Mapping Desire

Mapping Desire

Mapping Desire

An Essay by Claire Robbins

I open my eyes at six-thirty to wait for my girlfriend, Drill, to text me. Morning. Then I doze until she calls at seven on her drive to the hellhole chain where she is a kitchen manager. You probably have eaten their riblet platter, but I refuse to.

I love you like a fox loves a henhouse, I say. She is driving down 94, counting the bodies of dead deer. Three now, she says. I am both the fox and the hen, attacking myself, but not too hungry to leave behind chicken flesh to rot after pulling out the sweet insides of the bird. I have to go into the building now, Drill is saying. 

I press end call on the phone and fall out of bed. The dog opens the door to my bedroom. I hate him because he runs my life. I will lick your face, he tells me as I stand up. I need to urinate. I need my breakfast. The dog is running in circles and I ask him to sit down so I can fasten his leash to his collar, but he can’t sit because he is too excited. And then the cats begin to call out for their breakfast—Are you trying to starve us? 

The dog jumps down the porch steps and pees in the cedar shrubs. The shrubs used to grow like my feelings—reaching out in every direction, confused, wild, but then Drill pulled up with a hedge trimmer and an extension cord. Now the shrubs have been trimmed into submission, but I know their wild shaved hearts will grow new branches.

After I feed the animals, these are starvation rations they complain, I take out my canon rebel. I’m not a photographer or an artist or anything meaningful, but I do have a hobby of photographing the pieces of trash that blow into my yard every morning. Today—Magnum Trojan wrapper, flyer for the Community Mental Health Service’s substance abuse program, two grease-soaked burger wrappers, and a Popov vodka bottle, empty. 

I did once win a thousand dollars in an amateur photography contest for a photograph of a mylar balloon in the gutter, reflections of cumulus clouds floated in the skin of the balloon. One of the judges wrote, the winning selection speaks to both the beauty of the natural and our own perverse location in nature. I repeat those words to myself sometimes when I feel ugly or beautiful, which really are similar feelings, feelings that I am misunderstood or isolated. A thousand dollars was a lot of money for a person who works at a daycare. 

This was four years ago that I won the amateur contest and then two years ago one of my photos placed third in another contest—category, urban landscape. No money, but the photo was published in a coffee table book. My photograph was on page 64 across from a picture of empty plastic shopping bags blowing in a chain store’s parking lot. I had taken my picture through the window of a condemned house on my block, a child’s room complete with broken doll, everything blurred by the pane of dirty glass. It was a terrible picture really, but someone enjoyed it.

The publisher mailed me one copy of the coffee table book just last year and then shortly after I applied for a scholarship to attend a photography conference and was accepted. The conference was terrible, old men mostly, talking about the difference between tasteful nudes and pornography, well there was no difference to me, which was why I only took pictures of trash or abandoned buildings—hints of human darkness, but no naked girls playing dead.

My pictures today might as well be dead girls for how uninteresting they are. I sit on the front porch alone except for the rising steam from my coffee. As I drink my coffee, I go through every picture I took this morning, deleting each one after careful consideration. I do keep one shot of the Magnum wrapper because I want to show it to Drill, but it isn’t any good as a picture. I just think the idea of someone getting road head on my street, then tossing the wrapper out the window in a fit of passion will make Drill giggle. I want to give her road head, but she is rarely in the mood for anything other than a phone call. 

Don’t delete yesterday’s shots, I tell my hand, but I go ahead and delete almost every picture in my memory card. No loss, there will be more trash tomorrow. At the conference, I attended a daguerreotype exhibit and overheard the photographer telling someone, this is real photography, no deleting a shot if you don’t get perfect composition, just working with the beauty of flaws. I felt then and now that I am working with so many flaws inside my brain that I require a camera that makes deleting shots easy. 

I don’t work today, instead I walk the dog downtown. Why are you tugging on my leash? This makes it difficult to smell where my friends have urinated. We sit in the park and watch a bulldozer pull down an old statue—a statue depicting a white settler standing over a Native American, the kind of statue that would be ugly, with its sharp Art Deco edges, even if it didn’t depict genocide. The only possible reason it stood for so long must have been exactly because it depicted genocide. I often see things like this, unexpected even though I knew the city had plans to take down the statue, and wish I had my camera with me. 

