Haunted Houses by Lynne Tillman

BOMB 12 Spring 1985
012 Spring Summer 1985

Mark read aloud from his notebook: Once I was in a sentimental hospital. The nurses uniform was starched, and her hands were soft, the fingers wrinkled, as if she’d been in the bathtub all day long. When I cried out she heard me, rushing to my bedside, a line of concern etched into her noble brow. A hand quickly laid on my feverish forehead, she soothed me, and restored my soul … My soul, Mark repeated, and faltered. They talked about the soul, he said bitterly. Mark dangled, like a pendulum, over sentimentality and cynicism, his direction changing, reflecting a kind of weather. While he was sensitive, it was a sensitivity not unlike that experienced under laughing gas. You’re numb and don’t care about anything and you don’t know if you’re able to control your facial muscles or not. When pain comes, in this indifferent state, it is bad, worse, because you have been lulled into a kind of inviolability, Mark’s favorite word, next to epicene. Most of the time you don’t feel anything, as if encased by a prophylactic. All this led him to the Pre-Raphaelites. Pubic hair, he told Grace, was absent from their paintings of nude women. It was discovered later. All the hair was on top, mounds and mounds of it. Grace slid off the bar stool and walked to the jukebox where she watched the record turn. Mark was rejected by some men because they were straight, he rejected others because they were too serious, and some rejected him because he was too much of a woman, or not enough of one. I’m a displaced person, a country without a man. A guest in my own body. You have beautiful eyes, Grace told him. The doorway to the ignored soul, he muttered. His bible, his comfort, was “Notes on Camp,” which he insisted Grace read as a way to know him. Grace, some people would call you a fag hag, you know. They can go fuck themselves, she said. I love you when you’re brutal, he said.

Silence is golden hung over the sink in Ruth’s kitchen, its yellow walls and shelves, its linoleum floor, her domain. It was the room from which she wrote Grace those occasional letters, during which time she glanced every now and then at the sign above the sink, which restored to her something that might have been lost for a moment or two. Smoothing her house dress under her as she sat down at the circular table, chosen because you could fit more people around it and it meant harmony, she took out her letter paper with her name at its top, her married name she always added silently, and touched the raised letters. Dear Grace, Your father and I worry that … The coffeemaker gurgled, and Ruth walked over to the pot, reminding herself of that woman in the TV commercial. Why did that woman wear pearls around her neck when she was washing the dishes? Ruth touched her bare skin, where a necklace could have been, and felt sensible.

On a cold Providence morning Will walked around the campus, lonely for Grace. She hadn’t called him in two weeks and the last time she saw him she told him she couldn’t handle his problem. In the distance two shapes were clinging to each other, and as if life weren’t bad enough, it was Grace sticking her tongue into some guy’s mouth he’d never seen before, and she probably hadn’t either. Look at that. Will ran in the opposite direction to a diner where he ordered a cup of coffee and saw nothing. Blind, he drank it and asked himself why God would bother with such petty details like his heart when there were wars, famines, tornadoes that needed attention. He thought about what going off to war would do at a moment like this, and wished he felt like dying for his country, or being a mercenary, instead of sitting around bleeding for what might appear to anyone as no reason. A girl.

       Dear G,

I saw you with him, and knew you had lied to me. We can never be friends. We were friends for weeks and then came that night, my night, and it didn’t work. Did you ever think I was scared or nervous? Did you ever think you were tight? My problem, but your problem too. I was there for you but you weren’t there for me. No one had ever been there for you. I know that. I feel the way I felt after Coltrane died except you wouldn’t understand that because you don’t feel … You’re like every other white person in this country—dead. You don’t feel, do you know that? You don’t dig men, you only dig men who are half female. “White women become men things, a weird combination, sucking the male juices to build a navel orange, which is themselves.”—Le Roi Jones. I’m even sensitive enough to realize you don’t love me or never did. Maybe I’ll kill myself, maybe I won’t. I wanted to prove myself to you. And you’re nothing. I’ll always love you. I hate you.


