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More Stories by Paige Chomet:
And The One
MEDUSA AND THE ONE
© 2002 Paige Chomet
i was born a monster.
you wouldn't think it to look at me, not at first. it's something inside, something i've always known. something deep and abiding and primary. for a long time i thought it was something i needed to hide. then, when i got my period just after I turned twelve, i thought maybe the secret was out. but, no, this startled no one. a month later i got diagnosed with leukemia. and then my second period hit. all in the same week. 'this is it,', i thought, 'here I come.' all my hair fell out. dark circles ringed my eyes. the color of my skin changed. i ached. once a month my vagina flushed out the old, preparing for the new. just as the marrow in my bones was getting purged, rejected by my newly assertive nature. i was turning inside out, without even trying.
every night, now, is a kind of a celebration. each evening, when i'm getting ready to go out, i think about the beginning of me, think about that first... acquittal. my coming out of hiding. unleashing myself into the world. at the end of each day, i break bonds and
escape into the open, to prowl about in pursuit, this searching and elegant and irresistible she, made brighter by the night. like a real monster.
tonight though, tonight is a big night. tonight is going to be a very big night.
From across the street, I couldn't tell it was a funeral. Laughing mouths, heads thrown back, eyes lost in private memories. Could've been a wedding, or a bar mitzvah, or, what it was, a flamboyant fashion show to be mentioned in brief on tomorrows society page. Would these mourners put on different faces once they stepped inside? Inside, would something real manifest itself and touch them, something I cant sense from this distance?
I'd only been to one other funeral, dragged there by my second foster mother. I think I was five. I remember sitting in the waiting room, pulling at my pants, trying to stop the scratching, slouching in my chair so my toes could reach the carpet below. I slid down and followed the border pattern around the room, shuffling my hard-soled shoes over that cushioned surface, slipping behind the potted plants, leaving a trail of against-the-grain scuff marks, like a human etch-a-sketch. Ending up in a darkened hall, I crept toward a beautiful mahogany coffin, lit like a painting by a single starry lamp. Even on my tiptoes, I couldn't see in, so I dragged over a chair, fighting against the resisting rug. When I lifted my arms to pull myself up, I slipped and scraped the underside of my arm across the top of the metal chair, slitting my skin. Blood, beautiful and red, slowly spread into the white cloth of my shirt. I hoisted myself up and peered into the face of a dead stranger. Not at all the face in the picture my foster mother had made me memorize on the way there. I wondered if death did that to you, made you into a different person. I touched his suit coat, just to make sure he was real. More vibrant red trickled onto his hand. Bled into the cloth of his shirt. Such a vivid color, so alive. I waved my arm over the body, letting more of it sprinkle here and there, thinking how he could use some life. Until my foster mother found me.
I think of this, from across the street. Unable to join. Unable to show my respects. To lay my hands on the coffin. To feel my pulse against my wrists.
pulling open the curtain that hangs in place of a closet door, i survey my options. the first thing to do before venturing out, the first thing, before the underwear and before the shoes and the perfume, before the makeup, before the jewelry, before any of it, comes the wig. i have thirty of them. thirty-two, actually. and every night I stand naked in front of them, waiting for the right one to make itself known, like waiting for an oracle or something. i have to start at the top. then i can get around to figuring everything else out. but I always have to start at the top.
i got in the habit of wearing wigs when i lost all my hair, after my leukemia. i especially like ones with long tendrils and serpentine curls. more than a consolation for being bald, my wigs are like secret weapons. alter egos. i line them up and imagine a dozen new lives, a hundred alternative futures, all lived by me. after i got a couple of them, i started calling myself by different names depending on which wig i wore. by the time i turned fourteen, i had settled on "Medusa." i loved the sound of those three strong syllables. Me.du.sa. the name resonated, like a birthright (...and is so much better than "tiffany louise").
even after my cancer had gone into remission and my hair had grown back, i couldn't see why i should give up my wigs. they'd become my trademark. in high school, i had different hair color every day and never worried about split ends. i wore different length bangs depending on what zits were showing. i could be elegant, outrageous, totally boring... anything i wanted. my otherwise run-of-the-mill mood swings gained widespread recognition and respect due entirely to my growing arsenal of wigs. each day became a grand melodrama of wardrobe whimsy. i was an enigmatic intersection of style and emotional excess. every girl's dream.
