I’m having a hard time metabolizing it. It spurts out of my veins as I sleep. I know some people who have been through this before. I mean, we all do, right? People live with it, I know. They feed it and let it sit fat and happy like a baby in their bellies. There’s nothing technically wrong with allowing it to stay. You might be holding yours close right now, feeding it samplings of the news or memories of your ex-husband. Other people go through the lengthy process of talking it out of them, combining meditation with CBT and sometimes SSRIs. But I need mine gone now. It erupts if I do anything but watch YouTube videos of makeup tutorials. Anything that requires thought requires that I think about it. That I deal with it. I won’t.
So, I have to go about it the traditional way. I have to birth it and then eat it. Cook it with enough salt that it becomes something else, something more palatable. Something like Chicken Marsala, maybe? Onions and wine are always a good addition. They can cover anything, no matter how tough. But it’s not coming out. It’s breached, turned upside down inside me, its head pushing up into my diaphragm. I feel it with every breath.
It came to me after a flurry of social media activity. Post after post about what he did. Post after post about how we all should have known. And those of us who did know should have done something. I remembered lying on the floor with him, smoking weed after school, back when the burn of smoke in my lungs still had the bite of newness and danger; the scratch of his carpet against my lower back where my shirt had ridden up; the tree as it arched in the wind, bending towards his third-floor bedroom window, mixing its branches with the rusted anti-burglary gate; my laugh bouncing against the walls of his room, overpowering his soft smile. I can’t say if I knew or not.
When the posts came, it’d been years since I’d seen him. His face didn’t pop into my mind when I thought of bad men and the bad things they do. He had found his way into my consciousness before I drew red circles around possibly dangerous men in my mind. We still toted backpacks stuffed with books and wallets without the slick possibility of credit cards. It was just high school. Things aren’t supposed to go well with your high school boyfriend. And other people had it worse. Their boyfriends had lingered into adulthood, growing with them until the pair of them were like a vine and a tree, and you couldn’t tell whose leaves were whose.
I felt the first kick of rage when I read the arrest report and realized he had still been living in his room in his mom’s apartment. The room where he kissed me, and I kissed him back, over and over again. It was the same address on the arrest report: a walkup in Chelsea that I can find so easily in my memories. Sometimes, even a decade later, when my feet find the corner of 9th Avenue and 26th Street, they try to turn down his block. It was where, despite the cliché, a part of my mind whispered to me that I’d lost my virginity. Maybe he stored it under the floorboards, or maybe it had long ago been vacuumed up and forgotten. That, too, had felt undramatic to me at the time. It was awkward and unenjoyable, but he was determined, so we got through.
I can’t quite say I was shocked about what I read after paying a one-time fee of $5.99 to backgroundfresh.com. Whispers had been growing online for years. There was briefly even an entire Tumblr page devoted to collected screenshots of all the things he willingly admitted to online. He claimed they were bad jokes. I looked away. But rage doesn’t need surprise. It grabbed at me anyway, filling itself and growing fat within me. Was I mad for all the people who were hurt by him, or was I mad just for myself? Was I mad because I remember all of the small possibilities, the little trails off the main road, that he could have taken instead? Rage doesn’t care about those distinctions. The answer is always: all of the above.
Sitting on the subway, I watch as the rage creates pustules under my ribs. Pushing out with its feet, the shape of a toe comes through, the nail visible through the last layer of my skin and my t-shirt. I slap it down, forcing it back. It curls its toes into my muscle, momentarily discouraged. I look around the train car, but no one seems to have noticed. They’re still looking at their phones, their books, their third eye, the ghosts that live in the tunnels.
I stick a tissue on the leaking flesh. It’s just plasma that’s wetting it, no blood. No big deal. I see an ad for a witch downtown. Old fashioned paper rippling above the seats, she obviously only paid for the one. Most subway cars are plastered floor to ceiling with a single startup aimed at wearing you down. It’s been a long time since I walked into a subway car that wasn’t painted in mattresses and take out. Her ad is hanging out across from me as my white blood cells drip down my torso and hit the cool plastic of the seats. She’s just got a toe in the water.
It reads: Need a spiritual extraction? Paranormal service has resumed on the Lower East Side!
