Read the introduction by guest editor Peter Ho Davies.
Build a Little Birdhouse
The mean weather was almost breaking and Claire was sitting opposite her advisor trying not to twirl or otherwise touch her hair. Her ears had turned red but her spine was still serious. She wished she’d had a third drink. It was 2:10 pm on a Tuesday. Her senior thesis was on A Thousand Plateaus. She swiveled gratuitously in the seat reserved for students, trying not to twirl or otherwise touch it again.
Her advisor closed the folder containing her recent work, a new chapter on intensities composed between babysitting jobs for which she’d prepared a lot of pasta with ketchup while reading from picture books—Goodnight Moon, The Owl and The Pussycat, and her own depressing onetime favorite, a dreamy work full of watercolors in which a bedridden princess mistakes the moon for a pendant. It’s the court jester who cons her with the necklace. Then, placated, she heals. “This story is sort of disturbing,” Claire would say, causing the children to nod gravely, not understanding at all. She moved her hand to her mouth, her collarbone—then reconsidered. Her advisor was still talking. She should listen! He was widely, widely published. Maybe a genius. An expert at least.
“There’s a hole in your sweater,” he said—he definitely did just say to her. He wore gently fraying button-downs and a thin plain-silver wedding band. His eyes were common brown but kind and well focused and precious to her.
She tucked her hair behind her ear, felt the heat there, un-tucked it. “It’s secondhand.” Their meetings were like being at a bar. She left them buzzed and incoherent, forgetting what she’d said.
He folded his hands. His big hairy hands, he thought, watching her literally twiddle her thumbs. She’d stopped paying attention at least two minutes ago. Last week, she’d said he made her nervous, she sometimes drank before seeing him at school. “Have you been drinking?” The sweater had huge fake-pearl buttons. It looked like something his mother had worn.
Her eyelids looked wet to him. “I had a beer.”
He pressed his horrible lupine hands together in some random gesture he couldn’t explain to himself.
“It was a Coronita.” She showed the size of a Coronita with two fingers.
He sighed and said, “Who are you?”
She answered immediately, a small, pathetically earnest, almost whispered, “I don’t know.”
He set the alarm on his phone; otherwise he would forget to go home, he’d explained at least a month earlier. He was setting it every day before they discussed Deleuze and Guattari and then Claire’s best friend Helen. He was also by now fond of Helen. Claire would say, “I think she’s a genius,” and then look meaningfully in his direction. He asked if he could ask her something else.
She smiled. She felt chosen. The blinds behind him went slightly blue in blotches as things did since she’d discontinued anti-depressants and sedatives, citing a cloud-like feeling in conversation with the school therapist. After a year of medication under the open-handed supervision of the school therapist, she had abruptly discontinued, making the next few months dizzy and full of sobbing at radio commercials on the floor. Even now she was still feeling the repercussions of failing to titrate: inconsistencies in her vision; head-music the school therapist insisted on calling “auditory hallucinations”; and her memory, which was lacking. Her pulse fluttered in her feet. Her advisor was watching. Slowly, she said, “Okay.”
“Are you attracted to me?” His own voice surprised him, although he traded in eloquence, knew how to measure and allot his words. He sounded like someone hunching his shoulders. But she leaned in, dropped books, crossed and bounced her bare legs.
“Why are you asking me that?” Her fingers tightened around her capless blue ballpoint. There were her boots: the frayed laces and the worried, worn-out tongues. One set of toes tapped the back of the heel she would have to replace soon. She put her hand on the desk, where he took it. Her advisor was the smartest person she knew. Once, reading one of his essays, she’d felt so understood that she’d cried.
He touched her cheap, pupal-green plastic bracelet. “Where is this from?”
He turned it once around her wrist.
“It’s glow-in-the-dark,” she said.
She let him hold her hand.
“Your hand is cold,” he said. He’d thought she would have been warm, febrile even. “I ask because I’m attracted to you.”
She looked around the room as if a witness would be there, also knowing how, in her life, this would matter. Of course there wasn’t anyone else in the room, just the picture she was now noticing behind her advisor on his wall. It showed a girl, four or five, in the yard where her advisor hosted end-of-semester barbecues. A tiny chocolate Labrador was with her. The photo seemed benign at first but then the dog’s eyes were desperate, the girl’s overly intense. How was this the first time she’d seen it? She amazed herself with what she missed. She looked up at the tube in the ceiling, casting the drab fluorescence that came down all day, from one week to the next, in the hallways and stairwells and offices of the school. Outside, the quad was stupid with sunlight. She made out the innocuous shapes of her classmates, slack lining, between the slats of the blinds. “I think it’s bad circulation. You have kids?”
His eyebrows went up on their own.
“Just one!” A bad subject, so he said, “Can I sit next to you?”
When he bent down his bald spot appeared. She wanted to cover it with something, to help him.
He began unlacing her boots. She had on blue anklets stitched with raised white skulls and crossbones. In gothic font, they said: LOVE KILLS. He found them sweet.
“Thanks,” she said. “My mom got them for me.”
Jesus, he thought, but she had blistered ankles—he liked her. There was a hole in one sock. “This heel is worn.”
