It’s June, and somehow the time of year seems important, though I think of it only this once. I’m out posting a check, and there is a reflection of me in the window—the big one across the street into the coffee shop. I stare at the reflection. You are there too, on the other side with a coffee cup in hand, though I don’t know it. You believe I’m staring at you through the glass, but my expression is one of bewilderment, of huge criticism. You place your cup down on the table, take off your glasses, wipe your eyes, stare back.
You tell me later, in the bath, that you were there too, on the street, with the glass between us. You said I stared in the most disappointed way, that you almost cried out at my expression. Why don’t you look at the world with that same level of expectation? you ask, rubbing my back with a sponge. There is a mirror around the bath that we both see ourselves in. Hair frizzy, now sweating, from the heat. I don’t have time, I tell you. Or space. In fact any of the other dimensions available to me. They’re all engaged in self-reflection. You move the sponge to my feet. You say that I must be unhappy.
Five times we’ve gotten drunk together and unveiled secrets that should be left alone. The first time we ventured downtown out of the hills we ended up at a tavern in the crook of a basement. We talked about how dread inspires us, how we search it out sometimes to keep us alive. But I knew you had a place to return to after dread. It was the fear of venture that thrilled you.
The next three times we got drunk we encountered divulgences that remained, lingering in the air and on our tongues, until morning. Once I told you I love my mother unconditionally, and you were horrified. I enjoyed your horror, the way it intensified your image.
I have often thought of self-reflection as the most critical tool we have, as characters. The observance of others, the study of books, contain depth only because of our presence and our application to them. The fifth time was at a party, which I often go to to be around others, and I brought you along. There, I heard this conversation:
“Because you just don’t get it,” said he.
“Get what?” said she.
“Get that you have to be a certain way around others, that it’s expected.”
“What is expected?”
“That you just know!”
“You can just tell, all right? You can see that other people do, or don’t, like the way you’re acting.”
“What other people?”
“Everyone! Just look, it’s everyone around you.”
“Like who—name someone!”
And he, in response, shoved her.
I walked her home, that young woman, and I told her she wasn’t to be concerned with such small ideas, or those who had them. To my dismay, she refused to give me her number. I had left you sitting at the party with a group of people discussing war porn. I had chosen to be alone.
Now we are at our sixth time, we are still in the bath. You have just told me you believe I’m unhappy. I bring in a bottle of whiskey, to make this fun. You say you barely know me, despite our five intimacies, despite this night in the bath. There is too much steam on the mirror now; I try to swipe it away. I pour a glass of whiskey into your mouth. You say, without smiling, that I take you by surprise. I pour a glass of whiskey into mine. I say, You don’t, and, This is the most fun I’ve had with you yet, and throw the glass against the bathroom door. It smashes in a very simple way.
We are left facing each other, perhaps for the first time. Imagine: the slight sound of the water, swishing, between us in the tub. Imagine: the splutter of a candle wick as it encounters moisture. Imagine: so very faint, the drip of spilled whiskey, from the bathroom door to the tiles of the floor. I, in all my supposed unhappiness, recline. It is you who looks away first.
The Invented Author Takes Charge, and Laughs at the Invented Character’s Attempts to Determine the Invented Author’s Preference for Cake by Looking down the Invented Author’s Pants.
“Gender has no more to do with reality than anything else.”
