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
A psychoanalyst interacts with three people: his wife, Akiko, and two patients: Kat, whom he also calls The Cutter, and David Swancourt. He receives these patients in his new office, Spells.
The Cutter is long and lanky; she’s like a hungry bone. She wants more from the world than she will ever get. She is striking, but in that she is not alone. She has a temper hot enough to fry an egg.
I can see at once that the new cabinet threatens her. For one thing, it further establishes me in my life. It is the demonstration that I intend to see more clients. That I do not intend to cut back my hours. It is likely we will spend less time together.
She is impressed but also outraged at the expense. Yes, I am certain that is so. I have not been particularly generous with her. She begins to resent this. They always do. Sooner or later the interstices are too small for everyone.
She is standing in the middle of the room. As I am seated, she towers above me in very high-heeled sandals and a silk dress the color of bruised plums. Her auburn hair, sparked with red, sets her face on fire. She says:
“I can’t remember a thing. Was I awful?”
“You were very drunk.”
“I was awful.”
“Why were you drunk? That’s the question you need to ask yourself. Why now? You’ve been doing so much better.”
“So you say.”
“So you’ve told me.”
“So why do you believe me?”
“You’re right. I could be deluding myself.”
“I thought you weren’t supposed to do that.”
“I’m not. Kat. Sit down.” She settles down at once, her feet curled beneath her, and I know her heels will leave their mark in the new leather.
“I want more from you.”
“I want more for you too.” I say. “But not in the way you mean. You know that is impossible. As much as I adore you, Kat.” She glares at me. I continue.
“I think you are wanting more from everything, not just me. You are better. You need more room. It’s a good sign, this wanting of yours.” She snorts.
“A good sign!”
“These reversals are inevitable. You know this. Recovery isn’t a linear process.” Kat bites her lip and begins to cry.
“I want to die. I’m … I want to die,” she repeats.
“Sweetheart,” I say, rising, going to her, pulling her to me so that she collapses, shuddering in my arms.
“You talk about … about ideals, universal ideals …” she weeps noisily, extravagantly, “you talk about my … my autonomy … my … my self-determination. You taught me those words! But you don’t mean—”
“Of course I do. It’s all true, Kat. Our work together, our extraordinary love affair, they are all about your coming to terms with your past, your fear of love! Please, sweetheart! Don’t forget everything we’ve talked about, all the—”
“I’m fucking goddamned guys in bars!” she shouts. “I’m fucking all the wrong guys! I’m more fucked-up than ever!” Tearing herself from my embrace she screams so that someone in the dental office upstairs hammers on the ceiling. I should never receive the Cutter during regular business hours.
“You twist everything into … into … any shape you want. And now! And now you want to get rid of me!”
“Have I said that? Have I ever said—Kat! You must stop this!” I point to the ceiling where the hammering persists.
“Look at you!” she glares at me. “Look at you! Clenching your teeth!” Grabbing her bag she stands up, having come to some horrendous understanding. Facing me she says a thing that in another world would have turned me into a block of ice or salt or granite:
“I am not! I am not going to die to get you off the hook!”
“What are you talking about?” I whisper. “Where is this coming from? Who is talking about dying here? I—” I struggle for breath. I fear that the Cutter is threatening the entire edifice: Spells, the park, the house, the marriage, my reputation. All of it.
“Kat,” I implore her quietly. “Sit down. We must talk. We must trust one another. You came to me for a reason. You were on the verge of self-destruction. But now—and yes! I know your tendencies to self-destruct are still haunting us both. Becoming is a fearsome thing! But you are better. And this because of the courageous, the exemplary work we have undertaken together!”
She is perched on the edge of the psychoanalytic couch that has served us both so well in so many unexpected ways. In a seemingly infinite—I think: How infinite the choreography of erotic encounter! I can tell she is thinking along the same lines.
“Yeah. Well. Okay,” she says at last. Looking into my face she smiles. Kat’s smile is winning. Sensuous and slightly askew. “It’s true,” she decides. “I’m not empty the way I was. I’d be okay, maybe, if I could stop drinking. You know?”
