NEUROTICA: Part 5
I shuffle through pots in the kitchen. An egg pan, a frying pan, a strainer spread across the floor. The dog barks from another room. Maybe it’s a rabbit outside, or maybe it’s nothing, a moving branch, a rattling.
I unearth a pot large enough to fit the entire sea and put it over my head. It’s heavy and it presses on my nose. I can see my eyes in the reflection: square, brown, rounded out, and pushed closely together due to the curvature of the pot. I can see the floor. I can see dog run up to me and I can see its mouth snapping at my pant leg.
I attempt to read a book this way, bending my neck backwards to lift up the silver crevice and peer out. It strains my eyes to look down so I bring the book closer to read the words clearly. The text is reflected back up at me through the ream of the encasement in craggy, yawning type. It’s James Joyce’s Ulysses, and either way, it’s nearly impossible to understand much.
Somewhere around midnight I fall asleep with the lights on. The next morning, I am woken by the refractions of a crystalline sun bouncing around inside the pot. I take it off my head and stash it back inside the cupboard, pull on an old, loose dress, and slip outside.
The air conditioner in the car is broken. It rattles down the mountains in an overwrought staccato, and sometimes, I think I am going to explode on the way down and my car will turn over into the thick of branches and leaf piles. I put on my sunglasses and pull down my visor and at the end of it all, live.
There is a man at the door of the bank who greets me in front of the black stanchion.
“Hello, how can we help you today at North America Trust?”
His skin looks sickly in the peeling light. I remove my sunglasses: the place is slathered in green more thickly than I thought.
“I’d like to apply for a loan.”
He stares at me before dawdling away for a moment, and then returns with a ticket and the form EI3998. The print is stout and bold and commanding, borderline Napoleonic. I flick through it with a pen linked to a silver chain linked to a wimpy clipboard. Name, Age. It seems familiar: Linda, Female. Forty-four.
Someone calls for number eleven. I follow the waving hand to a young, black man with a slim build and glinting eyes. The bank man skips the formalities and jumps straight to —
“So you need a loan then.” He speaks with a light West African accent.
I shift in my seat, preoccupied with how structured my existence has become. He reviews the information on my clipboard, examining it fastidiously with arachnid fingers. My hair is tied up in a loose and grumpy bun, the cloth between the buttons of my dress itch more than ever, and I can feel the crumples and slouches in my stomach beneath. Can he see me? I hear the front door sing out with that corporate squawking eh-eh sound. The bank man is staring at me. His African eyes.
I blurt it out as quickly as I can, the itching:
“I need to pay for my boyfriend. They took him away.”
“Who?” He places the clipboard on his desk.
“Daniel Lionhardt, a representative of Loodburt & Voight. You want to see his picture? I have it right here.”
“Hold on, back up a minute. Daniel who?”
“Daniel Lionhardt, he’s not my boyfriend. He’s a representative of Loodburt & Voight. He’s the one who took him. They’re a manufacturing company coupled with a collection agency, which really is the worst of — “
He puts his hand up. Stop. I curl my lips inward. Never was there a moment so much as this where I wish I could eat my own face. Devour it and live headless. Move on with my life without a mouth or eyes or ears. I would touch everything. I would live on and touch everything, touch this man’s moonlight skin.
“Was he kidnapped?” He asks. “That’s really not my department. You should go to the police”
I clutch my purse to my chest. It all began with a moment in time some years earlier. There really are several of these moments, I explain. What started it. What it catalyzed. The bank-man taps his fingers impatiently; I listen to them drum. He wants to believe in a beginning.
One morning, a couple of years ago, I was fine. If you had met me on the street, maybe you would have liked my brown coat. That’s how Denise and I became friends, because she liked my brown coat and for all other intents and purposes, I was invisible.
You’re pretty! she shouted once while I fished dead frogs out of her pool. What do you mean? I asked. The gardener was mowing a small patch of grass off the side of the veranda. You’re pretty! she repeated again, her knees spanning widely as if pointing to two different constellations, rosé hanging slyly by the pubic junction of her swimsuit. I pretended not to hear her, collecting as many as four dead frogs at a time. You’re pretty! she chanted in finality. It makes no sense that you don’t have a boyfriend.
I don’t like to be touched while I sleep, I spend my time with mostly women, I have been called scary, patronizing, crass. I am a brown coat.
“Well, you weren’t always that she way,” she argued. “That’s a recent development.”
She claimed she knew of an organization that could help. What with my physical detriment, and all. When I asked her to elaborate, for humor’s sake, she said that it was run by a little man named Daniel, though the company wasn’t named after him. They’d find me the perfect match. Just like the one I’d always wanted. It’s sort of like God! She squealed. Don’t you want to be God?
