by Karen Sheets
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I SAT ON my stool as at a seaside chess table, with my eyes closed and head tilted up into the sun, trying to imagine her naked body. First I sketched the silhouette and primed the shape. I added skin tone quickly in tiny dabs, pushing color into the oil, watching the brush grow appendages armed with magic wands commanding details, curves, shadows, coves to reveal themselves where I never could have predicted. Against my better judgment, I let myself into the room where vision breeds unnecessary lies that ignite a chain of mutation—I imagined her body was inhumanly flawless, a perfect pearl inside the lichen-bearded oyster.
I’d like to fill that room up, like the scene of a basement molestation, with poured concrete. One hand slapped my face for entertaining notions of impossible, bodily perfection. But the other hand reached out to touch her, it was as if she was still a girl, could never be irreparably damaged, ever-replenishing her smoothness and youth . . . .
It was the cold protospring, the end of winter. I was waiting for the
subway, pressing my fingertips into the palms of my hands. The nails were bitten down to the quick. The flesh where the tips should have been was jagged and hardened by the cold, dry air. It stung when I pressed the tips into my hand, yet I continued; the sensation was organic and compulsory, like the mood of any habit—slipping into your preferred sexual position, or eating your own scabs.
Each car was packed, train after train. I stood with my back to the wall, waiting for one in which there was more open space. I watched each slowly pull into the station, packed with faces, then slowly pull out of the
station, packed with slightly different faces, faces at slightly different angles, a shifted organization of patternless chaos, of coat colors, skin textures,
gradations of softness.
Finally there approached a car I could enter. The doors opened right in front of me. I found a space standing in front of an occupied seat; there before me, at the level of my waist, was Rose.
I IMAGINED HER too much. I made a frame for her, sat her atop a pillar, draped her like a sham across my bed, because she is just as beautiful dead as alive. She is both dead and alive. I intercepted her in a time of life. But she is so often dead, as if moments are missing—she is dead for minutes or for days. When she is gone, we all take a deep breath, and sink a little bit, into the sadness between things.
She walks shakily, to an irregular rhythm. Something so simple, to the living, as walking. It is as if she is pushing from non-existence to existence at every moment. Who can know where the foot will land when each step is the first gasp for air outside the womb?
Expressions cross her face loud but as swiftly as the phalanx can move, a cavalcade over a bridge. She is like a medium for emotion, opinion, thought. None of these things are hers. When she sleeps she is an empty shell, a blank screen, a jungle gym and all the wild boys come out of the forest to play on it while others toss in their beds, dreaming dreams they will forget.
THE NEXT TIME i noticed her, it was raining. She stumbled past, at a brisk clip, like a tadpole to her high heels. She wore an orange raincoat atop an orange two-piece suit. Even her shoes were orange, and the heels were tiny points of black patent leather. Her face was powdery white, with light swaths of rouge along her sharp cheekbones. Her eyebrows were penciled fiercely black, her eyes huge inside black almond outlines. Black hair was tied into a chignon and rain was dripping over her head in rivulets. Though she was becoming soaking wet, it was as if it was part of her ensemble. Streaks of rain moved the hair in parts from her bright scalp, gracefully. A large drop hammered her forehead, and cut down the crease of her nose like a stroke of Japanese calligraphy, unwavering and set, final.
She looked so silly in the orange, and yet so light, ineffectual, even dainty. A double-entendre uttered by a drunk but sane man. Or like a cut flower, ridiculously giddy though it sits in its execution stocks on the
mantle of an unseeing queen.
She passed me nearly every morning, as I sat on the high stool inside my newsstand. It could be any time—eight-thirty, nine-fifteen, even ten-thirty. I tried to imagine what sort of lenient or unsteady employment she could have had. A gallery perhaps, or a small retail establishment. It was uncanny how she passed me by. Whether I was thronged by an impatient mob of el-trekking management, or staring out into customerless space, watching midmorning break from its shell so much more youthfully than dawn, there was a moment of stillness or calm, and then she’d barge past, rushing down the sidewalk to the streetlight, where she’d take a right and after a block I couldn’t tell where she was going. It was as if she punched a fishing hook into the skin of my chest and began to walk away with the floss-like, invisible string.
