Josh Cochran

Outside it's raining. The clouds seem to want to break and I think maybe they will, in an hour or two. And when they do I'll close the curtains.

I'm working on a story about a group home I lived in for almost two years when I was an adolescent. I lived in five different homes in Chicago between the ages of 14 and 18 and spent a year sleeping on a rooftop before that. I went to four different high schools. Almost everything I've written has been influenced by things that happened to me during those years. I've never been very good at writing fiction.

My girlfriend, Eden, wants me to wear a butt plug while I'm working. She likes to be in control. It's a large silicone purple plug. I cover it with Liquid Silk before sliding it in. It hurts going in and then it doesn't. I have to breathe for a moment, feel her inside me taking up space. I sit on a towel in a padded black chair. I'm afraid to move. This is one of the last taboos in our relationship. When we first got together I told her I wasn't comfortable being dominated by her when she wasn't around. I didn't think I'd be able to get work done wearing nipple clamps or not being allowed to masturbate or having a plug up my ass, which is what I have now. But in a way it doesn't matter. When Eden comes over, when she spends the night, it usually takes a day to get over it anyway. She covers me with bites, bruises, cuts. Her name is carved in my back. She's with me all the time, or I'm longing for her.

I've been having a hard time working anyway. It would be impossible to say, if I don't get any work done, if it is just my continuing writer's block or the object in my ass. Victor Hugo once said, when asked if it was hard to write The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, "My dear, it's either easy or it is impossible."

The story I'm trying to write is a true story but I mean to write it as fiction. I don't want to defend the truth of my recollections. I had just turned 17 and was sleeping beneath a thin blanket on the living-room floor of a group home. I was naked. The carpet was green and scratchy. This particular group home looked like a normal two-story house in a middle-class neighborhood.

I'd had sex once already. Not counting the times I was molested. I was 15 and I was with Tom and Maureen who lived in an apartment with Maureen's parents. They were both in their 20s. Tom worked the construction truck owned by Maureen's father and sometimes I worked with him. It was just a white truck with a red stripe along the side and we drove around the western edges of Chicago looking for houses that needed tuck-pointing. Maureen's father gave me $25 for 12-hour days and I mixed barrows full of cement and loaded pallets with mortar while Tom climbed the ladders, 60-pound rolls of tar balanced on his shoulders, leaning into the rails.

After work we bought beer and drugs and went back to Maureen and Tom's two rooms. We were smoking pot laced with PCP and taking horse-pill-sized downers. Maureen's friend Kat was there. She always wore cutoff jeans and a bikini top. She said she liked virgins. She took me into the backroom, stripped me naked, and climbed on top of me. She was thin from too much speed but still young enough to look healthy. I was too stoned to move but I was glad to not be a virgin anymore. The lights were off but I could see everything. It was like being covered in glitter.

"C'mon," she said. I didn't know what she meant. She got off me and showed me how to mount her. She showed me how to fuck her from behind. I saw Tom and Maureen watching from the bottom of the doorframe.

Tom would die of a heroin overdose 15 years later, a few days before Christmas. He bucked on his dealer's floor, foaming at the mouth, eyes wide and white, choking on an unreleased scream, blood streaming from his nose, powerful fingers digging into the ground, wood chips catching beneath his nails, while his dealer sat above him searching the internet for a cure. It's easy to make fun, but a lot of people I knew then didn't make it.

* * *

I'm trying to remember if this is a happy story or a sad story. The night I slept naked in the living room, things were looking up. I had quit drugs five months earlier. I didn't hang out with Tom, Maureen, and Kat anymore. I was taking double classes during summer session in the normal high school and it looked like I would graduate on time after all. I had stolen my own air conditioner and sold it for a half gram of coke six months previous, which is why I was in the living room, because it was very hot that night.

It was probably around midnight when I woke up next to Sheila. She was the group-home manager. She spent three nights a week in the home. She had crawled under my blanket and was looking at me. She asked if she could have a hug and I said yes, of course, because I was 17 and she was 25 and I was in love with her the way I was always in love with beautiful women in positions of power over me. More so because she gave me books to read like Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and Diet for a Small Planet, and read me poetry I didn't understand. She was the only adult who had shown sustained interest in my life. I didn't know what she needed the hug for or what to do. Sheila was tall and thin with large breasts, curly hair, and a long nose. She would sunbathe in a bikini in the backyard, tiny brown hairs poking out along her thighs. I would watch her while the other kids shot baskets against the garage.

My memories are complicated by the plug up my ass and the knowledge that I will be seeing Eden later and it is hard to get turned on thinking about anybody else. Earlier this week I met Eden at the house where she works. It was her birthday and I brought her chocolates and a sweater. I sat at her feet while she changed from her work clothes—fishnets, high heels, corset—into blue jeans and a white shirt and tie. She was changing from girl to boy. Her clients had given her boots and bouquets and a rattan cane. "I'm going to use this on you," she said, showing me the cane as we drove into the hills overlooking the bay. "You can only use these on one person. There's no way to clean the blood off.

