A Chinese Folktale by Mei Chin

BOMB 91 Spring 2005
091 Spring 2005 1024X1024

(A Chinese Folktale)

Boy is sitting by himself one night when girl—very beautiful and dressed in green—comes in through the window. They drink. He smolders. She darts her eyes. Suddenly bold, he wraps his hands around her waist and kisses her. Though they’ve only known each other for 20 minutes, they tumble into bed. In the morning, she departs through same window without leaving a name, a number, or an address. He’s heartbroken. But come nightfall, she’s back again, leaves without a word the next morning, and in this fashion they manage to pass an agreeable few weeks. Finally, one morning, when she’s getting ready to leave, she shivers and says, “I sense danger. In fact, I think I’m going to die.” He’s surprised, but shrugs it off. “Goodbye, my darling,” the girl says as she departs. “This may have been our last night.” A few seconds later, there’s a cry. Boy rushes outside but all he can find is a spiderweb with a tiny green moth trapped in the threads and a spider getting ready to sup. He slaps the spider and frees the moth, which he takes inside to let recover on his desk. Finally, it stirs its wings, trots out “Thanks” on the tabletop and flies off. Boy goes back to sleep with a sigh. He never sees girl again. Summer fling is at an end.

Oh well, boy figures, there are worse ways to break up.

 

It is definitely his least favorite season. Summer means bugs and bugs suck. Will is a hard-bodied, hard-bellied type of guy with blood vessels running up and down like wires. He doesn’t consider himself a squeamish person, per se, but he hates bugs. In order to keep them away he armors his apartment with double-barreled locks, airtight windows and screens that he changes twice a year, bitten as he is by an anxiety of leaks so tiny that he can’t see them.

Will blames it on his older brother. Tim was the type who would pinch the skin that a mosquito was biting, and hold it there until the bug popped with a bright splat. He used to ravish ant hills with a twig and broil the fleeing inhabitants with his magnifying glass; and if Will was around, which he often was, the survivors would scramble up his delectable, then-four-year-old, freckled bread-dough legs and send tiny shocks. There were always several that had managed to find their way into his armpits, underneath his collar or even in the crevices between his teeth. Tim used to roll up rose leaves, too, and press lit matches to the beetles he found on their underbelly. More than once, Will knew the imprint of a slug that Tim had dehydrated with salt, speared and flicked inside his shirt.

Years later, Tim died of glandular fever and Will, now 23, still scolds himself for remembering Tim by his bugs. Meanwhile, Will keeps the windows closed, breathes in the air that is manufactured by a machine operated by dials. Bugs are unnatural. They are slick and brittle, and they never blink, they never breathe. (For the same reason, he dislikes fish, but without quite the same intensity.) Though they are always around, they peak in the summer, which is why Will despises this season particularly. By mid-May, he’s sensing the encroaching infestation, he feels the atmosphere grow swampier with little, noisy lives. Will can identify most insects by their sound. The zip of flies, the squeal of mosquitoes, the whisper of moths committing suicide against his screens. The scuttle—ugh!—of centipedes. You go outside and it is infested with the complaints of crickets. Will even hates ladybugs. He hates butterflies.

And he hates dead bugs. When Will first moves into his apartment, the first thing to confront him is the four-inch corpse of a grasshopper. It is so unalive and polished and delicate it looks like one of those carvings in semiprecious stone, and in its near proximity to an object that is aesthetically pleasurable, it makes Will even sicker than if he’d found a hive of bees. Everywhere, there are the bodies of pill-bugs in the corners with the dust and the cardboard crumbs, curled like baby’s fists, with their waffled armor and their frozen little legs. He sweeps them up standing as far away as possible and hurts his back chasing each one into a dustpan. The first day in that apartment is hell. He wears socks and doesn’t touch the floor or walls. It is days before he can bear to sit down.

