Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.
First I was Ren’s guest, a role that indicated only the short length of our acquaintance, rather than what it would become later: the strategic adherence to a balance of formality and intimacy designed to showcase only my most appealing qualities. The decorum of the international exchange student, whose ritualized manners and prepared phrases serve to slow the flow of conversation, all the better to navigate illegible colloquialisms and customs, comes naturally to me. I had exercised its gentility in my other travels, and was glad to have a practiced vocabulary when I began spending the night at Ren’s house. I believed my deference was not without charm, because it originated in genuine pleasure; I enjoy being taught gently. One of the most felicitous lessons involves breakfast: what is customary for you to eat in the morning? My own eating habits certainly had origins in my parentage, but mine was a family of sailors, willing to scrounge whatever provisions we could, with an emphasis on snap and endurance: Cheetos. Crackers. Popcorn. Cereal. Foods best enjoyed stale. Whereas Ren was an island of her own, but off the coast of the country of her mother. Ren kept a core of foods in stock at all times, those maternally decreed to be the correct balance of yin and yang, carbohydrates and fat, lasting energy and quick sugar. Her island practiced direct matrilineal knowledge that was rarely contravened. Before we met, Ren had gone on a date with someone ten years younger than herself. “She told me she was eating a salad for breakfast every morning and feeling great about it,” Ren said.
We are the same age, Ren and I, but I take pride in my malleability, my suggestibility. When people tell me anecdotes, I without fail receive them as parables. A story is never just a story; it is a lesson from which I can learn. And when you want to learn, there are lessons everywhere. The novitiate inside me sprang to attention: Salad for breakfast, I pondered. I could do that, salad for breakfast. Then I saw the manner in which Ren moved her chin. It wasn’t the simple downward wag of affirmation, it was the sharp upwards poke of rebuttal, signaling an exclamation point followed by a question mark. The novitiate crossed out salad for breakfast; it was not a local custom. Should I get a hankering for salad between the hours of 7 AM to noon, hospitality would provide it, but it would discomfit my host—not to the point of alarm, but pricking her with the first inklings of doubt in the integrity of my civilization’s foundations, which would in turn determine the longevity of relations between our respective societies. Ren sighed and then set about making us breakfast, using the assemblage method (in which the various elements are chopped, heaped in discreet piles, then placed next to each other but are never, ever mixed), the technique that is invariably used in her kingdom.
Ren’s apartment was drafty and I was always cold. She would wrap me up in blankets and this was how I roamed around her apartment, like a fur trapper, my pouches dangling off me. It was very sexy to her, these dangling pouches; I would lean over to pick something up and find her hand reaching into its folds, tugging it open. Then we would be in bed for a long time. Then we would fall asleep.
On one visit, I woke up to a cluster of distinct sounds that, if they had not been so quiet, I would have described to myself as manic. Then there was a long silence. And then it happened again, a sound like a tiny person with an even tinier quill pen scratching out a miniscule letter of protest.
“Ren,” I said. “Do you hear that?” My country is very loud, and people very rarely reach the age of thirty-five without experiencing a significant amount of hearing loss.
“Yeah,” she yawned. “That’s Pierre.”
Pierre, I thought. Hmmm: Pierre. I considered my clue and assembled what information I could: genteel, debonair. These were qualities that I too could appreciate. I went back to sleep, assured.
The next night, when I awoke to the same sounds, I knew the name to give them: Pierre. Pierre was seasonal, she had explained to me earlier that day, Pierre was inevitable, Pierre did not upset the local economy of her country nor trouble the local sentiment. And so Pierre was allowed to cohabit. The teacher’s pet inside me bristled at Pierre’s rudeness—I, for one, would not have interpreted Ren’s hospitality as an invitation to indulge in nocturnal antics at the expense of Ren’s circadian rhythms, but okay: Pierre. Tonight, though, Pierre seemed to be truly in a frenzy. I sat up to listen better. And then, suddenly, I saw Pierre. The mouse zipped along the wall and disappeared into the shadows under Ren’s kitchen table.