I sipped the coffee that had been waiting in my hands, a burning sip, and tell her that I have a theory about men to which she yawns and sighs: don’t we all?
Okay, maybe. But here’s the theory — and she breached the cosmic gap between her knees — that we, men and women, are all sane and good aside from one supreme, defining ultra-flaw that spawns the problems of the rest of our lives. A singular weakness, like narcissism or loneliness.
“Stop rationalizing,” she says, her salmon lips melded to the edge of her glass, inhaling and exhaling Prosecco. “You’re not giving anyone a chance.”
I ponder giving people chances for about a fortnight. I witness a woman get mugged; people are evil. I spot a boy helping his parents; people are good. It doesn’t take long to realize that people don’t exist on a binary at all, but they are constantly in flux, undermined by the perspective of others who distort the reality of the actions that soon would come to pass, anyway. This belief was solidified while I was buying a humidifier at Walgreens.
There were three people ahead of me and three behind. The woman at the register moved sluggishly, assisted by her derelict receipt machine. “Hold on,” she directed whomever was in front of her, despite saying nothing. “Give me a second,” she drawled, tearing at the receipt with her fat, geodic fingers.
As I was sliding the box onto the counter, my phone rang. She barked: no phones at the counter!
In a flash reaction, I held a single finger up to her face and dignified that this is a fucking Walgreens. She snarled at me with her flaccid, coiling lips, her stupid hay-hair swept back into a curling snail shape with loose pins. I was forced to watch her bag and moo “do you have a Walgreens card?” before swinging the monitor around. I zipped through the rest of the procedure with stealth and vengeful aptitude. She sucked up the rest of the daylight hours tearing my receipt, the machine chugging along haplessly.
It was then that I thought of Denise. Beautiful Denise. Give people a chance.
I looked straight into her eyes and then down to her golden nameplate: Darla.
She cocked her head, her eyes rolling to the side like a bag of beads.
“I’m going to write down my phone number on this receipt. I want you to meet me for coffee at seven p.m. at the Starbucks across the street. I want to talk to you. I — I want to get to know you.” And so I did. I wrote my number and left quickly enough to evade her reaction or the reaction of those behind me, the people who I had turned against in mutiny.
My father was the one who had called, and now I had missed it. I didn’t call him back. I sat in my car and tossed my phone against the dashboard and watched it sink into the glass skivvy.
At six fifty-five, I ordered two mocha lattes and found a seat by the window. I looked the bright red Walgreens sign from across the parking lot, glowing flirtatiously. People milling about for spots. A mother teaching her son to drive in the back. He almost crashed into another car. The sun set. No sign of Darla. Only the red Walgreens, cajoling me against its sick and cement building.
She did not come; her chance crumpled like paper. Before I stood up and wrapped my scarf around my neck, I tried to personify her the way one would a tree that blocks the sun and kills all the plants beneath. It’s not the tree’s fault. I can’t blame the tree.
Imagination-Darla has seventeen kids. She is husbandless. The older children have learned to take care of the younger children and they all sleep together in one gigantic bed in a closet apartment on the umpteenth floor of an otherwise unoccupied building. Darla doesn’t have empathy for anyone else since she is a corporate pawn by day and a listless homemaker, trampled by night. That is why she speaks with such conviction. Darla has endured.
In the span of fifteen seconds in my mind, we talk for the entire night. I tell her about my own hardships, my own warped childhood, and my inability to love. It turns out that we aren’t so different after all. We both cry a little, she shakes my hand and thanks me for the inspiration I have given her. I leave Starbucks with a new humanity, a new awareness — a new ability to give someone a chance.
“Yourself!” Imagination-Darla calls out from her imagination-car. “Give yourself a chance!”
Female Linda. Thirty-nine. Upload a picture.
I peruse through my digital galleries: dozens of photos of a sewer grate where you can see an oven mitt-shaped monster, a few pictures of a surly show cat named Remus sticking his tongue out, and a couple of vegan empanadas drizzled with oil beneath a singular oven light. There seem to be tens of thousands of photos like these and very few of actual living, breathing people. Ten or so more of Henry Moore’s Reclining Figure.
I still have mascara on. I run to the bathroom. Flip on the lights. Align my shirt. Brush my part. Smile with all my wretched muscles. Review. I’m raising my eyebrows too high; I look perverted. I hold the camera above my head and smile again. Linda, Upload A Picture. According to Denise, self-perception is an instrumental part of playing God — God in slippers.
Something about my “career goals” followed by “passions” and “hobbies.”
