I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
Brian got up early that Saturday to do his laundry then tracked down a friend who owed him ten dollars and scored some crystal meth in the process. He met Suzanne by the token booth at the Clinton-Washington G stop, “I got two hits of acid on my way over here,” she exclaimed while passing through the wooden gate, “isn’t that insane,” which slammed behind her. The black and white images of Suzanne that he’d developed and printed as the week dragged on, “Are you serious?” now seemed feeble as they finally faced each other, “Where?” Her forearm brushed his, “Right near where we met,” as he led the way toward the exit, “in Washington Square.” When she passed through the gate and they embraced he knew something extraordinary was happening. Suzanne was undeniably beautiful and Brian mistook that for virtue. He spent Saturday afternoon assembling his best work then hung the black and white enlargements on the taut wire running across the living room. “How much did you pay for them?” She was wearing a low-cut black polyester top that accentuated her breasts, “Ten bucks,” a short denim skirt and high cork-heeled sandals, “the guy who sold them to me said I should take it with a friend.” The tall front windows were wide open and August sounds from the street—passing car stereos, trolling ice cream trucks, an argument between two women about a man who happened to be standing in front of the building, kids shouting from adjacent stoops and the ones clustered around the open hydrant down the block—filled the living room as he poured over the images. Scoring acid in Washington Square confirmed another part of the city’s mythology that Suzanne was eager to embrace. Brian had done two hits last March, “I bet you got ripped off,” and tripped alone in his apartment, “you really shouldn’t buy that from people you don’t know,” during a three-day blizzard, “especially in the park,” nearly four feet of snow fell over the weekend, “unless you like throwing your money away on little bits of paper,” he spent in an armchair in front of the window overlooking Lafayette Avenue, “or we can burn money instead,” studying his perpetually morphing reflection in glowing planes of glass, “that’s always entertaining.” She turned to him, “There is only one way to find out,” and asked, “Aren’t you interested?” He did a bump of meth for luck, “Acid is for hippies,” just before leaving to meet her at the station, “but I’m game if you are.” As they climbed the stairs Brian asked, “How was the subway?” She removed a Bible tract from her purse, “Really fucking weird,” presented it to him, “someone gave me this,” then recalled the middle-aged preacher with the greasy comb-over sweating profusely in a beige polyester suit, “and the train took forever,” who demanded that Suzanne accept God’s salvation as she walked onto the piss-soaked downtown A platform at the furnace-like West 4th Street station, “I don’t know how people can do that every day.” Brian scoffed at the black-and-white illustration of an opened-armed Christ standing in a supermarket isle Jesus is everywhere and awaiting your love! “The A train doesn’t run express on the weekends.” When they emerged into Brooklyn sunlight, “Thanks for coming all the way out here,” Brian noted the deep blue of her eyes and wanted to see her saturated in Kodachrome. They lingered at the top of the stairs. A cloudless afternoon like today would be perfect. She raised her eyebrows then asked, “Which way?” He pointed and then they walked by the black Chevy Nova with the shattered windshield propped up on cinder blocks.