tonight is a red wig night. before i even know it, there it is in my hands, off the shelf and waiting to make me fabulous. when i flip my head down with my usual flourish and pull on today's bit of fleece, i stop for a minute and stare at my own nakedness, my straight boyish lines, my jutting bones. i run a hand across my chest, where the rest of me should be. for a second, i wonder if i'm missing out on something by being the way i am. but then I think this is silly, and wonder, without envy, what real human breasts, fully developed, would do to my center of gravity.
see, on my 18th birthday, i underwent a radical mastectomy. another perfect rite of passage. all that nauseating chemotherapy kept me Cosmopolitan thin during what might well have been death-trap years of god-awful weight gain. i kind of hated losing my breasts, but they weren't much to speak of anyway, and the scars that replaced them have a deviant charm all their own. after the surgery, i started getting tattoos burned into to my skin. at first i meant to compensate for not having any cleavage, creating a sort of diversion. but later each new tattoo added to my growing aura of complexity. i was becoming so damn interesting. i wasn't just a blossoming monster; i was an evolving piece of living art.
i stare at my now red headed bare bodied self. what an eyeful. it's a shame to put clothes on me. oh, who was it that first said that to me? i can't think of his name. his face though, his face i remember. every detail.
Before the merry mourners spill out again onto the noisy street, I leave the funeral and go back to the apartment, fingering the keys in my pocket the entire way. They'll come and clear everything out soon, or at the very least come for the paintings.
I've cleaned up all the towels. All the sponges and blankets. All the bowls and plates and cups with bent straws. I've arranged all the canvases. Don't know how they got the rights to them so soon, fuck em. Or if they actually do. Whats the difference, anyway? Plenty of doctor bills, I suppose, and a hundred other things owed. Definitely enough debts to go around.
The painting we were working on last, the one I was trying to finish before you died, I place on the easel and pretend that you're standing right there, still able to hold a brush, still able to make life come from little tubes of paste. As I look again, exhaling all the hours spent standing here, in your place, I realize for the first time that there's nothing in this room, nothing on any of these paintings to indicate I'd worked on them, that theyre mine, too. You are survived by me, and by this room of canvases, and I, I am survived only by whispers in the corners of cocktail parties, whispers that you'd taken on an 'apprentice'... some screwed up kid with potential. The only question was, potential for what? I touch the surface of the canvas, the contours of brush strokes you were too weak to complete. I remember you hoarsely wheezing critiques while I worked, lying pallid on the couch, smelling like mouthwash and vomit, shakily sketching ideas onto a legal pad for me to follow. But the canvas... my strokes, from your mind.
You thought I was trying to prove something, I know, with this last painting. What a worthwhile apprentice I'd become; ready to stand on my own after you were gone. But all I wanted to do was love you, and these strokes, that's all that came out. The only motion we still shared.
the red wig wants snakeskin pants, so i lay down flat on my bed to pull mine on (no easy task). i wiggle my way into their clutch, inhale sharply and tug on the zipper, then one last bigger inhale and the button is closed. my lipstick needs blotting, so i grab a piece of paper from a stack on the edge of my bed. it's a note from the office of my latest doctor, reminding me of some i-dont-really-give-a-fuck appointment ill never keep anyway. i pucker my lips and kiss a deep red kiss across the illegible signature, then absently toss the paper to the cluttered floor. i catch my new self in the mirror and smile. how do i do it? how do i make this amazing silhouette of mine into an eye-catching, fully realized masterpiece, night after night? one quick and satisfied up and down, and i'm off to the closet to seek out the rest of tonight's ensemble.
i keep evolving inside, too, which is why dr. illegible is so hot to see me again. last year, three months before graduating from college, just after my 21st birthday, i had an abortion. it wasn't that i didn't want the baby, it's just that they discovered ovarian cancer and needed to move fast before things spread. especially considering my medical history. the abortion was nothing more than collateral damage.
i considered changing my name to Medea at that point, you know, that woman who cut up her brother and killed her children. but, no, Medusa still sounds better, feels more natural. anyway, Medea would probably be mispronounced "Media" and that would drive me crazy. people can be so dumb.
i liked that i thought of this though, comparing 'Medea' and 'Media.' it's a smart kind of thought, and i like it when i have smart thoughts like that. see, after the abortion, i was thinking about mothers killing kids, and of kids never growing up, and i had this thought that maybe we're all dying some slow sort of death. not just a natural death but something wrong and unwholesome, something that's part of a blindingly wide and
all-consuming conspiracy, cast with Medea-like necromancy, something that keeps us from really being able to live. like some kind of silent seeping poison that drifts into everything we do in the world and everything the world does to us, making it all a little sick. oh, I don't know. that's what it feels like to me sometimes. or maybe it's just programmed into the human genome and we can't help but ease ourselves into a sluggish, dull, spiritual kind of dying. it's something i sense, but i'd never really thought about it until after the abortion.
