Wine is Mostly Water

Laura Adamczyk

They push hooks through the man’s calves, back, and arms and hang him from the gallery ceiling. Skin pulled to points, skin stretched like bats’ wings. It’s called the Superman pose: facedown, body spread out thirty feet in the air. Adam doesn’t understand the physics of it, why his skin doesn’t tear, though he knows it has to do with the number of hooks. In this pose, he needs eight. Guy, the man who suspends him, says that some people in different poses can get away with only two; it all depends on their skin.

Adam wears nothing but a pair of nylon shorts. They match his pale coloring, so that at first glance he appears naked, and then, on longer inspection, naked still, a eunuch. The shorts itch when he puts them on, but like the hooks, if he doesn’t move, he feels them less and less until he stops feeling them at all. He instead feels the air around him, how far he is from the gallery floor and the people standing below. At his younger sister’s studio apartment, the coffee table is inches from the couch he sleeps on. The arm of the couch is inches from her bed pillow. Some nights, he puts his head at the couch’s arm, some nights his feet. Other nights she asks that he not come home so she can have the apartment to herself.

The exhibit is, in some ways, about flight, about putting impossible objects in the air. In the first room, a glass of water hovers just inches off the floor. It’s hard to tell immediately that it’s not flush to the ground. A placard on the wall asks that viewers not touch any part of the installation, but they cannot help bending down and waving their hands around the glass. It looks so much like magic.

As the exhibit progresses, the objects get higher and higher. Two books, splayed open, float hip-high. A dark-wood bedside table comes to viewers’ necks. The contents of its open drawer are visible to most only when they balance on their toes: a handful of gray-wrappered condoms, pencils, and a Steno tablet filled with scrawl. A tall brass lamp hovers some feet away and higher, lit and cocked at an angle. Viewers step around its shadow, the place where it would fall were it to fall. Then, walking through a narrow hallway, instinctively looking up one increment higher, they enter the other room. There a bed hovers upside down, pillows secured to its head, but blankets and sheets left to hang, as if to say that this is not solely about defying gravity. Then a scattering of clothes—a black bra, a balled white sock, a pair of cotton underwear. The loose parabola at once leads up to and trails away from Adam, as rock and fire and dust pulled behind a dying comet. It’s hot near the ceiling. Alex, the exhibit’s creator, told him to expect this, but each night it surprises him how surely the heat comes into his body. One moment the temperature is an antiseptic cool, the next his skin flushes, the feeling bleeding out from his chest like a stain. The problem is not the heat or being so far off the ground or the numbing pain that leaves him feeling both within and outside his body. It’s coming down, it’s being released. It’s the phantom cords tugging him backward as he walks to his sister’s home.

 

Last week he flew home to visit his father in Ft. Wayne. The temperature had reached ninety before noon, and the house Adam grew up in, a gray foursquare on the south side of town, is still without air-conditioning. He had gotten comfortable on the porch swing with a book on the seventeen-year cicada and a glass of iced tea when his father came out and handed him a letter. He sat down across from Adam in an Adirondack chair, and as Adam was finishing reading, his father eased down beside him gingerly, as though trying not to wake a sleeping baby.

He isn’t his father, the letter told him. His mother not his mother and sister Sandy not his sister Sandy. The handwriting was neat and slanted forward, a tidy brick of text. But I love you very much and always will, it said.

His father was just inches away from him, hands stuffed in between his thighs, the two of them pushing the swing with their feet. Strange, Adam thought, the swing’s movement accompanying such a letter, as though everything should have stopped upon his reading it.

Why are you telling me this? he asked finally.

Your mother hadn’t wanted to tell you. When she got sick—even then she didn’t want to tell you. His father coughed.

