Us, up on a hill. Me, you, and the girl with her hair in her face. We stand before an ornate elevator door. Digital numbers whisk by on a little screen. The grass on the hill is lush and green. Small flowers are growing: white, yellow, purple. Off to the side, a sleek black panther, pacing.
“It’s not a panther,” you say. “Silly.” You nudge me and laugh. “It’s just a dog who looks like one.”
The girl with her hair in her face nods. One of her eyes is not exactly an X, but would be, if we lived on a two-dimensional plane.
“That door makes me think of a disappeared hotel,” I say. “A submerged steamer ship.”
This is something we did. I’d say the first words I thought of, you’d have a reaction. Then I’d know I’d changed you in some small way. Your cells nudged, cilia waving. Minuscule alterations to their phospholipid bilayers.
You smile indulgently, but your eyes are elsewhere.
The girl with her hair in her face gazes miserably down at her stomach. It bulges over the waistband of her jeans. She yanks roughly at the hem of her shirt.
The numbers on the screen race down and down. Far away, an echoey ding.
“When the elevator gets here,” I say, “I don’t think we should get in.”
You just keep smiling, your mouth stretched tight at the corners. You hand me a piece of bubblegum. My hand sweats and the gum bleeds pink into my palm. Its smell is round and robust and blooms up, filling my nose. I tuck it into my back pocket for later.
A man hovers nearby, watching. He is thin, with wavy, shoulder-length gray hair. Papery skin, marked with deep lines.
“Desiccated,” I whisper. “Crevices.”
You shake your head ever so slightly.
The man wears flowy, expensive clothing: linen suit, long, elegant coat. A leather briefcase rests at his feet. He looks us up and down. “Delightful,” he says. His hand drifts into his pants pocket. Something twitches beneath the thin material.
The girl with her hair in her face brightens. “He used to be a playwright,” she says. “Also a director. Now he’s in television.” Her breath is moist in my ear and smells like hot dogs. A large bee drones by.
“I don’t like the word moist,” I say.
The man lowers his eyes modestly. He strokes his hair. “There once was a child who called me The Patron of the Arts. I’d like very much if you’d call me that too.”
“Of course, Patron of the Arts!” gushes the girl with her hair in her face.
The Patron of the Arts bends to his briefcase, rummages. Up he comes with a blue plastic bottle. “Drink up,” he says. “Let’s get this show on the road.”
The girl with her hair in her face bats her X-ed out eye. She stuffs the bottle deep into her pocket.
“I yearn for the days of pinned-on pockets,” I tell you. “I’d tie mine to my waist. I’d wear it proudly between pinafore and petticoat.”
You shift from one foot to the other and sigh. Still: I’d like to believe I’ve made you see me in a different light.
The girl with her hair in her face yawns so wide I can hear her jaw crack. Her teeth are a shocking, ashy black. You smile placidly, but your hands are shaking. As always, your back is straight, your posture perfect.
“Not the word ramrod,” I say. “Not erect.”
But you ignore me. “Shall we,” you say. “I’m right behind you.”
The elevator door gapes open. The girl with her hair in her face shuffles in, peering shyly over her shoulder. The panther who is actually a dog whisks past, huddling in a corner.
The Patron of the Arts steps away, bowing us in.
The elevator walls are covered in crushed velvet. The panther who is actually a dog skulks in the corner, breathing. The girl with her hair in her face leans against a mirrored wall. Her shirt hikes up over her round belly. She fishes the blue bottle from her pocket and drinks deeply. She offers it around with a little flourish.
“Milk of Magnesia,” I read as you wave it away. “I don’t like milk either,” I say.
The girl with her hair in her face thrusts it at me anyway. Dried white material crumbles from the rim, flaking onto my skin. A thick-sweet smell prongs up into my nose.
“No thank you,” I say politely. I pass the bottle back. I wipe my hand on the wall.
“Your loss!” She glugs down the rest of the terrible milk, throws the empty bottle onto the floor. The panther who is actually a dog presses anxiously against my leg.
