By 1920, Martha’s brothers had sold their last share-crop of sea island cotton and some loyal civil servant had failed to save the seeds of the most precious gold ever seen in the sea islands. The inland-grown plant was no match for what had been on water, and weevil came and brought a smothering death to the silky long fiber that had clothed the queen and Martha’s own night shirts. The brothers left then, off to find their own cotton in whatever better form it took, but she could never find it to leave the island parcel. It was her temporary home, just a tenant, she would say, but it was really because she just had too much of Cypress in her. They all had told her so when they left, hats in hand, fear of the unknown pumping up their blood and visions beyond for better, dry ground—landlocked—laughing at the mockery of words that did not fit. They had run north till they found work-for-hire that lasted more than a week, and dug in to blend with a place not named for captains, and planters, or even old trails of false cotton hope. There were no reminders of those acres given and taken back, begged and procured, then taken again. They bought their plats with clean titles and kept them till they were dead, buried, and had cleanly passed them on to heirs who had no idea of the true value of such gifts. Only they knew what it meant to see a singular deed, but it was together they had burned their mortgages as only they could understand the sentiment of these solemn fire-centered ceremonies that reminded them of the burnings from before, hid away in that boarded-up place on the inside, soaked by old gin and deep self-laceration that cut faint pallid ghosts now not even heard or fully remembered. Yet there, always there. That old south would not be revisited in the sober, waking hours: discontent dormant only until her nephew’s day when all hell broke loose and the spirit of the grandmothers wrested free of the edge water (as ol conjur had predicted) and hovered high to feed them all. Sea island cotton would never return like in the old days for something so precious can only be dreamed of now like that first breath of freedom that comes just before you think it’s your last.
and you’re thinking what does that mean and can I stand it?
and you’re mad for ever wanting to die
and you’re mad for ever thinking if I just don’t wake up how fine that would be
and he’s inside of you like he’s searching for your heart
like he can’t stand the beating and that’s why he’s doing this to you
and you’re thinking, do what you have to
and you’re thinking get out of this moment before it ruins your life
and you’re thinking don’t let this be the last thing that ever happens to me
They stopped on Boulevard de Clichy at a bar, and then wound up at L’Ane Fontaine, one of the famously sordid bathhouses in Pigalle. It was right down the street from the Moulin Rouge. This bathhouse, like many in the area, charged a steep fee at the door. Then the bored man at the desk handed out towels, sarongs, locker keys, and a handful of condoms. From there, you could spend time at the bar—with seriously overpriced drinks—and watch porn on the surrounding screens. After that you went to the Jacuzzi, the sauna, or the private rooms. Well, mostly private. Sometimes people liked an audience.
Not Corinne, though. The mirrors that hung inside the chamber already made her feel even more naked. Residual sounds of the porn playing on the hallway televisions leaked in. They slid in like shadows and crept into the ear. Fake moans and grunts assaulted Corinne. The added noises from other occupied chambers only made things worse. She couldn’t fathom why anyone would want others to walk in and join, or voyeurs privy to their sex. A dozen of Henri’s eyes looked at her, and that was enough. It was more than enough. He loved Pigalle, but she didn’t really understand why. It was seedy and full of tourists, ejecting them from peep shows like pus from a wound. Corinne hated tourists. She was often mistaken for one, which added to her discomfort. Her father was from Morocco, and the inherited dark hair and tan skin labeled her a foreigner in her own city. She was often complimented on her accent, as though she had struggled to learn her native language. There was never a struggle in her response. Such insults were met by a click of the tongue and a tirade, usually. The racism was bullshit, but everyone had some sort of bias—she was guilty too.
But Henri turned back to her and she focused on him. He didn’t mind that she looked foreign, just as she didn’t mind that he was married. But when he turned to her tonight, Henri looked much older than forty. He would be an old man before her, with sagging flesh and a receding hairline. His sandy hair was already thin when she ran her hands through it. She didn’t like to think about getting older, either; in a few years she would be thirty and expected to settle down. What would Henri look like then?
Perhaps they both drank too much tonight, Corinne thought. She was feeling maudlin, and Henri couldn’t get hard. He pulled back to try for a while, before letting her use her hand. Was this a precursor of what was to come? Or not to come. Henri was getting upset about it, and her assurances didn’t help. If anything, it incensed him. His hand in her hair tightened, before coming to rest firmly on the back of her head, pushing down. Corinne had never been forced like this before, and she had half a mind to scold him, but she couldn’t really articulate it at the moment. Her thoughts were hazy from the alcohol, and the joint they’d smoked together in a side alley before coming to L’Ane Fontaine. He should be nicer to her, though, she thought. But his sweaty fingers clutched her dark hair, keeping her bent over. The smoky incense on this floor clogged her nostrils and she gagged for a moment, unable to breathe. Henri pushed her down further. Her chest felt tight, and she thought she felt something coming, but it wasn’t Henri. Vomit spewed from her mouth as she gagged again, covering his lap with it.
“That wasn’t me,” he said thickly, before he looked down and blinked in shock.
“It was me, sorry,” she murmured, wiping at his lap with the sarong she’d thrown off before. Corinne felt some in her hair and along her chin, and knew she’d have to wear that sarong back to the locker room. She felt horrible and dirty, and just wanted to go home. “I have to go, I’m sorry,” she apologized, moving away from him—he’d let go in shock. Henri looked up at her, his expression confused and a little angry. Were his cheeks turning red, or was that the glow of the room? He made a small, angry noise as he grabbed for a towel to clean up. Corinne slid off the mat and wrapped the stinking sarong around her quivering naked body. Before he could say anything—to ask her to stay or yell about ruining the night—she left. Even though she wiped off most of it in the changing room, she still felt acutely aware of the sludge-like residue clinging to her. All Corinne wanted was a shower and to forget this ever happened.