You fill a house with precious things; they break. You fill a heart with precious things; it breaks. In the end it all breaks. All night long I hear bones snapping. My nights are my star chamber. In my dreams the elusive sweetness of the world is just around the corner: up a tree, waiting in the silver tower, at the top of the mountain, in a box secreted at the bottom of the sea, in the flame of Aladdin’s lamp. And always between these legs or maybe those: the divine secret of sweetness.
Is it, I wonder, the same sweetness that seizes the fish when it spills its sperm? And the tigers when they fuck? The serpents as they coil and uncoil, thrashing in the mud together. Could it be that this elusive sweetness is at the heart of everything? Coupling, striving for delight. As once in Tahiti, Samoa, such places—
Late in the day I received a call from a man named David Swancourt, a young man most likely, with an unusually engaging voice, a disquieting voice, restless, intimate. Intrigued, I played his inquiry over a number of times before returning his call. I managed to reach him at once and we made an appointment for the following Friday in the new office.
Then: a shower (Spells has both a private shower and a restroom for clients, a luxurious restroom like a picture gallery), a nap and a call to Akiko to discuss where we would meet.
One thing I am compelled to do because it promotes coherence, is to take Akiko to a restaurant where I have eaten with a lover. Or in a risky part of town where I have engaged, if briefly, with marginalia. To be healthy one needs to bring the disparate parts of one’s puzzle together and in this way defuse prevailing habits, promiscuity’s fevers. At the same time it provides proof for myself and my wife—who labors beneath the weight of the clues I have inadvertently left in her path—that our life, hers and mine, is singular, is the real one, the one that actually matters, so that the clues are disarmed and whatever pain she feels, anesthetized. Or so I intend.
I was wanting the Red Dragon, a funky place she dislikes. I like its shadows, its intimacy; I like its dragons; above all I like the fact that I had been there with the Cutter a number of times. I liked the risk of this. She lives nearby and came often; I knew I was pushing things. I said to Akiko, “I wonder if you would be up for the Red Dragon?”
“O God!” she said. “You know I never am.”
“Last time you said the dumplings were okay—”
“We could go to the Vietnamese,” she countered. “We both like the Vietnamese.” I thought it over. The waitresses there were wonderfully attractive. There was a time when I had been involved with one. I could never decide if it was sex she wanted, or a father, or a green card. She did want money. A beauty with expensive tastes. I recalled a pair of boots she asked me to buy for her. Over a thousand—
“Are you still there?”
“I’m thinking,” I said. “The Dragon’s spareribs are in the Dragon’s favor. They have that soup you like.”
“You are impossible,” Akiko said. But she was laughing.
We pulled into the parking lot at almost the same moment. Akiko looked great; she was wearing silk jeans the color of pewter and silver sandals with what must have been four-inch heels. She was wearing a white silk sweater. I could see at once that she was a little nervous. She’s no longer the person she was. She’s watchful. She notices now when I look at women. For that matter, she notices pretty women often even before I do. She has developed a flair. It used to be she was secure in her own beauty. I dislike this insecurity of hers; it has made her less lovely. She enters the restaurant looking fretful. Lovely, surely, but fretful. Yet she used to like pretty women. She was one of their tribe. Now she resents them.
The Cutter is very pretty. As we enter the Red Dragon, the Cutter, who has been sitting in the shadows in the back, sees us at once. It’s uncanny. It’s as if she has been waiting there. She walks toward us and she calls out: Doctor! And being the bitch she is, she ignores Akiko and gives me a hug. I can feel Akiko wired, thrumming with anger and fear. When I introduce them, Kat barely glances at my wife. She knows she holds the heat. The moment barely lasts ten seconds but it sears Akiko just as if the door of a furnace has suddenly blown open. When we sit down I shake my head and say,
“Now I’ve seen it,” Akiko looks totally lost.
“It’s a long process,” I tell her. “And as much as I’d like to, I can’t control every aspect of this. She’s a rude person. Not a good person. Pretty impossible, in fact. She had no right … I’m sorry,” I say. “This has upset you. Me too. But Akiko. It doesn’t mean anything. The meaning is here. Between us.” I take her hands in mine and put them to my lips. I kiss her hands, her fingers, and then I put them to my forehead. When I feel her little hands against my forehead I feel that if I knew how to weep I might have wept at that moment. The oddest thing.