As I look at the mirror on the elevator wall, I realize that the girl with her hair in her face has no reflection. I try to transfer thoughts of the supernatural into your head. I mouth the words, exaggerating their syllables: Vampire, ghostie, specter, ghoul!
“Calm down,” you say. “We can all hear you, clear as day.”
I bare my teeth for dramatic effect. My tongue bumps wordlessly against my hard palate.
“It’s not a mirror,” you say. “For heaven’s sake!”
I’m glad I’ve ferried my message through your synapses and congratulate myself on having an effect. But when I look at the mirror again, I see that you’re right. It’s a window.
“You make a better window than a mirror,” I tell the girl with her hair in her face. “A better door than a window. A better crack than a door.”
You frown. “Come on now, really. Screaming and carrying on! This behavior helps no one—least of all yourself.”
The girl with her hair in her face coughs viciously. Something hard and variegated bobs beneath her skin.
“A tube,” I marvel. “Pleated like an accordion.”
“For heaven’s sake, it’s her esophagus,” you say. “She’s choking!”
You smooth your fingers over her throat. It is a tender motion, and she curves into you, bashful, soothed. But your expression is scientific, I see, the action perfunctory. It is like tricking medicine down an animal’s throat. Rubbing its soft neck from the outside, guiding the pill down. “There,” you say. “There, there.”
The girl with her hair in her face crumples to the floor. She clasps the blue bottle fervently to her stomach. If there were a heart of the stomach, like the brain of the gut, I think, that’s how she’d pray.
“Just look quietly out the window,” you say.
I peer through the glass. The elevator is racing through narrow corridors, blasting through tunnels, just shuttling shuttling shuttling through. It’s like the catacombs. It’s like the eating away of bones. It’s like walking along a highway under a bridge. Dank water hitting the crown of your head, sliding cold and dismal down your cheek.
“For the last time, stop shouting,” you say. “I can hear you just fine.”
Maybe your ears are more sensitive in the elevator. Maybe you enjoy it down in these depths. Organs opened wide to accommodate all the new information.
“I like it here,” I say, in case it’s true. In everything, I want to be like you.
“Hush,” you say. “Breathe. Count down from ten. I don’t want to have to ask you again.”
Out the window: shafts, beams, dripping water. Clusters of stones. A periphery place, where dark, loathsome things happen. I crane my brain, trying to see what you see in it.
“The word shafts is a disastrous thing,” I say.
In the tunnel: busyness, bustle. Blur-faced people coloring by number with their bodies, connecting the dots, trip-trapping through from one place to another.
I make a point of touching your arm. I’ve been trying to establish a new type of intimacy between us. I straighten your collar. I reach into your hair. “Oh,” I enthuse, pulling out nothing. “A leaf!” I throw nothing onto the floor.
The elevator jerks and tilts. Suddenly my back is mashed against the velvet railing, my feet pushed up against the opposite wall. I am parallel to the ceiling. I am parallel to the girl with her hair in her face, on her back on the floor. I am perpendicular to you, because you are still standing.
You laugh, so I do too. “I’m having the time of my life,” I tell you. And because you don’t tell me to keep it down this time, I congratulate myself on interfacing successfully with your mitochondria. Skating down your axon hillocks.
“Just close your eyes,” you whisper. You touch my arm. You straighten my collar. You reach tenderly into my hair and pull out nothing. You throw nothing onto the floor.
A sharp rollercoaster plunge, and we hurtle through thick, thin air. The girl with her hair in her face laughs wildly. There’s a loud rumbling from her interior. The panther who is actually a dog skitters hither and thither, thick body pinballing from one wall to the other. I shut my eyes tight, give in to the drop and fall. Then it’s nothing—not scary at all.
The girl with her hair in her face yodels and her insides yelp, and just like that, we clatter onto level ground. The doors fling open, filling the elevator with a harsh, blinding light. I flail for you, trying to connect. My hand clutches air, touches nothing. My chest tines sharply, like it is crammed full of arrows pointing backward.
“The sky is bluebird bright out there!” I say, optimistically. “Chirpy flowers, grassy knoll!” I want to beam dazzling thoughts straight into your brain—but you have vanished. So has the panther who is actually a dog.
