Stephanie sat across from me at lunch. I took her to some diner without a name. It seemed like a safe place, neutral. She had big tired bags under her eyes but she was so happy, so bright. She was like a light bulb, just…turned on. Not like sexually, but like a switch had been flipped inside her. I looked at her for a long time. Like she was someone I didn’t know. Like she was someone new.
I didn’t tell her. I couldn’t. That I work for a woman who sort of implied you could be killed for what you’re doing but I’m not really sure that’s what she meant but I didn’t know how to ask and why did you keep me out? Why was it so important to keep me out? I just looked at her. She put her hands flat on the table. I put mine over them. She didn’t say anything either. The flensings on her neck were so dark and crazy, like hands choking her. I just wanted it to be over, whatever today was supposed to be, I wanted it to be over.
“Ok,” Steph said.
“Ok, come here.”
And she kissed me over the table. Not like before, but slowly and carefully and deliberately, so I’d know she meant it. When the kiss broke–and it broke, like a glass falling–she took me by the hand, out of the diner. I got in her car and she still wasn’t talking, but I know the way to her house pretty well, so I got it. I understood. Fuck Lizzy. Fuck all of them.
Stephanie tasted like a city on fire.]]>
Lizzy said: it’s not my problem.
But seriously. How?
Contain Stephanie? And Wren? Jack if I can? Jack, who’s so wired in he uploads shit to YouTube about the city. I’m living on borrowed grace, she says.
A girl came in today. She had beautiful work: a medieval Babylon cityscape all around her stomach. But she cried and cried. Her boyfriend was a medievalist, she thought it would impress him. It did, but he left her anyway, and she couldn’t bear it.
God, I miss her. Stephanie. My girl. The girl I never loved. How can you contain something so totally outside you?
I called and told her I wanted to have lunch. I named a place. A diner by the freeway, with great home fries. Steph loves home fries.
I don’t really know what I mean to do. Lizzy shrugged and I didn’t like the shrug at all. You destroy ink with light. It’s what you do. A girl shouldn’t be so hard.
And if I do. If I do I have proven myself. If I do someone will let me go. They’ll spare someone. Maybe Lizzy. Maybe not. I have this vision of a house full of boys and girls with unbearable cities on their skin, waiting to be assigned to some poor asshole who’s proven himself.
I want to hear the sounds of that place. I want to hear its voice. I want it so badly. But I can’t tell if I want it because Stephanie has it, or for itself. And I’m supposed to take it away from her, so that I can get there myself.
Oh Steph. You don’t even read this anymore. I know: I’m the only admin who logs in. Why couldn’t you just let me in on your own?
I feel like shit. But I haven’t canceled lunch. I keep scratching my hand, as though the mark is already there. I’ve started to bleed.
Flesh always bleeds. It might not respond to light, but…I know Steph can bear flensing. She’d be ok. It would hurt, but she’d be ok.
She’d be ok.]]>
My mom loved seeing me working at home with a computer. She would so much rather have a nice, respectable son who works with computers than someone who essentially has a huge ray-gun he points at people with inadvisable scribblings on them.
I like the ray gun.
I searched Craiglist. I found a guy who had posted an ad looking for people in the New York area, people like him, people with a funny mark.
This is what his ad said:
Seeking travelers to the borough of Palimpsest. Unexplained spontaneous tattoos? Bad dreams? Find me. Please, find me.
I liked him, a little. It sounded like a real ad. Like you could buy him and take him home and keep him in your closet. I used the admin passwords Lizzy gave me to delete it, and my own brain to follow the poor guy around the web, where he’d posted in half a dozen places Lizzy also had access to. I deleted everything. I felt really bad by the end, like I’d betrayed someone. After all, I post about this shit, and for some reason Lizzy lets it stand.
I added “Sorry, brother” to the various automated notifications and removed it when I was finished. He’d get my message, and a few hundred other poor souls selling Viagra where they shouldn’t or harassing some girl who never wanted anything to do with them. But they wouldn’t understand. Just the guy with the bad dreams. That’s what this is all about, I guess. The people who understand. What they can see that others can’t. In that sense, I’m just as good as they are. The ones who travel. I understand, even if I don’t.
When the day was over, Lizzy came to the door and paid me. I didn’t want money. She nuzzled in close to me and kissed me, biting my lip hard enough to draw blood. She grabbed and pushed at me, unbuttoning my pants. I let her, and just like I thought she would, she backed off, looking sly. She thought she was teasing me. But you have to want someone for teasing to work. And if I just told her to take her blood money and shove it, I might still have a chance with the girl I did want. Who understood, and probably better.
But for some reason, I didn’t. I guess it was nice to be mauled, even a little.
So she sits there buttoning up her pants and says she reads my site and we need to talk. She understands me, she feels my pain. Steph and Wren and Jack are a pack of assholes and assholes need to be dealt with and don’t I agree?
Uh, sure, I say.
