I find the idea that we write alone laughable, even egotistical. Poetry is a palimpsest that has been endlessly rewritten—it’s a social space we share with others.
Leah, home from school early, caught her mother—fingers frozen in a Whitman’s Sampler, the box all bristly with pleated cups. Empty, mostly.
“Holy shit,” said Leah. She let the door slam, key still in the lock. “She eats.”
Chocolate molecules swirled across the living room, triggered a phantom sweetness on her tongue.
“Don’t swear,” said Helen. She withdrew her fingers with slow composure from the Whitman’s box and ran them twice, like combs, through mink-colored hair.
Then she plaited her hands in her lap, disowning the chocolate. Like Leah cared—edging toward the coffee table, eyeing the untended box, books still clutched to her chest: math, bio, 19th-century poetry.
“I have to gain weight.” Helen’s voice went gravelly with disdain. “Gray says the clients are complaining.” She lofted one arm, balletic, and looked down the length of it. The skin was blue-white, the bones beneath it lucent.
Gray Alistair was the decorator Helen worked for part-time. He had a kindly, shapely beard, which Leah loved. He had coltish French side-chairs, which he absently stroked along their backs. He had a young person named Philip Godchaux living upstairs in his East 66th Street townhouse, above the studio. Houseboy, Helen said, with the acidic tone she might use to flay an avocado-colored appliance. Sometimes, when Leah visited, the houseboy drifted in and looked at her. He always carried something—a movie magazine, an English cigarette—and his feet were always bare, and golden.
Leah wanted to lick them.
“I thought Gray liked negative space,” she said.
“Oh, the hell with it,” said Helen. She leaned into a Marimekko pillow—from the hips, keeping her spine straight—tweezed a chocolate out with meticulous fingers, and bit off a corner.
“It’s just candy,” said Leah. “Stick it in your mouth and chew.”
“Don’t be wise.”
Leah thought briefly about foraging in the box. Her mother always set out normal foods—spaghetti, bologna sandwiches, Special Κ with skim milk—and kept her company while she ate. Sweets, though, Leah had to sneak. Leah stole cans of Hershey’s and sipped the syrup in the basement. Leah stole Lifesavers, which she ate in bed.
“Listen,” said Helen, and bit off another corner as if it were slightly bitter—an aspirin. “Gray’s sending me to a health retreat for two weeks. In the Adirondacks.” She said Adirondackssarcastically, as if Gray’s choice of location had drained all hope from the enterprise.
Helen lifted the fine calligraphy of her eyebrows.
“Tell him no,” said Leah, frantic. “I have midterms. I can’t make up two weeks. I’ll be doing PE the rest of my life.”
“No, you won’t,” said Helen. “You’re staying here.”
Leah felt her head begin to float, as if helium had seeped between the meninges of her brain. From the ceiling she saw exactly how two weeks alone would go: how the apartment, without Helen’s slight weight as an anchor, would shudder free of the building and drift. She saw how the fridge, half-empty and perennially clean, would self-purify until it was as sleek and vacant as the tub. She saw how the alarm clock might suffocate in the fold of a sheet, causing her to oversleep and get suspended and drop out of tenth grade.
She saw herself staring into the bathroom mirror for hours, looking into pores and orifices for the source of the flaw.
“You can handle it, sweetheart,” said Helen. “You’re almost 16.”
“Fifteen and a half,” said Leah. “You can’t just leave.” She reached for the Whitman’s. Helen slapped at her wrist. The slap was light and wry, but Leah pulled back.
“Gray’s paying,” said Helen. “It’s just women. They’ll probably make us sit in a circle and scream, or some such lunacy, and I am supposed to get centered in my body. You know what that’s code for? Ten pounds, that’s what it’s goddamn code for. Then Gray says he’ll make me a real decorator, and the houseboy can answer the damn phones.”
Leah wondered what would happen if the houseboy said no. She had wandered once into the garden behind the studio, saw Philip stretched out and sunning amid Gray’s roses—noticed how the low waistband of his jeans ignored the hollows of his hips, and how the gaps parted slightly when he shifted, like mouths.