It was late when Corinne returned to the apartment. The metro turnstiles clanked and locked for the night behind her. Despite all of the fun going on in the ninth and eighteenth arrondissements, or districts, she lived on the Left Bank, all the way down in the fourteenth off of the Porte de Vanves station. It meant a twenty minute metro ride and at least one transfer, but she made it home safely. In this part of Paris, this late, there were mostly just vocal drunks or homeless people—either on the platform or in the cars. They oozed desperation the way certain frogs secreted poisons, rattling a cup of change. The echoes of “I’m hungry, s’il vous plait” haunted the tile station walls. There was also the lurking threat of someone with a knife, just around the corner to mug random passersby. She had never been mugged, although her roommate Sophie had been, once. It was best not to linger at night, particularly in the outer districts. They never had any problems in their apartment, thank goodness. The front and hallway doors had codes to stop anyone with ill-intentions, and the concierge lived on the first floor. An old, eccentric woman, their building’s concierge collected Japanese waving cats and the portraits of famous dead people. Colette bumped elbows with Jean-Paul Sartre and Coco Chanel, while André Gide stared bespectacled and bemused at his neighbor Georges Braque. The concierge’s apartment was cluttered and the door was always open, so she could catch thieves sneaking in while watching an episode of Plus Belle la Vie. It was late, so luckily Corinne didn’t have to make small talk while slinking back to her apartment.
“Ça va, Sophie?” Corinne called when she opened the door. It was a general greeting, unlike the warning call that she had company. Sophie had a flair for casual nudity around the apartment. In the end, Corinne had insisted that she at least wear underwear when in the living room.
“Ça va,” Sophie replied. Her voice was muffled by the bathroom door. She came out after a moment, still running a comb through her thick, damp hair. “How was it? Did you go to a new place?”
“I’m going to get a shower; can you make me a kir?” Corinne asked, evading the question for now.
“Merde, girl,” Sophie breathed, shaking her head. “You’re trouble. Yeah, I was going to open a new bottle and make one myself.” They joked that kir was the poor person’s drink; unable to afford good wine, they would buy a cheap white and a bottle of syrup. A measure of syrup went into the bottom of the glass—they both liked redcurrant—and then the wine. The two liquids would meet and the kir turned a hazy pink.
“Thanks.” Corinne was glad that her roommate was being helpful, especially when she was feeling frustrated. Maybe she would have more than a glass before she went to bed. “Roll a bedo too.”
“I’m already on it,” Sophie assured her. Sophie was the queen of rolling the bedo, a joint with a mixture of hash and tobacco.
When she walked into the bathroom, she washed her hands, idled in front of the mirror for a moment. Getting to the shower, however, she stopped dead. “Sophie! Get this thing out of here!” Edging closer to the tub, she looked at it. A dildo. It was flesh-colored and long, held to the wall of the shower by a suction cup. Corinne didn’t want to touch it herself, nor did she want to run into it while showering. Her usual strategy with Sophie’s toys—ignoring them—wouldn’t work. Gingerly she grabbed a hand towel and pulled the thing off. It resisted, and then pulled free with a loud squelch. Corinne set it on the sink, but it rolled and flopped into the white bowl, making a slapping noise against the porcelain. Refusing to touch it again, Corinne moved away from the wiggling dildo in her sink and started the shower. She glanced back into the sink and saw it was still rocking gently; quivering like it had a pulse. “Are you fucking some putain in the shower and leaving her toys behind?” Corinne demanded from no one. The noise made by the shower was too loud for Sophie to hear her, even if the door was opened.
After she came out of the shower, her jet hair was a roiling mass of tangles. Hopefully it would dry before she fell asleep, but it was unlikely. At least she had scrubbed herself thoroughly, as though to banish more than just the stink of vomit. Still covered by the towel, Corinne hurried into her bedroom. She preferred to be dressed when confronting Sophie.
“You can’t just leave your fucking toys out like that.” Corinne returned to the living room and saw Sophie waiting for her, lounging on the sofa. Her brown hair was pulled into a messy ponytail, and her hazel eyes widened in surprise; she wasn’t expecting any kind of fight tonight.
“Which toys? You never mind,” Sophie countered. She had poured two glasses of kir, and they sat on the coffee table. Most likely she had already drunk one glass, or maybe she had been drinking before.
“The dildo that was attached to the shower wall, you putain,” Corinne replied hotly. We are not all like you, she meant to add.
“I’m not a fucking whore.”
“Well, you’re fucking like one.”
“I take that as a compliment.”
“Well will you at least take your fucking toy back and put it away next time? It’s in the sink,” Corinne informed her.
“Fine. Fine, n’importe quoi.” Whatever, she said. It doesn’t matter. But it did matter; Corinne was tired of picking up after her roommate. But Sophie handed her the glass of kir and waited expectantly for her to take a sip, as though it erased all disagreements with a silent contract. While Corinne sipped at her kir—there was too much syrup in this one—she watched Sophie pick the book up once more. The large thin book was meant to decorate a coffee table, showing off modern artists and the Pompidou Museum, but no one ever looked at it. Sophie called it her “rolling desk,” the book she used to cut the hashish on, then roll her joints. This one turned into a fat, squat little thing, but Sophie’s thin fingers pushed and prodded and squeezed in deft movements. She wore a lot of silver rings, big and garish, and they flashed among the crumbling brown of the hashish and the fluffy tobacco. When it was complete she held up the joint, smiling, and handed it to Corinne. It was another one of her ways of apologizing for the dildo—usually the one burdened with the creative task of rolling it got to savor the results first. The joint was perfect, but Sophie was so practiced that she never rolled a bad one anymore. Corinne snagged it from her roommate’s fingers, and picked up a lighter from the coffee table. When the smoke hit her lungs, she relaxed, feeling the tendrils of a buzz creep down her arms—it was seamless, but she knew smoking would only make her throat hurt worse by the end of the night. Vomiting was hard enough on her esophagus. Leaning back on the sofa, Corinne exhaled in Sophie’s direction, ending in a cough. The other woman wore a loose-fitting shirt and boxers, though there were red welts coiled around her thighs. She glanced down and saw the same marks snaked around her ankles.
“Did you do a bondage show tonight?” Corinne asked curiously. She wasn’t sure if this was for fun or for a performance.
“Yeah, it was part of the Impakt Festival. I was all trussed up like a goose on Noel.”