Yet this reassures her. Perhaps this is the thing that keeps us going; Akiko is so easily reassured. So eager to trust me. It doesn’t make any sense. But she relaxes; I feel the tension in her hands melt away. In a moment she is caressing my face. When I open my eyes her own face is open. Her eyes are tired, but their expression has softened.
“You once told me,” she says with real sweetness, real heat, “that I stung your face and hands.”
“I want … I want to sting you again.”
“And you shall, my love,” I promise, “once this difficult passage is over.”
When our food arrives, I notice the delicacy with which she lifts her dumplings, one by one, with her chopsticks. The delicacy of her perfect teeth, her mouth; the delicacy of her face. Why does the sight of my wife eating dumplings enrage me?
When the very air within one’s marriage grows thin and dim, there is nothing to do but set out to find a richer, brighter air. When the glass is fractured, a new glass must be procured. These days my wife does not know what to do with her tenderness.
If I were Akiko, I’d be out fucking men.
David Swancourt was scheduled in for the afternoon; already I had broken my rule for Friday, which was to keep the afternoon open for affairs of the heart. Over the years these varied from vivid to mundane.
Until recently, the Cutter had taken up the entire afternoon. We would go off together, to the coast or up in the hills outside of town. When Akiko was away, our Fridays extended into long, luxurious weekends.
Kat could be tender. She liked it when we could stroll together hand-in-hand like any regular couple. “What if?” she said on one of these marvelous interludes we shared in the interstices of our lives, “What if I am the one to domesticate Blue Beard?”
“Blue Beard!” I said, astonished that she could think such a thing of me, let alone say it with such spontaneity, even gaiety. “Whatever makes you think I am anything like that?”
“Oh, come on!” she stopped walking, and dropping my hand, turned to face me. “You love that filthy shit.”
I was lost. I considered. I thought she meant anal sex. I said:
“You love it, too.”
“Not as much as you.”
“I thought you were crazy for it!”
“Are we talking about the same thing?” I looked at Kat gnawing a cuticle, spangled in the sun.
“I’m talking about the videos, baby, the sick shit.”
“Oh, god. That.” I felt at once as if my skull was being compressed. Even now, recalling this, the terrible pressure returns. It persists.
Before the Cutter I had never actually seen a snuff film. But early on in our sessions together she had insisted, for reasons still unclear to me, that I watch one with her. In fact, the first time I spent a night with her in her place, we had seen one, the first of many. The films had colored our affair and had, I can see it now, seeped into the hours and minutes of my life. Yes, such things can change the nature of time. Because the films were the unspooling of my most private nightmares. This is what the Cutter gave me. Free access to my own abyss.
In a session, one has access to the invisible. The visible presents itself in costume, with attitude. The client arrives dressed for the occasion, self-protective, guarded, hopeful, prepared to be seductive, wanting to be impressive, for her story to matter, to be unique; wanting her pain to be perceived as exemplary, important, meaningful.
Most often, a woman will arrive perfumed. Even if her heart has been torn from her chest, she will step into the office with freshly washed hair. Even if she is on the verge of suicide, she will present herself in her best shoes. She may question whether or not she should paint her face because she knows that if she weeps, she’ll make a mess of it.
A guy will wear a clean shirt, a suit or tie; he may press his jeans. The first time the Cutter showed up she was wearing five-inch heels and jeans so tight I could see the swell of her mons pubis. In other words, she presented as a woman who was fuckable, and that her fuckability mattered to her more than anything else.
Unlike the Cutter, David Swancourt is enigmatic. Perhaps a chimera. There is a heat to him, a heat that matches my own. He reminds me of my youth, except for this difference: he knows about this heat of his, whereas I did not know, did not understand its implications, its possibility, until later. It took me two marriages to understand and acknowledge it; a third to follow its imperatives. I wish I had known sooner; I would not have wasted so much time. I would have been a smoother player from the start.
David Swancourt burns into the cabinet like a flame, and when he leaves I will look down at the carpet and imagine it has been scorched.
