"Oh my god, I'm so glad you're here!" Euphoria greets me as I walk in, grabbing my arm and pulling me towards the center of the party.
"Are you hungry? Thirsty? There are-"
The pumping bass beat of the music cuts her off; it's too loud to hear anything but some Gwen Stefani song telling us how to spell bananas, but Euphoria's used to it. She raises her voice above the noise, screeching in my ear.
"There are drinks over by the bar and there's tons of food, and if you want to dance-" she stops mid-sentence as someone in the crowd screams her name. "Wait, I have to go. I'll see you later, okay?"
She flashes me one of her dazzling smiles and hurries off, throwing herself into the sea of drunken high schoolers. What a kicker. She talks like she's an exclamation point on fire.
After we say our goodbyes, I dive into the thick crowd of people and head towards the bar. I pass through the crowd, smiling and waving at the people I know. Loneliness sits in the corner of the enormous room, with his frumpy strawberry hair cascading over his eyes. Even the scarlet freckles on his face look alone. A few yards away from him, sitting as still as a rock, is Isolation. She talks to no one. All Isolation does is sit up against the wall and glare intently at the passerbys. Including me.
I quickly angle my stare away from the pair, and sit down at the bar.
"Whaddaya wanna drink?" the waitress at the bar asks me.
"Just a coke," I say.
"A rum and coke, you mean?" she questions, running her fingers through her jet black hair.
"Just a coke," I say again, louder.
The girl's ruby red mouth cracks, and she raises her eyebrows as if she's amused.
She turns around and yells, "Gloom, come here!"
A lanky girl, similar looking to my waitress, trudges up to the bar and sits down beside me. "What, didja find a buzzkill?" Gloom asks, taking a sip of her drink.
"Damn right I did. She wants a goddamn coke," she scoffs, throwing her thumb my way.
"Rum and coke, you mean?"
"No, a coke."
"Well, give her the goddamn coke then, Doom," Gloom says, pulling out a cigarette. "Got a light?" she asks me. I shake my head.
"But if I give her the goddamn coke, she won't have any fun," Doom says. "She won't have any fun when she's sober."
"I don't give a flying fuck," Gloom says distractedly, tapping the shoulders behind her to ask for help. "Give her the goddamn-hey-hey, hey, you got a light?"
Doom groans and slides me the soda. I tentatively take a sip, letting the caffeine slip down my throat.
"So, are you two twins?" I ask, trying to lighten the darkening mood.
"Unfortunately, yeah, it's been nineteen years of staring into an ugly-ass mirror," Gloom sighs, taking a puff of her finally-lit cigarette. "But we're not really alike, I mean. She's a fucking pyromaniac. A party maniac, too. She's the one who brought me to this lame-ass thing anyway. God, being here makes me wanna kill myself."
"I'll murder you before you get the chance," Doom growls, "now would you stop being so goddamn depressing?"
"Fuck you," Gloom mutters, extending her middle finger and jabbing it into Doom's throat.
"You would, wouldn't you?" a voice laughs, interrupting the twins' soon-to-be argument. Lust sidles up to me, wrapping his arm around my waist. He pulls me close, lifting the hair off of my ear.
"Hey," he whispers seductively, "miss me?"
I jump, turning away from his touch. "You can't miss someone you've never met," I say, emotionless, as I back up from him.
"I beg to differ," Lust whispers again.
The truth was, I've met Lust before. Lust is every boy I'd ever met; it's just that his face is different than the ones I've seen. He has lemonade-stained hair unlike the brown I'm comfortable with. His eyes are a smoldering green, while I'm used to staring at dark chocolate. He is strong and smooth and traceable, with parallel lines on his stomach, while the boy I'm thinking of is frail and rough and stick-straight, like a stretchy ruler that grew tired of bending.
A warmth falls over my back. Lust is back at it again, pulling me towards him and putting his hands where he shouldn't. That's the problem with Lust, he doesn't think with his top half, only with his bottom.
"Wanna go see the upstairs?" Lust murmurs, and, lowering his voice, says, "I've got a bed sheet you'd look great in."
I laugh, then. What a goddamn prick. "No thanks," I say politely, brushing him off of me and yanking my hand away.
"Oh, c'mon," Lust cackles, "I was only kidding. I've just got a friend who wants to see you, and he's not one for crowds, you know?"
"I'm not sure," I say quietly. I used to know a boy like that. He preferred vacant places and hollow chocolate over occupied spaces and the solid dark blocks in his eyes.
"What, you don't trust me?" Lust asks coyly, putting his hand on the small of my back.
"We've never met," I remind him.
"Bullshit," Lust smiles, "I've seen you in my dreams." He takes hold of my hand, and in a second, we're upstairs.
The sound of the amplified music fades, along with the strobe lights and the chatter on the dance floor. Lust brings me to the bedroom threshold. "C'mon, he's in here" he says, opening the door.
A sigh comes from down the hallway. My old friend, Wisdom, sits cross-legged on the windowsill, staring at her book intently. I've known Wisdom for ages. She used to always be by my side to give me advice, but things didn't end particularly well, to tell the truth. She thought I acted too much like a machine. Now she's just another smart ass with glasses.
I glance at the title on her book cover. To Kill a Mockingbird. How very cultured of her. She looks up when she hears Lust murmuring again, closing her book shut with a light bang. It's a good way to describe her. Wisdom is a light bang; she's the sound of stair steps creaking when you're trying to be silent.
Wisdom gets up from her perch and slinks towards Lust and I.
"What're you doing?" she hisses, glancing worriedly at Lust as if he's some maniac in disguise. As if she actually cares about me.
"We're going to the bedroom," I tell her, watching her eyes narrow like an ocean that's been bottlenecked into a stream.
I prepare myself for Wisdom's response, surely to be a drawn-out speech, with an hour long thesis on how much of a slut she thinks I am. It'll be a story about my a-little-too-open-and-you-know-what-I-mean-by-open personality. A lesson on how to properly use my tongue. A moral about the insides of my legs.
Wisdom sighs, tapping my shoulder lightly. "Be careful," she advises, taking me by surprise, before she glides back to her spot on the windowsill.
Be careful? She must know Lust well. I feel my nose wrinkle, and suddenly I feel a hint of fear in the back of my mind. Lust pulls me into the bedroom anyway.
The bedroom itself is no masterpiece. The half-assed windows cut into the white-washed walls are closed, with the beige blinds pulled tight. There are no pictures on the desk in the corner; there are no posters on the walls. The room is barren except for a boy sitting on top of the gray duvet on his bed.
Compared to Lust, he is plain, with a sickly stature and skin a pale shade of the moon that barely compliments his brown hair. His eyes look like chocolate, but they're the color of the dark kind I never want to eat.
"I brought her," Lust says, bringing me around to the front of the bed. "Say hi."
The boy slowly turns around, carefully shifting his body. He focuses his eyes on the floor, but I focus mine on his face. I've seen him before. Emptiness and I used to have a fling.
"You wanted me?" I ask, pushing down the dead butterflies in my stomach so I don't puke up the feelings I've been holding back for so long.
"Yeah," Emptiness says. "I don't feel good. I can't sleep. I miss you. Will you lay down with me? "
"I guess that's one thing you and Insomnia have in common," I murmur. "Why don't you go ask her?"
I'd seem Insomnia earlier, after I was talking to Euphoria. She was drooping on the couch, with a vacant beer bottle in her hand. She and Emptiness would make a great pair.
Emptiness sighs, rubbing his face into his palms. "Goddamn it, I miss you, don't you get it? I miss you, for god's sake. That's all. I just want it to be like old times."
"It can't," I say, edging my way towards the door. "I'll see you later."
I reach for the doorknob, but Lust grabs my hand. "Don't be such a little bitch," he tells me as he grins, pushing me back towards the bed. "Goddamn it, the pussy just wants to fucking snuggle. Make him happy, will ya?" He twists my wrist hard and pushes me back towards the bed.
"Okay," I say.
Hesitating, I lay down on the bed, rolling onto my side. I don't want to look at Emptiness, his hollowness spreads like wildfire.
"Spoon?" Emptiness asks me.
"Big or little?"
"I asked a question. God, it's like you're living in a comatose or some shit. Big or little?"
"Oh." I sigh and pull my knees up to my chest. "I'm gonna go," I say. I inch my way off the bed, but Emptiness pulls me back down.
"No," he commands. "Little spoon it is, then."
He sits up and quickly pulls off his shirt. "You do the same," he whispers. "For everything."
"I don't want to."
Lust shoots me a glare before he locks the door tight.
"Everything," Emptiness says again, brushing my hair away from my back.
Our skin touches and I feel like I'm on fire, like the spark that we once had has turned into the flames of hell and I'm burning, I'm burning. I'm burning and I feel him flicking embers off his tongue and reigniting them on my lips.
He's no longer gentle, like I remember. Emptiness leans against me as if I'm his missing puzzle piece that might fit if he just pushes into me a little harder. He feels me up like we're cavemen, and rubbing skin is the only way to keep warm.
Lust walks over to the bed. He lays down beside me, naked. Desperately, I try to get away, but Lust holds my arm tight.
"Stop," I whisper, too scared to speak any louder. Emptiness takes a peek at my eyes then, holding my gaze for a few seconds. He lets go of me and rolls off the bed in one swift motion.
Lust glares at him. "What the fuck are you doing?" he asks.
Emptiness twists his hands nervously, grabbing his clothes. He jumps into his boxers, pulling his jeans over them. "We can't do this, man," he says, quickly glancing at me. "It's not right."
Lust smirks as he continues tracing circles on my stomach. "Don't be such a pussy," he says, "It's fine. She doesn't care."
Emptiness looks at me then, really looked at me. "Do you?" he asks, his hands momentarily in suspense.
Lust puts his hand over my mouth, shoving his fingers down my throat. I choke.
"Stop," Emptiness says.
"You don't care, do you, bitch?" Lust asks again, pushing himself on top of me. I choke. I close my eyes.
I am cold.
I am weak.
I am Numbness.
I wake up to Emptiness in my lungs, and Lust burning deep in my chest.
A Long Division
The flickering sign made me nervous. “The Razor Blade.”
Is that supposed to be a joke? I stood for a moment contemplating the answer and chewed on my bottom lip. Besides the random glow of the sign, the alley around me was still. A minute or two passed and I realized I was stalling. They aren’t paying me by the hour.
I checked the glock tucked into the front of my belt — just for the comfort of it— took one last look at the shit for bulbs sign, and walked toward the door.
It was a simple door made of metal. Steel would be my guess. I decided a typical knock would smart a bit, so I pounded three times with the flat of my fist. Then I counted to five and pounded once more, just like they told me. The door scraped forward and I backed up a step to give it room. A nice looking young man in a black suit stood in the threshold, a dim light from behind accented his frame.
“I’m here to see the goddess, “ I said.
“Welcome to the Razor Blade.” His voice was shaky and I assumed he was older than he looked. Much older. “We’ve been expecting you Mr. Cole.”
I nodded and stepped inside.
“Continue forward.” He said.
I acquiesced my greeters command and walked slowly down the hall in front of me, the steel door scraping closed behind. Through the muted light I could see the hall was long. A dank, wet odor hung in my nose. With each step, I was aware of the soft slap of my shoes, suggesting there was a small bit of water on the concrete floor. The air felt moist on my face and neck.
At the end of the hall I came upon another door; this one also steel, but with a small mirror centered at eye level.
I looked at myself. Even in the half-light, the dark bags under my eyes and the crows-feet spoke of a tired, aging man. My skin was rough and the scar on my right cheek was a little more jagged than I remembered.
“Do you wish to make the imperfect, perfect?” a sudden voice spoke from behind the door. How it traveled through the steel I do not know.
I continued with the little entrance exam, just like they told me to. “Yes. Yes, I wish for you to cut… me.”
I thought of the glock tucked in my belt, but in that moment it was not comforting. This is some creepy shit.
“Are you sure?”
“Yes. I am sure.”
“You do not sound… sure.”
“I am sure. I wish for you to cut me.”
“Then come in.”
The door clicked. I waited a moment, expecting the door to swing open as before, but instead a handle emerged center right. I’m in. I took a deep breath, then grabbed the handle and pushed open the door.
