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Nonfiction

An Essay about Roger

"Like me, palms aren’t native to Los Angeles. Like me, palms were planted to beautify the city streets."

Listen to Lynn Melnick read her essay here.
 

 

Roger was not the only person I knew in the city with a backyard full of chickens. 

Sometimes they’d wander into the backhouse where he kept his studio and scoot close to the futon and crap on the floor. I never saw Roger clean up, but the bird shit always disappeared pretty quickly. 

The eggs were delicious. Roger made me eggs often, after I put my clothes back on. Roger made his eggs scrambled in probably too much butter. He didn’t have a lot to say to me while I ate.

 

 

*

 

 

I am older than Roger was in this story. I am forty-four as I write this. It’s not that I don’t know what happened to Roger. I wish he could see my body now. It has so much more to communicate. It’s begging to be reformed in clay.

 

 

*

 

 

Roger sculpted my bust, repeatedly. There were at least a dozen of them. At the end of every session he’d fuck me, sometimes on the worn futon in the backhouse. This was the unspoken yet entirely obligatory part of the job. 

He was so impatient, as though sex was a chore. After, I’d look up at the impressive rafters and smoke his fancy cigarettes. After is when he seemed to glow with appreciation for me.

I liked how he’d watch me so closely. He was so old. Sometimes his old art friends would be there.

He’d put cash into my hand as I left, close my fingers around it, and pat my fist.

 

 

*

 

 

I don’t remember if my body exists yet outside its capacity to arouse. 

 

 

*

 

 

I knew a girl named True who was also seventeen and at community college with me. She lived with her parents and they kept chickens. Her parents were hippies. I thought she was better than I was because she had a Volvo and talked to her parents about her sex life. Her parents also made me eggs sometimes, if I’d stayed the night. Theirs were fancier, omelets with goat cheese and sprigs of herbs.

 

 

*

 

 

Eggs are a perfect food.

Last year I found myself in the kitchen frying an egg almost in an out-of-body way. I don’t know why but I didn’t cook eggs between the ages of twenty-two and forty-three. But that morning was different. I even sat at the table to eat. Usually I eat on the couch.

 

 

*

 

 

Roger fell between two mistakes, between two slender and troubling bodies. The last six months of the first mistake are vanished from my memory. I don’t know why I spent years hoping I’d get them back. Now I never want them back.

My second mistake was only weeks away, though I had resisted it for months. I let True fuck him first and we sat around the hand-carved wood of her kitchen table, talking with her parents about how fucking him was a bit too rough. 

My second mistake sometimes lived in a house with no kitchen and a rotting truck in the yard and chickens would wander over from the house next door. Do all chickens look the same to you? They do to me.

 

 

*

 

 

This is not an essay about chickens.
 

 

*

 

 

The truth is, I don’t remember what my body looked like at seventeen.

 

 

*

 

 

Eventually, I fucked my second mistake in the shower of that rotten home with no kitchen, and he banged me so hard I couldn’t walk and had to rest on a bare mattress on his floor. 

I couldn’t stop fucking my second mistake. If I had ten minutes between school and work, I’d fuck him. If I’d just fucked him, I’d fuck him again. Once True waited in her Volvo while I ran into the house, leaving the door open, and fucked him on that mattress and ran back out to the car still breathless. Then we went to meet her parents for dinner. True didn’t care that we were fucking. She was still fucking him, too. We ate tacos around a picnic table and her mom told us about the Peace Corps.

 

 

*

 

 

I tried to keep it a secret, but Roger could tell I was pregnant. He was furious. My breasts were swollen and I winced when he fondled them. I was eighteen and we couldn’t remember what my body looked like at seventeen. He couldn’t remember if my nipples were always that dark.

 

 

*

 

 

I met Roger because I enrolled in a Mexican art class with my friend Elinor whom I had known since elementary school. A lot of the kids I’d grown up with thought I was dead because I’d disappeared from school for so long, but there I was, studying art, because I had surfaced between mistakes. 

Elinor and I laughed a lot in class. This is what high school would have been like, I thought. 

The textbook was the catalog of a LACMA show. It was very pricey. $60. I thought I could give it to my second mistake as a gift. His mother once gave me a tapestry she’d brought with her from Mexico; she said it was a century old. I ruined it by passing out with a lit cigarette. The burn was waxy. Unsexy. Not the kind of wound you write about.

 

 

*

 

 

Roger always had good booze and lots of Valium. He had to keep me still and it’s difficult to keep me still. The word he used to describe me was “overflowing.” 

He told me it was hard to have patience with me. He would get very angry and disappear into the main house. Sometimes he’d come back out and slap my cheek.