Across the sidewalk, facing my newsstand, was a short-order kitchen she would enter every morning, and exit five minutes later carrying a small white paper bag. The second morning I saw her, when she came out the door, her eyes shot over to mine. I had just looked up from the register for no reason. She crushed the top of the paper bag into her palm—it seemed an awkward thing for her to carry—and lurched forward down the sidewalk. She was straining under a backpack (perhaps she’s a student, I thought) but there was something else crippling her gait. She knew I was watching her, but couldn’t look back, and couldn’t muster the contentment to look at anything else.
The following day I wouldn’t have recognized her if it wasn’t for the half-bumbling stride. The sun had come out, and one had the sense that today was the day the flowers started to stir in their seeds and bulbs in the musty ground. Rose’s hair hung limp and greasy. The eyes that sharply darted the day before were today driven like tetanus nails into the ground a few paces ahead of her. She wasn’t wearing make-up and there was something horrifyingly real, upfront about her naked face. She has no need for cosmetics, but there was something lurking in its absence. She looked as if she was too angry to apply it, too jaded to believe it would have an effect, too rigid to do anything.
Under the hem of her wool coat I could see the cuffs of black,
unflatteringly tapered and too-short cotton slacks. She was wearing gym shoes, and on the left a brown sock, and on the right a red and white candy-striped one. I would have thought I would chuckle at that, but instead it filled me with the opposite sensation. Though I do believe socks should be an afterthought, there was something a little reckless and mad about it, about not having the gumption to coordinate something so basic.
She looked both ways through the glass door of the short-order restaurant, then mistakenly pushed instead of pulled on the handle and emerged, wincing in the crescendo of the sun.
I TRIED TO peer into her mind, but ended up in a strange room inside my own, where she roamed black on black like a memory undrawn from the bottom of a well; she came to me in pictures and archetypal mise-en-scène. I imagined her drying flowers and grinding herbs, smoking cigarettes before a pot of soup on the stove until creases formed in her face the way water cuts canyons and then leaves them for dead, dry as sand and red rocks.
I dreamt she was surrounded by plants and they were all dying. She was running around trying to water the dry ones, drain the overwatered rotting ones. It was dark but not evening and she was cramming as many of the plants as she could onto the windowsills, stacking pot atop pot. Finally she came to the last ailing plant. It was a huge mound of shrubbery in a large ceramic pot. It was clearly the heaviest pot and there was no room for it on top of the pile, but she was holding it above her head, trying to shove it into place. It teetered on her fingertips, then slipped, shuddering off her head the way a boulder bounces down a mountain, and crashed, covering the floor around her bare feet with shards of ceramic and beads of soil. The radius of the mess was huge and unfathomable, as with the detonation of a bomb.
ne day she showed up in the bar I go to on Wednesday nights to meet other friends who work downtown. Though her face was always draped in a lovely crinoline of consternation, she appeared to be looking for someone. I shifted gears, silkily as a racecar driver on a freeway in the California hills. She walked toward our table, looking about all the while, but stopped in front of me, smiling slightly. She recognized me. We made forgettable small talk; it was as if we weren’t talking.
Finally I learned her name. ‘My name’s William,’ I said; ‘Hello, I’m Rose.’ Rose. I restrained the nearly unstoppable urge to reply, ‘And yes, you are.’ The sweetness and roundness of the word, the pluckability of her blemishless face. My beer worked perfectly, elegantly, as if I had hired it like a limousine. Rose didn’t seem nervous in the least, shuffling conversation with each of the men at the table. After an hour my friends left the bar, smiles of recognition trailing behind them. They all wanted her as much as I did, but circumstance deemed they surrender, like the defeat of a great warrior.
Rose brought another glass of wine back from the bar and asked me abruptly, though not obnoxiously, if I was afraid of death. ‘My grandmother has cancer,’ she said, ‘and I’ve started to fear it too. I’ve inherited so many other traits from my grandmother—her spendthrift taste for the baroque, clothing, and decorating one’s home; her intoxication with plants; even the looseness of her eyeballs . . . .’ She produced a picture of a young woman from her wallet, a black and white photo from the 1940s on which color was lightly painted in a style popular at the time: pink at the lips and cheeks, green in the irises, red-brown in the hair. ‘Most of all,’ Rose continued, ‘I inherited her insufferable habit of talking fully, intimately, with people about their demons, weaknesses, problems—and then lambasting them for these qualities to others, behind their backs . . . . Drawing out elementals, then poking small, cheap fun at them in front of strangers: it’s like conjuring astral trash with a Ouija board, it comes bac
‘Cancer is insanity of the body,’ she continued. ‘The rhythmic and mundane process of cellular division gathers more and more momentum, and at too great a velocity it spins out of control—it makes cells, it makes half-cells, it makes anything it can right and left, until it riddles you with broken bits of life like shrapnel . . . .’