But killing insects, in Will’s mind, is the worst. As much as he hates them, he lets them stay alive, if only to avoid the crick and the crack of an exoskeleton breaking and the unhealthy green and purple smears. Then there were moths and butterflies—ugh!—who didn’t crick or crack but rather dissolved. Will remembers the one occasion in his life he was unfortunate enough to kill a butterfly. It was during a particularly lively conversation; his hand came down for emphasis and a swallowtail got caught in its path. Will knows that he was not the only one who was horrified, he’d heard the gasps. The once leaping thing reduced to a heap of powders, like dried-out watercolors, brightly clashing, in the middle of which there was a broken thorax that still pulsed. He’d scrubbed himself for days, as if the dust of dead butterfly wing had colonized in the whorls of his skin.

Will tries traps. He tries sprays. But every now and then, something crawls, bats or perhaps pushes its way in through the network of pipes that connects him to the outside. Thank god he lives alone. There is no dignity in flapping your hands behind a single bluebottle in an effort to escort it out the door, as Will has often done. He has also run five minutes’ worth of water on the baby beetle that has found its way into his bathroom sink, enough, probably, to harangue a good-sized gerbil down the drain. His apartment is stockpiled with Kleenex and plastic cups and spray bottles in anticipation of an unexpected event.

For the past month, he has stayed at home. Will finds that he doesn’t miss the life that he’s left behind. Not the restaurants, with their kitchens that crawl, not the asphyxiation of bars or the guffaw of company. Nor does he miss the sunshine, or the feel of the wind at twilight. Only in the rain does he really venture out, when all life in the air is hosed away and the city streets are wiped clean. And solitude suits him. In this vein, he finds himself being an uninviting host, a neglectful friend and correspondent. Every evening, when he clicks the three bolts on his door in place, he finds that there they will remain. He looks past people when they speak, and waits for others to make conversation. One day, some friends drop by unexpectedly.

“Sorry,” one of them says. Will’s behavior of late has made them naturally apologetic. “We just needed to get out of the rain.” And gestures to where there is a storm in progress.

“Well, I’m going for a walk,” Will says and leaves them with a chunk of salami, no crackers, no knife, no explanation, and half a bottle of blended scotch, staring helplessly through the window at 35-mile-per-hour sheets of water. His guests rip off chunks of the salami with their fingers and chew. When Will comes back waterlogged and wordless, the storm is over and his guests have no choice but to leave.

Eventually, telephone calls and invitations dwindle. “I have so much work to do,” he protests. “Leave me alone.” Indeed, his tables are stacked with volumes and notebooks and dictionaries and pencils lined like a picket fence, all in the quest for some project or another (or perhaps Will has decided that he should go back to school), but mostly, he reads—suspense novels, lurid fright fables about the end of the world, cookbooks—while scribbling circles on his notebook. From 8:00 to 10:00, he keeps all the lights on, but after ten o’clock, there is just the one, a lamp on his desk beaming halo-like.

Every now and then his arm itches, but it is always from an imagined gnat. The sound of his artificial climate smothers the outdoor sounds with its plastic purr. Moths continue to splash themselves against the shields of wire and glass he sets out; flies make love on his window sill; on every crevice in his building’s facade are spotted honeybees, Viceroys and aphids, both alive and dead. Then one night she comes to him, through the window and wrapped in a towel. The first knock—a snapping tenor sound of a wire screen being twanged—he doesn’t hear, nor the second, but the third makes him turn. She isn’t wearing anything else, but it is the palest, coldest green, from cotton that has been shipped from a hot country and woven so thick that it is almost velvet. He blinks. He snaps the window lock, slides the screen open and lets her in. She brushes past him, lifting one leg chastely over the sill before sliding the other one over.

She is beautiful.

Though it seems as though she has just taken a shower, her skin is paper-dry. Like crystal, like tissue. Like the interlocking, glass-clear cells of a petal.

He thinks of that strain of Dutch—or is it Japanese?—roses, the ones that start as ink-purple buds but unfurl into soft jade stars.

“I got locked out on my balcony,” she explains. Her voice is a flutter, the wind from a fan. “So I climbed into yours.” With one glance, she takes in Will’s notebooks and pencils and remarks, “You must work hard.”

He stammers. “But what were you doing out?”