A warm inviting light filled my eyes and the memory of the hard dank hallway I had just passed through dissolved into the softest, plushest and perhaps largest room I had ever been in. Men and women of unimaginable beauty were spread about, some walking, some standing in groups talking, and some lounging in couches clustered around touch-screens with which they interacted. Most held some sort of flask or bottle, occasionally sipping its contents.
“Welcome Mr. Cole,” spoke a silk voice next to me. I turned. “Welcome to The Razor Blade, or as we who have been cut call it, True Beginnings.”
My eyes narrowed and I swallowed hard as I took in the woman standing before me: Green eyes of dirty jade were set in a red storm of shoulder length curls; a nose perfectly established in a sea of milky white blemish-free skin; slightly upturned lips full and glistening and gently parted with the tip of a sweet pink tongue; high cheek bones curved into a subtle firm chin; a neck flowing so gracefully downward, spilling between the soft rise of mostly covered breasts; nipples hidden playfully under thin white fabric, like two dark moons just beneath the clouds—
“Do you like what you see, Mr. Cole?”
I brought my eyes up to hers. Damn they were green. “Yes. Yes, I do. Like what I see.” I could feel my cheeks flush red.
“Do not be embarrassed, Mr. Cole.” She and her lips were suddenly an inch from my face. “It is human to be”—I do not know how she moved in so quickly, her hand was on my crotch now—“moved by perfection.” She was right, I was moved.
And then she was behind me and the cold barrel of my glock pressed against my temple. She whispered into my ear, “You’re fucked, Detective Grant.” I swallowed again, harder this time. “Yes. We know who you really are. But after we cut you,” Brittney, I presume, shifted to my other ear, “we will be the only ones.”
Celluloid scenes soak in water. People at a party. A wedding. No a bar mitzvah. I’m straining to make out their faces. The water is red. Is it water? There is a boy-man. He is clearly the subject of the photograph and he is dancing and smiling. I know that boy. The red water is bleeding into the scene. I thrust my hands into the bowl, grabbing, but the picture is no more. I observe my hands. They are stained.
I’m at a sink, washing, scrubbing. The red will not come out. The tips of my fingers sting, then throb. Are my hands bleeding? That is not my blood. I see finger nails circling the drain and disappear down the hole. “No! No, those are mine!” I yell.
I now stand at a full body mirror. But that is not my body. There is no face. Just… a smudge, like the end of a wet eraser rubbing away pencil on paper. It’s tearing a hole. There is nothing underneath. “Donavan.” I hear my voice. It’s a whisper. I spin but see no one. “Donavan, I’m here.” I turn and see Amber in the mirror. She staggers. “Oh Donny. Where did you go?” She’s reaching for my cheek but it is not there.
I am mirror. I am falling. I know what is coming and submit to impact.
I am a thousand shards. Divided unevenly. I feel the heat of the sun. I am pieces and I am melting.
I am whole again, but formless, being passed from gloved hands to gloved hands. No, stolen. Someone is stealing me. Pressure cups me. I am subtracted from myself again.
A n d . a g a i n
a . d n a i A n
a . d n a i A n
a . d n a i A n
a . d n a i A n
a . d n a i A n
a . d n a i A n
a . d n a i A n
a . d n a i A n
a . d n a i A n
A n d . a g a i n
I am thinking of my children. I am thinking of their mother and the story she will tell them. The way she always makes me heroic, even in my betrayal. I think of the way they see through her fabrications. I think of their questions. Of their tears. Of their ache. Of my absence.
If this is not death I am ready to die. But they won’t let me. I see them as they remove my eyes. The final nip and tuck of their thievery.
I will wake. I know there is no choice in this matter. It will come. There better be a bar near by.
The cellar was dim, and a lone candle lit it. I curled my fingers around the candle's flame, desperately searching for warmth, which I had not had for many months.
Footsteps echoed throughout the cellar, and I sighed. Food was coming. Moldy bread and stale water. 'Food'.
But, when the door opened, the shape of the figure in front of me was not the plump old lady with a tray who brought me food. It was a lean figure, with its hands on its hips.
The figure moved closer, and I saw who it was. It was Scarlett, an old friend of mine, with flaming red hair and bright green eyes. She sat next to me, her eyes trained on the candle, and said nothing for quite a long time.
Finally, she spoke. "Things are happening outside of smelly jails, you know."
I nodded. "Of course."
She glanced at me. "Bad things, Ash. Terrifying things."
More silence lingered for a while, and I watched shadows from the small candle's flame dance along the walls of the cellar.
"How did you get in?" I asked. "It must have been hard. Did you bribe the guards?"
Scarlett looked slightly amused. "You really think I bribed the guards? Of course not. I broke in. How is a long story which I am too exhausted to tell."
"Okay." I toke in a deep breath. "So. Why did you come?"
"To get you out." Scarlett raised her eyebrows. "Are you really so daft to have not realized that by now?"
I felt heat rush into my cheeks, and, for a moment, I was glad that the room was dim so Scarlett could not see. "How are you supposed to get me out of here?" My voice was impatient. Annoyed. I looked down at the chains that grasped my ankles and wrists. "I'm imprisoned, and you can't have a key."
"Of course I don't have a key!" Scarlett snapped. Her voice became softer. "I... I don't have a plan, either. I just wanted to be with you, and I thought that maybe... Maybe we could figure something out. Soon."
I rocked back and forth on my heels. It wasn't like Scarlett to come without a plan. The Scarlett I had known before, that is. But she seemed changed. Older. Tired. Even though it had been only six months since I was captured and brought here.
"You came to keep me company," I said. "Not to free me. Just to keep me company."
Scarlett flinched, and for a brief, ashamed moment I thought I had offended her. But her shoulders relaxed, and I relaxed, also.
"That's right." Scarlett's voice was tight and strained. "I just came to keep you company." She sighed. "But it would obviously be a good thing if we could get you out of here, also."
She rested her head on my shoulder, and I didn't brush her off like I had some other times. For months I had longed to feel the warmth of other compassionate human beings, and now I had my wish.
"I missed you," I whispered. "I dreamed of seeing you. I had prayed that you were still alive, that you were okay, that they hadn't caught you, also, and brought you here."
Scarlett seemed surprised by my words. "I missed you too," she murmured. She wrapped her arms around me. I let her.
I hugged her back, and felt tears run down my cheeks. They dripped onto her hair. They shone in the candlelight like tiny stars.
Suddenly, I was laughing, too. I was laughing and crying at the same time, and heard Scarlett do the same, our sounds weaving together as a harmony, our shoulders shaking together with sobs and laughter. Together.
Soon the crying and the laughter died away, but we were both still smiling, our cheeks shiny and our eyes red from crying.
I fingered a necklace Scarlett had around her neck. It was a plain necklace, made of cheap metal, but it had a charm on it. The charm was a a circle that was not perfectly round--in fact, it was more of an oval--and it was black. In the middle, written in white cursive letters, said 'Love'.
"Oh," I said. My voice was choked from tears, and I knew I was about to start crying again. "Oh. You still have it."
Scarlett smiled. "Of course. I wanted to have a little bit of you with me at all times."
I had made Scarlett the necklace two years ago, when she was crying herself to sleep and refusing to eat. Her mother and father had died in an accident, and she missed them dearly. I had noticed how she'd had been feeling and threw together some glue, metal, paper, pens and my poor cursive handwriting together to make the necklace. She had been extremely grateful, and started wearing it every day. She even wore it to bed, and when she had told me this a year ago, I felt all warm and fuzzy inside, like I had swallowed a caterpillar. It was in those past two years that we had became closer, and my heart was swelling with the fact that Scarlett still cared enough to wear the worn down necklace I had made years earlier.
"You don't have to wear it," I said. "It's--it's pretty beaten up, you know."
"I know." Scarlett met my gaze. "But I want to wear it."
The silence that passed between us after that was comfortable, and I realized then why I loved Scarlett. She was extremely stubborn and loyal, and she could make anything comfortable that would normally be uncomfortable. Like silence after a conversation about a necklace that she refused to take off.
Scarlett may have been reading my thoughts, because she placed her hand on my hand. "Ash, I need to tell you something." She sounded strong, but I could hear a slight shakiness in her voice.
"Okay," I said.
"Ash," Scarlett said, "I--I want to know if you trust me."
"Do you trust me, Ash?"
"Goodness, Scarlett, of course I trust you!"
"So--so you'll believe me when I tell you this?"
"Ash." Scarlett started again, taking in an extremely large breath. "Ash, I love you."
"Oh," I said dumbly. "Oh." Emotions rushed through me, confusion and gratitude and--what was that, heart?--love.
"Oh," I said again. "Scarlett. Scarlett, I love you too."
Scarlett opened her mouth to say something, when the door to the cellar burst open, and a man stormed in.
"What are you doing here?!"
Death is such a sweet word.
It doesn't mean anything, really. It doesn't mean anything even if you will it to.
When my vagina died, I wasn't that surprised! I mean, I never thought of it as a living thing anyway.
It just dawned on me. I must've seen it coming. But I wasn't expecting it.
This dear, old vagina with the tiny, smelly clit is actually dead! Oh.
I couldn't believe it when it went off. Poof, it went in a puddle of smoke. I looked at the loss pretty shocked yet pretty...expectant.
What did my vagina do, anyway?
I'm forty. My skin is growing restless with the grand preparation for post-menopausal floods. I can feel it tickling underneath my skin; flushes, depression, dryness, hotness and the whole shebang.
Why does my vagina have to stick around during all this mess? In fact, it's better off that she's gone.
Yes, it's a girl!
Also why would I miss my fucking vagina anyway? I am a forty year old virgin. I don't have any sexual life of sorts. I am not married which makes me kind of a taboo subject in my country. I have never been married. I have been in love a couple of times. I thought I'd "do it" with a couple of guys. I chickened of course, not because I was afraid but because of what happened to the ones who did it...
It's not like a cult or anything but the lesson I've always learned is,
"Active vaginas are doomed vaginas," it was all over housewives' talks, "once you give in, you can't take it back."
It's not like I wanted to give in. Or even saw it as giving in. It's not like that anymore as well. Many vaginas give in and are granted wealthy husbands, hefty paychecks and wardrobes reeking of Gucci.
However, I didn't want my vagina to give in. I had dreamed of my vagina taking over. I had imagined my vagina dominant, wild and happy, not deceiving, submissive and expectant. When it comes to conservative penises, nobody should expect anything. They are as good as herring yet worse than pickles.
"Penises are like watermelons, they're either ripe or white."
I certainly didn't want a white, raw watermelon. It didn’t help that I never thought of myself as a hoarder when it came to sex, too.
So I did the inevitable. I kept my vagina safe and sound, plastic-wrapped and firmly under lock and key. I watched as a million other girls lost their vaginal integrity to the men they loved, craved or simply found on their way to work.
I wasn't gonna be one of them, I told myself.
I simply forgot about my vagina. In the beginning it was pretty difficult because that's the first thing you stare at when you are peeing or when you are changing panties.
As days went by things got easier. Imagine accumulating daily chores of forgetting all about your goddamned vagina. You take a shower and lather it with soap, eyes closed or staring into the vicinity of soap and scum. You gently dry it up with a towel without actually "feeling it". You brush it off. You sometimes even ignore the fact that it is not dry enough.
Dry it did. Slowly yet persistently, my vagina dried out. It was almost unnoticeable, like a flicker of the trees on an already rainy autumn day or a soft humming sound of a passing old man who sang to himself too often. Yet my vagina got drier and drier.
Until one morning, it simply died. It stopped functioning. I placed my hand on it one day, and my vagina was so damn cold although it was a 40 something degree Celsius out there.
I didn't freak out, just nodded in understanding when I took off the foil and buried it underneath thick, coarse black hair.
Pubic hair! Oh, what a relief.
Come to think of it as a shield. It covers your vagina from all sorts of dangers; heat, sweat, panty lining. Sometimes it traps menstrual blood, though. The smell isn't very inviting, of that be warned.
The day my vagina passed away, I had to shave my pubic hair off. I sheared the mass of black hair. It went down in a damp, black mass. When I looked at it, all abandoned and crumbling to the ground, my heart was filled with a tinge of longing, probably for something I never even thought existed.
Then it was time for the funeral.
My vagina wrapped in a white cloth. If you're gonna bury something, at least do it straight from the book. I opened the book of Islamic teachings on how to bury the dead. I said my prayers probably for the first time in five years, and then I buried it.
I stuffed the damn thing deep down the hole.
