Repetition by Leslie Dick

BOMB 25 Fall 1988
025 Fall 1988


My stepfather’s golden pencil was a present from his mistress. He and my mother both thought of her as his mistress. But she was indiscreet with intent; she gave him a gold mechanical pencil and he used it constantly. Since they had been married for a relatively short time, such a serious affair, in a small town, with a woman who lived down the road, was something of a shock to my mother. The woman was a dear friend of my mother’s dear friend, so it was really quite messy. They all lived in nice detached houses with gardens, within spitting distance of each other.

Every day when he came home from the office, my stepfather would empty his pockets, putting a pile of change, his keys, and his gold pencil neatly on top of his chest of drawers. In the morning, he would slide it into his inside jacket pocket, and depart for work, kissing my mother goodbye, as she stood in the kitchen in her dressing gown. Occasionally he would stop seeing his woman friend, or promise to stop seeing her. Occasionally my mother would threaten divorce, or talk to a lawyer. This state of affairs continued for years.

At one point, when they had been getting on rather better—when it seemed clear that indeed for the time being he wasn’t seeing the other woman, one evening, quite late, my mother suddenly fixed on the gold pencil. As she said later, she was just tired of having to see this thing every day, year after year, she just didn’t need this. Spontaneously, without hesitation, she went into the bedroom (my stepfather in the sitting room, dozing in front of the TV), found the pencil, and walked out into the garden. It was cold. There was a big lawn, and flower beds and shrubs around the place. She walked out, taking clear steps, in no specific direction, the night sky wide open, and then crouched, plunging the gold pencil point first into the ground. She buried it like a knife into flesh, vertical. It was invisible. She quickly turned and walked back into the house.

A couple of months later her dear friend told her that the other woman had cancer and had to have her eye removed. My mother’s oldest friend, a dabbler in the occult, said, I always knew you were a witch. They were quite sure she’d blinded her rival by this unintended spell. Years later, for some reason, affection, wanting to share the joke, the secret, my mother confessed. (She left out the eye of course.) His only comment was, I always wondered what you’d done with it. He insisted they dig it up, a valuable object, gold. My mother tried, wandering around the garden poking the ground with a fork, but she couldn’t find it again.

Tracy was always after the man she couldn’t have; for two years she found out the pleasures of rejection, madly in love with a series of unsuitable men. Unsuitable primarily because they didn’t want her; plus she made it impossible, filling up the space between her and the object with untold quantities of undying love, there was no room to manoeuvre, back against the wall, the object fled as fast as possible. She remained, heartbroken. Then, very suddenly, she would lose interest, laugh at it, until another one would hover into view, and she’d be off again. They were all maniacs, except Robert, who was just very straight; she scared the shit out of all of them.

But rejection, however passionately pursued, had nothing on triangulation, and when at last she found a man who wanted her, it was the other woman that clinched it. This time she really fell.  



In thick darkness, my edges blurred with sleep, in the middle of the night, you took my hand and I touched you, feeling the space between us filled with darkness. You lay on your back, waiting, and I clambered over you, clumsy, slow, biting you gently, pushing wet against you, kissing your mouth, all sensations diffuse and intense in this darkness, sleepy. Touch, unconscious, unnamed, opposite to vision, that unavoidable interpretation activity, naming—the sense of touch makes sense differently. It is invisible, unspoken, in darkness, it fills my body with shades of more and less specific sensations, pleasure engulfs me, shadowy, I lose all sense of naming, definition, I move against you, your pale skin, naked on this bed. I feel my body expanding, limitless, the line is rubbed out, smudged, and I am part air, darkness, heat, you, pleasure. You lie under me, breathing, fucking me, deep inside, and we both feel the shock when my coming crashes over us like a wave, night crashing down, immeasurable. We lie stranded, stilled, unnamed, the night tangible, soft cover over us, darkness thick and cloudy. Muttering bits of words, lying in your arms, I go back to sleep.  


Alone, she was naked, smooth white skin, and he became a cloud, secretly, in order to make love to her. He embraced her, and she almost disappeared, feeling his touch everywhere. She felt the soles of her feet, the back of her neck, her stomach, her long thighs, touched, completely. When he pushed against her, she gasped with shock, this was beyond possibility, dreamy. She felt solid, her skin a surface, full and heavy, and as he sought out her recesses, brushed against her breasts, curled under her arm and around her ear, she succumbed to darkness, she lost her clear lines, round volumes of milky skin, her body began to blur, to melt with pleasure. He was huge, measureless, billowing, he moved against her, hazy, smudging her edges, until she was lost, darkness tangible invading her, the heavy darkness of her inner world, wet and mysterious body, inside, touched by this cloud of sensation, her outer definition dissolved, she was lost, cloudy.

When his wife found out, he changed Io into a white heifer, solid and smooth. A continuation: round and white and small, still, she loved to lose herself, expanding, she would merge with cloudy darkness, suffused with shadowy pleasure, she loved it. When he couldn’t come to her, she stood in a field, practicing being beautiful, taking elegant heifer steps, white against the trees. Her body would bring her lover again, a cool seduction in which her precision, her solid form would invite his cloudy presence, and she would again undergo transformations, blurring definition, erased, losing herself in this love.

His wife asked for the heifer as a gift, a lovely thing. He couldn’t refuse. But when the guard appeared in the field, sleepless, the man who could sleep and watch at the same time, her lover was thwarted. Her white legs stepped perfectly through short grass, her head turning, the elegance of a knowing animal. She moved to please him, knowing she was watched. The guard was unmoved, utterly without interest. He didn’t watch her, he watched out. She continued to take precise steps, thinking of her invisible love, absent presence, seducing him. At length he instructed his servant to kill the guard, and silvery, the messenger sent the man with a hundred eyes to sleep, playing silvery music, as she stood watching, he cut his throat. Her lover came again, and she dissolved once more. The wife’s revenge was perfect, niggling, endless, a cloud of tiny flies, swarming, chasing her, and she traveled the world to escape it, engulfed in a cloud of torment, on the run, longing for that darkness, that loss.  