Her oldest boyfriend ever had been twenty-five, a bar back who ran around with a rag in his belt loop. At work, he’d moved with dumb, totally admirable purpose, stacking and washing glasses, getting bottles from the room in the back. She still envied him his rag and the unearned little muscles that flexed under his t-shirt. Her advisor’s skin was softer. She thought that she could like it: the little folds, the long dark hairs. Desire was a pact of mutual oblivion, as far as she knew. She was starting to understand the ways in which desiring people painted each other—not as they were (considering multiplicities, performance, etc.) but slightly out of proportion, how they might be later, or could have been once. He was touching her leg. She thought: infatuation is myth making and fetish, like erasure up until the object disappeared. Does the object disappear or did it never exist? Was she subject or object? She should have been writing this down but he had his hand under her slip. “I’m scared,” she said. But, also, she felt her power increasing; she was getting sort of good.
“I’m nervous too,” he said, careful not to catch her eye. “You’re wet.”
She felt pretty.
They undressed quickly, helping each other sometimes, sucking in their stomachs. Her shirt caught around her head. He had trouble getting her bra off. It had a sticky clasp because it was a hand-me-down from her mother and she shared this information with him. He sighed loudly. She got up to turn off the light.
“Do you not want me to see you naked?”
“No…” Her knees cracked as she knelt and then lay horizontally on the floor.
He lowered himself too, his knees were also cracking. He’d never seen this kind of thing in his office. Nothing so badly choreographed.
He went down on her for a while. She pretended not to be too nervous to like it, keeping her legs a little closed. “We should…use something,” she said.
“Do you have something?”
She sat on her knees digging through her bag, her hair falling into it, getting stuck for a second in the zipper.
“Here.” She held out two linked sections of mangled purple foil.
Her hair covered one of her nipples; a little blemish stood out on the other like she’d been picking at it. He put the condom on backwards before trying the other, afraid he would lose his erection. The last time he’d used condoms was at a conference, with an important queer theorist who’d said she hated men. Then she’d told him looked lonely. She wore black suede skirts and frightened him. Now they emailed.
“You’re supposed to hold it at the tip,” Claire said.
Finally he was asking, “Is this what you like?” It felt like he was trying to dig in or otherwise hurt her, which he was (hurting her). He asked whether she liked to “talk.”
“Yeah,” she said, not knowing whether she did. The bar back had been totally mute in sex except to give occasional instructions she pretended not to have heard.
“Do you like my cock?”
It was an unremarkable but generally good cock.
“Yeah.” A few seconds later, “Yes.” She moaned in a way she hoped wasn’t porny. She hated the word “moan” and the idea of herself moaning in front of someone or even by herself. They were both avoiding eye contact. She was wishing she had showered. She said she liked everything. She did like it. She liked everything intense. At the least, an affair could mean a minor, private tragedy. Near-annihilation at best. She could have a secret past. Writers required experience. Deep, dissociative trips to the void. She wanted to know disaster, too, and so write well about what mattered. Browsing the stacks in the library, she would find sentences so dark and perfectly worded that they turned her on. She talked about the disorder of the south stacks and the smell of aging paper while he replaced her clothes since she somehow couldn’t work her skirt, which was new and involved a detachable slip.
He’d felt something similar, he said, when he was first reading theory. Nothing gave him that much pleasure anymore.
Overhead, the fan turned for what seemed like a long time. They lay on the vacuum marks left by the night cleaning crew. Her head was on his chest. “Are you there?”
“I’m here,” he said, briefly soft in the face and recovered. He thought of his yoga teacher saying, “Relax your jaw. You’re in the universe.” Other alluring New Age imperatives. “Open your heart” during pectoral stretches. He’d only been going to yoga for two weeks. It did ease his claustrophobia which was maybe a symptom of the lame gray town they’d decided to inhabit and even reproduce in. And the hazy stoned boredom in most of his students. And the creeping systematic boredom he saw in himself. Claire had ink on her hands and was shiny. She kept dog-earing his books. She had her black-painted toenails. Her mouth, her wide pink gums.
She said, “Tell me something nice.”
He put his head in her lap, where she held it. “This is nice,” he said.
“I’ve never been fucked so hard,” she submitted.
“Oh,” he said, “surely you have.”
His alarm went off with the same sound her phone made five to ten times every morning. He gave her a noticeably close-mouthed kiss and she left to shuffle homeward, the bricks on the school buildings holding their places, supported by pillars—Ionic, Corinthian, or the other one, which she forgot. Construction on the student center had stopped for the day. In the space the sound had left she started to hear one of her songs. It was “Leaving Las Vegas,” by Sheryl Crow, something her mother had played a lot for a few months the first time she was fired. Claire liked “Leaving Las Vegas” because it was mellow but also deeply desperate and at one point Sheryl Crow’s voice sort of broke. The version she heard felt as real and specific to her as the recording: even the studio mixing, even the one time someone hit a tambourine. The first few nights she’d heard it, she’d thought her roommates had music on. Claire had never been to Las Vegas or even inside a casino. She like the idea of the lights. Free drinks and never knowing what time it was. She thought of gambling in public with her advisor, of obtaining and zipping herself inside a long soft evening dress.
The house where Claire lived was a dingy yellow that made her think of mothballs and old bolts of silk. It was made of mostly asbestos and lead, facts she remembered from the contract she’d had to sign along with the lease. The yellow house sagged off campus between the cemetery and the Penny Market, always diffusing its mild, sepiac decay. Inside, the electric lights were off. All their cheap fat candles were lit, letting out the clingy chemical scents that aligned so well with the padded floral furniture Claire’s parents had donated after institutionalizing her grandmother, a woman who, as far as Claire knew, cared a lot for Ronald Reagan.
Claire announced that she was home.