“I’m sure you were.” Corinne didn’t go to her shows; she’d never been to any of them. Sophie was into bondage. Using scarves to keep your lover’s hands busy was one thing, but this, this only caused dread to rumble in her belly. It sloshed inside her, refusing to be idle while Sophie described the exotic show and who was in it. The tightness of a studded leather collar marked her first, followed by the rope. Sophie had shown her this knot they tied around her breasts, dancing around pinched, pert nipples.
“He’s a cock, you know,” Sophie said after a long moment, returning to Henri and his cheap infidelity.
“Yeah, I know,” she replied. Corinne knew this objectively, but it didn’t help at the moment. All she could think of was Henri’s untidy sandy hair, and how it would look almost red in the sauna. She liked the way his aftershave smelled like citrus, and the way his jaw locked and jutted in the throes of passion. He would always make a face that looked pained, but she thought he looked open and vulnerable. What did his wife think? In her mind, Corinne saw an unattractive woman—she was American, so she pictured her fat—and someone who didn’t know the first thing about loving Henri. But that was because of her bias. It was a strange position to be in, but ultimately it was her husband that made the decision to go out and party, to sleep with other women.
“But his wife is a bitch.”
“All cheating husbands have bitchy wives,” Sophie replied wisely. “Why else would they cheat in the first place?”
“N’importe quoi,” Corinne said with a shrug. Whatever. But she knew it was true. “Marriage is overrated,” she told Sophie. Her roommate agreed; Sophie could only get a civil union certificate with a female partner, though it was essentially the same. At least, she didn’t really see the difference. Corinne had always thought of marriage as a religious ordeal, and her parents were atheists. Sophie would argue with anyone the importance of equality. But in the three months they had lived together, nearly a dozen girlfriends had come and gone. Some were in the porn business as well, and others were fans of her work. ‘I always see something attractive about everyone,’ Sophie told her once. She believed there was no such thing as a straight woman. Corinne disagreed. At first she didn’t think it could work, living with a porn actress. But they made it work. Corinne ignored the toys and wanton nudity. Sophie had the hash connection and never tried to sleep with her.
“Come with me to the Techno Parade,” Sophie asked suddenly. “It’s in two weeks. We should go check it out.”
“Why?” Corinne asked. What was there to do at the Techno Parade? It was crammed with people every year, from St. Michel all the way to St. Germain. Last year there had been a riot and the gendarmes resorted to arresting dozens and brutalizing more. There were thousands who flocked to the wide, cobbled streets that started at one monument and ended at another. The St. Michel fountain was the starting point, and it was already notorious for pickpockets and drug deals; Corinne wished the giant St. Michel would trample everyone. The twisting, fighting Satan could wait. Besides, the music wasn’t even that good, and so loud it could burst an eardrum. As it went on, the parade snaked its way to Place d’Italie, crossing the Seine. All of Paris could hear it, she imagined.
“I’m going to support Marguerite, that director friend of mine,” Sophie informed her.
“Why is she there?” Corinne asked, but immediately knew the answer. “Is one of your porn groups up to something?”
“Just handing out information and stuff.” Sure you are, Corinne thought. I bet it’s another sex workers demonstration, like the last one.
“Maybe. I might be busy.”
“Visiting Henri?” Sophie asked. “What happened tonight? You looked upset when you came in.” She scooted closer to her on the sofa, placing a hand on her knee. It made Corinne feel a little awkward.
“Nothing,” Corinne said dismissively. “Well, I found out he has a son.”
“Prick. Just like Sarkozy,” Sophie declared. She jabbed her thumb in the direction of the large political poster from the 1960’s, that read: SOIS JEUNE ET TAIS TOI. Be young and shut up. Sophie always said that Sarkozy was doing the same thing to all of the French youth. In reality, it was because Sarkozy passed a law that forbade “passive prostitution,” which meant being in certain areas while wearing revealing clothing. Now that he was running for president, Sophie always found a way to bring him up, predicting he would ruin the lives of sex workers everywhere.
“So will you come?”
“Sure, if only to make sure you don’t get arrested,” Corinne said pointedly. “The police will be there, you know. Don’t do anything illegal.”
“I won’t,” Sophie promised.
“None of your social activism crap.” She meant it; Sophie had a knack for getting out of trouble, but all it took was one protest too many to land in jail. The other woman would lose her job at the nightclub and Corinne would have to foot the bill for rent. It wasn’t something they could do on their salaries; Paris was expensive. They both barely made a living as it was, and this apartment was cramped with only one bathroom, no balcony, and less than a hundred square meters.
“None,” Sophie agreed. “It’ll be nice to just check it out.”
“With the other drunk teenagers, spilling beer everywhere and pissing in the streets,” Corinne said dryly.
“Exactly. It’ll be a good time,” Sophie told her.
“Then I’ll come with you.” She wanted to spend less time with Henri, anyway. A distraction would serve her well.
The day of the parade Corinne got off the metro and exited near Place de la République, where the Techno Parade was supposed to pass through at 3:00. It was packed with people, either pushing up or down the stairs leading to the street. The aimless, drunken wandering of the crowd was disorienting at first, too. If Sophie hadn’t found her first, Corinne was sure she would’ve drifted away. The booming in the distance was supposed to be exciting, but it was like thunder in the rumbling. It would only get worse, and she didn’t want to stay too long. Groups of gendarmes lined the edge of the street—all in full riot gear. Visors were down and the plastic shields were up, but she was afraid they would bring out the batons if fans became rowdy.
“I’m glad you’re here!” Sophie said excitedly, grinning broadly. She was wearing a tank top that promoted the anniversary of some feminist porn award, and had been handing out fliers for a show. The top she was wearing was tiny; baring midriff and showing most of her breasts, the top could pass for a handkerchief. It was a great way to tempt the curious tourists into visiting someplace daring on their vacations. They did a lot of business after events like these, so a lot of people in the porn industry handed out fliers. Corinne was used to it, even before she met her roommate. The curiosities of Pigalle were always at the top of any visitor’s list. One of her American students mentioned that it was often called Pig Alley by soldiers during WWII. It was an apt nickname. Everyone was drawn to Pigalle, like a pig to shit. The neon lights were bright and alluring, and men would stand at the entrances of shops and peepshows, trying to “hook” anyone they could into spending a few euros on true French debauchery. Tourists here would be looking to spend a night living whatever Parisian fantasy they could conjure up. Sophie handed a flier to a girl with flamingo pink hair, giving her an easy smile.