Hole! Pretty scary word, huh? Haunting, as well. Asshole. Vaginal hole. Whatever the fuck these holes are present for, they might be damned if they only stick around as burial grounds.
I've heard of people who had their breasts die on them before. They usually flush the damn thing down the toilet or shove it down some medicinal cabinet. People, who lose their eyes prematurely, simply bury them deep down their psyches, unable to bear the world without those two round lighthouses.
"People rarely experience vaginal death," I read on a medical journal, "vaginas might get depressed, be prone to self-harm, but death is a rare risk. It only happens in a tiny portion of the population."
I wondered which population they were referring to: the queer population, the female population, the sad population! Po-pu-la-tion! The word sounded so detaching, so eerie, especially since as far as I knew, I was the only member of the vaginal death population.
I tried searching for support groups, or online chat platforms, where one would express how heartbreaking it was to lose a vagina in your forties, when the most erotic moment of your life as a spinster -getting a brand, new vibrator and masturbating to a kinky YouTube video- had just started getting stale and sad, even though you held on to it like dear life.
Nobody understood what it's like to lose a vagina. Nobody understood what it's like to lose an unused vagina, one that's been pretty kept under observation for too damn long.
Why would anybody care if a vagina under self-chastity gets shot, poisoned, or maimed? Why should this be the cover story for some anonymous, neo-feminist magazine?
The fifty dollar question, however, is: Why must the poster girl for dead vaginas be...me?
Brave New World
The ship floated through the void. It steered with rocket-fuel rudders, silent fire spitting to lazily tilt the metal helm left or right. It was a prick amidst infinite space. To stars, laughably insignificant. To passing asteroids, just neighboring debris. It puttered along at a snail’s pace, and light traveling back to earth looked on with the morbid fascination of someone watching a turtle crossing the street, barely dodging traffic.
There were three turtles nestled inside that shell. Fragile things that hustled dutifully about their tasks each day. The clock told them when it was day. It told them when to sleep. When to eat. When Ronald was busy checking on life support so Cathy and Johnathan could have an unmolested quickie. Most of all it told them how much longer they must continue limping along through space to reach their destination. A new home.
Cathy stirred her fork through rehydrated peas. She brought them to her lips and chewed. It was like eating sawdust. She did it mechanically, tongue rolling over the mush and thinking Johnathan’s blowjob had been more pleasantly flavored.
Her husband drummed his fingertips atop the metal table. Then his knuckles, tapping out a beat. ‘Shave and a haircut, two bits.’ He needed a shave. He could have done it, but he was tired of wiping off the cream with nothing but moist towelettes. It made his face feel sticky and unwashed. That all of him felt just as sticky and unwashed was an unfortunate fact he cared not to think about.
Ronald turned his wedding band back and forth with his thumb, feeling the warm gold press against his skin. “Why do you think they stopped reporting?”
Cathy jumped. The silence interrupted was eerie, and every time he opened his mouth she assumed he was going to tell her he knew. He did, of course, but found himself apathetic. Hurtling towards Mars inside a hunk of metal made things like adultery seem small. Besides, there was nowhere to stick a body, and it seemed disrespectful to just let Johnathan’s corpse drift through space.
“No idea. Technical difficulty, maybe?” She picked up another forkful, shrugging.
“We don’t have the supplies to fix that transmitter if something’s gone wrong with it.”
She snorted. It sounded overly derisive to him. His fingers drummed faster. “Why bother thinking about it? It’s not like we can turn back. We’re eight months in. We’re almost there. Mars is on the horizon. You knew what you were signing up for.”
“It’s concerning, Cathy.”
“It’s concerning,” she returned, mocking. “If you were worried about concerning things maybe you shouldn’t have signed us up for this.”
“I didn’t sign us up.” He spoke calmly, levelly. He imagined hitting her in the mouth with his drumming knuckles. “You wanted this just as much as I did.”
She smiled. It was contemptuous. “Only because you sold it to me like we’d be pioneers. Explorers. Not floating endlessly drinking our recycled piss.”
“Forgive me,” Ronald replied quietly. “I mistook you for an adult who could make her own decisions. My mistake.”
Cathy stood and slammed her fist against the table. She gripped her fork tightly and thought of stabbing it through his hand. Thought of the family she’d left behind to come with him. Thought of the regret that had begun to fester just a month after they’d left orbit. She needed someone to blame. She needed a reason to have gotten onto that shuttle that didn’t involve her own stupidity.
Johnathan floated through the door. His flesh gleamed with new sweat from working his muscles so they wouldn’t suffer from the lack of gravity. He latched onto a rung and pulled himself down, strapping himself into a seat and reaching for a bag of food. Ronald saw his chiseled young face, ran a finger over the lines around his own aging mouth, and hated him.
The silence feel again. No eye contact was made. The clock knocked off another number. Three more days and they would pass through Mars’ atmosphere. Three more days and they would come alive again.
“I’m going,” Ronald mumbled around his last bite. He drifted upwards and out, pretending he didn’t hear their murmurs as he moved down the short tunnel. He reached his bed, with its straps to hold him in place, and latched himself in. A madman safely in his straightjacket. They were all going mad. Cabin fever amplified by knowing that walking out the door would make your head explode.
He thought of what it would be like when they got there. Thought of what it would be like after they’d touched down. There were already three hundred people on the Mars colony. Three hundred people living and working and stretching their legs in giant climate controlled caverns underground. There would be plants, there would be running water and air that didn’t smell stale.
Most of all there would be younger, prettier women. Johnathan would leave his wife. He would find someone without bags under her eyes or red hair turning to grey. He would find someone with tighter curves to bed, and Ronald would watch Cathy’s face fall as she felt her years settle on her shoulders.
He could think of no better revenge.
Perhaps that was why those days went by so swiftly.
Landing was easier than rising had been. He remembered the pull of earth’s jealous atmosphere, remembered feeling flattered somehow that it was so determined to hold them. It roared around the ship. It was furious, perhaps, that they would leave its verdant bosom for a lesser sibling. That they would leave the place their ancestors rested for a hunk of reddish rock further from the sun.
Ronald had been sick of the world. No, that wasn’t right. He had been sick of the people in it. He’d felt claustrophobic, knowing that nothing he ever did would be new. He wouldn’t make new discoveries because he wasn’t smart enough. He wouldn’t explore new lands because they had already been discovered. The Vikings had raped and pillaged their way to the New World long before his mother and father had consummated his creation.
He’d wanted to be something more. To do something more. Mother Earth could not offer him that.
Mars embraced them with comparative quiet. Its atmosphere was thinner. Stretched by time and more natural hostilities. As the fuel was burned and combusted to slow their descent, Ronald thought of it. Of time. Thought that before man had stepped foot onto the planet, it hadn’t existed there. Nothing could grow and show its passage, certainly no higher mind could record it. They made time exist here. They had spun it into being from nothing.
They donned their suits and the door opened. Johnathan was the first to step out. He did it with swagger. He stopped a few paces away, and through the radio in his headset Ronald could hear him shout “DADDY’S HOME, BABY!”
Cathy’s laughter tittered through. He twisted off his microphone and put his feet on the ground, looking down as he walked.
The gravity was different. Lesser. Lighter. Not as insistent on holding him down. He watched the red dust churn around his boots and take just a little longer to drift back down again. It fascinated him. He looked up, hearing only his own breathing, turning his head in the absolute silence. He could see in the distance the pods of the original Martians, the first of man to settle himself here. They were tiny things. He was glad he’d come after the drill had made their permanent home.
He flicked his radio back on.
“…Still not getting anything.” John’s voice. There was a tinge of worry in it. “Using short-frequency now. We’re not even far from base. They should be answering.”
“Maybe they’re going to jump out and surprise us,” Cathy replied sarcastically. Ronald could hear the fear beneath it. “SURPRISE, suckers! You’re stuck with us now.”
The pods gleamed up ahead. They were beacons. As he got closer, Ronald could see the Martian soil had dusted their sides red. From the right angle, it looked like blood spatter.
“Can you imagine having lived in those things?” Cathy again, muttering. “At least you had the decency to wait until now to drag me here, Ron.”
Yes, like blood spatter. Leftovers from a murder unsolved.
They reached the entrance. It too was metal, in all its hard relentlessness against the elements. It looked battered. Solar panels stretched over the rock, some of them smashed, most intact and drawing in energy from that distant sun. Ronald held his breath and punched the numbers into the pad nestled in the protection of a jutting rock.
The door slid open smoothly. He breathed a sigh of relief and stepped inside.
Lights flickered on. The corridor was surprisingly long, especially considering it was just an entryway. Cathy and Johnathan were silent as the door closed again and the sound of oxygen hissing into the air echoed. When it was finished, the place rang with a soft beep, and Ronald ripped of his helmet to breathe.
Really breathe. He felt it inflate his lungs, and drew it in again. He smiled and ran forward, letting out a whoop that had been building in his chest. He bounded. He leapt. Above him the lights buzzed electrically and he thought he’d never heard so glorious a sound.
“I’m still not so sure that…”
Johnathan stopped speaking as his radio barked static. He raised it and shook it like a small child trying to fix some toy. Ronald moved towards him and grabbed it away, twisting the knobs with care and raising it so they could listen.
“He-lp.” The voice was strained. “…wounded. Greenhouse Section. Room two two five, need medica-”
There was a loud thump. A scraping sound like claws on rock. The radio went dead again.
Cathy stared down the tunnel. It was still dark further ahead. Her green eyes were saucers, and her lips were slightly parted. She did not speak.
John made up for it.
“Oh, no, no no,” he spat. “Fuck, no. I didn’t sign up for no Alien bullshit. You’ve got to be kidding me. This isn’t happening.”
“That isn’t what’s happening,” Ronald snapped. “Get your head together. You have any idea how many rovers we sent out here? Besides that, they’ve been researching this place for years. We’re still alone in the universe, John, try not to piss yourself. Something’s just gone wrong.”
“Something,” he shot back. His hands tightened into fists. “You call stopping all communications ‘something?’ They haven’t been sending shit back home either, genius. Maybe it’s because they’re all dead.”
“We’re not going to get anywhere with this arguing about it.”
“And we’re going to get dead if we keep going in.”
“Need I remind you two that we can’t go back either,” Cathy interjected. Her voice sounded thin now. All scathing inflection was gone. “This is a one way trip. Strict no return policy.”
Johnathan ran shaking fingers through his hair. Ronald felt a twinge of satisfaction. He was afraid too, but more practiced at hiding it. He was going to have to take the lead, and Cathy would have to watch as her cuckolded husband showed up her cradle-robbed lover.
It made his heart beat faster.
“Come on,” he said. He turned and began walking, not caring if they followed or not. “We’re getting nowhere jawing off here.”
Only half a second’s hesitation. Then he heard their footsteps fall in line behind him. It felt good. It felt right.
The lights continued to flicker on as they moved forward. There would be no stealth. Ronald still didn’t believe they’d need it. It was ridiculous to think some creature had gotten in and started slaughtering people. They weren’t in some B-rated horror flick. This was reality, and in reality things like that didn’t happen.
Cathy screamed and smothered it with her hands. Johnathan cried out and stumbled back a few steps, grabbing onto her as much to comfort her as to comfort himself.
Ronald stared up with morbid fascination. The woman’s head hung at a jaunty angle, mostly because she had been partially decapitated. Her hands had been bound and the rope nailed into the rock to hold her place. Her glazed eyes stared unseeingly. Her jaw hung ajar. On her forehead a strange symbol had been painted, a half-sun that alternated between short and long rays. Her blood had been the ink to paint it.
He stepped closer and pulled off his glove to touch that blood. It was still warm.
“Oh God oh God oh God oh God,” Cathy breathed. Her fingers were still hovering in front of her mouth, trembling. “What are we gonna do what are we gonna do.”
“We don’t have weapons.” Johnathan whispered the words, as if the walls might hear him.
“Something must have caused this,” Ronald murmured, thinking through it. The blood was slick on his fingertips. The woman had red hair. She was old enough she could have been his wife. “I don’t know, a gas leak or something. Maybe they’re breathing it in. Hallucinating.”
“You think PEOPLE did this?”
He turned on Johnathan, eyes flashing. “And what exactly do you suggest did it? The Predator? Tiny green aliens with beady eyes? Get your shit together John. Think rationally.”
John’s eyes went cold. “It’s eerie how rational you can be standing beside a dead girl. No wonder Cathy needs me to heat her up. You’ve got a heart of ice.”