I download her app using the G train coupon code “underground.”
She responds before I transfer to the L. She says I have to wait two weeks; there are a lot of people who need her help right now. I take the appointment. The soonest one she’s got.
The tissue falls off as I run to get onto my next train. I watch as it drifts onto the soiled ground. The woman next to me watches too. She’s in heels, rigid denim that must cost at least a hundred bucks, and a delicate gold necklace I think I’ve seen advertised on Instagram. It’s an amulet to protect against the very thing I have growing inside of me. I should have shelled out for it. I put my hand over the wound the toe left. I don’t want her to see.
The two weeks pass slowly.
My eyes start bleeding. The capillaries start breaking and dripping blood down my cheeks. I’ve never had that happen to me before. I try to google it:
Rage causing eyes to bleed
Rage moved into sinuses?
Bloody eyes angry
I don’t get any results. A woman on Quora asked about something vaguely similar, but she only got QAnon conspiracies in return. I’m obviously possessed, but I don’t feel unhinged. Just angry.
Blood dripping from the eyes, it feels like tears, mostly––a wetness emerging from inside. The only thing that’s different is how the blood stains your hands as you try to wipe it away and the sting as it coats your cornea. I try to bottle the blood, to rub it back into the crease between my brows and the cellulite on my thighs. I may be a mess, but I’m not so much of a fool that’d I’d turn down a free vampire facial. I’ve watched seven YouTube videos about them.
The witch emails me about what I have to bring to my procedure. She wants me to print the arrest report since I told her it was the source. I regret unloading my whole soul into the small short answer box on her app. I should have kept it simple––ex-boyfriend went off the rails, I feel guilty, I feel ashamed, I’m so angry my body is decomposing from the inside out. But now I can’t just whisper the whispers I’ve heard back into her ear. I have to read the state’s black and white facts aloud.
You want to know what it is, I’m sure. What caused this flurry on my feed and put this creature inside me.
The federal government is charging him with two massive felonies. My rage slurped COUNT ONE up, but it didn’t find it as tasty as COUNT TWO. Who knows, though? Maybe it will get your blood boiling. According to the federal government, it is the worse crime. Basically, he sold some bad H to two people who were later found dead and alone. “Hope,” the name he went by when he was dealing, was the last person either of them texted.
“Hope” is a joke, you see: heroin + dope = hope. It’s also, obviously, what he was selling. I didn’t know him by that name. He wasn’t so big or bad back when he carried a messenger bag with The Great Gatsby in it. He was still just Felix.
We’re all trying to numb ourselves. I don’t blame him for selling drugs. He sold drugs when I knew him. Just weed back then. In 9th grade, when he bought his first ounce from a senior to sell to other 9th graders, he wasted half my mom’s bottle of Marc Jacobs’ Daisy trying to make his backpack smell normal again. It didn’t even work. We both got in so much trouble. It was the perfume my mom was mad about, not the weed.
You might say heroin is different. Scary. That he committed murder by selling it to people. And the law agrees. But I don’t. That one just seems like the luck of the draw. He gets charged, but BigPharma doesn’t? I’m not defending him, it’s just that I know I wouldn’t be in this position if it had only been COUNT ONE. I would have shuddered, maybe gotten so drunk I made myself throw up a couple times, but my sclera would still be white. I would still be whole.
COUNT TWO, on the other hand, has transformed me.
(Possession of Child Pornography)
4. From at least in or about October 2018 up to
and including at least in or about January 2019, in the Southern District of New York and elsewhere, FELIX BLOCH, a/k/a “Hope,” the defendant, knowingly did possess and access with intent to view, and attempt to possess and access with intent to view, a book, magazine, periodical, film, videotape, computer disk, and other material containing an image of child pornography that had been mailed, shipped and transported using a mean and facility of interstate and foreign commerce and in affecting interstate commerce by any means, including by computer, and that was produced using materials that had been mailed, shipped and transported in and affecting interstate and foreign commerce by any means, including by computer, to wit, BLOCH, possessed images of child pornography in his residence in New York, New York.
(Title 18, United States Code, Sections 2252A(a) (5) (B), (b) (2), and 2.)