Thirty-five. Tall, slender, a full mouth, an intense expression about the eyes. When he looks at me, it’s like having my genitals grabbed. A good, straight nose, good bones, soft brown hair cut at the shoulders; overall: a feral ease. A man who sighs. A man who paces, who steals across the room as though on skates. A man I cannot help but watch with a certain fascination. A man fully aware of his beauty. A man I find to be beautiful.
Yet, despite all this, I also see his insecurities. These, too, are like my own. I know he will tell me about chaotic sex, that like me he was driven to sex, that he is deeply humiliated by the imperiousness of this need, its rabid character; a need that bites and seethes and will not settle.
I know that he prides himself in his endless exploits, the fact of all the smoke and sulphur he has shared with so many, those countless others, each so different and yet, when push comes to shove, the same.
A body opens like a flower, like a wound beneath the assassin’s knife, a street hit by a grenade.
This is how it was, even before the rest was revealed. I began at once to read him, to devour him with my eyes as he paced, this man so like myself, so fearless, so afraid, so famished, so incapable of nourishing himself. Above his left eye there was a scar that dove into his eyebrow; beneath it, that eye of his tore into the room. It was an angry eye, a timid eye, an eye sucked nearly dry with fear. Unlike his other eye, the right one, the eye that showed how smart he was, how funny he could be, how playful, how inventive. His right eye was brown and brimming with humor. And then I saw that rarity: his left eye was blue. I marveled that I did not notice this at once. A cold eye, a hot eye. Here was one curious fish!
He had been pacing for ten, 15 minutes. At last he dropped down into the other Eames. He said,
“I have never been in a room like this before.”
“How so?” He smelled of leather and citrus; he smelled of earth. I noticed his boots, a bit the worse for wear, caked with dry mud. And his fingernails needed attention.
“It’s a beautiful room.” He shook his head and, frowning, stood up. How he roamed about! How he wheeled and soared! Rose and fell! One minute a kestrel, the next a carp!
“Swancourt,” I said then, “is an unusual name. It seems …” As I searched for the right word, he returned from his wanderings and once again sat down. “Unprecedented.”
He laughed disdainfully. His gaze continued to drift. Each and every thing in the room caught his attention, but only briefly. And then he’d rip into me with those schizophrenic eyes.
He now turned to the netsuke cabinet, and there he lingered. His profile caught me by the throat. There are faces that have the attraction of stars. Studded with star eyes, eyes that have a gravitational field. These are the eyes of those who are not only close to the edge, but who have already gone over the edge, perhaps cyclically, a chronic habit with them. And yet who have managed to return. The soles of their feet are scarred by fire; they have eaten glass; they have bedded down with snakes; they will do anything, anything at all to stop a certain kind of pain, which is the pain that comes to a person whose spirit has been so sullied and downtrodden the best it can do is shine forth fitfully, like a firefly caught within a fist, in the throes of a kind of final frenzy, and in the face of death.
These are the people who make for thrilling lovers. Invariably, their attraction is compromising. The risk is immense. But one is like them. One is willing to risk everything if only to burn brightly for a moment. The world is full of people such as this. People raging with hunger who may at any instant implode. Our planet is studded with such black holes. I have considered developing a cosmology of this ruinous eroticism.
David Swancourt was looking directly into my face.
“I think this room is too beautiful for someone like me.”
“Perhaps not beautiful enough,” I said. He pointed to his boots.
“I walked here from the bus station. I’ve left mud all over your carpet.”
“I don’t care,” I said. “But you must be very thirsty.” I stood up. “How about a Perrier—”
“A Perrier!” he laughed. Was he mocking me? I brought it to him nonetheless and watched as he polished it off thirstily. When the bottle was empty he set it down and standing, said: “So. This is how it begins.”
“It has already begun.”
“Yeah,” said David Swancourt, “I guess so. I’d say it has.” For the briefest of moments he lashed at me with his yes with such unbridled ferocity I thought: watch out!
I began to prepare for the momentous eventuality which is David Swancourt’s next visit. I prepare for a possible affair. I prepare for a possible affair as I always do. I buy clothes. I ask Akiko to come along because she has a good eye. And because it reassures her. It’s domestic, the very thing loving couples do together. We do so little together. Me taken up with the practice. My wife with her career.
