CONJUNCTIONS:65, Sleights of Hand (Fall 2015)
From Once into the Night
I had been filled with ennui all week, it was drenching, and all I could do was walk around, taking furtive looks at things, being alone with myself and my ennui. It’s a surprising shadow, ennui is, or a cockroach in a Snickers wrapper, or the end of the play when everyone takes off their costumes. I furrow my brow at these things—in slight, but recoverable, disarray.
In my regular life, when not felled by ennui, I paint pictures of trees in various attitudes, almost like the stages of life—not the historical ascension stages, from creepy ape to upright fifties man, but the personal path: ball of baby, spry youth, productive citizen, laughable old person with cane, grim-reaper invisibility. I would say most of my paintings are of trees without leaves.
Still and all it didn’t seem like enough, and last night the ennui finally overcame me. Before I knew it, I had swallowed the entire house. I lay right down on the bed, as if I’d been shot. I was splayed on my back (can’t lie on your stomach after eating a house). I burped. I stared at the ceiling. What was this like, I asked myself, feeling, at least, analytical. My eyes stung and I could no longer see the lines of the beams. I could hear, like a faded dream, my family speaking in the living room. One person spoke; the other person spoke. Silences occurred. When they leave me, I will be alone. But at least I’ll have swallowed the house, I thought, cackling in the bedroom.
I am hitting Sara Applewood. I hit her on the shoulders and back after she has fallen on the ski slope. Get up, get up, get up, Sara. The world is vast and ornamental and also small, winnowed down to the point of contact where my pole hits her back, not doing enough damage through the parka, hence moving up to the head and shoulders. She holds her arm up so she won’t be hurt. People are looking, as at a grocery store if there’s been a spill. I don’t want my mother to look. I don’t want anyone to say: Stop it, little girl. I keep hitting for a while, getting a last good one in, and then I adjust my mitten and the pole strap, bend my knees, and push off. It’s a small rise on a large mountain, and I slide down and around, skiing to the middle of the whiteness where there are hardly any people, the wide white middle, where I spy an invisible trail.
Sara Applewood is hitting me. She’s wearing her sleek red parka with lift passes on the zipper from places Olympic skiers go, Swiss slopes visited with her parents and governess. My God, a governess! But that’s life for Sara Applewood, sadist and betrayer. Ski slopes are like heaven, except for when you’re down on the ground being beaten. She really does enjoy hurting others—but who could possibly enjoy that? I’m a pacifist, an animal lover, and a nonlitterer, except there have been those times when I’ve held my brother down to the point where I thought a bone might break, or once when I threatened him with a butter knife. Was that pleasure? Sara Applewood has always been a better athlete than me. Her calves are hard and her toes grip the floor like an ape’s. She has a sway to her back, her butt sticks out, and she pushes out her chest too. See? she’s always saying. See me now? The world is cold as a sheet of metal, and I’m a slumped, Goodwill-bedecked lump—except for in my stomach, right in the center of my body, is a bit of warmth, a dull unfolding. Another hit off my shoulder, another on my sleeve. Then she’s skiing away, her bitchy braids flying out behind her as she disappears, slaloming down the slope alone. The sun has slipped behind the mountain. The big gleaming mirror of cold—it’s nothing, it’s containable, blink and it’s gone. I put my pole in the snow and push. Swash, goes my pole, again and again. Defeat almost has me. “Sara!” I shout. “Sara Applewood!” Hate is a bunny in my belly.
The Dark Underlord
I am the dark underlord you’ve been waiting for. Or at least I hope you’ve been waiting, because I’ve been in my lair for a dog’s age, trying on outfits for the occasion. Obviously, I want to make an impression. An impression of dark arrival, an impressive impression. I want to come into the room, virtually appear in the room, with a swish of lethargic cloth and an upright posture. I have debated between capes, Snapchatted a couple of dubious associates, and decided upon the satin with the purple velvet lining and towering, almost gaudy collar. I admit my outfit never feels quite dark enough. One of the dubious associates suggested rubbing it in dirt—fool. Though he may have been on to something.