No, you aren’t reading it wrong. The horribleshit was shipped, mailed, or transported and was produced using materials that had been mailed, shipped, or transported. The Federal Government is excessively wordy.
The first time I read the report, I paused here and wondered about the virginity that I left in that room. Was it still there? Or had it made it onto the internet somehow? Alongside it, was there an image of my sixteen-year-old body caught under the bright bulb of an old-school mirror selfie? I think I sent him a naked picture I took in my bedroom on a Canon point and shoot, but I’ve been running through my memories with a weedwhacker lately, and I can’t tell what’s real and what’s been altered. The rage has been helping me there. It crawls down to the very roots of my memories and devours them. It spits them back up and reshapes them.
It pushes me to call the number of the federal prosecutor listed on the report and leave a message. I have no evidence to offer. And I know I don’t actually want to be involved, but I do it anyway. I spit vitriol at the receiver. I say he was always a terrible man.
Apparently, the federal prosecutor didn’t need or want my help. But I get a call from an NYPD detective named Kevin Williams a week later. Listening to the voicemail he left, I think about what a fool I was to call and how I shouldn’t get involved, but then the rage kicks, and I call him back. He’s walking down stairs when he answers, his voice moving at a rapid pace with him. I, of course, see Elliot Stabler in my mind. I imagine the way his suit jacket would fly open from the wind of his own making, and the cheap polyester suit pants curving around his thighs.
It’s immediately obvious that Kevin doesn’t have the primal nature of Stabler. He “levels with me” and tells me that the feds are going to plead Felix out. He’s going to plead guilty to two counts of manslaughter, but the child porn charge will disappear. “Now,” Kevin says, “We don’t want that to happen, do we?”
“No,” I say.
“You know, with two counts of manslaughter, he could be out in as little as seven years with no sex offender label. We don’t want that to happen, right? Some girl might meet him and never know.”
I imagine running into Felix on a random street corner in seven years, his pupils pinpoints. “No,” I say again.
“So, I’ve heard about a girl, I’m going to tell you her name just so we know we’re talking about the same person. Okay? Now, she doesn’t want anything to do with this, but if we have a witness that can put them together––and I mean together––in the right window of time, we could get that in front of a judge. You ready?”
“You remember Claire?”
I do remember her. She was Felix’s girlfriend after me. We weren’t that old, not really. I had gone off to college. He hadn’t. I was about to come home, actually, and he was still there, in that room on 26th street. I would stay up late and look at him and Claire on Facebook, leaning against the cold cinderblock of my dorm room. I wasn’t angry back then, just hollow. I knew Claire was in high school, but I only thought about that in comparison to me. I only thought about how old I was already at 22, how dry my skin had become. “I remember her. But I never met her,” I say.
“Alright. You got anything else for me?”
“No,” my voice chokes. My rage is bubbling up, scraping my stomach with its claws.
It tells me that Claire looked like me, that we had the same big brown eyes. That we were both slight and short. It’s an ancient insecurity, and the rage must recognize it in my bones. Suddenly I wonder if Felix liked me for the very reasons I’ve struggled to like myself: that I wear size six shoes and can comfortably walk through the world without a bra. These thoughts make me gnaw on my lips until blood is dripping from my chin. My rage is growing more demanding.
Finally, it’s time for my appointment with the witch. Witchcraft still––in this day and age––is not covered by insurance, so I have to pay out of pocket. I try to fight my case and spend three hours on the phone with Blue Cross Blue Shield. They tell me to try therapy first, and then an outpatient female empowerment and entrepreneurship program if the therapy really isn’t enough.
I get to her place in the Lower East Side far too early. There’s a cafe downstairs. I order a sausage—that’s all. I eat it in two bites. It flows down my throat easily, even though it’s half whole. What I’m really waiting for is the Rage Marsala. I scroll through the top recipes on my phone. Apparently, it has to reach an internal temperature of 200℉ or it could grow right back. The rage is more active when I’m eating. It has to move around to make room for whatever I put inside me. It rests its ankles on my hip bones and pushes its elbows against my spleen. I’m not sure if people are staring at me or if I’m imagining it.