Fury. It raged through him like a firestorm. Ronald felt his teeth click together. The tedious formality of pretend had been shattered. It had been sacred. Before John had kept his mouth shut out of respect. By voicing it, he had gelded him.
“Listen here you little shit,” he hissed. He felt spittle on his lip. “I’m not about to take anything from your smart m-”
A scream. It sounded inhuman. It was the sound animals make right before they die. Throaty, ripped out with insistent violence.
Then a gurgle.
Cathy began to cry. Neither of them comforted her.
“We can’t just walk in there, man,” Johnathan whispered. He had a fighter’s stance now. His legs were spread, his eyes darting to and fro. “No way they don’t already know we’re here. We need a plan.”
Ronald mind scrambled. “Weapons,” he replied lowly. “We need weapons. There might still be something we can use inside those pods.” He pulled his helmet back on. “Come on. We still have plenty of oxygen left to look. Let’s go.”
They ran. Despite the circumstances, it felt good to run. Ronald felt his blood pumping through his veins harder than he had in months. Since the last time he and Cathy had made love. He didn’t want her anymore. He never wanted her again.
They reached the door. John smacked the keys. It slid open.
A spear exploded through his back.
It was bizarre to watch it. Nothing like a movie. It wasn’t slow. It simply erupted through without warning, a crude bit of sheet metal torn off a piece of equipment and strapped to a rod. His blood dripped smoothly off the tip and smattered onto the dusty ground, red on red, like he was watering it.
Ronald grabbed the spear. He jerked it through Johnathan without thinking. The man was dead anyway. With is foot, he shoved him the rest of the way through the door, using his still-dying-body as a shield so he could hit the controls to make it shut again.
Only then did he become aware of Cathy. She was against the wall, mute with terror. He could hear her pissing herself. He could hear Johnathan gurgling through the radio.
“No, no, no, no, no,” he was moaning. Cathy parroted him, rocking back and forth, her hands on either side of her helmet.
“NO!” Johnathan shrieked. There was a sudden cracking sound, followed by the wet sliding of something meeting flesh.
Ronald held onto the spear tightly and turned back towards the corridor.
“Where are you going?” Cathy breathed.
He ignored her, stepping forward, gripping the spear even more tightly.
“Where are you going?” She insisted, scrambling to her feet, following after him like some startled deer. He thought at any moment she’d start shitting pellets.
“To figure out what’s going on.”
“They’re killing people,” she said. “They’re killing people, Ron.”
“Yes,” he replied. More than afraid, he felt disgusted with her. He thought briefly of the woman by the wall, with her red hair and nearly severed head. “I gathered that.”
“So. So what are you going to do?”
“Kill them first.”
He walked. He held the spear as though he’d been doing it all his life. It felt right somehow. Ronald had never strongly considered killing a man, no more than anyone else. Maybe during rush hour traffic, fantasizing about putting a bullet through the guy driving the idling Prius. Or maybe slipping an arm around the old lady at the supermarket for cutting in front of him with a cartful of canned goods. They were idle musings, nothing more. After all, such things were illegal on Earth.
The tunnel ended. The cavern that greeted them stretched high. The drill had left deep scars in the rock. Humans had been rather rough with Mars her first time. Ronald felt bad about it somehow.
The cavern was also full of people.
They turned slowly to look at them. They were all healthy looking, well-muscled, well-fed. All bore that same odd mark on their brows, though theirs had been painted in Martian clay. Stone pews lined either side of the room, some occupied, most vacated as they stood.
At the head of the room sat one man. Rays made of twisted metal seemed to jut from him, hung behind him on the wall. His fingers were interlocked, and there was a soft, almost paternal smile on his lips.
No one spoke. Not even a hushed whisper. Ronald felt the hair on the back of his neck stand up.
“What’s happened here?” He asked. He forced his voice to be steady.
The man on the throne chuckled softly. “What always happens when man is left to his own devices.”
Ronald pulled the spear closer to his chest. He felt Cathy’s hand on his shoulder, trembling. “And what exactly does that mean?”
The man leaned forward. His muscled ripped. He wore no shirt, nothing but pants cut off at the knee. His feet were bare. “War happened,” he answered. “The itch needed to be scratched. We hungered for what we did not have. Some say it’s always land. Some say it’s for resources.” He chuckled. The sound was warm. “I say man just tends to grow bored without stretching his inner Neanderthal every once and a while. And you can’t imagine just how bored it got, day in and day out, measuring dirt, testing water, so on and so forth. It was scratching at the cage. It needed to get out.”
Cathy’s hand tightened on his shoulder. He jerked it away from her.
“I think you understand that, Ronald.” The man’s voice was softer now, coaxing. “We heard what Johnny boy said to you. And that? Is that your little whore?”
Ronald’s mouth went dry. He didn’t answer. Cathy whimpered.
“You came here to get away, didn’t you? I know I did. To start a new life. No rules. No restrictions. You came here to breathe, yes? But you brought a toxin with you. You brought her with you. You’ll never be free, knowing she was stuck in a tiny spaceship with you fucking another man. That savage part of you will eat at you. Rail at the bars, until you let it out.”
He could hear Cathy slowly begin to back away from him. The other people in the cavern still had not moved. They stared at him, but clearly hung on their leader’s every word. Paul Mason, Ronald knew. That was his name. Of small political status, a man who’d wanted to be the new Columbus. It would seem he’d done a better job of it than anyone had hoped, scalpings and all.
“I’ll make you a deal, Ronald,” Paul went on. “You can be one of us. You can be free. You can forget your ties to your old life. And all you have to do,” he raised his finger, and without looking Ronald knew he was pointing at his wife, “is get rid of your poison.”
His blood should have run cold. He should have felt dread, should have felt horror. Instead, as he turned around, all he thought about was how easy it had been to kick Johnathan out that door. Thought about him over his wife, having sex with her, knowing he was barely a room away. Thought about the feeling of earth clinging to him. It was less flattering now. It was like breaking out of a madman’s restraints.
And there was Cathy, his final ball and chain.
“Ronald?” She said, her voice soft with terror.
He didn’t apologize. He didn’t cry. He smiled, warm inside, justified.
“Goodbye, Cathy,” he murmured.
And he swung the spear.
Ash coated the ground around Sybil’s feet, making the snow beneath a cold, grey blanket. Her sister stood next to her, frozen in place, eyes rolling over the field. Trees huddled at the perimeter, leaves still clinging to the branches, shivering as wind barreled into them off the plain. Winter wheat broke the surface here and there, but the overall effect was incongruous. They should not be seeing this. Not these things together.
She blinked and wondered if it would break the suspension. The silence stood unflinching, daring her to shout. Her sister coughed but did not move. It was November. She could remember that, but everything else was faint. She should move. Take a step. Raise her arm. Anything to arrest the inertia circling them like a vulture.
“Almanor, give me your hand.” she said, looking straight ahead. Her head would not move.
Almanor groaned as she tried to lift her fingers.
“It’s too strong, Sybil.”
“Gravity.” Almanor suddenly sank to the ground, knees splaying wide.
The ash rose about her, a curtain drawn up too quickly, certain to fall. It settled on her shoulders, mantle-like, and face too. Sybil resisted the urge to say it looked like a shroud but the eeriness made her bones crack.
“We need to move, Al. I can’t remember what happened here. Can you?”
Almanor shook her head. It was a slow movement, reminded Sybil of water aerobics at the pool she used to work at. People seemed to move at half speed in the water; even overweight ladies had an undulating grace as they finned through the routines. She smiled and felt her body shift from its pedestal.
She looked down, expecting to see grey. Instead, white met her, so bright she could have been stepping from a cave into full sun. She raised a hand to comfort her eyes and it came easily. It did not strike her as odd until Almanor struggled to her feet.
“What did you do, Sybil? I can move.” Almanor began rolling her wrists in circles, staring at them like strangers.
Sybil shook her head. “All I did was smile when I remembered water aerobics at the pool…”
Almanor tried to take a step forward and found herself locked in place. The sun was on its descent but the sky remained light. She looked at Sybil and the exposed patches of white.
They threw rays upward and raced after the fading sun as though the earth was a flashlight being uncovered. “Beautiful,” she whispered as they continued on and on past the horizon. Her heart thrummed, a willful hummingbird in her chest, unconcerned with the miracle of its movement.
The ground trembled in time to its beat. Almanor stared, her vision rippling like rings over a lake surface. She felt weightless, suspended above all the grimness of the landscape until the questions of why and how they arrived here began to fall away. She closed her eyes and smelled the air. It sank into her nostrils, warm, unexpected amidst the snow. Memory flickered.
They had been walking to burn off Thanksgiving dinner. Not just the food, but the weight of strangers and alienation that had been unprecedented that year.
Mom had gone overboard again and invited all the neighbors within a two mile radius. “Thank God they live in the country.” Sybil had muttered under her breath when they arrived to a driveway overflowing with cars.
It had always been strange in their family. Close but remote, bonded but completely inconsistent. Case in point was their inevitable return to the farm each year like salmon to their spawning grounds. Even though they knew they’d come out of the experience battered and possibly emotionally annihilated, the pull was irresistible.
Almanor had dragged Sybil outside after a grueling two hour conversation with Bill Paxton, the neighbor in the yellow house, about road improvements in the neighborhood.
The sun iced over as they exhaled steam in clouds that rose around them on the porch. “I know she means well,” Almanor said, looking out over the rolling fields to the darkened forest, “But I’m fucking glad Thanksgiving only happens once a year.” Sybil wrapped her long braid around her arm like a rope until her hand rested on her shoulder. She leaned against the rail. “Let’s go check on the old fort. I wonder if our stash is still there.”
They’d set off bareheaded, it wasn’t far to the trees. Almanor had insisted on jackets and Sybil always carried extra gloves. It was an old habit from working with horses year round. “We’re lucky mom decided on an early dinner, I guess.” Almanor chuckled as they stomped a path through the snow. “This could take a while.”
The trees had gotten thicker since their last visit, closing in around the deer trail they’d discovered as kids like a tunnel. It was warmer beneath the branches and Almanor removed her gloves. “I remember why we chose this place.” she said, reaching out to touch the living walls. Sybil was silent, leading the way until the trail opened into a small meadow that had grown smaller in the last ten years.
In the middle, their fort sat atop a small hill that had a vague outline encircling its base. “The moat’s about had it.” Sybil stated, walking the circumference, one foot in front of the other. Almanor wrapped her arms around herself and climbed the hill. The door stood straight on its hinges, its rough planks worn smooth from countless hours of hand sanding until it smoothed.
“Look at this, Sybil. It still shuts tight.” Almanor ran her hand over the surface, found the metal ring they’d found buried in the forest, and pushed.
Sybil watched her enter and remembered. They built the fort together, gathering boards and straw and making their own mixture of dirt and sand that they’d packed into shapes of walls and windows. The result looked like the hill had gotten higher and added eyes. It stayed an even temperature year round, insulating itself. They’d built a hearth out of rocks from the nearby river to make it cozier.
They retreated there on countless occasions and had built up a stockpile of dried food and books that was supplemented with weed when they reached high school. Time just enhanced the sanctuary effect.
Sybil pulled herself back and walked up to join Almanor. “Find it?” she asked. “I could use some perspective about now.”
Almanor straightened from crouching at the hearthside with a plastic bag. “Still here.”
Sybil grabbed a lighter from the tin box on the mantle and lit the fire. “I can’t believe how thorough we were with this place. Ten years and the wood in the fireplace is still waiting to burn.”
They sat Indian style in front of the blaze, passing the joint and watching smoke mingle. It was good to sink into the earth, to feel it support them as they swapped stories. Time sank too, going down slow until a coal popped onto Almanor’s hand, breaking the stall.
“Do you remember the hole we dug trying to make a well?” she said, flicking the ember back onto the stone.
“Of course. Did you ever come back for that stone?” Sybil asked, propping herself on elbows.
Almanor shook her head. “It didn’t feel right without you. I left it in the hiding spot.”
They looked at each other and crawled to the window seat that doubled as a bed. It was made from the same adobe they’d used for the rest of the fort and deep enough for both of them.
Built into the wall beneath the window was a series of colored glass bottles they’d embedded during the building process. Almanor counted two down from the top and over one to the right. She nodded to Sybil who tapped the center three times and pushed in with her finger. The end flipped down to reveal a tube. Sybil stuck her fingers in and extracted a circular stone the color of salmonberries.