It had been over two years since his mother died, and it was unsettling to think of his father defying some wish of hers, that there were secrets she thought she was taking with her. This, he realized, was more surprising than his father not being his father—a friendly, sometimes bumbling man who couldn’t offend or be offended by anyone. A man who conjured in Adam a guilty embarrassment, with his midwestern naïveté and optimism. Adam had always been more like his mother. Singular, sardonic, independent. Both he and Sandy. But his mother’s hair, her dark wiry hair and high cheekbones, were not his, and he sensed the blossoming magnolias in the yard twisting away from him, sliding along some invisible track, as though rigged pieces of a theater set being pulled offstage.

But Sandy’s not adopted, Adam said. How had his father put it? While Sandy was birthed of your mother.

No, it turns out, how shall I put this, our productivity problems weren’t such problems after all.

And you don’t know who these donors were?

No, they chose to stay anonymous. Healthy, though. Young. Unfortunately they don’t have all the information they do now—IQ, favorite color, all that. His father pushed his wireless glasses up his nose.

Does Sandy know?

I was going to speak with her after I talked to you. Unless you’d like to have that conversation with your sister?

A year ago, the graphic design firm he’d been working for let him go. Six months after that, he shed three-quarters of his belongings and moved into his sister’s studio. When he’s not at the gallery, he makes them dinner. Pasta, big salads, omelets. Afterward they read or watch a movie on his laptop, the two of them smashed together on the couch like children who never left their parents’ home.

A little help here, son? his father said. Adam had stopped pushing and the swing was moving unevenly. He righted it with his foot, wanting to yell at his father. He knew how easy it would be to make him feel bad, that he wouldn’t defend himself. Instead, he would bumble. He would say, Well, I-I’m sorry—the soft skin of his jowls shaking—and there would be nothing satisfying in it.

They spent the rest of the day on the porch, talking slowly about nothing. Adam’s father would go inside to refill their iced tea and Adam would note the difference on the swing with the weight of his father gone. He would reemerge from the house carrying a plate of apples and cheese or boiled hot dogs with a palette of condiments. Once, sitting beside him again, his father pointed to a cluster of hostas in the yard, bursting with growth, and said, Adam, look. Last week, they were only this big.

*

Adam watches Sandy get ready for work. He’s on the couch in a pair of shorts; she’s standing outside the bathroom, tucking a silk blouse into a gray pencil skirt. Face hard and staring at nothing. No one would guess they aren’t related. If not siblings, then at least cousins. His hair is similarly dark, skin similarly pale, a resemblance that has only increased with age, as though they were growing into each other, as friends or lovers dress or talk alike over time.

Sandy disappears into the bathroom then reemerges, shaking her wet hair. Her movements—bending to pick up a sock or square a stack of books—have been so uncannily Sandy it feels like watching an actress who has studied her for years, combed her hair just so, and taken her place. The woman is talented, so assured in her role that even her slips into melodrama feel like Sandy, if not more Sandy. Fast-walking, focused Sandy. It all appears unsettlingly right, as when a liar moves so deeply into his lie that he convinces himself it’s true.

Has Dad talked to you lately? Adam asks.

No, why? She’s pouring milk over a bowl of cereal at the kitchen counter.

Not since I’ve been back?

She brings her bowl and mug to the couch, stepping over Adam’s shoes and backpack. Scooch, she says, and Adam turns forward. Scooch—how many times has he heard that from her?

Nothing?

The last time we talked he was going on about how hot this summer was and how I haven’t been out there in a while. Why, is he mad at me?

He’s not mad.

What is he then?

He thinks about his father on the swing, his skinny legs poking out from his khaki shorts, the way he’d served Adam ice cream with Grape-Nuts on top, like he had when they were kids.

He’s nothing. He’s fine.

Have you been losing weight? Sandy pinches the side of his bare stomach.

He flinches. He has always been a slender man—a certain body type, Guy has told him, is necessary for suspension—but it’s true, there seems to be less of him.

I sweat buckets up there.

Does it ever fall on people?

I don’t know, he says. Sometimes he thinks about spitting on them. He imagines them pretending to know what it all means and wanting to deflate their pretension. But the thought occurs the way a smoker long since quit considers a cigarette—the desire rises then disappears almost at once. It’s no longer me, he thinks, with neither pleasure nor sadness. He considers himself from a dull distance.