of course, i liked, too, thinking that i'm not one of Medea's kids, not susceptible and skewered and turning on some inescapable spit. because of my being a monster and everything.
another thing about that experience, being pregnant, i mean... even if it was only for a bit, it made everything kind of miraculous. i mean, i never wanted a baby, not really; but the idea of a living thing growing inside me kind of won me over with its romance, and for a brief moment i think i felt normal. absolutely human. kind of nice, really. still, the abortion saved me a lot of embarrassment; i don't know how i could ever have told my parents. and, to tell you the truth, i was a little worried about what sort of like-me monster i might've given birth to. it made me think how fetuses are a lot like cancer, the way they feed on you and change your whole way of thinking about yourself.
i think this a lot when looking into a mirror.
This is what the canvas shows: A Self-Portrait. My portrait of you. And in the background is a clutter of windows opening out into different scenes, a different view behind each glass pane. Trees and skies and buildings and construction. Storms and crowds and sun and birds. Some of the windows look like half finished paintings. Some are framed like photographs. One shows a calender (and only I appreciate
the date it marks). But all through the painting, and this was something you never would've thought of without knowing me... all through the background of the painting, like rifts in dimensional space, are precise incisions painted to look like bleeding wounds. Paint from the background seeps through the incisions in a sort of melted mixture, leeching colors from the areas around the wounds. Everything around the subject, the whole world, looks as though it's being drained of life. Everything except you, sitting there in the center, glowing with vitality despite being so near death. Surrounded by windows and wounds. Your hand is raised, reaching toward one of the cuts in a gesture of curiosity, with a sense of wanting to enter into, to reach beyond. Your face is, as it so often was, concentrated and stoic, and I think as I'm looking at it now, that other eyes will think you're reaching towards death, reaching to find out what's behind life, what exists beyond the background of the world.
But I know what youre reaching for. Me. To find me inside the wounds. Beyond the bleeding apertures.
I never cut myself while I was with you. I kind of forgot about it. Maybe because I was painting. Maybe because it wouldve been a betrayal. Maybe because you never asked. And clearly you knew, after picking me up that night, lifting me out of all that blood, initially thinking I'd been attacked. I remember waking the next morning, shirtless on your white sofa in clean pajama pants, the gash across my chest tended and dressed... and my knife cleaned and closed on the table in front of me. I remember looking at the map of scars and scabs across my body and feeling like I'd been saved from drowning in my own blood; drowning, instead, in humiliation. And tenderness. Or humiliation born from your tenderness. But no, you never asked. Not then or ever. And it seemed understood, once I was with you, seemed like a rule, maybe, your only rule, a condition of my being here, that my penchant for blood letting was quite simply a thing of the past.
I leave the keys you gave dangling from the easel, leave them along with all my secret comings and goings, all my hiding from your friends, even those who stayed away at the end. I leave them hanging there beneath your portrait, one straightforward clue in a room full of ambiguity.
I hear them already in the hall. My heart races, running to hide, as all the running and hiding and twisted truths and covering lies haunt and ache and throttle me again. And I slip through the window, out onto the fire escape, one smooth and practiced motion, and hear them enter. I lean against brick, the cold wall of late morning, and without thinking, without knowing what else to do, take out my blade from an otherwise empty pocket and slice a quick and real space, on the inside of my arm, just above my elbow. There's a moment of absolute stillness, then blood appears on the surface, as if from nowhere, suddenly summoned, glazing my skin. It is a gesture of habit, returned so effortlessly, I hardly notice it. Except... it hurts. I grit my teeth and realize I've been crying. It never hurt before. But this one, this one burns. Deep. I make a fist and think I see tendons or something through the gape in my arm.
