I don't know where to begin. I don't know if Noor will understand it if I don’t go all the way back to the beginning. Back before Lisette filled every corner of my mind, occupying my every thought and emotion. So that is where I decide to start.
"I grew up in Miami. My mother came over in the Cuban boat lift and had me not long after. My father was never around so she had to be both mother and father to me, while still managing the house and paying the bills. It wasn't easy. She worked a lot—two, sometimes three jobs. She had to rely on friends to help her take care of me so I had sort of a big extended family." I smile as I think of all those women. "I used to joke that I had whole neighborhood of mothers. At some point they all fed me, helped me with my homework, and provided a place to sleep when my mother had to work late. It was kind of a comforting feeling to know that many people were looking out for me."
"Maybe that's why you're so sensitive and irresistible to women now," Noor says with a laugh.
We’re cuddled on my couch. Noor is stretched out on top of me with her head nestled in under my chin. I hold her closer, hoping that she will be able to keep the ghosts away. They seem to dance in all the dark corners of the room.
"I stayed with one woman more than others. Her name was Rosa. She was kind of like the neighborhood lioness—always taking in lost cubs. She was like an Aunt or Grandmother to me. Lisette was her daughter." I close my eyes and I can see her clear as day. "I was nine when I met Lisette. She was seventeen. I remember thinking...my God that's the most beautiful woman I've ever seen. Which was a big deal to me because until then I didn't think anyone was more beautiful than my mother. The first time we met she was climbing this big orange tree in Rosa's backyard...in a skirt. I stood at the bottom looking up her skirt for a long time not really knowing why I was doing it. She threw down these oranges that were as big as grapefruit and then climbed down. We sat under the tree and she peeled one and we ate it together. The oranges were so juicy, and me being a kid, I got orange juice and pulp all over my chin. She looked at me and smiled and licked it all off. Then she kissed me. I remembered her tongue felt rough and tasted just like the orange. Then she said to me, 'You sure are a pretty boy, Joaquin' and then she just got up and walked away. I swear, that was the first time I got a hard on with a purpose."
I pause for a moment to see if she will say anything. She doesn't speak. She barely breathes as she waits for me to continue.
"I know what you're thinking, and it wasn't like that. Sexuality was readily and openly discussed in my household. The female form was no mystery to me and by the time I met Lisette I had already discovered masturbation."
“I wasn't judging you, Joaquin," she answers softly. "I was just thinking about the huge contrasts between you and I at the same age." She sighs then, shaking her head."I do wonder what would make a seventeen year old girl kiss a nine year old boy that way."
"It was just her way," I say with a shrug. "Lisette was wild. She didn't like being told what to do. She and Rosa would argue and she ran away a lot. Things would be great for a while and then one day I would come over and she would be throwing things into a bag saying 'I have to get out of here. This place is suffocating me.’ She would always kiss me before she left and promise she would come back, but for some reason I always thought she wouldn't. I would cry for her when she was gone and I always hated myself for that. I would say to myself, 'be a man, don't cry over that woman,’ but I would cry for her every night until she came back and made my world right again."
"You were in love with her?"
"It seems ridiculous to say that at twelve years old I was in love with someone but I was."
"Do you think she loved you?"
"I would like to think so, but it's hard to say. I remember that I would get so jealous when I saw her with other guys and she would be quick to say to me 'sex is the only currency I have, Joaquin. I can use my pussy to get anything I want from a man.' I would ask her what she wanted from me then and she would smile and say 'nothing, I just want you'." I shrug. "I can't be sure."
"Did she ever tell you not to tell anyone?"
"I told you it wasn't like that. I knew not to tell. I knew no one would understand what was going on between us."
"What did go on between you? I mean, did you have sex?"
"Not at first...at first it was just a lot of kissing and touching. As I got older there was actual sex."
"How old were you?"
"So that would have made her...?"
"My God," Noor mutters under her breath. "I'm sorry. It's just hard for me not to wonder what she was thinking."
"She was a lot like you, Noor. Love starved. She was just trying to find someone to love her."
