Snapshots from ChatRoulette
BY BLAKE BELL
*content warning: sexual trauma
Pink concentric circles. Mick’s nipple passes for Grace’s when he squeezes his chest fat together. He squats behind the screen and drapes his pooled flesh in front of her laptop’s camera lens from above.
I’m not sure why we are so amused by this. We’re old enough to know a nipple is a nipple is a nipple. But his chest is smooth compared to other guys I know in their mid-twenties. “More,” beg faceless men on Chatroulette.
Mick obliges. “Yes, sir,” he says in his best lady voice before he pops on the screen, a shirtless, bearded British man with fluffy brown hair.
We’re living like people marooned on an island after a plane crash. Belfast froze for weeks before I got here, pipes bursting, flights grounded. “You can’t go to the store in that flimsy ass sweater,” Grace says.
Bambi lends me his wool overcoat when we rush back and forth from the Tesco to buy cider and chips. I let it and this storm of a city swallow me.
Mick and Grace’s flat still has hot water, so Bambi and I are staying here. I’m visiting from Louisiana and supposed to be staying with my new boyfriend, but I’m avoiding him. Bambi lives in Belfast and goes to Queen’s University with Mick and Grace. His flat has no hot water.
My first night back in Ireland after almost two years is New Year’s Eve. I stay with Grace, Mick, and Bambi while Craig upholds a long-standing tradition at the pub with his cousins. We eat molly, tell stories. “Tell Mick about the Tour de Franzia,” I say to Grace. “Oh, he knows that one,” she says, tucking long, straight, chestnut strands behind her ears.
“Ladies! Come. Let’s meet some strangers,” Mick announces in the living room. I’ve never been on Chatroulette, but they assure me it’s entertaining. Mick says, “Everything is love.”
We wave at people in top hats, people with sparklers. I see the first of many penises.
Craig, dried blood staining his shirt, picks me up in the morning. He smells like metal. “It’s not mine,” he says. “We got in a scrap.”
“I like bad boys,” I tell him and myself.
We take a taxi back to his flat. It’s only a few blocks walk, but I’ve got a broken suitcase that’s a pain to carry. We met a year and a half ago, the last time I was here visiting Grace, and have been communicating ever since.
The butterflies haven’t even settled when I get sick. My head swims and sweats with a fever. He calls me “sweet Bee” instead of “pea” and feeds me over-the-counter cold medicine, which I am surprised and excited to find has codeine in it.
Somewhere between sleep and stupor, his body hovers over me like sleep paralysis, like a ghost, a heavy ghost. I wake up disoriented, but my fever is broken and watching ice-cold water roll down them in his shower, so are some of my inner thighs’ blood vessels.
At lunch, Craig mentions the possibility of him coming to the states, to New Orleans, and I’m not ready to be sure about what’s happened here, but my gut won’t let me be alone with him again. I tell him I’m going to stay and visit with Grace for a while. His flat has no hot water.
We shower back to back to conserve heat. I tiptoe in, wash my hair, and step right back out. “What’s that?” Grace narrows her eyes at the bluish shadows waltzing up my thighs.
“He’s heavy,” I say with a wink, cocking my naked hips to my right, kissing her on the cheek, disappearing to change in the room Bambi and I sometimes share. Mick and Bambi roll spliffs and wait for us to join them.
We choose our instruments. Mick takes the ukulele, already a decent player. He plucks and croons the Hawaiian version of “Over the Rainbow.” Swoon.
Grace plays the harmonica. Shapely lips press against cold reed brass and metallic notes complement Mick’s strumming. They are the perfect couple. “Bee, did you ever think your classy best friend would fall for a scruffy Devonian?”
“I’m not sure what any of that means,” I say, passing a spliff to Grace, who elbows me in my ribs, making me cough harder. “Except the classy part, of course,” I add.
Bambi and I join their duo with shared maracas. We sit propped up by beaded pillows against an eggshell wall, strumming, blowing, shaking. Strangers clap, snap, and laugh.
Bambi is tall and gangly, quiet. I won’t admit this to anyone, but I’m drawn to his gentle movements. He’s nothing like my boyfriend, the wrecking ball, a fetch of the kind of man I’ll convince myself I deserve over and over until I learn to love myself again with the kind of love you love your child-self, the kind that forgives tripping on untied shoelaces, that heals skinned knees.
Every time we come across a stray penis, we chug our ciders.
An older man with glasses, innocuous, reading at his desk, stands up when we flash on his screen and shows us what he’s been working with for sixty plus years.
Many younger men are less calculated. They jump in the frame and put their junk right up against the screen. Nobody would be able to appreciate it from those angles, even if they wanted to.
Some men are sneaky. They hide in the corner of the frame like the dicks of Christmas past, lurking in dreary shadow. We are hammered.
I call Craig to tell him I’m leaving days early to go to London. “What’s in London?” he asks. He knows nothing good for us lies ahead, or rather, nothing. He lets my silence sit before asking, “Will you come get your suitcase? Or I can bring it round?”
“We’ll come get it,” I say.
When Bambi and I get to Craig’s flat, I feel each of his fingers on my lower spine as he hugs me goodbye. “That felt…uncomfortable,” Bambi says in the back of our taxi.
“I’m ready to party tonight. Wish you’d stay.”
“I’ll be back in the morning to see you off,” he says.
Mick saves his stash of acid for my farewell. “None for me,” says Grace. She has an exam tomorrow, and Bambi has family dinner, so only Mick and I partake. I’ve never taken more than one hit before, and I have no idea what I’m in for.
We grow as tall as the flat’s ceiling and shrink down into the floor. I am in the back of a flying plane. Grace and Mick and Bambi are here. We’re trapped in purgatory together. As we sway back and forth in union, light breaks through flaps in the moving room we inhabit. There’s a humming sound. It vibrates in a circle, like air rushing through a vent. We can only speak one at a time, whenever the light comes, in rhythm, one after the other, each time the light falls. “I never want to hurt,” I say. “Anyone ever again,” says Grace. “The way I let myself hurt,” says Mick. “Family,” says Bambi.
In the morning, Grace’s red-rimmed eyes study me before she gives me a long hug. Mick pats my head, and Bambi’s slender arms wrap around my back. “Take care of yourself,” Grace says. She knows I won’t, not for a while, at least.
Grace’s open laptop, plugged into the wall socket, shows our inactive Chatroulette. I’ll never know what last night’s users saw, and they’ll never know what I was seeing. We’ll always be strangers, keeping each other’s secrets. We feed our fiction.
The rain continues to fall as I make my way to the airport. In the taxi and on the plane, for as long as I can, I fix my eyes on Belfast’s grey sky, a bowl of ice to chill a bruise.
Blake L. Bell is finishing up an MFA at Mississippi University for Women and teaches at a magnet high school in South Louisiana. She’s currently writing/revising/writing her first novel and a collection of short fiction. To read more from her, visit blakelbell.com or follow her @blakelbell.
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