This letter was followed by an apology that told her no one would ever teach him as much or would ever be as cool. Mark couldn’t get over women’s being compared with a navel orange, and elaborated on the fag hag stuff. Grace felt little or nothing beyond the initial shock of receiving it, it being in black and white, and even enjoyed the letter because it was honest. People don’t talk like that. It’s like Poe. You’re becoming more literary every day, Mark said, and she told him to go to hell.

Grace had cut off from Will the way her mother used to cut away material when sewing from a pattern. The big scissors bearing down, her mother’s hand steady, discarding without a second look. The revulsion had turned into disinterest. She couldn’t explain to Mark how Will’s impotence caused her to feel. Trapped with him in a kind of void, and then maybe they’d disappear together. It was as if she were that soft penis and how could she tell Mark that. She laughed out loud, to herself, watching the r and b band.

“The Telltale Heart” is just like “The Black Cat” except it’s an old man who the main character thinks has the evil eye. Maybe Poe thought the eye was the soul, too, the way Mark does, and that it could look right into every evil part of him. Mark had given Grace a cross that lay on the table next to her bed. On its back were the words Faith and Grace, Faith vertical and Grace horizontal, both sharing the letter A. That was the scarlet letter, he said, when he handed it to her. Killing his wife was a mistake that makes the story more horrible. But what got Grace about both stories was that suddenly a man wants to kill something that he loves. Just like that. Out of nowhere. You can understand something, somewhere deep inside you, but you can’t express what you understand and what you don’t understand. It’s as if the killing substitutes for not being able to understand. In the story. And for the person who’s reading the story. It’s weird. They never get away with it and you know that they’d do it again, because even if they knew they’d be caught, they can’t help themselves. They’re helpless. Slaves.

Grace did not want to appear slavish. There was playing with fire and there was getting burned. She might be slavish to desire, but that was her desire. There were slaves and there were slaves. Her private life was her business. She owned it like a coat or a record. She imagined a sign on an office door that read, Fantasy—My Business, and she’d be a kind of detective operating a lost and found. What she thought about when she stared out a window or rode on a bus or looked in a mirror over a bar, that was hers. Or that was hers, that momentary sensation. In a way, she thought, it was all anybody ever really had.

The epicene is everything was written in pink nail polish on the frame around Mark’s bathroom mirror. Gay is better than homosexual, as a word, he was saying, because homosexual sounds so single-minded. On the other hand, when I say I’m gay, I feel I have to be happy. Grace washed the dishes and Mark stood behind her, speaking to her back. He said he’d fallen in love with a boy with long brown wavy hair. The feeling had extended beyond their first date, as he put it, and the boy—he was only three years younger than Mark, but Mark felt ancient—had moved in. Grace interrupted. The plots are nearly identical. Then I read that Poe said the most perfect subject for a poem was a dead woman or the death of a beautiful woman, I forget which. My photographs are always the same, Mark said, you walk down the street the same way. But if you’re going to write a story, why would you write the same story again and again. Maybe you’ll finally get it right. Or, maybe you like the story better than anything else.

Mark had given her an old movie poster. Born to be bad. To be kissed. The movie’s title, Human Desire, written in even bigger letters, the poster hung over her bed. Advertising, Mark asked. It was funny, she knew it seemed like that, like the Rolling Stones were like that, teasing and very aware of it. Probably laughing at all of them. Us. If someone wants to believe the words, let them. They’re only words. She preferred to announce it, to say it before it was said. Throw it at them. Not that you send engraved invitations saying, strange but she doesn’t care, but if you did, they’d probably love it. Usually it’s just a song and no one lives up to it. She answered Celia’s letter, telling her about the poster, and Mark’s new boyfriend and how she worried that she wouldn’t see him as much, and Celia answered the letter, the way she always did, but couldn’t answer the questions that weren’t written. Grace turned over a Velvet Underground album and put the needle down on “All Tomorrow’s Parties.”