Shit, this one really hurts.
i pull a purse out of my closet from underneath a lump of decaying clothes. i'd forgotten i owned the thing, haven't seen it in forever, so it's like having something new, and i decide it'll work nicely with tonight's wig. when i turn it upside down to shake out whatever was left in it, an empty pack of cigarettes (my old brand, no less) falls to the floor, along with a lipstick i lost the cap for, a scrap of paper with 'randy's' phone number on it (whoever the hell randy is), a roll of film i never developed (oh, not that randy) and, finally, a real relic which makes me laugh out loud to see again
-- my little pink shell-shaped compact of birth control pills. no, haven't seen them in a while.
see, i didn't get pregnant because of being just plain stupid. i was just unlucky. or cursed. and the thing was, i didn't even fool around a lot. i wasn't a bit promiscuous. then. yet. but the thing with men (and, i admit, a few boys too, just cuz its fun to teach someone a thing or too) and sex, after surgery nixed the possibility of ever having children, was that sex seemed like the only thing that made me part of the rest of the human world. so i became a student of it, the human world, i mean. and sex, too, i guess. cuz sex can be a good game. and a useful tool. but maybe what it mostly did, for a while anyway, was make me feel pregnant again, or almost. reminded me what being human must be like. until i stopped caring if i was human or not.
until I decided, really decided, that being a monster was okay. better, even.
and now sex is something else. i look at this whomever i'm with and look at his reckless impatience, his frantic need, and it seems to me like a kind of deficiency, a hollowness, and i see how small he is
when he wants so much, and i know a little more about me, by way of contrast. cuz there's something about that kind of wanting. i think sometimes it's maybe about wanting to be brought back to life, you know? like that look in their eyes is just a plea, but not for some trick, and not cuz they want sex even. in that moment, or maybe just before that moment, they sense themselves as something more than they are, more than they thought they could be. they glimpse possibility,
and they think they might actually believe in something. this is what i get sometimes. and they look at me like i might be it. or like they think i might save them or something. like my touch has got the spark of life in it, a life with their name on it. which makes my whole act pretty funny, in the end. pretty ironic, you know? anyway, that's what i'm studying these days.
to be truthful though, when you spend the better part of every day deflecting the half-dead stares of intolerant humans, it's awfully nice just to be wanted, even by self-inflated strangers who want you for all the wrong reasons. well, maybe some of the wrong reasons. but then, i'm not sure what the right reasons are anymore. still, when it's good, the sex, i mean, i can close my eyes and forget about them completely, and imagine everyone's a monster like me. sex can do that; make you feel a part of everything. at least for a moment, anyway.
and it doesn't really matter who i'm with. choosing the wig is much more important than choosing the guy. and choosing the makeup, dress, underwear... you know, the whole package. if i can seduce myself, the rest is easy. i walk in a door, and men come flocking my way, as if they already know i've seduced myself in advance. and what happens after that is about me, not them. what happens after that is mine.
you know how some people like to leave the lights on? i've always been one of those, because there's so much of me to see. i make up stories about each tattoo, each scar, each shaded curve and
highlighted dent. but lately i've started asking to have the tv on instead. the ghostly flickering that dances across my bare flesh, blue and antiseptic, and the stupid drone of whatever happens to be on, seems a perfect accompaniment to what is to come.
it's early yet, but i'm getting antsy, like before taking a trip or something. i find myself lighting cigarettes off one another and know it must be time to go. i stuff the necessaries for the evening into my newly rediscovered purse. the pills, needless to say, stay on the floor of my closet and get replaced with my new favorite medical miracle, my little black case, which i flip open to check over. needle, vial, all in place, all in tact, waiting and ready for whomever i happen upon in tonight's experiment. tonight's brand new experiment, no less.
another fully metamorphosed me glances back from the mirror, just before i leave my room. oh, that perfect suspended moment, just before my needle goes in and all these questions freeze on my human subject's face... i shiver, a delicious wanting shiver. and tonight, who's to say what kind of thrill I'll meet, who i'll get to save tonight?
because this, this is the night.
I walk passed the places I used to sleep. Passed the newspapers I used to collect for blankets. The garbage cans I used to search for food and clothes. Nothing looks the same. No sense of urgency, hunger, need. The blood trails down past my fingertips onto the pavement. I walk for the better part of the day, directionless.
Slumped against another wall, I no longer notice the thousand pairs of shoes moving in step this way and that. Blood still seeps, without energy, more like puss, from my open arm. Then a tourist, some anonymous Korean with a camera around his neck, drops a five dollar bill on my lap and hurries on, embarrassed. I look at the crumpled note and remember who I was. I walk into the diner around the corner, suddenly aware of an appetite that once defined my every movement.