Fifty in, the questions warp into linguistically tangled branches. What will happen if I have to dance with someone like I’m dancing with this website? Flapping around. Filling in circles. Fertilized uteri.
I scavenge for a small bottle of Martinelli’s apple juice in the fridge. I don’t actually like apple juice that much but I drink it for the marvelous, convex bottle. The pop of the cap breaks the quiet space apart. This is the way I was born, loud and vibratory. Drink.
I wipe my brow. I wash the dishes. I organize the spices: nutmeg, lemon peel, roasted garlic.
Here is our first moment in time when I split in two. Me-Now, or Me-Always is in constant and critical turmoil on an emotional, mental, and spiritual level. Creation-Me is perfect and designed to fulfill a need, a trickle down and simplified composite of the permanently Unfolding Me. While I am shopping for cereals, while I am at the dentist or on the phone with the electric company, while I am sleeping; Creation-Me is dreaming, sending particles of antibodies to excavate caverns for Unfolding Me to follow up and fill with screams and colors and mistakes and moments where I, like the pop of the bottle cap, never existed before.
After making a cup of tea to chase the apple juice, staring at the wall while holding my own stomach, worrying, worrying, I return to her genesis:
a. The beach
b. The museum
c. A weekend getaway
d. A romantic dinner
e. The movies
Creation-Me remains still and quiet. I have accelerated to a future moment. The cloth in my hands contains the artifacts of my face in smears of wet black.
After submitting the questionnaire, I turn on the T.V. It flickers awake. Alf is singing Old Time Rock and Roll. Alf is singing me to sleep. The Tanners walk in on Alf dancing. It is funny because Alf is wearing sunglasses. Max turns off the music. Alf has made a mess.
The phone rings but I am falling, falling…
The phone rings again. One, two — I pick it up and sloppily hold the receiver.
“Sorry, did I wake you?” It’s the voice of dainty man, or a woman possibly. The timbre of his voice heightens at the end of every question. The silence drops.
“Yes. It’s late to call. Who’s speaking?” I rub my eyes. I hold my knees to my chest. Alf is gone, now it is a Honey Bunches of Oats commercial and the colors are spinning.
“Daniel Lionhardt,” he pauses. “I’m calling in regards to the questionnaire you submit earlier this evening. To the domain of loodburtandvoight.com. That’s L-O-O-D-B- “
“Yes, yeah. I remember. It was just a little while ago.” My eyes feel like raisins.
“Great. We’ve designed a match for you.”
“Already?” I scratch my stomach.
“Yes. We pride ourselves on efficiency. We think you’ll really like this one. He’s precisely what you need.”
“Oh. Okay. That’s good, I suppose. Is he going to call me or am I going to call him?” I lean my head back into the chair.
“No one is going to call anyone. You’re going to meet him at Sanibel’s tomorrow at nine on the corner of fourteenth and ninth. Don’t be late. He knows what you look like.” Daniel mandated in what I perceived to be a snarl in his voice. Daniel was exactly what I didn’t like about men. Chastising you, even when they weren’t.
“I — I didn’t realize that it would be so soon. I have plans.”
“You should probably write it down. I will only contact you again if it is an issue of payment.”
Silence. I took a second to pretend to write it down. I would have to cancel my plans if only I could configure what they were.
“Hi, Daniel. What time is it there?”
“Where you are?”
It was so noiseless in his world that I could hear his spit elasticizing in his mouth.
“A little after one in the morning. I work late.”
I looked at the clock above the television. 1:09. Before I could ask any other questions, before he would never be available to speak with me again after the impending future of tomorrow, he projected in a falsely nurturing tone:
“Have fun, all right?”
The next morning, Denise trundles in with a bag of clothes. You’re a fucking mess, she boldly prods me in the armchair.
I want you to help me sort this all out, she demands, throwing the bag on the floor. Some of it is for keeping, some of it is for donating, and some of it is for you. She launches a leather jacket in my direction. Donate, she says. I feel the material between my fingers. The hide of some poor kangaroo. Dead. Darla. A jacket. Denise bites into a kale chip and hauls a purse at my head. Donate. She pelts an Icelandic coat at the curtains. Keep. A candle from Apothecary. Donate. Ferragamo shoes. Donate, or you can have them if you like.
I grab the shoes and slip them into my purse; they are a soft lilac color, almost hesitant-looking with stubby heels. I could use a pair.
“Where are you going to wear those?” she prods.
“Sanibel’s,” I reply, fondling the gaps in an old scarf. “I’m going on that date, from Loodburt & Voight.”