She says a name to me and I don’t know it. Casimira. The devil, as far as this woman is concerned. If it weren’t for her, none of this would be necessary. But she’s an anarchist, and she’s a public health hazard and blah blah blah. Don’t I agree that viruses should in the main keep to themselves and not spread? Isn’t that what the CDC is for?
Well, call the CDC, I say.
She gets mad and says that would spoil the whole point of keeping it secret. I just look at her. She’s kind of pretty, in that damaged sort of way. Too thin and frantic, like a chihuahua jumping around in a girl’s body. She snaps her fingers in my face like I’m an idiot. She has work for me, she says. Important work. And if I work long enough for her, and am loyal and strong, then they will spare someone to kiss me into the city.
There’s a club for me, she says. Her club.
But the first thing I have to do is stop blogging and get Stephanie under control. She’s a timebomb, patient zero.
She hasn’t slept with anyone but Wren. Maybe Jack, I tell her.
We know her type.
My name’s Lizzy, the girl says. I’m sure we’ll be seeing a lot of each other.]]>
My mom sat me down last night. She was a mess–clay all over her fingers and her hair flying all over like it always did. The clay looked like ash. I didn’t really want to think about it. She said Eddie what the hell is going on with you? And I said nothing Mom, it’s nothing. I love a girl who doesn’t love me back. What else is new?
Did I ever tell you how I met your father, she says. He was a riveter in the factory where I worked and he had so many girlfriends, oh my! A little city all revolving around him. But I wouldn’t even look at him and that drove him crazy. I was a closed gate, and one by one he got rid of the girlfriends, like he was paying a toll, until he was just as I wanted him, all for me. And then I let him in.
Mom. I don’t–
I’m just saying, maybe you’re too open. Everyone wants to feel like they’re discovering a new world.
Maybe. Whatever, I don’t know. Maybe Mom has a mark on her and it’s just somewhere I’ve never seen. I look at everyone these days and think: are you one of them? Do you know?
But the thing is, I’m the only one now. The only one in our little circle without a mark on him. I haven’t been in to work for days. Jack…Jack says there’s factions. Some people who want to spread it, the…well, I guess it’s a virus. Funny thing, for a child of the 80s. I spent half my youth terrified of STDs, the gnarly and jagged ones like all those filmstrips of viruses with slitted villain-eyes. I was so scared of catching something from girls, and now I wish I could. Jack says some people want to spread the virus and let everyone in. But most people, they don’t want anyone to know. They want to keep it safe, and secret, like Gandalf said in that movie.
So what have I done, writing about it here where everyone can see? What’s going to happen to me?
Stephanie says that in her dreams, she wears a helmet like a whale’s head, covered in sea-grass, made of red wood. It’s huge, bigger than a car. She sits in it all night. Men come to her and suckle her breasts underneath the helmet, and what comes out isn’t milk but ink, and they beg her for more. She says she touches their heads like a priestess and in all her life she has never known anything like the peace of the dark under her whale-head.
Part of me wants something to happen to me. So that I can be a part of it. So that I can suffer for it, like Wren, or surrender to it, like Stephanie. Neither of them will touch me. They say someone has to be the control in this little experiment. So all I have is this blog, where I plant myself stubbornly, hollering into the ether: come and get me.
But in the end, if they did want me, could I? I don’t know. They aren’t the only ones. And there’s always Jack. It’s easier to say I could if they’d let me than to face the idea that there’s a whole magical world out there and I’m just too much of a baby to ring the bell on the big black door.]]>
Eddie always had about the technological know-how of a six year old. So I guess I could have posted here any time, since I set the whole thing up. But that’s so invasive, you know? But it’s late and I feel so bad for him. It’s not a No Eddie Club. It’s…just me, and Wren, and Jack, and it’s all fucked up and scary.
When I sleep now I dream about a woman with a frog’s head and three other people in a little shop. We put our feet in ink. We hold hands. And that’s all. We go out into a city with a funny name, and in that city there are spiders with gears on their bellies, and rivers of cream, and old men with zebra legs limping down the street. Jack says it’s not a dream. Jack says a lot of things.
He says there was a war there. Over people like us. Immigrants.
And all I had to do was fuck Wren to get there. Easiest customs process of my life. My mother used to say that people are like other countries–you can visit, you can learn the language, but you can never really be a local. I guess that’s literally true.
There’s this book I love, and the author had a weird life, she disappeared and everything. It’s so bizarre, but I think this is where she went, to this city. To that war.
Eddie, when you wake up and read this: you have always been in my club. I’ll be by around 4 with Wren and some awesome pictures of a chick in New Mexico with a chupacabra on her ass we can point and laugh at. You’ll be better soon, and then…well, sometimes customs takes awhile.
We’ll bring take-out. Maybe pho.