“I don’t know how to cook,” Leah whispered.
“Who needs to cook? I’m leaving you fifty dollars a week and fifty emergency.”
Fifty dollars a week. Cigarettes.
“I’ll call you,” her mother said. “You can’t call in, though. If you need anything, ask the building people. Ask Gray. Ask Oleander’s mother, if you want.”
Entire cartons of cigarettes and boxes of Barton’s chocolate truffles.
“Oly’s getting weird,” said Leah. By which she meant that Oleander had a serious boyfriend, an impressively creepy one inherited from her sister, and red needle-spots on the backs of her hands, which Oly wore as if she had been marked.
“Her mother likes you,” said Helen. “God help me if its one of those empowerment things with mirrors and speculums.”
Fifty dollars a week, she could buy Coca-Cola and Oreos and Trix, like at other people’s houses. She could buy coffee rings from Cake Masters, and actual Tampax, instead of pads. With the 50 emergency she could buy a dragonfly pendant with a tiny spoon at the bottom, like some of the girls had. To wear. With a silver chain, just to wear.
“You can eat breakfast at the greasy spoon and dinner at the Chinese,” her mother said. “Just make sure the silverware is clean. If it isn’t clean, sweetie, you have to ask for new.”
Everything she bought would go on a list. Things to Hide Before She Gets Back.
“You can go to the movies,” her mother said. “Just make sure it’s an afternoon show and you don’t sit near any men. At least four rows away, Leah. You have to count.”
Leah began counting. Number of days with windows open to the airshaft, so smoke could sift out. Number of three-year-old codeine tablets in the medicine cabinet, remnants from her father’s sickness. Inches of vodka in the cabinet over the fridge, ditto. How many kids she knew, and whether that was enough to have a party, and whether the party would be boring because she had nothing to barter for their company except codeine and vodka, and she might be too scared to tell about those.
“Can I wear your fur jacket?”
Who knew, she might do anything. She might meet a boy in the park. He might push her up against a tree, abrading the white fur.
“Ten pounds of fat,” said her mother. “Ten globulous, quivering pounds.” Her glance flicked toward Leah’s thighs, an involuntary inspection that Leah always seemed to pass but that somehow made her feel stripped, like those dreams where she has forgotten to wear clothes.
Helen put the cornerless heart of chocolate in her mouth and closed her eyes. “Not to school,” she said. “And not in the rain. I can’t afford a new one.” Her ribs rose and fell; they glowed through the silk of her blouse.
“I have found my calling, you know,” said Helen. “I can make anything beautiful.”
On Friday morning Leah said good-bye to her mother, an act that involved standing quite still while Helen lifted two coppery leather suitcases, craned her neck, thrust forward a cheekbone and delivered a kiss that did not so much land on Leah’s face as glance off it.
Leah went to school and came home and froze, listening hard to nothing. She wondered where the Adirondacks were. The word speculum floated into her thoughts, causing intense disturbances.
She rolled up her rug, sank a mop into a pail of hot water, added one cup of white vinegar and washed her floor.
While the floor dried she ate the first box of Barton’s truffles entire and drank a quart of milk, an excess that made her want to race crazily down Broadway, dodging cabs. Instead she prayed her one prayer in the bathroom until the Barton’s came up. She poured bleach into the toilet and Windexed the mirror and looked in the medicine cabinet. Then she poured lemon oil onto a chamois and rubbed the rosewood dining table. She tried to rub the Breuer chairs, but they were varnished so it didn’t take.
She turned on every lamp and light switch. Thought: I could sleep anywhere. Helen’s sofa bed: a sacrilege in white. Or tent the table with a sheet and sleep under it like a child. No: she might get grabbed–bony feet sticking out at one end like handles.
She did 44 trigonometric equations, solving for X. She loved X, loved the way it swung from each equation like a gymnast off the unevens, landing squarely on the page. After math Leah graduated the items in the medicine cabinet by size and arranged them for equidistance. She brushed her hair one hundred strokes.
