Inner Geographies
Roxane Gay

Every morning as she gets dressed, my girlfriend Leila stares at her reflection in the full length mirror hanging on the back of our bedroom door. She sucks in her cheeks to increase the sharpness of the skeleton beneath, sucks in her gut, hunches over like an emaciated model posing for an editorial with an edgy, up and coming photographer. She turns from side to side, asking me uncomfortable questions while she performs her daily inspection. It is an old habit from another life. The spectacle of it makes me sad. I try to leave for work before she gets ready.

We’ve been together for four years. In a week I’m going to ask her to marry me. She’s going to say yes. We’ll call our friends. In a year or so, we’ll get married. We will pretend this has always been the plan.

A year or so after we started dating, when Leila first moved in and we were yet the best versions of ourselves, I heard her talking on the phone with her best friend Elise who doesn’t care for me because we slept together several times before Leila and I even met. Elise found the experience, in her words, largely unsatisfying. The real reason she dislikes me is because we were never anything more than fuck buddies. I’d send Elise dirty text messages late at night when my teeth were numb with gin and my ears were buzzing from watching some band playing downtown. I’d take the 1 train to her sleek, monochromatic apartment on the Upper West Side where she would be waiting for me in her short little silk robes and high stiletto heels.

Right there in the doorway, Elise would slither her thick tongue between my lips, run it along my teeth. She would pull me into her apartment and call me a dirty boy and pour me another drink and another drink. We’d fuck all night on her platform bed, and hurt each other in incredible ways, Elise’s voice rising in pitch with each stroke of my cock. She’d put on a show that far exceeded my abilities. Just before dawn, I’d pat her arm, say thanks and I’d inch out of her bed, pulling my clothes on, mentally calculating how I’d get home to Brooklyn to change before heading back into the city for work. Just before I made it out of her room, she’d always say, “I fucking hate you, Nathan,” her voice raw and ragged. But then, the next time I sent her a dirty text message, telling her how I would enjoy hearing her moan into my cock or ride me like a pogo stick, she’d tell me to come over. She hated herself more.

Elise thinks she’s better looking than Leila, which is true. She cannot understand why I was never interested in dating her seriously. Fast forward. I could only hear Leila’s side of the conversation, the low murmuring, the tone. I watched her furtive glances as she kept watch for my shadow. What I heard is this. She said, “I know I can do better, but he can’t. I feel sorry for him.” I’m sure Elise loved hearing that. I cleared my throat and walked into the kitchen where Leila sat at the table, her legs crossed, the top leg bouncing furiously. She looked up, flashed me a larcenous smile. I leaned down and kissed the back of her neck, inhaling her betrayal deeply so I wouldn’t forget. Then I took the phone from her, told Elise that Leila would call her back later. I kissed Leila’s protests silent, holding her frail body against mine. I pressed my lips against hers until I could taste the bone of her face. She planted her hands against my chest, but then she parted her lips and started kissing me back just as angrily. Her chest contracted faster, faster against mine. I spun her around, kicked her legs apart, grabbed hold of her waist, more sharp bone. Her eyes were closed. I shoved aside the napkin holder, and the phone, and a pen with the chewed cap that always nauseates me when I touch it.

Leila was humid as I pressed myself against her ass, my cock resting between the cleft. She turned back to look at me—said, “Don’t tease.”

I slid my hands along her spine, fingering the indentations between the vertebrae. “What were you and Elise talking about?”

Leila groaned. “You,” she said. She tried to hook her ankle against the back of my calves, pulling me closer.

Even though she couldn’t see me, I arched an eyebrow, held her at a distance. I tried not to raise my voice. “Good things, I hope.”

She nodded. The veins binding the muscle of my heart tightened.

I slid my hand between her thighs, worked two fingers inside her, felt for the inner geography of her, the way her body curved away and then back to me. Leila clenched. I thought about what it would be like to reach past the thin, slick membranes to root out all her deceptions. She raised herself on the tips of her toes, dancing from side to side. A third finger. Deeper. When I turned my wrist, curled my fingers inside her, Leila gasped. She started to beg. I let her. Slowly, I pulled my fingers out, one at a time. She turned around again, her lips pouty, slightly parted. She grabbed my hand, swallowed my wet fingers into her mouth, staring at me, eyes wide open as she licked me clean of her. I started fucking her, hard, our bodies slapping together, separating moistly. When I planted the flat of my hand against the back of her head, she moaned, started rocking her hips to meet me. With my other hand, I gripped her narrow thigh, held tight, forced her to open herself even more to me. Her body started to tremble and I knew she was about to come so didn’t wait. I didn’t pull out. I thrust forward, went deep, held myself inside her, feeling her cunt pulse around me as I came, and then I just lay there, on top of her, my legs against her legs, my chest against her back. She reached back for my hand. I covered her fingers with mine. She pulled my hand back to her lips, kissing each of my knuckles.

“What the fuck?” she said softly.

