A Gothic Thriller from Pauline West
“It is in the brain that the poppy is red, that the apple is odorous, that the skylark sings.”
- Oscar Wilde
Years ago, you asked me how I came to be a loner. Traveling on a wolf’s passport, you called it.
I laughed. I think I said, “I’m gonna go with response ‘A.’”
“That’s A for ‘Ask me tomorrow, right?’”
You knew all my jokes. We’d worked together a long time.
But the truth has blood on it. I couldn’t tell it to you then. If these pages have found you now, there is no longer anyone alive they can hurt.
The night I met Death, he thought he was just passing through...
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So recently we had this delicious spell of stormy mornings, and I found myself nostalgic, for some Bizarro reason, for small-town Kansas and her lovely, lonely old Victorian wheatfield hotels... so I wrote a story.
Interested in being an early reader in exchange for your honest review? Send me an email at mygoodnesspauline @ gmail dot com and tell me how much you love bloody fairytales :)
I'm gonna try some new stuff with this one. I'm all atwitterpated with nerves/terror, but I think I'm gonna try reading it for Youtube... this one is so fucking fun to read aloud, and if there's anything I've learned from all my misadventures, it's that you just gotta keep throwing yourself out there.
There's lots of snarks waving around their pitchforks & sharpened sticks, but also some lovely Other Witches, and how else can we find each other, if not by all of us flailing, shaky-winged, out into the empty air?
It was a lifelong dream of mine to hole up for a month or at the Savoy Hotel back home in Kansas City, but, alas, the place burned down. Harry Truman used to eat his boiled egg breakfasts there...and dad used to take us on special occasions for lobster bisque and shrimp cocktails.
Gleaming silver and dark, thick-paneled wood, tinkly ice, old-fashioned waiters. Worn red velvet carpet, slippery leather booths. I loved that place intensely. Curses.
However, I held the below images in mind as I wrote, and you can also check out my Pinterest (guilty habit!) moodboard for it here.
Man, to write awhile in an old, falling apart, stuck-in-the past hotel, wouldn't that be heaven...!
“Your ex-wife, what was she like?”
Paige was tracing her fingers over his arms now. Her touch was soft and flickering, heatless: that was how he realized he’d been talking out loud.
“She was- unhappy. Pills, you know,” he said.
“Yeah.” Max looked away, remembering snake-green eyes. “Military wives. It’s a fucking cliche, man.”
“That’s okay,” she said.
“She was fun though.” He lifted the waitress up in the air like she was weightless, a kid. “You’re fun too, you wanna get married?” Paige squealed and he kissed her on the nose. “Babe, you got any beers?”
Light of the refrigerator in the dark. She came over to him with two beers in one hand. He was sitting on the bed. He took the beers, grabbed her.
“Do something for me,” Paige said, bumping her hips into his face. She put the tips of her fingers in her mouth, smiling at him around them.
“Nm,” Max said, pulling her down.
“I want you to hurt me,” Paige said. Her voice scratchy and warm. “Hurt me.”
“What do you mean, baby?” he said. Rolling her over, bouncing a little. Playfully, he hoped. A pretending lightheartedness, but he knew that more and more of his dark was slipping out through his eyes. He kissed her deeply, her neck warm in his hands.
But Paige knew, she did, that it was there.
“Mm, a big guy like you, you could really… I mean…” Paige glittering at him. Her mouth was blurry, wet, chemical with the vodka. She rustled off her jeans. Her little cotton panties, her little kid thighs. “I can see it in you, that you like it, too. It’s at the edge of everything you do.” She lifted herself up on her spine and hissed it in his ear, urging him on.
“You got a sexy violence.” Hitting the x’s and c’s hard with her small pink tongue, her white-trash tongue, her legs locked around him, and Max felt his blood sinter to a ferric edge.
Suddenly she clawed him, hard, fast as a cat, trying to make him angry, to make him do the thing she wanted, that she knew he could give her. And there was a knife he always carried, enveloped secretly in a leather slot at the back of his belt- for unexpected handcuffs, certain situations- and now his awareness of it burned exquisitely against his spine; and her softness, her yielding. He was lightheaded with it.
“Do you think so?” His fingers rounded up on her small shoulders, her tiny shoulders. The fauna of desire, flooding in and out of the vast green world; these inclinations that live like beasts inside us. To dissolve within another, to possess them, to destroy.
Or were we ourselves tiny beasts within them, these inclinations?
They were gods, maybe, each separate type of desire. Separate gods, each with its own weathers, tides, intractable flowing- and so this wasn’t him, this wasn’t his fault, no, it was some vaster thing that he was swept up within.
Paige's warm, tiny fingers husking away his jeans. “I can make you hurt me,” she said, low. “I can make you give me what I want.” Quick as a snake, she bit his mouth.
He yelled, bleeding maybe, trying now to bat crazy Paige away, but his big arms, heavy as clubs, spring-loaded to judo speed, one of them flailing just brushed her jaw. And she was such a tiny thing that’s it was enough, she arced back beneath him, her little heart shape face sling-shot back hard into the pillow.
A bright arc of blood hung frozen in the air as it hit him, too, what he’d done, and then it came up jack-lit in the rusty dark of his mind. This memory of his mother; her dark eyes rolling cow-like towards the slow opening bedroom door, towards his child’s silhouette, as a cowboy without a face goes on hammering into the soft hills of her body. The dirty light sawed with dust, exhaustion.
And Paige the bloody jack’o lantern, now she’s leering up at him, a little demonically in the weird shuttery light in this, her streetside room.
She was making his cock sow into her, the rhythm she wants, lolling her hair back and forth her eyes shut thankfully now, thank god, and he took up big fistfuls of her hair capturing her flat against the screaming bed, the pillows. Their bodies like twisting snakes.
“I want to fuck you forever.”
The knife was in his hands, it was in Paige’s mouth, it clicked against her teeth. Her eyes went wild and hot; she turned still.