The woman standing next to Tom had recently emigrated from Poland, early or maybe mid-thirties, shoulder-length straight brown hair with blonde streaks, wide hazel eyes behind rectangular purple frames, arched eyebrows, dark red lips, long fingers, gold wedding band, glossy pink fingernails. Her heavily accented English was adequate. They talked about the weather then Tom mentioned a few out of the way places worth seeing during the summer—the Cloisters, Coney Island, Flushing Park, Far Rockaway—and received a lukewarm response. Had she been to the Met? Yes, she actually squeezed his forearm for emphasis, twice in one week. She, he never got her name, was nearly his height and very thin. Ten minutes later his well intentioned, naïve defense of Marxism was met with a wave of derision, as was her surprisingly lofty and equally naïve opinion of Ronald Reagan. Writing your undergraduate thesis on the Paris Commune might not make you an expert on Communism but how could anyone in their right mind believe that Reagan didn’t know anything about the Iran-Contra affair until it was reported in the media? After a pointed exchange Tom acknowledged being raised Catholic, claimed he was an atheist, mentioned his recent experiences with the supernatural, then stated that he hadn’t stepped inside a church in ten years. In turn she laughingly said that when young she had wanted to be a nun. The tiny gold cross and thin chain around her neck held the dim bar light. She pressed him for details about those supposed supernatural experiences. Tom said he was cat-sitting for his professor while she was in Greece for the summer and enthusiastically described the oblique shape that drifted through her kitchen during a thunderstorm then recounted his extraordinary encounter with a mysterious blonde on the stairs. The red leather purse lying open on the zinc bar held a silver money clip with a few fives and a ten, a pack of Parliaments, a box of matches and a tube of lipstick. She said her husband was at a boring business dinner or something equally dull and dismissively unspecific. Pleated knee-length black skirt, black sandals with thin leather straps wrapping around narrow ankles, symmetrical pink toenails. Would she like to go somewhere quiet where they could talk? The semi-transparent sleeveless white blouse revealed enticing views of her black bra. That haunted apartment happened to be right around the corner. The pause grew awkward when an unlikely lull in the surrounding Wednesday evening conversations accompanied a brief lapse between songs. Tom couldn’t bring himself to repeat the question or further elaborate on the convenience of the nearby location and simply stood before her expectantly clutching a flat pint of watery beer. She finally responded, looking up at him from behind the rims of her purple frames, saying yes, an enticing smile revealed two rows of crowded teeth, why not, they did have enough time to leave the narrow bar that was just around the corner from his haunted apartment, okay, let’s climb four flights of stairs and continue our conversation without having to compete with this continuous barrage of industrial techno. The old drunk on the stoop slurred something obscene that she didn’t understand although his accompanying gesture had universal significance. Tom fixed her a tall screwdriver, apologized for not having any ice, adding that the vodka had been in the freezer for at least a month. She claimed they didn’t have very much time and promptly drank half of it while standing before the kitchen counter. He chanced a quick kiss on her cheek. The spray of honeyed perfume lingering behind her ears reminded him of pollen-dusted bees. Her mouth tasted like vodka and cigarettes. She helped him undo the buttons on her blouse and bra clasp. His fingers covered a constellation of reddish freckles. Her small brown nipples were already hard. She closed her eyes when they kissed, embraced, and kissed before moving toward the front room. He kicked off his sneakers in the doorway and she pulled off his T-shirt. Two pairs of glasses clattered off the stack of splayed paperbacks and onto the floor. She dropped the top then stepped out of the skirt, shed the beige cotton panties but left her sandals on. It took him a long minute to find the condoms without his glasses, naked and blushing in the curtained sunset, yet he denied being nervous. She slowly unrolled one over his erection then rode him with her eyes closed, purposefully grinding away, rubbing her clitoris with two then four fingers. He watched in disbelief as she reached a quick climax—felt it flutter through her pelvis—then gripped her waist with both hands and fucked her like he wanted to take the orgasm back. She came again just before he did.
Brian wanted to photograph Suzanne in the ocean while silhouetted by the rising sun. He jumped out of bed to retrieve a book and returned flipping through pages. When Brian found the Botticell reproduction he passed her the book. They could go to the nudist-end of Riis Beach and if they left now they might be there by dawn. She agreed to be his Venus only if they took a cab to the beach. She also agreed to pay for the car. He took two rolls of color slide film from the refrigerator door before calling the car service. Coltrane was on the radio and they smoked in silence while listening to an endlessly cascading solo. Brian attached a wide-angle lens to his Nikon and loaded a roll of film into the camera. The black Plymouth Fury pulled up outside the building and honked twice. He flicked his cigarette into the gutter before opening the rear door. They slid across the wide black vinyl backseat. The goateed driver with horned rimmed glasses and long black hair eyed them in the rearview mirror before pulling away from the curb and stomping on the gas. The car raced up Lafayette then swung left against a yellow onto Classon. As they sped onto the BQE a static-filled version of “Summer Breeze” segued into a seemingly endless series of commercials.