Anyway, he says, Alex hasn’t said anything. But she’s not really there.

I thought Alex was a man.

Nope.

Ah, now it all makes sense.

What?

Those nude shorts, she says. She’s one of your girls.

It has always bothered Adam the way Sandy ribs him about women. When he lived alone and would meet up with Sandy for a drink, it wasn’t uncommon for them to run into girls he’d been dating. Slender girls with tall, pointed shoes who worked in PR or marketing, sexy assistant positions seemingly only filled with girls like this. Girls with straight hair and slick, confident intelligence. He’d see them for three weeks, two months, and grow heavy with their want, the way he could see them trying to please him. Once, one of those girls found him and Sandy at a bar downtown. A girl with dark tights disappearing into black ankle boots and a leather clutch in her hand. Thinking Sandy was a new girlfriend, she said, He’s a roamer, he gets bored. Believe me. Before Adam could respond—a beat to remember her name—the woman slid herself back into the crowd like a pickpocket. With a raised eyebrow, Sandy said, You never told me about that one. Sandy’s comment bothers him more now that he doesn’t go out like he used to.

When Adam first met Alex to discuss the exhibit, she’d started out all business. In a white, windowless office in the back of the gallery, an empty desk and a cluster of microphone stands in the corner, she had him take off his shirt. She stood, arms crossed, viewing him like something she had made. Her dark blonde hair was dry and wavy down her back, and a thick set of bangs hung over her eyes. Her oxford shirt with the sleeves rolled up and loose jeans made her seem at once masculine and smaller, hidden.

This is so objectifying, she said, shaking her head, eyes dazed. She began nodding. It’s awesome. You’re really attractive. Oh, I probably shouldn’t say that. She slapped her hand over her mouth, pretending to laugh.

Adam found her at once endearing and off-putting—immediately familiar with him but not secure in that familiarity. He decided to play along. Dressing, he asked, So, does that mean I get the job? But her phone rang just then. She took it from her pocket, looked at its screen, then silenced it.

I think I’m going to commit suicide, she said, all the playfulness drained from her face. He must have given her a look, because she snorted and said, Jeez, just kidding. Later as he was leaving, he saw her outside crying into her phone with all the red, open force of a teenager: I am trying to deal with it!

Adam had tucked his head and sped past her to the subway.

Opening night, suspended, he had watched her walk the circle of the gallery. She drank wine, shook people’s hands, but she often stood to the side playing with her phone or straightening the exhibit cards on the entrance table. Her short, compact body swam within long layers of gray and brown wool, looking like she’d draped an old tablecloth over her shoulders. She projected a distinctly keyed-up energy from some edge that he couldn’t see. It both intrigued and annoyed him.

I don’t have any girls, Adam says. Anyway she’s weird.

I’ll have to see her first.

When are you coming down?

Closing night, she says. When it’s all over.

 

That evening before opening, Alex goes up with Adam on the lift to watch Guy suspend him.

I feel like I should see how it’s done, she says.

You gonna stick around for the show? Adam asks.

Sure, she replies, with too much energy.

The platform is no bigger than a closet and Adam, belly down, rests his chin on his folded arms, the metal of the lift cool against his skin. Alex sits on one side of him; on the other Guy dots Adam’s back with a marker. Guy has dark hair and thick arms. He wears jeans and a black T-shirt every day like a uniform, working with the silent efficiency of a tailor or barber.

The holes from last week closed up, he says. I’m going to go just to the side of them . . .

Adam feels a hand run the length of his back, fingering the skin where the hooks will go. It isn’t until Guy stands and cracks his neck that he realizes the hand belongs to Alex.

Sort of makes you wonder what everyone’s like at home, she says.

When Guy doesn’t answer, Adam turns his head: Were you talking to me?