It had been the same easy smile that got them to move in together, Corinne remembered. A mutual friend had introduced them, during a women-only party at a nightclub. It was called Crazy Cows Night, and mostly full of lesbians. Corinne had been hit on relentlessly until Nadége found her and brought her to the bar. Sophie was surrounded by younger dykes, some looking butch with leather and piercings, others femme and wearing polka dot, vintage dresses. She attracted all types. They were introduced, and yet other women called out to her, using the name “Molly Minx.” When she admitted not being familiar with the other woman’s work, Sophie was shocked. She convinced the bartender to “show her work,” and gleefully pointed out her favorite scene to a surprised Corinne.
“That’s me peeing on the stage in Berlin!” Sophie had declared, thinking it to be a fine accomplishment. Corinne could hardly disagree, at least when it came to having the guts for such a performance. Sophie had never had a problem with exposing her body for anyone to see and enjoy.
She was flaunting her body here today at the parade, letting the pink-haired woman ogle her breasts. There were leering men nearby as well, and from the way Sophie jumped she imagined someone had pinched her. Hotheaded as always, Sophie turned and began to yell at someone. Before she could intervene, there was a looming, repetitive boom, and the crowd shifted like a wave in anticipation. The buses were coming down the boulevard, and the thump of bass followed. Corinne lost sight of Sophie as she tried to move through the crowd—one drunkard spilled his cup of beer on her, and people pushed at the shoulder to get a view of the square. The gendarmes tried to keep everyone back, but there was shouting and suddenly beer bottles were flying. They were aimed at the riot shields, but Corinne worried about broken glass. The crowd pulsed against the gendarmes, and Sophie saw a group of people break through and run to the middle of the square. Barricades had been set up to block access to the monument of the republic, but they swarmed over the barricade and began climbing.
“Liberté! Égalité!” The cry went up, and more bottles began to fly. The gendarmes began pulling out and using their batons. Long and cruel, they beat back people mercilessly and shouting colored the air. Corinne saw a group of people at the monument continue to climb up…and spotted Sophie among them. Damn her, she thought. She had promised no crazy activism, yet there she was. Her roommate had passed the barricade and climbed atop a metal lion near the base of the monument. Her peers climbed higher, shouting something and throwing things at the police response. Sitting astride the metal lion, Sophie threw her top off and bared her breasts to the thousands of spectators. She threw her fist in the air and screamed something.
A group of gendarmes moved toward the monument, but the buses were coming through. Loud, thumping music blanketed everything. More shouts went up and the crowd writhed like an angry viper. A woman ran into Corinne, stumbling to get away. Corinne could only watch as the music blocked out the shouting, but she saw projectiles launched. Her throat and eyes were burning; they must have started using tear gas. She wanted to get away from this place, but she didn’t want to leave Sophie. Topless women climbed statues and waved at the buses. It became an island of rowdy girls, shouting indistinctly as the police tried fruitlessly to bring them down. They simply climbed higher. Sophie threw her shoes at a gendarme, shaking her fist at him. Her breasts jumped with movement and her hair whipped around her face in the wind. She was beautiful, Corinne thought. Even if she would get arrested today. She had the fierceness of someone who had a purpose, and her passion was admirable. The more Corinne thought of Sophie’s activism, the more she focused on that bare torso, those bouncing breasts.
Corinne blearily looked around, hearing someone come into the apartment. The clock on her nightstand said it was late—or very early. “So-Sophie?” The yawn shook her like a dog, sending ripples down her sheets. She had returned from the riot, throat burning, after the gendarmes started rounding up the protestors. A cup of tea and dinner helped with the aftereffects of the tear gas, until she fell asleep curled up in bed.
The other woman’s response sounded just as tired as she was. Despite the temptation to go back to bed, Corinne climbed out and wandered into the living room. “Is everything all right? I thought you were arrested…” She trailed off when her roommate turned around. She sported cuts and her clothes were torn. A bruise blossomed along her left cheek, sending tendrils to her eye socket. Rooted in a stare, Corinne couldn’t look away. “Oh, Sophie.”
“It’s all right,” Sophie assured her, giving a too-wide smile and shrugging. “I got a fine, that’s all. They arrested a lot of people yesterday, they probably didn’t want to do all the paperwork.”
“It’s not all right,” Corinne insisted, closing the gap between them. She reached out, almost touching Sophie’s battered jawline. “Fucking pigs, they did this to you.”
Sophie shrugged again. Corinne often forgot that her roommate was used to getting arrested; she herself had never gotten so much as a citation for littering. Leaning forward, she enveloped Sophie in a hug. The other woman stiffened in surprise briefly, before her arms wrapped snugly around Corinne’s waist.
The jangling phone startled them apart.
“Who’s calling at this ungodly hour?” Sophie nearly spat, glaring in the direction of Corinne’s room.
“It’s Henri,” Corinne replied guiltily. “He’s been calling since yesterday.”
“You didn’t talk to him at all?”
“No, I couldn’t,” she told Sophie honestly. “I’m so sick of him, and the bathhouses. I hate being his mistress.” Corinne was vaguely aware that her voice grew louder with each syllable, trying to drown out Henri’s desperation.
The phone abruptly died after one last, shrill gasp.
They both looked at the phone suspiciously, expecting it to erupt again. “I’m going to bed,” Sophie warned, “and if he keeps calling, I’ll answer the damn thing and give him a piece of my mind.”
Corinne smiled at the reemergence of her roommate’s attitude—she had started to worry that the gendarmes beat it out of the other woman. “Thanks,” she told Sophie simply. This time, it was Sophie who came in for a hug. After a moment, Sophie’s head slid downward to rest on her shoulder, pressing a kiss to her shoulder with her hair spilling everywhere. Corinne didn’t pull away, but instead felt compelled to run her fingers through those wayward, gentle tresses. She liked it when Sophie squeezed her arms around her, thin and clever fingers finding bare flesh to explore.