“Oh! I’ve heard that place is transformational.” Denise grins. It dawns on me that Denise has never suffered much. Transformational — what a phantasmagoric word. It should be used sparingly, but no, Denise is Cuban and all is beautiful and all is transformational.
“Don’t sleep with him,” she commands.
“I won’t,” I smile back at her, “why would I?”
I did. Later. But toddling through the unpaved streets of backwater Manhattan, I can’t help but think I would have never chosen the word transformational. Pretentious, maybe. It’s one of those cobblestoned Italian eateries fumigated with heavy-handed romance.
In the doorway of Sanibel’s: a waiter dances past me with a tray of wine. How badly I want to trip him and suck it off the floor. Instead, I meander beneath the awning like an insect. It’s warm in here and I have settled for far less than standing room on dates and appointments and professional meetings. It’s too late for me to have standards now. There is an enormous recreation of Empress Theodora and Her Attendants from the Basilica San Vitale on the ceiling, or so the maître d’ tells me while paring off my coat.
For a moment, I imagine having sex with him. His bedroom, tucked away in the corner of Queens, the paint peeling off the walls. No decorations except a cross from his Grandma watching over us. In the morning, his belly would hang over his pinstripe boxers and I would walk out of the bathroom to see him sitting there, fiddling with a jackknife. He could be a serial killer, what with his sultry Mediterranean charm. Women have to be careful nowadays.
A Midwestern family breaks from their seats in tidal unity, a slog of Carhartt jackets and red faces. Their chairs scrape against the floor like grinding teeth. They take their sweet time propping open the door beside me, greeting the bitter wind with jejune Minnesota nonchalance. I shiver if only to make a point. On the way out, an elderly woman who appears to be the matriarch and probably the only one who has traveled as far as Pear-is, France, whispers:
Without the blockade of burly Appalachian faces, the whole restaurant unfolds. The maître d’ apologizes and assures me that they are clearing space now like brush from the Amazon, or Rome or Babylon. A young Mexican busboy sweeps the dirty cutlery onto a clearing tray with Olympic rapidity. It’s not their fault, I think. They should slow down, take their time. My Perfect Match isn’t here yet and I am not in a rush to sit alone.
The maître d’ hangs my jacket on an idyll coatrack, smiles and peers down at his seating chart. I wish that I had eaten something before running out of my house like a masochist.
Over dinner, I learn that the Perfect Match used to attend an all-boy’s camp in Utah. That’s where he learned how to swim. He is an economist who believes that human nature was substantiated and dignified by transaction. He likes that I am a writer, though I don’t tell him much about what sort of writer I am. We watch the couple across the row: their age difference too large to ignore. He has no regrets. I don’t believe him. He is tall and says that I have eyes like a cat. He goes by Kenneth. He wonders where the mural is from. I tell him it’s Empress Theodora and her Attendants from Basilica San Vitale. He thinks that I am intelligent and elusive; a charming woman, a potential serial killer.
He is objectively magnificent and his eyes tilt upwards when he laughs and his whole head leans back. He has large hands and wispy, black hair and a crooked nose and nectarine lips. He is intelligent, and witty, and quick on his feet. Too idealistic, maybe — I realized that I was the pessimistic one at the table — but invested and listening. There was nothing wrong with him and I deemed him to be harmless. He had an old-fashioned sense of joie de vivre, like I could spend forever with him in the white of his teeth and the black hole of his mouth. An easiness. Can he see me? I fiddle with a napkin, tearing it into thin strips.
You see, Mr. Bank-Man? He was an economist, like you.
I invite him over for a drink. He kisses me before the first sip and I quickly learn to like it. He grabs me by the waist and I fall into him and he shaves me of my dress and I am remiss to admit that my thighs are touching, but he parts them and he whispers to them and I stand and I brace myself for an empty reply. I have a condition, I want to say. I am a condition.
Instead, I lay still like a pile of salted flowers. He kisses the back of my neck, comprehending that, from this moment forward, I am dead with fear. Tickling me in restorative blossoms. He grabs my hips and squeezes them tightly. Oh! I have been meaning to lose weight there, but I let him touch. Rilke says it’s a waste for anyone besides a well-trained poet to write a love story. It takes a level of masterful precision.
So lying like the fatty dregs of a leaf pile, I write about war. A subject I know equally little about, those bloodbath circle jerks. Our boys are dying too young. They can’t even drink. These words are so loud and chalky. What am I good for if I can’t write about love and I can’t write about war? I am the foot soldier. I am the plagiarist. I can write about wine; I can write about the mating habits of pigeons but —
“I can feel it.”