Whoever, she says shrugging. She speaks with so much forced casualness, he thinks, as though every possible response were exactly what she expected. She thumbs the elastic at his waist, sending a creeping tickle up to his neck.

Have you lost weight? she asks. Don’t get all anorexic on me.

Happens all the time to people who suspend this much, Guy says. He’s back down kneeling. Here’s a sting, he says, and with a small piercing gun, he punches a hole through the skin below Adam’s right shoulder, following it with a hook at the end of a cable.

I haven’t been doing it for that long.

Though wouldn’t that be a project? Alex asks. Taking pictures of a fat man getting skinny? You’re not fat, but it’d be very dramatic. And then by the end you’d become way too skinny, and then we’d realize that maybe you didn’t want to lose all that weight?

Guy clears his throat. Here’s another sting, he says.

What do you think, Adam, she asks. Do you want to be my way-too-skinny?

Sure.

I’m just kidding. I’d never want you to do that to yourself. This skinniness is too much. You’d look better with a few extra pounds.

You’d look better with a few less.

Guy snorts. Adam’s back shifts, quivering like the flanks of a horse. This used to come naturally. Handing out insults to see how people would react. Now it feels like someone he no longer likes hanging around uninvited.

I’m not saying you’re fat. You’re very petite, he says, but you wouldn’t know it to look at you. You’re wearing too many clothes. You’ve got to be baking. Am I right? He turns back to look at Guy. He’s on his feet, untwirling another cord from the frame in the ceiling.

It’s wicked hot out, Guy replies, not taking his eyes off his work. He kneels down and, with the gun, places the last hook and cable. He looks at his watch and says, All right, we better do this. Guy takes another, thicker cord running down from the pulley above the frame. He pulls slowly. Adam’s skin lifts away from his body, then his body lifts away from the platform. Guy raises him to head height.

Alex stands before him. Her face has gone flat, eyes dulled. That old satisfaction pulses in Adam, the one that comes from finding out exactly how much someone will put up with.

How does it feel? she asks.

Like my skin is being ripped off, Adam laughs.

Alex smirks. That’s a shame.

 

Adam dresses in the office at the end of the night. There’s a voicemail from his sister asking that he not come home, saying that she’ll buy him dinner later in the week to make up for it. Her voice comes to him from a strict distance. The objects in the room shift toward then away from him, as when he finished reading his father’s letter. The porch, the plants, the trees all converged into one point, curving and stretching from one place to another while remaining static, unmistakably the same. The man his sister is bringing home for the night is faceless, nobody Adam knows. She won’t tell him who this man is nor will he ask.

He finds Alex rinsing out a wineglass in the kitchenette across from the office.

You’re here late.

Oh, she says, turning to face him. Yeah, just cleaning up.

They have people to do that, you know.

I know. She puts a hand behind her on the counter, the other at her hip, a pose just awkward enough for Adam to notice. She sighs and crosses her arms. Would you like to get a drink? she asks.

Sure.

Where should we go?

How about your place?

She drops her head into her chest, then raises it. Her cheeks have gone red, but her smile is slow and controlled. All right, she says.

You’re blushing.

 

They take the train to Alex’s neighborhood and cut through the park. Twenty years ago, the place was filled with needles and bums and drug dealers in hooded sweatshirts. Now there are couples with strollers and a group of twentysomethings throwing a Frisbee.

I chose you for a reason, you know, Alex says.

Because I’m not too skinny.

No, she says. Well, partly you were the right body type, but mostly it was your face. Your features are classic. Like an old movie star. No one famous, though. No one recognizable.

I see.

I wanted people to be able to project onto you whoever they wanted.

The distance helps.

Of course, but still.

Who are you projecting onto me?

She looks away and back. Isn’t it obvious? she says, her voice sad yet reprimanding.

Her loft is at least four times the size of his sister’s place—airy and open. The apartment’s lights and the fuzzed shapes of their bodies reflect back at them in the tall glass windows. Before them sits a long, sleek couch with a stack of folded blankets and pillows in white cases. It takes Adam a minute to realize what’s missing.

