You are my sweetest downfall
I loved you first, I loved you first
Beneath the sheets of paper lies my truth
I have to go, I have to go
Oh, we couldn't bring the columns down
Yeah we couldn't destroy a single one
And history books forgot about us
And the bible didn't mention us, not even once
-"Samson," Regina Spektor
When I finally crack, I've only been with him for about three weeks.
It's been just three weeks since I met him in that swanky downtown club, wearing that three-dollar red dress that I'd hoped would make me look more like a smart-mouthed vixen rather than a broken little girl. There were so many other women in there, downright beautiful women with serious breasts and Coke-bottle hips and Jean Harlow platinum bobs, but he chose me.
I taught him how to dance and he was a quick study and when his hand brushed my back, I'd felt my knees momentarily buckle. Billie Holiday's voice had floated above our heads like low-slung stars and too many times I felt like I couldn't breathe but that lopsided grin was as good as a set of handcuffs. He looked like he was in the movies and as we swayed around the floor, I knew that everyone was watching but his were the only eyes that mattered, the only eyes I could see.
Even then, I knew there was something special about him. His body was sending out signals I couldn't understand and my own body was responding in ways that I was just modest enough not to fully reciprocate. Oh, don't get me wrong. I'm just as hungry and lonely for love as the next girl. I know that hate can be artfully disguised as love, just from witnessing the times my father kissed my mother's lips with his solid fist. But this is a matter of chemistry and fate and the union of those two factors can create a sort of raw love that is much too wild and stubborn to simply be labeled as soul mates. And when he told me who he was, I was surprised but fascinated, determined to unwrap the layers of myth and illusion that he'd created, the costume he had constructed to earn status as a criminal enemy turned public deity.
During the following three weeks, I've managed to fall in love. Not even a month of knowing this man and I'm long past lust, tongue-tied by the bottomless weight of my emotions. I never have to apologize with him. I never have to apologize for growing up on the Reservation, for sometimes mixing up my English with my French, for working a crummy job as a coat-check girl.
I get the funny impression that he thinks I'm perfect, pure and unbreakable. When he looks at me-Jesus! Just a flash of That Look and I'm a fool with desire, a need that's black and tumultuous with razor-sharp teeth. This is more than danger and excitement and fast cars and bank robberies. This is love and I've been fighting against it the second it struck. Because I know, deep down, that I'm not the sort of girl that men usually take a second look at. And when they do notice me, they only want to kiss me in order to pass the time, to have a warm, female body occupying the empty space in bed. My Mother warned me to never fall in love, as falling in love leaves you vulnerable, and men will use a vulnerable girl just for the sport of it.
Protect your heart and you'll go far, she said. And I did. At least, for a while.
Today hit the three week mark and I'm scared, downright fucking terrified. I'm scared because I'm in love. And I'm scared because I was stupid enough to let it get this far, telling him about my past and my family, confessing my weaknesses. I have given him the ultimate battle plan, a surefire method of destruction. I have hopelessly fallen for a man who shuns tomorrow, who operates in excess, who will probably toss me to the streets once he has drained me dry.
Who am I? Nobody. And what would John Dillinger, of all people, want with a nobody?
That's what I thought, too.
And it's not so much the inevitable humiliation, but the thought that I will be immediately cut from his life, far faster than the stolen money he blows on new suits and shoes and coats. I will have been just another bedpost notch, a souvenir from his reign in Chicago.
Oh Mother, I'm sorry.
This afternoon, while Johnny was pulling off his latest hold-up, I sat in bed and wrote a goodbye letter. For what felt like hours, I stared at the paper, my trembling hand, unable to purge the millions of thoughts flying around in my head. His scent clung to the sheets and to my skin like honeysuckle. All I wanted to do was fall into a dreamless sleep, where everything's a shade of velvet black. But I was too worried about him, worried that he'd take too long or look the wrong way and a cop would plug him full of holes.
Finally, I wrote down the words and folded the paper and stuffed it into the envelope and sealed it.
I saved it for tonight. After a small victory party at the apartment, Johnny and I went to bed. We talked for an hour or so, whispering until the words were unnecessary and useless against the drunken power of bare necks and fingernail scratches and legs intertwined like vines. I waited until I was sure he was asleep. And then I climbed out of bed, quickly dressed, threw things into my suitcase and then retrieved the note. I put it on the nightstand, on his side of the bed. As I looked at him sprawled across the mattress, I knew that there was no other option.