“The night was just so nice, you know? Sometimes I do that, get out of the shower and let the air dry me.” In a flash, he pictures her damp and stirring in the faint, June cool. “Pretty silly, I guess. But the night air, my skin, it’s so … well …”

He nods. It is, in fact, a dishonest nod; the idea of the night air in summer makes him retch. But on her, the night air seems so clean.

“So the window went bang with the wind and now I’m locked out.”

“I see.”

“So I saw your light and wondered whether I could use you to get back into the hall. I’m your neighbor, by the way. Hi.”

“Sure, sure. But, I mean, surely, you don’t have your keys …”

“Oh, no, that’s not a problem.” She smiles at him, astonishingly. “I never lock my door.”

He goes to the door and sheepishly undoes his own three bolts, feeling very much the fussy old man who locks himself away from imaginary danger.

“Look,” he says and shuts the door. “You can’t go. I mean … what an introduction! You have to stay and have a drink.”

She gestures at herself. “Like this?”

He tries to look nonchalant. “Sure, why not? You were fine going out like that, weren’t you?”

She pauses. “Okay. What do you have?”

Another embarrassment. He hasn’t entertained in so long. There is some beer in the fridge, and some cider. And an empty bottle of vermouth, and a crusted-over bottle of schnapps.

There is one chair in the apartment. It is amazing, however, the way she arranges herself on it so naturally, and just in a towel. It smirks and settles with her body, revealing nothing. He lingers by the kitchen, stunned by her grace.

“So serve me,” she says.

“Beer?”

She shakes her head. “I don’t drink beer.”

“It’s either that, cider or um … well, there’s this stuff that someone gave me ages ago, I think it’s schnapps.”

She frowns. “I’ll try the cider. I’ve never had that.”

He uncaps it in the living room. Still frowning, she takes it from him. Her nose crinkles. She sniffs at it, keeping a distance. The bottle she holds like porcelain. Finally, she sips.

“Mmm.”

“You don’t like it.”

“I think … I think I might have to have that other thing, foul as that sounds.”

“It’s even fouler. It’s not cold.”

“That’s okay, I guess.”

He takes her cider. She drinks the schnapps dutifully, knocking back three glasses rapidly and wiping her mouth each time. She is so still, so thoughtful, it is the first time Will is anxious to talk.

“So what do you do?” he asks her. “How long have you lived here?”

“Mmm.”

Another glass tips into her mouth. And then she smiles, and begins to glow.

They talk until 3:00. Will doesn’t even remember about what. She gestures as she speaks, like she is braiding fistfuls of air with her fingers. But by the end of it he still doesn’t know anything about her: what she does for a living (social worker? student? secretary?), whether her parents are divorced, how long she’s lived in the building, in their town. Not even, he realizes with a start, her name. Her conversation is like foam, like warm breath in frost, it buds and takes color and tickles, and then scurries away in a puff. Nevertheless, it is entrancing. It keeps Will tacked to his one bottle of cider (and like her, he doesn’t even like cider), so hypnotized he doesn’t go to the kitchen to fetch another. Maybe he is just watching her mouth move. And then she stops mid-paragraph and meets his stare.

“Well,” she says.

He is amazed. Even more at himself when he gets up from the bed, comes toward her and unknots her towel with a yank.

She tastes spicy, like cheap candy, and in the evening light her teeth are flecked with gold. Sex with her is like her conversation, like dry leaves. Tickling, teasing, forgettable. He stumbles out of it when she is just asleep and is unsure what has happened.

Nothing, he realizes with a shock, about this girl stays. What is it that she says about herself? She likes Brahms, she likes strawberries. She likes spending time with her friends and she likes being alone. In short, she’s an unoriginal. The clutch of the quilt beneath his back is a relief—it is so much more secure than the figure next to him, who breathes ripples on the sheets as she sleeps. He settles into the mattress, no, against the mattress, like a spring.

She is so light. Though she falls asleep with her head in his belly, she moves during the night so that when he next awakens (he sleeps badly, very badly) it is just the tips of her hair on his shoulder. And he hasn’t noticed. He wonders whether her bones are hollow like a bird’s.