“It was going to happen eventually,” says the girl with her hair in her face. She bundles to her feet, blinks her X-ed out eye. “Onwards and upwards. Now or never.”
I follow her out of the elevator, into the grass, where The Patron of the Arts is waiting.
“Welcome!” says The Patron of the Arts, patting his elegant linens. Something sprongs up. He pushes it back down.
“This Patron of the Arts is a riot,” I observe. “A cabinet of curiosities. A walking wonderland.”
Hush, I imagine you saying. I can’t see you, but surely you are here somewhere, listening, your cells stretching out to be changed.
I look around more closely. Yes, blue sky, but spattered with moth-gray clouds. Yes, green grass in a tiny patch, but everywhere else, uneven sidewalks, grim buildings poking up like broken teeth. No flowers anywhere, but that’s no surprise. I made them up: an idea package to present to now-invisible you.
You’ve always been made of the bloomingest hues. Where oh where are you?
No rolling hills, no sprightly dales. Only fluorescent letters, jingling shop doors as far as the eye can see. Pale, skittery people go in, golden-oiled colossals amble out. TanFastic, say the swoopy signs. Solar Bootyque. Get SunStroked!
“You must be thirsty after your journey,” says The Patron of the Arts, producing another bottle from his briefcase.
I show him all the fasteners that seal my disapproval. I am a basket of sundries. Mouth: buttoned. Lips: zipped. Smile: sewn up. But the girl with her hair in her face waves her empty bottle with pride. “Refreshing!” she says of the terrible milk. “All drunk up.”
“Good girl,” says The Patron of the Arts. “So did you…?”
“Not yet!” she sings. “But soon! Almost! Now!” She hunkers off down the sidewalk, hands pressed to her quailing insides. I follow behind. She kicks at the door of a stinking rectangular closet. All around it, flies buzz and drone.
“Can you just?” She juts her head at the door.
“A chamber,” I say. “A classic commode.”
The handle is wet with lukewarm water. My hand cringes away. It is still attached to my body, but its spirit separates, spooked. Its doomed energy departs, charging anxiously for the hills. “The hands are windows to the soul,” I say, sadly, waving them before me.
Flies whine out as the girl with her hair in her face goes in. The door slaps shut behind her. A great organic howling fills the air. With her thus occupied, and with you invisible, I focus on returning my hand to my body. I kneel on the sidewalk. I scritch my empty fingers over the rough surface, but nothing happens. My fingers call out for cool, dark dirt, so I scan the sidewalk for earthworms. There are exactly zero.
“I don’t remember the last time I saw one,” I say. “Do you think they’ve all become ghosts?”
I expect you won’t answer, and you don’t disappoint. So I look up and down the block at the jangly stores: Tantric Tanning. Beach Bums. Shimmer Sheaths. U-V Va-Va-Vajazzled. By the time the girl with her hair in her face stumbles out of the stinking closet, my hand has returned to my wrist, and I have observed many pallids transmogrify, emerging onto the sidewalk, bronzed, victorious.
The girl with her hair in her face slumps against me. Her shirt lies flat over her stomach, marked with a spreading wet splotch. “Wowee,” she says. “Is it ever a relief to be all cleaned out.”
“Are you asking or telling,” I say. I step away. I want her to learn to speak up for herself. Stand on her own two feet. But her own two feet have other ideas. She pitches forward onto her hands and knees.
Across the street, The Patron of the Arts is lounging in front of GlowJob Junction, whispering in a young boy’s ear. The boy is beautiful: shining black hair, twinkling eyes. He stares straight ahead, his smile radiant and blank.
“A narrow boy—a slip of a boy,” I muse. “Long gangly limbs.”
Swirling around them: action, activity. Black-clad camera people busy about: pushing buttons, twirling knobs, fussing over their mechanical familiars. Grump-faced workers struggle with long folding tables, heft boxes brimming with food and beverages. “This over here,” bosses The Patron of the Arts. “That over there.”