Then she poured approximately two teaspoons of vodka into a glass, lit a Winston and stalked about in her nightgown smoking and drinking like a divorced lady, except not really drinking, just touching the tip of her tongue to the vodka.
The apartment, to her amazement, stayed tethered to the building.
“Get this,” she told Oleander on the phone. “She’s gone.”
Oly was allowed to do anything she wanted, but she had no privacy to do it in. She and her mother had to share a big bed, which stayed unmade. Clothing sprawled on the floor and people flopped on the sofa without considering sneaker placement, and books were left face down with their spines stretched open, and sometimes Mrs. Prideau would dog-ear a hardcover book or write in it, and you could take a beer without asking even if you were 15, but there were no coasters.
Anywhere. That’s what Mrs. Prideau said. Just set it down anywhere.
Leah thought about damage control. “Just till Sunday,” she said.
“I call the living room,” Oly said. “Guess what Nestor’s got.”
Nestor was 19. He never considered sneaker placement, and he tended to wander around a room picking things up, things that had been carefully sited or maybe even graduated by size, and putting them down haphazardly, browsing for a souvenir.
“You can’t sleep here with a boy,” Leah said. “My mother would burst a blood vessel.”
She padded around in socks. She took inventory of various relics: Silverplate frame with photograph of her dad, who she was not allowed to talk about: What’s gone is gone, Leah. Right. A string of red glass beads, like drops of blood on their cotton bedding. Lacy waist-high underwear, folded in thirds, best not to look. Cream silk blouses, ironed on low and hung on padded hangers with tissue paper in their sleeves.
Listen, Helen had said, it makes everything sound new.
Her father’s wedding band, broad and faceted, folded into a Kleenex.
Touching everything exactly once. She had to do that: take one finger, and stroke a thing. When she was done touching everything once she tried on her dad’s wedding ring. It slipped off every finger but the thumb, and then she couldn’t tug it off.
Lights blazing, she prepared for sleep—turndown of top sheet by 45 degrees, followed by calibration of self into the exact mathematical center of the bed.
“She’s probably got a lover,” said Oleander. “She’s probably in a hotel.”
What Nestor had was a tank of nitrous from Mt. Sinai, where he was an orderly. The tank was as tall as a fire hydrant—dark green, with a rounded bottom so it couldn’t stand. “I bring back the empties,” said Nestor, gripping it with his knees. “And air ain’t stealing, right, baby?”
He screwed on the regulator, turned a knob. The tank sighed, then fell silent. Oleander, lying on the sofa, lifted her head out of his lap to look.
“My mother is at a health retreat with no men,” said Leah, “and nitrous oxide is not air.” She wondered what would happen if she told them to leave. They would say no. They would say: What are you, crazy? Then she would be wearing the loser hat, and everyone would stay exactly where they were, but quiet, and ugly. What was it Nestor’s profile reminded her of? Mole? Something that burrowed.
“Nitrous oxide is a gas,” she said, curling her toes into the rya rug. “N-two-O.”
“Anything you say, Doc.” Nestor palmed the plastic mask and fitted it to Oly’s face. She closed her eyes to receive it. He kept his hand there, holding it over her nose and mouth.
“Where’s the strap?” said Leah.
“No men sounds like an unhealthy retreat to me,” said Oly, and went into a rupture of giggles.
“Don’t want no strap,” said Nestor. “You pass out, you better hope that mask falls off.”
Oly laughed. It sounded like underwater. Then her laugh trailed off like the end of a melody. When it started again it rose to a slight hysteria, with notes of keening. After a while she lapsed, distracted, into quiet.
Nestor didn’t seem to notice anything odd. “Kill people with a strap,” he said.
“My dentist uses a strap.”
“Dentist got you plugged into two tanks. One for oxygen.” He had the bright black eyes of an animal, too. Anteater, maybe. Something with a snout.