As the evening grew, it became clear Rose could talk about the details of death while champing on a mouthful of a child’s birthday cake. It seemed to energize and concomitantly relax her to talk about destruction. She was plagued, like an autistic, counting, and recounting, and recounting. Being her lover would be like hugging the shoulders of someone in a straitjacket.
I PICKED HER up at her apartment on the night of our first date. She greeted me at the door with a vast smile, and it was as if her apartment was ablaze behind her, a symphony of her in constant embroil like sunspots. She was springing out from every curio, every glare on glass, every ornamented corner. It was a large studio lit by yellow-bulbed lamps and dozens of candles, and stuffed with low antique and faux-gilded furniture. It smelled of an old woman’s chest of drawers with just a touch of newness, contemporaeity, as with the youngest generation of a primitive people. Her apartment was filled with plants, of every shape and size—succulents, ferns, trees, ivy draped from the ceiling, cacti, cut gladiolas and irises in water. Remembering my dream, I felt the faintness of being on a swing, of the peak between upwardness and downwardness. Lentils were sprouting on a platter and a bright red flower sprung a foot high from a ginger root sitting atop the soil in a flower pot.
The walls were completely covered with pieces of typing paper neatly taped together at the edges, and atop them was painted a light blue acrylic swished with delicate cirrus clouds—a perfect sky. I asked her why she didn’t just paint the walls. She said because her lease did not allow wall painting it seemed an ingenious alternative. Only when she was nearly finished, she said, stammering in small embarrassment, did she realize she could have repainted the walls white before she moved out.
‘You have more plants than anyone I know,’ I said.
‘I lost a lot of others, actually, in the winter,’ she said. ‘I wish I could tell how much was due to the coldness and how much due to me. I repotted some, and some didn’t like it. Maybe it was the cheap soil I bought from the supermarket . . . . Some seem to die for no reason, though. And then I throw them away because it hurts too much to look at them on the brink of death, another leaf withering and ejecting every day, yellowness growing from the tips inward. There’s nothing more horrible than throwing away a plant. It’s like throwing away a baby, an abortion. It’s sick, plants in urban dumpsters, torn pieces of a miniscule baby, floating in the toilet, that you can just pull the handle and flush away, and then—gone, and it’s just another toilet again. It’s sick . . . .’
My stomach began to turn. Rose was rummaging about gathering her things so we could go to dinner. Suddenly I noticed there was a mirror on each of the four walls. I drifted toward the bathroom door and saw another two in there. I stepped into the bathroom and pulled back the curtain and there was another one, above the high tile wainscoting, on the long wall above the bathtub. It struck me as talismanic, like the crucifixes in a Transylvanian cottage. As she collected her gloves, lipstick, bobby pins, matches, extinguished the candles, I watched as she conspicuously did not look into one of the mirrors she passed. Like the way she passed me that first time at the newsstand. She heard them calling, but she looked away. That is to say, if only with her eyes.
I took her to a cavernous fondue restaurant with stone walls and a
flamenco guitarist. Rose wore a gold taffeta dress, and a necklace of gold lattice spheres hung loosely about her neck, the strand just short enough so that it could not be pulled over her head. She looked like a replica of
royalty at a cocktail party. I was wearing a tie, and the red wine made my collar singe. Rose’s hair was piled on the crown of her head so that her face radiated from her body. It seemed as if everything was exposed, as if she was more than naked. She kept frying onions in the oil. Not until we were nearly finished eating did I notice, when she swigged a half-glass of red wine, a spot of age beneath her eyes, around her mouth. She was bulging, rambling again.
