“Desire is no light thing.”
— Anne Carson
I‘M LOCKING EYES with a drag queen in a dressing room; a white Grace Jones. My eyes, now spilling with tears, are flitting from overflowing ashtray to frost-coated railing on an inner-city rooftop, sharing an apple with someone shy as the sun comes up. Now my eyes are irritated by the floor, glittering with beeswax reflected by the chandelier, trailing instead to the wall, hung with a portrait of myself dressed as a monarch.
Someone has blacked out portions of someone else’s tales to recreate new ones to fit their own desperate needs. Clipped versions of things that, as much as I try to deny it, feel vaguely like they’ve happened to me. Reading by omission. Living by omission. The usual.
I’m in a bookstore, flicking through a tiny volume of cut-up short stories. Blacking out a few of the words myself, shutting one eye and then the other, everything begins to ring true.
The bookstore phone rings, ominously, and the dark-haired pretty girl working here answers it.
Yes, she says suspiciously, holding the receiver with her chewed fingertips as if the phone had never rung before. Then: yes, someone here does fit that description.
There’s silence as I feel her eyes on me, scanning me up and down like a pulp-fiction page. This is how it starts again, I realise. I turn shakily in her direction, careful to separate my face from hers with the book I’m reading.
And, yes, that person is reading your book, she continues, her voice lowering from bright curiosity to the darkness of doom. I turn away now, sweating, my back to her, but I can still hear her voice. In the book, I’m flipping through a cut-up story about someone who out-dresses the birthday boy by showing up to his party wearing a white fox fur stole around his neck. I can feel the white fur tickling my throat. It’s time to run.
Tell the person to turn to page 32?
The girl hangs the phone up slowly and the click of it resonates in my guts. I should run but instead I am already reading page 32. I look at the page for as long as I can as my eyes brim with tears. The inevitable is happening and most of me has no idea what that is. An image swims from my tears into focus – a hotel room door with a brass number 32, remember the mixtape i made you? scrawled on a page torn out of an old book and slipped under it, accompanied by a glossy photograph advertising a high-class escort who would come presently to the hotel room if only I would call her. There is a familiar drone resonating from the far end of the long, carpeted hallway.
I’m sitting on the edge of the brown velvet coverlet, phone in hand, dialling her number numbly. I already know it by heart.
Yes, answers the secretary, she will be there in two shakes of a lamb’s tail.
Promptly at 3.32am, X arrives.
She is dressed in a bathrobe, just as I remembered her, and I’m in the bath: my skin smoothening, sweating and reddening moment by moment. The heat of the water on my skin means she can’t tell that I’m blushing.
X lets the bathrobe drop and steps naked into the bath, just her style. Her dark hair darkens the water; blackness seeping from it like smoke until we are surrounded by dark, scalding liquid. Static hisses and X hums along. She knows this tune.
Wasn’t this on the mixtape I made for you, Leda? she murmurs and pulls me hard beneath the black water.
Under the water, we’re in a car, river reeds waving farewell to us through the windows. She’s in the driver’s seat. Her hair’s blackness has completely seeped away into the river, revealing long, shining red hair. We wrench off our seatbelts before we drown down here. We are half-sick of shadows.
The car jolts forwards and her red hair thrashes through the river like flames that thought water was their lover. Those flames were dead wrong. We’re catapulted through the windscreen, glass shattering around us into icicles which then melt onto a red dust road. The car reverses off behind us into the distance, cicadas screaming in the heat as the car’s rumbles disappears.
Beside our heaving bodies is a mound of earth, rising like a pregnant belly from the dirt road. I dig at this belly with my fingers, hungrily, caking us both ochre with the debris. Hope, sweet, cruel, delusive hope. I uncover a big old book and X immediately claws her fingertips down the gold plating on the edges of the pages. I’ve never seen her fingertips so eager. She reads from it first as we walk down the road, and then it’s my turn.
…You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style. Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, exhibit number one is what the seraphs, the misinformed, simple, noble-winged seraphs, envied. Look at this tangle of thorns…
…I, too, overflow; my desires have invented new desires, my body knows unheard-of songs…
…and one shrunk, with a sense of solemnity, to being oneself, a wedge-shaped core of darkness, something invisible to others… and this self having shed its attachments was free for the strangest adventures…
…Only in the books written in earlier times did she sometimes think she found some faint idea of what it might be like to be alive…
…and back and forth like this between us until sundown. We are echoes of each other.