He had a sign for everything. Slow down. Speed up. Nice blinker. One even had a hand drawn on it, middle finger raised. The New Jersey state bird, his father, a Southern transplant, always said with a laugh.
They were all written in black sharpie. Nice and bold, easy to see as the drivers sped by him on the highway. Or, in the case of those that James had to speed by, they were easy for the crawlers to see. James had glued each white cardboard sign to a Popsicle stick for easy access. He set the signs in small box with dividers and memorized where each was. While driving, all he needed to do was finger pick his way across the sticks to the right one. Three in for speeders, six deep for reckless drivers.
It took James a solid week of practice, but he had it down after that. He didn’t need to look over to see what he had picked. With a forty-five mile trip each way to the plant that he worked at, he had plenty of time to practice.
Most people laughed and that was okay. James knew what he was doing was right. He was educating. He was an educator. He may have gotten paid to assemble things, but at heart he educated people.
The car he sought to educate had tinted windows and sped by with all the force of a tidal wave. He heard the engine roar as if it were his own. He pulled the appropriate sign and a moment later he registered the lights, blue and red, flashing. The car made a maneuver and got behind him. James pulled over as the officer got out of his car. That day, James was educated on his own style of reckless driving.
First off, before I begin anything, I want to apologize for my handwriting. I’m currently writing this in the back of a dangerously fast cab. We’re cutting everyone off and breaking every speeding law in order to try to catch your flight. Every single time I try to write anything, the car jerks and throws my hand all over the paper. (I had to pay the taxi driver an extra $200 to cover any possible tickets he’d get from this ride, and I can see he’s going to use every penny.)
In less than thirty minutes from now, I’ll hand you this wrinkly paper covered with scribbles. With that, with this simple piece of paper, your opinion about me will drastically change forever.
Where to start? I guess the best place is our beginning. I actually don’t remember our very first interaction together, but you claim you do. You were discussing laundry duty with your roommate Sarah, and I, being me, interrupted to talk to her. You tease me all the time about how you couldn’t stop thinking, “Why can’t this girl shut up?” I have to admit I don’t I remember this at all, but it sure sounds like something I’d do.
This brief encounter explains why you looked so familiar when I found you sitting in the quad. It was still pretty early in the morning, and fresh rays of sunlight danced on you as you sat under an old oak tree, diligently working on something. As you feverishly scribbled on a notebook, you hunched your back into an inhumane angle. You had whipped your blonde hair into a messy bun, although two rebellious strands inched towards your face. You couldn’t stop to fix them, though- you were too busy writing.
I don’t have common social sense. You tease me about that all the time, too. When most people see someone diligently working, they leave so that person can continue. The curious, nosy oddballs, like me, decided they must know what someone could be so passionately absorbed in and decide to interrupt to find out.
You didn’t notice me walk up to you, even though it was fall and my new brown leather boots made an awful racket crunching on the leaves. Your nose remained pressed to the page, with your hand flying this and that way. I stood, three inches from you, and asked, “What’s that?”
Your face was priceless. It twisted in equal parts annoyance, hatred, and confusion.
“What are you working so hard on?” I asked, sitting down next to you. I had the audacity to just plop myself next to a stranger who didn’t want to be with me, but as you know, I have very poor social sense.
“My homework,” you answered, still befuddled.
I had the guts to snatch your notebook right from your hands to personally inspect it. After only a few seconds of staring at your work, I noticed you had a very distinct handwriting – very angular and geometric.
“Engineering,” you answered.
“Junior,” you say.
Pointing to myself, I add, “Sophomore,” even though you didn’t ask. I handed you back your notebook. “What’s your name?”
“Aria.” (But you knew that.)
“Hannah.” (But you knew that, too.)
I’m pretty sure you begged me twenty times to leave you be, but I kept asking questions, some relevant and some not. I told you the barebones about myself- I was debating what to major in (still!), I liked cats over dogs, tea over coffee, and I had two siblings.
You didn’t tell me much about yourself, actually, now that I think of it. I still feel like I know all about you- your desires, your hopes, your being- but so little about the details and facts. What’s your favorite restaurant? What’s your mother’s middle name? What’s your favorite song?
We talked for an hour. It was an hour too long for you, because you obviously had a lot of work to do. I think you enjoyed it, though (I like to think so). I was so proud that I managed to get you, the most serious person I ever met, to laugh.
I love your laugh. Your lips curve upwards and for once in your life you completely let loose. Your little, skinny body quivers- vibrates more like it, shaking back and forth in joy.
The next time I saw you, we were at a party. Both of us were outgoing and blunt, but only in a small, safe, reassuring social atmosphere. This party was anything but that. There were so many people crammed into that ratty dorm room that you couldn’t move without violating someone.
I found you in the corner, sipping on a beer. You were pretty wasted, I’m not going to lie; you were smashed out of your mind.
Can I say I love seeing you drunk without sounding like a rapist? You let loose. You finally relax. The tight, wound muscles in your shoulders ease, and you laugh more. You know that I love to listen to you laugh. If you forget, re-read the paragraph three up.
“Aria, right?” Despite our close distance, I have to scream at you, because someone is blasting my ears off with the latest dubstep track. I push a drunken couple foundling each other out of my way and step closer to you. Your hair was out of a bun (I’d never seen that before!) and flowing from your head in soft, bouncy, natural curls.
“Yeah,” you slur. “Hannah?”
“Yup,” I say. “Your hair looks nice down, by the way.”
You grab a strand of your blonde hair and hold it in front of your face to analyze.
“Really? I haven’t washed it in forever.” (Another thing about you- you never accept compliments, no matter how true they are.)
I squeeze in next to you, so I could talk to you. And that we did. For hours. I mean it, hours. We passed out talking and slept the night curled up next to each other like two old cats.