I exhaled deeply, stood, got myself together. I smacked her ass and walked out of the room.
After she peeled herself off our kitchen table, Leila came to find me. I lay in our bed, pretending to be asleep.

Leila keeps photo albums, carefully curated over the years to document the steady decline of her happiness. She used to be prettier. She used to have a little meat on her ass. But she moved to New York and learned that pretty girls from the Midwest weren’t that pretty in the city. She learned that girls like her had to stop eating if they wanted to make it or matter. When she talks about those days, she’s often wistful, practically glowing. She’ll say, “I wouldn’t eat a thing. I’d just drink martinis and snack on the olives and when I really started to feel like crap, I’d eat a bowl of Special K. I learned so much about myself.” I love looking at the pictures from before, when you couldn’t see the evidence of her narrow frame jutting out at awkward angles. In those pictures, Leila was all smiles, her eyes shining and luminous as she looked into the camera. In the pictures we’ve taken since we left New York, she’s hardly smiling. She’s hardly there at all.

Her father and I get on real well because I’m the guy who brought Leila back home to him. Her mother died when she was seven. She’s all he has or so it goes. Their relationship creeps me out but he can barbecue a mean steak and always has cold beer on hand so I deal with it. Hank, my soon to be father in law, once told me that Leila felt like failure for moving back to Omaha and then he shook his head like this was an original lament, like it was a sorrow that only his little girl had experienced. Most of the people we know have tried their hand at living in the city. We made a good go of it but never got rich enough or thin enough to sustain the folly.

We met in Manhattan at a party being thrown by someone neither of us knew. Leila was smoking on the roof, sitting away from the crowd and the noise and the posturing, waiting for someone to pay her some attention. I asked her for a cigarette and she looked me up and down, quickly conducting an assessment of my viability on any number of fronts.

She asked, “Lawyer, banker or broker?”

I laughed and said, “D. None of the above.”

Leila smiled. At that time her smile ranked somewhere between the joyful grins that crossed her entire face and the sad little curls of her lips that she offers now. She handed me a cigarette and I stood next to her and smoked. I asked, “Model, model, or model?”

She rolled her eyes, then tossed her head back, laughing loudly enough to turn a few heads and make it seem like I had way more game than I really did. For some reason I’ve always unintentionally encouraged women to overcompensate on my behalf.

Later, in the backseat of the cab, as we headed to my apartment in Brooklyn, we learned that we were both originally from Omaha. We had been drinking for hours. We were charged and combustive and in love with the New York moment. Leila leaned back, rolling her head from side to side. She said, “I miss fucking the boys from back home.” She inched closer, kissed my neck with her wet lips and giggled. She lowered the zipper of my fly, slid her hand beneath the folds of denim. Leila worked her nimble fingers along the length of my cock. I exhaled slowly and bit my lower lip. I stared at the cab driver smirking at me in the rearview mirror. 

We were supposed to stay in the city. We were supposed to buy a place of our own in Williamsburg and make precocious city babies who spoke French at the age of three. One morning as we lay in bed procrastinating the day to come, Leila turned to me, and propped herself up on one elbow. The sheet covering her slid into a puddle around her waist. I reached for her, traced the protrusions of rib along her torso. She said, “I’m too hungry. I can’t do this anymore.” That was that. Four months later, we were back in Omaha, visiting her father on Sunday afternoons, telling all our friends back in the city that Omaha was the Big Apple of the Midwest, swallowing the bitterness of that, learning to love the taste. 

The day before I’m going to propose to Leila, I call Elise, who continues to starve in Manhattan. She’s the happiest person we know. I tell her I’m going to propose, that I’ve asked and received Hank’s blessing. Elise is silent.

“Are you there?”

“What do you want me to say?” Elise asks.

I’m sitting on the couch in our living room, my feet propped up on the coffee table—an act of rebellion. Leila isn’t home from work yet. “What are you wearing?” I ask.

Elise scoffs. “You are such a pig.” And then she says, “Not much.” She details all the filthy things she’s doing to herself while she’s lying on her big platform bed, looking out the window of her high-rise apartment because she’s early to bed late to rise. She tells me about her fingers and the depths to which they reach, the force and velocity with which they move. Her voice gets huskier. When we used to fuck, when we were raw and sloppy, I loved that about her, how I could hear it in her voice, how much she wanted me. I offer Elise additional suggestions for what she can do while she’s lying there in her big platform bed. I listen as she does what she’s told. Leila comes home, waves to me as she heads to the bedroom to change. I nod and smile, pulling a pillow over my lap because I’m hard as hell. Leila takes a seat next to me, brushes a strand of hair from my face. As she kisses my cheek, I listen to Elise come and after she catches her breath, she whispers, “God, Nathan. I fucking miss you.”

I hang up and turn to Leila. “Elise says hi.”

Leila smiles and blows a kiss toward the phone. I come in my pants.

