The Boa Constrictor
“This is Kalashnikov,” he said, putting the snake in my hands. Kalashnikov twisted around my fingers and curled up my arm, flicking his tongue at my neck. The snake was four and half feet long, and his body moved like a drawstring threaded through a waistband, the fabric bunched together and then slowly drawn out taught. Kalashnikov was a middling brown color, with black marks twisting like tattoos down his body. I was in Seth’s room for the first time, a week after he had followed me out of class and asked me for my phone number. There were no lights on in his room, just the red glow of the heat light above the snake’s cage and the jaundiced illumination of the street lamp outside his window. Kalashnikov’s scales grabbed onto the light as he moved, slowly, determined to take some of my warmth.
“He likes you,” Seth said. “Most people don’t know what to do with their hands when you give them a snake. You’re a natural.” He was not looking at the snake, just at the exposed white under part of my arm, the color of the inside of an apple, that Kalashnikov had twisted himself around.
A few weeks later, I sat up in Seth’s bed, my back against the wall. “Come on, stop being so touchy. You’re always so touchy,” he said in his cut-up voice, scratchy from all the different things he inhaled. He was lying down still, looking up at the ceiling with his arms under his head. I was cross-legged, his straight out legs and mine, twisted in on each other, so close to touching they might as well have been.
“Don’t talk to me.”
We had known each other for three weeks. It was the night after Halloween. We shouldn’t have been fighting. We especially shouldn’t have been having this particularly inane, stupid fight.
“Fine,” he said, and got up, throwing the sheet back on the mattress. He didn’t like to make his bed, so he slept over his comforter with just a sheet, the perfectly made up covers beneath him.
He walked around his room, focusing on anything but me, self consciously rubbing the tattoo on his left pectoral muscle. It was a Chinese symbol; he told me what it meant once, but the idea never stuck. It was something vague and safe, like “life” or “peace,” one of those ideas with so complex a definition that it floats amid other words just like it, safe and universally benign. It was unlike him to be inoffensive. He was wearing just his black boxer briefs, rolling the shoulders of his lean body in agitation. I was wearing another pair of his briefs as well, with my white men’s v-neck t shirt. He glanced at me, then went back to his desk. “You really do look like a dude. It’s kind of freaking me out.”
Seth subscribed to a belief in female sexual expression as something limited primarily to penetrative sex and corny costumes, two things that I wasn’t very interested in. His clothes obsession, for women at least, amounted to a fetish. His favorite outfit of mine was a plaid skirt and a tight black turtleneck, because it was the closest I ever came to looking like I might be in a phone sex advertisement.
A few days before Halloween weekend, he complained in his car. “You’re going as Peter Pan? On the one night when you can wear whatever the fuck you want, you’re being Peter Pan? Why can’t you be like a cute little French Maid or a Nurse? Why can’t you wear a little skirt or something? Or fishnets. With heels. You never wear heels.” He was whining a little, his hazel eyes on the road, one hand on the wheel and the other getting increasingly more explorative on my upper left thigh. He had wonderful hands. They were tan and proportionate, with a little bit of hair on the set of knuckles closest to his hand, each finger long with wide nail beds and few wrinkles. I watched his hand on the steering wheel, confident and authoritative. It was hard to imagine that he had wrecked four cars. I wanted to do dangerous things to him while he drove.
“Oh come on Seth,” I said, pretending I didn’t notice his fingers as they steadily slid upwards towards the waistband of my jeans. Maybe he’d lose control of the car. Maybe we’d go crashing into a tree on the side of the road, our bodies, still connected, slamming forward, a bloody pulp of sex sliding in pieces down the inside of the windshield. Sometimes it felt like the only way he might actually pay attention to me was if I did something horrible. When I was around him, I reverted back to childhood, needing approval, attention, and acting out if I didn’t get it. It was so clear that I wanted him much more and in a very different way than he wanted me. “You don’t really want all that cheesy bullshit, do you? The heels and the little lacy skirts and the thigh high tights…” I knew I was teasing him. My underwear was practical and simple, cotton bras and panties that rarely matched, in colors like white or light pink.