Oleander mumbled a word into the mask. It sounded like daddy. Her facial muscles slackened. Her arm slid off the sofa, striking a beer bottle and hanging at an odd, languid angle. “Jesus,” said Leah, lunging to right the bottle. A rivulet of beer streamed under the sofa, and Oly’s fingers trailed in the liquid.
“Just beer,” said Nestor amiably, and closed his own eyes, preparation for the sacrament of the mask. His hair, dark and shiny and long, fanned out across Helen’s white bouclé upholstery.
“It is not just beer,” said Leah, yanking Kleenex from a box. She wondered if she was now officially engaged in the act of partying, an act that might require vigilant cleanup but that would overnight license her to use language like wasted and trashed. She wondered if Oly and Nestor would do anything on the sofa bed, later, and whether they would leave some kind of stain.
Nestor’s chest rose, shuddered slightly, and fell. His breathing under the mask was even and deep. His lips widened into a private smile, and after a while his knees parted, letting the tank tip forward on its rounded bottom. The tank struck Helen’s faux-Giacometti coffee table, bit a chip from the glass top, and shot out a wandering, threadlike crack.
Bloodless, unseen, the crack slivered under Leah’s nails. It laddered up her spine, spidered into the sinus below her left eye. Then it bored slowly, slowly into bone—one of Helen’s migraines, maybe. Shrapnel from something Leah had not known could explode.
“I am so dead,” she said. The words tuneless as breath.
Nestor let the mask drop onto his chest and held up a tall, silencing finger. His eyes remained closed, his head tipped back. The smile did not narrow for a long time. After some minutes he opened his eyes and said “Re-entry,” and slowly leaned forward. He pulled the tank back and inspected the damage.
Then he looked at Leah, who had all ten fingers deep in her hair, lifting it from the roots.
“Stop that,” he said. “Listen. I am the Dark Lord of the North, Servant of the Three Pure Ones. He with his right foot upon the tortoise and the snake. And I am telling you this one truth, Doc. It is just fuckin’ beer.”
Leah stared at him.
“The Tao of Nitrous,” he said. He stretched his hand out toward her, as if offering a scrap to a small animal. In his palm, face down, lay the mask. “Come here.”
He didn’t even offer to pay.
“Where do you get glass?” said Leah.
“From sand,” said Nestor. “You get glass from sand. Come here. William James did this shit, you know.”
Did what? Broke tables? There had to be a place that sold glass. Maybe a window company. She crawled toward him. His eyes were again closed. She sank her face into his palm. She didn’t know who William James was. They didn’t have a television—she didn’t know who a lot of people were.
“Say it,” he said. “It’s just beer.”
She breathed, like at the dentist. After a few breaths her brain blinked on—a pinball machine when the quarter drops in.
Two quarters. Pinball lights began flashing. Flippers sprang to attention. The machine lifted off the ground and began to spin. Steel balls floated like blue planets.
“Say it, Doc.”
Her mother was going to kill her. She laughed right into Nestor’s hand. Her mother might have a lover and there might be a stain and her mother was going to kill her. Electrons swirled and sank in her body. They twinkled like snowflakes. Her private area felt joyously electrical, as if lightning had struck nearby.
From Oleander came a low symphony of consciousness—the sounds of long muscles being stretched, the sucking of beer off fingertips. A noise like purring. “So beautiful,” said Oly, each syllable striking a musical note.
Leah buried her face in the hand of the Dark Lord of the North, and drank.
Sunday evening she snagged a window seat on the 79th Street crosstown, watched rain crawl sideways on the glass. Felt the bus shake as it plunged into the Transverse.
Long ago Gray had set a box, a tea caddy, at the back of Helen’s desk. It contained things. Personal things. Maybe letters, thought Leah. She imagined dipping one hand inside and stirring, trying to resolve certain mysteries by texture and shape. She wondered how she would explain herself to Gray’s steadfast, receptive beard.
I’m locked out—I need glass—
But it was Philip who eventually answered, bare-chested despite the chill. Leah looked immediately at his feet: ambery, as if he’d had them gilded. And bony, with long, golden toes.