I propose to Leila while we’re in a horse drawn carriage, taking a ride through the Old Market downtown. I tell her that in a perfect world, we would be in Central Park. We would be like we always were in the city—bright, light, electric. She looks at me. There are tears in her eyes. She says, “This is the next best thing.”

I laugh. “Kind of like me?”

Leila looks at me strangely, but shrugs it off. Her left hand is shaking as I slide the ring on her finger. She holds her hand at a distance, analyzing the stone. She grins and squeezes my chin. “You did good,” she tells me. “We could have never afforded a rock like this if we still lived in the city.”

When we get home, Leila is tearing off her clothes as soon as we’re past the front door.  She grabs me by my tie, pulling me after her. In our bedroom, she pushes me onto the bed and straddles me naked, making quick work of my shirt and pants. I think about Elise fucking herself for me and rolling her thick, pink nipples between her thumbs and forefingers. I groan as Leila lowers herself on my cock. My fiancée plants her hands on my bare chest. The cool band of her ring presses against my chest. She rolls her hips in a lazy circle, her eyes closed, her chin pointing to the ceiling. Every once in a while, she arches her back, thrusting her pert little tits forward for me to grab, which I do. Even after she comes, her body shuddering just once as she inhales sharply, Leila keeps on rolling her hips. Round and round she goes. When I come, I’m thinking about Elise, sitting on my face while my wife-to-be is riding on my cock.

Before we left the city, Leila and I decided to do all the things we loved most. We sat on the lions in front of the library, tried to tame the stone beasts. We rented a car, drove out to the Hamptons and snuck into a party and drank cocktails and wore all white and had awkward, sandy sex on the beach. We rode the subway for hours, reveling in the damp stink, sitting across from each other, pretending we were strangers. For two weeks straight, we went to a show every night and enjoyed late dinners at Angus. At a nightclub in Chelsea, we did lines in the bathroom with two of Leila’s drag queen friends, snorting the white powder from the toilet paper dispenser before rubbing the residue across our teeth. Once we felt like we were impossibly bright beams, we spilled onto the dance floor, bouncing up and down to the relentless beat, embraced by the sweaty mass of flesh around us.

Later that night, tired and sweaty but wide-awake, Leila and I ate pancakes and French fries at an all night diner. We were squeezed together on one side of the booth. Between bites, Leila would lean into me, nuzzle my chin with her nose, breathe her ketchup syrup breath all over me. I was quiet.

“What’s wrong?” Leila asked.

I shrugged. She grabbed my lower lip between her teeth, then kissed me, wet and sloppy, her lips slick salty sweet against mine. She laughed into my mouth, the sound of her voice bouncing around my head.

I pulled away. “I know,” I said.

Leila put her hand on my thigh and squeezed, still smiling. “You know what?”

“You think I can’t do any better than this. You stay with me anyway.”

Leila raised her left leg and stretched it across my lap. She kissed my chin and the tip of my nose and each of my eyelids. “That’s crazy.” She unbuttoned the top two buttons of my shirt and covered my heart with the palm of her hand. “Your heart is beating so fast.” She started patting her hand against my chest, matching each palpitation. “It must be love.”

“It’s the coke.”

With her free hand, Leila grabbed my chin between two fingers and stared into me so hard I didn’t recognize her. “It’s love,” this stranger said. I couldn’t help myself. The veins around my heart bound themselves tighter still. She released her grip, nodded resolutely. We sat there for a long while, Leila draped across me, matching the beat of my heart with the palm of her hand.

Elise saw us off at the JFK three days later. We were leaving by air. Our stuff would follow by land, making that long exodus of defeat along I-80. Elise stood at the curb in her charcoal gray pencil skirt and white tailored blouse and stilettos, her face masked by dark sunglasses, looking thinner than ever. Instead of bidding us goodbye or wishing us luck, she kissed the air near each of our cheeks and said, “You will both regret this for the rest of your lives.” I took Leila’s hand, held on tight. I flashed Elise a huge grin. As we walked away, I gave her the finger behind my back. I’m pretty sure she returned the favor, but I never turned around.

The day after I propose and she accepts, Leila and I go to her father’s house for dinner. He greets me at the front door, pounding my back as we hug. “My boy,” he says. As I step aside, he pulls Leila into his arms, kisses the top of her head. She rolls her eyes at me as she extricates herself from her father’s eager embrace. We eat thick steaks and grilled vegetables and something involving potatoes—the kind of meal we used to look at without touching back in the city. The meat is rare, bloody. It submits willingly to our knives, our appetites. I spear a chunk of beef with my fork, and look across the table at Leila. She shoves a forkful of potato into her mouth, chews slowly. Shortly, Leila will excuse herself to the bathroom and purge herself of this celebratory meal—another old habit. For now, though, we eat everything that is right and wrong between us. With each bite, we expand into something unfamiliar.

Roxane Gay’s writing appears or is forthcoming in Mid-American Review, Gargoyle, The Collagist, Hobart, Monkeybicycle, and others. She is co-editor of PANK and can be found online at http:://