“Yes! Yeah. That. That’s exactly what I want.” He smiled, eyes on the road, and it was lopsided, one end curling up like a wave onto his cheek, the other staying in an angry straight line.
Later that week, when he pulled up at the Halloween party I jumped into his car, excited to see him and a little buzzed. He was wearing a ski mask and a black leather jacket. I kissed him. He kept the mask on. He looked like a criminal and he smelled like weed and leather.
We drove down Main Street to get pizza. In the tiny college town where we went to school, there wasn’t really anywhere else to go, except for one of the bars, and Seth had made a resolution not to drink anymore. He also had decided to stop looking at porn and smoking, and it wasn’t looking like those would hold up, so it was not surprising when, only after driving me back to his room, he revealed that he had in fact had “a little” to drink that night.
The pizza place was full of very drunk people. Seth bought me a slice and I couldn’t stop smiling at him. He looked less than pleased with me. Normally the way he stared at my body, other women’s bodies, bordered on impolite, but tonight he looked puzzled, a little annoyed even. I was wearing a hooded sweatshirt and black jeans and boots with a duct taped heel, deciding that the night after Halloween was not appropriate for my Peter Pan costume. Anyone, looking at us from the outside, could tell that whatever we were doing would end poorly and quickly.
We got back into his car, not really saying anything. “Do you drink a lot?” He asked. I was smiling a lot, and my breath tasted like the watery punch from the party.
“I drink,” I said.
He looked at me. “It’s not really attractive.”
I pretended that he was joking. “You’re such an asshole.”
We drove in silence the short distance to the parking lot. We were silent as we walked into his dorm, into his room, as I started to take my coat off. Finally, he looked over at me from his bed. “Why do you to dress so androgynously all the time?”
“Excuse me?” It wasn’t true. I usually dressed like a girl.
“You look like a little boy tonight. And you were Peter Pan last night.”
“My life is not a performance for you,” I said, sliding into bed after putting on his boxer briefs and dutifully reciting the comment I’d read on a feminist blog.
I tried to kiss him and he pulled away. “You look like a dude.” He stared at me, at my short hair over a decidedly feminine face and body. I was still inadequately female.
Things escalated quickly.
He muttered to himself as he rearranged his desk, moved his chair around, and turned the TV on and off. “You’re such a buzzkill sometimes. Why do you gotta be such a buzzkill?”
I lay back down and curled up with my back to him, staring at the white plaster wall. My body felt soft and vulnerable that way, curling into itself. I considered leaving.
Suddenly, I noticed that the undercurrent of noise, his mutterings, had stopped. I rolled over and he was standing over Kalashnikov’s tank, completely still with his back to me. Then, emphatically, “Fuck.”
“What are you doing?”
“Kalish isn’t here.” He frantically started overturning everything in the tank; the log, the tree branch, even his water dish. It’s hard to hide in a three by five foot aquarium when you’re a four and half foot snake. Seth began tearing apart the closet beneath the cage, repeating that one curse word like a prayer – “Fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck...” - I started looking under the computer, in his laundry basket.
“When did you last have him?”
“Uh,” Seth took all of his clothes out of the closet and threw them on the floor, running his hand on the shelf above them as well. He stopped and looked at me, his big hazel eyes frantic, unfocused. “I… I saw him…” he sighed and ran his hand through his hair, “I think the last time I saw him was when I showered.”
Seth showered with Kalashnikov. It is against the dorm rules to have a snake, but Seth would walk down the hall, in just his towel, with a boa constrictor wrapped around his neck, bobbing and hissing at his ear, and let him curl around the shower head or curtain rod while he bathed. Once, Kalashnikov attempted to escape through a ceiling grate in the bathroom. Seth had had to remove the grate with his snake still in it to get him back. Sometimes it seemed like that stupid snake, constantly, blindly trying to leave him, was the only thing Seth really cared enough about to hold on to.
