The card I got for his birthday looks like a scene from a comic book—an illustration of a prehistoric man kneeling in front of a fire pit. I found this old photo of you discovering fire, the caption says. I spent too long picking the card, trying not to wonder what my friend would think, if I messaged her for advice on a birthday card for a guy who calls me his mistress.
Comparing him to a prehistoric man seems appropriate; I always make fun of his age. Abuse, he cries out when I do. Then he laughs and a web of wrinkles appears around his eyes. I know he’ll like the card—he knows all about comics, and film, and television. I’ll write some corny joke on the second page, something that says, you’re getting old, but you’re smoking hot and you keep my fire well-lit. It’s our love language: abuse, and some overly dramatic bullshit about really liking each other, whatever that means. We talk about “where” we are, “where” we’re standing, even though we know there is only one place we two can inhabit—my student room before he goes home to his family. I have no idea what his house looks like, and I don’t want to know.
I met him a month ago. A new classmate in a film studies course—his area of expertise, not mine. He’s ahead in his PhD; he knows things. He has pitch-black hair, only a few whites reminding me that he’s on the older side, even though he has no beard, and I can tell that he shaves a sprinkle of hair above his lip and under his chin. He’s well-dressed; his dark suits embrace his square shoulders.
When he sat in front of me at the table, waiting for the first class to begin, I knew I was going to fuck him. I told myself, I’m going to fuck this guy. I just knew. When I said “I’m Italian,” and I rolled the R of my name like a secret, he looked at me like I was a million dollars in cash.
Maybe he knew too.
Of course, what I didn’t know was that he was married. I didn’t know that I would like him. I didn’t know that, after sleeping with so many guys and priding myself for all my experience, I was to become a cliché.
I discovered sex in comic books. When my uncle moved out of my grandparents’ house, he left a stack of Dylan Dog comic books in a closet. Dylan Dog investigated cases that involved supernatural events—he called himself a “monster hunter.” Many times, his clients were attractive women. Of course.
I was maybe eight or nine, and I sat in my grandparents’ closet, reading Dylan Dog comic books for hours. I liked the fight scenes and the gore, but my favorite parts were where Dylan finally got some (and he always did). It wasn’t porn, it was beautiful and sexy and romantic. I liked that those women would sleep with Dylan and move on with their lives after he solved the case; the episode was over. They had careers and families and more important things to think about. I liked to read about happy relationships that didn’t involve heartbreak and jealousy and were just as passionate as any “committed” one. And the sex, well, it seemed awesome.
I wondered if I would ever be as strong as those women; if any Dylan would like me. I didn’t know what sex was, but my parents had taught me: a man and a woman who love each other get married, then they have kids. That was the right relationship, the legitimate one. The only one possible.
Dylan and his women were different.
Then, one day, when I asked my grandma if I could take the books home, she asked my dad for permission. My dad wasn’t a Dylan Dog fan, but he knew what it was about. The next time I stepped into the closet, all the comic books were gone.
He likes comics and popular culture in general; he says that he’s a nerd; he knows about film, and television, and comics, and popular culture in general. When he asks, I tell him that the only comic book I ever got into was Dylan Dog. I didn’t know it was Italian; to me, the name “Dylan Dog” could only mean that the comic book was American. After all, for an Italian kid in the nineties, everything was American: Disney movies, Goosebumps books, the Baby-sitters Club series I loved so much.
When I mention Dylan Dog, he frowns, his hands wrapped around a glass of whiskey on the rocks. We are sitting at our favorite bar in town, the one next the English department. The raindrops are sliding down the window next to his face. We always get a drink before class. It’s a courtship dance. Drink before class (he pays), then another after class (I pay); then to my student room with the zebra-printed bed sheets, the scented candles, the posters of Reservoir Dogs and the Arctic Monkeys—probably nothing like his house in the city, with (maybe?) a nice fall wreath on the door, elegant dining sets, his children’s toys scattered on the floor.
He has never heard of Dylan Dog, so I pull up a random picture of him on my phone. Pitch-black hair, no beard, dark suit that embraces his hips and square shoulders.
He smirks, the wrinkles around his eyes appearing again.
“What,” I ask.