Two weeks later, our roles switched. Now, I was the studious one and you were the distractor. As I was quietly walking along to class, a hand abruptly grabbed my elbow, stopping me dead in my tracks.
“Hannah, your last name is Hoffman, isn’t it?” you questioned intently. Before I could answer, you began to search through your bag. Next thing I knew, the school literary magazine was pressed against my nose. “This is you, isn’t it?”
I grazed my eyes over a short story I had submitted. “Oh,” I said, shocked. Who actually read the school literary magazine besides those who wrote it? “Yup, that’s me. How’d you find it?”
“I read it,” you tease. “You’ve got talent, Hannah. This-” You waved that flimsy book in my face yet again. “was good. Really good.”
And you were off as unexpectedly and quickly as you came. You left me stunned, standing in the middle of the hallway, until the school bell rang and sent me back on my way.
I want to point out that at the time, I thought nothing of this magnet-like attraction I had for you. I didn’t associate it with anything sexual or romantic. I just felt that I need you and you, if you knew it or not, needed me. I explained everything I felt for you- the admiration, the fascination, even the jitters in my stomach when you brushed my elbow- by believing that destiny was simply trying to convince me fate chose you to be my platonic best friend.
Late in October, I had my first dream about you. It was romantic. You wouldn’t believe my surprise as I opened my eyes and realized I had dreamt about a woman that way.
I never believed I was anything but straight. Sure, I never felt anything towards men, but I assumed I simply hadn’t meet “the one” yet. I never even guessed I could feel anything towards a woman, until I had that dream about you.
I fell into disbelief. I ignored that dream as best I could. When I couldn’t ignore it enough, I made up outrageous explanations. Once, I blamed it on over-sugary cereals. (Didn’t you know Lucky Charms causes lesbian fantasies? Read the warning on the label.)
Well, we spent almost every waking moment together that we could after that party, because a higher power really did want us to become best friends. When you are best friends, you learn everything about that other person. This is how I learned you were homophobic.
We were flipping channels, when Ellen happened to be on. Curled up in blankets and drinking hot cocoa (it was December by then, and it was a particularly chilly winter), we laughed as we watched Ellen prank her intern.
“She’s the best,” I giggle.
“She’s pretty good,” you shrug. Your eyebrows raise as you add, “But definitely not the best.”
“Oh, c’mon, everyone loves Ellen. She’s perfect.”
“If she wasn’t… well, you know what I’m saying, she’d be bearable.”
“What are you talking about?”
“She’s a… how do I say this… lady licker?”
I still remember the way you said that. Lady licker. Like you couldn’t bear to say lesbian, so you had to make up some outrageous phrase.
The sad part was I was in love with you too far to save myself. Too far in to use common sense and stop the pain that will come once you read this letter. But you have to know. You have to.
I couldn’t just let you fly to your new job halfway across the country (which I’m so proud of you for getting, no matter how you feel after this letter) without letting you know that I have hopelessly loved you for the past two years. It just felt wrong and incomplete, you know? Like a story with no ending. You said I’m good at writing stories, so I’m trying to finish my own.
My God, I feel like I’m not even speaking English. I wish I had the courage to do this in person, on the phone, or through email- anything interactive. I really hope I address any questions you have in this letter, because after this, I think we should never see each other again.
Maybe I’m being slightly ridiculous or childish for wanting to completely part ways. Maybe I’m even being a bit of both. I must be somewhat out of my mind to willingly throw away two years of the best friendship I’ve ever experienced because I’m making, as you say, “a sinful choice.” But I love you. If this isn’t how a man feels when he loves a woman and vice versa, then I’m sorry for them. When I ignore the hatred you have towards the idea of us, I feel like the happiest person in the planet, because I love you.
Jesus, ignore the wet spots on the page. I can’t lie to you and say it’s my drink or something. We respect each other too much for that (at least we did, and I hope we still do). I’m crying, okay?
I’m crying because life screwed me over. My first love, my first love at all, the love that made me feel something for the first time ever, the love that revealed my sexuality, was to someone who believes my love for her is from the devil.
I love you. I love you. I love you. Damn it, I love you.
I wish it was a choice like you believe. I want to stop loving you. I want to so badly it hurts. But I can’t. I can’t get you out of my system.
The cab is pulling up to the airport now. If things went according to plan, I caught you, threw this at you, and ran. I don’t want you to try to contact me, unless a miracle happens and you say, “I feel the same way.” Otherwise, it will hurt too much.
Just know I love you.
Jump, Bitch, jump was the last thing I heard. As if I needed further proof I’d made the right decision to go up there. This is a no good world and no one really cares about you but your mother and in my case that’s not even true (but don’t get me started on how that tramp fucked up my life).
Jump, Bitch, jump. They sounded beyond impatient–there was indignation to their chant. Sure, traffic was snared for miles but their snotty tone confirmed my verdict on humanity (or the lack there of), people are shits. It’s all about them, them, them. What about me, me, me?
Jump, Bitch, jump, so I did. I felt the freedom of flight, a lovely sail through the air, then the big drop–swift and sure. I really thought that splat would do it, but I lived. Broken, hospitalized, and in intensive care, I was alive. You should have seen the avalanche of flowers, stuffed animals, hard candy, and the cards and letters that read: Get well, Bitch, get well.
Keep your eyes closed
Say nothing, baby
Make no sound, yeah
Stay still, honey
That’s more like it
Now open your heart
As wide as your legs
And let me in
Does this hardened idea hurt?
I never had the chance to ask you
what you meant when you said she was the first person you had ever met
who was more fucked up
than you were.
You showed me.
in your stained cathedral windows
that told a different story than my faith would let me hear
But that’s okay now—
one day I’ll be okay and somedays
I can almost taste it already
Scars drip while times flies and somedays
I’m watching paint dry and somedays
I’m watching my eyes dry already?
I have a rule about reading one of my new poems
until I’ve written another one
Because how can I judge anything while my brain is still colored its own bias?
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and somedays
my eye is dead and decayed already?
Already. and somedays
it’s not and it’s a newborn deer wobbling and blinking
as life flies by on a Harley
ridden by the butchiest motherfucking woman I have ever seen
and she is beautiful and somedays
I know I will grow up to be just like her.