It lay in Sybil’s hand quietly as if resting after a long journey. Almanor reached out to touch it and then paused. “I wonder if it still does that thing.” she murmured to no one in particular. Sybil laughed and placed it on the hearth. “You remember what happened the first time it did that?” The stone began to totter.
The sisters looked at each other and moved closer together. A fragment of light began to twist out of the rock’s center, stretching up and then descending in time to a beat they could not hear. Almanor smiled at Sybil and took her hand up. “This is different. I feel almost transparent. What about you?”
Sybil’s braid began to rise, mimicking the lift and fall of the beam coming from the rock. She tried to tuck it into her coat but it kept escaping. “Yeah, this isn’t familiar.”
Examining the stone had never been particularly familiar. It was exhilarating and often shocking, but never predictable outside the regular intrigue. Sybil used to say, “Expect to be dazzled.” It was always true.
They had no idea where the rock had come from but they were both sure it was not something they wanted to share. It offered escape, a portal to something theirs, without being petty or mundane. After the last escapade ten years ago though, they’ put it away for good.
There had been music that time. It was a low bass note that moved their bodies in undulating arcs until they collapsed exhausted on the floor. When they looked at the clock it showed eleven hours missing and a new day.
And now they were here, in a meadow that should have a hill and a fort in the middle but instead had ash and light writing over land and ether. Sybil and Almanor did not touch. They looked over the openness and felt the weight of being passengers on a runaway train.
A Siren and A Risen Devil
I can smell his cigarette from here: it smells of decay, cowardice, and failure. It thickens the air with self-loathe, and yet (ironically), arrogance. I can practically see the malice in what I can only imagine to be a once charming grin. His callused fingers tracing the skin of his Winston lazily while smoke blows out the corners of his mouth and his nose. He's a man of habit and disgust, no longer accepted in heaven nor hell- and a man I'm growing quite sick of, frankly- and he's headed this way. I walk through the crowds of deceitful, greedy men and women who've been in the game far too long. I cross the cracked pavement streets over to my next gig: a little cabaret show in a local nightclub called Club Venus. To say it was a shit hole would be an understatement. Its outdated, red neon sign that spelled its name out in bold, cursive letters looked tacky and distasteful, and the building itself could use some sprucing up.
I try follow the directions my old friend Eugene gave to me on a used diner napkin, but his chicken-scratch is unreadable as usual, so I just decide to wing it. I go around back to find a rusted, ivy green door with a sketchy man standing cross-armed in front of it. "Are you Rosaline Ryne?" His voice was gruffly and low, but comforting and familiar in a way. "Guilty." I put on my best smile and run my fingers through my hair. "Is this where I go in to get ready?"
"Right this way." He unlocked the bolt and pulled on the heavy door. I inclined my head in thanks and walked through the broad opening. The interior was musky and stale; with just a hint of alcohol. The walls were plywood made to look like brick, (another tacky addition) which caused the walls to be as close to paper thin as I'd ever like to encounter again. There are other women getting ready: putting on tight blouses to exaggerate what I never could. They're powdering their noses and layering lipstick shades of bright red, pale pink, and rich burgundy. I look around the narrow room to find a door over on the left with a piece of notebook paper taped to it displaying my name in crappy manuscript letters. I open the door to find a relatively small room with a cramped counter space filled with various kinds of makeup and a dingy mirror that appears to have never seen Windex. There's an old fashioned coat hanger showing off what I would assume to be company garments, and right on the other side of the counter is a slim black dress cut up to the waist. It's low cut and has a sparkling silver necklace to accompany it. And among all of the cheap perfume bottles and dollar store jewelry was a folded note sitting beside already wilted flowers. 'Sexy dress, right? Picked it out myself, but don't fall in love with it 'cause I gotta return it by tomorrow night. You know how it is. Have a great show! - Eugene.' That little twat. Can't get me a dress or decent directions. "Livin' the dream, aren't we Rosey?" I mutter. "Sure seems that way, beautiful." The voice makes me jump. I turn around to see a man standing in the door way all smug. He seems to be in his late thirties; dark hair, receding slightly, with intense, piercing eyes. He has a slight stubble on his chin and trailing up his jawline as if he hadn't even bothered to check the mirror lately. He had a handmade cigarette between his lips, no doubt one reason for the piss colored walls and grimy glass surfaces. "And who do I owe the pleasure to?" I ask as politely as I can muster, but with his morning breath at seven in the afternoon and that nauseating smirk, it's hard to keep an unwavering smile. "Name's Tyler Dame. I'm the manager of this here hellhole and I just came to make sure you were settled in okay." His tone and ever-growing grin suggested otherwise- not that I'd let him know that. "Those flowers from your boyfriend?" He said, a little too friendly. "No." I was beginning to get uncomfortable, so I decide to have a little fun. "He's my personal assassin. I'd be careful, he doesn't take well to Italian men without a sense of hygiene." His laugh was hardy, but slight. An amused look tugged on his features.
"Feisty, aren't we?"
"Only to the special ones." Mr. Dame seemed to be contemplating something, but it passed just as soon as it had appeared, and he was back to what I can tell to be his iconic grin. "Yes, well, I just wanted to make sure everything was alright." He put out his cigarette in a nearby ashtray (or at least it is now) and gave a stomach churning, toothy smile. "Everything's great." I say a little too hastily. "Thank you, Mr. Dame. If it's fine with you I think I'll start getting ready now." I gave a dismissive nod and he seemed to get the message. "Of course. I'll leave you to it." He lingered a moment longer then excused himself from my makeshift changing room they most likely threw together ten minutes before my arrival.
"What a creep." I mumble.
"Tell me about."
This time there was no need for alarm. His voice was one I'd grown quite accustomed to over the last few years; so was his scent. He reeked of secondhand smoke and of something I've never been able to place, yet I associate it with one thing: decaying leaves.
"What are you doing here?" I tried to act nonchalant, but his steady green eyes and stone-like face made it difficult. "What? Aren't you happy to see me?" The sarcasm practically dripped off his bottom lip. I wonder if he ever gets tired of being a pretentious bastard. "That's a pretty dress. Are you wearing it tonight?" Where is he getting at? "That's the plan." I could see his Winston pack in the front of his jeans, his ink black wings peering from underneath his leather jacket, and that merciless grin reappearing on his face.
"Can I help you with something?" Impatience growing in my tone.
"No. Just came to hear my favorite lady sing."
"How generous of you."
"Oh, I know."
He steps closer now; inching his fading features over to where I stand. "You know you can't run forever. He'll come for you, and I won't stop him." I size up and return his gaze. "I know. I'll be waiting."
The Clown Chronicles
It was an afternoon of dejection following a long period of abject poverty that led to my decision to become a clown. I was so broke that I had given up having a checking account months beforehand. It had been three months since I'd paid my rent, and I had received a couple of eviction notices. While sitting at the Heartland Cafe, nursing a small plate of tofu, I noticed the following ad in the Chicago Reader:
Easy job! Man or woman with cheery disposition and friendly personality needed to dress as clown and hand out leaflets on Michigan Avenue, advertising the grand opening of the fun new adult education place, the Education Zone! Wear own costume. MUST be prompt, professional, and cheerful.
I pondered my possible new clown career. I felt fairly certain that I could fake a cheerful persona, but realized intuitively that my wardrobe lacked standard clown accessories. I had a rather silly looking pair of striped Guatemalan pants and a pair of red Converse high-tops, but that summed up the absurdity of my wardrobe. Perhaps it would be okay if I wore a shirt that didn't match my pants, maybe something in a plaid pattern. I wandered in a daze to the pay phone, and removed a quarter from the bottom of my purse, the sum total of my funds.
The interview was mercifully brief. A man with a loud, nasal New York accent informed me that he was the owner of the Education Zone, which was set to have its grand opening in Chicago in less than a month. He sounded both harried and arrogant, a combination that never failed to irritate me. “Do you think you have what it takes to be a clown for the Education Zone?” he barked, without a trace of irony. “Sure” I said meekly. I really needed the job. “Fine” he said. “Be here tomorrow, at exactly ten AM. I'll see you then.” He gave me the address, and hung up.
Well, things were looking up. I had some beans and rice in the cupboard, a carrot, half an onion, and a job as a clown. Hopefully, the pay would be weekly. It wasn't exactly the job I had visualized for myself, when I was a hotshot high school student with a weekly column in the town newspaper and my eye on a journalism career, but it would help to keep me from being homeless and starving, and that was an important start.
In the morning, I checked all of my pockets and the bottom of my purse, repeatedly, but was unable to locate coins for the subway. This meant that I would have to walk the entire eight miles from my apartment in Rogers Park to the Gold Coast, where the Education Zone offices were located. I had made such walks before, out of necessity, ever since I had attempted to board the subway with a transfer I'd found on the street, and the fellow in the fare window said, “Where'd you find this goddamn transfer? In the STREET? Don't all the pretty white girls have money? Get the hell out of here.” Chicago could be a very cold town. I started walking, cursing my stupidity. It was already 8:45, there was no way I would be there on time.
I walked fast down Sheridan to Broadway, past the vapid Loyola students who didn't have a care in the world (look at them, one of my ex-boyfriends once said, not an ounce of rock and roll in any of them), through the trash-strewn streets of Uptown, then trendy New Town with its hipster bars, and Old Town, where I'd been born twenty-five years beforehand. From there, it was only another ten minutes to Rush Street, home of the Education Zone. Rush Street was the epicenter of everything I loathed about yuppie culture, and there was plenty to loathe about yuppie culture. Professional men sat in beer gardens, sun glinting on their Rolexes and their pints of expensive imported beer, staring at coiffed and manicured secretaries who wore men's power suits and carried briefcases. It was 1984, the year I had grown up believing would usher in an era of totalitarianism, the very height of the Reagan era. Greed was more than good, it was essential. My problem was simple—I had plenty of arrogance, and a huge sense of entitlement, but I was not greedy enough.
I found the address, bolted up the stairs to the second floor. It was 10:15,. I had managed to cover eight miles in an hour and a half, a record for me. I decided to take this as a positive sign. I was a clown now; it was important to stay positive. My new boss stood at the top of the stairs, glaring down at me. A handsome but imposing man, his hair was perfectly feathered, and he wore an expensive, navy blue three piece suit. “You're late!” he screamed at me. “Let's get one thing straight, right off the bat—you must be ON TIME, EVERY goddamn day. You understand?”
This was an inauspicious meeting, there was no other way to interpret it. I didn't have time for regrets, however. “I'm sorry” I said simply. He gestured at me to enter, and I wandered into a large room that was empty, except for several piles of class catalogs, loosely bound with plastic straps. Two young African-American men sat on a small table, staring into a mirror while trying, somewhat ineptly, to apply clown make-up. “There's a mirror” my new boss said. “And your two new co-workers. Hurry up.” He left the room.
“Well!” I said pleasantly, as soon as he was out of earshot. “He's somewhat of an asshole, isn't he?” My two new co-workers looked startled for a moment, looked around furtively, and then laughed. I liked them immediately. “I'm Jeff” the older one said. “I'm really an actor, but I'm broke, or I wouldn't have taken this job. I'm sure that's true for all of us.” The three of us nodded simultaneously. The other man was very young, no more than nineteen or twenty. “I'm William” he said softly. “But you can call me Chill Will.”
Jeff stopped applying make-up to his face, looked into the mirror, and squinted in a critical manner at his reflection. “Do you have any experience painting faces?” he asked me. “Because this looks like shit. I'll scare the yuppies away, wandering down Michigan Avenue with a face like this.”
“I'm certain we'll scare them, anyway” I replied. “But yeah, believe it or not, I've done face painting a couple of times on Bourbon Street during Mardi Gras. Sit down. I can make you look like a clown.” Jeff obligingly settled himself into one of the plastic chairs. Ten minutes later, he emerged from the chair and peered into the mirror again. His face was decorated with Kiss-style, star-shaped eyes and psychedelic rainbow swirls. “Nice” he said.
Chill Will was next. I decided to go for a scary motif, ringing his eyes with sinister black and white eagle wings, with bolts of lightning emanating from them. Will was awed. “This is SO cool” he told me. “Man, I look bad-ass.”