Max yanked her hair, bending her neck still farther. His thumb with the knife deep in her mouth, the edge of it was against her cheek. He could curve it upwards, pierce into the fruit of her brain. And oh she was so pliant, so humid.
“Kiss it, suck it. I want to see you suck it.”
The animals in the jungle floating in and out of the shadows.
She panted silently, eyes paralyzed on his. Wet, frothing wet.
“Come for me, baby,” he said, and she did, in hard, sudden stabs, never blinking. The fullness of her tongue still against the pressing blade.
They broke apart, maybe a little too quickly, panting, and the next time Max looked at her he saw a tiny red burst vessel beneath Paige’s left eye. A tiny red star.
It quickened him, the way she like a crushed plant, fragrant in his hands, he couldn’t keep himself away from her.
But with his touch he turned her to rain, and he could swear he smelled the sweetness of it, the damp minerals and softening earth. “I'm sorry,” Max said; only women aroused him impossibly when they cried. The rush of makeup, a heated face and neck.
Paige drifting in his hands, sighing against him. There was simply nowhere else for her to go, of course, but he sensed it anyway, that for maybe a secret part of her, this felt like home.
He thought of a broken statue he’d seen in field, crashed down on its side in the dusty street. Its broken hands, face blinded by a rock, a bullet, something. That mute resignation, an acceptingness, and at the time the thing had moved him in some half-articulate way. While he half wanted to finish smashing it, in the same harmless way you wanted to finish a girl’s warming beer.
“I don’t know,” he said, gathering Paige to him. Paige was limp, crying, as if released from some physical thing that had trapped her, made it hard to breathe. She clung to him wetly.
To him, the vampire, emissary darkness. And could you let it out only a little, he didn’t know. “I don’t know about you, girl,” he said. “This, I don’t know.”
“I do,” Paige said, “I do, please. Again, again.”
From All Babes Are Wolves.
Image by Mishe
He watched her, grinning. There was something scrappy about her, she was from Virginia, maybe. Working class parents, hand to mouth, whiskey evenings. “What’s your name?”
“Paige,” she said.
His drink came up and she jumped up and brought it over from the bar for him and then sat next to him again, mopping up the condensation on their table with the edge of her apron.
“Paige the sweetheart,” he said.
He was looking at her tank top, the twisted strap of it, and then she did what he wanted to do, running her fingers thoughtfully along her neck, and Max thought simultaneously of Katerina, how she’d loved to brag about being his last fiance. He was always getting engaged, all throughout college; never had girlfriends, just a long conga line of fiances- he thought of Katerina and then how his cock would feel inside the tight, wet interior of the waitress, the soft hungry jellyfish spasms inside her sponging tight around him, his balls slapping her ass like a flag snapping in the wind.
Paige the sweetheart, the smirker, the cheap whore, easy, he thought what her face would look like without a jaw like the girl he’d seen in Stanland, blown off by the door of a bombed truck, just sitting there in the dust in shock, swaying slightly, her face unhinged and dripping, eyes brown, trachea amazingly unhurt. The inside of a girl was as wet and full of shapes as his mother’s fruit jello.
“How you like Charleston?” Paige said.
The images still coming. The more of his past he pushed away, the more of it he seemed to create: that is, it bubbled forwards through Max’s fingers, swelling, threatening, cold and wet, uncontainable. “It’s pretty cool,” he said.
Then they were at her apartment, sloshed on vodka. He’d realized what it was about her. That bony ass, it was like his babysitter’s when he was ten. And she had a surprisingly clean place and dorky pillows everywhere that made his heart squeeze a little.
The damp close air of the room, her windows shut up all day. You could tell how someday- the writing was already in the air- she’d be a divorcée, living on her own in a dump just like this one. The fridge smelly and empty- the place dark and burbling. There was a humidifier left on somewhere, and the space was small enough that he could smell her bed in the dark, sour.
He walked to the air conditioner without turning on the light and stood against it, holding his hand in the cooled air.
Looking at her, waitress, college-girl, she was probably a Communications major, what’s her name again.
She’s standing there framed there in the light from the door. The streetlight. Strands of her hair damp against her neck.
She closed the door.
For a moment they circled one another, their eyes adjusting to the dark, to what they might do. He’d had an easy air of possessiveness over her when they were with the others. Now that they were alone, here, the two of them adults, they were both a little shy, self-conscious. She stretched her mouth, he popped his neck. It was hard to look at her directly.
“You wan’ a joint?” Paige said, finally.
“You go ahead,” he said, coming up behind her, his hands circling her waist as she picked up the twist of soft paper.
“There’s somethin’ about you,” she said, “I feel like there’s something different about you- you’re real mysterious, you know? I keep wondering what you’re thinking. Guys around here, they’re not like you.”
He kissed her neck, saying nothing.
“Do you even think I’m pretty?” she said, suddenly.
“I think you’re delicious.” He couldn’t think of anything else to say, and then he was silent even though he knew she wanted- she needed- more from him.
Girls, Max believed, were used to expressing themselves. It was their way of being in the world.
Evaluating, backpedaling, worrying. It was why they were easy to talk with; when you began a conversation with one, most of them usually just continued with the same stream of thought they’d been on anyway, only this time out loud. Always assuming that you were interested in whatever boring shit they’d been thumbing over in their minds.
He believed it took them no special effort, as if women were natural conduits or something.
Now, whether or not what they had to say was interesting, that was another story. He’d said as much to the marriage counselor, a kooky bastard he hadn’t minded, truth be told.
The guy had just given him half a grin, using of course the side of his mouth that Katerina couldn’t see as she turned and started in on him.
You self-satisfied fucking prick all you care about is your fucking self
Paige the waitress, her bony ass in his hand was like a kid’s, and he thought of Katerina the first night he’d snuck her into his mother’s basement.
Kat’s ass was big and tight the way he liked, the two of them kissing each other hungrily in the driveway, waiting for the AC to roar on to cover the sound of the garage door opening, of his leading Katerina inside, down the creaky carpeted hallway to his room.