“We’re in here,” Helen said. She was sitting in the waterless bathtub wearing a ripped shirt and ripped white underwear. Her hair had been combed and neatly braided. She wore makeup and was reading the Bible. King James. She was obsessed with Jesus and the fig tree and would often corner Claire to discuss that episode or the wrecking of the temple.
Brooke had on elbow-length rubber gloves and her softest homework sweatpants. She stood by the sink pulling a fresh sponge from its wrapper.
“Did you do that all by yourself?” Claire pointed at Helen’s braid.
“I thought I’d make an effort.” The bathtub was dry and ringed with water stains. A Band-Aid lived beneath it. Helen opened and closed her eyes. “Claire is glowing.”
“She’s drunk,” said Brooke, who was collecting strands of hair from the tiles and replacing them with Comet. “You’ve been shedding.” She kissed Claire neatly on the cheek. “This is the thyroid thing I was telling you about.”
Claire touched her throat.
“She just looks tipsy.” Helen slowly stroked her long black braid. “Did you have sex with him? You look like you had sex.”
“Is it my skirt?” Claire pulled at her slip.
“You just look undone.” Helen winked.
Claire couldn’t wink. “I do feel undone.” She sat on the rim of the bathtub and held Helen’s hand. Night was starting through the windowpanes, which were waved and watery and reminded her on good days of sea glass. Once, age five, on vacation, Claire had tried to eat some. She reconstructed the episode—her mother’s patent disappointment, the eerie sight of her nipple, with its single black hair, slipping from her bathing suit when she leaned over to look. Claire didn’t want to think about it longer so she shut the memory off by staring at their scummy blue-gray bathmat, privately hoping to hear the Dvorak in her head tonight. She liked “Serenade for Strings in E Major,” one of the only pieces she’d retained from Music Appreciation, a class she’d taken as a gift to herself and mostly slept through. She was bored of and embarrassed by her third hallucination song, “The Circle Game,” which she’d been forced to sing at summer camp, at the end when all the campers lined up on a path in the forest to cry and hug while holding lit tapered candles. Everyone’s hair would catch on fire but still the tradition couldn’t be stopped. She only heard the three songs, mostly softly. It was unideal but liveable, they were not always on. She could switch them if she worked at it. “Think of it like a tiny, secret CD,” Helen had advised.
Claire dragged her backpack over the tiles and shook nine Tylenol PM into her palm. Once it had been Klonopin—and she had loved and devoted herself to her Klonopin—but now, in a halfhearted attempt at responsibility, she took Tylenol PM at the end of her daily routine, a cycle of stupor and mania in which she was either dissolving or recomposing herself: warming under morning coffee and the closeness of the classroom walls; sitting alone at noon under an evil sun, eating a sandwich, remembering water, moving, tired, through a bright or overcast afternoon drinking coffee with whole milk or spiked. Finally she took her Tylenol and—so nice—nighttime came bringing the all-blue air and the shaded, easy length of the hours when people rested and the lucky ones slept.
Water ran over the detergent Brooke had scattered in the sink. “What was he like?”
“Dorky, sexy, arrogant,” Claire said.
“I wish I’d taken that class.” Brooke was studying modernist literature. Her thesis was on To the Lighthouse. She spoke slowly, avoiding “like,” avoiding “um,” gesturing with long, patrician hands while she removed her rubber gloves. She admired her fingers for a moment. Under the silver nail polish were the smooth, translucent beds.
“Of course he’s arrogant,” Helen said. She’d had her own professor last year, a visiting writer who’d spent a semester at the school before marrying a surgeon. The visiting writer had then received a Genius Grant, something the school had been eager to get up on the website. Helen had spilled a glass of water on her keyboard when she read it. She’d been awarded a generous scholarship and had shown an early, borderline fanatical interest in physics before higher education cooled her. After the visiting writer she’d dated a senior who played fantasy baseball, then a series of theater students—recreational junkies with trust funds and voices they’d had trained to fill all rooms.
Helen hated actors.
She no longer considered herself a humanist—was maybe even anti-humanist, she suggested—and was struggling to be done with an anthropology degree. She had no honors thesis. She was reading the New Testament and Schopenhauer all the time, attending class casually, when inspired. She liked lectures, where fewer students could speak. She had her Schopenhauer and whatever Claire brought home. In the margins of Claire’s books she made sharp, apparently effortless notes, many of which would appear in Claire’s thesis. These were the ideas her advisor liked best.
“Take them,” Helen said. “They’re collaborative.” She was a morbid, intense diarist. Fiction-wise, she enjoyed stories involving dystopia and personal failure. Of the suicides for which the school was slightly famous, she would say, “They were not wrong.”
“I just want you to be happy,” Helen said from the unfilled bathtub where she was still cradling the broken binding of her annotated Bible. Claire dreamt that night of the desktop on her advisor’s computer. A blue background. A file labeled “Claire” in all caps.
She received an email the next day. “Lovely and surprising,” he said. She wrote back after a few hours, which she spent checking her spelling until she felt she couldn’t read. He wrote again, immediately, and they agreed to meet at a bar. She was suspicious of the cliché that was their current relationship, but she liked it, too, for the simplicity of finally having a role instead of choices. She felt she’d found the path for which she’d been designed and would meet herself, changed, on the other side.
Her advisor chose a place on the grayest, most garbagy edge of town. It was a bar most students avoided since real alcoholics went there. Claire was aware of a vacuum-like sensation, walking by the gas station and its cheerful signs—beer & wine, liquor & soda, cigarettes & candy—all neon, having what people wanted, being useful and pretty and occupied.