I walked down the stairs and out the door, not once looking back. Each step felt like a mistake, like I was tearing a plant from the roots.
Walking alone at night in a city can be unnerving, especially if you don't really know where you're going. I've lived in Chicago for about a year now, but I'm no expert and I'm starting to get paranoid. Paranoid that I will never find this bus station, paranoid that someone is hovering in the shadows, paranoid that my leaving has triggered the downfall of Johnny's triumph, that cops itching with anticipation are bursting through the front door at this very minute.
This part of town looks different at night, blanketed in a thick darkness that sticks to houses like honey, turning stars into microscopic diamonds. Too many of the streets look the same and I wonder when Johnny will find the note. Most likely, he will roll over and go back to sleep, relieved that a silly girl with runs in her stockings will be off his hands.
I'm thinking about all of this when I hear the rumble of an engine, the squeak of tires, an all-too-familiar shout.
"Billie! What the hell are you doing?"
I keep walking, heels going clip-click against the sidewalk and I tighten the grip on the handle of my suitcase.
Setting my lips in a straight line, I reply, "What's it look like?"
"Well honey, I have no fucking idea. That's why I'm asking you!"
I've never heard him swear and somehow, the words sound strange coming from his mouth. Like a robot, I keep going, knowing that this will be the only chance of escape. Because if I fold right now, there's no going back. It'll be full-speed ahead.
"Did you read the note?"
I hear the crinkle of paper.
"Note? This isn't a note! This is bull shit. You can't? You can't what?"
I whip around, letting my suitcase drop with a dull thump.
"I'm just initiating what's going to happen sooner or later."
There is nothing playful about his expression now, none of the carefree humor that is always splashed across his cheeks, always resting on the surface of his eyes, always tugging his lips into that grin.
"What is that supposed to mean?!"
I walk closer to the car, a black Ford with an engine that purrs.
"I may not be beautiful or rich but I'm not an idiot!"
Johnny slams on the breaks, puts the Ford into park and then jumps out, his body practically crackling with fury. He latches onto my arm and neither of us care that we're arguing out in the open. For a minute, I'm oddly comforted by our selfishness, that despite the fact we've accepted the roles of The Outlaw and His Girl, we are not immune to the everyday problems of lovers in love. Or at least, in my case.
"Oh, you're not, are you? Well you sure are acting like one, Miss Evelyn Frechette!"
I flinch at the sound of my full name. Somehow, his snarl triggers my own anger, blinding, molten anger that must've been buried down deep, beneath the bleakness of my cynicism.
"Just admit it! You'll get sick of me and dump me somewhere. You know it and I know it."
His grip loosens; the snarl melts into a disturbed frown.
"Is that what you really think?"
I keep my gaze steady and I try not to let my mouth quiver, swallowing the hysteria that is rising and rising and rising in my throat.
"It's true, isn't it? Look at me, Johnny. I'm not a goddess but I'm not anybody's whore and since I'm neither one of those, you think of me as expendable. Sooner, rather than later, I'm going to wake up and you're going to be long gone. Disappeared right of my life just as fast as you came into it. Maybe some other woman could be ok with that, but I'm not. Because you probably love breaking hearts but you're damn well not gonna break mine. Not if I still have the strength to walk out."
I spot the quirk of an eyebrow, the amused upturn of his lips.
"That's some pretty cynical philosophy for a girl so young."
"It's not cynical. It's reality."
He lets go of my arm and moves in closer. He didn't take the time to button his coat and he's only wearing a white undershirt and I can see the outline of his chest, plain as day.
"The first night I met you. What'd I promise?"
"I know what you promised. That doesn't mean you're going to keep it."
Anger re-flares in his expression. Funny. Calling him a liar seems to be much bigger an insult than calling him a criminal or a thief.
"I'm not a liar, Billie. You think I say that to every girl I meet? Who do you think I am?"
I don't look away, even though I want to. I feel myself smiling, a cruel little twist of the mouth that I'm rarely capable of.
"I don't know. I don't know anything about you except that you rob banks and you can charm any woman in a two mile radius."
He shakes his head, chuckling under his breath.
"You're more of a liar than I am. You know me better than anyone else. Everything I've told you…it's not a show. It's all real. Maybe for some people, they need more than three weeks. But I trust what I feel and what I know and I know that I love you. Hell, you're standing there, worrying about getting your heart broken. What about me? You could hand me right over to the cops right now, if you wanted to."
"Johnny, you know I'd never do that."