Other people, real photographers, for the newspaper maybe, crouch in the lawn with their long lenses, expensive cameras, shutters clicking away. A chunk of the settler’s face falls to the ground and the photographers all rush in for the same shot, like buzzards after roadkill. I look down at a cigarette butt ground into the sidewalk and imagine the pictures I would take, frames held still and safe in my brain.

The dog is eager to bolt across the park at squirrels, so I stand up to leave, my phone buzzing away in my back pocket. Drill. I pull the phone out and scroll through a series of messages. If I don’t call after work I was murdered. At the bank. Making the deposit. Man in line is whispering that he will beat my ass. Told Al I can’t even get gas in this hick town. A vine of fear shoots branches through my body. Drill is, despite her weightlifter’s bulk and her dyke swagger, a sensitive soul. She hates getting stares, hates that she works in a small town thirty minutes from the slightly larger town where she lives, hates that her boss continues to send her to the bank when she tells him she doesn’t feel safe anywhere outside of her car and her kitchen. 

I want to call her, but instead I text. Call me now? The phone rings, and I answer. Babe. She talks to me, her voice pitched like she isn’t worried, but I can tell she is. I imagine her standing in line at the bank in her chef coat and then she says I’m at the window, I’ll text you once I get into the car. 

My phone vibrates. A picture of Drill in just her boxer briefs, sitting in bed. I’m a hummingbird, you be the feeder, I reply. She had texted earlier that she left the bank quickly, made it to her car and smashed down the locks. The man from the bank had left his place in the line to follow her out to the parking lot, yelling that he would fuck her so she knew what she was missing, but she drove away safe.

I stand in my kitchen, scrubbing mold off the ceiling. The dog is circling below where I stand on a stool. I feel dizzy reaching up, arms over my head, trying not to squirt vinegar in my own eye. Removing the mold is a three-step process. Step one, spray diluted tea tree oil over the area, let sit for a half hour. Step two, spread baking soda paste over the area, let sit for a half hour. I am on step three, spray vinegar over the area, then wipe everything away. 

I set my vinegar on the counter and step down from the stool. The phone is lit up with a new message—miss you tonight. I text back, I can be there in 30 minutes. She texts back, in at 5:30 tomorrow. Going to sleep now. I take a picture of my face, strands of vinegar induced curls like a halo. Night. It is seven. Tomorrow is Sunday, no daycare. 

At the photography conference I went to an exhibit titled Mapping Desires. Four photographers had work in the exhibit. I had expected Mapplethorpe, but instead found more dead-looking girls. One photographer though, the one with the least amount of space in the room, had made gorgeous prints of shirtless young people holding antlers. In one photograph, the antlers were slung across a woman’s muscled back. The tips of the branched antlers pressed into her skin, sharp. I stepped back to stare at the print. 

These pictures are the only good ones here. 

I turned around. A woman in a bow tie stood behind me, admiring the same photograph I was. I had stepped away from her instinctively, but she reached out her hand. 

Edge, she said.

Shay, I replied.

Nice to meet you, Shay. 

I followed her around the exhibit, even though I was sure we had both had our fill of dead naked girls. And then we had more to say to each other, so we went to a bar and ordered strong beer. Edge pulled up her website on her phone and scrolled through image after image of photographs she had taken, mostly close-ups of hands inside other things—glass watering cans, jam jars, nylons. I blushed at the eroticism of the images. 

When Edge was ready to call it a night, I stood up next to her in the dark bar. Can I walk you out? I asked. She smiled, and I walked her as far as the alley outside her hotel and then she asked what I was thinking, but I was thinking nothing, which I said, and then she asked if I wanted to kiss her, which I suddenly did, so she leaned back against the brick wall and I touched my fingers to her neck, just above her bowtie, but so gently, and then I kissed her mouth and moved my fingers into her hair and then when I opened my eyes I didn’t see Edge’s face, I saw Drill. Edge had grabbed my belt and was pulling me into her hips, but I pulled away. 

I thought it was nothing, that I would never see Edge again, but the next morning she texted. Of course, I had given her my number at the bar. We went out for coffee and a walk through the strange city. The conference was over, and we were both leaving later that day—she to Arizona where she taught advanced photography at a university, and me to the daycare and the trash in my yard, and all the distance in the world with Drill. 