Akiko makes no bones about what she thinks. “You look like a banker in that suit,” she’ll say. “I hate it!” Or: “You look like a public accountant.” “For God’s sakes! You look like a serial rapist!” Inspired, she convinces me to buy a brown-linen suit on sale: Armani. It’s gorgeous, and perfect for early fall weather. The color of stale chocolate, it makes me look good.
“You look fantastic!” Akiko says. “I want you to keep it on and take me out for tapas right now!”
In this way I break it in. In this way I am prepared for David Swancourt’s second visit.
I live in something like a heightened state. And yet also in a fog. While gardening, Akiko picks up a splinter. It is large and painful, but despite its size I am unable to remove it, my hands are shaking so. Instead I manage to stab her with the needle. It is almost as if the needle leaps of its own volition in order to wound her. For God’s sakes! she cries, what is the matter with you? I apologize and complain about my nerves; I promise to be very careful. When I stab at her again she is furious with me and perhaps, without realizing it, fearful. She no longer looks like the Akiko I remember courting so assiduously. She spends the next hour alone in the kitchen, soaking her hand in hot, salty water, easing the splinter out bit by bit. I do not ask if I can help her. I go running instead. There is a full moon, and the trails are clearly visible. I like to feel my muscles move; I like to feel my body ache with movement. There is an eros to running. After all, one is running toward the future, the next encounter.
The encounter that materializes as if cut out of the air, although this is ridiculous. After all, I had scheduled David Swancourt in. But there are people, you will have noticed, who astonish us, whose presence in the world seems miraculous. And David Swancourt is a creature of dream or even a creature of dreamtime. What I mean is this: he entered the downtown cabinet as if conjured by a magic letter. As if he were the materialization of desire. As if he had been summoned by my fascination.
So: here he was again. Boyish, lithe, as edgy as a caged cougar, all of it. I thought: when David Swancourt enters a room, reason dissolves and unreason takes hold. The world begins to dream. I thought: this one is a woman. A woman coiled within a man the way a cock coils upon itself within a pair of silk panties. A beautiful woman—of this I was certain—about to surge from her shell. And then, as if he were able to read the progress of my thoughts, as if he had been reading my thoughts all along—and he had! He had been reading my mind—David Swancourt closed his eyes, almost as though he were keeping back tears, and in a whisper said:
“Ah. Shall I. Show her to you.”
“You will not betray us.”
“Ah …” He sighed again, as if in a fever of his own. He said: “Watch this.” So I did. I watched him rise up from the couch and stand before me. I watched in a joyous panic, although I did nothing to reveal my joy, nor my panic, but sat very professionally in my linen suit, forefingers pressed to my lips as is my habit when I am considering something very seriously.
“Look at me,” he insisted, although I was. I said: “I am.”
“You are …” he waited.
“I am looking at you,” I said.
And then almost imperceptibly, instant by instant, atom by atom, flame after flame, I saw him changing. It seemed every particle of light in the universe was careening toward him, this shimmering youth who was in the process of shedding his skin like a garment that fell to the floor only to pool among the shadows before dissolving altogether. Yet the room was free of shadows, but for the shadows he evoked and the darkness, like a heavy weather that rose up within me, or I was sinking into; I was sinking into a passion once again, except …
Except that when she stood before me now, naked but for a teal-colored string, her diminutive breasts, studded with tiny sprays of silver stars that trembled as she breathed, falling like tears, or foam, so unexpectedly against her skin, I was overcome as I had never been before, of this I am certain, and gasped for breath, but only once. Which elicited a light laughter. She said: “Don’t move.” She crossed over to where I sat and leaning over, with her thumb, caressed my cock strangling in my pants like a snake on a noose, and then, wheeling away: “Ah. But my time is up.” And bending over, so that her ass was for an instant suspended within reach, took up her disguises and eclipsed out the door that leads to the back hall, the restroom, the street.
That evening my wife taxes me with strange questions apropos of nothing: she wonders why I call my patients clients and not patients.
“Because clients is more democratic.”
“Since when is doctor and patient classist?”
“It makes no sense,” she says. “I mean, the relationship between doctor and patient is exemplary. Almost sacred. For one thing—”
“The sacred has nothing to do with it. After all, my clients are paying for a service.”