A loud roll of thunder got Tom up from the table and over to the kitchen window. The oak branches were shaking in the wind. He removed the fan and placed it on the floor. The rear row of buildings and towering tree obscured his view. He walked through the darkened apartment and recalled a cloudless, nearly cerulean, blue sky when waking a few hours ago. The front room smelled like rain on hot concrete. A cool wind was flipping through the pages of Sade’s Juliette that he’d left on the futon. Menacing black clouds were piled on top of each other. He watched their ragged ends block out the noonday sun. The light above the deserted block turned from the sepia of old photographs into ominous night. In an open window across the street agile brown arms gathered up a billowing white curtain then pulled the window closed. A blonde walked quickly up the stoop and into the building. He heard the front doors slam then hurried footfalls echoed off the stairs. A flash of lightning followed by a nearly instantaneous crash of thunder created a chorus of car alarms. When the downpour began in earnest a few pale faces appeared in the windows across the street. Steam rose from the sidewalk as water overran the gutters. Tom noticed that the screens were getting soaked and closed the windows. He met a terrified Olive in the hall just before another flash of lighting and boom of thunder sent her tearing into the bedroom where she vanished beneath Paula’s bed. Handwritten pages of the Marx outline were strewn across the kitchen table. The box fan blew over, crashed into the cat bowls and began knocking rhythmically against the floor. He yanked the plug from the socket, closed the window and moved the fan away from the puddle. And that was when the oblique shape drifted along the wall. Later he would claim that it was like watching the shadow of a hawk slowly glide over an open meadow. He turned around and a warm, human dampness clung to his chest and arms. The checkered Linoleum floor creaked beneath an invisible weight. The shadow gradually moved along the cabinets before slipping down the hall. Tom’s heart was thumping in his throat. The kitchen was just as empty as it had been all week, yet the air was charged with energy. He took the knife from the sink and peered into the hall. The rain on the roof and occasional rumble of thunder accompanied Tom as he cautiously crept through each room with the knife clenched in his right fist. When confronting his pale, wide-eyed reflection in the bathroom mirror he noticed the butter smeared on the blade.
Suzanne removed her sandals at the bottom of the stairs, “You never think of the ocean when you think of New York City,” the sand was cool beneath her bare feet, “but this is a really nice beach.” The hollow sound tall waves make as they roll against the shore. Standing naked on the beach and facing the sea—orange sunlight highlighting her blue eyes as a warm breeze pulled at her shoulder-length blonde hair—with a distant full moon filling in the upper left corner of the image. He asked her to swim out, “Maybe fifty feet and then come back really slowly,” before taking a picture of her walking into the rush of a receding wave. Three photographs as she turned toward the sun, took a few steps into the waist-high surf, and dove beneath a towering wave. He peeled off his clothes as she swam out beyond the breakers. The velvety blue sky was still studded with stars. The streetlights lining the empty boardwalk blinked twice before going out. A group of gulls had gathered around their discarded clothes. Brian carefully waded into the water with the camera raised above his head. Suzanne could touch her toes on the cold bottom before and after the passing swells. She was a silver silhouette amidst a warm spray of foamy blue green water. Rays of sunlight flooding the viewfinder highlighted her torso. Prisms gathered around the edge of the lens, saturating her blurred torso. Six months later the image of Suzanne with her arms outstretched and legs suspended above a rush of pale foam landed Brian his first group show at a gallery on 57th Street and a brief mention in the Times.
She was already dressed when Tom joined her in the kitchen. “You know something strange?” She asked, looking somehow older yet more beautiful as she lit a cigarette off the stove. Handing her the glasses, “What’s that?” She put them on before saying, “My husband is friends with that photographer.” The lenses held the overhead light, distorting the shape and color of her eyes. “What photographer?” Pointing, “That’s a Brian Kimble,” at the framed color photograph of the blonde standing naked on a beach that hung on the wall beside the telephone, “You don’t know him, but you have a picture?”