don't think i've been knocking these guys off like my mythical namesake. not yet, anyway. no, i do this thing instead. there's this trick i do, with the mixture of drugs i house in my little black kit, just to paralyze temporarily, congealing a fantastic fusion of surprise, bliss and anticipation on their faces. and then i sneak my camera out and snap their picture, capturing the moment in chemical
stone. i have rows and rows of these photos tacked onto my darkroom wall. all these denuded human souls realizing for the first time that maybe they're getting totally fucked. like they glimpse life all of a sudden but for them it hasn't even started and rigor mortis is already setting in, and they're left with nothing to show for it but a silly frozen grin. maybe somewhere in these photos i can figure it out, if any of them have any alternative but to simply and slowly die.
lately though, i've begun to think the original Medusa had it right. and yesterday, i tacked up my latest roll of pictures and realized i'd run out of wall space. that has to be a sign, right? cuz i figure, unless they know they're gonna die, these guys, it's all a stupid game, and i'll never discover anything. if i could capture their expression just as awareness dawns, fear mixed with unrelieved desire, if i could capture my image with it, artfully reflected in their confused anticipation, surely that would leave me knowing something more. and, anyway, just imagine the headlines. mother Media would finally have something worth consuming...
...I'm bleeding into my coffee cup, watching the pure red of my life drip into the curdling brown of the world, when she walks in. She doesn't notice me right away. Looks like she's trying to seduce the whole room first. The deep gash just below my elbow finally catches her eye, even though she doesn't stare or double take or anything. She walks over without hesitation, like someone used to indulging her curiosities without guilt.
She sits on the stool and throws her leg around it as though it might, in time, impregnate her. Tapping out a cigarette, sliding it through her fingers, fitting it to her hand, she never quite faces me, but still somehow manages to scrutinize. Her sallow face soaks up the light like the white bodies in Renaissance paintings, and I think of you, paging through the big gold book you spread out on your lap, names sparking from your teeth as you try to tell me everything, when it was all still beginning. Giotto and Girbaldi and Bruneleschi and ... I can't remember. I've forgotten so many already.
"Run out of cream?" she offers, nodding at my coffee, my oozing arm. A slender, quirky smile plays with the corners of her mouth. Then she looks into my eyes, searching for something I'd never thought to place before, maybe a sense of humor, but I try not to search back.
The book of matches she opens reads, "Pageant," and I imagine her at night, smoking at the bar, patiently waiting for the real living to start, and I think maybe for her it's always night. I look back at
my vented arm and think how blood looks so much better when lit by halogen spots.
Smoke blows across my wound and makes in sting. Like antiseptic. I lose interest and look at her rounded lips as they reach for another drag. She's still eyeing me with some kind of relentless sense of entitlement. "No, really," she asks, surprisingly without any condescension, only a student's attentiveness, "you're gonna drink that? Like an iron suppliment? Or a little cannibal pick me up maybe?" I watch her as she talks, watch for translations behind the eyes. "Or is the coffee just some kind of camouflage?"
This last question interests me, so I take a napkin and press it against the wound, covering it. The cheap napkin sticks unevenly. I take the cup in my hand and slowly sip. She doesn't flinch. "More like a metaphor," I say, trying to keep her talking, trying not to set any agenda, trying to open some sort of spigot of thought so I can watch it spill out all over her. I wonder what color her words will be.
She throws her hair from her neck and shoulders as she answers, exposing detailed tattoos that disappear like mermaids beneath the surface of her clothing. Smoke clouds around her, a volcanic island of female lava. I keep expecting to see her change into some ancient beast, or maybe the next stage of evolution. She wrestles with her jacket, twisting like a preening owl, and I help her take it off, not wanting to stop her endless web of questions. Questions whose answers pale in comparison.
But her skin, her skin beneath the jacket, barely covered by a flimsy halter top... her skin flares and erupts with questions, and i forget to listen, have to remind myself to listen. It isn't until I notice her fingers picking at her own cuticles, her first gesture not directed toward me, that I realize she's waiting for a reply. An image replaces her for a moment, your hands moving with the same angularity, drafting out your next painting on the surface of the desk, trying to make me see. You wait for comments, and I wonder what I can say that might make you smile.
"Did you know 'tattoo' also means 'a signal sounded on a drum to summon sailors at night'?" I ask, in your voice no less, just because it comes to mind.
"That's supposed to impress me or something?" she says, then adds, more to herself than to me, "Jesus, you make me sound like a whore."
I try not to flush. This is not what I wanted... I was just spitting out some dumb bit of crossword trivia I'd cached away. I didn't mean to, shit shit shit. I try to push back embarrassment, but it floods in and I feel like a crushed soda can littering the shoreline, filling up with freezing cold sea water, foamy and sick. The smell of the sidewalk returns, the stench of alleyway canisters. Choking on a twenty dollar cock shoved in my mouth, my knees dirty and sore. I have to take a moment to remember how to breath. And swallow.