"And she found that in you? A fourteen year old boy?"
"Yes, Noor. Please try not to be so judgmental."
"I'm sorry, you're right. Go on."
"Well, you'll be happy to know that not long after we started having sex Lisette moved away for a while. Rosa got really sick and had to move to Jacksonville so her sister could take care of her. Lisette stayed in Miami, but I didn't see her for two years. I saw one of her cousins around the neighborhood and she told me Lisette had gotten married. It took me awhile but I started to get over her. I used all those tricks she taught me on girls my age and had them following me around like honeybees. I became somewhat of a player. With my pretty face y mi talento con mi lengua, I had a long list of conquests."
"What is talento con mi lengua?" she asks, pronouncing it all wrong.
I laugh, thinking to myself that we will have to work on that. "Loosely translated it means talent with my tongue…I think you get the idea."
"Yeah, you're pretty good at that," she mumbles in agreement.
"It's a gift that gets better with time."
"I imagine so."
"Anyway...I remember it was at my eighteenth birthday party. My mom had thrown this big cookout; it was kind of a going away party, too. I'd gotten a scholarship to Florida State and was leaving the following week. The whole neighborhood was there. I went inside for a moment to use the bathroom and when I came out she was leaning on the wall outside the door. She said to me 'look at you, all grown up.' I laughed and said to her, 'yes, everything about me is grown up.' And then I kissed her. The whole time I'm kissing her I'm thinking, I'm a man now. I'm gonna make her fall in love with me and she won't ever leave again. She pushes me away and says it can't be like that anymore. She said she was married now and that she never should have done those things to me. Of course I didn't listen. I took her in my bedroom and made love to her right then. Over time, we picked up where we left off."
"Did she stay?"
"Yeah, but...it was complicated."
"This whole thing was complicated."
"But this was different. This guy she married, Hollis, he was a drug dealer. Nobody big in the neighborhood but I knew who he was. He was the one who had kept her away from home all that time. He was a real low life. He beat her and when he was strapped for cash he would pimp her out.
"I was so naive. I thought I would get some of my boys, roll up on this dude, beat the shit out of him and that would be the end of it. I would rescue her and she could be with me and I would take care of her. Well, we did jump him. But it didn't end there."
I squeeze my eyes closed. I don't want to tell her what happened next, but I know I have to. I can only hope that it won't change the way she sees me. "When I left for Tallahassee, Lisette came with me. We got a little apartment and played house for a month or so, but after awhile, I started to notice that she was getting that look about her."
"Like a caged animal. Like she wanted to run away."
“I don’t know. Maybe,” I murmur with a shrug. “I did everything I could to make things right for her. I went to school full time and worked to take care of the bills. Lisette danced at a strip club, which I was totally against, by the way, but, she was a grown woman I couldn't tell her what to do with her own body. Plus, I didn't want to run her off. By this time I was more in love with her than I ever was before. I thought that if she left I might want to kill myself, so I put up with a lot from her just to keep her around. Anyway...I came home from work one night and when I opened the door I instantly knew something was wrong. I stood in the dark hallway for a long time—holding my breath. Listening...and then I heard her moaning. I went into a blind rage. I kicked in the bedroom door and found her there with Hollis. At first I thought she was just cheating on me, but when he got off of her, I saw that her face was bruised and her eye was nearly swelled shut." I swallow hard. "He was raping her."
I feel myself going back to that moment. The surge of adrenaline, the fear mixed with anger fueling my movements. "He was drunk. His reflexes were slow. His pants were on the dresser and on top of that the gun. I picked it up. I remember it was heavier that I expected. I had to concentrate to hold it steady. It didn't feel like I was doing it right." I lick my lips. My mouth feels as dry as it did that night. "Lisette jumped out of bed and tried to run toward me. He grabbed her by her hair and yanked her back. Then Hollis says to me, 'What you gonna do with that, Playboy?' I didn't answer. I couldn't answer. I was too scared. I knew I had to do something. I'd drawn a gun on this guy. If I didn't do something he would kill us both. I looked at Lisette and she looked right in my eyes and said 'Take the safety off.' She coached me through the whole thing and when the gun was cocked and ready she said 'Move closer, so you don't shoot me by accident.' It was really strange. Her voice was so calm. It was like she had been preparing me to do this from the moment I stole her away."