The girl with her hair in her face staggers to her feet. Her knees are bleeding. Her X-ed out eye turns into an O of surprise when she sees the twinkling boy. She emits a curdled moan.
“I don’t understand,” I say. “You’d really better enunciate.”
“You!” cries the girl with her hair in her face.
“Yoohoo!” calls The Patron of the Arts, who has finally noticed us. “What are you waiting for?” He slaps his leg, snaps his fingers. I half expect the panther who is actually a dog to come slinking over. But of course, he is invisible, just like you.
“By what name does this young gentleman go?” I ask. “Surname? Epithet? Sobriquet? Tag?”
This is the type of politeness you always put up around yourself like armaments. Maybe if I train myself to speak as you would, you’ll fill in your lines, bulking back out into the world of the visible.
The girl with her hair in her face drags me across the street. Her legs trail lines of blood like red reminders of earthworm ghosts. “I’m so happy,” she chirps. “I’m so glad. Only—”
The Patron of the Arts gestures expansively. Presenting . . . himself! Presenting . . . the twinkling boy! Presenting . . . banquet tables laden with bowls of bright foodstuffs, spanning out over the sidewalk! Large pitchers gloom and sweat in rows. Colorful pills spill from crystal goblets. What more could the girl with her hair in her face possibly want?
“What more could you possibly want?” demands The Patron of the Arts.
The girl with her hair in her face hangs her head.
“What for this open-air banqueting,” I ask, to banish the tension. “And who for?”
“Why, for you of course,” laughs The Patron of the Arts. “This is a highly-anticipated reunion special!” He beams a winsome smile at each of us in turn. But when his eyes meet mine, his face flattens. His pupils dilate. My newly-returned hands sweat. I look away. I whistle a merry little tune to invisible you.
Burnished people emerge from the jangling shops and throng to the side. They pick at their oiled exteriors, lick their leathern lips. Their eyes catapult hungrily over us.
“It’s all in the mind,” one tells the others. “If you imagine the taste, you really will feel full.”
“Digestion begins where?” another asks, coquettishly. “And yes, this is a test!”
“The oldest trick question in the book,” says a third, wiggling his tongue.
“Children!” shouts The Patron of the Arts. “In your places!” He hustles the three of us past the tanned-fast, over to a darkened shop window. Bare Necessities, fluoresces the sign over the door. “The best window on the block,” he gloats. “The better to see yourselves as you are, as you were. Perfect for projections.”
The girl with her hair in her face stares enviously at the twinkling boy’s reflection. His luminous skin. The delicate wings of his shoulder blades. How he twists his skinny limbs together, gazes vacantly at nothing. She jabs at her own reflection’s X-ed out eye. Its bulging stomach, its spreading thighs.
“We’ll begin in five,” says The Patron of the Arts. “But first—” From his pocket, a new bottle. From the bottle, a handful of pills. Muddy pink, robin’s egg blue. The twinkling boy parts his lips, the girl with her hair in her face bares her grimy teeth, and in the medicines go.
The Patron of the Arts is a fun-loving guy, a barrel of monkeys, a real trench coat of laughs, because when he gets to me, he becomes coy. He places my hand in his pants pocket, makes me play hide-and-go-seek for mine.
“Surprise, surprise,” I say. “This pocket is riddled with holes. The material looked so new from the outside. So closely-knit and unbroken.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” says The Patron of the Arts. “Just like you always do.”
I direct my fingers to keep rummaging. It is always possible that the pocket holds the key to your return. So down my fingers plunge, searching. The Patron of the Arts gasps. A hot, breathing animal rises from the depths. My fingers itch and balk, rear away in fear. My hand flickers in and out of existence as the two make contact.
“Maybe I should stop,” I say, reasonably. “Seeing as how I am ailment-free. Save the pretty medicines for those two. Clearly they’re thriving.”
They certainly are. The girl with her hair in her face and the twinkling boy sway and swoon. They dance in place. The tanned-fast inch closer, craning toward their flushed faces, straining to touch the soft folds of their clothing.