"I'm an artist," I say, apologetically, parroting more of you. "Interpretation is up to everybody else."
maybe he's the one, i think, lips frosting from his bad attempt at being, what, cute? 'summoning sailors in the night'? hell, he can quote moby dick or whatever all he wants, he still looks like some mulatto refugee from a week long underground rave. the fucking sweats matted his hair like seaweed. 'summoning sailors in the night.' shit. i've got nothing to say to that, and he knows it. anyway, i used up my best lines minutes ago. all i've left is... pheromones.
all i can think is, maybe he's the one. i can't believe my luck. without even a hunt, the guy ends up right in front of me, waiting here for me. that's gotta be a sign too, i think. if he is, i mean. if he's the one.
and i think he is, because this hasn't happened since i was twelve. this feeling of being so unimpressive. christ, i'm sitting in a lousy diner at six in the evening, sporting an electric red wig and could-have-been-painted-on snakeskin pants, with nearly all my to-die-for tattoos in full and screaming view, and i feel utterly unimpressive. who is this guy?
he's bleeding into a coffee cup. in public. and he's drinking it.
its like i'm watching some twisted black mass. and i want to join whatever cult he's in, like right now. and i think maybe he wasn't really insulting me. i watch him examine each tattoo, like he's
trying to read them, like he's trying to read all my flesh, like he believes there's something to learn there, some message only his eyes can decipher... almost makes me blush.
"so, if artists don't interpret things," i ask, giving him a chance to apologize for real, "what do they do?"
"Live," he says. live.
the diner suddenly seems claustrophobic. i want a drink. i settle for a prop. i light another cigarette.
ever feel like destiny is flaunting itself in your face? i've been to every hospital in this city and never really felt it threaten me. doctor after doctor has looked me in the eye, trying not to sound too grim or full of pity, using words like hope but meaning death death death. and i never once believed any of it. silly humans with their witless pretend-solutions. i think a doctor is a lot like a bad artist, trying to interpret stuff without really knowing what's inside. maybe that's what he is... maybe, but his red sap slipping down the inside of the stained coffee mug makes it hard to think straight. it's like destiny leaking out all over my life. leaking out of him.
god, i think, maybe hes the one.
i look him in the eye, trying to not look anything like a doctor. or a whore.
if he is the one (and i think he is), there's no sense staying here. cuz if i put this off i... i think i can't put this off. and i'm not going to get anywhere sitting in this stupid diner.
"you want to see some photographs?" is all i say, cuz it's all i can think of. "i think they could use a fresh set of eyes. you're and artist, after all."
She says, "It's not far," peels herself off her stool with one fluid, look-at-me slide and heads straight for the door. I pay for her coffee with my lucky five dollar bill. When I turn around, she's already reaching for her sunglasses, half out the door. I hurry to follow, along with every set of eyes in the place. She says nothing to me as I join her outside, just turns left and heads east. I watch her snake scales change hues in the last of the day's light, stretching with her bowed legs and bragging muscles. She's grown a second skin, I think. I wonder if she molts.
Her apartment is five blocks away. It's pitch dark inside. She breezes past me telling me to hold on and stay put, handing me her coat which she'd never bothered to put back on. I've no idea how she makes her way through the blackness to the lamp she switches on a moment later. I look for a place to hang her coat and notice the window across the room is covered by cardboard she's duct taped to the glass. I decide I don't want to open any closets just now.
I stand in the middle of the floor and watch her rifle through a pile of castoff belongings, wondering if she's forgotten I'm here. She must have a dozen ashtrays strewn about her one cramped little room, and a dozen more makeshift ashtrays in the form of coffee mugs, empty plates, and beer bottles. I think of your place, with it's space and light and air. After a moment, she turns to me with a lit cigarette in hand and asks, as though I've been keeping her waiting, "You wanna see, or what?"