Sleeping beneath packing blankets flecked with vomit and splotched with dried blood. She met Yvonne and Nick at a gay disco on King Street. Curly blond locks pooled on a pink bath towel. They befriended a bemused Suzanne after the bearded Canadian disk jockey that had dragged her there from Phoebe’s disappeared around midnight with a petite Puerto Rican transvestite. Streaks of rainwater ran down the tall windows overlooking Central Park. Yvonne was a diplomat’s daughter and a self-professed anarchist obsessed with Louise Brooks. Gold parquet floors, a high molded ceiling and a gaping marble fireplace. Nick was a skinny orange-haired punk with a budding heroin addiction. The ornate gilded mirror above the marble mantel reproduced a portion of the empty bookshelves spanning the length of the wall. Yvonne had been tasked with overseeing the packing and closing up of this palatial apartment before joining her parents in Paris. Black stilettos, a pair of red patent leather knee-high boots, black nylons, blue cotton panties, a white dress shirt and a mini-skirt were strewn across the dusty floor. Nick lied about dropping out of Brooklyn College and told everyone who would listen that he was starting his own record label. The water in the chipped wine glass was beaded with oxygen. Yvonne was bound for the Sorbonne and guaranteed confinement in a stratum that she would continue to rebel against while living a life of privilege. A black lace bra, bamboo chopsticks and grease-splotched takeout containers, chunks of blackened aluminum foil. Their frequently hilarious Boris and Natasha meets a debased Romeo and Juliet routine finally wore thin when Yvonne vomited into Suzanne’s lap after shooting a speedball. The overflowing Pan Am ashtray, a small green disposable lighter, a trail of cotton balls, crumpled bloody tissues and empty glassine bindles cluttered the top of the cardboard wardrobe box before the daybed. Suzanne removed her soiled dress in the bathroom and soaked it in the sink. After snorting and freebasing cocaine for three nights and two days with Nick, Yvonne and a cluster of her best friends—all supposedly crushed that such an incredibly cool connection was abandoning them for Paris—Suzanne decided to try heroin. Nick dutifully cooked up a tiny bit from his dwindling stash as she tied off her left arm with a bra strap, “Make a fist,” after a few near misses he hooked the thin green vein, “now let it go,” with a stainless steel surgical syringe.
Olive jumped onto the kitchen table to get a better look at her. The breeze from the box fan in the window cooled the sweat on Tom’s forehead and bare chest, “That’s not mine,” picking up her glass, “this is my professor’s place,” which was damp, “I’m just here for the summer,” and when he drank from it, “but no,” condensation trailed down his left wrist, “I don’t know his work.” “You’re serious?” She sounded surprised, “that’s an early one,” exhaling smoke, “what a pretty cat,” then added a few lines in Polish that neither Tom nor the cat understood. Olive sat back on her haunches and began licking her belly. “He has a show right now in Soho,” taking a drag off her cigarette before suggesting, “you should go see it.” Tom sounded indifferent, “I’m not really into art,” while thinking of the prints and contact sheets he’d found in one of the boxes that Paula had asked him to throw away, “but is that worth a lot of money?” She nodded, “Everything sold at the opening,” then noticed the clock on the wall, “I have to leave.” It was seven-thirty. “Maybe we have time for another—” “No,” shaking her head, “I have to go back,” but was touched by his disappointment, “to where my husband is meeting me.” Tom sighed, “That was really nice.” “Yes,” she gathered her purse from the counter, “but I didn’t get to meet your ghost.” He led her to the door, “Maybe next time,” and watched her descend a flight of stairs. When she didn’t look back he closed the door. Tom crossed the kitchen, realized that he didn’t get her name, and examined her lipstick on the rim of the glass. Olive jumped onto the counter. “Do you want to know something strange?” Tom caressed the black cat behind her ears before saying, “That was the best sex I’ve ever had.”