In the morning, Ren went off to work and I considered my situation anew. Despite the dashing name, I did not like Pierre. To begin with, I felt certain that Pierre was not singular but multiple. In my country, when you saw one mouse, what you were actually seeing was the head of a household of mice, and I was willing to bet it was the same in Ren’s country. When I diffidently raised this issue (for I was her guest, after all), Ren assured me that Pierre had very limited vision and so it was in Pierre’s interest to stick to a linear track. I was, I confess, slightly skeptical of Ren’s confidence in Pierre’s limited route; Ren’s apartment was one big room, and where we slept on the floor did not represent so wide a detour for Pierre. But Ren explained that Pierre had no interest in the bed. “As long as you never eat in it!” Ren underlined.
This question, that of the custom of eating in bed, was one we had already debated more than once, although in a congenial or perhaps collegial way. It was a difference in the habits of our respective countries that we discovered right away, since eating in bed was considered a daily pleasure and simple life enhancement in my country, whereas in Ren’s it was almost as unacceptably unhygienic as expectorating onto someone’s living room floor. Ultimately the disparity between our attitudes was too mystifying to threaten friction; we couldn’t stop tilting our heads at each other and drawing our eyebrows together and exclaiming upon the fundamentally bizarre logic of the other’s society.
But I certainly would never eat in Ren’s bed. And there was much to admire in the precepts of Ren’s country that allowed Pierre to thrive: a fluid and warm definition of appropriate cohabitation, colloquially known as the “live-and-let-live” policy (which was nevertheless unequally upheld or perhaps extended only to other mammals; I had seen Ren kill a cockroach with her bare hand—another matrilineal practice, I was told). Further, the cohabitation was conceived by Ren as equitable to both parties based on the fact that Pierre was nocturnal. It was Ren’s apartment, sure, but since she only really used it during the day, in any sentient sense anyway, why shouldn’t Pierre have the run of the place during the night, when she was too asleep to define its potentialities? The weird generosity of this logic, I realized, was one of the foundations of Ren’s civilization and had made Ren the exact country with which I was so enamored. Pierre would stay.
However, unpredictability inevitably occurs. The next night, as I, faithful defender of the realm, sat watchfully in the bed, and Ren slept and Pierre scratched out his j’accuse, Pierre did something that Ren assured me Pierre would never do: Pierre ran straight towards us. “Ah!” I shrieked. Ren whipped up, the blankets dropping off her shoulders. We clutched each other and pressed ourselves to the wall. “Go away!” she yelled. “Ah!” I yelled. Extending one hand beyond the mattress’s periphery, Ren’s fingers scrabbled up the nearest book and hurled it at Pierre, finally causing him to veer off-course and scamper away. “Ah!” we gasped in unison. Ren laughed and went horizontal, pulling me against her body and throwing the covers back over us in a single offhanded gesture of reclamation. I laughed too, but stayed awake.
The next morning, after Ren went to work and the adrenaline of our narrow escape had been flushed out of my body, I discovered in my core a fussy little diplomat who was far better groomed than I. He felt compelled to speak; would I allow it? Patiently, this diplomat took off his glasses, wiped them on his handkerchief, which he then folded away neatly in his breast pocket, and finally returned his glasses to his aquiline nose. Encouraged by his beautiful manners, I indicated my consent; the floor was his. The diplomat patiently but vigorously rehearsed his position:
I have an embassy in this country and am entitled to certain conditions. Could not Ren reciprocate at least some of the same concessions that I have made in coming here? I have eaten the local foods, conformed to the local customs of behavior. I have not eaten in bed—and why haven’t I?
The diplomat paused for effect before handily providing the answer with a certain amount of conversational pep I would not have expected of him:
Because I loved these customs! Because I found these customs rather engaging and extremely stimulating. Because—
Suddenly, the diplomat was cut off by an interjection from a new voice, as though my mind was a door left unlocked by the diplomat, a crime of opportunity. This new arrival was a reactionary. He was tidy, but blandly so, without the diplomat’s flair for ornament; I didn’t like the looks of him, nor his cutting, nasal voice:
Was it not also because, simply put, I loved all rules?