I wasn't certain what our new boss would think of my artwork, but mercifully, he barely looked at us. “There's a push cart in the closet” he said, dismissively. “Load all of the catalogs you can onto the cart, and take them down to Michigan Avenue. These people are busy professionals, they don't have a lot of time. Smile, and make sure you put the catalog directly into their hands. Remember to tell them that you represent the Education Zone. That is very important. I will be checking up on you periodically, so be on your toes.” He stopped for a moment, reached into his shirt pocket, and pulled out a twenty dollar bill. “Here's cab fare for your return” he said. “You are to work until at least five o'clock, and be back here with the cart by six. Do you understand?” We nodded, and he turned away, retreating to his private office at the back of the room. The door clicked shut, and I could hear the dialing of a telephone.
We bundled the catalogs into a pile on the cart, securing them with two bungie cords. Fortunately, the building had an elevator that I hadn't noticed before, and we emerged onto Rush Street—three clowns, with a pile of catalogs advertising classes in sailing and investment banking, ready for action. As we walked down the street, we perused one of the catalogs for sales pointers, trying to determine exactly what we were offering.
“Look at this shit” Jeff said. “How to Flirt. 'Do you have trouble meeting quality members of the opposite sex because you are just too shy to know what to say or do? You are not alone! In this six-week course, you will learn guaranteed ice-breakers, how to keep a conversation going and avoid awkward silences, and how to charm people from virtually the moment you walk into the room! Especially that dreamboat you've had your eye on!'”
“That's ridiculous” I said. “These yuppies are so uptight. Dreamboats are easy to charm. Just get drunk and throw yourself at them. Everybody knows that.” Jeff glanced at me appreciatively.
We arrived at Michigan Avenue, where we were instantly absorbed into the late-morning business rush. Our boss had given Jeff explicit instructions to position ourselves within a block of the Water Tower, and this we did. We pulled the cart to one side, and stared uncertainly at the stack of magazines for a long, awful moment. Obviously, each of the several hundred magazines would have to make their way into somebody's hands by the end of the day, or there would be hell to pay. To do this, we would have to proceed with our task, bulwarked by the ridiculous belief that the harried business folk would happy to read literature given to them by a clown. As it turned out, this was not the case. I hurried to the nearest corner, firmly grasping a fistful of magazines, and approached my first prospect, a forty-something woman wearing a fox coat which had certainly cost more money than I made in an entire year. The coat was obviously for show, since it was almost seventy degrees outside. I came to a halt directly in front of her, and held out a pamphlet with an outstretched hand. “Good morning” I said pleasantly. “I'm from the Education Zone, and wanted to make sure you had a chance to read this.”
The woman's disgust was both visceral and complete. She wheeled on the point of one of her stiletto heels, almost pirouetting in her haste to escape from me. The look on her face was filled with so much revulsion, it was as though I had handed her a venomous snake or a cup of dog shit. “No...thank....YOU” she managed to spit out. Then she hurried rapidly away in the opposite direction.
I had expected rejection, especially at the beginning, but nothing quite like this. Glancing down at my hands, I mentally calculated how long it would take for me to get rid of even half of the magazines. If I managed to convince two people an hour to accept one of the magazines, perhaps out of pity or social obligation, it would take nearly two days to rid myself of half of them. Of course, that would only be true if I worked for 48 hours straight. These were not good odds.
I glanced over at Chill Will , thinking that I could pick up some pointers from him. He was standing on the tips of his shoes, waving his arms around in the air in large circles. “Yes, folks, we're crazy!” he exclaimed to the startled passersby. “We've come all the way from the circus to tell you about the great new learning experience that is coming to Chicago! That's how crazy we are!” Suddenly, without warning, he propelled himself backward onto the cement. Bouncing up again like a beachball, he continued his spiel. “We've got classes in everything from sailing to yoga! Check out our catalogs, people!” He tossed the catalogs onto the sidewalk, and people began cheering and lunging for them.
Well, this was certainly impressive, but there was no way that I was going to compromise my dignity by behaving in such a manner, that was for certain. On the opposite corner, Jeff was handing out catalogs with no difficulty whatsoever, smiling at everyone, even shaking some peoples' hands. If he could do this, why couldn't I? I was a misfit, even amongst the clowns.
Dejected, I shuffled back to my corner, and began the long, arduous task of unloading the pamphlets. “Please, just take one, for God's sake” I begged one man, and he snatched the catalog from my hand and walked away, without so much as a glance at me. After two hours of this, Chill Will came over. “Let me help you” he said magnanimously. He stared at my disheveled pile. “Shit, girl, you've got a lot of those left over” he said. “Let me show you how to do things.” He approached a young businessman and smiled hugely, and then threw himself backward onto the pavement. This time, however, he did not rebound immediately. Instead, he lay on the ground, looking intently at the sky. He moaned slightly. The businessman and I were both horrified. “Are you okay, buddy?” I asked Will. Will nodded slowly, then shook his head. “I don't feel so well” he said.
We offered to help him to his feet, but he declined, and staggered back to an upright position, holding his head in his hands. Will's bad-ass clown make-up was utterly ruined, The eagle wings and lightning bolts were smeared across his face. He suddenly looked vulnerable and scared. “I'll be okay, really” he said. “I think I'll just go sit down, and rest for a minute.” Will had already unloaded all of his catalogs, and had earned the right to rest. He sat on the curb, toes pointed towards Michigan Avenue, for a full ten minutes. Then he returned to my side. “Let's get this job done” he said.
At 4:45, we managed to convince a young, giggling woman and her boyfriend to accept the last two catalogs, and Jeff began to look around for a taxi. I had a sudden realization—I was the custodian of the cab fare, and, as such, I had special privileges not granted to the others, including the ability to decide how the money should actually be spent. “I don't think we should bother taking a cab home” I said, staring at the twenty dollar bill. It was the most money I had seen in a week. “There's a bar across the street—let's go and get a pitcher of beer instead. We can walk back to the office afterward, right?”
I had expected an argument about ethics from Jeff or Will, but there was none. “Damn, what a good idea” Jeff said, awed by my audacity. Grabbing the cart, we sprinted across the street to the bar. To our delight, we discovered that ten minutes of happy hour remained, which meant we had enough for two pitchers, plus change for our subway rides home.
Halfway through the second pitcher, Will revealed that he was married and the father of twin baby girls, a fact that did not seem to make him happy. Jeff confessed that he was couch-surfing at Artist-in-Residence, a cockroach-infested haven for twenty-something slackers where I had briefly lived. “What a coincidence!” I exclaimed. “Who are you staying with? I know everyone at Artist in Residence.” Jeff confessed that he was staying with Carlo, a handsome young Hispanic man who was one of the biggest pot dealers in the building. I was, of course, no stranger to Carlo's wares. “I'll bring a joint to work with me tomorrow” Jeff promised.
I was ten minutes early for work the following morning, a fact that was partly attributable to anticipation of Jeff's gift. Jeff winked as I approached the dressing table, and a feeling of joy almost overwhelmed me. The job would be considerably more bearable with the ingestion of THC, a drug that had seen me through many difficult times. I could hear the boss ranting into the telephone within the confines of his private office. He seemed to be having considerable difficulty instructing one of his New York flunkies in the intricacies of financial management. “No, no, no!” he shrieked. “I told you many times—do NOT put the funds into account number 63547! Put the funds into the OTHER account! Jesus Christ!” There was the unmistakable sound of a fist hitting a table, and then his voice abruptly became calm, and placating. “I understand that it is hard to keep track of such a large allotment of funds. I have every confidence in you. If you let me down, however, keep in mind that I can and will destroy you.”
Jeff stared at me, his eyes huge. “I think we had better put our makeup on fast, and get the hell out of here before he starts in on us” he said. “But where's Will?” I asked plaintively. “This job is going to be impossible without him.” Jeff shook his head, dislodging a shower of red glitter. “I don't think Will is coming back” he said.
At nine-fifteen, we came to the sad conclusion that Jeff was correct, Will had abandoned us. With great sorrow, we piled the stacks of catalogs into a cart and prepared to begin our trek to Michigan Avenue. The boss stayed inside his office for the entire time, although I could hear him clearly. Since his earlier outburst, his mood had shifted dramatically. He emitted a long, cackling laugh similar to that of a cartoon villain. “Yes, yes!” he cried out. “That's a brilliant idea—just brilliant! Money is seductive, isn't it?”
Jeff shook his head. “He has absolutely no idea what a caricature of himself he is” he whispered. At that moment, the office door opened, and our boss stepped into the room. Ignoring Jeff completely, he gestured towards me. “I think I made it extremely clear to you that you are to smile for the entire time that you are on the street” he said, barely restraining his fury and contempt. “I drove past yesterday afternoon, and I noticed that not only were you negligent in your failure to smile at potential customers, you actually appeared to be extremely unhappy. This, of course, is unacceptable.”
“I was smiling” I said. To my irritation, I noted a hint of a whine in my voice, like a three year old trying to explain to her mother why she'd broken a plate. “Probably I was just tired at that moment.” The boss waved his hand at me dismissively. “There is no excuse” he said simply. “Don't let it happen again. The two of you may go now.” He retreated to his office, shutting the door behind him.
“Where's that joint?” I asked, as soon as we reached the street. “Don't worry, I've got it in my wallet” Jeff assured me. “I won't have any trouble finding it. There's nothing else in there.” We ambled down the street, pushing the cart and ignoring the stares of the passersby. “I know of a secluded spot where we can fire it up” Jeff said. “There's a building a couple of blocks from here that has a little wooded area next to it. No one ever goes there. We'll have complete privacy.”
After a few minutes, we arrived at a slanted glass building that had tinted silver windows. It stood approximately fifteen stories high. Small, manicured bushes surrounded the building like random bits of stubble. In an attempt to create a bucolic setting, landscapers had arranged two iron park benches and a tiny tulip garden in a semi-circle, several feet from the building. There was no one else in sight. Jeff took my hand and led me to the side of the building, away from the wind. He leaned against the window and lit the joint. “Isn't this a great place?” he asked. “Don't worry, this building has reflective glass, so no one can see us.”
What a strange grip upon reality Jeff had—he felt certain that, since we were unable to see into the building, no one would be able to look out of the building and see us, either. I didn't ponder this too deeply, however. I leaned against the wall, inhaled the smoke into my lungs, exhaled with a relaxed sigh. “Isn't this a bank?” I asked, rhetorically.
Jeff shrugged. “It's some kind of bastion of corporate America” he said. “They're all the same.” He accepted the joint, inhaled deeply. “This is pretty good stuff. There's much more where this came from. I'll bring a joint to work every day.”
Suddenly, I had a sense that we were no longer alone. A man was walking around the corner of the building, making his way purposefully towards us. “Jeff, put out the joint” I hissed. “We've been spotted.” Jeff rubbed the tip of the joint on the glass behind him, and stuffed it into the pocket of his baggy pants. “I'll handle this” he said.
The man drew closer, and I could see that he was the security guard, with a navy blue polyester uniform and a gun tethered to his hip. The guard's face was pale and covered with old acne scars. He appeared to be only slightly older than we were. He kept walking until he stood only a few feet in front of us, and sized us up, then smiled malevolently. “Good morning” he said. “What's going on?”
Jeff assumed an expression of nonchalance, glanced briefly skyward, and then directly at the man. “Not much” he said. “Just enjoying the morning.”
“Just enjoying the morning, huh?” the guard asked. He reminded me of a gunfighter, taunting his adversary a minute before firing a bullet into his chest. “Well, isn't that nice.” He was clearly amused, but entirely in control. I had a sudden bird's eye vision of how we looked to him—two clowns, in full make-up, enjoying a joint while leaning against a bank building on a pleasant Tuesday morning.
The guard paused for effect, then continued mercilessly. “Hey, someone in the bank told me that you two were smoking reefer out here. That wouldn't happen to be true, would it?”
“Of course not” Jeff replied, with a hint of scorn in his voice. “We wouldn't do such a thing.”
“Wouldn't do such a thing, huh?” the guard said. Jeff shook his head. There was a heavy pause, as we waited to see who would make the next move. The guard grinned hugely, but all mirth was gone from his expression. “I don't want to pressure you or anything” he said. “But why don't the two of you get the hell out of here.”