He was wearing his blue shirt which for weeks had been missing two buttons. Neither of them cared for clothes, she thought. She didn’t know whether to kiss him, and they half hugged. Claire saw a game on the TV over his shoulder. “Football,” she said, like a question, suddenly doubting her ability to identify the sport or anything happening around them, unsure whether she was speaking real words.
He offered something equally uncomfortable, about a linebacker who’d been hurt. They looked at the floor. It was covered in sawdust. They approached the bartender who eyed them as Claire ordered a vodka martini. The bartender looked coldly but also with indifference between Claire and her advisor before asking whether she wanted a twist.
“Extra olive juice,” Claire said, not wanting to say “dirty.”
“Dirty,” the bartender said.
Her advisor asked himself who drank vodka martinis. He answered himself: children did.
Years too late Claire would have the same realization. “I have to pee,” she said. She’d finished a bottle of wine in preparation for these drinks. She’d taken six Tylenol PM.
“Go pee,” he told her. He sat by himself in the booth, holding the purse she’d left on the barstool. He was curious about Claire. He wanted to look in her giant, occult looking, fake-leather purse. But she called it her bag, didn’t she. Purse was an old person’s word. He felt alert, looking through it, like he’d just taken a small dose of speed. Maybe just his blood pressure, just the gumball machine bracelet and the feral look on her face when she’d said, a little loudly, “I just want to feel alive.” He’d had two beers before leaving home—she made him nervous. She made him think of himself, his body, pulling the zipper on her bag. It was appalling: gum-stuck coins; crusted, pried-open bobby pins; loose, damp dollar bills; sheaves of wrinkled receipts; half-empty packs of cigarettes (organic, he smiled); a journal (he wouldn’t); condoms (“ultra thin” and she’d replenished); lipstick (Wisdom, said the bottom of the tube, but the color looked like mauve); flakes of loose tobacco, some lining the pages of his first book (touching, flatteringly damaged); finally, apparently, sand. He’d seen this kind of bedraggled grit on girls before. Claire carried her trash everywhere, and was an innocent. He recognized the irritants in turn: lust, glee, guilt. Reminded himself not to attach to his thoughts. Still, for a fraction of a second, he allowed himself to hate her.
Someone had left a note on the center-stall door of the women’s bathroom: If your ever sad, build a little birdhouse deep inside your soul. Claire found this weirdly profound and useful until she remembered that it was a line in a bad pop song she then silently urged herself not to start hallucinating. It was dumb but she did want a birdhouse. By which she meant a soul, etc. Over the lyrics, maybe misremembered, someone else had written, with an arrow, NO. Fuck fragility. And then someone, maybe the bird person, had crossed out the dissenting response. Claire looked at it, afraid and painfully happy for herself. In the mirror she appeared only slightly insane. Beside the soap dispenser, someone had written, in tiny script, cuntling. Her eyeliner was smeared, the skin under her eyes slightly purple—which indicated liver failure, her mother always said. Sheryl Crow surrounded her at medium but not impossible volume. Claire did what she thought the school therapist would want. She sat down, breathing deeply under the hand dryer until she felt the wine or what the wine took off, how it softened the space.
She burrowed near him, nervous, in the booth.
“You feel hot,” he said. She smelled like bad white wine and tortilla chips. Definitely she was a borderline lush. Like him before he’d learned discipline. “You’re wearing a tiny shirt.”
“You don’t like it?” Her face was against his collar. She felt happy. She felt soon to be better, at least. Soon he would tell her what she was thinking, or had been thinking, over the exaggerated anecdotes and campus gossip she would offer. This featured recreational drug use and sex, parasuicide, and the occasional fistfight. Or she would talk about herself. “I’m in love.”
His jaw tensed. Sometimes it would lock up so severely he couldn’t swallow. He made an effort to regulate himself, thinking of a guided meditation he’d done that summer in the Catskills: “You are sacred, you are safe…” His “safe place” was the beach house they’d rented one winter two years ago. A crazy person’s home full of crucifixes and wind chimes. He’d liked the size and violence of the waves as seen from in front of the fire, the sight of the house with its lights on at night, sight of Rachel in a white robe, reading like she did with her mouth slightly open. The robe slightly open, the house slightly haunted. A vein activated itself across his forehead.
“I’m in love with Helen,” she said.
He let out a long, intentionally belabored exhale.
She smiled condescendingly. She laughed.
The next day they went to a pond. It was warm enough now. “Need to see you,” he said. So she walked while he drove recklessly in his sedan. He was putting off a month of straight grading. His freshmen refused to move commas inside their quotation marks. Half of them couldn’t spell his last name. He was giving all A’s so they wouldn’t come see him.
“Does your wife know?”
He didn’t answer.
“Are we having an affair?”
The pond was green and marked by strange white lines. He asked what she thought they were.
“Underwater chem trails.”
He was glad she knew about chem trails.
The pond was green and marked by strange white lines and ringed with laurel trees, too. Claire liked laurel trees, she said, “for the myth.” What was the girl’s name? The one running from Zeus.
“Daphne,” he frowned, rubbing his face with half-feigned concern. “And Apollo.”
“My cousin’s name is Daphne!” She went on airily, incoherently, about her cousin. He saw her turn to confirm that he was watching her.
“And what does Daphne do?”