The minute they were inside it, his hand was coming towards her in the dark, going lower now, a pilot touch, tracing warmly over the strip of skin exposed between Katerina’s scanty top and the front of her jeans. Her naked pelvis was deliciously hot in the cool air, permissive.
“Take deeper breaths,” he said, like his buddy told him to, and she had. He’d learned how to make her consciousness bloom inside the boundary lines he gave it, girls loved that, being dominated, defined: they were like water diverting into a creek bed.
“I’m gonna make you feel so good,” he said to her. Letting his fingers spread, his hand lifting slightly as she inhaled, pushing down when she exhaled, and her want of him rose into his fingers, Katerina curled towards him like an opening flower, wilder now, a jungle flower. He felt his consciousness slipping over hers, harnessing her, he was going to carry her along, take her down the dark ecstatic river, make her scream. Exhilarated, his yearning for her uncharted interiors. Her pelvis tip-pressing up into him, and each place his body met hers hummed.
Now she was firmly on her back, now he lay between her legs. Folding over her, pressing his face into her neck. So white and clean- the word for it-
“Your shoulders are like snow,” he said, shyly. The words coming out sweeter than he’d meant them to sound.
And the girl who would be his girlfriend, his ex-girlfriend, and then his college girlfriend; his last fiancé and then most finally of all, his ex-wife, a pillar of salt, that’s what she was, not snow at all, but he hadn’t known that then: Katerina touched her shoulder, wanting to feel what he saw in her, and then she smiled at him. Mockingly.
“Warm snow?” she said.
He pressed the side of his face against Kat’s. “Very warm. You’re melting.” He felt her sigh, and then, ever so slightly, she moved away.
“You’re thinking about your boyfriend?” he said. Too eager, seventeen. Just let me hold you, let me take you there.
“I never feel this way with him. Anyway, he’s not here.” Katerina’s wicked laugh. “And you don’t know him! It’s fine, he’s no hero. Me, I’ll tell you the truth about me, you think I’m just some sweet little slip of a thing, mm-? Little 4.0 band-theater-babe-in-the-woods, mm-? Do you know I used to fuck Lauren’s father?” Saying this as if she wanted her words to slap him.
“Well, it was more complicated than that,” she said. “Her mom was putting me up because things got crazy at my house. That was fun, me and Lauren and her mom. It was a little art house, a real sisterhood for a minute. Supportive. But then Kendra, the mom, she got uterine cancer. It happened fast. And she died.”
“Jesus, I didn’t know. Lauren-?”
“It was terrible. Then I started fucking Kendra’s husband. Ex-husband? Widow, I guess. That happened fast, too. You know, he was lonely, I’m hot, I’ve always loved older guys. We tried to keep it a secret as long as we could. I’d sit there next to him on the couch, and Lauren would be in the chair looking at us, and I would wonder if this was how Kendra had felt. She was so cool, you know, I’d always looked up to her. It was like I’d just slipped into her skin. Real creepy, kinda.”
“Bad girl, huh?”
“I wanted to do it. So I did.” Katerina said, shrugging her lovely shoulders. “She and I, we aren’t friends now. But maybe we wouldn’t have been anyway, and I got to have the experience that I wanted to have.”
His smile had been faint, observing.
“You like my story?” Kat said, rolling away. “You like bad women?”
Was it that simple?
“I like interesting women.”
From All Babes Are Wolves.
Rest of the chapter next Thursday :)
So, here's another short story. This one’s from 2009.
I was in a bad place and it shows. This one’s really not for everyone, and like a lot of my stuff, it’s NSFW. Getting whacked with the growing-up stick really sucks, that’s for sure.
Journal excerpt about it down below.
by Pauline West
Johnny was shirtless and white as stone.
“Do you always get dressed just to have a cigarette?” I said, rolling over. Watching him.
He was beautiful, standing there looking around his room for one of his black hoodies. Scraping back his long hair, cough drops falling out of his pants pockets.
I hadn’t had a cough drop in years. They were the cherry kind, so I unwrapped one and ate it. The taste was what it had always been. It was sweet, almost sharp: the taste of skipping school, of watching cartoons on the living room carpet with your friends instead. The red candy you only got when the school nurse thought you were sick. The taste that maybe you could get away with something after all.
“I guess it’s a habit,” Johnny said.
“I wish I had habits,” I said, stupidly.
I didn’t want him to leave. I didn’t want to be alone in his room, alone with his smell everywhere all around me. Because it hadn’t been long since you left me. Some mornings I woke up still thinking it was you beside me. But your hair was lighter than his.
That line you used to feed me about not knowing where you ended and I began. When all the time you must have known we were never going to end up together. You knew, and I didn’t. There’s a thing I was the last to figure out, me who was always so proud of being smart.
Suppose when the guy hands the girl back her heart—suppose she doesn’t want it back, what then?
You gave me back my heart and I had nowhere to put it. And then you got up and left, because they said I am not the kind of girl you take to Hollywood.
Johnny was dressed, standing there watching me.
“You don’t have habits?” he said, finally.
He couldn’t figure out if it was okay for him to leave. He just wanted to go outside and smoke his cigarette. He liked sweet things. He liked his coffee milky-sweet and his women milky-soft. Red candy cough drops, black clove cigarettes.
“What are you thinking?” he said.
“That I love the sound of my fucking voice in my head.”
“That’s a good thing,” he said.
His teeth were sharp and yellowed. Sexy in his demi-rock star sort of way, and I loved the way he used to bite me, fuck me so hard that I went out of my head. He knelt back on the mattress and had my breasts in his hands. Knocked bottles onto the floor, and it all started over again. “Obsessed with you,” he said. “Sometimes I don’t know if I love you, or if I just want to, so much.”
“But how do we know?”
“Love isn’t—the more you try to touch it the less real it will be.”
“I do love you. Because I’m afraid of when you leave.” Between my thighs he made a fist. He turned it against me. “I need you so much.”
“I’m tired,” I said, and he went outside, away somewhere, to smoke his cigarette and probably wonder why on earth he’d thrown over a perfectly good girl to take up with me.