The next morning, my feelings are in rebellion. I did not like the way you smashed the whiskey bottle, I did not like the way I looked away. I know that I will never surprise you deeply, that my own subconscious is lacking. I decide you are worse than my hot-night dreams about succeeding. Then you call, or write a letter, or send a telegram via your phone. We go to the coffee shop, with the large windows, and sit inside. We are back in the coffee shop, with coffee. It’s the seventh time of our meeting, but I’ve stopped counting. I don’t like these meetings. We have coffee before us. It is evening. I refuse to see you in daylight, after my cowardice of the night before. In the evening, I get to watch your shadow—pale, fill-lit—play skillfully with your reflection in the large window we sit beside. It is evening, I like the way the shadows pass by outside, staring at their subjects in the window. I like their lack of self-reflection. You tell me the cake tonight will be a peace offering, your treat, you say. I stop to listen for an echo but there is none. You say you would like to buy me cake. I listen. You approach the coffee-shop counter with your money, stop, walk back toward me. “I don’t know,” you say, “what you want.” I laugh, I like this sensation. I like the way the shadows pass by outside, staring at their subjects in the window. I laugh, I like your self-reflection. You stare at me. “I do not know what sort of cake you want, because I do not know your gender. All this time, I’ve been imaging you as a female author.” I like this, it gives me a small thrill in my spine. Prompted, I say, “So, are we talking, now, oh imaginer?” I say, “Are you going to show me things?” “I was dreaming, last night, about your audience,” you respond. “One member referred to you as a ‘he.’” I step back, aghast. I decide to become vehement. “OK,” I say, “let’s have a conversation!” I say. You step back, aghast. “When you had that dream,” I say, “perhaps you were wishing for a little more elasticity in your own depiction of me,” I say. “That is far too heavy-handed,” you say. “I can only be what you want me to be,” I remind you. “Then why not tell me what kind of cake you will eat?” you ask. “You have been beginning to draw conclusions,” I say. “I have seen them in your notebook.” You step back, aghast, and knock into the coffee shop’s small counter holding milk, sugar, and devices for stirring. “Describe it!” I say. “Show me!” I am emboldened. “This is a small counter,” you say, strangely obliging: “cheap, fake-wood formica. It has two front panels which indicate cupboards, with miniature, and very easily picked, locks. The cupboards are the sort that might contain napkins, and a half-empty bottle of creamer that is expired. The counter is about three-quarters of a meter high, half a meter deep,” you say. “Good description. Wrong country!” I reply. “The counter is about one-and-a-half feet high, and one foot deep,” you say, and bring your hand to your face, shaking. You feel your skin, rub your cheek. “I would just like,” you say, “to know what kind of cake to buy you, my author, whom I wish to treat.” “See,” I reply, “it is not so easy to be the one who scribes.” I see the shadow of your back reflected in the tall window behind you. It is getting very dark outside, and the night is watching. I would like cake, but this has bothered me. “What kind of gender is night?” I decide it is time for me to rebel. You say that you are not willing to tell. “What kind of gender is the nighttime?” I retry. Clearly female, you say, as the romance languages have it. “What about the other languages?” I ask. Slavic, also female, you say. That is the limit of your knowledge, since it is also the limit of mine. “Dig deeper!” I say, laughing, and begin to drink my coffee, now tepid, without cake. “I should have planned this better,” I say, as you lean against the small counter with the milk, sugar, and devices for stirring. It is approximately one-and-a-half feet high, I note. Possibly one foot deep. There are no devices for mopping up spilled coffee, I note. “You are not a fictional character,” I remind you, I see your attentive eyes. “You exist only as not-fiction,” I say, laughing, “the point of nonfocus, the looking away.” I am suddenly cold, like a coffee that has been left too long. “That makes this hard, like a texture, closely bonded, but not impenetrable.” This is a long litany against you. You are looking in your pocket, checking to see how much money you have for cake. “I will be here all night if you would like,” I go on, “so long as you tell me beyond articles why she is female. I will not let you look down my pants.” You say hold on, and count out seven dimes, five quarters, and a gold dollar. I tell you the gold dollar isn’t right. You count out seven dimes and five quarters. You say that is only enough for one slice of cake. You say, dammit, that you should have checked before. I stir my tepid drink, look around for no cake. “There are always answers, and they sit in degrees of right and wrong. But you can always go deeper. One can.” I gesture outside. “Where is my cake?” I ask. “This coffee is tepid.” I throw it at you then, just like you threw the whiskey at the bathroom door, just like the way you wish to challenge me: your own subconscious. I throw the coffee at you then, tepid. I throw it at you in much the same way I noticed there were no devices to mop up spilled coffee. I throw it at you, just like you threw the whiskey. I watch it fly toward you and see your hand reach and catch it—the cup, the coffee. It doesn’t spill, not even a drop. You look at the cup, bring it to your face, taste the coffee. I bend forward, laughing. “That’s not even possible!” I say, gleeful. You smile, and place the unspilt coffee on the counter you are sitting on, the small counter with the milk, sugar, and devices for stirring. You pick up a spoon, twirl it between your fingers. You’ve got beyond yourself, just for a minute. I’m delighted by this insurgency, of the deep, dark corners it exposes to the harsh light of the coffee shop. “Surely,” I say, smiling, “we’re not going to sit out this entire scene in one place?” I grab you by the hands then, gesture to the windows. “Show them what’s down your own pants!” You are laughing too, I’m rekindled with that one action, the grabbing of the unspilt coffee. My power is in rebellion, where yours is in the naming. You twirl the spoon between your fingers.
We Try to Share Perspective, Both Looking to Smash Something.
“Night in St. Petersburg is virulent, insidious. I do not support him.”