This was the end of an era for sentences. We speak in jumbles and in blinks and in blossoms, in pre-history. He undoes his pants and kicks them off. Oh, Rilke! What am I good for if not writing about pasta and domestic things, like Ziploc bags? And Rilke, I have never sewn before.
Alternatively, I write about his penis blandly. It is hard to recognize it as a penis at all but rather a syringe-like intrusion, pining, pining. Waiting to be broken. Here I am, straight as a pillar on top of his penis, his edifice, his toothpaste bottle, his millipede and his mollusk! Oh Rilke, the world!
I will tell you how it ends, the poet: I lay in his bed and he keeps his hands pressed together against my fat hips and I suck on his finger. His coffee cup, his Great Alexander, his Austrian borders pressing flaccidly against my rear end. I tell him about the sex chemicals that make men fall asleep and women fall in love. He says that he does not experience chemicals. I grip his warm hand and apologize. This is all I knew about lovemaking: the neurology.
Before he dozes off, I ask what it is like to be him. He claims that it’s normal, for the most part. He does not have chemicals and he does not have fluids and he cannot die of cancer or anything nasty like that. Aside from infallibility and near-genetic perfection, he believes that he could possibly be short-sighted and has trouble reading the newspapers. It isn’t a problem though, because he could theoretically inherit it entirely through a satellite and understand and know everything.
And how is it to be you? He asks.
“I’m fine,” I sigh.
“Me too,” he squeezes my belly.
The banker has stopped listening to me and flips through my files again.
“You say here that you have taken out a loan before?”
“Yes,” I nod. “And paid it back in full. Well over twenty years ago, now.”
“May I ask for what?” His eyes flick to the clock. It is close to his lunch hour; I can sense the paper bag unraveling in his mind.
“Hospital bills. I was in an accident and needed an operation to restore the nerve endings on my legs.”
“Oh?” He shifts into his seat and resorts to the computer. “Let me verify your credit score.”
“It would be my father’s credit score,” I glance at the floor. “I was fifteen.”
He’s deep in his files, searching for an excuse not to talk.
Up the Circumferential Highway. The silver barriers extend outwards with fields of melting snow on either side. The morning here is dim and gray and unprocessed.
I take a left on Nye, an old historical street with austere colonial homes atop soft white hills. When I was younger, I hated it exponentially. I thought it was nothing. Now, it seems like a chronic state of introversion tucked away safely on secluded mountain roads.
I pull into a small white Ranch style house with blue windowpanes. I walk past the mailbox with red painted ducklings and over the lilted grass. I knock on the door.
“Dad?” I cry out. “Dad!”
Mr. Bank Manager, I am twenty-two and returning home from college now. Please keep up; time waits for no one. Let’s not lose it.
I’m coming, I’m coming, I’m on my way, almost there, almost — he sings from the inside. Opens the door. Well, come in! Come in! He ushers me inside, pulls off my jacket and my scarf without permission and slings it over living room chair. How have you been?
I choose my words carefully. We have always had a standing familial codec: take the occurrences of the past year, nullify half, square the good ones, and present it as the summation of a wholly productive life.
“Well,” I squeak. Or the chair squeaks. We both squeak. This home is like an old cobweb in the bathroom. I am naked here. The water is running over me. The spider will fall. If not now, someday. “Fine, work is good. Marcy gave me a compliment yesterday on my piece.”
He leans back in his rocking chair and sips from a cup of tea. He hasn’t offered me any because it is probably cold, but not to look a fool he will continue to drink, drink, and glance out the window: mountainous ground. As picturesque as it is unshakeable, there is no concrete evidence that Nashua is part of the rotating world.
“Good. Good. That’s good,” he sets the teacup down in a nervous clink. There is hardly any left. “I, uh, got Tyler snow wheels. What are those things called?”
Tyler is the boy who lives down the hill. From what I know, he went to college for two years, dropped out to start selling drugs, was caught and put in prison and now he lives a life of solitude besides occasionally accompanying my fussbudget Jewish father. For a while, I wondered if they were gay together, but I realized that the both of them probably just needed the company. It gets lonely up here.
“Snow tires. That’s nice of you, they’re very expensive.” I remove myself to get water from the kitchen. Or something fluid. My throat is dry.
“So anyway, now he can take me down to the pharmacy at night.”
“That’s good,” I squeak again.
Night presses on at three p.m. this far North, passing over the afternoon like an angry wind.
I walk up to my bedroom, bare aside from leaflets strung across the walls. After the accident in the White Mountains, I became a great collector of medical pamphlets. Have a Healthy Breakfast, Suicide Talk, Nutrition During Pregnancy, Abstinence and Self-Esteem, HIV: Think About It, Eating Disorders: What? Why?