“What a harmonious scene,” I say. “Well done, Patron of the Arts!” I may sound cheery, but really I am very sad. However deep I dig, no key to reach invisible you. Oh, come on, please please please come back. Where on earth are you?
“Quiet,” says The Patron of the Arts. “And hurry! We’re missing crucial footage.”
My fingers open and close as I picture you, reappearing. I’ll hug you for real, I vow. No excuses this time. No pretend leaves in your hair. I will open my arms and fall into you.
The hot, breathing animal rejoices at this revelation. It drools into my fingers. The medicines slime into my palm. I yank my hand out of the hole-riddled pocket.
“Marvelous,” sighs The Patron of the Arts. “Now open wide.”
“Down the hatch,” I say. But I palm the pills. Hide them between my fingers. Ferry them into the cuff of my shirt.
“Now, now.” The Patron of the Arts wags his finger. “It’s your choice. You know I’d never force you.”
It occurs to me that maybe you took the pills too. It occurs to me that maybe if I swallow them, I can follow you. So I unzip my lips, press my palm to my mouth. Taste split seeds, loamy soil. Earthworm ghosts. Several strata down, the faint scent of bubblegum. I can hear your soft, careful voice. I can feel your cool fingers stroking my neck, guiding the medicines down.
“There,” you say, from far, far away. “There, there.”
“I’m ready,” I shout. “I’ll go anywhere with you!”
But really, it is only The Patron of the Arts.
“Crew!” he barks. One of the black-clad bustles over, hefting a film projector. The others hoist their mechanical familiars. Lights blinking, lenses dilating. Grumbly faces scrunched in concentration.
“The Patron of the Arts will project and direct!” says the girl with her hair in her face. “The crew will film. You’re in for a treat.”
“I don’t like treats,” I say. But the pill is lodged in the back of my throat, and my words stick there too. I hunch over, gag and hack. Surely I can come up with a better way to find you.
The Patron of the Arts shakes my shoulders, pounds my back. He laughs and laughs. He jabs at the film projector, stabs at a large red button. A square of many colors appears over our reflections. “Places!” he cries. “In three! Two! One! And!”
I gasp. I shudder. I swallow.
Us, reflected in the window. Me, the twinkling boy and the girl with her hair in her face.
A little child, projected on the window, turning in circles in an empty room. Its eyes widen. Its pupils dilate. Its mouth gapes and its tongue is mobile.
Us, holding hands, turning in circles. Palm against palm and our fingers line up perfectly. Gold sparks explode around us. Pink smoke blurs our features. Our shimmer-painted skin catches the light.
The Patron of the Arts drifts over, bearing more pills. We open our mouths, swallow. Our faces sparkle, slacken, gleam. Our expressions match the child’s on the screen.
“I’d imagine that child likes the word scintillating,” I say.
I have noticed that when I speak, the words do not match the ones in my head. I have noticed that if I focus my ears just so, I can hear you, invisible, breathing. I have noticed that it is high time to re-gather my resources, reach out with my mind’s tendrils, try to breach your blood-brain barrier.
“Gorgeous child,” murmurs one of the tanned-fast. “Junior prodigy. Extremely popular back in the day.”
“I remember!” whispers another. “Very vulnerable, very naïve. Popping those pills like candy.”
“An excellent, pull-no-stops director,” gushes a third. “Ever a champion of unconventional methods.”
I watch those pills in the window, their colorful array. I watch our three smooth palms splayed. I watch as the The Patron of the Arts starts to lead us away. “No,” I think I hear you say.
I shake my head, slap my face, screw my eyes up tight. Cup my hands around my mouth, trumpeting my missive into the air. It is an etched, flowery parchment. A scrolled banner, flown aloft by legions of earthworm ghosts.
“Enough is enough,” I scream. “Get back here right now. I need you!”
“Hush,” says The Patron of the Arts.
“Shush,” says The Patron of the Arts.
“Dear, dear,” says The Patron of the Arts.
“If you don’t stop screaming, I’ll—” says The Patron of the Arts.