The warmth in the crook of her arm passed into her fingertips before flooding her brain, washing over her heart, and kicking her in the stomach. Suzanne had lucked into an exclusive party with some totally cool and really beautiful rich kids in a giant vacant apartment overlooking Central Park. Her weekend of jaw-grinding unblinking confidence had just been run over by a bus. The mosquito-sized bite of white heroin was still chasing stubborn chunks of bile around the back of her throat. Her naked, ghost-like fluorescent reflection in the wall-sized bathroom mirror gave her butterflies. Now they were totally out of everything and Nick was yelling at Yvonne for slicing open all of the straws and licking them clean like some fucking fiend. Suzanne just needed another minute alone to relax, maybe take a warm bath, maybe catnap for an hour or two then she could think about going home. Yvonne was pounding on the bathroom door as Nick pocketed the remaining bills in Suzanne’s wallet. Her legs finally gave out and she crumpled on the black and white tiles. Nick called Yvonne a freak and made sure to slam the front door. Her narrow alabaster face, “What are you doing like that,” pocked with acne and framed by a blue-black bob, “on the floor,” and a smile that twisted into a grimace, “do you want to take a bath,” when Suzanne finally opened her eyes. There was nobody around Sherman Square that early on a Monday morning in the pouring rain. Suzanne tried coughing up a mouthful of whatever was making her gag before rasping, “I was going to,” then wiped her hands on a wad of toilet paper. Nick had to take the 2 train up to 125th and Lenox to score.
Tom woke up with a headache. A loud argument running along the block escalated from shouted curses to thrown bottles and abruptly ended with four rapid pops that must have been gunshots. He knocked the box of Q-tips into the sink while rooting through the cabinet for aspirin. Alternating sirens rapidly approaching from opposite directions indicated that the police and an ambulance were on the way. He swallowed two tablets with a palm-full of warm tap water then caught a glimpse of his bleary-eyed self in the mirror. Pulsating red and blue lights saturated the ceiling. He lay down on the futon and waited for the throbbing between his temples to subside. Static-punctuated numerical commands from police radios filled the humid air. The wooden chair before the desk appeared animated in the fluctuating glow. EMSpersonnel loaded a victim into the idling ambulance. He couldn’t see the desk clock, couldn’t be bothered with putting on his glasses and assumed it was between four and five. A door slammed before the diesel engine was finally shifted into drive. He thought of the aspirin dissolving in his stomach while clutching a feather pillow in his arms. Tom drifted off alternately wondering if the shooting would be in the news and how his body knew exactly where to send the pain relief.
Suzanne took a final drag off the cigarette, “His helicopter was shot down,” then crushed it in the ashtray, “but he saved a few people before he died so they gave him the Purple Heart.” Nick drew the brown liquid off the blackened spoon, “How old were you?” through the tiny clump of cotton and into the syringe. “I was seven.” “He was a pilot?” “An advisor,” Suzanne shook her head, “some fishermen found his body.” “And your mom,” Nick fingered the vein in the crook of her left arm, “what’s the story there?” “My mother left me after that,” Suzanne winced, “like a few days after the funeral,” as Nick sank the needle, “she left me with her parents,” and pulled off the belt. “So you were,” he watched the heroin wash over her, “raised by your grandparents?” The second side of Bowie’s Hunky Dory was playing quietly on the portable turntable. “I never saw my mom again.” A gust of snow covered the window overlooking the darkened block. “I guess she couldn’t deal with me,” her eyes softened, “so in a way,” as she watched the black kitten sleeping on the pillow, “they both died in Vietnam.” “You must remember them,” Nick sounded very far away, “that’s something,” although he was right beside her cooking up his hit. Suzanne lay back on the mattress, “I have memories of them,” and closed her eyes, “but they aren’t very useful.”