She talked vaguely around some veterinary or “animal daycare” situation. He decided Daphne was a dog walker. Claire wasn’t, he suspected, a listener. He kissed her hair and tried to run his fingers through it.
“It’s tangled,” she said.
He said he would have to grab it in a mass, then surprising her, he did.
The sky was neon pink and blue. Both colors peaked and darkened while they stood by the water not swimming. She didn’t want him to undress in public or feel unlimber. She didn’t mention the music, though her least favorite Joni Mitchell song was playing. Three kids at that camp had lit her hair on fire, hugging her to it and crying. Walking the trail between the pond and the parking lot, he somehow hurt his hip.
“My advanced age,” he said.
She nodded seriously, looking away, which depressed him. He had just turned forty-two.
The school therapist was impressed. He was surprised she didn’t prefer him; he was her therapist.
They giggled from respective couches. “It’s not that you’re bad looking,” Claire said.
In the office were a fountain and a rock garden, both miniatures. The sound machine worked discreetly from its the corner on the floor, the end table offered its tissues and the sight of the fake plant with the plastic dewdrops on its fake red flowers. Claire raked the rock garden and gazed, hypnotized, at the school therapist’s mustache, how it crested and curled blondly over his lip. She lied badly about the progress of her thesis, saying it was going “super well.”
Actually she was spending whole nights in the library between the flimsy walls of her carrel, reading her advisor’s books and whatever else seemed relevant—his shorter works, his Wikipedia page. She would trace the marginalia in the books and journals he’d lent her, admiring the energy of his almost-illegible handwriting. She looked over and over the notes. He was so unafraid to underline. He knew something she didn’t. She wanted it. She would start to write, go on for pages, and delete her work with a flourish. Sometimes, she thought to involve fire. Before, she had felt she could show him a draft. Now that she needed to produce a perfect essay to show to her lover who was a genius, nothing came. After midnight one of her songs would start up. Loudly and sometimes distorted now.
Brooke’s carrel was three doors down. She would leave by eleven pm, giving Claire a dry kiss on the mouth, her hand at the strap on her shoulder, saying, “You freak,” not once walking into the doorframe. Brooke made her bed at the same hour each morning. She never lay down in the daytime. Then she turned back her blanket at night.
In the library, on her laptop, Claire received another email, this one saying she’d been in his dream. They were at a music festival, smoking. Her advisor was waiting to ask Bob Dylan a question, something about his early success. Bob Dylan wore a yellow hat and smoked Fantasias. Had she ever smoked Fantasias? He asked her. I would bet yes. She assumed her role was also accessorial. She wrote back with her own dream: rape, this time, and a tidal wave. She sent it. She felt indiscreet.
The library was closed but she had propped open a side door and then sat quietly for thirty minutes to two hours in her carrel, drinking and hallucinating Dvorak. When she laid her head on the desk the volume got softer. It was trite, asking him to meet her there, but they shared that awareness, obviously. She imagined him at home, in his study, working. Maybe, in his study, there was wine? The sick Shiraz she’d cut with club soda was empty and abandoned looking and she blamed it for making her send that message. She hated herself, had no self-control. “Fuck you,” she was saying, punching herself lightly in the face until she saw he’d written back.
Claire found it touching, how he used so many exclamation marks.
She looked vaguely around her workspace and learned that the trash was full of beer cans, some open and unfinished, some that had tipped and leaked. Absurd green post-its representing her recent notes fluttered, did something, against the walls. She peeled them down and stuffed them in an already full drawer while her phone moved again with a message from Helen: Crashed car, sort of totaled but fine. Claire tripped over her desk chair. She was surprised and also not. She banged her fist feebly on the desk. What could she do about Helen? Claire was a slob herself. Physically, emotionally—she wanted ten Tylenol. She was writing back, making an expressive string of question marks when she heard his knock. The knock was at a socially acceptable volume and calm. The heavy look around his eyes suggested, to her, gratitude. She kissed him on the cheek, hating Helen who wanted everything.
He accepted her greeting as if it amused him. It did amuse him. She was cold, he told her, she should have been sleeping. But he was glad to see her again.
They settled in her swivel chair and hugged. He breathed for three or four minutes into her hair and said she smelled good.
“Maybe my shampoo. It has…coconut.”
He wouldn’t let her turn off the light. He said, “Take this off,” and, “But I want you to.” He kept kissing her stomach which tickled. He did it till after the joke had played out.
He was wearing an undershirt she was reluctant to remove in the clinical light of her carrel. His stomach looked swollen and helpless to her. The sad folds, the long dark hairs. She knelt in front of him, a little popping sound going off in her ankles. Privately, she pretended she was a prostitute, then Anais Nin with her psychoanalyst. Anais Nin had been a huge sex addict, she thought. And a mystic. Or else schizophrenic. Maybe Claire was a sex addict now. A sex addict or a mystic which she believed were basically similar. Her mouth was dry. Blowjobs had bored her since tenth grade but this was their dynamic. An image of her old boss, from a summer job at a grocery store, appeared every time she closed her eyes.
He said, “What are you thinking about?”
There was a meat slicer, too. She tried to focus. “I’m thinking about you.” Then she tried to unfocus. Her objective was supposed to be pleasure, freedom, keeping death at bay. The point, she believed, was to be a body without organs. Was that right? She thought of Helen saying, “Do you know what ‘body without organs’ means?” How she had answered, uncertain, “Uh huh.”
They had intercourse briefly. He positioned her facing away from him on his lap which felt performative and athletic. When he was done he kissed her with what seemed like sincerity. She crumpled like she felt she was supposed to. He commented on the speed of her pulse.