"Really? Well, according to you, we don't know nothing about one another. So I guess I don't really know, do I?" he hisses.
"In fact, let's go right now."
Grabbing onto my arm, his fingers close like a vice.
He yanks at my arm.
"C'mon sweetheart, let's just get this over with. Like you said, it has to end sooner than later, right? Let's take a ride over to the boys in blue."
Snatching the suitcase, he drags me to the car, swings open the door and then shoves the suitcase into the back and me into the passenger's seat. Stunned, I sit with wide-eyes as he hops into the driver's side, slamming his door and suddenly peeling off into the night, which I half expect to tear in two like a piece of cheap cloth.
The Ford zips down the streets like a toy. When he comes to a neck-snapping halt at a red light, I'm finally awake.
"Turn around," I order.
He shakes his head, glaring up at that red light with venom bred from both hurt and betrayal.
"Johnny. Turn around right now," I command.
He's tapping his foot, silently commanding that light to change to green.
"No use in letting this go on any longer, right? I'm only trying to make it easier for you."
My nails dig into his arm and I want to be strong but I'm exhausted. How is it possible that I feel like we've been running in circles for ages, building up something to only rip it down?
"Turn around. I'm not joking."
The light switches to green and the Ford remains humming behind the line. Johnny is staring at me and I'm staring at him and it's no use trying to stop the sweat on my palms or the erratic beating of my heart. I love him, I really do, I love him so much that it makes me sick but I'd rather it be like this, than never knowing him at all.
Quietly, I say, "Please."
My desperation is evident through the quiver in my voice and finally, finally, after what feels like days, Johnny's apathetic resolve crumbles like a sandcastle pounded by the sea. I'm grateful that we're the only ones on the road, as our stare-down has taken so much time, that the light has gone from yellow to red again. He removes his hands from the wheel and rests one on my knee, the other traces my bottom lip with his thumb.
"I'm the last person in the world that's a sap. Truth be told, before you, I could care less about love. Not that I didn't believe in it, I just didn't want anything to do with it. The closest thing I come to love is loving money and well, that's not the kind of love a man's meant to survive on for the rest of his life."
The thumb moves to a cheekbone and I shut my eyes, inhaling and filling my lungs with air. Lazy intoxication begins to wash over me and I'm nearly paralyzed and I think he knows it.
"But then you come along and turn everything upside down. I know you're scared but you've got to trust me."
Opening my eyes, I take his hand and kiss his palm, then intertwine my fingers with his.
"I didn't write that note because I don't trust you or I don't love you. I'm just scared, is all. Scared out of my wits."
He gives my hand a reassuring squeeze.
"Baby, I know. And I understand that. But you've got to let it go. I don't think you realize how serious I am. When I look at you, I want to be somebody, be a better man. I want to give you everything you deserve. There's a whole world out there and if you say it, it's yours. I don't know any other word for that except love."
I hate crying and I hate feeling weak but here I am, fat tears, mascara bleeding, vulnerable and stripped bare for one man to see. Who was I kidding? I can't leave him. Not now, not ever. In three weeks, he has become too much a part of me to deny, much more than a memory imprinted on my skin and on my lips. We have chemistry and we have fate and it's created an all-consuming love that is unstoppable, that is bigger than the both of us.
He reaches over and gently kisses me, his hands on either side of my face. I decide that a kiss is enough of a punishment for making me feel this way and when we pull back, I'm struggling for air and hazy lust clouds his eyes and fills the car, pushing against the doors, against the windows. Johnny makes a U-turn and we're heading back the way we came, away from the police station and back to the apartment. We never stop holding hands.
When we finally get back and we finally purge the violent hunger buzzing in our bodies, he wraps me in his arms, his chest snug against my back. For the first time in a week, my head is absolutely clear, clean of any doubts. I like the feel of his warm breath bouncing against my naked skin, the way we fit together so perfectly.
"Promise me you won't pull a stunt like that again. Promise you'll never leave me," he whispers, voice slightly hoarse.
And for all of my cynic's skepticism, I can't detect the slightest hint of mockery or phoniness. He strikes me as a little boy, afraid of the uncertainty of the dark.
In a single night, I have been broken and I have been made whole again.
Tomorrow will be a new day and another city and I will probably always worry about Johnny, but right now, happiness is like a helium balloon. It's taking everything in my system to not burst into a million little pieces.
When we fall asleep, we fall asleep together, and Johnny's hand is right over my heart.