But I, the dark underlord, long ago gave up on the appearance of distress. It does not serve my purpose. I understand it can be sexy in a mechanical way, suggesting long, weary struggle, individualism, a totemic nature. So what! I will always shave before I go out, I will always shine my boots. Old school: what of it? It’s a swoop in, you understand, a vacuum or an illumination. (Not that I am not tired— the campaign has been a long one.)
I have come, and I will coerce you, and perhaps something specifically dreadful will occur, for I do not shy away from dread or incident. You may feel comfortable in that static dream, but that static dream shall be, as the associates say, nevermore. I will pull you toward me, and we will collide there in our dark garments (my dark garments, your jeans and T-shirt), and we will roughly make a kind of bleak, dry love, battlefield fucking. And then we will be chained together forever (metaphorically). You will have submitted to my stark power.
Alas, there is the issue with afterward.
For I never force the subjects to come with me, actually. I have been in the habit now for several centuries, when no one is looking, after the Sturm und Drang, the television moment, the swoop in and takeover, of releasing the subject, loosening my arm from around the neck of the waif or the fevered husband. It is just us then. Behind the very large, the overlarge boulder, back in the shadows, the forest of backstage, she or he gets up from her/his knees. Wobbles. Looks at me. I look back, not penitent—not exactly. But it is the moment of truth, I am deeply afraid to say. Do you want to play in my lair with me, we can try on capes and live on venison, perhaps, and pear spritzers? It all comes down to now, the boot polishing and the telepathy practice and the infectious laughter. She, or he, has a fragile look at this stage in the game, and yet still—still, to a one—has had the strength to walk away.
I spent my early adulthood at sea. I even had a boat—or my boyfriend did, but we lived together, and he was generous in sharing his things. The term “early adulthood” is a patch of gray laid over whatever those years were, however long they lasted. Now I’m in “adulthood,” another magazine-column category.
Here is what I thought of love. Love, def.: doing things with, having a similar sense of humor as, extracting a future in addition to.
The sea was a vivid black, folds of black relentlessly and unpredictably overlapping. Its opaqueness came from how the sun hit the water, or from the swallowing of the moon. You simply couldn’t see. I couldn’t see anyway.
Life was long, it was a bit cheap and certainly plentiful—maybe even too long, a great amount of this one capacious thing, like a basket of yarn crushed and laced together, mixed up and knotted and not yielding.
We brought sandwiches on the boat with us, or sometimes a thermos of soup. If we were traveling some distance I was obliged to pee in a bucket. Afterward, he would lie on the deck and drop the bucket down on its rope and the seawater cleaned out the interior. We liked pecan sandies for dessert.
When we were in the long process of breaking up, yet still grocery shopping together on Sundays, we were confused about what to buy— unsure if we would be together for the whole week. Should we buy our typical meals, our favorite items? Should we buy misery food, or just very, very plain food, rations, no salt or sauce? It was a package of pecan sandies that made us feel the saddest on one of those grocery runs, back in early adulthood.
Sometimes on the boat I stared at the horizon—this was even before the weeks and months of tearing apart. Something already felt sad in this world. Perhaps it was the sea itself, the difference between the opaque surface and the steely gravity underneath. Perhaps it was my inability to grasp the razor line between having a vast basket of yarn and having just a little yarn left.
I wish I could tell you of our travels. Some of the places we went were fancy, and we dressed in vintage clothing and acted like Gatsbys, drinking more than the average adult. There was no end to the places that smelled deeply, richly, of pine. Pine by the sea, pine in the heart of ancient forests, pine a perfume passed through on our hurried way to the shore or back up from the shore, it was there for you.
Cruelty was rampant at my elementary school, and I was the ringleader. Even today I live in a haze of false identity.