The diplomat winced at the indecorous rhetorical thrust. But the reactionary’s lack of politesse did not alter the truth of his sentiment, which he outlined scathingly:
Was I not an ideal visitor not only because I was malleable—
Yes, yes, the diplomat nodded his head, ostentatiously displaying his willingness to negotiate.
—but predominantly because, in truth, I enjoyed fitting myself around these rules for their own sake? Yes, I loved wearing the local costume, the way Ren would drape a blanket around my shoulders and then hold my wrappings in place by decisively knotting a scarf around me.
Well that much was true, I nodded; its pressure felt like her hands around my waist all day. But the reactionary had no need for my feeble assent, rolling right over it with his inexorable logic:
I loved her rules because they showcased my frankly sensual flexibility, my ability to go with Ren’s flow. I was embraced by her rules. But Pierre? Pierre was chaos. Pierre could not be predicted. Pierre did not stick to his side of the bargain. Pierre did not even appear to know of the existence of the rules. Surely it was dangerous to assume his eventual contented adoption of those rules in place of his own free-wheeling governance.
Somehow my head continued nodding, mute in apparent agreement, barely noticing the diplomat’s exit to register an official complaint. The reactionary concluded triumphantly:
The entry of Pierre into the equation revealed that I had a love for rules in and of themselves as an organizing principle, rather than a love specific to Ren’s rules, as shown by my clear abhorrence for those inherent loopholes, such as the one that allowed Pierre’s chaos to threaten the symmetry of their mutually-disinterested cohabitation.
Completing his speech with one quick nod, as though scrawling his signature on a document, the reactionary swept out. And that was that. The reactionary had won. Without consulting Ren, I went out and bought mousetraps. Pierre must go.
It wasn’t that long ago, the Pierre affair, but it marked the beginning of a subtle and potentially ruinous change in me, a blemish I hope to conceal with a lively program of conversational arts, amusing sexual diversions, and enriching cultural exchange. With each return to Ren’s country, I emphasize the guest’s deference to local traditions, I marvel at Ren’s ingenious creations, I delight in acquiescencing to the superiority of the culinary accomplishments of Ren’s country. Of course, the diplomat regularly appears, ready to lend a hand with the unpacking and packing up of my possessions upon arrival, departure.
But along with the diplomat comes another. Not the reactionary; he has been exiled and I have put my trust in the strength of various travel restrictions and trade embargoes to impede his movements should he attempt a second approach. No, this new visitor is over-familiar, unfailingly polite but subterraneously menacing; I sense in him a miserly criticality, a lack of some particular sensory organ that makes him immune to charm, wonder, and miracle. He operates as though he’s accepted a minority stake in Ren’s country (against his natural prudence, he need not add) which entitles him to offer unsolicited notions of improvement. This miser acknowledges the sovereignty of Ren’s country, in spirit at least, but insists to me that although his suggestions need not be followed, still they must be listened to, as though he held the debt to her country in his fortified, grasping claw. The diplomat I can live with, if I must. After all, he is rather helpful when visas and documents are needed; the diplomat is nothing if not organized. But the miser, I would like to banish him, although I have not yet been successful in devising a plan thorough and crafty enough to extricate him completely and for good. Ren, meanwhile, seems to be ignorant of all this, or gracefully pretends to be anyway; her country continues to function as it always has, and for this I am eternally grateful. She is my first real lover, and I cannot help but notice that the appearance and continued habitation of these men coincided with my first travels in the country of love. Because I love her very much, I can only hope to quiet these companions for now, and pray that these men will prove to be the most unpleasant of the multitudes inside me.
Lee Relvas is an artist and writer living in New York. She is a recent recipient of the Rema Hort Mann Emerging Artist grant and the Sharpe-Walentas Studio Program residency. She has contributed fiction to Joyland Magazine, and essays to various exhibition catalogues.
Originally published in
This issue features interviews with Chitra Ganesh, Tania Cypriano, Charles Atlas, Netta Yerushalmy, Vi Khi Nao, Amani Al-Thuwaini, Andrea Hasler, and Bruce Boone, as well as fiction from Verónica Gerber Bicecci, Justin Taylor, Rebecca Dinerstein Knight, and Lee Relvas, and poetry from Shuzo Takiguchi and Bruce Boone.
Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.