“You simply must accept reality,” says the Patron of the Arts. He hands me a piece of paper. At first I think he’s snatched my banner out of thin air. Intercepted the message from me to you. But it is just a regular piece of paper, covered in drawings of a human body. Its gloomy interior. Its shuttered compartments. Its hulking organs opened to the light.
I crumple the paper, throw it on the ground. “Lungs! Liver! Kidneys! Spleen!” I sing them out: my own familiars, and yours too. Maybe if I sing loud enough, I will reach you.
And then, all of a sudden, I do.
You stand before me, the same, but different. Your hands on my shoulders, our foreheads touching. Your breath is sweet. Pink, like bubblegum. I gulp at the air, at the space between us.
“Count your blessings,” you say. “Count your fingers. Count your organs. Count on the panther who is actually a dog.”
I look into your eyes. I see a movie of the formation of cells. I see a movie of the formation of selves. I see a movie of the formation of parallel. I see a movie of the formation of impermeable.
“Check in your pocket,” you say. “It’s all in the hands,” you say. “The hands are the same, by the way. The hands, remember, are windows to the soul.”
I look into your nose. I see a movie in which there are choices. I see a movie in which we are children. I see a movie in which we each play a doctor. I see a movie in which we each play an actor.
“The body is a cupboard,” you say. “The opened organs are drawers,” you say. “The earthworms haven’t gone anywhere,” you say.
I look into your ears. I see a movie in which you are my mother. I see a movie in which we are married. I see a movie in which we are dead.
“Pin yourself to the earth,” you say. “Pin what you know of me into a pocket. Wear it proudly between pinafore and petticoat.”
I look into your mouth. I see a movie in which I am morphing. I see a movie in which there is nothing.
“I am unhinged,” you say. “I am untethered,” you say. “We were never the same,” you say. “I’ll never forget you,” you say.
The Patron of the Arts clears his throat. He plucks the paper from the ground, presses it into my hand. I close my eyes. That is what you once said to do. Against such darkling sights, closing my eyes is the method you told me to use.
“Cadaver studies are indispensable to this project,” says one of the tanned-fast.
“A surprising sensuality,” muses another.
“The face of an angel,” breathes a third.
Even with my eyes closed, I know you are gone. And I know that the body in the picture is you. I mean, who do you take me for? Of course I do.
The Patron of the Arts glides forward, arms spread wide.
“My cast,” says The Patron of the Arts.
“My audience,” says The Patron of the Arts.
“It’s time,” says The Patron of the Arts.
He holds out his hands, elegant and terrible. The girl with her hair in her face and the twinkling boy take them. “Tenderized,” murmurs The Patron of the Arts.
The black-clad huddle in, mechanical familiars gobbling the scene, gobbling everything.
“Easier, better, more delightful,” says The Patron of the Arts.
“You don’t know true euphoria until,” says The Patron of the Arts.
“I’m not terrible,” says The Patron of the Arts.
And he sounds so sincere that who knows. Maybe he’s not. His voice is gentle, laden with sorrow.
“Come to me,” says The Patron of the Arts.
I take a step toward him.
I can almost see the stage. I can almost see the audience. I can almost see how The Patron of the Arts is going to lead us off into the wings as the curtain goes down to thunderous applause. And if I am to believe him, we will remember nothing of what he is about to do.
“The badness is of me, but not me,” says The Patron of the Arts.
“I know what I’m doing,” he cries.
“Only I will remember,” he shouts.
“Remembering is my burden,” he hisses.
“I’ll glean,” he implores.
“I’ll slurry the badness and stuff it down my throat,” he promises. “Down and down until I forget to remember how to seal up the abyss, and then it begins again, and that’s just how it goes!”
I shove my hand into my back pocket. The bubblegum bleeds pink into my palm. Its smell is round and robust and blooms up, filling my nose.
“I don’t believe you for a minute,” I say. “And I remember everything.”
The Patron of the Arts looks right through me. It is as though I’m not even there. But it doesn’t matter, because as I speak, something cracks. A minuscule fissure in some far-off foundation. I hear the creak of the elevator, returning to collect me. I hear the panther who is actually a dog shifting inside. I feel your molecules dissipate. And I understand that you, invisible, are finally changed.