“So.” Akiko speaks with a new bitterness. I perk up my ears. “In that way you are like a grocer. Grocers have clients. As do whores.”
“More like a whore than a grocer.”
“Is that so?”
“Love, after all, is involved.”
“Yes. I suppose that is so. Everything but kissing?”
“You hate me, then?”
“Do I have reason to?” she feigns indifference.
“You think I am a monster.”
“It never occurred to me,” she laughs. “Some monster! With only a single horn.”
Suddenly I am overcome with weariness.
“I’m exhausted,” I say, and standing with unexpected difficulty, make my way to the couch. Crossing the living room is like crossing the Sahara without water. The living room is dark, uncluttered, spotless; it is as if no one lived anywhere near it. As soon as I lie down I feel dizzy and heavy. I fall into sleep like a corpse into mud, wondering: what happens when a doctor sleeps with a patient? And the patient keeps paying the doctor for the other things they do together, the journey into pain and loss and mysterious crimes too terrible to recollect. Is the doctor, then, the patient’s whore?
In the morning he stands in the shower until something shifts, the dark weather that has begun to plague him dissolves; he rises like Neptune from the cleansing waters and feels beautiful; he touches the muscles of his calves and arms; he caresses his stomach and chest; he feels the comforting weight of his sex—and as he steps out into the sunny room and tiles to stand before a window facing east, he feels expansive; he thinks his home is like the palace of an Assyrian king; he relishes the comforts it provides. Even the towels, he notes with satisfaction, are luxuriously sized and of a rich, indeterminate color, like a warm sand of nacreous shells.
He has the dressing room of a prince also, with a large three-way mirror that allows him to see himself fully. By the time he sets out for the new cabinet, he is his own man. He has once again set up the day so that by 3:00 he can receive David Swancourt without any fear of disruption.
He has rearranged the room. And opened windows. The distant roar of city traffic delights him. He is an urban prince at the height of his powers. Or even a king of a kind. He is wonderfully strong, his flesh burnished like bronze. He is wearing a silk tie the color of burned oranges. He ranges through the room, delighting. Everything is renewed. Everywhere new buildings rising, old neighborhoods being torn down, the dingy houses and their sorry little orchards replaced by mansions. There is talk of a new city park. The theater and library, the art museum have all been recently transformed into temples, palaces! He thinks he lives in Babylon! He is the king of Babylon! Everything about his life is remarkable. There is a boundlessness to the day, to these rooms, this city, his own life, his own erotic hunger, this capacity of his to awaken erotic hunger. Spells is ready to receive his new lover in whatever form he/she decides to take. Perhaps David Swancourt’s forms are limitless. He’d like to think so. This time he has found a lover as protean as the weather. As protean as he is himself.
This is what is delicious: a professional man, a trustworthy, mild-mannered, thoughtful man who measures his words; a beautifully groomed man of impeccable taste who moves with ease; a graceful man, a man whose mind is occupied by many obscure complexities, whose life is both comfortable, expansive and, above all, mysterious …
… and all of this on the line. Reassuring, deeply desired. Because when it is set on fire, it blazes with such intensity! When such a man stands fully clothed but for his bounding cock that she takes with such delicacy, such tender ferocity into her mouth, well! Then the entire castle of cards so carefully set out upon the table tumbles to the floor with unprecedented abandon! And when the man and his life have all burned down to a small heap of ashes, well then, she’ll dance upon those ashes, she will be Kali in a necklace of bone.
This is what drives David Swancourt: the burning of a world, the setting of a man on fire, a distinguished man, the man she can never be, not ever, because that chance was stolen from her during her own secret prehistory. He is the man she would have become, or so she thinks. Because she does not, cannot know, the bitter truths that rule him; she does not know, cannot know, that he, too, is in drag.
She does not, cannot possibly imagine that her doctor is her biggest risk. Because she has come to him in deep trouble. Because a month earlier she went off with three men she picked up in a bar and was raped. Because like Kat, she drinks too much. Like Kat, she is drawn to those who will hurt her. Because she had come on to the men who had raped her. Because in some elusive country deep in her mind she wants to be fucked into oblivion. Lovely Anna Morphosis! She wants to be fucked to death. Except it’s not that simple. She has come to see him because she wants to live.