There was a new patient in the mental hospital, a 17-year-old girl. Ellen told Grace she was an octaroon, and it turned out that her mother was white and her father black and years ago, when she was two, she’d been taken by her mother’s family and placed for adoption, because they said her mother couldn’t take care of her, she was no more than a child herself. Which was true, she was a child, but it wasn’t that. She loved me, Ellen cried, I know that. She gave me this, and pointed to a battered teddy bear. Then she put her cigarette out in its stomach. Sometimes Ellen didn’t seem crazy at all. She just didn’t have a real home and now she couldn’t take care of herself, all those foster homes, and no one teaching her anything. Next to Ellen, Grace felt accomplished. Ellen would never age in a nuthouse. If she were just a little more in touch, Grace thought they could have been friends, remembering her mother’s admonition that it was more difficult to make friends when you got older. It was said the summer that “Good Vibrations” came out and everyone in high school was saying that Brian Wilson was a genius. Good, good, good vibrations.

Doesn’t the idea of California make you want to vomit? Mark asked. He’d lost so much weight, his eyes bulged and the black kohl around them effected a mask, and he looked, she thought, handsome, sort of like a panda bear. The love of a good boy had changed him, he said. In his photographs now the transvestites and bar people looked at the camera and smiled. Almost. My Mona Lisas. Mark still frequented the pissoirs—he and his boyfriend had an agreement—and he still liked it rough, but not with his one and only. Their apartment was filled with toys and old pictures and ornate lamps. Mark had blown up parts of Sontag’s essay and used it to paper the wall over the couch. “The camp eye has the power to transform experience.” “It’s not all in the eye of the beholder.” “It is the farthest extension in sensibility of the metaphor of life as theater.” What I read to you before, in the bar, that may be the beginning of a play I’m writing, he told her. There’s a part for you. If you’re willing. Oh, you know I’m willful, she answered.

Ruth finished her letter to Grace which had taken nearly two weeks of her time. Not every minute, of course, it just sat on the kitchen table, pushed to the side, brought to the center, and pushed aside again, for all that time. She never asks about her brother who’s in Vietnam fighting for her. He’d even volunteered. Ruth was proud of him. What had Grace said when she was told. She said he was an idiot. She wouldn’t care if he lived or died. Or me, for that matter. She’s mean and wild. Ruth’s letter spoke none of this, just a few cautionary words and a certain tone about the news about her brother. What was the point in fighting anymore.

Mark insisted she wouldn’t have to memorize anything. All she would have to do was read the lines. Maybe wear a costume. Her hospital uniform. She was to be the good nurse who ministered to his soul, but who was also the bad nurse after dark. You’ll change wigs, or something. Acting was a kind of lying and telling the truth at the same time. Whenever Grace lied, she did it so well, she believed it. Maybe that’s why Will’s letter hadn’t bothered her. She believed everything she had said to him and forgot it just as fast. Lying was a way to get out of the house, away from the fights, and it came so naturally, it didn’t feel like lying. So if lies weren’t lies, what was the truth? It was all right Mark saying there wasn’t one truth, that’s easy to accept, but she was talking about her insides, knowing what she felt from what she didn’t feel.

Grace listened to Ellen who was repeating her own name and her mother’s name and a bunch of other words. Today she wasn’t talking the way she could if she wanted to. Grace was sure Ellen tried on some days and decided not to on other days. She could be self-conscious, even critical. But then she’d lapse, disappear. She’d come out of it and return as if she had been away. Dead, she put it. Night of the Living Dead, she told Grace, except I’m the living and the living dead. They win most of the time. That’s why I might as well be dead. Ellen asked her if she thought that being alive was like being dead but inside out. Then she asked, Do you think it’s right to grow flowers? I don’t, she yelled and stamped her feet, agitated again. One of Ellen’s most spectacular episodes was the time she ripped all the geraniums out of the window boxes on doctors’ homes in the good part of town. She tore down ivy, too, very methodically getting every vine, and no one did anything but watch. A crowd grew and the doctors’ maids peered out the windows and doors and shook their heads but no one said anything to Ellen or even called the cops. A young girl pulling out flowers from window boxes and tearing down 50-year-old ivy, that’s a devastating sight, a peek into possession, a particular violence and no one could think of anything to say about it. Not even, What are you doing, because in a way everyone knew what she was doing, and why. Ellen told Grace that she stared some of the onlookers down, waiting, daring them. But nothing. She’d been given day privileges but now she wouldn’t get them anymore.