I walk around the corner to the beer store. There is a bell on the door and it does something to my emotions, yanking them up out of my body so that I begin to cry standing in front of the cooler of beer. There are still tears on my face as I set the six-pack of Corona Extra on the counter. I pull a twenty-dollar bill out of my jeans pocket. 

Are you sure you need more to drink, Honey? the cashier asks. I just hand him the twenty, wiping my eyes on the sleeves of my flannel as I leave. At home I tie the dog’s leash to the front porch railing and he keeps me company, quietly commenting on the cars that drive down my street as I work my way into the six pack.

I am just starting in on the fourth beer when the phone rings, not a buzz from a text, but the solid ring of a person who wants to speak to me.

Hey girl, Edge says. This has become our habit. At first, after the conference, Edge would call two or three nights a week, and I would purr back into the phone, but then over last summer the phone calls dried up. Drill was over more often, and I would put my phone on silent, missing Edge’s calls. Edge started seeing two women in Arizona. One who drove with a gun under the seat of her pickup and another, an artist. But in the last two months I have been calling Edge again on the nights my mind chases me around. 

I bought a ticket, I blurt out. I feel foolish, but I want to kiss you again.

Don’t feel foolish; I said I would love to have you visit. 

It’s just my person doesn’t know I’m going and I don’t know how to tell her. I refuse to speak Drill’s name to Edge, because that is a boundary I don’t want to cross. The kiss had been one thing and the long phone conversations had been one thing—perhaps those were both a type of boundary I couldn’t uncross. But to give Edge the name of the person I love and to let her have that name in her head, is something I won’t do. 

You don’t need her permission to do what you want. You know she doesn’t do anything for you except let you care about her. Edge knows some things about my relationship with Drill, mostly that I don’t feel Drill has time for me or cares about my needs. I do understand the foolishness of taking relationship advice from a woman who has two on again, off again girlfriends and also finds the time to engage in hours long conversations with me. But the reality is that I want to visit Edge. I love the wildness I feel in myself around her and I love our conversations. 

I tip back the rest of my beer. It is dark outside now and the mosquitos are thick. They plunge their little probosces into my flesh. I hit one mosquito attached to my leg and a smear of blood is left behind. This must be my own blood. My ticket is for the second week of July and I need a plan, not a lie for Drill, but a way to justify my trip.

Is she gay? Drill asks first thing when I tell her about my trip to visit Edge. I pause.

I think she has a boyfriend—can’t remember if she used any pronouns. But she definitely has a person friend situation. She might be gay. She might date men. It’s hard to tell because it didn’t directly come up. I don’t think Drill can handle that Edge might have two girlfriends. And I’ve left out the part about us kissing in the alley.

God, Shay. You always pretend that you can’t tell if someone is gay. 

I snort into my beer. We are out for a rare lunch together—two-dollar tacos and two-dollar beers, my treat. Drill has a point, but I don’t consider it pretending, because I actually have a hard time reading if people are gay. Sometimes I just assume that if someone has short hair she must be a lesbian. Drill tries to tell me that I have to read the entire person, not just their hair. She tells me to pay attention to where their eyes go, how they hold themselves. But this is all beside the point, because I never had any confusion about Edge. 

Would you think I was gay if you met me? I pick up my second taco and bite into it, warm sauce drips down my chin. This is a long-standing fight with us. I think it has to do with my discomfort that Drill reads me as femme even though I don’t identify that way. But there is more to the fight—Drill’s preoccupation that I find lots of women attractive, the reality that I do find lots of women attractive, and that I try to hide my attractions from her.

Drill sighs. Yes, I could tell you were gay when we met. Can we talk about something else? 

I smile, glad to have finished our conversation. The server walks over to our table and picks up Drill’s plate. Need anything else today, ladies? Drill glares at her.

No thanks, just the bill please, I say.

How do you want the bill today, ladies?

Sometimes when we are asked this question I say, three separate checks please, my voice dripping with sarcasm. But today I just say, together, then I turn to Drill and smile a sappy smile. I want to take her hand in mine and tell the server that it bothers both me and my girlfriend to be called ladies. The server walks away to print out one bill. She walks back over to our table and sets the bill in front of Drill.