There were always wasps in his house. You had to watch not to step on them when you went to the kitchen for water. Wasps crawling all over the floor. Their waists so fragile how could you know how long their daggers.
Now it was late. The sky was wet, people were throwing beer over the apartment ledge and someone was crying in the bushes; end of a night. He’d driven me home.
I was high, babbling. “You know, people looking at me—at any woman—they’re looking at more than just sex. They’re looking at the shape, the idea. And maybe that’s what seduction is. The suggestion of something…a symbol, an ideal…”
“No, men want to fuck women. They want to come all over your face and your tits. Release. That’s it. Throw away. That’s it. Like a fucking rag. Strangers looking at girls—you want it to be this beautiful thing, but you’re just stoned, baby.”
“You know what? I don’t care. I just wanted to make you feel better about it. This dumb goddamn insecurity you have, which doesn’t matter anyway. Because I don’t give a fuck how you feel.”
A cop pulled into the parking lot. Then people were yelling and slamming doors.
“I have to go,” I said.
Johnny grabbed my hand. And I didn’t care. It had become an unclean habit, my not wanting to be alone.
“I mean, the difference is, I love you,” Johnny said. I slipped free.
“Wait,” he said. “I want to say—its not the kind of jealousy you think it is. If I was a woman, I would want to be you. That’s all.”
I paced in my room looking out my window. Was this how it would be now? The part of me that had flown away, would it ever come back? I tried to think about years from now. If I stayed with him. We’d take long walks in the country. In his country of love and cigarettes, chickens, dogs, wildflowers. It could be like that.
Maybe there was something wrong with me, wrong with the way that I loved.
Oh, my love. Why couldn’t you figure out who you were without needing to hear strangers say it? While you went sneaking around, feeding me lies. But I ate them. I loved your lies, I made them my body. So maybe I was the monster.
Monsters love their labyrinths. And yes, I stayed and stayed.
I stood there with my window, aching for Johnny. I loved the way he fucked. I thought he probably told lots of girls that if he were a woman he would want to be them. It was a good line. Who wouldn’t say it again? I would say it again.
Suddenly there was his voice on the phone. I couldn’t remember it ringing. Everything that year was one unending string of sex and candy and talking, crying drunk kissing the clove sweetness of his lips and neck-
“Were you sleeping?” he said. From the way his voice sounded I could tell how close he held the phone to his ear.
“Can I come over? Just to lie next to you. I can’t sleep.”
“Aren’t you back out in the country?”
“I’m not going to do anything. I’ll just lie next to you. I’ll be quiet and you sleep.”
So he drove back, he came into my room and lay beside me, but there wasn’t enough blanket.
“It’s okay,” he said. Pushing his face into my breast, arms around me, he lay there whispering until he fell asleep. He smelled like Christmas and I slept with his beautiful long hair in my fingers. We fitted together. He thought it was all going to mean something.
Later that summer we were fighting. He knew I didn’t love him, that I couldn’t and that he couldn’t make me, but he loved me so much anyway it was eating his heart alive. Couldn’t I listen? Couldn’t I just listen for one second?
I stepped on one of the wasps. It stung me, but didn’t hurt me. I stood there, in the center of all Johnny’s throwing and screaming, staring at the bubbling red mark on my skin.
“It doesn’t hurt!” I said. “I can’t feel a fucking thing.”
The wasp was still alive, too, but Johnny stomped over and killed it. He said so many things to me but I couldn’t listen. I watched the dead wasp lay there untwisting on the rug.
Then I left, and I never came back. It was useless hanging around town trying to understand. You were never coming back and I would never understand. You were my place on earth. You were my everything. But now there is nothing to belong to. All there was to do is move, wash away. I let go. I went out with the tide.
N--, you are free. Your mind will never speak to me again.
Say it again, like someone in a bad movie. You want to be famous. You want to be famous. You want to be famous. Fine: a big house and a reality show and everybody watching. That will make it better. You believe that.
I have my labyrinth.
Excerpt from my journal, written after I pulled up 'Monster' and read it for the first time since-
man, maybe since I wrote the thing-
January 30th, 2015.
I do feel different about what happened then. I feel different about it now. I tell myself that it was my fault, and sometimes I believe this.
It was my first time for everything. I did not know how to be in a relationship, how to compromise. I often had crippling anxiety.
Today, I don't think anyone would describe me as shy. Although at parties I still prefer the intense one-on-ones in the corner.
Anyway. N was the kind of person who, when he told me there was another, took pictures of my reaction.
It was early in the morning. Winter morning? I was making us breakfast. He told me, and my first impulse was to leave our apartment, immediately, still naked and barefoot under my pale, fluffy blue bathrobe. (Where did it go, that robe? I must have thrown it away. The blood of my soul on it.)
But he insisted that I stay, “No, no, I’m telling you because I want to work it out-”
and inside I began to slide end over end as his explanations sank through me- the cliches- and I wanted to die, and I wept, and he pulled out his camera and started taking pictures of me crying. (An artist, after all, and we are cold-blooded things, sometimes.) He sang Under My Thumb.
But he was also the kind of person who, after we’d fight, he'd come over to my parents where I’d holed up, and he’d read to me, or he’d clean out my bathtub- giving himself a barcode- shaped scar on his back-
(and incidentally Andrew has the same-shaped scar, made in the exact same place; this is a story I’ve never mentioned to him)-
N scrubbed it out and climbed into bed and then it was the two of us again, against everything, like always. He was the kind of person who delighted in the smell of cut limes, in afternoons side by side in the bookstore, holding hands. I mean, we were kids.
Young artists, equally abusive to one another.
(Me: controlling, tyrannically shy. And him- well. Well. We all make mistakes.)
“An artist should never date another artist,” I said, afterwards, stricken, to another friend.
And my friend- an artist himself- looked at me as if I’d slapped him. "oh-"
Ahh- who was that girl who used to do things like that? Flirt outrageously with a friend and then grin and say, “Ah, but I’d never date you?” Haha, what a crazy bitch.
