“You’re like a radiant corpse,” she said to the man in her bed. She had wanted to say it for days.
“I know,” he said brightly, looking up from his book. He was older than she was. “I get exhausted,” he explained. “I really do. But then I get excited.”
“Then you forget your body,” she added.
“I really do,” he smiled.
“You’ll be on your deathbed,” she said. “And then you’ll get excited.”
“And then I’ll live for ten more years,” he said, returning to his book.
She chucked her head back with a laugh. “You’ll be like, I forgot to die.”
He laughed too. He liked her cavalier attitude toward death— his death. Perversely it relaxed him.
She moved the sheet off her naked chest and wanted to kiss him but instead stared, which felt tantric—a slow burn.
He didn’t mind being stared at. He felt the measured heat of her gaze and soaked it up like sunshine. Being loved—it was exactly like being at the beach. She was the sun and the ocean and the hot sand too, enclosing him in airy pressure.
She went on staring with her head on its side. She could tell he hadn’t been handsome as a younger guy. But age had pushed his face into another dimension. He was handsome now. It was so often like this for funny-looking young men, she thought. Funny looked better later—rotting.
And it was just the opposite for baby-faced heartbreakers. They aged into ugly guys, she thought. All of them did. Because their perfect soft beauty wore down and all you could see was that it was gone. They age like women . . . old peaches, she thought, smiling wide.
He wasn’t looking at her but he could hear the wet sound of her teeth being revealed. It was like a wolf breaking out of a child’s face.
“Tell me about acid,” she said because she’d never done it. She really wanted to but feared the things she’d do, slice her arm open or just stare into the mirror and into herself, going permanently insane.
“I already did.”
“Tell me again. Tell me about looking at money.”
“Well I remember looking at a dollar—the pyramid. It seemed like a religion.” He set his book down. “This one guy who wasn’t tripping—he was leading us—he decided we should eat pizza. And it was the kind of pizza with bubbles—you know, like airholes. So it looked like it was happening in front of us.”
“Happening in front of you?”
“When you’re tripping nothing is still so it wasn’t just a pizza that had a few bubbles—it was like it was bubbling right there. Like it was the surface of Mars blowing up. And you would no more think about eating this thing than you would think about throwing your face down on lava and licking. It was the craziest thought in the world. So we were like scared children and of course this guy was laughing.”
She smiled giddily, loving the story and his face as he told it. And she knew it was a kind of sickness, how she fell so hard and wore her weird heart on her sleeve like a little hungry roach. “I love that you did so many drugs,” she said and felt like a moron. What she meant was “I love you.”
“I never wanted to be anything,” he said. “I just wanted to feel good.”
She nodded and thought to herself that he was still living that life.
“I was a pleasure kid,” he said.
She smiled. “I don’t know if I am.”
“I think you are.”
“I might be a masochist.”
“No.” He shook his head as if to say that he had fucked many young masochists and was therefore an expert. “You like to feel good,” he commented.
She lay there and considered her own existence, coating and enslaving her. Did she like to feel good? Sure. Good and then blank. She loved this man and would soon feel nothing for him. Even in the heat of her love she could feel the devil peering, waiting to enter her. The devil is blankness, she thought, hating what she contained. It was why she didn’t want to do acid. Evil was too close. It lived in her cells and yearned to sing.
He was getting tired. He set his book down and looked into her blinking eyes. Then at once she asked: “Do you love me?”
“Really and truly?”
“Deeply and terribly.”
She smiled like a fiend and he joined her there. Then, “Look at your hair,” he said, giving it a stroke. “It’s so brown.”
Her smile fell. “What does that mean?”
“It’s unaltered by time,” he clarified. “A tree full of leaves!”
“Oh.” She grinned then, happy to be a tree and a full one. Though it was certainly strange to be stroked for having lived less. And stranger to love him for having lived more.
Her gaze seesawed around the room and landed on a Ghost-busters DVD. It lived with the books on a nearby shelf, like it was hiding.
“You like Bill Murray?” she asked.
She pointed to the DVD.
“Oh. Someone left that here.”
“I would watch it. I like Bill Murray,” she said, cocking her head at the bookshelf as if it were Bill himself. “He’s looked the same for twenty years. I mean old but never older.”
“I know,” the man grinned. “He’s like my apartment.”
That made her laugh. Then she settled her face into the crook of his neck and felt how awake she was.
He switched off the light.
“Do you still love me?” she said.
“Since a moment ago?”
“How can you be sure?”
“It’s the last thing I think about before I go to sleep,” he said. And then he did.
She exhaled. It was such a good answer. Her heart thumped against his dreaming body and she wanted desperately to join him there. She had read that people sleeping in the same bed— people in love—could quite literally inhabit the same dream.
But she wanted a cigarette badly. The door called to her. And soon, without even really deciding to, she was walking toward it.
Outside the air was soft on her legs as she walked, lit cigarette in hand. It was the way she wished she felt in the morning but only felt at night, full of intelligence and curiosity. Not optimistic—not at all—just focused and hungry and on a path.
She stopped outside a bar and lingered in the red light, flicking her cigarette into a dark puddle and lighting another. It was then that she noticed someone—a small person—walking toward her. It was a child, a little boy, getting nearer and nearer. Soon he stood very close and said, “Hi.”
She took a step back, then smiled with fear and wonder. “Are you alright?” she asked.
The boy said “Yes” with a kind of adult conviction. It made her stare.
“Where’s your mom?”
“She’s at home.”
Her gaze lingered. He looked so relaxed.