That week he had called her to ask her her name. Jello, said David Swancourt. She’s over her head, Doctor. She’s in a bad way. And her doctor. What did he say? He said: Together we will make her okay.
Jello cannot imagine what a real childhood would be like. The glimpses she has had are so stunning, so sumptuous, so utterly desirous she dares not engage them for fear of dying of unrequited longing. But sometimes she cannot help herself. Because these memories ground her. They remind her what it was like to be awestruck, to be giddy, to be joyously giddy with the world’s promise.
There dwells within her a certain fragrant weather, a certain bright knowledge, a safe place where she can, at odd moments, be devout—worshipful in other words—of the mysterious process of living among others. When such a moment seizes her, she needs to share it; she needs to talk about it. And now, at 35, she fears that if she does not talk about all of it with someone she can trust, it will turn to dust; she’ll never be able to access it again.
A brass watch belonging to her father, her fascination as a little boy with watches, with small machines of all kinds. Before she became Jello, he was a mechanic. He liked to roll under cars and smell their hot, greasy underbellies. Because he was clever. Because he liked the way it felt to be close to the ground. Because when you are on the ground, flat on your back, there is no place to fall. Because when he showered down after work and dressed in pressed jeans and a clean shirt he felt good. He spent hours wandering the mall, days even, hunting down the right shirt.
One day it wasn’t a shirt he bought, but a dress. The salesgirl liked him; maybe she was teasing him, or maybe she had a hunch. Or it was simply the fact of his beauty and she was curious; she wondered what this beautiful boy would look like in a beautiful dress.
The changing room was hospitable. Large enough for the two of them. It was an ark infinite with possibilities. In an instant they both vanished within its mirrors.
She undressed him. She showed him how a woman undresses a man. She fondled his nipples and she wouldn’t let him kiss her. She said: Just let me play! She was droll, spunky, radiant. He was down to his briefs. She cupped his erection in her hand and said: You have to behave yourself because you are about to become a lady! When he laughed she hushed him with a kiss. He was riveted to the spot. The dress spilled over his body. After, he’d think about how they had found this little nest for themselves.
Because he was in a dress he felt he could be soft. He whispered: Now am I your lover or your sister? When she burst out laughing she was fired on the spot. The two of them were banished from Foley’s. The months they spent together were the happiest of his life. They became bandits, stealing dresses for themselves, shoes, perfume, makeup. He would flirt with the salesgirls as she, in the midst of superabundance, would uncover and lift the rarity.
Understand that they were not ruled by greed, but by the need to be transformed. And of course, the need to risk the freedom they had just claimed for themselves. Nevertheless, they were overturning the chaos that had from the start been an infliction. They transformed his tiny apartment into a clandestine backstage dressing room. They bought an outsized vanity from the 1950s, its mirror intact, and filled the drawers with makeup. They experimented with wigs. They might have gone on this way forever except that he fell in love with a man. For a few days they wept in one another’s arms. Then it was over, and David Swancourt was on his own.
Jello changes her colors often. She shimmers. She does not want to be recognized, seized upon, locked up, and shut down. Her colors are lime, lemon, strawberry, blueberry, black cherry. She does not want to be harmed. She wants to flicker like the Aurora Borealis. She wants to be harmed. She wants to bleed like a severed aorta. She wants to be safe. She wants to be safe. She never wants to bleed again.
She goes to him because he is known to like transies. He’s seen scoping out the Crucible. He’s intrigued more than he realizes. He once talked a he-she out of a sex change. He said: The knife is just another way to flee pleasure.
This issue of First Proof is sponsored in part by the Bertha and Isaac Liberman Foundation.
Rikki Ducornet has twice been honored by the Lannan Foundation; she has received The Bard College Arts and Letters Award, and, in 2008, an Academy Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Recent exhibitions of her paintings include the solo show Desirous at the Pierre Menard Gallery in Cambridge, Massachussetts, in 2007; O Reverso Do Olhar in Coimbra, Portugal, in 2008; and El Umbral Secreto in Santiago, Chile, in 2009. Her work is part of the permanent collections of the Museo de la Solidaridad Salvador Allende, and the Ohio State University Library.
Originally published in
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