Noor grabs my shirt and I feel her body tense against what she knew was coming next.
“The sound of it startled me. It made me squeeze my eyes closed. And then I heard nothing. It was like I’d gone deaf. I was standing so close that I felt his blood spray on my face. It was hot and sticky. I didn't open my eyes until I felt him hit the floor."
"Oh, Joaquin." Noor says softly. "So, what happened after that?"
I close my eyes and think of the moments after I shot Hollis. I remember Lisette taking me in her arms, kissing my neck and saying thank you and that everything would be okay.
"We agreed on a story. The cops said it was self defense. Only she and I knew what really happened."
"She left a few days after that. I don't really blame her for leaving. I sunk into a deep depression and nothing or no one could bring me out of it. I don't know if she planned it or if it was all by chance. Sometimes I'm so angry with her for putting me through that. Sometimes I miss her so much that it feels like I'm dying inside. It feels like she's taking up three of the four chambers in my heart and whenever I meet someone that I think I could love, she just taints it all. I'm always comparing them to Lisette." Noor sits up and looks at me.
"Joaquin..." she whispers softly.
"Even that...even the way you say my name..." She wipes away tears that I didn't even realize I am crying. "So, that's why you can't love me, Noor. I'll never be able to love you back. Not the way you deserve."
"I don't think you're incapable of love. I think you're just scarred so deep that you can't get past it. Have you thought about trying to find her? Maybe if you confront her they will end."
"What? The black-outs?"
"I don't see what they have to do with Lisette."
"Think about it. What happened before these last few black-outs? Were you thinking of her? Those strange entries in those journals...they all make mention of her."
"But in a violent and disgusting way—“
"Maybe that's because that's how you really feel."
"But I love her."
Noor shakes her head."I don't know much about love and relationships, but I don't think that was love."
"Well, what was it then?"
"A confused little boy who formed a sexual obsession over a sick, manipulative woman."
I frown at her shaking my head.
"Call it what you like, Joaquin, but what she did to you was wrong. She hurt you. She twisted your emotions when you were too young and confused to know the difference."
Noor has a gentle way about her. She draws things together, makes them clear to me in a way I can’t do myself. I know she is probably right. That has to be the only reason why all these years later I still can’t forget her.
"Some wounds are too deep to be healed simply with passage of time," she says gently. "Sure they scab and scar over but the hurt is still there and every touch brings it back to the surface fresh and new." She pulls up my t-shirt and kisses the place over my heart. "These wounds require more care." She curls into me again, her soft, warm hands caressing my bare skin. "I'm full of scars, too, Joaquin. I think there is something in you that can heal me. And maybe...there's something in me...that can heal you."
"I want to believe you, but it just sounds too easy."
"Maybe it is that easy," she says with a shrug. "I don't believe we met by chance. There is tie that binds all things together and we were bound long before we met."
"But what about your husband?"
"You say the word and I will leave."
"Don't talk like that."
Noor sits up again and looks me right in the eye. "Joaquin, I am yours. You need only to claim me."
Noor can't stay. She and her husband are attending a black tie event at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and she needs to rush home to get ready. The moment she is gone I wish she never left. Her scent clings to me. Makes me long to feel her heart beating skittishly over mine. Noor makes me smile. Her voice is calm and her words precise, but her body gives her away. She wants to seem sure of herself when she touches me, but when I look at her hands I can see that they tremble.
I wonder if she’s right. Is there something in her that can heal me? I want to believe it. I know that with Noor I am beginning to feel more than I have since Lisette. It scares me. Would I latch on to her in the same way?
At any rate, I know I can't even begin to explore that possibility until I confront my demon. To do that I need to let him in. I need to embrace him.