Louisa walked the few blocks down Main Street. The day was turning out to be fine. As she reached the café at noon, a man unlocked the door. Wearing a black vest, bowtie and a handlebar mustache, he was either an actor in a movie about the Wild West or a bartender. From behind the bar, he set a paper napkin before her.
“A little early in the day for a cocktail, ma’am, but you may have a reason. Charles is the name. What will it be?”
“Nothing to drink, thank you. Unless you happen to have a fresh pot of coffee?”
“Coming right up.” Charles assembled a cup and spoon. “We don’t get much of a lunch crowd here. We do get folks with a thirst for something other than whisky. So we offer a little bit of everything. Come for the booze or come for the atmosphere. There’s plenty of both.”
“I came on another errand,” Louisa said. “I want to talk to someone who performs here and goes by the name of Lilac Arugg.”
“Hapsburg’s reigning queen of camp. I wouldn’t have pegged you as a fan.”
“Do you know where I might find her?”
“Sure thing. She lives upstairs, over the café. Mr. Small owns the building. He likes to rent to tenants in the arts. Go back to the street and ring at the apartment entrance. Or you can use the back stair.” He gestured behind the bar. “It’s more convenient if you’re in a ball gown and high heels, with an ostrich plume on your head.”
“I’ll use the street entrance. Thank you, Charles.”
Louisa gulped her coffee and exited. She rang, climbed two steep flights of stairs, and arrived winded at the top. An overweight man in a lavender robe and sparkling slippers opened the door. The same height as Louisa, he took her in from head to toe and frowned.
“I don’t know what you’re selling, lady, but it better not be cosmetics. You look like a girl who doesn’t know which end of a lipstick to suck.”
Louisa had not expected a challenge. “I am Louisa Abernethy Jones, from the Vindicator.”
“And I am the Queen of England, just in from Buckingham Palace.”
Louisa’s face fell.
“Just kidding, honey. You look as forlorn as a nun in a brothel. What can I do for you?”
“I’m looking for Lilac Arugg.”
“Then you came to the right place. It’s much too early in the morning to receive visitors, but slide on in and make yourself at home.”
Louisa entered a spacious, sunny room furnished with a few tattered pieces that resembled theatrical props—a sofa upholstered in crimson plush, a clawfoot armchair, and a vast painting of a carnival scene in an ornate, gilded frame. Water stains marked the ceiling, and the carpet was frayed.
“Take a throne, any throne.”
Louisa sat in the armchair, which creaked.
“Don’t worry, it won’t break. Heavier hitters than you have taken a load off in that chair. I’m a big-boned gal myself.” The man sat on the sofa and leaned back with one arm raised, as though a servant might appear with a cocktail or a cigarette.
“The maid is off today. She’s a wicked little bitch, but what can you do? Here I am with my hair undone, no makeup, and barely a stitch on. And with the worst craving for a smoke. But I quit that nasty habit. Now I’m looking for a new one. So where were we?”
“The newspaper editor asked me to write about Ralph Willis, the musician who was shot. In the course of my wanderings, some people mentioned you and your show, so I thought I should ask. Did you know him by any chance?”
“In passing. We danced together. We talked. We’re about the same age with similar tastes, as you may discern. You look like the discerning type. Are you sure I can’t get you something, Miss . . .”
“Louisa. Charles gave me a cup of coffee downstairs.”
“I’ll bet it was hot. Now, that’s what I call a full-service bartender.”
“He added a good word for you.”
“Don’t you believe it, honey. I’m as mean as the next girl and twice her size.”
“If you don’t mind, do you have a day job?”
“In civilian life, I’m Stan Maupin, a youth counselor for social services. Youth as in troubled teens, boys with problems, emotional and otherwise. It takes one to know one, as I tell them on our first date. Make that our first counseling session.”
“And by night . . .”
“A performing artist. I picked the name for its entertainment value. Lilac is my signature color, as you see.” He flounced the hem of the robe.
“Who are the Ladies of Illusion?”
“Oh, honey, you make it sound like a cult! We’re a collection of misfits and has-beens, street tramps and trollops. The only qualifications are a smart mouth and an overwhelming disregard for standards. The current roster includes Miss Kitty Litter, Miss Helen Highwater, and Miss Ivana Getsome, all local talent.”
“Did Ralph Willis come to the show?”
“Now and then. There’s not much of a bar scene in the Shenandoah Valley. Where else can an eligible gay bachelor go to see and be seen?”
“So he was visible?”
“In a small town like this, everyone gets to know everyone. There’s no place to hide.”
“Did he ever mention a romantic interest?”
“In a veiled way. He claimed to have a hot boyfriend, an active-duty cop in uniform who rode a motorcycle and arrested crooks—the whole police department scene. It sounded more like a fantasy than anything that could happen here in little old Hapsburg. Then, as the entire world was shocked to learn, the fantasy turned out to be real, our very own chief of police.”
“Did Ralph give any hint of dissatisfaction?”
“Toward the end of last year,” he grumbled. “I put it down to the seven-year itch. Carrying on with a married man is dicey in any case. E. M. Forster got away with it, with Policeman Bob, no less. That’s England for you. In America, bisexual is a fancy word for confused.”
“Did Ralph say anything about that?”
“He said he was going to break off the affair. It had dragged on too long, he saw no future, he wanted to settle down, and so on. A soap opera has better dialog. Now if you ask me, this is when things get messy.”
“Consider the cast in this drama, none of whom is getting younger. How will the valiant officer react to being dumped? And how will the valiant officer’s wife react?”
“Mrs. Ryder didn’t know.”
“Oh, Louisa, get a grip. The wife always knows. She puts a good face on it, hikes up her hose, and gets on with life. At a moment like this, however, as power shifts and lead weights start to drop, she may get just a smidgeon bent out of shape.”
“Alice Ryder made a spirited defense of her husband.”
“To which I say brava diva!”
“What about Gary Nash, the missing young man? Did you ever meet him?”
“Far too young for Miss Lilac. My social service clients are his age. Willis introduced him to me, said he sang like an angel. He came to the last show, a week ago Sunday.”