Walking from the car to the school entrance, I was a subtle threat in my camel’s-hair coat, high waters, winsome shoes, and socks of different colors. The giant headmistress in her giant handmade skirt stood by the door, like Mother Gigogne of The Nutcracker. I smiled in complicity, then looked away. Off to the cubbies to hang up my coat and put away my hat, smooth the static from my hair.
During reading hour, Christina and I pored over my secret booklet filled with spells and incantations (my mother had bought it for me at the grocery store). Our teacher saw us, saw the book, wrested it from me. Mother Gigogne was brought in; parents were called. My shame felt physical. I had been holding the little booklet with the pink cover under my poncho. We had not meant any harm. We were powerless. We had no power.
Witchcraft thwarted, I went back to everyday methods, and this is where you’ll find me now. I’ve made Charlene (Mother Gigogne’s daughter) into the embodiment of embarrassment, a junior nun, a pat of butter. Heather is a deer in a stand of trees, the way she hides in her parka. Jonathan, first crush—I’ve rendered his parents into ideas, his father a “father” and also a “rabbi” and his mother just a “mother.”
The sobering thing is to remember the times I remained silent, sitting in my chair, or when I made a certain hand gesture or facial expression: I will acquiesce to your statement. Or when in some fever instead I argued a point that was not the point at all, but another point. I have never, really, tried to lie—except for a couple of paltry times, and then a few other rather more significant ones. Granted, I’ve forged whole friendships with lies. I stand here and present myself to you, then furtively sniff this paste. I stand here and present myself to you, blowing smoke in this sophisticated manner. I will sleep with you or I won’t sleep with you—purely arbitrary. How can a fuck be a lie? Well, let me explain.
Romance of the Old
I am untrue. As untrue as in the old days, the to-be-responded-to letters a pileup in an ivory bowl. How coyly I kept up correspondence! A letter written with “my usual” charm, though mostly exhibiting a muzzled, reined-in quality. Ex. 1: to a friend, some tidbits about my writing and about my mother, about a trip taken with T., much neutrality, viz., “We had a nice time. I love Maine.” Ex. 2: That Awful Person, a sick yellow feeling, like a gloss, as if someone vomited on the page and then wiped it away, a parceling out and serious parsing, knowing that he whom I met and flirted with in a tolerating sort of way, the equivalent of what you might engage in on a train in another country, quite unfortunately lived very near me. Ex. 3: my cousin, the actual and the theoretical embodied: We are close, yes? for we are family, but our connection is made of straw. Ex. 4: an editor—an editor!—to whom I will remain stiff as a lamp and less illuminating, the note drafted into deep lifelessness, and yet somehow, surely, hopefully, alluring, so alluring that he understands that I understand that he understands that I understand, that we are one, essentially. Ex. 5:—they continue, the parcelings—though there were exceptions, a few ugly exceptions of action and passion, judgment and persuasion. True is hard to come by. When if ever did I write, in all those years, in my primate language of fear? These letters, they are just aspects, faulty reflections. I would like to start afresh, to tell you who I am. I would like you to write me or just tell me. I’m really listening this time. Who are you? I love you again.
The yellow bird was dead. My friend had been keeping it in a cage, though she usually left the cage door open. That’s what she told me, sitting cross-legged in her living room, tears on her face. “Death is a stern mistress,” I said. I had been reading up on it. She was looking at me with what could have been anger. “Death is but an illusion,” I then said.
A friend of my friend had told me that my friend had been married five times, not three. In Egypt, back in the day, little boats took you from the place where you were “dead” to a place where you were alive again. If you take away the sense of individual mosquito, you will see that they too can be reborn. Oh, I know it’s not always easy. Sometimes it’s the Lego skyscraper we’re talking about. There’s no way we’re going back to finish the Hogwarts castle. The huge plastic container of parts remains in the storage room, inert. If we did anything, we’d make something new—a flattened-out eagle, for instance, or a very small paddock.