And yet, don't we all love those stories?
I think of O: how she waited to dump this one dude until he’d dropped her off at the airport, because she'd needed a ride there; how she dropped another right after he’d flown cross country to see her- she’d met someone else, more interesting, the day before-
’nah man, shoo-shoo, just go on back to where you came from’, I love those stories, honestly I do.
There’s something inside me thats a bit Miss Havisham. (Oh Dickens, how did you know?)
Anyway. N. This is not to say that I forgive you- but I do- I still talk to you in my head almost every day-
And when my brother died, you were the one I almost wrote to, except-
the words, the words, I just couldn't write the words. I wrote to G instead.
But it did seem to me that you should know. You always loved James. Remember? Remember how you always used to ruff his hair. Remember that time you were so angry at him for throwing rocks at cars? Ah, because we all grew up together- seven years-you were a part of my family.
And you'd wanted to cast him in Pyramid. Everything would have been so different. Our world would have been different. Or maybe not.
Maybe, in another world, we did cast him, and we made him feel special, and there, he is still alive. Oh, I don't know.
In this world, you and my dead brother are the two people I screwed up with the most, in uncountable and irredeemable ways.
Life is all too brief, and when it slips from your grasp, you want to know you always did the best you could.
Not that it matters. I’m kidding myself to think any of this matters. In that last moment, when our minds snap closed and fade to black: at the death of this dream we’re having, of each having been a person-
Ah... and then again, who are you now, anyway?
Maybe you've grown up to become something flat and fake and LA and vicious, a living joke from a Brett Easton Ellis novel, and not the boy I remember at all.
Its funny what in us ultimately devours the child we once were.
I was a wild, willful, angry young thing: now I'm a willful scribbly old thing.
A while back, reading the journals of Anais Nin, I noted how she was piqued when Henry Miller calmed down and began to focus so much, rather than living, as she put it.
But in the end, as an artist, you do the work.
Heh, and I have a full time job besides- without discipline I would be too tired to write at all. More often than not, I work late into night to get it all done. The gigs that pay, and the ones that don’t- but I've been bred for this, to eat, breathe and sleep the work.
My father is happiest in his work. When we were growing up, I knew he loved being with us, but at the same time I could always tell he was still slightly at odds, half-preferring instead to be making rounds at the hospital.
I believe he must think of his work the way a seal thinks of the sea. Wanting always to dissolve into it, to return, even as he knows unfathomable hunters wait in it, to exploit him from below.
Stress, the silent predator slipping through us.
What must it be like for him, to have had a stroke? Ah, my gentle father. When I am home, we go to the Nelson Atkins together, we walk around slowly (his bad leg) and nod at the paintings, smiling at the old friends we know, exclaiming over new acquisitions.
Ah, jesus, how will I go on when you aren't here on the earth with me any longer? Here on our earth,
lost in our separate seas- your medical world, and mine-
I need to call home more often.
Because my father and I, we are kindred souls. There’s a lovely quote somewhere about how maybe the best of friends are made from the same stardust, from way back, and when we find one another it is the sweetest recognition.
This summer I was telling that quote to Christopher- back when I could remember it- he’d made us kumquat martinis, he was showing me around his backyard pointing where he wanted to put in a fountain.
(“Oh, my Christopher!”
“Oh, my lady!”)
So last week I ordered Andrew and I two sets of juggling balls. (After listening to a great conversation about how striving for ambidexterity improves the brain, reduces stress, is fun, etc- )
I give Andrew the box from Amazon. I’d been babbling about my mysterious gift for a week now, managing somehow not to spill the beans on what, exactly, it was- which is rare for me, possibly a first-ever-
He opens the cardboard, and then the cannister, shakes the colorful balls out into his hand.
He laughs, surprised and pleased.
He tries them out- drops them- instantly catches the bug- now we’re throwing the balls around, probably going to break something any minute- grinning, jumping around. Definitely not juggling, by any stretch of the word, but its fun trying.
He stops and watches me flail around like a gleeful idiot.
“Baby, if you can juggle gracefully for two minutes…” He grins harder and laughs, can’t finish his sentence. “...I'll give you a surprise!” he says, smiling hugely, laughing and laughing. We keep throwing the balls around the kitchen, giggling. Catching each others eyes. Ah, my dear honey.
Ah, my man's smile. One of the best I’ve ever given him. It's inward and stunned at itself. Love.
Love is a river at night, love is a rising sun. Always coming back around.
It’s 4:30 in the morning, my roommate’s lover rolls out.
I hear him leave and pad out naked into the dark to check that he’s locked the door behind him- and he hasn’t-
-the burbling fishtank, the silent kitchen, everything blue in the dark-
“Moonlight. Her shadow flew over the room like a sweeping hand as she dipped to fluff her hair, still listening. The expectancy of silence. As if these rooms were waiting for something to happen. Their sudden, prickly closeness pressed in around her like cupped hands: where was he? Mary turned on the light.”
And now I can't sleep. I run from room to room in the house of my head, looking for a place where I can stop thinking. But each of the rooms- I’m dreaming now- has something off about it, until finally I’m in the garage of my parents’ old place on Alvamar. I slip into a sumptuous black town car- whose?- I’m cradled in its cool, soft black leather; sinking into deep sleep, into a final absence of thought.
Then there's a sudden, blistering awareness of the garage door being opened; I’m turning, there’s a trollish man leering there. Red-haired, with an anonymous, generically terrifying face. I’m simultaneously trying to cant myself back against the horn, to slam down the garage door opener, but my body is locked into slow gear. I jolt myself awake, whacking the lampshade so that Andrew flops over, groaning.
Then, as I waft about in unsleep, something whole comes to me. I write it down.
Is it cogent? I can't tell. I'm running on black coffee and chia seeds. Another month of this and my eyes will look like fried eggs.