I buzz her seven minutes early—it’s the perfect number of minutes for any appointment. She makes me wait just long enough so I think about buzzing again, but just as the thought enters my head, the door opens. It’s the perfect amount of time to make me wait. It’s an old-style tenement, a walk-up all the way to the fifth floor with wooden banisters so smooth I can tell they’ve been there since 1863.
My rage starts kicking at the third floor. It starts banging on my esophagus and pushing down on my bladder. I have to take a break. All the banging and thudding shoots acid into my throat and mouth, and I sputter and burp. Bye, bye, seven minutes.
She’s standing there, in the doorframe, waiting for me as I make it to the fifth landing.
She’s exactly like you think she’d be: scraggly gray hair, big bumpy nose with a wart on the side, layers of flowing black that I can tell are made from natural fibers.
She chatters along as she makes me a cup of coffee I didn’t ask for, the real bitter kind. I ask her how long she’s had the apartment, trying to sound like I’m not judging the dust collecting on the windowsill full of crystals.
“I was born here,” she says, and I can hear the subtle hints of a New York accent that’s almost disappeared. “In this very apartment, in ’98. It was a different world downtown back then, let me tell you.”
She catches my eye. I must have an expression I can’t see.
“1898,” she says as she rolls her eyes, “I’m always forgetting I’ve got to say the whole thing nowadays.”
I look around. The whole thing can’t be bigger than 400 square feet surrounded by walls suffering from water damage. But still, I can feel her magic rolling along the uneven floor and floating in the dust-filled sunbeams. “You’ve done a lot with it,” I say.
She waves me off. “Onto business, I think,” she says.
I gulp down the rest of my coffee and tell her about Felix. I brought the arrest report with me like she asked. It’s been growing warm in my pocket, but I don’t take it out yet. The report is just 3 pages double-sided. No big deal. It’s only ink and paper.
She leads me into a second room. I see her slip a kitchen knife into the pocket of her flowing black dress on the way. There are pillows covered in raw silk, several rolled yoga mats lean against the windows, and an altar with candles is set up in the corner. Bookshelves line the far wall. They’re stuffed with trinkets, each one covered in a thicker layer of dust than the last. I spot a tennis ball and a fountain pen. She must have odd taste.
“It smells good in here,” I say.
“It’s the candles, they’re tallow. That synthetic wax won’t get the job done. But the price of tallow, my god,” she says. “I just buy the fat from the slaughterhouses over in New Jersey and make it myself.” She’s talking and somehow guiding me with her hands. I put my bag down. I face the alter. “I remember walking down to the Meatpacking district back when its name meant something and watching them walk cows into secret tunnels under the streets, so they didn’t disturb the traffic. There were no screams,” she says, “People say you used to be able to hear the cows scream, but you couldn’t. You just heard the hustle and bustle,” she lays down a yoga mat and then a long sheet of exam table paper, “Like always.”
“Take off your pants. Get comfortable. Sit down.” She hands me a towel, worn and thin, “Cover up if you must.”
She doesn’t turn away. I take my pants off and put the towel down. I don’t think I’ll need it.
She asks me to read the whole report. Not just the easy parts. She starts burning a smudge stick and bringing it closer and closer to me as I read. There’s sage and another scent mixed in, almost like myrrh. It reminds me of the few times I’ve popped my head into Catholic churches. It smells ancient.
I sit, knees splayed open, ass sticking to the soft rubber of the mat.
I begin to read.
The whole report.
Even the worst part. The videos, the ones that he possessed and attempted to possess, are described. In detail.
It’s right under those strips of black. I put them there for you. There might be some curiosity bubbling in you, but trust me. I’m letting you walk away. This censorship is a favor. The stuff you’ve heard about in SVU, yeah, that’s there. But worse. But real. Olivia Benson didn’t type it up, and she’s not here to save you. That wasn’t Stabler on the phone. The first time, I went into the report greedily. My mind didn’t conjure what was possible. And let me tell you, I’ve seen every single episode of SVU. I know better, now.
I’ll leave this open, uncensored. It’s the paragraph after the description of the video in the arrest report:
c. After receiving the video, BLOCH responded “lolll” and “me.” Based on my experience and training, I believe “lolll” refers to “laughing out loud,” an abbreviation commonly used in message exchanges to describe something humorous.