“She’s always home,” he continued. “I was born in the bathtub.”
“Oh I’ve heard of that.”
“When I was out of her my mom said what is it? And my dad said a baby.” The boy laughed and laughed at himself. When she joined in, his laugh got even more hysterical.
They caught their breath and were quiet a moment. “How old are you?” She squinted.
“Nine,” he said flatly, as if feeling no connection to the number.
“I remember nine,” she grinned. “It was a good year.”
He looked into her eyes very deeply and she shifted in her daisy dress and tennis shoes. Then suddenly, as if he’d heard a bell, the boy backed away, said “Bye,” and walked into the bar.
She stood there a second dumbfounded, then walked toward one of the grimy windows. Inside she saw the boy standing next to a stool with a man on it. She felt certain it was his father. It had to be.
Jabbing her cigarette out on the brick wall, she had a vision of the boy as a grown man, kind of fucked up from spending night after night with his dad at a bar. She figured he would live in bars though he hated them, the dark crib of his life. You never stop being nine, she thought and felt like a genius. It was thrilling when she had an idea and it felt true. Some back door in her heart flew open and she had the sensation of leaving the ground, for a second anyway.
But no, not everyone was permanently nine, she decided. Some people were four. Others fifteen. And all of us walking around with our older faces, relating as adults but feeling like children, she thought. It was why actual children looked like celebrities— spiritual celebrities. They were so full of truth, she thought, and not just their own. It was the great secret of humanity and it whirled in their eyes.
She had a bunch more cigarettes as she walked on. She felt the air kissing her ears and neck and thanked God for it. She could only thank God for a few things, the things that were always good to her. Because otherwise God seemed to be jerking off on a hill somewhere with gleaming eyes, watching her fuck up. But the air was good, it always was. And the moon was good. So good. Even the rats were good the way they waddled with such speed—such desire. “I love you,” she whispered. To all rats.
She went back to the man’s apartment with a racing heart and took all her clothes off, then crawled into bed. She had used his key so as not to wake him but he did stir when she started climbing over him, kissing up the front of his T-shirt.
He laughed in a groggy way and stuck one hand in the mess of her hair.
“I want you so bad,” she muttered into his shirt.
“But you have me,” he said, sitting up.
The light stayed off but moonlight from the window showed her what his face was doing. He was looking at her like she was a puppy who had eaten all his shoes. And she felt like one.
She sat up and he held her face in his hands. She was so beautiful, he thought. But beautiful like a junkie, all wild and skinny and freaked out. “What’s going on?” he asked.
“I don’t know. I feel funny. I don’t want to lose you.”
“Why would you lose me?”
“Because we’re fucking.”
“Everyone who fucks someone stops fucking them at some point. And then they start fucking someone else.”
“Do you want to fuck someone else?”
“No! But it’s inevitable, right? One day one of us’ll wake up an—”
“Don’t do this.”
“Okay.” She took a breath. “Wait. Don’t do what?”
“Tamper with perfection.”
She stared a second, then nodded. “Okay.”
He rubbed his eyelids and sighed. “Like every time I’ve become obsessed with the I Ching it becomes sort of loathsome.”
“That’s such a weird thing to say. I don’t even know what you mean.”
“I just mean you shouldn’t think so much . . . about chance.”
“Tell me about acid.”
“God.” He shook his head. “Why?”
“I don’t know. Just tell me.”
“Well . . . it’s like living in a poem,” he said, relaxing into his pleasure. “It’s cartoon and allegory . . . and the allegory goes as deep as you do.”
“It really is. You should do it already.”
“No. I think I just like hearing about it.”
He squinted at her. “You’re a strange creature,” he said, grasping her naked arm and giving it a squeeze.
“You think we’ll love each other for a while?” she asked.
“Yes,” he grinned. “Absolutely.”
“You could die while fucking me. I mean doesn’t that happen?”
“When you do Viagra.”
“I don’t do it that much.” He started stroking her arm. “I think you’re gonna have me for longer than you expect. I’m gonna be like a telephone hanging around . . . there’ll be nothing left, just this voice that’s me that won’t go away,” he said.
It made her laugh. Then a long pause. Then she said, “Why do you like me? I’m such a grump.”
“That’s what I’m into.”
“And I’m stupid.”
“You are not.”
“I can’t remember the things I’m supposed to and you know it. My mind gets crowded with other things . . .”
“I love your mind. It’s not some dumb grove where all the trees look the same.”
She looked at him then and thought that he could’ve been anything he wanted. A poet, maybe, or a filmmaker or a novelist. But she was glad he wasn’t any of those things. She was glad he was lying there in the moonlight, a big sexy nobody who could’ve been somebody. There was something so rich about it.
“Just enjoy this,” he said.
“Because it’s gonna end?”
“No. Because it’s good.” He shook his head with a little smile. “You’re so morbid.”
“I thought everyone was.”
“Not like this.” He put his hand over her heart and felt its mad flutter. “Breathe.”
It turned her on, him telling her to breathe.
He said it again. “Breathe.”
Leopoldine Core was born and raised in New York’s East Village and graduated from Hunter College. Her fiction and poetry have appeared in The Paris Review Daily, Open City, PEN America and Apology Magazine, among others. She is the recipient of a 2015 Whiting Award for fiction, as well as fellowships from The Center for Fiction and The Fine Arts Work Center. Author of the poetry collection Veronica Bench, Core lives in New York.
From WHEN WATCHED: Stories by Leopoldine Core, to be published on August 9th by Penguin Books, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2016 by Leopoldine Core.
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