As the sun disappears, the red dust beneath us gives way to the cobblestones of Kazimerz, the old Jewish district of Krakow, and we walk the twisted streets reading from the book until we get to the last page and get thirsty simultaneously. She clutches my hand and speaks words in my direction.
…My library is an archive of longings.
We enter a bar on scalded bare feet called Alchemy, filled with, unsurprisingly, well-used alchemists’ equipment. Mercury, the fluid connection between the high and the low, is prominent. A young man leans over our table in a loose-fitting shirt, revealing muscles, hair, everything, and says:
So you want to try a Polish beer and you want to try the key?
My companion nods and I nod too, not knowing which one I’m agreeing to. I never know what I’m agreeing to until it’s too late. I notice a frail, cloaked man in the doorway with a watchful cat draped on his shoulders. They’re both staring at me deeply and won’t look away. The man’s wrist is tattooed with a key.
Either kill me or take me as I am, because I’ll be damned if I ever change, whispers the cat in the man’s ear.
The waiter moves to them in the doorway and peels the tattoo from the man’s skin, leaving him with a bloody scar. The cat licks at the scar absently as the pair slowly leave. The waiter hands the key to me, and a large Polish beer for X. She drinks it down while I hold the bloodied brass key in my palm. It’s still warm.
I excuse myself, needing the bathroom, but on my way there I find myself distracted by a large wooden wardrobe in the corner of the next room. Look at this tangle of thorns. I turn my little key in its lock and open it, stale air confronting me. I enter and feel a sub-bass permeating like a passing subway train. I can’t hold on any longer and am forced to lower my underwear and piss in here, in the dark. My urine glows an unearthly pink as it hits the wooden floor beneath me, transforming to an appealing powdered state. I enjoy its texture in my toes for a while; sun-drenched holiday sand. Something then, something like curiosity or the want never to dip toes, but to dive, no matter the depth, takes over. To know unheard-of songs and swim luminous currents. To be skinless. It forces me to bend down and touch my tongue to this texture. Closing my eyes, licking urgently, the powder takes on a delicious fleshiness. I take all of it in: running my tongue through all of its folds and curves and slippery twists and turns. All of me surges as if with a new form of blood through a new form of body. Not quite liquid, definitely not solid, perhaps a form of light and magnetic current at once: one that sparkles.
Mmmmmmm, says my mouth, fiercely as it dares, vibrating through this fleshiness at my lips, feeling it tremble in return, feeling it moisten in return, gushing back a handwritten letter direct to my tongue. LE-TT-ER, LE-D-A, three quick sounds on the tongue, drawn out from the roof of the mouth to the front of the mouth and out to the lips. I read this handwritten letter now, eyes open once more, and every word of it is scrawled in forest-green ink over every surface of the delight that is the body of X.
You should fucking work on your fucking fucked up personality. We can’t work together anymore, X is saying, so smooth and gentle, down the shiny formica phone she holds with her shoulder to her ear. Out of the corner of her scarlet-painted mouth is a cigarette. I raise myself on my elbows from the brown velvet coverlet (my elbows are still muddy from the river, while my face is still smeared with the pink glowing powder), and light the cigarette for her. She takes a drag, endlessly languid and pushes herself up from the bed to stand and it leaves me panting. All she wears are the green inked words on her skin. My darling Leda, the words begin, at her chest, then fade into bawdy limericks. She picks up a platinum wig from the carpet and pulls it over her red hair. She is an instant bombshell. She flickers with illumination reflected from a disco ball, spiralling her serpentinely as she spirals serpentinely on the carpet. She’s slipped into glass platform slippers that glide on the mirrored surface now beneath her and above her. The mirrors offer all kinds of lugubrious, optical illusions of her body. Someone from the audience throws red rose petals all over her and she smiles with closed eyes. I watch from the wings, the sea of faces out there upturned in enthral.
Backstage I blindfold myself with a strip of black silk I found in my pocket. I can’t watch her any longer. I can’t watch anything any longer. The silk across my skin reminds me how it is to be between her thighs and I feel hot tears of longing seeping into the fabric. Captured by the silk like this, I can’t escape my own saltiness. My own need to go astray.
There’s a swan in the dressing room bathtub. He lets me ride him, blindfolded, all the way down the drain, along the sewerage system, then upstream on the canal to the nearest bakery. There, we share an early morning croissant; he hungover and taking more than his share. Me, blind and getting croissant crumbs all over everything.