‘People say rhythm is sex,’ she said, fumbling with the large gold beads, ‘but rhythm is only the overture to orgasm. The regularity transfixes the mind, the way war drums and marching in step charm men into killing each other, momentarily free from analysis . . . . In the moments just before orgasm, the rhythm breaks, it’s impossible to upkeep. The memory of it pounds in your mind, and that’s enough to allow you to finish. But your body is flailing, whipping its organ against the other’s, simply at the intervals it takes to muster the energy for the next thrust. It whips around like the loose end of a spinning film reel—it can be quantified only as velocity, far removed from its factors of time, and the movement through space . . . .’
She was certainly in rare form. I noticed, the more we saw each other, that liquor made her speak like a climbing vine. After dinner we went back to my apartment. She was warm to my palms, like a cup just poured from a hot teapot.
THAT NIGHT SHE had her period all over my bed. She was upset and apologetic when she woke up. ‘It’s okay,’ I said, ‘I’m a big boy.’ In truth, it was somewhat exciting. Like looking through an amazing person’s garbage or underwear pile—there’s still the amazing in it, scraps of fundamental essence like unintentionally discarded dead skin cells.
She ran to the bathroom. I came in behind her while she was washing her pubis with handfuls of water at my sink. Even the bathroom seemed a little cleaner, more like home, with her feminine presence. If she would have scolded me about the mildew on the shower walls I would have felt even more at home. I wrapped my arms around her stomach from the back, and looked at her in the mirror. I saw a twitch of fear when she looked into my eyes, a spot of panic. There were faded stretch marks on her breasts and hips. In the flood of light from above the mirrored medicine cabinet, her buttocks were dimpled and undefined. She bowed her head slightly and slipped behind the shower curtain. After turning on the water, her hand popped past the curtain, dislocated from her body, and she placed the gold beads in the well of the sink.
I flicked off the light and a gentler sun filtered through the translucent, molded glass window. It was dim and soft, with the refreshing afternoon clarity of clean water. She was beautiful in the grayness, under the raindrops. In a moment everything grew steamy and unfocussed but it appeared that underneath the haze, she was pure. Like how you cannot appreciate music when the volume is blaring; you cannot see if the sun is too bright. I realized at that moment that the way a lover looks with the covers pulled over your heads is how she truly is.
I imagined us in a field, caught in the middle of an amusing rainstorm. With no one else around, none of the weight of eyes; with even our
pockets empty, like when you’ve left home without your wallet, or when you’re traveling in a dream. Nothing to experience but the rain—our
senses clogged with rain—as rain is wont to appropriate, wetten, everything in its stead, wetten even the impenetrable, in a prelude to conquest. Subjugated by one all-encompassing force, we would be free. I got under the showerhead and washed the dried blood from my penis; rusty water swiveled down the drain.
I CAME UP to Rose’s apartment in the morning when I drove her home; it seemed ridiculous to leave her. In the daylight one could see the apartment was covered in a film of dust. It looked dirty, oddly cramped, the furniture tacky, and one could see tears where stuffing was coming out of the pillows. The garishness of it stuck out, the way one sprays a crime scene and at night bloody handprints glow iridescently from the walls. When I left I could still sense her room on my skin like a pollen. I wanted to see it
gently, the way smoke hangs in the air, as the relaxedly cluttered room of a slightly scattered girl; but I couldn’t believe that it was a peaceful den. She may have gathered the speed to remain seated while upside-down, but I could only picture her falling, the way people fall out of roller coasters when they break while going around a loop.
I wasn’t surprised to find one morning, several weeks later, when I rolled up the metal that locks down the newsstand at night, a tiny folded note from Rose wedged beneath the padlock. It said she needed some time alone, that she didn’t want to see anyone else, and that it had little to do with me. ‘I have nothing to give,’ she wrote, ‘Right now I am only . . . myself. I blend and mix with my environment, but there’s no alchemy, there’s not sufficient heat for alloying, for transubstantiation . . . . My body moves in atoms like a voluptuous cloud of fleas. I have no clear boundaries, beginning or end . . . .’
It was just after sunrise. I bought a cup of coffee and felt the lightness of the morning’s first cigarette blow up like a balloon inside my skull and transport my brain. Smoke and the steam of exhale spewed through the air, over the moist sidewalk. It struck me that dew still landed on the concrete and litter, that it was distributed unconditionally. That even the dying must eat, up until the end.
She never passed my newsstand again; though it’s likely she had just started walking behind it—as do thousands of other people every day—where, from my vantage point, I cannot see.