Don’t you have a bed?

It’s in the gallery, she says, from the kitchen, uncorking a bottle.

You’re kidding.

No, it’s all actually mine. And his. Our broken bedroom.

That’s a little over the top, don’t you think?

She approaches, carrying two glasses of red wine out ahead of her body.

That’s the point, she says, handing him a glass.

He follows her to the couch. She turns her glass slowly in her lap, a wave of quiet moving over her. Her sadness is plain and bare and Adam can’t decide whether or not he wants to see it.

It’s funny, she says, her face moving closer to the one she uses in the gallery. Seeing you half-naked all these nights, I kind of like you better in your clothes. He is, like Guy, wearing slim jeans, a black T-shirt, and black canvas shoes.

I guess I’ll just keep them on then, he says, smiling.

Don’t be ridiculous.

They move from the couch to the floor, laying out blankets and using pillows. She looks small naked. He feels like a blade trying to whittle her soft body down even smaller. They turn each other over, say, How about this? Let’s try this on. Then: Put your leg here. No, here. He pulls her hair, digs his thumbs deep into her forearms. She curls her body into his hands. It’s the way she dresses—sloppy, her body an afterthought—he knows he can do anything with her.

Adam will not remember who, but somewhere in the heated middle, one of them will say, I love you. So much. And the other will reply, I love you too. So fast, it will feel simultaneous, slowing nothing down to say it. They keep on until they grow bored and tired and there’s nothing left for them to do but crawl up onto the long, thin couch and try to claim a spot as their own.

 

The bright morning light pushes through the apartment’s tall windows. Alex sits up on the opposite end of the couch, rolling her neck. Adam doesn’t realize how much makeup she wears until now, until there is none. She looks washed-out and faded, and he feels oddly reassured that she isn’t more vain, isn’t one of those women who won’t let men see them without makeup. She regards him for a moment, as though an object that used to hold meaning for her but no longer does. He has the sudden desire to hold her hand—this open, blank sadness so real that he wants to touch it.

She disappears into the bathroom then pads into the kitchen, wearing a tank top and a pair of white underwear, loose around her hips.

It’s not until the teakettle builds to a howl that he remembers, as if recalling a dream, what they said the night before. He watches her pour the water into a French press at the kitchen counter, the steam, for a moment, masking her face.

She brings him his coffee in a white mug and sits beside him, folding her legs beneath her. Adam used to grow annoyed with too much morning-after chatter, but the silence feels expectant, like he’s been asked a question but can’t remember it.

I’m adopted, he says.

Oh, I didn’t know that.

I didn’t know. I found out a couple weeks ago. My dad told me.

Just now? She sips from her mug. How do you feel about it?

I don’t know. The weird thing is my sister doesn’t know. My dad didn’t tell her.

Are you going to tell her?

I don’t know.

She purses her lips and says, I don’t understand that kind of indecision.

Why complicate things?

I don’t know, so you can have an honest relationship? Her face is guileless. It makes her look younger, the strain of her everything-is-easy persona now shed, as though she had also disclosed a secret.

You think you’re always honest with people?

I don’t lie, she shrugs.

That’s not the same thing.

Still, I don’t lie.

Never? He’s almost laughing now.

I might question later whether or not I actually believed something when I felt it, but I always believe things when I say them. Why pretend?

You’re so weird.

I know! She smiles and it grows deeply into her face.

He puts his hand on her thigh.

*

When Adam returns home, his sister is smoking in the armchair at the foot of her bed, knees to chest, hair in a loose mass atop her head.

Aren’t you supposed to be at work? he says.

I took a sick day.

Adam looks at her bed, stripped of its sheets, the comforter crumpled on the floor.

Everything okay?

Fine.

You sure?

She nods.

You seem a little—

I’m fine, really. Her voice is calm but firm, her face clean of emotion.

You have a cut, he says, stepping closer, putting a finger to his cheek.