When it is still dark, she makes to slip out the window.

“Hang on,” he reminds her, “you can’t get into your place from there. Remember?”

She looks startled to see him awake. “Wait,” he says, “I’ll see you out.”

He unfastens the door for her and watches her leave. She hovers in the hallway, uneasy. They’ve just replaced all the light bulbs and the vista before them is brash.

“It’s so,” she shudders, “so sinister. I hate this building sometimes.”

He is still sleepy and hence thoughtless. “Can’t imagine why you haven’t got used to it by now.”

“I just moved here,” she points out. “I told you that last night.” (He could swear she didn’t.) “Bye.”

She presses his cheek, one-night-stand dismissive. In a glimmer, she is gone. Since she was so barely there in the first place, he is happy when she leaves, and looks forward to the two more hours of sleep ahead. Just as he settles himself in, he misses her, promptly. Instead of sleeping, he fidgets for that near-absence of her.

In the morning he looks for her traces, but it is as if she hasn’t been there that night at all. In Will’s experience, when a girl spends the night, she touches things and moves them around, and the next morning, the apartment will be crooked with an unfamiliar presence. There might be a dampness in the bathroom from an over-long, over-hot shower, a smell of brine and perfume and beer. The stereo won’t be switched off. Sometimes a hand is printed in the glass coffee table. But not with this girl. She hasn’t permeated a thing, not a crush in the seat cushion nor a crease in the bathroom towels. Even his pillows are where they usually are. So Will waits to wash her glass. Leaves it on the table for hours as a reminder. Only in the afternoon does he have the determination to cap the schnapps, rinse out the glass, and wipe her out entirely.

Will’s best friend Ed calls. Ed is Will’s remaining link to the world this summer and he telephones every day. Lifeless, well-meaning Ed, whom Will tolerates, who, with his fierce girlfriend, has always depended upon Will for his stories, because when Will isn’t running away from bugs, he fancies himself quite the knave. But during their conversation, Will forgets to mention last night’s adventure. “Shit!” Will curses out loud when he hangs up. Certainly, it is a delicious little conversation piece. Like the time when he pretended to be deaf and seduced a middle-aged businesswoman. A twist from the got-her-number-at-that-bar-on-Sunday-took-her-out-to-dinner-on-Thursday routine. This is “Guess what, a girl slid through my window in a towel!” It’s a trifle on the uncreative side, perhaps, but we all want to duplicate our most vanilla, 12-year-old fantasies, and, well, this is a tasty cliché that has materialized without any trying.

Rapidly, he calls Ed back. Oh, and makes it the night before last, so Ed won’t wonder why he’s forgotten to mention it in the first place. Of course, he exaggerates about the sex.

Not that he isn’t glad when she comes back that night. This time he hears her scratch the window the first time. She lingers in the open window, towel puckered against dry skin, carrying a bottle, legs still demurely tucked over the sill. In his mind, he sees thousands of tiny, wriggling things crowding into his air-conditioned air.

Finally, he says, trying to make his voice easy, “Well, are you coming or going?”

“Coming.” She hesitates. “I think.”

He frowns at her. “Don’t you have clothes?”

“I just got showered. It’s like—undress, shower, get dressed, only to undress again? I thought to myself, why bother? It made things so simple the last time. And it’s easier on you, besides. To take off, I mean.”

For that instant, he loves her. At last, there is a glimpse of something natural, no-nonsense, carve-to-the-core-of-the-matter-at-hand. She smiles, remembering. “I brought something to drink. I didn’t really like the stuff last night. Also a thank you for letting me in.”

He uncorks it. The wine is translucent, like unclouded honey, and tastes of dry marigolds.

This time, they don’t talk much, they just sip. Eventually, she unties her towel herself. It is then that he notices her bruises, decorating one thigh, her two right ribs and the gap underneath her earlobe like bright blue stains.

“Hey, what did you do to yourself?” he asks.

“Oh, that,” she says. “I fell.”

She is more energetic that night. Though she is still silent and tissue-weight, she pummels him with her limbs, she flails, she nips.