“So what you’re saying,” I said, “Is that you forgot to put the weights back on top of his cage.”
“Yes,” Seth said, turning now to the space under his desk.
Kalashnikov had escaped once before, for the same reason. He was strong enough to push the lid of his cage up and slither out. He was found eventually, curled up in the corner of the room next door.
“I’ll be right back!” He ran out the door. “Check under the bed!”
I heard him pounding the door of his neighbors. I ran my fingers in the space between the bed and the wall, certain that I was about to touch a smooth stretch of scale covered muscle or feel the whip of a tiny tongue. But Kalish wasn’t there either.
Seth came back in the room. I lay back down in the bed, twisting my body up in the sheet. Seth kept his room very warm; the air was always hot and still, heavy and comforting like a quilt. It required inhuman strength to lift your eyelids against it. I didn’t always mean to sleep there, but it felt so empty, when I pulled myself from his pleadings for me to stay and the warmth of the air in his room like an embrace, standing in the cold hallway, everything – the spots on the wall, my reflection in the hallway mirror, the curve of the water fountain - hideous and flawed in the sharp fluorescent lighting. I felt myself falling asleep as I watched him with his unfocused eyes and the angular urgency of his limbs as he took apart his room.
The next morning I woke up to Seth reaching over me for a ringing phone. In the night, he had crawled under the sheet with me, curving his body against mine, our legs intertwined in a confusing mass of skin and heat. We always slept like that. During the second of my two attempts to end it with him, after he had confessed to me that he still “cuddled” with some other girls “sometimes,” I slid into bed by myself for the first time in a month and a half. It was an emptiness I had never felt before, and a nagging feeling in the back of my mind that I was forgetting something, that the absence of his body next to mine somehow made everything wrong.
He picked up the phone. It was his roommate. “Yeah, Mike, Kalashnikov is fucking gone, man…. I don’t know… I don’t know where he is! Fuck. Shit… I can’t believe this happened again… What? Of course it’s my fault… Well, I don’t know… I mean… whatever. I suck... Shit.” He hung up the phone and sat up in bed, rubbing his face. Through only partially opened eyes I stared at his lips, surrounded by a dark smattering of stubble. They were beautiful and feminine, the bottom one slightly puckered and a little bit fleshier than the top. I wanted to touch them. He was wearing his huge black bathrobe. It was soft terrycloth, and hung to his feet. It made him look like Hugh Hefner.
“It’s not the end of the world, Seth,” I said, ever placating.
“There’s a snake loose. In the dorm. My snake. He could be anywhere. Did you know that there are holes in every room that lead to the room next door? He could be anywhere. Any fucking where.”
“Maybe you should have put the weights back on his cage.”
“I really don’t need this from you right now.” Seth, who usually had a set to his lip and a glitter in his eyes that made him look like he was plotting something, looked defeated with his elbows on his knees, his hands cradling his face. “I can’t do this. I can’t deal with this right now.” I didn’t feel like dealing with it either.
I got up and got dressed, sliding on my jeans and my sneakers.
“Where are you going?”
“Back to my room.”
He ran his hand through his hair, lying back down on his bed. “Can you just stay? I’m sorry about last night.”
“I have a lot of shit to do today.”
“Please? It’s still early. I always sleep better when you’re here.” He looked young and small, suddenly smiling. I wanted to tell him that I didn’t exist to make him feel better.
“I really can’t.”
“Okay. Whatever.” He rolled over. I felt bad and kissed him on the cheek and left.
The snake was missing all of the next day, and I didn’t hear from Seth until dinner time. Friends came up to me at various times. “Did you hear a snake got loose in one of the dorms? Who would have a snake in their room?” I don’t know. I don’t know anyone who would have a snake in his room. I wouldn’t want to associate with someone weird who would misplace his pet snake. Nor did I want to associate with someone who thought I didn’t have value when I didn’t do what he said, or someone who could make me feel constantly attacked and scrutinized. There I was anyway, spending almost all of my time with someone just like that.