I take the slim black check case, open it up. Four tacos and two beers comes to twelve dollars. I think about the tip for about a minute and then look at Drill. Leave more than two dollars please. I glare at her, then write 3.00 on the line for the tip. I sign my name.

What I don’t understand is how anyone as broke as you can scrape together four hundred dollars for a plane ticket to see a stranger in Arizona.

I look at Drill’s face. You said you would stop. And her name is Edge. Somehow it feels right to give Drill Edge’s name, but not to give Edge Drill’s name. I love Drill, I do.

The reason Drill and I don’t live together, or one reason at least, is that we disagree about money. My idea of a good life is to make the bare minimum to survive by working part time, so I have time to take my pictures and walk my dog. But Drill works as much as humanly possible or more. She puts in sixty-hour weeks regularly at her kitchen. She makes more than twice what I make in a year, but she also has things like a car payment and a cable bill. She likes to buy lots of new clothes and drink expensive beer.

I think at first Drill thought our relationship would be a recipe for domestic bliss, with her bringing in the money and me caring for the house, cooking, being the wife. But I don’t want to be provided for financially because it feels offensive to me. It feels like a polite way to suffocate and control another person. I imagine Drill reminding me that she pays the bills. Over and over in my imagination I tell Drill, I’m not a housewife.

Her name is fucking Edge and you don’t know if she is gay? Drill hisses as she pushes her chair away from the table loudly and feels around in the pocket of her cargo shorts. She pulls out her keys. My brain stumbles around. I consider telling Drill that her parents were hippies or reiterating that it just never came up.

Instead I say, I don’t know if I want this with you. I hold the door open for Drill, swim through the end of June humidity, and stand at the passenger side of Drill’s Dodge Challenger, waiting for her to pop the lock. She looks me in the eye over the roof of the car.

I’m dropping you off. This relationship is a joke. Drill drives fast and hard, one hand up on the top of the steering wheel. She pulls to a stop on the street in front of my house, not even bothering with the driveway. I can hear the dog calling her name on the other side of the front door, but she doesn’t even turn off the car, just wishes me a safe trip to Arizona.  

The morning of the flight I text Drill, Morning. I need you like a line of ants needs a cake crumb. She doesn’t respond as I fall out of bed, or as I go through the morning chores—feed the animals, gather my backpack, double check the note for my brother, who I am paying to walk the dog and feed the animals. I can tell you are up to something shady, the dog tells me.

Four nights, I tell the dog, patting his head. I lock the front door behind me and walk down to the bus stop, trying not to listen to the dog calling out my name more and more frantically as I move down the sidewalk away from my house. I stand by the sign for the bus until the bus pulls up and swallows me. I will ride the bus to the train station and then take the train to Chicago where I will walk the few blocks to the blue line train, which will take me to the airport. 

The plane holds my body up over the surface of the earth. Drill still hasn’t spoken to me since the day she dropped me off after tacos. By some miracle I have an entire row of empty seats on the flight. I prop my backpack up on one seat like a pillow and curl my body up across the row of seats. The flight attendant walks down the aisle. Keep your seatbelt fastened during the flight please, ma’am.

My brain turns the word ma’am over and over like a stone I wish I could hurl away from my body. I wish I could throw that word back into the flight attendant’s mouth. I sit up in just the window seat and fasten my seatbelt, staring out at the clouds below the plane.

A year ago, I spoke to Drill about something that was bothering me. I have a question for you that I think I know your answer to, but I want to ask you anyways, because I want you to ask me the same question and hear my answer. Drill rolled her eyes but turned away from the TV. She took my hand in hers and asked, What babe? 

Would you rather wear a strap-on or get fucked by a strap-on? I knew full well that the only penetration she liked was one finger, occasionally, while I went down on her.

Wear it.

Ok, now ask me. 

She sighed, as though I was doing something painful to her, before repeating my question to me.

Both, I answered, worried about her response. I didn’t know how to do anything in my life, as evidenced by having been with Drill for almost a year before this conversation. I feel like you don’t love my whole self. You just love the part of me that suits you.

Drill dropped my hand. She shook her head. I don’t like penetration.

I wouldn’t have to put it inside of you, I whispered. I could just wear it and move my hips on yours like you like.

You’re fucked up. I can’t have this conversation.  

Then can I sleep with other people? I have to be my whole self.