“Was Willis there too?”
“No, I didn’t see him. But I saw something else. Our musical friend Nurse Nash engaged in a tête a tête with a suspicious character.”
“Do you know who the other man was?”
“Never saw him before. Heavyset, fair, wearing a ballcap and sunglasses in a dimly lit bar. The hearty, he-man type, what we in the business call acting straight.”
“Your description matches J. D. Ryder.”
“Ooooh!” Miss Arugg squealed. “The Captain does drag.”
“I wonder what he wanted with Nash.”
“From my vantage point, it could have been a pickup or a body block. The stage lights made it hard to tell.”
“Did they leave together?”
“Miss Louisa, what an improper suggestion! No, come to think of it, Nash did not look at all pleased by the encounter. Up to that point he was gay as a lark. He must have left the café soon after.”
“Whatever Ryder said to him spoiled the mood.”
“So it would seem.”
“When did Ryder leave?”
“At the end of the evening, about eleven. I remember, because he loitered, as if he had nowhere to go.”
“So Ryder didn’t casually drop in for a few minutes.”
“If that’s what he told you, honey, he was fibbing.”
“You say he was reluctant to go?”
“There’s always one or two. We have to sweep them out with the trash. It’s no reflection on the entertainment. The malingerers are sad or drunk or both.”
“Sad, maybe, but sober.”
Louisa stood. “Thank you so much for your insight.”
“The pleasure was mutual, I’m sure. Love the hair and the outfit. Come see the show. You might get some tips on makeup.”
This is only a test. Gasp. Sigh. The old Boo-Hoo. Boo Who? This is only a test. (sound of voice clearing). If this were an actual emergency. If. (sound of laughter) We interrupt this regularly scheduled broadcast. Well, if this were an actual emergency. A test, did we say that? Yeah, this is only a test. It’s a test of…what…your patience, your intestinal fortitude, your sanity? It’s a test of the Emergency Broadcasting System. That’s what it is. If this were an actual emergency, you would have been given instructions of where to turn. He nudges me and points to a table: there’s her coat, some petite plaid thing. She’s probably claimed the table and gotten up to get her food. Just seeing her coat I feel instantly panicked and nervous. I decide to try to find her before she gets back to the table in order to say just a few words in private. You see now, if this were an actual emergency, you would have been given instructions of where to turn in your own neighborhood. We would be telling you, you see, what to do in an actual emergency. I walk around and around but I can’t find her. Finally I start back to the table and I see she’s sitting there already. I back up into the hallway and I can barely breathe. I can barely stand. I’m gasping. I’m touching the wall for balance. I tell myself, “Well at least when she sees you like this she’ll realize how much you love her. She’ll be touched. She can’t help but be touched.” You would have been given a lot of instructions, a lot of gobbledygook about what to do, where to go, and all that jazz by someone who doesn’t know their ass from a hole in the ground. This is what happens in an actual emergency. Because right then the exact opposite thought occurs to me. “No, she won’t be touched at all. She’ll see you as weak, as exactly the kind of man she didn’t want in the first place and rejected.” You see, Plato said that we are all looking for the other half of us, that the spell of tenderness, trust, and unselfishness with which we fall under is a miracle; lovers no longer want to be apart, not even for a moment. And in this way all true lovers spend their lives as one, without ever being able to say what they expect from one another; for it’s not the dear one’s body, or resources, or even their own self-interest that these two lovers seek in each other. But something else…and what it is they cannot say, cannot ever say, and that never-answered-question, that is love. Sorry about that. The fucking aforementioned regularly scheduled programming. Goddammit, it’s hard to get it off the air. You have no idea. Listen, like we said, we interrupt our regularly scheduled programming to bring you a test. A test of the Emergency Broadcast System. We’re really proud of this test, it’s stood us in good stead for a long time, you really have no idea. No clue. You see, in an actual emergency. She’s sort of slouched in her chair, a wool cap on her head. She looks up and gives a polite little “oh it’s nice to see you smile” like you’d smile at a puppy. Her face is beautiful, more beautiful than in real life, like its being shot with a soft-focus camera. I can barely talk. I manage to ask her if I can have a few words with her alone. She doesn’t think that’s a good idea. Does she think I’m going to hurt her? Is she afraid of me now? I just want to talk to her. I just want three minutes. Cut the fucking tape, Maynard. Jesus H. Stop clowning around. This is an emergency. (clearing of throat) You see, in an actual emergency you would have been told where to turn. Where to turn? (laughter) Where to turn? (laughter, two, three, four voices, monkey-house stuff) Oh who am I kidding? Let me be honest for a change. There ain’t nowhere to turn. We interrupt this regularly scheduled broadcast to report that massive explosions have rocked the center of our world, our major cities have crumbled to the ground, the sky is on fire, and the water is poisoned. You can kiss your asses goodbye, suckers! People are killing each other indiscriminately in the street. The army is indistinguishable from the citizenry. When has it not been? Everything is out of control. You tell me, when has it not been? Escape is impossible. You tell me, When has it ever been? There is no Law. It was all a sham, all an illusion, all of it. We admit it. This is an actual emergency. When has it not been? Okay? Happy now? You wanted the truth, you got it. You’ve been practicing for it all your life. This is it. Stop being such a goddamn victim. Get up off your ass. Figure it out yourself. We’ve been giving you instructions for years. Have they ever helped? Think about it. Have they? The truth is, it’s been an actual emergency all along. We can’t tell you where to go or what to do. We don’t know ourselves. You’re on your own. You always have been. Everything is falling apart. You are the chair which is falling through the floor which is the soil under your feet which is the bedrock of the earth which is swallowed by the sun which is exploding forever and ever into the cold oblivion of empty space. Empty space. Everything is everything. This is an actual emergency. It is so, so, so over. You would have been given instructions on where to turn if it weren’t. Trust me. You would have been told a lot of lies. You would have been told what to do. When have you not been? If there were an actual emergency. You would have been told. In your area. To turn. Where? There is no where to turn. You are turning in on yourself. Good luck.