I got a text from him around 7:00 pm the next night when I was in the library. “Found snake.”
“Great!” I responded.
He called me a little while later and asked if I wanted to go to dinner, but told me to stop by his dorm first.
I walked there from the library. It was cold, the beginning of November, with a cutting wind that made me wrap my scarf around my face. I called him to come open the door for me. He didn’t pick up. I started to call him again, and he suddenly appeared at the door. He looked guilty, staring at me, a mix of pride and apprehension on his face. Every time he was unsure of how I would react to something, he would move his eyes a lot, looking at different points on my face, my eyes, my lips, my nose, searching for some kind of indication of approval or disapproval. He let me in.
He was wearing all black, a sweatshirt and an old pair of jeans. This, and his dark hair, made it easier for me to see that he was covered, head to toe, in flecks of some chalky, white powder. It was on his face as well, a thin dust as well as bigger chunks.
“Just come up to my room.” He kept looking back at me like I wouldn’t follow him as we went up the stairs.
“What’s going on?”
“Shh. You’ll see.” I wasn’t sure I wanted to see. Previous surprises from Seth had included, “I used to have a fiancé! Like, a month ago!” and, “I’ve been to jail more than once.”
When we got to his hallway, everything appeared peaceful. The same posters about safe sex and how to drink responsibly lined the walls, the same ugly lighting that made me feel like I was in a bad horror movie. But as we got to his room, I saw that piles of stuff were outside the door. His books, his laundry, his printer, and boxes overflowing with the miscellany of being a college student. He gave me another quick, cursory glance over his shoulder and without any preparation, led me into his room.
It was a scene of chaos, made more horrifying by the fact that none of this could possibly be permissible in a dorm, but here we were, with the door wide open, standing amid the wreckage. His roommate’s half of the room was relatively undisturbed, and his TV and computer were still in place. However, Seth’s side of the room was covered in white dust and plaster. His naked bed frame stood up vertically, a rearing monster. Haphazardly strewn on the floor were a cinder block and a metal pole. In the wall space that normally would be covered by his bed, there were three jagged holes, each about foot in diameter, spaced randomly. Behind the thin plaster wall, there were what looked like tiny shelves running horizontally through the wall.
“What the hell.” I said.
“We found Kalish! He was in the wall!”
“In the wall…? How did you do this?”
He would get manic when he knew he was doing something dangerous. The words spilled out of his mouth. “So we saw Kalashnikov’s tail sort of hanging out of here -” He pointed to one of the holes that were meant to be in the wall of the building, used for electric cables or something. “And I went to grab him, and he slid away and took a left down one of these other tunnels. So then we knew that there must be some place for him to go in the wall. So Mike and I got a cinder block and this metal pole—” he kicked the pole for emphasis “—and we just broke through the wall until we found him!”
I turned and looked at Kalashnikov, curled up on a rock in his tank. He looked unfazed by his recent adventures. I looked at the holes in the wall, gaping and unashamed, revealing the inner workings of the building. Seth stood next to them, smiling a little amid the white flecks of paint and plaster, covered in dust, both of us at this point probably breathing in enough toxic dust to one day contract mesothelioma. This was insane.
“But, what are you going to do about the holes?”
“Oh come on, Bridget. I work construction at home all the time. This’ll be easy.” He knocked on the wall and grinned. “Wanna go get dinner?”
We did go get dinner at the college dining hall, leaving his room as it was when we got there. We ate with some of his friends. Seth always ignored his friends when we were together, and if he did speak to them, he was making fun of them.
He couldn’t stop grinning at me for the entire meal. “You’d make a really great girlfriend,” he said offhandedly. I ignored him, choosing to believe that the label of “girlfriend,” which he refused to ascribe to me, was unimportant, since we spent all of our time together anyway. I thought that he was just scared of commitment, and that he actually thought of me as a girlfriend. I was totally wrong.
