Stolen Away

In which I discover the art of having no boundaries.

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I sat alone in Hillcrest Cafeteria picking through a salad, when I happened to turn in the direction of the table not more than five feet away. A guy I had seen around the graduate sculpture program held a tipped glass of ice water, about to spill it over his girlfriend’s head. I was horrified. Sure, the temperature outside was torrid, but did that mean she wanted to be dunked over the head with a glass of water? What did she do to deserve it? Something threatening? Kinky? Or maybe nothing out of the ordinary. Maybe he typically sucked orange juice from her fingers as she opened the peel, licked the milk mustache off her lips, reacted out of passion several times in a day. She’d been standing in front of their table with a tray filled with macaroni and cheese, pizza and French fries. He tipped over the glass, drenching her in ice-cold water. She dropped the tray and it clattered. The fries flew across the floor, the pizza landed on its cheese side with the macaroni and cheese in soft thick lumps across her chest. Her boyfriend stood behind her and laughed like this was the most hilarious thing he’d ever seen.

Performance pieces were big among the art students, but unless she’d agreed in advance, this didn’t feel like art. Ice cubes landed on top of her short, spiky, orange-faded-into-yellow hair and water dripped onto the floor, soaking through the cork footbeds on her Birkenstocks. She flicked off the ice cubes, shook the water from her head and noticed me, because I was staring so hard with my face contorted into an expression of deep disgust.

Instead of blaming her boyfriend, she stabbed the side of her palm into the crease of her elbow and gave me the finger, as if I were the cause. She must have been a clairvoyant. In the moment she decided to hate me instead of him, she didn’t know me or what havoc I would wreak upon her life. Unsure of what to do next, she laughed.

I kept expecting her to shout threats at him as morbid as The Tell-Tale Heart, but she didn’t admit defeat. She accepted what he did when it was so demeaning. In all probability, this wasn’t the first demeaning treatment to which he’d subjected her.

I don’t believe in public humiliation. When my husband and I were breaking up, I never exposed our problems in public. I didn’t need to. The truth was so obvious. I didn’t need to literally dunk a glass of ice water over my husband’s head. I already gave him the shock of his life. It was our final semester of graduate school, and I told my husband that I didn’t want to be married to him anymore. “Leave right now,” I said.

“Now?” he looked at me, but I held firm.

The passion we once felt for each other dried up. I don’t know what caused it but I think the lack of attention we showed each other contributed. First, because we were too busy with our coursework (me clocking countless hours in the library; him in his studio) and later because we dreaded a confrontation, we stopped sharing time together in the apartment. The first year of our marriage we rushed home to eat dinner together. Then in our second year, we made plans with our separate groups of friends, not returning until after midnight.

Without finishing my lunch, too embarrassed for the girl whose boyfriend had dunked the glass of ice water over her head, I could not remain seated at the table next to them any longer, and I left the cafeteria. At the double doors, I spotted a close friend. She was leaving the cafeteria too, but she had missed having witnessed the water-dunking episode. We took slow steps together out of the chilly air-conditioned lobby into the blasting heat of the parking lot, where our sneaker soles sunk into the hot tar. The majority of the trees in Iowa City had died of elm blight disease and summer offered little respite. “What kind of person dumps water on his girlfriend’s head?” I asked her.

“He sounds passionate.”

“Seriously?” I said and turned away from her, averting my eyes to keep the sun out of them.

“Isn’t that what you said was missing from your marriage?”

“No. This is totally different.”

“You would think that.”

“Moustache…curly black hair…chiseled six-pack visible through his T-shirt? You know him…I know you do. He’s in the art department.”

“Owen Samuels?”

“That’s his name! That’s who it is,” I said.

After that day, I kept running into Owen. I’d see him through the window of Hamburg Inn, slinking past the cemetery on Burlington Avenue and finally, in the keg line at a party on Johnson Street. It wasn’t an art party. A guy in the Russian department was throwing it. Owen was the only guest in jeans speckled with paint. He stood at the end of the keg line holding an empty red Solo cup, alone without his girlfriend. I decided to get in line behind him and give him a piece of my mind.

“I saw you spill a glass of water over your girlfriend’s head,” I said, flicking the ashes of a cigarette onto the edge of the fold-up table, not bothering to sweep them into a pile.

“Yeah?” He was smoking himself, inhaling deeply.

Owen smoked cigarettes — unfiltered Camels — way down to the stubs. His fingertips had yellowed. His teeth hadn’t yellowed yet but you could see tinges that in time would settle into stains. He smelled like laundry detergent saturated with nicotine. All the good ideas that came from him came when he smoked.