“My little yellow bird,” said my friend. I closed my eyes. In a dream I’d gone to her house in the early morning. I needed to wake her up. Instead of knocking on the front door as usual, I walked in the sliding door. The birdcage was inside, by my feet. At first I thought it was empty, but I looked closer and saw, behind the bird mirror, the yellow bird, dusky in the dawn light. When telling a dream to an analyst, you’re supposed to use the present tense. In certain kinds of fiction it is effective to make the protagonist trot about in an eternal now. “Did one of your previous husbands give you the bird?” I asked— ever the friend. She looked down and shook her head. I walked through the house in the dream, into the living room, where the shades were drawn, then all the way down the hall to my friend’s bedroom. If you think of all the yellow birds that have been plowed under over time, if you think of history, and everywhere, and you think of all yellow birds, whether they are dusky yellow, or yellow with black and gray feathers, or yellow only in certain seasons, mostly very small with delicate bones, but some rather large, majestic yellow hawks with sad eyes and curved beaks, or Big Bird, the largest of the yellow birds that I know of, then, wow, that’s a lot of yellow birds to lose. When I think of the yellow bird that I met three times, once in a dream (if it was the same one), once in real life, and once through words in the living room—those other yellow birds become but echoes or lost names, bird chatter as the day brightens, before it gets too warm.
I am the iceman, crushed by yesterday. For fuck’s sake, I fell flat on my face. Toppled like a wedding cake. This wasn’t just a small disruption—a low tire, the insurance company’s error—it was a travesty, quite serious. And now, as in forever, my body drapes the boulder like a shroud, a mother’s cupped palm. (Meanwhile, back on planet earth. What with the ascent of man and the rise to power and the conquering of civilizations.)
All right, let’s think about this. Here is how my body lies: with one arm squashed underneath. There was the brief flurry: that soaring free fall from life to death, from what seemed like forever to forever itself, no more twigs and seeds for lunch, not one more even blah installment of the monthly saber-toothed tiger hunt with my reluctant, moody cohort, no more pitiful explosions with my lady friend, her snatch so very contemporary. I heard some kind of trance music—I saw colors of such delicate gradation, such perfect oval symmetry—
And then, OK, forever. I shall be forever. I shall lie here on this boulder, my arm at an (what would be laughably) uncomfortable angle. I shall not close my eyes but hold the grass palace in my retina, the shadow that is Asshole coming to retrieve his arrow. (At least let me keep the arrow. It’s so tacky to take the arrow.) And here comes a mountain to lie upon me. Oh, wait: This is a little heavy. The slow shovel of earth, the patient gravedigger, the patient artist, an extravaganza, a sobering bounty. Waves of all you could possibly wish for: the sleek bones of that snatchy lady, the desiccated remains of my enemy’s child, the most abundant harvest of fava beans you’d ever want to see, and mountain laurel and lupine and elderberry. Here is a glorious parade of hilarious rabbits, running as if to their own deaths, and here is the tinder of a thousand houses, the rupturing of windows created at great expense, the invention of glass, and here is a telescope with which a pirate found a white-frocked soft spot on a faraway sea, and here is the certificate that stupid state school gave me, saying I could read.
Did the weight of water ever occur to anyone, when they were puzzling this thing out? Did anyone ask me if I wanted coffee?
—the mountain with newspapers in it, the bland-faced judges’ final decrees, the Polly Pocket dolls, presidents, labor organizers, fat ladies—
—wolves, lesbian deer, lions on the threshold of glory—
The weight did elongate. I become rather long and thin. The fighty ones with their hot instruments came and said my stomach was up by my armpit now—well, what of it? Wouldn’t your stomach have moved too? We get used to having our insides stay in one place, but I’m telling you, it’s all a jumble in there, seriously. You think you’re one thing: just a man on a mountain with a plan for the day—and before you can even take one more breath you are an explosion of flowers, deep and bright purples and lacy whites and bruised reds and streaks of yellow, and when before you could hardly do a box step you are now Mr. Tall, step-sliding across the night sky.
Aurelie Sheehan is the author of two novels and three story collections, including Jewelry Box: A Collection of Histories (BOA).