I put my arm around Sheila and tried not to touch her with my erection. I was leaking pre-come. She was wearing a denim skirt. Her hair smelled like syrup. She pushed toward me, pressing her breasts against my chest. She was smiling. In retrospect, she was clearly waiting for me to do something, but that seemed impossible to me. I had fantasized about Sheila, masturbated imagining her tying me up and suffocating me by sitting on my face. Or coming home from school one day and Sheila sitting on the chair in the smoking room with her dress pulled up and her knees exposed and patting her lap and me laying across her and her pulling my pants down to my ankles and her spanking me. I imagined her dressing me in women's panties, putting me on a leash and collar, and humiliating me in front of the other staff member. But those were just fantasies, and at 17 I hoped they would go away once I had a regular girlfriend. They never did. Instead they developed into a fetish for being burned and cut and spit on, murder fantasies, trauma games, edge play, sensory deprivation, a reckless desire to be harmed. I was lucky that I ended up with Eden who takes pleasure in hurting me but never does so out of anger and tells me all the time how special I am and how good and how much she loves me and appreciates it when I rise my ass higher for another swat from her cane until my thighs and ass are covered with bleeding welts and I am crying like a child and she is stroking my cheek saying, "Come back to me little boy." But at 17 that was all in a bottle, buried deep somewhere. I was trying to make do. It was enough that I was going to school. I would become a poster child for the potential of troubled children to make a turnaround. It was the best place I'd lived in. Nobody got strapped to a bed or locked in a time-out room. We weren't fed Kool-Aid dosed with Thorazine or strip-searched and prodded by thick-armed security guards with other intentions. I had already survived those places; I was going to make it even though I didn't have a support network except for a handful of friends, all of them more messed up than I was. The staff at the group home changed every few months. Sheila would be gone soon. She was already engaged to a man who managed a local rock-and-roll band. I thought he didn't pay her enough attention and I told her so.

The night was so hot and uncomfortable. The curtains were lit by orange streetlights. Sheila gave me a piece of paper with her address and phone number. She had everything to lose: her future husband, her job, her license. She could go to jail. But I didn't think about any of that. I stayed awake with my hard-on, rubbing against the carpet, cheek pressed into the floor. It was four in the morning when I ventured into her bedroom.

"You couldn't sleep either?" she asked.

I asked her for a cigarette and we smoked in her bed. I had a history test in the morning. She sat up against the pillows. And then I leaned in close and we started to kiss. My hand went immediately to her breast. I still remember what that felt like. She was sitting with her legs crossed, partially covered by a blanket. I touched the inside of her thigh. She was wearing white underwear with pink dots. I could see her dark mound of hair inside the cotton. Her mouth tasted like sour granola and eventually she pulled back. "Tomorrow," she said, though it was already tomorrow.

* * *

After my test, I took the bus across the city. There were no clouds that summer. Sheila lived near the lake in a three flat. It was a long apartment with dark hardwood floors and I could make out the Sears Tower from one of her windows. She had two roommates but they weren't home. There were books everywhere and album covers tacked to the walls. "Let's not stay here," she said. We were in her dining room. There was a square table and a picture of half-naked people camping in the desert. "Let's go for a walk."

At the park was a fair and women with strollers were carrying giant swaths of cotton candy. The grass was worn away from being walked on. Sheila said, "I talked to my friend and it's really not a good idea." She said it like I would agree with her, as if it was obvious. We walked closely, slightly brushing each other's arms.

"Okay," I said. It was the only thing I could say without betraying myself. I didn't know her friend or what she told her. I didn't even ask her about the idea that wasn't good, though I would have liked to know. I wanted to know exactly what I missed. I wanted her so badly. I wanted her to adopt me. I could stay in her bed with her and her fiancé who ignored her. I didn't care. What I really wanted to say was that I loved her and I thought there was a way we could make it work, that there's a solution to every problem, when of course there isn't.

We watched a band for a while and Sheila bought a chopped mango, which we shared. I walked her back to her apartment. It was still very bright out. She suggested going to the lake then changed her mind. "Maybe we should call it a day."

* * *

The story has no climax.

Sheila quit the home soon after that. She called me on my 18th birthday and I met her at a cafe called The No Exit and she gave me a bicycle, which was a big present. I would use that bicycle until the frame rusted out and cracked and then I would leave it locked to a tree and never see it again. When I took the bicycle, Sheila said something encouraging like "People care about you." I hadn't seen her in almost a year. Whatever window had opened that night was well shut and locked. She went to graduate school then and married her fiancé who probably never did find out about her small affair with the group-home kid. Maybe it didn't count.

I thought about her for a long time. I drew pictures of her face in all my notebooks. I went to college then became a stripper. People put dollar bills in my underwear and made promises they had no intention of keeping. I went back to drugs for a while and woke up in an Evanston hospital paralyzed for eight days following a hotshot and a grand mal seizure. But I turned out okay eventually too. It just took me a little while to get to the point where I could write a story with a plug in my ass while waiting for the phone.

This is an excerpt from the author's new collection, My Girlfriend Comes to the City and Beats Me Up, published this month by Cleis Press. Stephen Elliott will be appear at University Book Store on October 27.