“It’s my aerobic activity for the week.”
He said, “Mine too, I guess.”
To her silence, he added, “It’s good for you.”
He put his second shirt, the button-down one, back on. The undershirt had stayed on and in the fluorescent light looked sick and unseemly. She had his class the next day, an hour-long seminar called Death, Decay and Time.
Claire chose not to go to Death, Decay and Time. She lay in bed with the dirt from her feet and some loose tobacco and books. Her sheets were marked with drool and mascara. She called Helen on the phone in her own room. “Come over.”
Helen appeared in her Monday outfit, an oversized t-shirt that said, in large bubble letters, ‘TIL THE SUN COMES UP. There was a new stain down the front. “I slept on a rotisserie chicken.” She got in the bed and the old box spring creaked. “I feel like a raw nerve.”
Claire nodded, agreeing, silently retracting last night’s meanness. She felt cruel. The car was killed and Helen was still drunk and so what—they agreed about the world. When Claire considered marriage, she thought of her days and nights with Helen. Marriage was another mystery. She hardly trusted it, but she wondered how it would be, really, to have an anchor in someone else. Though the possibility of leaving—or, more likely, being left—remained. So monogamy failed. Polyamory, she suspected, also had problems.
Helen asked what Claire was thinking and Claire said, “Nothing.”
“You look ominous.”
“I, myself, look ominous?”
“He should know better than to get involved with a younger woman in the field.”
“I’m a senior,” Claire said. “I’m not in the field.”
“You will be.”
Claire tried in her way to picture the field. She saw wildflowers, wheat, a generic Vegas strip before her song came on again.
Claire received hundreds of emails in the following week. None were from her advisor, so none were relevant, except a Spanish word of the day from an online dictionary: Quejarse, reflexive verb, to complain. She dreamt that her advisor gave her a C-plus on a paper. She searched the text for comments, unable to find any. He had only circled a few words. Awake, the only circled word she remembered was peignoir. She was not consciously familiar with peignoir. She looked it up, then wished she hadn’t. She walked around mouthing peignoir to herself. It was debasing. To Helen, she said, “Let’s go out.” Brooke stayed behind and went to work in her carrel. Claire would have felt haunted in hers.
The chain on Helen’s bicycle kept falling off. The house party was almost two miles away but the nights had lost their edge and they rode without coats. The seniors were all drinking steadily towards graduation, then the rest of their lives. Some were going to die young or get herpes. The worst ones had already gotten consulting jobs.
Claire and Helen chose a six-pack, some whiskey, and a spot in the corner. Real electronic music moved the floorboards which brought Claire some relief. It smelled like someone was smoking crack. “Who’s smoking crack?” the host, a U.S. History major, was asking. Most people had on the same black pants.
On her fifth beer Claire said, “Why am I unhappy?”
“You’re just vulnerable.” Helen was lying on the ground. Gum had gotten in her hair. People came over at intervals to express concern or hit on them. They looked like two women a taxi wouldn’t stop for.
“Why am I vulnerable?”
Helen was watching something across the room. She seemed tired.
“Do you think I’ll write like Kristeva one day?” Claire put her drink down. Foam gushed from the top of the bottle. “Do you think this relationship could be good for my career?”
“You’ll fuck your way to the middle,” Helen said smiling with closed eyes.
Claire laughed. It turned to quiet joyful crying. “That’s the nicest thing I’ve heard all week.” She wiped the tears and some snot from her face with Helen’s shirt.
Helen said, “If I die, will you publish my journals?”
Claire nodded emphatically.
“But edit them first.”
“I will edit them so well.”
They started to kiss. A cautious, then deep and open-mouthed kiss.
Someone near them said, “Cool.” Later he tapped Claire on the back, wanting a lighter.
Claire went to her advisor’s office after showering, shaving, moisturizing, plucking her nipples, and trimming her pubic hair. Applying an objectively dumb orange lipstick and a lot of under-eye concealer. She worked slowly on herself. She was still a little drunk. Her next chapter was unfinished but due. It had more than a few typos, and she sensed that she was imitating him … something about his commas, syntax, shadowing her. The thesis was juvenilia, embarrassing for everyone involved. She thought she would hand it to him in person and maybe explain herself. She felt her brain cells fizzle out and die forever as she passed the halls and columns on campus—the soft hangover stupor she would love for as long as she stayed alive and semi-drunk. She wanted to tell him about her night with Helen. If she didn’t report it, it almost hadn’t happened to her.
Checking herself in the women’s bathroom, she realized she’d left her printout at home. Her underwear was also on backwards. She ran her hand along the walls as she walked. Standing empty-handed outside his office door, it occurred to her that she was not an academic. She didn’t work well, couldn’t prioritize, the body without organs was still a serious mystery. She was not even a mistress. A mistress would get her lingerie right. Comfort, she understood, would take the form of thin, bitter coffee in the future, which she saw now as the pitted runway of a rural airport. The runway was lined with generic Tylenol PM. She would sound herself, in the future, for energy to creep to the drugstore to get it.
Her advisor sensed someone outside the door. He hoped it was her. That it wasn’t—the last time they’d fucked was awkward. He had sixty unreadable papers to grade. The essay on top of the stack began: Similarly to in Platos’ The Symposium… He held his own head in his hands.
Claire turned back to the yellow house. The magnolias had opened, offending her while she walked fuzzily, for a long time, home.