 

 

*

 

 

Another former classmate, Ethan, was at the college, too, taking photography courses. He was a bit of a skater, a bit of a hippie, and had been well-loved in high school. I followed him around the darkroom for an afternoon, then made out with him on his twin bed in his mom’s house. I called Elinor like oh my god, guess what!? and told her all about it, even though it had been kind of uninspiring. This is what high school would have been like, I thought. 

 

 

*

 

 

Elinor was late with her paper so we went to the art history department to leave it in the teacher’s mailbox. That’s where I saw a sign tacked up to the board looking for art models. Call Roger, it said. Nudity required.

You sound nervous, he said through the phone, but it’s charming. There is a kind of man who finds nervousness a real turn-on. He offered me more money an hour than I had ever gotten in a non-sex job, so I knew there’d be sex.

 

 

*

 

 

I am forty-four and still nervous on the phone. I’d more easily take my top off in front of strangers than call them. 

 

 

*

 

 

If I were left alone, I could be very still. My mind does all the work.

Sitting for Roger was difficult because he was so jumpy and I was usually hungry and horny and thinking about the eggs and the sex. Stillness was suddenly more important than it had ever been, and so it was suddenly harder. 

This is not an essay about stillness.

 

 

*

 

 

Roger was the second person to assume I wasn’t a virgin by how comfortable I was taking my top off. This is not an essay about taking my top off. 

I have no idea what Roger’s last name was. 

This is an essay about Roger.

 

 

*

 

 

I felt grown up with Roger. There was nothing boyish about him. I don’t remember our first meeting but I think I remember every meeting after that. I’d take the Big Blue Bus to the Palms neighborhood. Every home with chickens I’ve mentioned was in the Palms neighborhood. My first mistake was in the Palms neighborhood, too. I recall shrubs but no palms, although after a while you stop noticing palm trees. Like after a while you stop noticing the chickens, really, unless they’re shitting on your floor.

Like me, palms aren’t native to Los Angeles. Like me, palms were planted to beautify the city streets.

 

 

*

 

 

Roger was jealous of Ethan, who he only glimpsed once, when Ethan dropped me off outside his house. I don’t want to see your young men, he said. Meanwhile, Ethan was mad because I’d called him the wrong name, called him the name of my second mistake when we were making out on top of his car. I felt like I was in a movie about teenagers. 

 

 

*

 

 

I lost the baby and bled a lot but was madly in love with my second mistake, who’d stopped seeing True or anyone else but me. He told me he loved me and I couldn’t resist him any longer.

I couldn’t even wait until the bleeding stopped to fuck him again. I came so much with my second mistake that it was impossible to know what a bad idea he was.

My breasts soon went back to their usual size, which pleased Roger, because he had work to do.

 

 

*

 

 

I am forty-four now and have carried two babies to term. It was a while ago, so my breasts are, again, back to their usual size.

 

 

*

 

 

Dried bits of clay were everywhere on Roger. I found it seductive until I found it disgusting.

All the finished busts of my breasts crowded into a corner of the courtyard. Roger’s assistant, whom I never saw, was supposed to pack them up and drive them to a gallery.

 

 

*

 

 

Roger invited me to the group show that the busts were in. The gallery was set back from the sidewalk quite a way, on a street just off a wide boulevard, though I don’t remember which one. San Vicente? Santa Monica? It was sunny, but it was always sunny.

Lots of adults were there, the women in flowy tunics, everyone drinking wine or water from plastic cups. Roger pretended he didn’t know me until he found me in the bathroom and pinched both my nipples, which hurt but the attention made me very happy.

I have no idea if I was attracted to him but I wanted him to be attracted to me.

 

 

*

 

 

After the show, Roger had an angry breakdown and smashed one of the busts and smashed my mouth so then it was bleeding. My womb had stopped bleeding. I never went back to Roger. I was even afraid to get the money I was owed. I covered my mouth in lipstick and Ethan didn’t notice and Elinor didn’t notice and True didn’t notice and my second mistake only seemed to kiss me harder. 

 

 

*

 

 

I didn’t know Roger hung himself from the impressive rafters in the backhouse until I ran into his neighbor years later in another city. What happened to all his work? I asked. I’m not sure, was the answer.

I think I thought he was very talented.

I thought of the chickens. What happened to the chickens and all the shit and all those colorful eggs? I asked.

I thought of him swinging and then suddenly not swinging and then suddenly very, very still.
 

 
 

 

Lynn Melnick is the author of three poetry collections, including "Landscape with Sex and Violence" (YesYes Books) and "Refusenik" (forthcoming from YesYes Books in 2022). "I’ve Had to Think Up a Way to Survive," a book about Dolly Parton that is also a bit of a memoir, will also be published in 2022 by the University of Texas Press.

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