“What kind of person does that?” I said.

He must have had some beers in him before I arrived because instead of getting defensive, his tone was intimate and confidential. He told me that he was a completely spontaneous person and it was because he grew up in an orphanage. He never found out who his parents were. “That’s how I am — no boundaries. I’m not like other people,” he said. He told me that when he met a new friend back in high school or even junior high, he didn’t want them to know he lived in an orphanage, so he’d tell them to drop him off in front of an apartment building. If it was too late to go back to the orphanage, he’d sneak into the apartment building, take the elevator up to the roof and, if it was cold outside, sleep next to a heating duct.

Soon after the night of the party, we spent our first whole day together, running around the streets of Iowa City and stealing bicycle seats. Owen wanted to make wolf mask sculptures and thought of using a bicycle seat as a mold. Problem was he didn’t own a bike. He convinced me into helping him steal the seats off of people’s bicycles by telling me that he was doing it in the service of art. He felt that the world held such little regard for artists, the same rules didn’t apply. “Art is practically illegal anyways,” he said.

Up until that point, the most expensive thing I’d ever stolen was a tube of lipstick from a Woolworth’s counter. I was in junior high. I was about to step onto the escalator when the store detective grabbed me. She took me into a back room where I received a warning — after begging her not to call my parents. I wondered whether I’d be excused, humiliated or morally impaired for the theft I was now committing — stealing bicycle seats but more so, stealing him away from his girlfriend and breaking her heart. At that point, I hadn’t yet told my parents that my marriage had broken up. Owen’s girlfriend didn’t know about him and me, but she would soon find out.

The first day we spent together a friend spotted Owen and me in City Park rolling down the slopes together and kissing, yellow cattail pollen speckling the crown of my head. That night we returned to my apartment and the flimsy, particleboard door was busted open. Owen knew right away who did it: in her fury, she left a telltale sign — a bag of rainbow-colored M&Ms dumped all over the floor. Everything about Owen was so wrong, it became right. It couldn’t be called arrogance, it was the way he lived moment to moment on survival mode.

The summer before I met him I’d spent writing poems about bats. Their webbed wings. Their pug noses. Their amazing use of echolocation. Then something weird happened. I brought to life the very creatures I was imagining. Without knowing it, I tapped into the same source as Frankenstein and Pygmalion. One night I walked up the stairs to the second floor apartment I still shared with my husband and saw the craggy edges of a jet black shape held fast to the inside of the screen. When I reached the top step, still standing way on the other side of the room, I screamed.

Something similar happened with Owen. It was like I conjured him up, based on impressions that both interested and repulsed me. The more time I spent with him, the more I wanted to be with him. I couldn’t get enough of him. I no longer holed myself up in the library. I studied and wrote lying next to him in his bed, usually without wearing any clothes and in between our love-making. Or I didn’t study and didn’t write and wasted entire afternoons lying next to him smoking and staring up at the ceiling.

He had jimmied those bicycle seats loose and pulled them free with his bare hands. He was so strong he didn’t need to use a wrench. We stole four or five people’s bicycle seats and carried them in broad daylight back to Owen’s basement apartment, which was only a couple of blocks from the Quad, much closer than my apartment on Summit Avenue.

Once we got there, he wasted no time in propping the bicycle seats up into the four corners of the walls as if to invoke an ancient spirit, maybe the she-wolf who features in Remus and Romulus, who finds them and suckles them when their own mother has abandoned them to die on the banks of the Tiber River. I helped him tear newspaper into one-inch strips and paint them with paste he prepared from flour and water. Then he draped the newspaper strips around the bicycle seats and as he molded them, the shapes changed before our eyes into something resembling the long snout and head of a wolf. When the glue dried and the paper mache hardened into a shell, we tried on the different masks. We crawled outside to the lawn on all fours. We ran through the streets in them howling like wolves. • 11 June 2014

Harriet Levin Millan‘s debut novel, How Fast Can You Run, based on the life of “Lost Boy” of Sudan Michael Majok Kuch has been selected as a Charter for Compassion Global Read. She’s the author of two books of poetry, and a third to appear in 2018. Among her prizes are the Barnard New Women Poets Prize and the Poetry Society of America’s Alice Fay di Castagnola Award. She holds an MFA from the University of Iowa and directs the Certificate Program in Writing and Publishing at Drexel University. Click here for more essays on The Smart Set.

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