"In here," she says, and opens a door I hadn't even noticed. A rush of red light flows out behind her as she walks in, leaving the door open just wide enough to cast a long shadow on the floor in front of me, reaching up between my feet. The scent of chemicals stirs, like oils and turpentine, and I squint into the flat red haze, not letting the glare register as pain.
i've run out of a plan. gone outside the plan. i've never done this before. its so easy in a bar, you know? easy to go home with someone, to their place, where its easy to still their hearts and freeze their faces and do what i've always done. but this, i've never done this. and suddenly we're here, in my place, and i have no plan. and i want to tell him everything, i want to make a confessor
out of him. i want to unravel every piece of me into him. because he's the one, i think.
but i've never done this before, so i veer into the darkroom, remembering my stupid invitation to show him the photos, and think, yes, that's my plan. show him the photos first. i lay a hand on my chest to feel my heart beating, steady like an olympian's, only in the middle of a race. and i breathe deeply the smells of the room, to calm me a bit.
he comments on my equipment as the door shuts behind us. sound suddenly changes. i've never talked in this room, never noticed. it's as if the red-only light somehow filters every timbre, stripping each sound down to its essence. maybe we should say a prayer or something. i calm my heart, and see him framed in red, already looking like a photo hung and mounted, and remind myself not to panic.
Her skin becomes translucent in the red. Her veins, rose and crimson. Shades and shades of red, the all of her. I start talking about the equipment, but all I think is how, in this light, we have no skin. As if we're floating in living blood. She motions toward the wall and I follow her arm, red on red on red.
The wall across from me is covered from floor to ceiling with neatly ordered photographs, 4x6s, tacked up in a grid, each with a dated caption scotch taped below. I swim closer, brushing past her in the tight space, and feel her eyes follow me, feel her watching in wait for something. Always in wait for something. I turn back to her, permitting my face to register a question, ever so briefly, but she nods toward the wall. Her little red gallery. Each photo is a single face, a different man's face in each, captured in a thousand variations of pain, or ecstasy maybe, or maybe fear, or maybe all of these. Face after face, each unique, each the same. It's disorienting, looking into the eyes; like looking up from the sidewalk, not wanting to see, not wanting to be seen. I notice most of the photos are all a little blurry. Low light. Slow film speed. Poor composition.
She slips in past me and leans against the wall, draping herself across the gallery. The photos form a background to a portrait of her, a hundred tiny windows into something I must be missing. Lighting another cigarette, she says without explaining, "I've run out of wall space." Smoke issues from her mouth. Even her tattoos have become transparent.
"I like the room," I say. I think of your room. The smell of pigments. Light all around.
Her shoulders fall. Have I misspoken again? The cigarette flares a moment, falling to the floor, and the motion of her leg, as she grinds the embers into the linoleum, renders me motionless.
i hadn't noticed before, but the darkroom lighting must be bringing them out somehow. all the scars. i get rid of my cigarette so i can touch his neck and feel them beneath my fingers. i unbutton his shirt, just enough to see more. they're beautiful. all the scars. blooming in organic patterns like a phosphorescent relief map. i find his eyes after finding his secret. all the scars. i follow the raised roads deeper into his skin.
he's the one, i remind myself. but he stares at me without that familiar want, without that lack that blurs into recognition and regret, without that pathetic need i'd expected to see. because he's the one. and i don't know what to do in his view. he's something else. he has some other secret. or maybe no secrets. i stare, my fingers tracing his scars, wanting to know what he is, and trying to
repeat to myself, he's the one, he's the one. he stares back without apology, without discomfort. he talks without my asking. with infinite patience.
bleeding is really incredible, he says, quietly but without any effort to hide. frighteningly incredible. i mean bleeding by one's own hand, this is what i mean. i mean it's creepy and everything, i know, he says, its a creepy kind of thing to do to yourself. but it's really phenomenal... and restful and kind of beautiful and... well it makes everything else stop. everything stops. and there's just this bright red blood. and it doesn't hurt. it hurts a little, but not really. and it just overtakes, there's just nothing to do but breathe and watch yourself bleed. and it has never not made me feel better. not ever. kind of troublingly satisfying, you know? maybe it... reminds you you're alive... or that you're not dead... or that... well, i think what it actually does is just takes pain you can't touch and makes it something you can touch, because when you can see it and taste it, it makes it easier then, easier to
handle. that's what i think. that's how it is for me.
"but it has to hurt?' i ask, absently continuing my journey along his shining, raised lines.
"no," he says quickly, but then amends himself, "i mean, not before. but this one," he pauses, thinking, and maybe i see something i can understand flicker behind his eyes. he raises his arm, inches from my face, inches from my mouth. "this one hurt."
"this one," i say, eyeing the wound. and suddenly it seems like i know where to begin. where to find it. i take his arm in my hand, gently, like a glass of wine.
"no, its all right. i think. i think it's what i wanted."
i press my mouth to his clean new cut because i can't help it, because its right there. he makes a sound, and i think it must hurt him. he keeps talking, and i start to wish he'd bleed all over me. inside me and through me.