101 Ways to Make Love Without Doin’ It was the pamphlet I referenced most with my first boyfriend, Darryl. Darryl used to lay across my bed with his penis happily out. I would grip it with one hand and hold the pamphlet with the other, reading. Hold my balls, he would plead, and I would have to place the pamphlet open on his chest and read it like that.
He used to beg me, plead me, to let him touch me. I would bat away his hand and roll onto my stomach or curl all the way up recalcitrantly, violently mean to him.
He contacted me for years afterwards. Once, he chased me down the train and when he reached me, all he had to offer was a spirited “hello!” Like a fat egg in his mouth. Hello, Darryl. And I would imagine his unzipped pants up in the New Hampshire wastelands. “How have you been?” is the question that all men seem to ask when they pop in and out of your life willy-nilly.
Maybe it’s that women express some sort of gendered telekinesis, and that’s why we hate each other so much. We exist in such tight mental proximity. But men, men will disappear for months, even years at a time and pretend like nothing has changed. Our weakness as women is that we let them believe it’s true; time doesn’t pass without men to punctuate.
Are you here, Mr. Bank Manager?
My sheets are made. The rug is vacuumed. The air is percolating through a slight lift in the window. Who is my room waiting for? I am cold. This house feels like dust, I think. I crack my neck. Dust and cobwebs.
When I was a girl, I used to huddle in the triangular light leaking beneath my doorway. I would read and listen. In those days, my parents put me to bed early, earlier than all my friends, so they could have time at night to restore their marriage. I could not fall asleep at seven o’clock but regardless, they tucked me in and shut off the lights and mandated that I at least try. If they caught me awake, my father would barge upstairs and demand I try a little harder. Count, he said, suffocating me up to my neck in sheets. Count to three-thousand.
Months passed and their marriage was not restored. It was crippling beneath silent fights that turned verbose by seven-thirty, when I was supposed to be asleep. I listened by the light in the crevice between my work-desk and the door. I could hear the sounds and inflections of blame; a woodland shrieking from my mother distilled by low tectonic rumblings of my father. And knowing them now — they became so quiet.
Before she died, my mother bumbled about the house worrying herself over nonsense and my father pigeon-holed his existence into two of three armchairs in the living room. But it was with them that I saw the destruction of people.
When I was old enough to leverage my bed times for good behavior, I started to wander deep into New Hampshire at night. My parents had become scared of me, I was so virile and young and bright and quick to anger. More often than not, our conversations were limited to “I’m leaving” and a nod of consent — then I would go off.
There was a mountain, or more aptly, a large hill that encompassed our backyard glen. I remember my hiking boots: black, with thick leather soles and fur that twined its way up my shoe and around the middle of my calf. I learned to climb up rocks, jutting out my back while searching for knobs to cling to. Hoist. Lift. And for hours, listen. My eyes accustomed themselves and eventually my muscles, too. And I remember breaking from my coat and feeling like the cold wasn’t so cold anymore.
But before I ever left home, before my parents decomposed, before the door light, I was taunted by another dream: in a yellow house on an opposite mountain, one attic light was always on and blinking. Like a lighthouse or a shelter flickering in Morse. I would watch it like a television, decoding it, waiting for a shadow or a flinch.
When I could finally explore, I was intent on traveling to the house with the blinking light. Because this was a longer trip, I waited for my father — who still occupied the house, my mother now in Peterborough — to fall asleep. He tended not to say anything if I was gone for intervals of two to three hours. Any more than that and he would be worried. That night, he fell asleep in the armchair around eleven, and I grabbed my shoes, walked down the pewter hallways and slipped them on outside. The wind blew thistles through my hair.
Here is where I split in two again. There is me-Now, me-Again, me-Always, sitting in front of you — a Linda that can hardly relate to me-Then. Me-Then then was wild, me-Then had no sense of society or manner, me-Then was on the brink of transformation. Nothing links us together now besides a prickling of irreparable solitude kicking in our stomachs like a troublesome pregnancy.
“Linda, as much as I have loved hearing your entire life story, and believe me, I have — it’s hard to understand why you need to take out a loan for your kidnapped boyfriend. That’s remarkably hard for me to justify.”
“He wasn’t kidnapped. I was just getting to that. It’s a financial matter; he was repossessed.”
I see the banker reach for the button beneath the desk. He is about to have me removed from the premises. I look towards security; a small but brawny man in square sunglasses. I dig my lilac heels into the carpet.
“Was he mail order? Linda, no one can be repossessed,” and almost, as if I knew the banker man, I heard his mother in his voice.