When we got back to the room he left for a few minutes to go to the bathroom. I sat in a chair, an island amid the destruction, doing some reading. There had been no talk of cleaning up the mess.
There was a knock on the door.
I ignored it, assuming it was one of his friends.
After a few seconds, it continued. Stopped, then continued again. I got up, annoyed, to look through the peephole.
It was an R.A.
I had no idea what to do, so I sat back down and decided that worst came to worst, I would pretend to have been sleeping or something equally ridiculous. The knocking continued, stopping every few minutes and then picking up again. I suppose she believed that there was no way someone would leave all of their stuff unattended in the hallway for any amount of time. How wrong she was.
After a few minutes, I heard Seth come back to the door.
“Hi Seth. I’d like to get into your room.”
“You can’t come into my room.”
“Seth… come on…”
“You just – You can’t, ok?”
“Look, I don’t want this to be difficult. Please don’t make me call UP. We heard about your… pet.” She sounded half nervous.
“Really? You don’t have to do that…”
“Seth… Let me in.”
“Ok, ok ok! I have a snake in my room! Ok? I have a snake in my room, and I’m sorry and you can totally see it if you want, but like…” I couldn’t hear what he said. I imagined him leaning in, whispering something to her. He was very good at being persuasive, at making people feel like they were part of some huge, secret scheme. He never got speeding tickets.
“Ok Seth. Fine. Ten minutes though.” I heard her footsteps down the hall.
The door burst open. “We only have ten minutes!”
We threw the bed frame down on the floor, chucking the mattress on top. We carried in all of the boxes from the hallway, piling his things haphazardly, attempting some kind of normalcy. I tried to sweep the pieces of plaster and wall under the bed. I put the covers on top of the mattress, and somehow they just covered the tops of the holes in the wall. But if you sat on the bed, it sunk down enough to reveal an inch of jagged wall.
Breathing heavily, we collapsed on the chair together. “Get in the bed,” he said.
“Just get on the bed.” Before I had even made any move to comply, he stood up and suddenly stripped to his boxers. “I told her I had a girl in here to make her leave. Just get in the bed.”
“Wow. I am not participating in this.”
“Come on, Bridget. It’ll be fun.” He winked one big hazel eye. I sat on the bed but remained fully dressed.
The R.A. came back in, and Seth stood leaning against the door. She looked in the corner, marked that the snake was there, gave me an awkward hello, and left immediately.
Seth was euphoric. We lay on the bed together, watching trashy TV shows while he went over how he couldn’t believe he got away with it.
“Wasn’t that awesome? Whoa. I could have been in so much trouble. Jesus.” He kissed me on the cheek. “Couldn’t have done it without you.” I felt my body recoiling from his.
Seth and I would end a little over a month later. The wall would be fixed, so well that you couldn’t tell that anything had happened. There would be a million furious, ignored phones calls (from me to him) and one 3:00 am phone call (from his girlfriend to me, someone whom I had been under the impression was an ex-girlfriend) that would throw me into such a rage that I actually said something hurtful to him that I still regret. I would lose a new hat that I left in his car as well as whatever few shreds of dignity I had left after my overly angry, totally irrational and depressingly stereotypical response to his final terse text message “I liked you. All I can say is I’m sorry.” I would still give him a reading he needed for a class we shared. I would miss him much more than I thought was appropriate. He wouldn’t miss me at all. It was fairly standard – people get together, people don’t always tell the whole truth, people leave, people lose their snakes in dorm walls.
That night, like all the nights before, Seth’s room was like a sauna. Our bodies felt like they fit together. I looked over at Kalashnikov, curled contentedly on his rock. I imagined him plotting his next escape, his nearly sightless eyes dark and smugly reptilian, constantly cold and taking heat from someone else. Seth pulled me in closer. He said, “I like the way you make me feel.”