At three o’clock they finish the wine.

By morning, she is gone again, through the window.

“I kept my window open.”

Even though he isn’t coherent, he is awake enough to shiver at the thought of her windows … being open … all night.

“You really don’t like that hallway, do you?”

“I prefer the window.”

He is too exhausted to argue.

The third time she comes back, he isn’t surprised.

In certain respects it is ideal. He doesn’t cook for her, he doesn’t take her out, all he has to do is furnish her with a bottle of something light and mildly sweet to drink. Several things annoy him, however. She doesn’t seem to be interested in him, outside of the five hours they spend together every night. She never calls him, she never drops by during the day. Neither does she give him her telephone number or even the number of her apartment. Her anonymity nags him, to the point where the nothing- activities with which he fills his days cease to be pleasant.

Finally he braces himself to bear the front stoop, and the list of inhabitants tacked outside. The time of day is noon, and it has just rained so the bugs are at a minimum. He glances up and down the street and finds it empty. So he studies the list and decides that her name is Lastrad (appropriately pristine and stagey, it fits) and that she lives in 3E.

Ed’s girlfriend, Emily, slams the door two doors down. She is dragging out the garbage in her usual manner—that is, curtly—and greets him with a short wave. Damn. He must have been standing in front of his own door for quite a while.

“Hey,” shouts Emily. She crosses the street. “You’re out. I have to tell Ed. When are we ever going to see you?”

“As soon as this hellish summer is over.”

“So are you still seeing that girl?”

“Which one?” Will is annoyed at being discovered gaping on his own front steps like an idiot at his best friend’s indiscretion.

Emily gives a swing of her hair. “Oh I don’t know. We lose track. But you’re seeing someone, right?”

Will raises his shoulders abruptly.

“Well, maybe, one of these days, if you can be bothered, you can actually come out and see us, and bring her.”

Oh well, he shrugs. Emily has such a staggering walk, not very pretty; a strut like a man. He flicks at his neck and goes back to Miss Lastrade. In fact, Miss Lastrade is quite selfish. What is she doing dropping in every night with the assumption that he’d be home? What if he had plans? What if he doesn’t want to see her? What if he has company? She leaves him no way of letting her know, and just relies on the notion that every night he will wait for her alone.

That night, he meets some friends at a bar (they are surprised, for it is Will who suggests it) and doesn’t get home until seven the next morning. She leaves no note. And the next night, she doesn’t mention it, she’s her meditatively smiling self, though he notes with some thrill, a new hurt (old ivory, rather than the new that is the hue of her skin) on her cheek—a change, at least.

There is the way she is when she wakes up, quitting him as easily as a light breakfast. No kiss. Not even a “see you tonight.” He is lucky to get the brush of her hand, for sometimes she doesn’t even bother, in which case Will feigns sleep. Many is the time he is tempted to stop her as she is about to leave, to force her into going through usual milky, early morning murmurs. You know, the conventional lover stuff, exchanging closed-lipped kisses and sections of the newspaper over coffee. One morning, he sees her standing with her towel and her hair miraculously slick and thinks that unlike any other girl first thing in the morning, her skin might taste like peeled wood.

At first, it was easy to talk about her. “You know,” he’d said that night at the bar, “fuckgirl.” And the guys laughed and thought him pretty hip for being able to get laid without leaving the house. And by a name-free, demand-free chick at that; one that was in the building but who liked her space. “Lazy glutton’s dream,” he’d boasted, “Perfect.” But now, he can’t discuss her with anyone, not even with Ed, because frankly, the relationship is looking rather peculiar. Certainly his apartment doesn’t look like there’s been a woman there. There are no delicately toed shoes in the closet, no stray lipsticks, no lingerie tangled in his laundry. In fact, she has no clothes to leave behind (she still wears the same towel from the night they met) and she takes her smell and even the finished bottle of wine with her when she leaves. He can’t complain about her because they never quarrel. Above all, he still doesn’t know her name. Maybe she’s told him and he’s forgotten. In any case, it’s too late to ask now. At this point, the guys, even Ed—this makes him paranoid, he’s known this would happen—have to be thinking he’s making her up. No one’s met her, this faultless, painless, nameless girl. He can imagine Ed and their buddies, clucking, “Poor Will. He really should get out more.”