There’s a red line within the half circle of skin beneath her eye. She turns and exhales her smoke toward the window behind her, the sun coming in white-hot.

Sandy, did you hear me? He stops just next to the chair, letting his thigh lean onto the arm. There’s a little red—

She turns back, looking straight at him. Adam, there’s a little red all up and down your back. And your legs and your arms. It’s all crusty and pus.

Well, you know what that’s from.

It’s disgusting.

She gives him a sardonic, distanced smile. Sometimes she meets up with a woman from work, for drinks or dinner, or treats herself to a movie, but every couple of months she goes out on a bender. She winds up drinking too much and yelling at someone or blacking out and not remembering a thing. She used to call Adam the next day crying, embarrassed and depressed. She’d say things like, I’ve just been having such a hard time lately, My life is a mess. She rarely went into detail. He imagines her sitting alone in the apartment, drinking a bottle of wine and falling asleep. Cutting herself. He sees an alternate, fuller story to the one she gives. A smile creeps onto her face.

Where’d you stay last night?

 

Sandy arrives halfway through the final night. Her pace is slow and intentional. He would recognize her on the other side of a wall, Adam thinks. She gives him a discreet, hip-high wave when she first looks up, then continues her circle around the room’s perimeter. She finds Alex almost immediately. They shake hands and stand awkwardly apart—Sandy’s body erect yet contained, Alex hunched and folded in.

He has liked being a part of Alex’s design, but probably not as much as she has enjoyed having him there. An attractive man strung up for her vision, her pleasure. Next week, she’ll take the pieces down one at a time and have them delivered to her loft, but they won’t fit back in as easily as she took them out.

As in weeks past, Adam’s initial pain from the cables changes into a pressurized weightlessness. The sound below downshifts to an abstract hum. Adam sees his body as hairless, slowly moving away from him. He thinks of an exhibit in which a man gets smaller and smaller. Except it’s a man and then a young man and then a boy. Somewhere there is a man and a woman, together or separate, blocks or miles away from Adam’s father’s house in Ft. Wayne. People who might think of Adam, a nameless man and woman just as Adam is nameless to them. A man, maybe only a woman, who said, I will not be tied to another. I will commit to no life, not even my own. Adam was just out of school when he started at the graphic design firm. He did good work, went out every night. He’d joke with his coworkers and call all the girls sluts and the guys lame and dickless. Years this way, feeling as though he were skating above people—small people—dropping down like a seabird to pierce a fish, having a good time until the girl he was into told him that he was an asshole and a punk, that no one thought he was funny or clever or talented. She’d delivered to him a controlled, angry monologue. He started going out less and less, and when he did, he’d talk slowly out of the side of his mouth. Then he lost his job and moved in with Sandy. He thinks about it sometimes, how he used to be a completely different person.

The crowd thins and vanishes. The lights reflect off the blond-wood floor in fuzzed circles. Adam can hear the mechanical echo of the lift from a far corner of the gallery. It inches into view, with Guy behind its tiny black wheel. After tonight he will have to find something to do with himself, maybe pick up some freelance work. He should find a job like Guy’s. An occupation that means nothing more than what it shows itself to be. A driver, a housepainter, a clerk. He should move heavy objects from one place to another, wear a uniform. Alex and Sandy stand just below Adam, their voices shooting up before dropping back down to the close talk of conspirators. They step out of the way as Guy parks the lift before them. Sandy tilts her head down toward Alex, who is whispering something into her ear. Their sharp laughter rises to meet him, cracking like a firework before dissolving into an echoey silence. Then, as if they planned it all along, as if sisters who’ve spent their lives finishing each other’s sentences, they call up to him: Time to come down.

Laura Adamczyk is the author of the short story collection Hardly Children (FSG Originals, 2018). Her fiction has appeared in McSweeney’s, Hobart, Chicago Reader, Salt Hill, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, and elsewhere. Her story “Girls,” published in Guernica won the 2014 Dzanc Books / Disquiet International Literary Program Award. She lives in Chicago.