“I guess you have a type,” he says. “Just saying.”
I look back at the picture of Dylan Dog, then up at him again. He is still smiling, two fingers under his chin, as if to prove a point. Which he has. Dylan looks like him—or he looks like Dylan.
I know I have just embarrassed myself, and I say think about saying something about it, telling him, well, actually I prefer blonds, but then he grabs my hands, tells me that he really likes me, whatever that means. His hands are warm.
I wonder if comic characters have eye wrinkles. I think they do. And warm hands too. He for sure does—they appear again as he squeezes my fingers. I really like you, he says, as if he needs to convince me to sleep with him. He doesn’t.
Maybe Dylan would have eye-wrinkes and warm hands too. I can’t really remember.
My favorite Dylan Dog story was about a woman whose abusive husband had committed suicide and his ghost started leaving gifts around her house, like severed heads in the fridge. Dylan had to investigate the case and deal with her trauma. Sounds an awful lot like my dating life now.
The first time we have sex, after the bar, I drop to my knees and look him in the eyes as my fingers move confidently on the buckle of his belt. I don’t need to look at it. I prefer to look at him. “I want to count the bruises all over my body tomorrow,” I say, and I don’t care what he thinks, I don’t care if he’s my colleague, and he sees me in class, discussing affect theory and blackness in movies. I want him to know what I want, and he seems to like what I say.
I have started getting big bruises all over my body after sex only this year, as if my capillaries got thinner, as if something about my body changed—and it did. I didn’t mind the bruises, though. When I counted them, after having sex, I almost felt proud. They were badges, medals. It meant the sex was good.
I know I’m easy to psychoanalyze.
I remember the time I had to tell a friend why I had a bruise on my arm—it wasn’t because of sex. It was because of my father.
I remember the time I had to explain to another friend why I was thirty minutes late and she waited for me in her car, calling me on the phone, as my father punched me in the face, held my arm against the headboard, all because I dared to say that I wanted to go out, and dared to wear red lipstick and a short skirt, and I was wasting my time, my life, and I was always the rebel, the one who stayed up late, the one who wanted guys, and drank and smoked too much.
Now I drop to my knees and ask an older guy to bruise me.
I remember a particular scene in a Dylan Dog story; it stuck in my memory like a good song. In the panel, Dylan grabbed a woman’s hand to save her. She looked like me—tall, curvy, dark curls falling down her back. Dylan wanted to drag her away from a bunch of zombies and monsters crawling the platform of a train station; they were hanging from the train’s windows, blood and goo splattering on the concrete, their eyes poking out, their brain matter scattered on the train’s walls like graffiti.
The woman seemed terrified, her black-and-white eyes literally screaming; Dylan, instead, was seraphic, and he squeezed her hand like he knew where to go. At the time, that was my favorite scene. The hand-squeeze meant safety. She was going to be okay.
Now, as I lie in bed, he’s gone; he started worrying about his wife’s questions. I Google the picture and find it too easily. I pull it up on my phone, under my zebra-printed sheets that smell like his after-shave gel. I wonder if he’ll smell like me too, and if his wife will know.
I look at the panel from the comic book that was once in my grandma’s closet. Now I’m here, and I can pull it up on my phone whenever I want, in my bed, in an apartment in a small town in America, almost twenty years after I last saw it, when I was eight or nine and didn’t know what sex was and no Dylan had ever squeezed my hand before, and my father could decide what I could and couldn’t do with my reading, my body, myself.
I know I should feel some hint of recognition, some pang of memory, now that my father is not here to take the scene away from me. The women in Dylan Dog’s stories that I thought were so strong, and powerful; maybe I’ve become one of them, begging guys to fuck me harder, to bruise me, without expecting anything more. But now I look at the picture and I hate everything about it. I hate how scared the woman looks, how she just stands there, petrified, needing smart Dylan to grab her hand and drag her away. I hate that she needs him. I hate to wonder what would happen to her if she were alone in that station—would the zombies turn her into one? Would they just eat her alive? I have to wonder if a comic book about her, alone in that station, could actually exist, without a Dylan to save her. Maybe not. But I put the phone down and remind myself I don’t know about comics anyway.