As I read, the rage kicks and howls. It grows and feeds. My stomach expands, becomes heavy and ripe. It looks like a peach, round and full, ready to drop.
The witch hands me the smudge stick and motions. I know what she’s getting at. I rub the ash of sage on myself, on my belly and on my lips. She starts murmuring a spell while I do it. It’s in a language I’ve never heard before, filled with vowels and tonal shifts.
The corners of the room shift. My eyes can’t focus. The bookshelves lose their shape, the patterns in the woodgrain jump. I hear a scratching to my left and turn to see a matchbox car moving back and forth to the rhythm the witch’s spell has set. It’s painted forest green with spots of rust where the paint has chipped off. I jerk my gaze away from it and to the windows. My eyes fall onto the reflection of a twin-sized bed, the blankets pushed down into a heap at the foot. A tripod is pointed at its center. I turn to look for them, but they haven’t appeared. I don’t want them to.
I push. The rage begins to crawl out of me. Blood gushes with it. I see a hand emerge, fingers tiny, purple, and shriveled. It feels like death, and I thank God that it’s leaving me. I’ve never given birth before, so I don’t have anything to compare it to. The closest thing was when my college boyfriend fucked me in the ass before we knew what we were doing—no lube, no stimulation, and I hadn’t learned to say how to say it hurt yet. Like when the first jolt of pain is from the hair you didn’t know you had being ripped off your skin. In short, a surprise. Do you know what I mean? When your body is in such shock, you’re not quite sure if it’s even real. Could it be a dream? Are you, in fact, a ghost and not a woman?
I see its butt, and I know the worst is over. Its feet hit the yoga mat as it falls out of me. Its legs flop together, and it reminds me of being a young girl playing with other young girls and tying our feet together so we could be mermaids. It’s as silly and grotesque as the rope marks on our flesh when we jumped into the water with no way to swim. Ridiculous, but here.
It turns back at me, and its eyes are closed. Matted down by my blood and its own slime.
The witch hands me a kitchen knife. The only thing I can hear is the steady pulse of my own heart, desperately trying to pump blood to the places that lost it. I can’t raise my hand. I can’t take hold of the knife.
“I can, if you need?” She asks.
She grips the rage by its feet, hangs it upside down, and slashes its throat. The blood flows slowly. It’s congealed.
“There’s a shower through that hall,” she says. I grab the towel and slowly make my way to my feet.
Everything in the bathroom is blue: the tiles, the mold growing on the shower curtain, the toilet, and the bar of soap. I look at the dark red blood between my thighs. It doesn’t fit. It takes me a moment to figure out how to turn on the shower, and then I step into it before the water is hot. I notice a few red marks on my torso, but there are no moving lumps under my skin, no bulbous growths. The marks will become bruises, they’ll turn from red to blue to yellow and then disappear.
When I’m cleaned up, my skin dried by the towel I thought I wouldn’t need, I walk back out. Somehow, in the short time I was in the shower, she’s put everything back in its place. The yoga mat has been rolled up. Any blood that splattered has been wiped away. Something glistens on a top shelf, unmarred by dust. I catch a hint of green and look away.
I head back into the room where we sat and drank coffee and chatted. She has a cup of steaming sage tea ready for me: “In case it tries to grow back.” I drink it down easily. The acid, the burping, the paranoia that was living inside me is gone now. Neutralized with a kitchen knife. Deep breaths are possible.
The rage is bundled up in plastic. It looks like stew beef. It’s swimming in blood. Mine, I guess. I’ll have to pick up the onions and wine on the way home. Maybe my roommate will even want some. It’s a delicacy, after all.
It’s five hundred even. I ask where the closest ATM is, but the witch shakes her head and smiles, “Venmo is better.”
I pay her with a swipe. I pick up the bag and leave the report. I walk all the way home and a little out of my way, just to test myself. But all I feel on the corner of 9th and 26th is the sweet spring breeze blowing through the flowers of the Callery Pears. I look up and watch the white blossoms move in the wind, with the brick of Chelsea’s tenements behind them.
By Ava Robinson