Also, she has a habit of sitting on the windowsill for longer than necessary. The window will be wide open, a gaping hole that leaves his apartment exposed to the clamoring, chattering night—a pearl of matte gray, matte white and high polish—fussy, civilized, and very vulnerable.

Between the two of them, it’s become a routine.

“Are you coming or going?” he’d say.

“Coming,” she’d smile. And hover on the windowsill for a moment longer than the night before.

One night he snaps. “You’re letting the air conditioning get out.”

She widens her eyes. “It’s 60 degrees outside, for goodness sake. Just open a window.”

That’s it. She likes her night air too much. She even suggests that they go outside and soak it up—”bathe in it,” she says—together. This he vetoes with alacrity.

It also strikes him that she is as restless as he, if not more so. Often, he wakes up to the sound of her feet flitting across the floor, doing God knows what.

 

She sleeps without a sheet. Her limbs, her throat, her eyelids are carved from the moon, shining from their own light, and when he studies her, he does so with caution because it’s not safe to look closely at something with that much sheen. She is covered with tiny tears, burns and swells—rips welded hastily shut, dots of hot discoloration.

One night, he decides to wake her. “How did you get this?” he asks, pointing to her body. “And this, and this?”

“You sound like a dad,” she yawns, her face swamped in his pillow. “I’m a klutz. I run into things.” Now, Will had dated his share of girls who’d scratch themselves open with razors and say they’d cut themselves shaving. He questions her until she confesses.

“Okay, okay, so I get self-destructive. Not often.”

All things considered, that isn’t too bad. With all the freaks in this town, so what if she cradles the odd cigarette butt between her thighs? Or plays etch-a-sketch on her arms with the occasional blade? At least she knows what she’s doing. Her scars are slight and will go away. He minds more the opened windows and her late-night scuttling (sometimes as late as 4:00 AM, the pop of the refrigerator door, the squeak of a light twisted on and then off).

Though it’s almost midnight, there is a knock on the door. He shoots up, bundles a bathrobe around his torso and answers it, swearing.

It’s Emily and her roommate Allison.

“You sleeping?” This is Emily. Her eyes reflect nothing. “Ed said for sure you’d be awake.”

Allison interrupts. “Ed sent us over. He wants to know whether you can do dinner on Wednesday.”

Will snaps, “Why didn’t he call?”

“Allison didn’t pay the phone bill again,” Emily explains. “We won’t have service for three days.”

Then Allison sees the girl on the bed. Her face slips.

Will wonders if she’s ever fancied him.

The girl smiles, unruffled. One hand creeps out from underneath the pillow.

“Hello,” she murmurs.

Allison waves, weakly. “Hi.” Then she’s assertive again. “Well?”

Will, at first, is annoyed. And then the relief bolts into him. Someone has seen her. They know she exists.

“Sure,” he says. “I’m up for it. Why not?”

Allison nudges him. “You should get out more. We miss you.”

Emily smiles, bland as butter cake.

Back in bed. “Do you want to come?” he asks her.

The girl shrugs. Her shoulder bones spread and then close, like a creature shivering dry its wings.

That morning she shudders as she wakes and switches on the light, slapping the lampshade with the back of the hand as she does so. She has never turned on the light before. She is usually too considerate. Will, who has been lying on his back, is assaulted by a flood of orange. He opens his eyes and then thinks better of it.

“Shit.”

“What’s wrong?” he yawns.

She bunches the towel around her and peers through the window. Will wraps his face in the sheets.

“Just a feeling. Bad. I don’t know. Something’s not right.”

“Mm. Headache? Stomach?” One of his hands shoots out and grapples with the lamp. It shuts off, miraculously. She pays no attention.

“No.”

“Throat?”

She paces in front of the bed and stops, suddenly, to kiss him. We’ve already said how she’s never kissed him in the morning. It surprises him. How tasteless her mouth is, how like air.