We do leave the coffee shop. Time passes. Listen. Time passes. I am willing to allow that. I am hungry and I eat cold cut meats that have stuck to the back of the fridge. I like to eat cold meats. I like to eat cake, but I couldn’t eat any. I watched your change lie, untouched, on the coffee counter. I lie in a white-night bed, think, I could imagine this place as St. Petersburg. Yes, I will give it that name: Think, for the light. I try to feel the night’s femininity, believe it is there. I imagine her embracing me, lying draped over me, tensing beneath me. I stir my hands through pools of her, let her flow like hair down my body. I search for muscles, but find none. I think of the audience I dreamed of, grow tired, and sleep.
You arrive, guiltily carrying cakes, at my apartment at 7:30 a.m. I look at myself in the mirror by the door, plain, of good color. I open the door in a bathrobe I find hanging on a hook beside it. This must be usual, for St. Petersburg, I think. You tell me this is the first time I’ve answered the door not naked, in a bathrobe, and you say, “I see you are trying to cover something.” I reply it has to do with our gendered conversations. They have made me nervous (you, defensive). I tell you I made love to the night, the last night, but I’m not sure she was a female. You lay down the cakes you brought with you and look tired. You gesture to the cakes you brought with you and say, “Try one.”
It is early in the morning; of this, and other facts, we are both aware. The light is harsh, too bright, and too white. The thought of cakes churns both of our stomachs. When you gesture to the cakes you brought with you and say, “Try one,” I reach up, methodically, and detach the hallway mirror. You almost vomit as you hoist it out the door onto the concrete path, which is noticeably cracked. When the mirror splinters, we both sigh.
We move to the living room. This is a kitchen, with enough space for a table inside. There is no table, but ample space if I wished to buy one.
I say, in honor of us now living in St. Petersburg, I will make a pot of kawa, which is Russian for the tepid drink I threw last night. We notice, overhanging the ample space for a table, another mirror. “Goddammit,” I say. “We can’t smash this also. In here is carpeted.” I say, “What about placing it between us?” I say. “Would that ease the pain?” “It might,” I say, “it might help.” I reach for the mirror, place it on the carpet between us, while we sit on the carpeted floor and admire the space large enough for a kitchen table, or even a dining room–sized one.
“This is, most certainly, a St. Petersburg apartment,” I say.
“This could well be a dining room,” you say.
We look right at one another. We both sigh with a strange mixture of relief and anticipation for coffee, which is now named kawa. I leave you slumped on the carpet in the ample space of the kitchen, while I brew coffee in the kitchen. I like living in St. Petersburg, I decide. “I forgot to tell you that,” I say, as I brew coffee in my kitchen which is really quite small, while you sit at my feet, on the carpet, “We are living on a hill overlooking St. Petersburg, which is far better than living in the city proper. This is exciting,” I explain. “Why give it up?” I pour the brewed coffee, which we have decided to call kawa in honor of our living in St. Petersburg, into two chipped mugs, and place them on a tray with milk, sugar, and devices for stirring. I carry them to you.
You reach across the mirror and take the coffee.
“Oh look,” I say, as I watch you approach with the coffee, “a male author would never bring coffee to his guests on a tray.”
“It’s kawa,” you reply, “as we’ve already established many times, and because we are actually on a hill overlooking St. Petersburg.”
I reach for one of the chipped mugs, add sugar, no milk, and ask for a spoon. You say you have no spoons, only this device for stirring. I shrug, irritated, and begin to stir. “There are no hills overlooking St. Petersburg,” I decide to say. I watch for your response, as I stir my coffee with this ridiculous stirring device. I repeat, “There are no hills overlooking St. Petersburg. St. Petersburg is a flat place.”
Your horror is reflected in the mirror between us.