“He was a robot. A sort of phantom. Daniel Lionhardt runs this system of operations, see, where you can put down a great deal of money — and for a moment I did have a great deal of money, an inheritance from mother — and he will match for you. He will create. Like God.”
His finger is on the button. I plead:
“Just look at the website, will you? Loodburt & Voight? It’s all there, in their mission statement. It’s a little hard to understand but it’s all there, I promise. Let me spell it out for you. L-O-O-D-”
Our last night together, Kenneth prepared me a bath. I hadn’t taken one since moving to New York some fifteen years ago, and felt that it was impossible since the faucet was on one side and the drain lever was on the other. I told him about how much I loved to take baths when I was younger and he stored that information away for a later date when it would become imperative. Tonight.
I undressed myself: my eggplant thighs and my spindly feet, my crooked knees. My pooching stomach masked it all. The water was plummeting to the bottom of the sink and Kenneth was playing Etta James in the living room. The air smelled like vanilla as I lowered myself into the water. He had bought me a water-proof pillow to prop against the drain lever so I could lean on something soft and flat. This made my legs stick out over the tub, but he positioned himself on the toilet so that he could rub my feet.
“Linda, can I ask you something?”
I swished in the water. Yes.
“Why don’t you let me touch you? Down there?”
“Down here?” I pressed my fingers on my lower groin. My hair was growing long.
“Yes,” Kenneth pursed his lips. “Am I not good enough for you?”
I looked at his face: so strong. So noble. Like an ancient king.
“Ah, well. When I was fifteen or so, I was climbing up a mountain to break into somebody’s house and I fell. I rolled down for a hundred or so feet, I was told, and then I dropped another thirty off a cliff. They didn’t find me for eighteen hours. When they did, I was bleeding profusely though I wasn’t unconscious. Don’t ask me, I don’t remember. I went through years of recovery and physical therapy.”
A film of bath water reddened my stomach. I continued on:
“I lost all feeling below the waist.”
“So you cannot feel me rub your feet?”
“So, you cannot feel me when I put my hand on your knee?”
“So, if I were to touch — “
He reached down, through the water. His hand glitched, three, four times. He traced the edge of my clit, and then his fingers pressed down. Can you feel? No. He entered me, two fingers. Can you feel? No. He grabbed it in its entirety, cliff to cliff. Nothing. You feel nothing.
The next morning, I woke up at six-thirty. I watched Kenneth sleep: no longer breathing, flinching. The whir of his overnight regenerator had gone silent. He just lay there like a person. I ran my fingers over his chest, down his knees to his shins to his feet. I touched his face. I pressed mine against it.
At seven, there was a knock on the door. I walked down the narrow hallway and opened the door slowly. It was Daniel Lionhardt, short and stout with buggish eyes, just as I had imagined. Behind him were two enormous Latino men. One was smacking gum. Daniel nodded at me.
“Hello, Linda. Sorry that it’s come to this, I hoped never to see you.”
I lead them down the hallway. Past the bathroom to my bedroom. Daniel loomed over Kenneth, inspecting him for damage. There were marks on the wrist, where he had sparked in the water. Aside from that, all seemed good. He put two fingers up to Kenneth’s eyes and rolled down his eyelids. This was the end. One of the moving-men grabbed Kenneth by his feet and the other by his shoulder blades. They lifted him up and out.
The bank manager stands up. His face is worn and angry. He tells me to get out. He says, Ms. Linda — everyone in your story is fictional. Darla is your imagination. Daniel is in your imagination. Denise is your imagination. Why does everyone in your life begin with a ‘D,’ Linda? Because they are fictional. Because your boyfriend is not a robot. Because he was not repossessed. Because he either left you because you are crazy, or he is fictional, too. You are the only one who is not fictional — and now you are trying to make me me up, too. I can see it in your eyes. A waste. Pure fiction, Ms. Linda. Disrespect.
I didn’t bother to argue. As I left, I slipped form EI3998 on his desk.
An echo sounded. An echo of chance, or maybe it was just the bell of the bank door swinging shut.
I drive home. I live in my father’s house now. He left it to me when he died of pancreatic cancer three years ago. In the fashion of time as an unstoppable fixture, my days consist of cleaning, going to the movies, volunteer Wednesdays at the Humane Society. I have not heard Daniel since that morning so many ages ago. I can only imagine what he looks like now: still short and plump, if not slightly expanded, like we have all become in the moments of time from Now.
There was one night a couple of weeks ago, when I tried to rescue a kitten from beneath a car. It howled and howled and howled, but when I finally went to grab it, it shot away. It was impossible to find after that, even with the tiny flashlight I had stowed in my pocket.