Here’s the thought:
'My novel is Anne Rice's daughter, crazy in love with Neil Gaiman's black eyed kid, playing together on that spooky old piano in the field back of Clive Barker's place.'
Of course I start fidgeting with it, emailing myself various edits of the same silly sentence:
'My novel is Anne Rice's runaway daughter, who's crazy in love with Neil Gaiman's black-eyed kid; they're playing together on a spooky old piano somebody tossed in the field back of Clive Barker's place. Call it Southern Gothic.'
Hm. But maybe I can work it into my query somehow. Or maybe it is garbage. I really can’t tell. I'm a fried egg.
Ahhh…. but it comes to me now, who the man in my nightmare is.
This is why I write this, because everything knits together, sooner or later-
he’s the man from the soup kitchen in my hometown. I remember that I wrote a story with him in it once, and do a quick search through the old stories on my drive, using terms that I think will be in it.
And boom, there it is. Titled Separation, although I could have sworn I'd always called it The Lizard King. I wrote the thing a long time ago, and there’s bits of truth stitched in between the fiction, so its sort of like having a conversation with my 15-18 year old self. Maybe you'll like it, too. This seems like as good a place for it as any.
Separation, by Pauline West
He was basking in the sun, letting this girl pour herself all over him. She’d been buying him drinks all afternoon, but now he started singing to me from across the patio. He had a wonderful voice. And his eyes could charm the halo off any girl’s finger.
But I hardly reacted. You’d have thought beautiful older men sang to me every day. The thing was, I was there pretending to be a sophisticate--pretending to be glamorous, wearing an old dress out of my grandmother’s closet. It was a dive where the real artists went, and I wanted to make the right impression.
He came to sit with me. I let him stay. The way he moved and spoke made me think he was some kind of lounge lizard king, and I liked it. Before I left, he made me promise I would see him again. He wanted to show me his poetry, he said.
“I hate bad poetry,” I said.
“Are you trying to make me nervous?” he said.
“It’s working. You keep messing with your hair.” I reached out and smoothed it behind his ears.
We started seeing each other all the time.
“It doesn’t bother you that I’m fifteen?” I said.
“How old do you feel?”
“Twenty-two,” I lied.
But Tyler was twenty-eight or something. The truth was, I still felt like a kid. That’s why I wore my grandmother’s dresses. I wanted to learn how to be a woman, a real woman, like my grandmother. She was halfway famous once. When I was little she told me it was because her dresses were magic. “Black magic,” she said. “You can have them when you’re old enough.”
I believed in those dresses. They made me feel like her—mysterious and remote, carelessly elegant. But I wasn’t. I was only a girl, abstract, unfinished. No match for the lizard king.
We liked to sit on the bridge with our legs dangling and throw berries at traffic. We could never do it for long before somebody tried to come up after us, but that day we’d stayed longer than usual. He was teaching me how to smoke.
“No, no, you aren’t breathing in right. You have to breathe it into your belly, see, like this? And then hold it there.”
It burned. “I’m going to swoon,” I said.
“Swoon?” he said. “You read too many books. Come here.” He took a quick, sharp hit, and grabbed me. “Breathe in,” he said, and exhaled into my mouth. I sucked him in and held him there, staring at him while I did it. Something lit and flared at the end of my spine, making me tingle up and down. I glowed at him.
He smirked. “I feel like we just kissed.”
“Kiss me really,” I wanted to say, huskily, like an old-time movie star— but really I just sat there, staring.
He laughed, and helped me stand.
“Marlowe, Marlowe, Marlowe,” he said. “If I say it a fourth time, you’ll belong to me.”
But after that he was silent.
Our hands lingered; then he had to go away somewhere. I wandered home alone, high as a bat. I teetered at stoplights, waiting for the light to change, and men honked crazily.
I was seeing halos around all the streetlights and it got me thinking about how I used to believe in angels. For some reason I thought the Virgin Mary was my angel. I had dreams about her coming to me in my sleep and everything. Probably in some other age people would have thought I was some kind of shaman. But you learn to be secretive in Catholic school, at least if you've decided not to believe in all the parts that they teach, so I kept Mary my secret.
Stoned and alone in the dark, I tried to remember what it felt like to believe. I couldn't, and felt ashamed. Because I was the kind of girl who was still trying to see angels, or because I no longer could? You tell me.
Another night, Tyler and I were out walking. We’d spent all day together. Now it was dusk, lights were coming on in all the houses. People’s windows were open, and from the sidewalk we could hear inside--people setting their tables while their kids played. Televisions on in the background.
“Electric light takes away the mystery,” Tyler said. “Anytime we feel like it, we can just flick a switch and see what’s really there and what isn't.”
“Huh,” I said. He was always saying things like that, practicing how he sounded. He didn’t care very much what I thought because I was too young to really count. When he started talking like that, I’d just smooth down my dress and relax, letting his handsome voice trail all over me. I didn’t even need to listen to what he was saying. I felt like we were inside a beautiful painting. That was all I cared about.
“What do you think?” he said.
I looked at him.
“Well, I like to see things as they are,” I lied. “Not the ways I’d imagine them, if everything were dark.”
“I bet you’d believe in God if we didn’t have electricity.”
I shrugged. “He’s the best bedtime story I know.”
“Maybe you need a new bedtime story then.” We stood close together.
“Look, watch this,” he said.
He swept his hand in front of us, and just like that, all the lights in the city went out. He pressed against me in the warm dark.
“Do you believe in God now?” he whispered.
Shrieks and then laughter lifted around us--little kids running to get candles. Soon little dots of light showed behind the curtains of people’s living rooms.
“I love the smell of matches,” I said.
He came closer. I was aware of the warmth of the road as it drifted up beneath my dress. My grandmother’s perfume slipped out from the warm fabric and coiled behind my ears. Ask him to give you a bed-time story, it whispered.
“No,” I said.