“It’s the child,” said Philip. He slipped into Gray’s older-gentleman voice as if into a cloak, and in that moment Leah understood that Philip knew Gray in some intensely private way, but that he did not love Gray.
“Exceedingly wet child,” said Philip. “You can come in if you don’t drip.”
Dripping, Leah hesitated, searching for something clever to say. Philip glanced past her, up and down the dark sidewalk. The street was isolated. “I’m locked out,” said Leah. She fingered the housekey in her pocket. “The supers not home and I think my mom keeps an emergency—”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah.”
Philip opened the door wider. The sweep of his arm struck her as both courtly and sardonic. She stepped into the hall, its walls papered with antique maps that yellowed elegantly under varnish. The fur of Helen’s jacket had clumped into wet, sleek needles. When Philip led her into the studio she saw tidepools of shadow beneath his scapulae. She knew what an invert was: a man with carnal appetites for another man. But she couldn’t imagine what Philip and Gray might actually do beyond the lighting of English cigarettes, the caressing of French sideboards.
“I’m ruining your rug.” Her hightops—perversely red, to annoy her mother—were dark with rain.
“Not rug, darling. Aubusson. And not mine.” He poured from a decanter, faceted, like Leah’s ring. “I just vacuum it.”
He handed her a bulging glass. Leah swallowed and burned. She swallowed three more times and felt something tip between her ears, and wondered if that was the alcohol or the half-tablet of expired codeine, or both.
“I partied so hard last night,” Leah said. She thought this sounded fairly impressive, so she kept going. “I was just totaled,” she said. “I was just wrecked.”
“You forgot snookered,” said Philip. “And shit-faced. Were you shit-faced?” He ran the back of his hand down the front of her jacket. Then he sniffed his fingers.
“What?” said Leah, alarmed.
He stepped toward her. They were exactly the same height: six foot nothing. She did not want to meet his eyes up close but she also did not want to look down and see his nipples, which were tiny and brown, with infinitesimal bumps. She backed up to the edge of her mothers shiny desk and sat on it. Under the shine was an old Victorian table with paws, but Gray had talked an auto-body shop into spraying it black.
The table had no drawers. Instead it had a real tortoiseshell caddy for Helen’s private miscellany, which might or might not include an actual key, a hotel receipt, some clue to her current location, a location that Leah could not telephone and therefore did not entirely believe in. When Helen was working, her purse would sit closed at her feet for hours, like a small dog.
“Rain,” said Philip, “is the second-most sensual liquid. Would you like to know the first?”
“No,” said Leah. She cleared her throat. “Where’s Gray?”
“Opera. Taste.” He ran a forefinger down the spiky fur again and held it near her mouth.
“Philip,” said Leah, ducking her head, “I’m locked out.”
“Taste,” said Philip, and moved in so near he was standing between her knees, and it was almost unbearable—the beauty of his chest, the splendor of it, hairless, lean, the way it gave off its own light, and how that light reminded Leah of a lamp with a peach-colored scarf tossed over it.
Her hands felt like heavy appendages, large as stop signs.
She could twist away now and grope for the tea caddy. Or she could open her lips and admit the shocking tip of the finger of Gray Alistair’s houseboy, tasting first the clear water, the cool non-taste of it, and under that, in the channels of his whorled fingerprint, the notes of salt, Remy and Dunhill, of whole-grain leather, of the inside of a pocket. Of oily, fat black crumbs nestled in foil. Of smells from other peoples bodies.
She could taste all that. And then she could take her enormous hands, her freezing palms whose creases and lines were improbably filling with sweat, and press them to the source of light directly in the center of Philip’s chest.
“Jesus Christ,” she said, remembering. “Where do I get a piece of glass?”
Philip tipped his head, so his look slid toward Leah down the top of his cheekbone.
“From me,” he said. “I order it. What size?”
“You order it?” said Leah. “That’s it? You just pick up the phone and order it?” She closed her eyes. “Coffee-table size,” she said. Nestor was right. She had thought he was wrong but he was telling the truth. It was just beer.