One summer morning, when New Hampshire was illuminated with gust and towering trees and the water glowed and people were out on their bicycles, I went to Merrimack Outlet Mall to buy myself a new bathing suit. While waiting for a dressing room, I spotted a woman and a man across the way:
She was young and brunette, with red lipstick and a turtleneck and her hair looped into a neat ponytail. He had large hands and wispy, black hair and a crooked nose and nectarine lips.
I hustled over to them, trembling.
“Ex-excuse me,” I tapped her on the shoulder. She flipped around, the clothes she was carrying hit my hips.
“Hi?” She was nervous. I understood. I had started to look quite haggard lately. Up in New Hampshire, no one seemed to care.
“Is that — “ I pointed to the man behind her. “Is that a Kenneth-12?”
A sneer crept onto her face. She looked around the store to make sure that no one was listening.
“No, it’s a Kenneth-13. They’ve done upgrades the last couple of years. They’re incredible now.”
“What’s that?” Kenneth-13 yelled from a nearby coatrack.
I caught his eye for a moment. That same Turkish gold.
“Nothing, honey!” she shouted.
He started fiddling through coats again.
“If you don’t mind me asking, what are the upgrades?”
“Oh!” she replied perkily, “they can feel now. Emote.”
He walked over from the coatrack with a couple of items in his arms. He used his free limbs to hug his way around the young girl. I waited for him to remember me, that same familiar, ancient face. The bath. The movies. The way you held me, the way you listened. Please remember me.
“Hi, sweetie,” she gave him a kiss on the cheek. She turned towards me. “I’m so sorry, what’s your name?”
Linda. Female. Thirty-nine. Upload a Photo.
Kenneth scooped up his girlfriend and kissed her on the cheek. He took a spare moment to stare at me.
“You look familiar, Linda.”
“Yeah. I think we’ve met before.” I shared a secret smile with the young girl. She nodded. Kenneth looked at me dumbly, up and down. He was always agreeable, but never too bright. Maybe that was one of the many things that had changed.
“No kidding. Well, how have you been?”
Between us: you, me, her, the reader — what Linda saw in the window that night was nothing short of spectacular. She hiked her way through a common path, marking trees with small pieces of chalk and eventually, the edges of rocks. You can still follow her route up the mountain to this day, though it wouldn’t make much sense what with all its winds and curves.
The house itself was enormous and uninhabited. Linda, despite having traversed an entire forest was too scared to go inside. She saw now that the rest of the building was dark, only the window above was flickering. On and off. On and off. She shimmied her way to the top using the shoelaces from her boots. Over the first porch, up a column, and on to the second.
Bobbling on the edge of the second porch, she approached the window that she had been watching for over a decade now. Inside, it was empty. Inside, it was everything. Inside, it was every moment in time that would ever exist, every split of Linda’s personality, every realm of being that she would inhabit, every future and present and past pretense Linda screaming in anguish, their mouths open and lined with rows of teeth. Inside, was a single chair. Inside, was nothing. She fell. It was dark.
On my way home from the outlet mall with a new bathing suit in tow, I turn on Debussy’s L’Isle Joyeuse. Up and down the mountain tops. I think quite a bit about how I don’t miss The City anymore. I used to, I did. Denise called me a few times, even came to New Hampshire for Thanksgiving once. But not anymore, it seemed like the past of another person. It’s not as if I didn’t think about my past fairly often — the pot was evidence of that. But today I want to go for a swim.
I drive to the Nashua river. This river also carries a past life. It used to be so densely polluted that it would change color every day: blue, yellow, green, red, pink. It smelled like chemicals. In 1962, a woman named Marion Stoddart dedicated her life to clean the river.
I slip off my dress and wiggle into my bathing suit; no one is around to watch me. I step in. When the water hits my elbows, I know that it is cold. I wade in deeper.
I swim with my nose just above the water. My eyes look to the shore: I spot a young girl sitting on a log and throwing rocks at a turtle shell. I plunge my nose beneath the water, my eyes all that are left above the surface. I am careful not to move, not to scare her. The tide pushes past me. It grabs at my ankles. I fight it off but it sweeps me down the river and lobs me against the bedrock.
The girl stands up in the brush and calls out — are you all right?
I look down. My foot is stuck between two stones, my ankle bruised purple and pink. I tug to release it from the rock. I can feel myself cry, but the tears melt into the water. The current is pushing me back. It is tearing me from the rock. I pull harder; my mouth fills with water. I try to spit. I try to spit. The girl is running towards me.
I hear a pop in the water below. Soon, my legs are flush with pain.