Brian recognized his handwriting, “Do you want money,” an old Brooklyn address on the worn manila envelope, “is that why you’re here?” Tom was seated on the edge of the black couch, “No I just,” in a colossal loft, “I’m completely broke,” with his back to a tall row of open windows, “but that’s not why I’m here,” eight stories above Broadway, “to be honest,” on a hot Wednesday afternoon, “I really hadn’t thought of that.” Brian undid the metal clasp and removed the pictures, “Where did you get these?” It took Tom an afternoon to find the gallery, “They were in these boxes that I was asked to throw away and I,” two days after telling the owner what he had, “when I opened one of them I found these pictures,” he received a call informing him that Brian Kimble would meet with him at his Soho loft tomorrow afternoon. “Where were they?” Tom cleared his throat, “I’m cat sitting at my professor’s place for the summer,” then rubbed his damp palms on the knees of his jeans, “Professor Avloniti?” “Paula,” Brian tried to smile, “They were in her apartment?” Tom nodded, “Yeah.” Brian came to the picture of Suzanne looking pensive in the back of a cab. Was he on the verge of telling her that he had fallen in love with her and maybe they should talk about living together? Or was that the night he discovered the tracks running along her left arm? Either way she freaked out on him again for never being able to acknowledge her forever-changing boundaries. Whenever they went to clubs or shows she would be surrounded by a half-dozen guys the minute he turned his back—complimenting her hair and clothes—wanting to dance with her or share their drugs or get her number if only that tool on her arm would take a hike. He would fend them off as best he could then spend the rest of the night trying to reconnect with her without being a hypersensitive-possessive-pig about it at the risk of losing her to the most aggressive asshole in the jostling circle of tweaked suitors. Her heavy heroin use was really the end of them, and that argument might have been the last time they ever saw each other. “Along with some records and clothes.” Rumor had it that she was dead, in jail, or had left town. “But I didn’t know who you were or that they might be worth anything.” Brian never knew that Suzanne died from an overdose and that her body was dumped in the East River. He set the images on the coffee table, “She was my,” beside a pack of unfiltered Camels, “she was Paula’s roommate,” and a small disposable green lighter, “this was twelve years ago.” Tom swallowed hard before asking, “Do you know what happened to her?” “She started using heroin,” Brian shrugged, “cause that’s what all the cool idiots were doing,” scratched the stubble on his chin, “then just vanished,” looked blankly at the young man sitting across from him, “but we weren’t that close anymore,” and sighed.
Suzanne lost count after five, maybe six, consecutive days of snow before it turned into steady rain. Thursday through Monday, or maybe it was Wednesday when the shit began in earnest. Was it still Monday? Although the illuminated blue clock on the wall of the dry cleaners indicated that it was only seven, the empty sidewalk and infrequent traffic made it seem much later. She thought of the blue skies and sandy beaches found in the glossy pages of travel magazines. What if this metal door opened onto an impossibly bright and beautiful sandy beach? She removed her keys while climbing the stoop and unlocked the door. Turquoise waves quietly washed upon a pristine shore as warm ocean breezes scented with tropical blossoms carried the calls of exotic birds. When Suzanne closed the umbrella cold water splashed on her left wrist. She stepped around bundles of soaked newspaper then slowly climbed four flights of filthy stairs. Suzanne dropped the umbrella by the mat then turned the keys in their locks before pushing open the door.
Tom was on the landing unlocking the door to Paula’s apartment when the wooden steps creaked as if someone was walking up the stairs. He turned around and immediately recognized the blonde from the photographs. She was dressed in a long black coat and carrying a black umbrella in her right hand. He didn’t have time to step out of the way or even be afraid. A cold breeze carried a pure, mentholated energy and when that entered his chest it coursed through every cell. It was a vibrantly white sensation that caused the hair on the back of his head to stand on end. Tom never forgot the feeling or tired of telling the story—she just walked right through him.
Donald Breckenridge is the author of This Young Girl Passing, You Are Here, 6/2/95, and Rockaway Wherein. He is the fiction editor of The Brooklyn Rail, co-editor of In Translation and the managing editor of Red Dust. His new novel, which is yet to be titled, is forthcoming from Starcherone in 2015.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
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