He walked me home. He didn’t turn the lights back on, and I was glad. I was embarrassed. For all my bravado, even in my grandmother’s clothing, I still couldn’t figure out how to be a woman. What was my body supposed to do when it was kissed? I was aware of my posture, my movements, but I did not live inside those lines: my body was something separate from me. Where I was actually located, I didn’t know, but I knew that a kiss, a real kiss, required for me to meet him halfway, which I could not do.
I liked the idea of him, and the ideas I had of sex and forgetting, freedom—but suppose you did give yourself over, what if you lost yourself forever? I wanted to learn to live inside my body, live in the moment, but I was so terrified I’d be taken. You can’t ever really trust someone else, especially not with yourself. My secret self was safer where I kept it—in a place unknown even to me.
And Tyler could swallow women whole.
I’d seen him do it—women he introduced to me and then discarded, replaced—women who loved him, who gave themselves to him. They trusted him because he was beautiful. But he ate them whole like fruits, and threw them away. Each one of them probably thought she was going to be the one to change him, but he was insatiable.
I imagined his discarded women drifting like ghosts in the streets, Tyler turning the streetlights out after each of them, one by one. If you love somebody and they throw you away, you can never get over it. Part of your soul disappears, becomes a ghost. My mom was like that after my dad left. She was helpless, like a ghost. Grandmother had no sympathy for it. After a while she didn’t visit us anymore.
Maybe that was why I used to feel like the Virgin Mary was hanging around me all the time. I needed somebody. I’d feel the Virgin touching my back when I was asleep; I was aware of her still when I woke. The way I imagined her, she was very feathery and pale. I believed she was next to me all day, no matter if I was sucking dog kibbles or terrorizing my younger brothers. It was like some kind of secret superpower.
At our school we put on two masses a week. On Sundays, we had to go to a third mass, and afterwards my mom would volunteer us to work at the LINK kitchen, which was this free slop line for the homeless. You chopped up stuff and prepared it, and then you stood behind these big tables and doled it out to the bums. All kinds of them came through. Scary ones, junkies, drunks. Once time there were a bunch of hippies. You didn’t see a lot of those in Kansas. They all walked like they were dancing, and their eyes were shining, some of them were even singing. I told one of the younger guys that his scarf was very beautiful.
He didn’t miss a beat. He dashed it off and tied it around my own neck so that I looked like some kind of Parisian. I couldn’t believe it. The scarf was black silk with red and orange tie-dye. I’d never met somebody who just gave people things, and all I could do was look at him with this big stupid grin.
“Wear it in health, girl,” he told me. I looked for him after we were done serving but I never did see him again.
Mostly it was scary there, but when I felt the Virgin’s hands on me, I could do anything. The hungry people would smile or cough, their mouths were black with desperation—a lot of the time my brothers ducked under the table and hid when someone really creepy came through, but because of the Virgin, I could take up their ladles and serve for them, too.
We could have hidden upstairs in the church, but we didn’t think that way then. That’s the funny part about being a kid—you haven’t figured out how to protect yourself yet. We figured we were stuck there until mom came back, and that was that.
Anyway, one Sunday we were really busy, and I had to go into the outer room for some reason, I think to get more bread. They kept the bread in the room where the bums ate so that if any of them wanted to take a bag home they could take it without needing to ask. As I walked out into this room, a little redheaded man grabbed me. He and I were smaller than everyone else, standing well beneath the sight line of the crowd.
We were the same size, but he was old. He put his face right up to mine. It was terrifyingly blank, emotionless, something from a nightmare. I’d seen him before—a lot of places downtown gave him free coffee and food, like he was some kind of mascot, but now he clamped his hand over my face and started to drag me to the men’s room. He hobbled; one of his feet was clubbed. I saw everything like it was happening from far away, in slow motion, like a dream.
I screamed and screamed, but only inside. My angel had vanished. I felt like one of those baby gazelles you see when the crocodile has it by the neck and the gazelle understands that it will die, but then somehow my mom came from out of nowhere and grabbed me back. She hustled me away from him, and as soon as we were alone she shook her finger in my face.
“Nothing happened,” she said. “Do you hear me? Nothing ever happened, nothing ever happened.” She stood next to me the rest of the afternoon until I’d finished my shift, and then she never took us there again. We didn’t talk about it either. I forgot about my angel Mary. I wore the black silk scarf all the time.
A couple years later I took to wearing the scarf wrapped around my hair, always with these big gypsy earrings. I still religiously wore my grandmother’s magic dresses, even though I’d worn them ratty by then. I was seventeen, and I believed in Jack Kerouac, too, besides her dresses. A fraying black ball-gown seemed like something he would have liked, and I didn’t feel right wearing anything else.
I also had this idea that I needed to get away from the ordinary, safe little life my mother craved, and was always trying to create with her new boyfriends. After a particularly bad day at home, I decided I should see the world instead. Tyler would take me, I figured. We’d been in and out of touch, but when I called him the first thing I said was, “Remember how you told me anytime I needed you, you would come and get me?”
“Yes,” he said.
If he didn’t recognize me right away, he played it off beautifully. And his voice, oh his voice, it was more wonderful than ever. Low and intimate. There were some people at our old bar who called him the Radio, because he was such easy listening. I loved the nights he brought me to parties and I could fall asleep on sofas beside him, his voice slipping into my dreams.
“Where are you?” he said, sounding like he was already right next to me.
“I’m under the tree,” I said, knowing he’d remember the one that I meant.
It was an old tree, easy to climb; we used to climb up into it sometimes instead of going for a walk. I waited for him a long time, day-dreaming about skittering all over the world with the lizard king.
And suddenly he was there.
He was nothing like I’d remembered. His voice didn’t match him anymore—he was skinny and dirty, he was broke, he’d stopped writing (“everything’s been said, anyway,”), and the ponytail I loved was gone.
But I decided to believe that these things were what made him a true poet. He was too pure to care about the conventional trappings of success and competence. We took off in his car, a little hatchback.
He squeezed my thigh, a little shyly. “Watch this,” he said. He waved his hands, and all the stoplights flickered out.
“Seen it,” I said.
Still, it was nice: driving all the way out into the country without having to stop once.