I look down, at the mirror that lies between us and which has just witnessed, so to speak, the dirty things you have chosen to say. Really, this mirror belongs on a wall, I think, a wall that sits next to a place where a kitchen table might go, or even a dining-room table, because I could easily have one, in this apartment. I like this apartment, and I like living on a hill overlooking St. Petersburg. “This is exciting,” I want to tell you. “Why give it up?” But you have spoken. I stir my kawa forlornly with a device for stirring. I want to rebel, I don’t want this incessant naming of things. The mirror on the floor is ridiculous. “Really,” I say sadly, “this mirror belongs on a wall. And,” I go on, “it is a kitchen mirror. It belongs in a kitchen, where it is.” I begin to cry. You say, and I think you even say this wryly, “These are just degrees of right and wrong.” Through my tears I acknowledge this nonsense. “But it means,” I say, “that the walk down from the hills into the taverns never happened. That the bath,” I am explaining, “never happened either, because we are not on a hill.” This explains, I explain, that you never got to see me naked. This explains, I explain, the weird tension over my gendered identity. “This confuses me,” I say, “as I never needed to throw the tepid coffee.” And I throw down the coffee tray, with the chipped mugs, the milk, the sugar, and the devices for stirring, all of which I had placed beside the mirror which was lying upright on the floor and which was really a kitchen mirror, all along, never meant for a living room or a dining room or for an ample space that might fit a dining-room table. “Stay there,” I tell you, “you are not welcome.” All the while the cakes sit, somewhere else, pink striped, yellow striped, and blue, uneaten.
My Invented Author Questions My Place, Asks Me for a Nation-State.
“When you came to me, I said I’d ‘try it out,’ at least. I would be open. Though I feared our different views of realism would get in the way.”
—The Stepdaughter, to Luigi3
Time passes. We meet again with slightly stooped backs, rounded hips, and portly frames. You have moved out of your apartment, and given it to me. We live on the outskirts, but not on a hill. On these frequent meetings, I notice you have a deep ringing laugh, the laugh of one who always eats well and, in particular, drinks well. As we walk beside the great canal, it is you who is obsessed with the social details of our world, as though these two pieces of information follow. Innerly tumultuous, you begin to game about my nation-state.
We know, now, that we live in St. Petersburg. We know, now, that your gender is not something I will ever uncover, not unless I review my own. We know, now, that I never tried to pick up a girl whose boyfriend was being a durak while I left you to discuss war porn with an indeterminately sized group of strangers.
We believe we are in St. Petersburg, and we believe we are drinking kawa. Partly this accounts, I explain, for the deliciousness of the cakes, of which you eat many and of all varieties, now that it is determined that your preference for one kind or another cannot and will not be determined. You say many things over and over now, trying the trick, to get through to me, to shatter me, just like I did you when I said there are no hills overlooking St. Petersburg. I respond by prolonging the scene. I don’t try to catch another thrown kawa. I am too afraid, I suppose, of the frailty of synchronicity.
It goes like this for some time, I note to you, as we stroll along one of St. Petersburg’s great canals. Right up to the meadows where the dachas begin on the city limits. Of course, by then, the canal’s just a stream with muddy banks. Our fellow characters piss in it, I say, warmly including you. I often overlook the fact you don’t technically belong, I do so without internal friction. For example: “That’s a place our fellow characters will enjoy a fine pivo,” I tell you, as I gesture toward a tavern and pat you on the back.
“We went there once,” you say, trying to feel involved.
“Perhaps you went there alone,” I say, humoring you, “while I was sleeping?” I warmly enjoy the sensation of inclusion.
Sometimes I conclude we are growing older, as the neural pathways in my brain appear to be slowing. I quash the fear that this may be due to a lack of inspiration; I do not wish to separate from our cohabitation. Often as we stroll the canals of St. Petersburg I mull that it has become harder to generate images of you while awake. But I have not lost the capacity for surprise. This is why, walking this day by the great canal, you accost me with your saying, “and to which nation-state does St. Petersburg belong?”
You are questioning my allegiance to realism, I see it clearly. This is not something in which I have ever wished to involve myself. “I am a not-fictional character, remember?” I say. I search around for a rock to throw and finding nothing so heavy, pick up a piece of dried horse dung, clumped on the pavement beside the great canal. I toss the horse dung into the canal, with the sort of exaggerated effort that produces minimal effect. The dung ripples lightly on the water surface. Small waves do radiate out, it is true, but the effect is too small for my metaphor to be appropriately made.
In seeing this, I decide to respond to you for once without discussion, and for a second time without telling. We walk tensely toward a bridge. You have not understood my action. We walk back from the bridge. You stare, inquisitive. We decidedly walk back toward the bridge. I recover myself somewhat, I realize, in this action. I free myself from your claims of earlier, from your restrictive syntax. I look for people.
We walk tensely back from the bridge. This time, there are people. We stand inside the group of people, who now speak Russian. I do not know enough Russian to understand them, and you do not either. “I must stay here longer,” I say, “so that I can fully learn Russian.” I determine it is time for home.