Brooke was reading out loud when she heard from him. Far away, fraternity boys chanted victory cries. There must have been a game, though no one went to athletic events. Cheers floated through the cemetery, echoed between the obelisks, and died. Claire catalogued every insipid thing she’d told her advisor. She had said she liked horses, had gone so far as to describe the blind bay pony she’d ridden at the summer camp, how the pony would sometimes spook and throw her, but her velvet-covered helmet was on… She pinched the inside of her wrist. Once.
Helen sneezed. She was working at opening a window. Chips of paint fell from the frame and onto Helen. She was bleeding a little from the knee, having crashed her bicycle into a parked car on the way to a lecture—they’d both been feeling ambitious that day. Helen had left a note on the car and the bicycle in the street. She’d decided to skip class, in the end.
Brooke said, “Bless you,” and went on reading To the Lighthouse. Claire identified violently with Charles Tansley. Her advisor, with his magnetism, was clearly Mrs. Dalloway. She just wanted to keep talking to him, holding hands with him forever in the torn vinyl booth at that dive bar. She had an image of them pressing their foreheads together with something psychic going on. He was her person. He and Helen were. Electric light from the kitchen pitched diagonally across the living room floor. She moaned a little out loud. Get over it, she was telling herself when her phone lit up with his Where were you?
He was in his study eating Chinese food, thinking again about how she overwrote her emails and about the lull descending on his career. There was nothing he wanted to read, still, and nothing he wanted to write. He couldn’t make… meaning. He thought of the meaninglessness of Claire’s monologues which amused him. He liked what she said about the other one, Helen. He liked Claire more than he’d meant to. She wanted to go to Nevada for her twenty-second birthday. He felt absurd and senile and full but he kept eating. He found he couldn’t stop.
Claire was hearing “Leaving Las Vegas” again. She held her phone in a fist.
“You dork. You floozy,” said Brooke.
Claire slid, smiling, down the couch. Dust beat upward and caught the light. She thought it was beautiful and said so. A line of ants went by, carrying a dismembered dead spider to a place beneath the stove. She knew she was aging in reverse now. She’d thought an older man would mature her.
Helen sneezed, then started to cry. “Ignore me,” she said. “I’m just jealous.”
Three cups of coffee. Four Tylenol PM. Claire wore a sweater and jeans. She felt slippery and bow-legged walking to her advisor’s office, her obsession with him preceding her. It was the dog; she was the walker with no choke chain or sense of direction. She came in coughing.
“You look nice,” he said.
“I look like a whore.”
“You’re wearing a turtleneck.”
He shrugged, understanding. Her sweater was admittedly tight. She looked sluttish, her hair was in knots. She looked like she slept without top sheets on a mattress placed next to a gas leak. She lived in an attic, he hoped, full of hanging ferns. “I was thinking about you,” he said.
“The way you said, I was thinking about you. When were you thinking about me? Like, between ten and twelve?” She was trying to be someone who joked effectively about grammar. Her armpits were already damp. She smelled bad. Doubtless, they both knew. He saw her, she suspected. She had only been witnessed by Helen before. That, too, felt graceful, like her life was…a rhizome, expanding.
“I see your point,” he said. “I have been thinking about you. I was thinking about you in class today. It was distracting.”
Claire had been holding her breath. Now she coughed again. “Sorry,” she said. “It’s the asbestos.”
“The asbestos?” He smiled indulgently.
“In our house.” She hadn’t told him? (She had.) There was lead in the paint, too. “I worry about it,” she confessed, inclining her head at a pensive angle, so like Emma Bovary that he said, “Come here.”
She sat on his lap and picked lint from his sweater. She liked them both in sweaters. Soon the weather would turn completely and there would be no more sweaters. She imagined him and her and his wife sitting in sweaters by a fireplace somewhere. She’d sleep between them—she’d be on his side of the bed.
“The asbestos is in the insulation,” he said. “It won’t come out. As long as you don’t eat the paint,” here he kissed her forehead, “the lead is in the walls.”
She repeated it smiling like it was a mantra, “The asbestos is in the insulation, the lead is in the walls.” She felt like she was most herself in his presence. His office was semi-dark and safe. He tasted like black tea with sugar and milk and he forgot to make her turn in her work. Physically, he treated her roughly this time. Not reverse cowgirl again but neither was he gazing deeply into her eyes. She put her clothes on unassisted and walked home thinking peripherally about one of his epigraphs. She walked past the graveyard, liking the lukewarm air and the night smell of cut grass. Her pretty Dvorak song came on just before her phone’s ringing interrupted it. She searched her bag for the phone, pricking her finger on something, a safety pin or a sewing needle, something that hardly hurt and so would stay in the bag, maybe deep in its polyester lining until, years later, she lost the bag. She had three text messages from Helen. The last one read: don’t wnt4 thehospital. Claire called.
“I’m a twelve-year-old,” Helen said.
Claire passed a house where the windows were dark. The music always seemed to be coming from somewhere like that. “What’s happening?”
“I’ve just been slicing myself up.”
Claire found the door unlocked. Helen was bent over the kitchen table with a breadknife. Her face looked swollen. She had her arms turned upward like a figure from a religious paining. She was bleeding shallowly in small ridges that had dripped onto the table and made small red rings on its surface. Helen dabbed at one, broke its circle, and stuck her finger in her mouth. “What kind of idiot uses a serrated knife?”
They were minor but rough-looking cuts. Claire asked what had happened.
“I just loathe myself.”
“You just loathe yourself?”
