On Panther Rock

Melissa Matthewson

“Sister—if all this is true, what could I do or undo?”—Sophocles

I lived above the sea once: in a crumbling old Victorian on top of a hill, a house with shuttered windows, yellow paint, a garden out front with spirals of turnips making a design of the dirt. Peas tendriled up flimsy trellises with browning grass all around. There were thirty-five of us—college undergrads, unemployed artists, retired Navy officers, musicians. It sounds more romantic than it was: our rent was cheap and we liked the communal dinners, so we lived a summer together. I worked as a landscape assistant at the college, a dispensable and redundant job; there were too many of us aiming hoses at well-watered gardens, but still, they paid me. In the evenings after work, I wrote poetry in my room with the walls peeling paint and a rotting couch with sinking cushions, smoking cigarettes out my second-floor window while Mazzy Star ripped her voice across the beams and steel of each house neighboring ours. I was twenty-one.

Those are the facts.

We spent most nights rolled out on the grungy porch with our cats perched over the rosemary and lavender, the sky all misty and light. Even the raccoons hovered beneath the wood planks where we smoked and tossed cans of beer in the trash. Parties went late into the night, fanning out into the streets, down to the sand, onto the dock, to the boardwalk, and out through the mountains—wherever we could go to extend the bingeing, to stretch the night into a thousand more nights.

Let me tell you there was a man with a mustache who shot heroin into his foot and it blew up like a balloon, red and bruised and swollen while he kicked the hacky sack out back. He punched the hacky with his shot up foot in the backyard when it was sick with drugs and we all watched—peering from windows, the back door, the one tree we all climbed. Some of us scattered about the stoop turning our heads when the foot made contact with the ball; we shut the shades then or closed the door. Some of us just couldn’t look. Someone, it doesn’t matter who, finally called his sister to bring him crutches made of wood so he could walk his heroin foot, his sick foot, out of our lives forever.

The youngest among us, the boy we called THC, pulled his braces off with silver pliers in the bathroom just for kicks. And the French girls from the hostel across the street wore shorts that showed their asses producing sneers from every girl on that block. Up and down the block. The man upstairs lived in a closet, stacked high with take-out containers and dirty socks that smelled like the street, or worse, shit. He came down to puff smokes in boxer shorts—sweaty and loose and hairy—nearly showing his balls as he widened his pose and spread his knees. And there on a worn stuffed chair, he watched the street pass in cars and bikes, then rose and returned to his closet. That’s all we ever saw of him.

I can’t forget the beautiful Cuban with the widow’s walk porch where he danced the girls and loved them with all of his wine and music and smooth skin. He could whisper words to your lips and ride you on into the wind if that’s what you asked for. And the tall Buddhist girl with starry tattoos was lovely in her scattered attentions and build of skin and the strange fellow who read paperbacks in the sun, I loved him.

I can’t remember everyone who lived there now, but always, there were the guitars, the songs, the drugs, the salty air. What I do remember: we were part of a season we couldn’t define, unaffected by the real world and living with our own sense of time we thought was poetic, extraordinary. Even in this vulnerability, there was nothing to injure the feelings we had for each other or spoil the freedom to explore our chances, each one of us cultivating our own awareness for what it meant to live each moment as it arrived. We were caught in the beauty of unapologetic youth and the impulsive nature of pursuing dangerous experience without consequence—or so we thought.


One night several of us gathered in a peninsular cave positioned over the sea, north up the coast from town, so we took a car, or two. We packed as much liquor as we could carry on our backs and little else, maybe not even water, and lurched over tide pools and kelp to the cliffs. Toward midnight or whatever deep time of night it was—two boys took turns with a girl as I lay there and watched the ocean thunder. The ocean thundered, expansive and mad like a giant and the two of them had sex with her. First one, then the other. I pretended I didn’t know, though I heard them unzip, heard them push into her with all of their grunts and desire—uncompromising, urgent, desperate even. I let them abuse her, each of them in turn, and I didn’t do anything except consider the moon, the stars, and the smoke that was alive and swirling in my lungs. That’s it. I smoked until what they did burned away.

I still carry it with me—the girl, the rock, the weight of my guilt a story I’ve never told.

She lay flat spread out against the rock, passed out from too much drink. What I know: she had red hair—thick, burning red hair and her arms lay palms up as if in surrender, which it was, surrender. Her underwear and jeans bunched around her ankles, the panties lacy black like what you’d want to wear, like what I wanted to wear, but what I never wore. I thought—she must know what is happening. She could stop them. I thought this over and over again while I lay there. I just lay there and smoked and S__, the one I loved all summer, wrapped his arms around me and sang “Sweet Melissa” in my ears.

No, that’s not right.

He whispered it into my ears like a gentle bird, his hot mouth close to my skin, in my skin. This while the other one came. We’ll call him T__. And then she moaned. I heard her moan. They switched and I moved to the edge of the cave past where the others were sleeping in piles, took the bottle to my lips and burned the booze down my throat, complicit and ashamed as deep as you can feel right there in the heart of your abdomen. That’s where. Right there.

Later, the one I didn’t love, T__, told me stories about the navy—the swell of the high sea, the women, the drugs and all that bruised him—until we climbed to the top of the rock while the others slept and the night began to break. My cotton print dress, a chartreuse pattern of strawberries cut low in the back, stuck to me, drenched in dew. I dangled there on the rim of rock, balanced fifty feet above the water, the salt tangled in my hair and on my lips. He smoked while I sucked. That’s what I remember—the smell of smoke and crotch. And as I sucked him, he slipped the dress to my waist and ran his hands down the skin of my back, wet now against the mist and I could feel him push his head back, in pleasure I suppose. I was thinking, he must be staring at the sky or that ocean still raging around us. And that’s when I wondered about the seagulls, now departed but close, nesting in the cracks or suspended not too far away. I thought, there is nothing in this for me at all. Nothing. Nothing, but the crash of the waves, the missing birds, the waning night.

I wouldn’t finish. I had never been good and soon, the fog lifted, the sun touched the day, and the others, together, all of them emerged from the cave below. I sat up, spit, and covered myself. He buttoned his pants. I took his smoke, inhaled, and regarded his face as he scrubbed his eyes and the sun lit up all those auburn curls that lay about his forehead. He smiled at me, a wide grin silly in its teeth and that was it. The rock became our place of two converging distances come together in what was sex and nothing more, though now, I can’t forget the girl. She lingers as a regret, a part of me still, but there’s nothing to undo—we did what we did and I let what happened happen and it went unspoken, untold, buried in the night, left on the rock to corrode over time until nothing was left but the crags and scarps and the birds who will never tell.


Melissa Matthewson’s recent work has appeared, or is forthcoming, in Numero CinqTerrainPrime NumberUnder the Gum Tree, and Literary Mamaamong other publications. She is currently pursuing an MFA from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. She holds an MS in Environmental Studies from the University of Montana. Melissa lives on an organic vegetable farm in the Applegate Valley of southwestern Oregon.