We camped three days. The plan was that we’d live on fish and flowers, but that didn’t work out, so we were always going back to town to get donuts or pizzas out of the dumpsters. Tyler knew all the places.
“I live outside the system,” he said, pulling out a spotless long john. “See? Live free or die. None of that J-O-B stuff, not for me.”
But all the time he was watching me carefully, like he was worried I didn’t believe him. He took a huge bite of the donut. I noticed the skin under his neck had become loose, deflated, like an iguana’s, and all I could think of was that old Peggy Lee song—“Is That All There Is?” I thought we were going on this great adventure, but instead I’d just become another bum. I wondered if this was how that redheaded man fed himself, too.
I was still a virgin and wanted to wait, although I didn’t understand why. Catholic school gives you these knee jerk responses.
“No,” you hear yourself saying, to everything: “no, no, no.”
Tyler said he understood. At night he just kissed me and held me, even though I knew he thought I owed it to him. He’d grind on me from behind, kind of softly, hoping I wouldn’t notice, and this made my heart turn cold.
I started to hate him.
It was only when he went into the trees to take care of himself that I’d think anything nice about him at all. Maybe we were spending too much time together, I don’t know. But I couldn’t think of anywhere else I wanted to be, except inside a book. I wondered if I would have felt different with a real artist, maybe, instead of somebody who just looked like one, talked about being one.
“We should go,” I said, on the third day. “My parents will have called the police.”
“They don’t know about me, though, do they?”
I chewed on my thumbnail. “I forgot my journal,” I said.
So we drove all day and night to Monahans, Texas, where just about everybody is hiding from something, and they know better than to ask you any questions. We got ourselves jobs at a steakhouse. Everybody there stole food all the time, so we always had enough to eat.
We skipped out on rent all over town for months before anybody caught on. Our last night there, with nowhere left to go, we hiked into the sand dunes and went wandering deep into the shifting landscape. Oil pumps heaved up and down under the moon like they were kneading something shameful back into the ground. Scorpions scuttled all over the place.
“Put on your shoes,” Tyler said. Things had changed between us. His voice was bright and hard and flashed in the air.
“No,” I said. “I don’t need to.” Even after my feet started bleeding, I wouldn’t put on my shoes. Everything was fine.
Finally the sun roared up on the horizon, and Tyler said he thought he’d go to Mexico. The way he said it, I knew that I wasn’t invited, even though by now he’d said my name plenty of times.
It didn’t count unless you said it four times in a row, though. “Tyler, Tyler, Tyler.” I said. “Tyler.” He looked beautiful all of a sudden, with the sun coming up behind him. I felt bad how things were turning out. Also he’d seen me grow up, and I knew that little-girl part of me was going to go with him the moment he left.
“Okay,” he said.
“Listen,” I said.
Someone had tipped me with a little vintage watch on my last day at the steakhouse, and I’d kept it in my pocket. It was the kind you could hear ticking.
Tyler didn’t wear watches because they always stopped when they touched his skin. He was the kind of person who could have turned everything off in the world if he wanted to, but I guess he was afraid. Neither of us was quite all the way shaman. I bet you my grandmother was, though.
He listened to the watch’s polite ticking and smiled. The watch had a picture of a penguin inside, and the man who gave it to me had taught me the word “penguid,” for somebody fat who waddles when they walk.
“It’s for you,” I said. I strapped it to him and listened to the watch’s heart drop silent. “Don’t forget about me.”
“What will you do now?” he said.
I was as surprised as he was when I heard myself say, “I guess I’ll go to college.”
“Oh, honey,” he said, and that meant something, because he'd always called me Marlowe.
But I wouldn’t let him kiss me goodbye. I saluted him and went off in the opposite direction. I didn’t look back until I was so far away I knew he couldn’t see me, and then I sat down and cried. You might think two near-shamans might have made a whole person between the two of them, but you’d be wrong.
Now there was even less of me than when we started. My body felt different. There was less of me for the sand and the wind to push against. But instead of blowing back into the desert, it was easier to slip away.
Sometimes I dream that the little man comes back and gets me. I dream that my mother never shows up to save me, and the man takes me down with him, all the way to the darkness. But the Virgin follows me down. She stays beside me the whole time, feeding me dreams within dreams, so that I look the other way and my heart stays safe.
I wonder about what I remember. Maybe it didn’t happen that way—maybe I just wish it did. I’ve asked my brothers about it. They don’t remember our mother ever coming into LINK to pick us up, much less working beside me on the line. So I wonder if time has scabbed across the truth, and it is hidden inside me where I cannot get at it—black under the skin, like a broken blade, my body healed tight around it.
My family has a bonfire every November. We come from all over. My brothers and aunts and uncles, all the cousins. There’s a lot of us. The fire is for brush, but sometimes we also burn old chairs, bad photographs, or court summons. When my grandmother was alive, she threw all her rings in, and the fire burned blue for hours.
I hadn’t been to the bonfire for a long time, but a few years after Tyler left me for Mexico, I decided to show up. My family and I were strangers to each other by then, but they were surprised and happy to see me. They let me stand in their circle to watch them burn up their pasts. We ate gumbo and they sang songs and asked what had happened to my pretty dresses. They seemed pleased that I was in school, and it was nice to see my brothers again, although there wasn’t much to say. Nobody knew where our mother was. I guess I wouldn’t have known what to say to her either.
After a while, I walked back to my car. I had parked a long ways off in the dark. I couldn’t see well. The fields waved in slow currents and it was like crossing a river at night. The world stretched out wide and dark, but I wasn’t afraid. It occurred to me that I was part of it. I was part of everything all around me.
I belonged to it—the prairie, the darkness. Even to my family behind me, huddled around their vanishing pasts. And this vastness, it belonged to me, too: my grandmother’s magic, still alive in her dresses; my mother’s lost ghosts and her angels—I could even feel Tyler somewhere inside me, too, very small as he went across the desert, looking for the place that would love him.
I hoped he would find it.
This is a wild soul-book