Your whole fucking self is too much. Figure it out. Drill stood up and walked into the other room, and we never talked about it again. I pushed what I wanted away. And some nights at home alone I made a pile of pillows on my bed and fastened Drill’s strap around my body. I imagined the pile of pillows was Drill and I arched my back, so my nipples just touched the pillows as I practiced thrusting my hips. And then after I came, harder and more times than the nights Drill was with me, I would cry myself to sleep. 

When the plane touches down in Arizona, my heart leaps into my mouth and I feel like I might throw up. I wait until everyone else stands up and walks off the plane before I take my backpack down from the overhead compartment and sling it over one shoulder. Thank you for flying with us, the flight attendant calls to my back. I walk the short corridor into the unfamiliar airport. One of my boots is unlaced, so I stop to tie it and then take an escalator out of the airport.

Edge is leaning against a pillar at the pick up and drop off area. She is wearing a black tee shirt and ripped jeans. She looks nervously at her phone, before looking up at me and meeting my eyes.

Hi, handsome! Edge wraps her arms around me and hugs tight. Something electric shoots from her body into mine. She touches the collar of the dress shirt I’m wearing. You’re even cuter than I remembered. Did you bring a suitcase?

No, just the backpack, I hear myself say, but I’m moving away from my body. We walk to the lot where Edge’s Subaru is parked. We talk quickly about little things on the forty-minute drive to her house, my phone vibrates in my back pocket, but I don’t pull it out. I imagine Drill typing out text messages carefully and then pressing send. I can feel her thinking about me and pulling at my far away heart. 

Edge lives in a small house that she bought two years ago. Just one large room with her bed, a couch and a huge wooden table—it doubles as my desk, she says, running her hand along it. She has full bookshelves, prints of her work on the wall. The other half of the house is taken up by a large kitchen and bathroom. She blushes after she opens the door to the bathroom. There is a large porcelain bathtub with claw feet, and on the wall hangs a photograph of two muscled arms locked in an arm wrestle. I want to ask if the photograph is hers, but I swallow my question.

Every window in the house has long gauze curtains and she parts two of the curtains to open a set of French doors that lead out to her back garden, or the cactus and dirt that pass for a garden here. The doors open out to a brick patio, and there is a tall wooden fence around the garden. It is beautiful and bleak.

I looked at other houses, larger houses. One had a room I could have made into a dark room, but I loved this garden too much. There is a wooden gazebo with a table in one corner and a brick barbeque grill in another corner. I can use the dark room at school anyway.

It’s beautiful, I agree, especially in the dimming light now.

Edge says she needs to run out to buy wine and things for dinner, she tells me to take a bath or a nap. She tells me she’ll be gone about half an hour and then she’ll grill eggplant and polenta, things Drill would never eat. Edge holds her keys in her hand and smiles at me before she closes the front door behind her. As soon as I hear her car start in the driveway, I sit down on the couch and pull my phone out. One text from my brother—your dog is insane, you didn’t pay me enough for this shit. And two texts from Drill—I need you like a desert needs rain and can we talk when you get home?

I roll Drill’s text around in my brain as I send my brother a picture of my face, my expression annoyed. We can talk, I text Drill, and then, but the desert needs very little rain. I need you to need me like a cloud forest needs rain. I pull back the curtain behind the couch and look out Edge’s window at the weird dry landscape dotted with other small houses. It is almost dark out. My phone vibrates—Drill. What is a cloud forest? 

I turn my phone off and run water into the bathtub. Gentle steam rises and fills the bathroom. I unbutton my shirt and jeans, pull everything off and slip into the water. The tub is big enough for a sex scene. I think about first Drill and then Edge sitting in the bathtub with me. And then I think that I would really like to sit on the side of the bathtub and watch Drill with Edge in the tub. I dip my head under the water and play the game I played as a child, counting the seconds as I hold my breath.

Edge knocks on the bathroom door after she gets home. I imagine her standing on the other side of the door, holding a bottle of wine and a bag of groceries. Yeah? I answer her knock.

I’m going out to start the grill. Do you need anything? A glass of wine?

I think I could say yes, and Edge would come into the bathroom and hand me a glass of wine. Maybe she would look into the water or comment on the curve of my shoulders. 

I’ll be out in a little while, I answer instead. Meet you by the grill.

