.”
I turn to leave.
“Where are you going?” She asks.
Jo and Jackie started collecting jackknives with which to defend themselves. Jo’s first one was silver. Jackie’s was multicolored — one of those with purples and blues and greens that blend together. Jackie was convinced she was being followed and told us her father was raping her. She had a shiner one day to prove it — her eye was swollen and black and her blood vessels were burst. Jo suggested she start to carry a knife.
Over the course of the semester, they bought several knives: pocket knives, throwing knives, even knives with the Batman emblem engraved on the front. They played with them, twirled them between their fingers. When they accidentally got cut, they used the knives instead of the scissors to cut thread and stitch themselves up. They started to stab things: notebooks, their shoes, beer cans to shotgun beer. They used them to gut a Furby — even took its eyes out — and hung it by a scarf from the ceiling to scare Jo’s roommate. I told them to quit playing with the knives.
They laughed and stuck their knives into their shoes.
This is how I imagined it, when it happened.
Jackie used her jackknife to make a slice down Jo’s palm. Like in the movies, Jackie said. My blood, your blood. Jo used her knife on Jackie’s hand to do the same and they pressed their palms together, blood sisters.
I walked into the room shortly after. Just patching ourselves up! Jackie said, blood showing through the bandages. What the fuck, I said. Jackie laughed.
“It’s just a promise!” she answered. “You wanna be cut too?”
Jo would have a scar that turns purple.
She still complains of the pain.
In Jackie’s hometown, there is a lighthouse on the lake. We visit it in winter, walk the pier, look at our breath against the black of the water and the sky. Jackie pulls out her weed and smokes a bowl. I feel high just breathing it in secondhand with the icy mist from the waves. We laugh, promise to come back in the summer and jump off the pier, even though in the summer, the cold of Lake Michigan will still pierce the skin.
“What would you do if I cut my neck?” Jackie said, “Cut it right through?”
We were drinking Slippery Nipples, Mikes Hard Lemonade with UV Blue, Tequila Rose, Hypnotiq, Pucker, Coors. It was late afternoon. Jackie was holding a scissors to her neck. Not Fiskars or those lame ones with rounded blades. The traditional heavy kind, the ones that Jo called her “murder shears.” The ones that looked like they belonged to Edward Scissorhands.
“What would you do?” She smiled, pressed the scissors further into her skin, started to cut. I tried not to react. That’s what this has to be, I thought, all for the reaction. I’d call an ambulance, I said. I was sitting next to her.
“Yeah?” She said.
“Well, what would you do if I stabbed you?” She grinned, closed the scissors and held it to my stomach, her eyes leather, her eyebrow ring jutting out.
I looked down at the scissors. The point lightly touched my stomach. I tried to figure out if it was sharp enough that it would stick into my body.
“I guess I’d call an ambulance in that case, too. If I could,” I said.
She looked down at the scissors and pressed it in harder, looked into my eyes. Someone told her to knock it off, put the scissors down.
“Really? Is that what would you do?”
She looked at me, looked down at the scissors. Looked at me, looked down at the scissors.
She put the scissors down and got up to pour herself a shot.
When the school year came to a close, I didn’t have many options for roommates — most of my friends were living with boyfriends or going home for the summer. It was fly solo or fly with Jo. Jackie was out of the equation, I said. No more crazy shit. Jackie and Jo had started to feed off of each other. This is getting out of hand, I said.
Jo agreed, so she, her roommate from the dorm, and I signed a lease to a three-bedroom townhome near the university. It had a garage and two bathrooms and laundry machines and a dishwasher — a big step up from the campus apartments I lived in and the dorm that Jo lived in. It had free internet and we only had to pay $250 a month each. We thought we were going to live it up.
Soon enough, though, Jackie needed a place to stay.
Come on, Jo said. Just for the summer. She can’t go back home. What about her dad?
No, I said. I said no crazy shit.
Jackie’s scar had recently broken open and I was convinced she’d done it herself. She had started trying to convince us that her father was following us, too. It’s that vehicle, she said, pointing to a red truck or a gray car or a black Buick. We’d started to receive texts from her phone that claimed the texter was her father and that he was raping our friend and coming for us, too. When her scar broke open, she told us her father was going to cut it so it wouldn’t stop bleeding, next time. I’d stopped believing her; I took the texts to the campus police, a therapist, and the sexual assault center, and they all confirmed that it was likely untrue.
Jo still believed her, still wanted to save her.
Of course, Jackie ended up coming to stay with us. In the morning, Jo and Jackie drank 40s of Bud Lite and Solo cups full of Kessler. They bought boxes of Newports and Marlboros and chain smoked in the garage or the bedroom that Jo started to share with Jackie. They threw wild parties in which everyone ended up fucking someone, or at least making out. They played a drinking game called Drunk Driver and hung up an Irish Drinking Team flag even though they weren’t Irish.
I started staying at other places. I’d sleep at friends’ apartments, on campus with people who still lived in the dorms. I’d go home to my parents’ house or go camping. I’d even sleep in my car in the Walmart parking lot. One night, Jackie had come into the house with blood on her sweatshirt. It was coming from beneath the material resting on her chest. They ripped out my nipple piercings, she said, and cuffed me to a bed. She showed us her wrists. They had marks.