"On the street," I say, letting her mouth cover me and sting me, letting my shirt fall to the floor, letting it be stamped into the linoleum like ash, "I did stuff. You know. For money. And afterward
sometimes I'd just cut. Usually my legs, cuz I'd be kind of crumpled up and they were the closest thing. And sometimes, then, I'd draw. Just pencil on scraps of paper. Or charcoal, which was pretty easy to lift from stores. I'd draw with this superhuman speed, really fast and focused. And just let myself bleed, so when I was done, my whole leg and the ground and everything was just covered in blood. And then I'd calmly get up and go to a restroom and clean myself off and fall asleep in about two minutes. Right in the stall in the bathroom. Only this last time, no, before, when I first met... this... man, I guess I cut too deep and couldn't get up. Or didn't want to. And he helped me. And I didn't, hadn't cut myself since. Not since..."
She stops kissing my arm, stops sucking away the pain. She asks to see my legs. And she wants to show her legs. And she raises her leg up the side of mine, up against the wall of photos, and I let her. And suddenly all these scars I tried to forget when I was yours, they're suddenly opened wounds, and everything hurts, and her tongue is a razor, and I want it, and meet it with mine and think yes, do what you like, do anything you like with me. Anything.
i look in his eyes, his fresh set of eyes, and there is something there, not that familiar something, but something like surrender, something beyond hope. i pull him into me, close to me. i want to steer him inside. stare him inside. a fist full of hair gathers in my other hand, from the nape of his neck, drawing his head into my neck, and my cuh... cries as he... he... h-h... enters me... collides against the flat walls an... and sound nothing like a prayer...everything like a prayer... surrounds...
Her arm scrapes along the gallery of photos. They bend and snap and flash into the air like leaves. Tacks and paper underfoot. All the faces. Hers, tilted away, mouthing wordless cries; theirs, looking straight at me, something less than silent. I think of you, for all my trying not to. And I wonder if her camera is in reach. If this is what she wants. I turn and nearly fall.
Wrenching her arm above her head, trying to hold balance, I feel the scratches along her skin, the moisture below the skin. Like me. She moves and doesn't stop and doesn't stop the tightness around me wet and warmer than I imagined and holding me like hands like wanting hands, but sharp too, hurting too, somehow, as if scraped by scars, jagged. So long it's been, since inside a woman... and I can't help thinking, can't but think of your teeth and words and... she pulls and pulls at me and doesn't stop...
...i cry again he bites my shoulder chest and presses me against the wall flat against the wall and red. and lifts me, hair snarled against the wall and pins and pictures and eyes on eyes. his scars glow and throb like veins with life and shit what it must be like... oh oh oh don't s-slow no... i hold onto the table and my hand spills over a basket of pens and tongs and razor blades and o-o-h he is... he is...
"Cut me," she says suddenly, and thrusts a razor blade into my hand, blood already running down my wrist. Red everywhere. "Like you." She's barely able to speak through gasps and pants and she rakes her nails just below my throat looking me in the eye, showing me where to run the blade.
...oh he won't he won't. my ribs curls into him and i can't stop he can't stop. i open my mouth, wanting everything, wanting and wanting and arching back again, grasping his arm. "cut me like you" my voice rasps and spits against his red and glowing skin...
Both hands on my arm and I hold the blade and should have let it fall to the ground but hold it tight as she presses it into her and starts to pull it across her neck, just above the collar bone. Too late, as red liquid pours out from red skin and red eyes close and red cries fill the room. I drop the blade too late and dive to her bleeding chest, wanting to make it stop.
"no don't stop!" but he stops. "it doesn't hurt it doesn't hurt me. this is the only when it doesn't hurt. please. you don't understand. you can't kill me. i don't die. i've been trying to die my whole fucking life and i don't. don't stop. i don't die."
up from the floor the blade flashes in my hand and across his neck, a cut like mine, only longer, more complete, refusing to stop, again and again, because he doesn't understand. and he falls away and onto the floor and i try to pull him back into me back inside me and he won't. he won't...
Against the floor, up from the floor, she thrusts and thrusts, first above me, then all around me as I float up through her and watch as if from every corner, as if from a thousand eyes. The needle
quivers from the motion, still buried in muscle. The blade disappears into her fist, absorbed.
There is no sound, no voice in her opened mouth. Red fluid everywhere, pooling on the ground, covering my body, cascading down her chest, seeping from her eyes. And the red is like peace, like
ready canvas, like the space behind the once closed windowpane.
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