And as it sank in about the glass and the beer, a second fragment of the Tao of Nitrous was revealed unto her: that now would be a fruitful time to keep her eyes closed.
Philip’s gold fingers skated onto her hips. He buried his face under the wet fur and bit her on the shoulder. She did not jump. The tea caddy was just within her reach; she could search it blindly with one hand if she wanted.
“Keep your shirt on,” Philip said into her hair.
Leah did not know if he was being literal or snide. She stood perfectly still. He slid his hands under the rabbit jacket to her ribcage. None of it counted, because Philip was neither entirely normal nor entirely boy. She thought how the space he encircled was cage as much as rib, air more than bone. She thought how this might be a reason, empty and pure, that a person might not eat.
“Control yourself,” Philip muttered.
When he kissed her, he used everything: lips, teeth, tongue, hair, the sides of his face, both hands. He did this until Leah started feeling like the sand inside an hourglass.
Then he took a sudden step back and said, “All done.” Lifted his leonine hair with one wrist. “Just curious,” he said.
How do I love him, Leah thought: let me count the ways. He emitteth his own light; he controlleth the elements.
Also, she loved the way he could simultaneously want and discard her. She even loved knowing that if she lunged for the tea caddy, he would grab it away and look for himself.
Did it casually, then. Pulled it toward her as if bored, as if she had fingered its contents a dozen times. And there was, in fact, a key, though definitely not to the apartment. “Voilà,” she said, and held it up brightly.
“You got what you came for,” said Philip. “Maybe you should go.”
“Right,” she said. She reached out and touched the arch of Philip’s eyebrow. He blinked. Then she put her finger in his ear. The ear was serpentine like the inside of a shell, and faintly sandy. A sound came out of her. Tiny, animalistic. One syllable.
She hit him.
She didn’t know where the command came from—hit him, in the face, hard, now—only that she was sure she was supposed to do it. Was astonished to find that it burned the hand, astonished again when her left cheekbone detonated, when she discovered that a slap, if one is at the receiving end, feels exactly like the word: fuck.
“Sorry,” said Philip, “but you don’t get to do that.”
Do not get to slap, she thought. Do not get the soft and whispery first kiss. Do not get the thumb-sized ring to wear on a thin gold chain.
“Invert,” said Leah.
But this was not what she wanted to say. What she wanted to say was she was sorry.
The glow from Philip’s chest deepened to apricot. His fingers flexed. “Get out.”
“You get out,” said Leah. “It’s not your house. It’s not even your rug.”
He grabbed the fur at her collar. Helen’s jacket made a tiny tearing sound. “I hate you,” he said. He took a fistful of orange hair, pulled her head to one side. Whatever was going to happen would happen now.
“Bitch,” he said.
She was not afraid. Everything inside her was flowing toward Philip, and everything in Philip was flowing toward her. She loved how the thing that was wrong with Philip, the piece that was jagged or missing in him, seemed to mirror a piece that was missing in her. She watched him carefully. His lips twisted, and he searched her face as if the room had gone dark.
“I hate you,” said Philip, only lower, and she felt a closing, which was her eyelids, and then an unfolding, which was something entirely else, something better even than the sanctuary she had found in the hand of the dark lord. “Hate you,” said Philip, and he gripped her arm as if to sink her, or to keep her from sinking, and here is where he made the sound of a moving current, here is where he mashed his mouth against hers so that she thought of the palms of saints or was it pilgrims, here is where he said hate you into her mouth and she said I hate you too.
—Dylan Landis’s writing has appeared in Tin House, the Santa Monica Review, the Bellevue Literary Review, and New York Stories. Her story “Rana Fegrina” was anthologized in A Bestial Noise: A Tin House Fiction Reader (Tin House Books, 2003). The recipient of the Ray Bradbury Fellowship, Landis currently lives in Los Angeles, where she is finishing a novel, Floorwork, and writing a collection of interlocked stories.
I find the idea that we write alone laughable, even egotistical. Poetry is a palimpsest that has been endlessly rewritten—it’s a social space we share with others.