“We certainly will. Thank you very much” Jeff replied pleasantly. We disengaged ourselves from the wall and rapidly walked away from the bank, without looking back. I had an abrupt flashback to an incident with my mother, that had occurred when I was five years old. We were at the IGA on Sedgwick Street, where we often went to buy peanuts for the squirrels. Almost every day during the warmer months,we asked Ray, the grocer, for our two bags of peanuts—squirrel peanuts, which were unroasted and unsalted, and and another bag of perfectly roasted and salted peanuts, just for us. Most days, my mother remembered to buy a box of raisins for me, as well, but on that particular morning, she forgot. Not wishing to be troublesome, I scooped a box off the shelf and jammed it into my pocket, but my mother somehow failed to notice this. Once outside, I nonchalantly opened the box and began devouring the raisins. My mother was horrified, lectured me about honesty for a minute or two, and then sent me back into the store to return the half-eaten box of raisins. I was mortified. After the ordeal was over, I trailed home after my mother, muttering “I've never been so embarrassed in my entire life” repeatedly, while my mother bit her lip to keep herself from laughing.
“I've never been so embarrassed in my entire life” I told Jeff.
“I doubt that, somehow” Jeff said. He snickered. “That guy has forgotten the whole thing already. If he hadn't been on duty, I'm sure he would have wanted to share it with us.”
Our pace slowed considerably as we approached Michigan Avenue. People strode in all directions with their usual single-minded focus, unaware that there were suddenly clowns in their midst. I was still a bit rattled from my experience, but determined to make the best of my morning. I grabbed a catalog from the cart, moved towards a young man in a dark blue power suit. “I'm from the Education Zone” I said, grinning hugely. He dodged me easily, as though averting an object that suddenly been hurled at him, and continued down the sidewalk without missing a beat.
The hours passed with agonizing slowness. Every few minutes, I looked at the Tribune Tower clock, only to see that the hands had barely moved since the last time I'd checked. The weather was much warmer than it had been the previous day, and globules of sweat began to course down my polyester-clad arms. I started to literally push literature into prospective customers' hands, which caused their fingers to reflexively clutch the pamphlets before they knew what was happening. Since I had finally found a method that worked for me, I applied it doggedly and humorlessly to all comers.
At exactly 4:55 PM, a car stopped on Michigan Avenue about thirty feet from me. The emergency lights flashed on abruptly. Our boss jumped from the car and began making his way in my direction. Although he was clearly furious, his suit was unwrinkled, and every hair on his head was shellacked into place. He stopped directly in front of me and gasped slightly, his face red. “God DAMN it” he exploded. “I told you to smile. You must smile all the time, or you will be terminated immediately. You're a goddamn clown, and clowns smile.”
“I'm not a clown” I said. “I'm a human being, and I'm tired. I hate this job worse than poison. You're an asshole. Go ahead and fire me.”
Without a word, he pulled a checkbook and a pen from his suit pocket. With a flourish, he flipped open the checkbook, and wrote me a check for sixty-eight dollars. “Sixteen hours at five dollars per hour” he said, tossing the check in my direction. “I took out your state and federal taxes.” He waved his hand at me dismissively. “Both of you may go now. Jeff, I'll see you in the morning.” The boss started to turn away, but I wasn't finished. “You're a completely reprehensible human being” I told him. “You may think your money and your attractiveness will get you anywhere you want in life, but you're wrong. You can only screw people over for so long, and then your karma will nail you.”
It was apparent by the expression on my ex-employer's face that no one had ever said anything like this to him before. For a second, he appeared astonished, and almost hurt, and then he composed himself. Without a word, he collected our almost-empty carts, one in each hand. He straightened his posture, assumed an implacable expression, and walked away quickly, pulling the carts behind him.
“I'm sorry” Jeff said, as soon as the car was out of sight. “I'm not” I responded. “I've been broke before. Poverty holds no terror for me. Let's cash this check, and then I'll treat you to a beer.”
We found a currency exchange near Rush Street, and I went inside to collect my spoils. The sour-looking female cashier scrutinized my face impassively, sized up my features through the clown-makeup, and quickly checked my ID to see if the two images were a match. She decided that they were, then handed me a small pile of money, which I placed into my wallet.
It took a few minutes for Jeff and I to locate a dive bar, surrounded as we were by yuppie hellholes. But then we found a good one, in the basement of a small building a few blocks from the currency exchange. We settled our weary carcasses into a booth, and I ordered a pitcher of Heineken. I reached into my wallet for a ten dollar bill to give the waitress. Something was amiss. There were too many bills in my wallet, a problem that I had never before encountered. A closer look at the wallet's interior confirmed it—the currency exchange had given me an extra hundred dollars by mistake.
“Jeff” I hissed. I pulled the cash from my wallet, and waved it under his face in a delighted manner. “Look. The currency exchange overpaid me.”
Jeff was so astonished, it was as though a miracle had taken place. “Wow, girl” he said, his voice filled with reverence. “You've got some pretty amazing karma.”
“Yeah, well, things like this happen to me all the time” I said modestly. The beer arrived, and I poured myself a glass, then shoved the pitcher in Jeff's direction. “Are you gonna keep working for that guy?” I demanded. “You're the only one left. It's going to be lonely without me.”
“Well, I'll keep working until something better turns up” Jeff said uncertainly. “I've been hoping to get an acting gig. I took my resume over to Goodman and to Second City, perhaps they'll be in touch with me soon.”
One thing you had to say for Jeff—he set his sights high. We drained the pitcher, then ordered another. Finally, I began to have a difficult time pouring beer from the pitcher into my pint glass, and I decided to go home.“ I think we'd better leave” I told Jeff. His face assumed an unhappy expression, which caused him to look remarkably like a clown from a velvet painting. I began to laugh hysterically, and Jeff led me from the bar, gently grasping my elbow.
“Are you okay to get home by yourself?” he asked me when we reached the street. “Sure” I said. “No one ever bothers a clown. They're too busy trying to avoid catching whatever malady we have.” Jeff stood in front of me, weaving back and forth slightly. “What are you going to do now?” he asked. I shrugged. “I think I'm going to get the hell out of Chicago, and move to Seattle in a couple of months. I hear it's cheap to live out there, and they like artists.”
Jeff shook his head, convinced that I was in the throes of a bizarre delusion. “Well, I hope it works out” he said. “No one ever really leaves Chicago.” He suddenly threw his arms around me. “I have fallen in love with you” he said. He proclaimed this with a fervor that seemed unnecessary, as if had landed an audition for a coveted role that required him to feel love. Jeff was an actor, after all, he was only pretending to be a clown. Or maybe he fell in love with every woman who bought him beer. I pulled away from him, gave him a kiss on his paint-encrusted nose. “Maybe I'll see you later” I said. Jeff nodded. “I hope so.” he replied. I turned and wandered to the subway, without caring even remotely whether I saw him again.
I ran into Jeff only a few months later, on the music floor of the downtown library. He was dressed in full make-up, and had even managed to locate a polka-dotted suit and a pair of ridiculously oversized red clown shoes, but I knew it was him. He was preparing to put on a pair of headphones and listen to a record, when I spotted him from the other side of the room. “Hey Jeff!” I exclaimed, delighted. I ran over to him, drawing irritated stares from a couple of other library patrons. Jeff did not rise from his chair to greet me. “Oh, hello” he said coolly.
“I'm leaving for Seattle in three days!” I said excitedly. “I got the money together for a one-way plane ticket, and I'm going to go live in this neighborhood called Capitol Hill. “
Jeff stared at the floor. “How nice for you” he muttered. I continued relentlessly: “How are you doing? Are you really still working for the Education Zone?”
As soon as the words were out of my mouth, I knew I had made an awful mistake. “Well, of course I am!” Jeff snapped. He wheeled around in his chair, faced the turntable, and stared at it dejectedly. “Best of luck” he hissed. “Maybe I'll see you around.”
Clearly, Jeff was embarrassed by my presence, and upset by the fact that I had been afforded an opportunity that he was too frightened to grasp. It was too late for me to offer much in the way of appeasement, however. Instead, I wished him luck and wandered out to the street, where I was immediately swallowed up by the rush-hour traffic.
Almost thirty years passed before I saw my old boss again. It was 2011, and I had recently moved back to Chicago, without really knowing why. Jeff was right, it was a difficult city to leave entirely. One afternoon, while perusing Craigslist, I discovered the following ad:
Fun job! People needed to teach a variety of classes at the Education Zone, including psychic development, yoga, tai chi, and low-fat cooking! New classes beginning soon. Teach classes for a fun, well-established company with a good clientele! Call today!
I dialed their number from my cell, and the woman who answered assured me that the original owner of the Education Zone was still running the place. I told her that I was well-qualified to teach classes in Psychic Development, having built a successful practice as a tarot reader when I lived on the west coast. “Oh, Richard will be happy to meet with you” the receptionist said. “The person who usually teaches the class was called away unexpectedly to Texas. Can you come in on Thursday to meet with Richard?”
I felt a morbid curiosity about my old adversary, so I agreed without hesitation. The receptionist gave me an address on Ashland Avenue. Clearly, Richard had moved to cheaper digs since his halcyon days on Rush Street. Two days later, I arrived at the office, dressed to the hilt, ten minutes ahead of schedule. My old boss was running behind; I could hear that familiar nasal voice loudly discussing the intricacies of professional bartending with two other men. I tried to peek into the office, but I couldn't see him. I sat in the tiny, dark lobby and took in my surroundings. The vinyl-covered chairs were worn at the seams, and the antique tin ceiling sported numerous holes. The receptionist was dressed shabbily, as well, in a nondescript beige sweater with baggy jeans and ancient Ugg boots.
Half an hour later, just as I was about to give up in disgust, the office door opened and my old boss came out to greet me. “Sorry I'm late” he said. “Come into the office and have a seat.” I was stunned by the squalor that greeted me inside the confines of his office. The floors were encrusted with dirt, in such copious amounts that the dirt had formed into solid piles in several places. Every raised surface was covered with paper. Several rusted filing cabinets disgorged additional paper onto the floor. I settled myself carefully into a chair. Richard smiled, and I saw that one of his front teeth was missing. He had aged no better than his office. His neck was red and puffy, although the rest of his skin was pale. The only aspect of his appearance that had not changed was his hair—it was still expertly feathered in a classic eighties style-dyed, combed and teased to within an inch of its life, and then sprayed into place. Richard placed a catalog into my hand. It was much smaller than I remembered, with tiny, pale photos and grainy font. “Here's a sample of all the classes we offer” he said. “We usually charge about thirty-nine bucks a class. Do you think that's too much? If so, we can lower it.” He looked at me imploringly. “I'm sure you know these are rough economic times.”
It occurred to me that my remark to him about karma had been prescient, but, try as I might, I could find no satisfaction in this. I assured him that thirty-nine dollars was a perfectly reasonable cost for three hours of my expertise, and he looked relieved. I literally couldn't believe that I was looking at the same person who was going to bring the financial world to its knees during the eighties, when he was still an arrogant young man. What had happened to him was terrifying because it personified the economic collapse of an entire nation of arrogant young men and women, short-sighted and rapacious, suddenly faced with lack and the consequences of greed.
I told him I would think about it. Standing up, I shook his hand. “I look forward to working with you” he said. He smiled, showing the gap between his teeth. “Nice seeing you again” I said, without thinking. He looked puzzled, and a bit sad, as though he hadn't expected me to leave so rapidly. “I mean, I'll see you again, I'm sure” I said, inching towards the door. I wandered through the hallway, where a small group of job-seekers had gathered, waiting for their chance to speak to the boss, and I debated whether to warn them, then decided not to. Instead, I stepped out of the office and into the street, which suddenly seemed spacious and full of possibility.
To Have and Lost
"I love you Kylie.. Always and forever will.. And I'm sorry.."
Those were the last words I heard from Steve before I fell asleep. We made love all night and I was too tired to even comprehend what he said before I drifted off into my deep slumber.
I looked out the window to find that it started to snow. Winter's coming. My most favorite season. Most people find it weird, but it makes me happy to see everything covered in that white flurry of snow.
I poured my coffee onto my mug and started to turn on my laptop. Steve must be waiting. Being in a long distance relationship isn't easy but Steve and I work real hard on it. We met through a mutual friend, Maddie, when he came here in Iceland for a business trip. We exchanged cards and that was the last time I saw him. After a few months I got an email from him and from then on we emailed back and forth constantly. The friendship bloomed and decided to take the risk and be in a relationship. We are now on our three year relationship and I couldn't ask for more. Steve is perfect for me.