We meet again the following morning. To distract you from the discourse on realism, I ask you to explain to me again, beyond the articles of language and just for fun, why the night is not female. I have just felt the night warring. I have seen night overcoming my fellow characters with its sheer weight and might, I have felt the way it ticks rationally through its star-display, its nonquotidian rotation. This morning I watched night’s two halves painfully split into composite parts, the elements of our light spectrum. I am convinced more than always the night is a she. You laugh, loosely for once, and try to grab my waistband to peer down my pants. We walk along the great canal.
Again, we approach the bridge. This time there is no one, and it is too early for Russian to be spoken. “This is perfect,” I say, and linking my arm in yours begin to advance across the bridge. At the apex, a scrawny dog awaits. It is stray, and more intelligent than many of my fellow characters. I contemplate kicking it out of the way. It growls. We back down the bridge.
We try this three more times, on subsequent days, and each time we are thwarted. There is little to show, though I revel in the story of it. On the fifth time, we manage to cross the apex of the bridge. As I am about to make my point, a summer skunk approaches from the far side. Its black and white stripes send a tingling thrill through my spine, much like the one you received, when I questioned whether you were a woman. This is a night summer skunk. It does not fright upon seeing us, however, and continues to advance. I think it prudent for the prolonged extension of my metaphor to retreat in defeat.
The sixth time is always the best in this story. You meet me by the edge of the canal, it’s predawn, you look healthy and well drawn. I have conjured you full strength; you inhabit and have reclaimed stolen recesses. The 5:30 a.m. light still lets through the star-display, as though a planetarium, and stirred by the milky-white light we have called femininity, I wish to kiss you. Even in the bath which didn’t happen I never experienced erotic feelings for you.
We walk in silence toward the bridge. I am suddenly pleased by your willingness to go along with this, by our tryst, our short wrestle, this subsequent but small retaliation of nation-state which I will soon quash neatly, tidily, and eventually move on from. I am pleased by your willingness to explore the limits of our imagination. I tell myself that the quality of the exploration is greater now, even if the process is slower. You seem to reach for the shattering moments less and less, I muse. Perhaps our old age has mellowed us, I think, as the sun begins to creep its sweaty hands along the edge of night.
We reach the bridge, and I give it a name. “This is the Moyka bridge, underrun by the Moyka canal,” I say. I stare at the Cyrillic on the bridge side. “Yes, I believe so, I have learned Russian very quickly,” I say. “This,” I go on, “is the realism you asked for.” We advance across the bridge, enjoying each step; the new creeping sweat-light, though quotidian; the twinkling off of the star-display. I whisper you words of the great political philosopher Malin Reed: “The line between the nation and the state is the space most inhabited; though aspects of reality, it is true, exist in all three places.” You snuggle toward me. I see our two forms merged in one reflection on the water-surface below the bridge. There are no others.
At the apex, silence. I reach out to the morning, and revel in my metaphor; my arrogant refusal to answer, my resting on the -. You search about for something: a cobbled plaque, a passing boat. Nothing. You turn to me with quick-blazing eyes, suddenly abhorrent. I see, quick-blazing, your years of disgruntlement and the maw of my dim-witted blindness. “This is your response,” you gush, and I see you now have teeth missing. You shudder and shake, as though shedding a skin. “This is your insight?” You peel off your wool scarf, to fend off the night; she flies toward the water with the wool. A splash breaks the surface. “This is how easy it is to shatter you,” you say, “with wool.”
I feel an emotional response, and I laugh back at you. “Good,” I say, “good!” I watch your image intensify. “Good, good, good,” I say, and imagine gently picking out the remainder of your teeth. We are both reflected in the water now, separate. You rip off your mittens, toss them in the river. You bare your nails at me and they are sharp. Old, long, and yellow. Realizing this is not fun, I look for a way to defend myself from the impending shredding. “Where is St. Petersburg?” I yell quickly.
The shabby, appalling dog of earlier approaches. I thank myself. The dog sits beside me, angry. I grab your belt. You have a large waist and this requires some wrenching. At last I undo the buckle and your pants fall to your knees. Out slithers the leather from your belt loops. Finally I see the space where your genitals would have been, if we were on one side or the other. “Where is St. Petersburg?” I repeat. I strap the dog to my back. It whines, but complies. You are stunned, you hold the railing. I brace myself for the frigid temperatures, wishing for a bear. I tell you St. Petersburg is in a place with far more inventive authors. This is the end, we both know it. You, faded, are barely there.
I crash over the bridge railing and into the gelid water below. The canal parts in an inverse cone shape, then reverts. As the dog swims toward the sweaty hands of day, I loll on its back, watching, as you recede.