I towel dry my hair, pull on a clean tee shirt and my jeans, then walk outside into the night. The air has cooled down. Edge is pulling food off the grill. She turns around and holds up a giant pair of tongs when she hears me walk out onto the patio. There are night bird calls in the distance—birds I’ve never heard in the Midwest. Edge puts one arm out towards me and pulls me into a half hug. I lean into her, but don’t really hug back.

I’m not sure what I’m doing here, I say, smiling, so she knows I’m not miserable. Or not only miserable. There is something like misery coursing under my skin, but that isn’t the only thing there. I also feel something like love running through me, strong and deep. Love or a hunger.

You are getting ready to eat with me, your hair is wet, and you are listening to birds, nightjars, calling. You probably need a good sleep and you don’t ever have to do anything or be anyone you don’t want to be around me.

I turn my body so that our shoulders are lined up and push my hips into hers, which causes a charge to rush through my body. I push my chest into hers and she is smiling up at me. I reach my arms around her middle and hold her for a second. Her face is red from standing over the grill and I can feel damp sweat through her tee shirt. 

I like not being across the country from you though.

I like being close to you too, Shay. 

Edge carries the tray of food into the house and I trail behind her, then rush to open the door in front of her. She sets the food down on the kitchen counter and pulls two stools over. She hands me plates from the cabinet and takes out forks and wine glasses. I straddle my stool and she fills my glass with red wine. Edge forks pieces of grilled eggplant and polenta onto our plates, pours herself a glass of wine, and then raises her glass. To becoming better friends.

I take a drink of my wine, some sort of Shiraz blend, and think about that word, friend, and the other one, girlfriend. It occurs to me that maybe there are some things that I cannot say to a girlfriend, that I can say to a friend. Maybe I can say anything to my friend. I open my mouth and then close it back up. I taste a forkful of eggplant, and it tastes good, so I tell Edge. She smiles and says, thanks.

What kind of women do you date? I ask Edge after we finish eating. I carry our plates to the sink, and she puts the leftover polenta in the fridge. She turns to look at me.

Well, it’s complicated. There are things I guess I like, and other things I learn to like if I am attracted to someone. Do you have a type?

I blush, look down at the floor. I used to think I was attracted to people regardless of gender expression. My person told me once that she was only attracted to feminine women, but I don’t feel like I am feminine. 

Are you embarrassed about that?

Yes, it feels wrong or something. You called me handsome, and I liked that, but I think I’m also most attracted to handsome women. 

Edge flashes a smile so wide I can see her eye teeth. She has a beautiful smile. Do you think I’m handsome?


Edge pours me another glass of wine and we sit in the other room on the couch. She takes out her phone and shows me pictures of the women she is dating, first the artist, who is tall and lanky, androgynous in a pair of paint splattered coveralls. She wears thick glasses in the picture and has a short afro.

Cute, I say, because she is.

She’s married to her work though. She must spend seventy hours a week painting. All those tiny details. It isn’t easy to stand on a ladder for that long, and her eyes get so strained. 

I pull out my phone and show Edge a picture of Drill and me standing next to a rainbow banner at last summer’s Pride. This is Drill, my person, she’s married to her work too, and she isn’t even an artist, just a kitchen manager at a chain restaurant.

Edge looks at the picture and nods. She shows me another picture, this time of the woman who rides with a gun under the driver’s seat. Gun woman is wearing a sundress and cowboy boots. Her head is shaved, and her arms are covered in tattoos.

Edge sleeps in her bed and I sleep across the room on the couch, which Edge pulled out into a bed for me. The windows are open, and I hear the birds Edge called nightjars—their trills sound in sharp contrast to the steady drone of the crickets. I creep past Edge’s bed on my way to the bathroom, not sure if she is asleep or not. I imagine sitting down on her bed, running my hand through her hair. I imagine her eyes opening sleepily and a half smile on her lips before she pulls my wrist in towards her. 

After I use the bathroom and lie back down I send Drill a text. Do you know what a nightjar sounds like? My heart is a nightjar calling out for you. I know it is two hours later in the Midwest and I know Drill is sleeping for a few more hours before she has to step into her work pants and button her chef coat. I imagine Drill in bed, her sheets pulled up around her breasts, the sounds of crickets and frogs and owls pouring into her dreams. I think that until Drill hears a nightjar, she won’t be able to imagine its voice.

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