Grace wrote Celia that she didn’t think of Ellen as female or male. Maybe she didn’t think she was human. Sometimes, she walked through the big arch, away from the hospital, and looked back at the floor where Ellen lived. Looked for her window and imagined her lying on her bed, talking to herself, or just silent. She never had sexy thoughts about Ellen but wondered if Ellen did—about anyone. These thoughts she had about women. When she looked at their breasts like a man. Were they her thoughts? She couldn’t tell. It was like lying and telling the truth. Where does a thought come from? Where does the sound, the moan of sex come from? She asked Celia if she did what she wanted to do.

Maybe indiscretion was the better part of valor. Grace wanted to run at her own discretion. She wanted to be loose and to be held. Her fantasies, she confided to Mark, were the usual crap. Me, Jane, you, Tarzan, tie me up, slap me a little, show me that I like it. Be reckless and then be held accountable. Held down, maybe even punished. That’s the way love is, Mark sang.

When Grace got drunk enough, she told some guy to follow her, as if she were Lauren Bacall telling Bogey all he had to do was whistle. That’s the way love is. You go through men like a hot knife through butter, Mark went on. It’s the other way around, isn’t it, she laughed, or can I be the knife? Sitting at the bar, images running rampant, one abandoning another, she looked at a woman who was looking at a woman who was looking at a man. That’s the way love is. So she’d want some guy to follow her, as if they were playing a grown-up game of hide and seek, except what’s there to discover. The blond at the end of the bar had a small pointed pink tongue, and an expression like a Schnauzer. Grace hated Schnauzers. You set up a chase. Then get trapped. Mark said that sophistication meant an intelligent distance from joy. Or was that jaded. The way that woman was looking at that man. So soft, her guts hanging out. There’s a rock and roll dream in your heart. She watched them fit their bodies together. You’re Mick Jagger and everybody wants you. You can get anybody. The woman’s hand moved down his back. He pressed his knee between her legs. Grace thought about Splendor in the Grass, that moment when Natalie Wood, after getting out of the nuthouse, leaves Warren Beatty and he turns to his pregnant and barefoot wife, and there’s some heat between them, something about animals. She spoke to the guy next to her. She said he could follow her, later. He turned out to have two fingers missing on his right hand, which he didn’t show her until nearly the end of the night, and then, very deliberately, shoving the hand up to her face, saying, My therapist says I should make a point of … It made it worse. Grace realized he hadn’t used that hand at all, had kept it in his lap, drinking with the same hand that he’d touched her with. Just as they’re about to go, he brings it out and waves it in her face. It was like a trick. Or entrapment. I wouldn’t have cared, she told Mark, if he hadn’t hidden it. Everybody’s got something to hide.

Lynne Tillman by Geoffrey O'Brien
Tillman 01
Complicated Love: Dantiel Moniz Interviewed by Rachel Heng
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A powerfully intimate story collection that embraces darkness and light in equal measure.

Freedom and Redemption: Nina Renata Aron Interviewed by Rebecca Schuh
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A memoir about breaking up with an idea of love.

Refusing Erasure: Raven Leilani Interviewed by Sarah Rose Etter
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On candidly depicting a black woman’s consciousness, the contradictions of intimacy, and the joys of other art forms.

Originally published in

BOMB 12, Spring 1985

Cindy Sherman, Dario Fo, Bruce Weber, Lisa Fonssagrives-Penn, and Raymond Voinquel.

Read the issue
012 Spring Summer 1985