“Who is ‘they,’ Jackie? When are you going to go to the hospital? When are you going to report this?”
Don’t you understand? She said. They’ll kill me if I report this. My dad knows people. They’re cops. They’re car salesman. They’re EMTs. If I tell anyone, they won’t just kill me, they’ll kill you, too. But only after they have their fun with you.
I told her she best bandage herself up and I left.
There are drops of blood on the carpet downstairs, here and there. Streaks on the wall. Spots on the stairwell. It smells like burning meat and I think about turning to leave, but hear screams.
They did it! They did it!
You think I did this?
I start to go up the stairs, but the smell makes me retch. What the fuck is going on up there? I yell.
Nevermind. Jo says. Why don’t you get out of here, like you always do?
I hold my breath and go up. There’s blood all over the bathroom and Jo is trying to clean it up with a white towel, but it just smears it back and forth. Jo has bloody handprints on her face. There is blood in the sink, on a butter knife on the floor. The blood soaks both of their clothes.
It’s okay now, Jo says, when I say we need to call an ambulance.
She’s going to be fine. I took care of her. She’s going to be okay. The bleeding stopped. It’s cauterized.
She had heated up the butter knife that was on the floor in our oven. I turned to leave, retching. I spent the night sitting in the 24-hour Taco Bell across the street.
It smelled like burned hamburger and blood for weeks. I couldn’t stay — my room was next to the bathroom in which it happened and they’d soaked their clothes in the tub but hadn’t washed it out, leaving a pink film on everything, even the white sponge I’d used for showering. I hadn’t noticed the tub at first, until I was using the bathroom and looked over. I threw up, walked to my room, and fainted.
It was like that for months. Jackie cutting all the way through her arm and Jo trying to fix it, me trying to clean blood spots off the wall or the sink or the carpet that they’d left. Once, both of them tried to kill themselves with pills and were (for once) hospitalized for 72 hours. I returned from camping to vomit and piles of untaken pills on the floor. I stole their knives and threw them into the woods on campus, where they wouldn’t find them. Every time they tried to kill themselves, their attempts were situations I returned to rather than witnessed. I swear, I told them, if this shit happens when I’m here, I’m calling a fucking ambulance.
I tried to get out of my lease and couldn’t without Jo’s signature, which she wouldn’t give me. She said I didn’t care about them and once, she tried to run into traffic and tried to burn me with a cigarette when I grabbed her arm to stop her. I started drinking heavily everyday, because who could I tell? And how? There was no way out of it.
The fourth or so time that Jackie cut her wrist, I was there, trying to sleep in my own bed for once. Jo had been fucking someone on the couch downstairs — when I’d gotten home from the bar, I found her topless, straddling someone I didn’t know, and went up to my room. I heard Jackie come home and stumble up the stairs, pause in her room and then go in the bathroom. I was in and out of sleeping because I was so drunk I had been seeing double and had to walk home.
I sobered up fast.
I heard Jo banging on the bathroom door. Come on, Jackie, open this door!
“I can’t, Jo. Lie down for a second. Look under the door.”
And then — “See all this red on the floor?”
I got up and shoved Jo out of the way and broke the locked door open. I yelled at Jackie and told her this was enough and I was calling and ambulance and she couldn’t come back.
But I didn’t do it! They did it, she screamed.
They did it. They did it.
The cops didn’t find what she cut herself with. After they left, I found the scissors wrapped in a bloody towel under the sink. Later, I’d find a chunk of her skin blocking the drain when the water wouldn’t go down. I put my face in a pillow and screamed.
Now, some ten years later, my therapist suggests exposure therapy so I can go to the dentist or give blood or cook meat without swooning. I work at the same campus we attended, so I take a route to work that doesn’t pass the townhouses in which we lived. I avoid driving past the dorms or sitting in the University Union where we hung out. On the highway to northern Wisconsin, I breathe deep to avoid hyperventilating. I want to smash shot glasses when someone suggests a Slippery Nipple shot. I can’t watch people get their ears pierced. I try to avoid seeing Jo around town, wasted in bars.
Sometimes, though, I do see her. She asks me if I have nightmares. I do, I say. In one of them, Jo is wiping the floor with a white towel. Back and forth, back and forth, but the blood just smears. But I don’t tell her that.
Some of it was true, she says. Don’t you think? Sometimes, we had to have been followed. There were cars…Anyway, she says, we share a special bond now, you and me. We’re the only ones who know everything that happened.
I down the rest of my drink and leave.
Recently, on a trip with my father, I passed the lighthouse on which Jo and Jackie and I smoked on Lake Michigan.
“Let’s stop here,” I said. “I want to walk out onto the pier.”
It was daylight this time, and spring. The reds on the lighthouse seemed brighter and the pier seemed longer than I remembered. The water was so clear you could see the rocks on the lake’s bottom. We walked all the way to the end and I closed my eyes, breathed in the mist from the waves striking the pier.
When we walked back, my father walked the side of the pier, took pictures with his phone. I walked down the middle, looking straight ahead, afraid that if I walked too closely to the side, I’d fall over the edge.