That night I had all my armour on, my hair made a shiny helmet, slicked down like feathers, my clothes stunned, my red lips struck blows, glancing, I even had cohorts, my elegant friends, such a comfort. That night I was determined, I wasn’t going to let emotion slide me down gullies, I wasn’t going to get drunk and slur into intimacy, enact ambivalence, touch. Inside your house, a big room full of your friends, my outlines were drawn clearly, I stood out like a lighthouse, intact.

Later, when you came to tell me that you’d demolished your husband, so to speak, and now I could go pick up the pieces—when you came to send me to him, I refused, I almost managed to refuse to speak. Eventually politeness overcame my wish to remain outside your play, to sidestep my lines in this your scenario, the wife addresses the girlfriend, together they murmur a cozy concern, mingling tears, we both care about him so much. When you said, ‘And he hasn’t eaten!,’ I felt this was moving into high comedy, the wife appeals to the girlfriend as good mother. I ended up feeding him scrambled eggs at two in the morning, just as you expected. But I refused to sense your expectations determining my actions, I couldn’t bear to suspect I was merely following instructions, so to speak. That you’d handed him over to me, for the time being. I had my armour on, I wasn’t going to be hurt, and everything you (and he) did that evening was water off a duck’s back, however fast my heart was pounding.

Now I am more willing to allow your acknowledged intentions, that you were well-meaning, coming up to me in that restaurant. I almost want to explain, to make this mark disappear, explain it away, tell you why I won’t collude in gestures of intimacy with you, insist that I never meant to humiliate you, I was simply completely determined not to humiliate myself. My silence made you ridiculous; your intervention made my position absurd, institutionalized within the history of your marriage, the girlfriend position. And it’s impersonal, this enmity, it’s structural; I never disliked you, I just would prefer it if this predicament didn’t exist—quite. We are enemies, no less. That’s why I won’t speak to you.

He asked me for the same again, scrambled eggs twice. Between rounds, he told me it was all over, the end of the road. The end of his relationship with you. I said, ‘Nonsense!,’ or words to that effect. No one intended cruelty, it’s simply what we worked together that evening to produce.  


My familiar—I know your face so well now that when I lie down alone, resting a little in the late afternoon, knowing I’ll be seeing you later, I can picture you, your face hovers over mine, pale, beautiful, ghostly. I have begun to imitate the way you stand, contraposto, and my friend Fran notes that we both say ‘oh, o.k.’ with exactly the same intonation. She won’t venture to guess which of us initiated this practice. We both hurt our backs, fucking for hours on the floor—you’d been out of town for a couple of days, Milwaukee, you’d come back. Weeks later, back pain continues to shift between the two of us, floating, it moves from you to me, and back again. Then your ear got blocked, like mine, and I made a joke, I would ask you, how is my ear?

When we make love, the switch of masculine/feminine signifiers is speedy, intricate, overwhelming. Your passivity, my attack—manipulating pleasure to make up a sweet confusion, dodgy, hysterical, a jumping of the tracks.

I tell you all the secrets, even mine. This is what’s known as a boundary problem. You expect me to know things I don’t. When I am in trouble, I imagine you’ve figured it out already. Eventually you find me out, passive you wait, gradually it seeps out of me like black swamp water, mire, slowly becoming clearer.

After six months, we found one thing to disagree about, though I still think you fail to understand why I like Lawrence. I prefer my orange juice watered down, you like it straight from the carton. We scrutinize these marks of difference like perplexed monkeys, trying to understand what happened. But most of the time we succeed in seeming to be too alike.

When love is about narcissistic identification, then you can do no wrong. We sustain this exchange by avoiding disagreement, suppressing displeasure, and continually choosing identity.

When I see you after a separation of a day or two, it is like a part of my body was missing, I feel like an amputee, your presence restores this loss. It’s all a bit too platonic for my liking, as if there were a fantasy of ideal androgyny somewhere, but you bring it back to Freud, laughing, you say, which part?  


If love is about primary attachment, maternal, then it is made up of a series of loss and discovery, possession and abandon. It is made out of the possibility of pain.

Tears come, seeing clearly how much I want you, and how I can’t have you, and how much you are not what I want—three different pains.

Nonsense: that time when I said, in an excess of passionate attachment, I said, ‘I want to marry you, but I don’t get married.’ You were interested in the modal logic of the sentence: ‘I don’t get married.’ Later you said, ‘You don’t get married and I’m married already, that’s what’s called a double whammy.’

We cherish our confusion, it prolongs this absurd situation. Your coming and going make up my passion; a terrible equation in which you are the only solace for the pain you give me. It’s ridiculous, intolerable.

I had a dream, a nightmare: someone died, my father, the waves came up over the cliff, and I was swept out to sea, completely, finally lost. This woke me up. When my terror subsided, tide going out, I found myself thinking of Celia, thinking of my mother, wondering how she was, where.

If love is about primary attachment, maternal, then it is made up of a series of loss and discovery, possession and abandon. It is pleasure made out of the possibility of pain.  

Leslie Dick is a New York writer living in London. Her first novel, Without Falling, of which this is an excerpt, is being published this Fall by City Lights Books.

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Originally published in

BOMB 25, Fall 1988

Stockard Channing, Frederic Tuten, Dorothea Rockburne, Shawn Slovo, Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe & Stefanie Hermsdorf, Gary Stephan, Chris Menges, and Linda Mvusi.

Read the issue
025 Fall 1988