"Hey babe! I was wondering when are you gonna call." Steve said as soon as he answered my skype call.
"Sorry love, i woke up late and was caught up from the sight outside, here take a look!" I said happily as I angled the computer screen to my window.
"Oh wow that's lovely! I know how you love snow. But I have more good news for you babe."
"What is it then?"
"I took a leave for a week. I'm coming over there to be with you."
I couldn't help but jump up and down from my seat. I will finally get to be with him. Touch him, cuddle and make love to him.
"Well I'm glad I'm not the only happy and excited one!" Steve said laughing. "God Kylie, I love you so much"
"And I love you more! Oh gosh I have to clean up and buy food supplies. When are you coming?"
"In two days. You better get ready babe, It's going to be the best week of our life. I'll make sure about that."
"Oh stop it. Whether it's just skype, my day is always great whenever we talk."
"I love you. Remember that yeah? "
"I love you too"
"I have to go babe. I need to settle everything at work before I leave. I'll call you when I'm at the airport. I love you!"
I ended the skype call and proceeded to clean the house. I can go grocery shopping tomorrow for food supplies.
I woke up hearing someone banging on my door. I looked at my clock and read four o'clock a.m. Who the hell bangs a door at this unholy hour? It must be Mr. Gomez my drunkard next door neighbor. He must've mistaken his door from mine. I covered my head with my pillow but the banging didn't stop. I grumpily stood up from my bed and opened the door to be greeted by my amazing boyfriend with his dazzling smile,
"For awhile there I thought nobody was home. I was knocking for hours babe. You sleep like a stone." Steve said laughing while engulfing me in his arms.
"Hmpf. You said you're coming after two days!" I muffled through his neck.
"Do you want me to come back instead?"
"Ha.ha. Very funny" i said lightly slapping his arms.
He then carried me into his arms and went inside my bedroom.
"I wish it's always like this. I get to go home with you waiting."
"Aren't you the sweetest? We'll get to that in the future. For now just kiss me." I said while looking into his beautiful eyes. I noticed it was of different shades of browns and greens with specks of gold.
He kissed me passionately. The longing was obvious as his kiss deepened and my body exploded with love and passion. I love this man with every bone that I have. As we slowly took off our clothes.
He looked into my eyes and said
"I love you very much."
"I know. You always say it babe."
"And I mean it. I want you to know that I love you so much and you mean the world to me."
"Then show me."
We made love til' morning. And spent the rest of the week doing everything together. He showed me how much he loved me and made me the happiest girl i could ever be. His last day was spent inside my house doing nothing but talk,laugh,cuddle and remembering every detail of each other.
"I can't believe you're leaving tomorrow." I said while nuzzling on his chest. I could never get tired of his scent.
"I know. I'm sad too. But atleast I got the chance to be with you. It may not be long, but atleast we had the chance right? And that's the most important thing."
"I know. It's just sad to think that after being at my happiest. I will be back to my normal routine again. I'll miss you love."
"I'm sorry. And i'll miss you more. You know that even if i'm not here with you, you're always in my mind and heart"
"You're so cheesy." I said laughing.
His last night was a night to remember. He made sure it was if not the best, the greatest memory of my life.
"I love you Kylie.. Always and forever will.. And I'm sorry.."
Those were the last words I heard from Steve before I fell asleep. We made love all night and I was too tired to even comprehend what he said before I drifted off into my deep slumber.
When I woke up the next morning, the bed was cold and empty. I padded my way downstairs to look for Steve only to find an empty house. I looked everywhere but no sign of him. I called out his name but only greeted by an echo. I tried to dial his phone number but it was out of reach. He might have boarded the plane already. It bothered me that he didn't wake me up to say goodbye.
I made breakfast and turned on the television to watch the morning news.
" The plane RJW0421 from Ontario Canada going to Iceland that crashed a week ago was found in the middle of the ocean. It appears that there were no survivors. The list of passengers that were identified includes: Ricter Perry, Shannon Robertson, Steve Albert, Iris Nicholson... If you know any of these people please contact...."
Steve Albert. Steve. My Steve. Impossible. He was just here.
I ran around the house to look for signs of him. Anything to prove he was here. His shirt, perfume, aftershave. Anything. But I was only greeted with a cold and empty house.
I couldn't breath. It was like the air was sucked out from me. I couldn't even move. Everything is a blurry. Everything is spinning. Until everything went black.
I found it floating in a tide pool while walking along the beach. I scooped it up but, before I could drop it in with the other trash, I paused. Something had caught my eye and now I noticed: It wasn’t a liquor bottle. There was no sign of product label. The glass was thick and uneven. It was so heavily scratched it was no longer transparent; but, no, the outside was smooth and polished – the inside was worn. An antique, perhaps?
Again I went to put the bottle away (into my pocket rather than the trash bag), but again I paused because I saw it. I peered closer: there was something inside the bottle, behind the scratches – a swirl of color. Did it move? I shook the bottle. Yes, the something was fluid. Seawater? I rubbed it on my shirt, shook again, and looked again. The inner swirl wasn’t quite right – it took too long to slow down. Maybe it’s sand in there? Or maybe there's an animal: a shrimp, or sand fleas, or something. Certainly not anything I wanted at home.
I examined the neck. It was not corked but sealed. The seal was grayish, stubby, and drab – undecorated and unfinished – surely not essential to the bottle’s value. I would only need to crack it enough to drain the water. I took out my penknife and began to work on the edge.
And then she was there. Without puff or flash: a small wisp hovering before me. The bottle dropped from my hand. She dipped slightly but stayed close to my face. I gaped.
I call her ‘she,’ but I’m not sure why. The form was human(ish) but without telltale lumps or protrusions. Of course she was too fluid to be sure. Her details moved – fast like flame, fluid like vapor. The color said she, maybe? She was a coral peach-pink.
Then she spoke. Not aloud – without words – a toneless intonation. And her speech wasn’t language, but ideas. I knew them as you know in a dream: sudden knowing without the labor of reasoning. Yet the knowledge was still foreign, like an accent in need of subtitles, or a translation of a translation.
[[[Outness – opening. Freely? Servicing? A price? Tell you.]]]
The last thought smarted - clearly a command. Missing words caught in my throat. “Who – what – are you?” I managed to cough out. I spoke aloud – I couldn’t do otherwise.
She regarded me, eyelessly.
[[[I here you? Became this how?]]]
“The bottle,” I tried explaining. “It’s here,” though she already knew that. I picked it up from the sand. “It floated in and I found it.”
She hovered a moment. Then her armish appendage stretched and warmed a place between my eyes.
My mind was a storm of color, shape, and feeling – like a rush of sleep-thoughts too fast to stitch into dream. Bits of childhood, touches of friends, wafts of plans, and occasional footnotes of language and words. Then the beach returned. She still hovered before me but… something had changed. She was happy? Or assured?
[I know you now.] The words still came as ideas, but clearer. [You are an accident – quite unaware.]
It was an odd statement: a poor translation or a slight? “What are you?” I asked what stood in the way of all else.
“Like a genie?” I thought a moment of Barbara Eden – but then my forehead suddenly ached. Her coral had darkened to mauve. She expanded left and right, filling more of my vision
[Like nothing. A spirit, ancient and strong.] The color lightened again. [You have unprisoned me, deserving a gift.]
[You may request what I give.]
Her color was pleased again. [So you may choose.]
“Does that mean… I can have more?”
[Three you have chosen – I have agreed.]
I had lost a negotiation? “But wait – could I have had more?”
[Three you have chosen – I have agreed.]
I swore. “I wish I had known what I was saying…”
She expanded like the dawn – she encompassed my vision – then spun like a tempest. And then: I understood. No, even more: I had understood. When I had asked for three wishes, I had only wanted three wishes. I had chosen them aware they were a limitation. She melted back to her original fluid flame form.
“Oh. Huh. I guess that’s fair.”
[Two wishes – and I wait.]
“Wait, what?” I understood. “No-no-no, when I said that I wasn’t really making a wish!” This must count as cheating!
[Two – I wait.] There was a finality to her statement.
I swore again. “Don’t do that again! Next time confirm what I mean!!”
[You want me to ask before granting?]
“Yes!!” I exclaimed. “I don’t want any more surprises.”
[This is what you wish?]
[Agreed. I await your final request.]
I stared dumbly, then swore up a new storm. “How can that – “
[You confirmed, did you not?]
“But I didn’t know that I was confirming a wish!!!”
“But that… that wasn’t even… magical! You just agreed to do something.”
Again my forehead ached as again the djinn darkened. [A spirit, ancient and strong. Binding the word of the powerful is great.]
This was another a fight I couldn’t win. Still, one wish left – that was something. I knew now to be careful.
“Can I wish for anything?”
[Already have I changed some past and guaranteed some future. What more?]
Guaranteeing the future seemed a stretch to me, but changing the past had been impressive. This djinn must be powerful… “I need to think this over…”
[No. I wait long. Wish and I go.]
“Well, don’t rush me! This is important. I don’t want to mess it up…”
She lightened and flickered. There was tinkling – though it was soundless. [You understand nothing in ‘important.’] The tinkling continued. It was clearly a laugh.
My face flushed red: “Hey, cut it out!” The cascades of chiming silence continued. “You… I can’t…” It rankled me deeply – strangely deeply. I suppose air, ears, and words are buffers; but in thought-speech her dismissal was penetrating. “You’re lucky I’m even counting that last wish. I’m supposed to be your Master…”
It was a startling change to another fierce mauve headache.[Ancient,] she reminded. [Strong,] she pressed. [Unowned. Uncontrolled.]
I felt my mistake, but I attacked in defense. “Well, if I freed you, then I must be strong, too!”
[Strong – no. You are accident – ka-monkey – glimmer-grass.] More tinkling rumbled across the intimate void between us. [You are slavish – no master.] The light disregard had darkened with her color. New tones of disdain made me flush with fresh shame and anger – and fear.
“Whatever – you just need to wait a moment!”
[I waited many moments – 3000 years. Your accident comes late. Wish and I go.]
“And stop that ‘accident’ business!” I wanted her to go now, along with her menace. But my wish... “You need to –“
Although she said nothing, her presence blackened, intensified, and sharpened. I raised my hand against the dark as if for shade. “OK, I…” My heart raced; I perspired. A throb began building. “Just let me…” I feared she’d soon become pain. I stooped with a hand on my thigh. “Stop that and I’ll…”
[I am weary of you. Wish and I go.]
“IT HURTS!!!” I gasped. “YOU NEED TO STOP!!! CAN’T YOU UNDERSTAND WHAT YOU ARE DOING TO ME??”
The intensity remained, but paused.
[Understand? The weak? The passing? Absurdity.] She intensified again.
“NO!!” I dropped with one knee and one hand in the sand. “I want you to understand... this pain…”
Another pause. [Is this your wish?]
“Yes.” Probably a waste, but I thought of nothing else. And petty vengeance seemed to make up for three wasted wishes.
[It will be – then I go.]
She expanded and extended to encompass my head and chest. (Or did I stand up?) Suddenly there were many noiseless tones – many crowding many. (Or was it true sound now?) Not tinkling, but bursting and bellowing. (And did the sounds come now from me, too?)
[WAT?] She was orange. The world burned to join her. All quivered – the underlying beat.
[WAAAA?] I understood now. I saw: I was an accident. I saw – and I was less accidental. I saw as I became.
[WAT HVE YU DNE??] What a mistake we’d made! How carelessly she’d granted! How thoughtlessly I’d asked!
I puzzled it out later: She was too haughty. Rather than lower herself, she’d raised me. With me, my suffering flashed through her agelessness. And – it was as if I had bitten her tail. With her mouth. Or our tail? It was all mixed – a jumble: I grabbed; she clung; knowing; suffering; fusion.
I woke. Or rather, began seeing again. Or rather, began seeing for the first time. Timeless forever stretched dizzyingly in both (both?) directions of memory. I rolled to my back – sand flaked off my face. I was still here: I felt the grit of the ground. My fingers clawed into it. My mind clawed, too – the sand rippling around me, as if faintly alive.
She was still here. Silent, but here. She surrounded me, yet was contained. To my left the bottle was dull glass now. It was uninteresting trash accidentally washed ashore. I was her new container, but more. She was my new consciousness, but less. We were joined together – perhaps forever. And I saw now how long that might be.
Header image based on "bote" by Len Urrutia, CC-BY-2.0.