“I don’t know. Ever get these days in which you feel like you’re going to die?”

With a sigh, Will turns over. “No, I don’t.” I suppose, he thinks, I owe her something for the kiss, so he shrugs on the sheet and wears it to the window like a shawl. “I’ll see you out.”

She gazes out the window and rattles the glass. “Maybe I won’t use the balcony.”

“Use the door then. Most people do.”

Her hand shakes. “No thanks.” That frown of hers, which always makes him charmed. “I guess this is okay.”

He is just squeezing the window back into place when he hears her scream. As he vaults out, he thinks that she has finally decided to progress things between them. The morbid morning chit-chat, the kiss and now this—pleas, all of them, albeit theatrical, for increased understanding—and he’s furious at himself for being too sleepy to pick up on it before. Will grins and calls out hello. Maybe today he’d get to see where she lives, what she looks like at ten o’clock in the morning, maybe they would finally have that communal cup of coffee.

There is no reply, and the dawn air is alive. It seethes against his skin, pecking, pressing, little legs and wings. He grits his teeth. This had better be serious, he thinks. Never before has he been out here, and he is not enjoying it.

Will climbs over his railing, tiptoes onto the neighboring balcony and swings his way across the entire length of the building. Furious, he taps on dark windows. He even looks down below in case she’s jumped, but there are only six floors between him and the ground.

He’s back on his own balcony, trailing his sheet like a frantic queen.

Oh, for Christ’s sake, he can’t even call her name.

Something creeps against his leg. A spider’s web. He almost weeps from the sudden, sick shock. This is a small web, though, with a modest, mouse-colored spider. In theory, he has nothing against spiders. They revolt him, of course, but at least they are on his side. This spider has company; it is tiny and jumpy and pale green with wings. The spider moves closer. Will watches because he is afraid to move, but even he has to admire the elegance with which the spider disposes of its anemic looking guest, slinging silk over its abdomen and quieting it with one flicker. No mess, no crunch.

Unfortunately, he has left his window open. Wide open. For little six-legged whirs to invade his polished, precious fortress. Shit, he is going to kill her.

 

But he never sees her again. In the meantime, a crawling sensation has settled over his place, a permanent, animal kingdom creep that corrodes his habitat. No matter how diligently he sets traps and scours, it is something he can’t purge. All thanks to leaving that window open, he is convinced, and somewhere in his scrubbing, he forgets about her. Later, he disinfects. Calls in men with white masks to sear the place with torches and sprays. The place smells deathly, like a zero, like quicksilver and carbon. They forbid him to return for 36 hours; they say it would murder him. You’d think that it would do the trick. But his first night home, it’s back, like a barely audible scuffle, but one that condenses on the back of his spine and makes him shiver.

So he spends less time at home.

“Will,” his friends say, “we missed you.”

Over dinner at Ed’s, he meets a girl—Jessica—who wears synthetic blends, has a passion for clean corners, chrome, and objects with angles, and hates nature almost as much as he does. For three weeks now, he hasn’t been sleeping well (his once-familiar sheets now swarm during the night, lashing his legs), so within two weeks of meeting her, he moves into Jessica’s—a high, all-glass-and-silver loft with a tiled floor and tall, thick-glass windows that had been sealed from the inside. Meanwhile, though he hasn’t checked, the spider web has been dissolved by the breezes and replaced by many more. But Will is with Jessica, drinking clear things—gin and vodka and wine like colorless beads—and making love with one light on and tilted at 45 degrees.

—Mei Chin is a writer living in New York City. She has written for Saveur, Fiction, the New York Times, and Vogue.

Originally published in

BOMB 91, Spring 2005

Featuring interviews with Constant Nieuwenhuys and Linda Boersma, Julie Mehretu, Alexi Worth, Pearl Abraham and Aryeh Lev Stollman, Robert Antoni and Lawrence Scott, Kiyoshi Kurosawa and Jim O’Rourke, Roscoe Mitchell and Anthony Coleman, Brad Cloepfil and Stuart Horodner, and Bruce Mau and Kathryn Simon.

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