“They want to expel me.”
“The dean. The school. My scholarship was ‘merit-based.’ My merit is gone.” Helen started to press and drag the breadknife over fresh skin around her wrist.
It was a long knife but also so blunt-looking and oversized that Claire laughed. “It’s not gone, though,” She held her hand out distractedly; the Dvorak and “Leaving Las Vegas” had starting going at once.
“I’ll just disappear,” Helen said. “Then it’s done.” She was still trying vainly to make another cut.
“Let me see that,” Claire suggested.
Helen slashed, then, almost reaching Claire’s hand.
Claire made a pre-lingual sound of protest and the music, which was hers but sounded so outside, went up a level. There was blood on the breadknife’s teeth. The Joni Mitchell came on. Claire said, “No.” The songs were un-synchronized. They were loud and unfamiliar and, she thought, brassy, with a lot of clashing chords.
Claire moved to hold Helen from behind. She saw a note on the table, written on ruled and bloodstained loose-leaf paper. In case I die, it read, the letters scrawled crazily on the page which was pressed through and torn in places. She wanted to call her advisor and tell him what was happening. Maybe he could help her. At the least, she’d show him how excitingly they lived.
“My will,” Helen laughed, “and the passwords for my email and stuff.”
A little water dripped from a corner of the ceiling in a place that had started to bubble months ago. The mismatched noise had gotten louder in her head. “I love you,” Claire said, “but I am hearing all the songs.”
Helen’s eyes focused again. She said, quietly, “All three?” And let the breadknife go. “If I were dead,” she considered, “I wouldn’t be alive anymore.” She started to hum “Leaving Las Vegas.”
Claire took the breadknife and sat on the floor. She found her Tylenol PM and gave Helen four. Then she wrapped her legs around Helen, sitting behind her, and took five. The sound faded, listenable now. She started to text her advisor, erasing what she’d started with each time.
Helen swallowed. “I feel like an olive,” she said.
“An olive?” Claire stopped typing.
“Just like a little pickled thing. At the bottom of a jar.”
Claire touched Helen’s hair. “That’s a good image.” She folded the breadknife in a rag and put it under the sink, then out on the porch. There were bats out. For a minute she stood alone and watched them, wanting to remember to include this part when she told him.
Helen fell asleep no longer really bleeding, saying maybe she was actually sick, like schizophrenic. She’d had a vision of Claire days before when Claire was out and maybe—
Claire was washing her cuts with wet toilet paper. “I don’t think so.”
Claire felt Helen breathing against her back in her sleep. She thought of escaping her and fell asleep unwillingly to “The Circle Game.” Later, turning over, Helen moved her hand between Claire’s legs. Claire felt burning under her stomach, like she had to pee but it was hunger. Then anger. Then she was turned on again. She rolled to the edge of the bed and fell asleep touching no one, only the mattress, going back and back to her advisor in her brain.
In the morning, Brooke stood in the doorway, the sun turning her blond hair pink around her face. “I’m going to my sister’s.”
Claire started to speak.
“There’s blood on the table,” Brooke said. “And a suicide note? In case I die? It’s for you, Claire.” She started to read them the note:
I don’t have the will to live anymore (will to live is Schopenhauer—reread him).
“You two are so pretentious.” Brooke continued.
You have the will. In my heart of hearts you are the only one. I do see you. I do see you. You are strong. You can be strong when you want to. Edit the journals. You’ll be brilliant and you are brilliant. I love you more than anyone. Take the Bible.
Brooke said the note was dykey.
Claire looked at Helen. “You signed it Best?”
“You enable each other,” said Brooke.
“You signed it Best.”
Helen said she couldn’t remember.
Outside, perennials had shot up messily around the house. Commercial jets crossed a monochromatic sky. Brooke backed down the driveway, pausing once for a squirrel.
Claire and Helen went inside and back to sleep in Helen’s bed until sunset when they woke up and spread a comforter in the cemetery. Representations of dead people’s faces had been engraved on most of the stones.
“Which do you want,” Claire said. “Engraving or mausoleum? Your suicide note didn’t specify.”
Helen said, “Mausoleum, obviously.”
The moon and stars were out. They talked about both being in love with Claire’s advisor, they got drunk and hungover and lay on the ground ripping grass. Getting up to pee, Helen tipped toward and hit her head against a tombstone, her head started bleeding, she laughed. Claire took her in a cab to the hospital, experiencing a strange but mild form of tinnitus. They had to wait a long time for the cab to the ER where the nurse said: “51/50.”
Claire said, “What?”
The nurse looked at her. Helen was escorted away.
Claire went to a corner where she called her advisor. He was at the gym on an elliptical machine, thinking of what he would say when they saw each other. We’re in different places…You’ll meet better, unmarried men, haha…Though I’ve gotten strongly attached to you… Surely this couldn’t have gone on forever... The pedals kept moving slowly up and down even after he’d stepped off the machine. His shoulder hurt. She’d never called him before. Dangerous to let her start. Still, he wanted to talk to her and he answered. There was a no phone policy in the gym but the gym was empty. Only desperate, lawless people worked out late.
“Helen’s in the psych ward.”
He nodded, on his end, her voice sounding smaller as she said, “Could you come get me?”
On the bus home, Claire sat alone over the warm back wheel with her ears ringing. She’d heard it meant someone was thinking or even speaking of you.
Emily Chew received an MFA from the Helen Zell Writers' Program at the University of Michigan. She lives in Oakland, California.