P.S. Jack made you a present.]]>
Wren says I think too much and don’t talk enough. I picked her up at Stephanie’s the morning after they…well. I took her out for pancakes. She sat in the booth all pathetic and weird, and when the syrup came she reached out and grabbed my hand. She said she just wanted to hold it for awhile, just needed something warm.
That’s me, something warm.
Then she asked: when you were little, did you ever want to think there was someplace wonderful you could get to, if you just wanted it bad enough? Like Oz or Narnia, but different, the Oz or Narnia you would make if you could make a place just how you wanted it?
Sure, I said.
But you know, when you find a place like that, it isn’t what you thought it would be.
I think she would have said more, but Steph barged in, brash and loud and wearing some stupid jacket with buckles and bells on it. She plopped down next to Wren and unbuttoned her shirt.
There was a black mark on the top part of her left breast, like Wren’s, like Jack’s.
When I was a kid, I was never invited into any of the clubs the others kids invented at school. I couldn’t play sports, I was Asian, I was fat. One group of girls even came up with a No Eddie club.
Stephanie was so proud of her mark. She was so excited to tell me. You dream about this place, she said. And there’s a woman with a frog’s head and she tells your future and makes you stick your feet in this weird ink and then there’s all these bugs but they’re really machines and–
I wasn’t listening. I was thinking about a group of little blond 6th graders who thought they had invented the best club in the whole world.
But Wren looked brighter and happier, as if Stephanie liking the place gave her permission to like it.She really is pretty when she brightens up. When there’s blood in her face.
Jack says there’s this website, Stephanie told us with her stupid dimply little smile she thinks is so cute. Maybe you can find someone there, Eddie.
Maybe you can find someone there. But not here. This here is a No Eddie club.
So I spent a week reading through Jack’s site. Afraid to post. Afraid not to. Hating myself for not being able to decide.
And then a woman in a blue Datsun rolled into my driveway, and I just really can’t talk about that right now. I want to, I just…I’m so tired.]]>
You said you could explain it.
It takes some shit going down for me to not even give care that Stephanie kissed me. She apologized later, said she was projecting, that she wanted Wren and I was there, and…oh, all the crap you really want to hear.
But Jack came today, like he said he would. He was more put together, shaved and combed and all. But when Wren saw him she basically hid behind me like a little kid. Said she didn’t want to talk to him and couldn’t he leave her alone.
But he couldn’t. On account of the mark, the tattoo, whatever.
He said it wasn’t a tattoo, it was a place, a place you could go to, if you wanted it bad enough. A place with a funny name–I looked it up later. And that he’d been to that place with Wren, that she wouldn’t talk to him in the real world, but in that other place they knew each other, they had been together…
Oh, man, this all just sounds so crazy. It’s a sexually-transmitted city, he said. And he needed to find her, to talk to her, so that they could find other people like them. But Wren was scared of him, she didn’t understand what was happening to her.
This isn’t real, this can’t be real.
I looked at Steph while Jack was talking. She looked back at me. Later, after Jack left and Wren was quietly freaking out in the lobby, she said: it’s an experiment. Someone has to try it. Has to sleep with her. I’ll take this one for the team. I’ll tell you everything. I’ll record it all. Then we’ll know if it’s true or not. It’s scientific.
And I’ll be scientifically alone tonight yet again.
Palimpsest: noun. A parchment or the like from which writing has been partially or completely erased to make room for another text.
I look at the dictionary and say: that’s me. Scraped away to make room for a better story.
Sato Kenji, author extraordinaire, has the same tattoo on his hand that Wren has on her stomach. Definite WTF.
He read all this shit about trains, weird stuff, stuff that didn’t sound real. I didn’t really like it. I didn’t not like it. I wish I could ride on trains like that. But I don’t think they’d let me on, you know?
She accosted him after the reading—a bunch of weird shit about Japanese train conductors—and hauled him between the bookcases so she could take her shirt off and show him. He was, I don’t know, late-forties, neat and nice, in a suit, all combed and slick, and he smiled at her, kind of a sad smile, and touched her belly. Man, just everyone gets to touch everyone lately.
He said: It’s not a tattoo, and I sort of swallowed that, mostly glad I didn’t have to pay for diagnostics for the UV machine. But Sato kept looking over Wren and Steph’s shoulders, all nervous, like he was expecting someone.
Wren was totally wrecked. She cried and begged him to tell her what it was, and she started babbling about bad dreams. Even Steph was sort of taken aback, she just stared at her new girlfriend practically on her knees in front of this nice old man. Finally, he leaned down and kissed her stomach right in front of all of us. He might have actually licked it.
“They don’t have it?” he said.
“No, just me,” Wren sniffled.
“Come with me. I have a hotel room, I can show you, but…I can’t be heard…”
Holy shit, I have got to start licking girls’ stomachs.
Steph and I went out for coffee. We felt bad, since we’d driven Wren there, but Steph called club rules: you hook up and ditch your friends, you get your own ride home.
Afterward, in the parking lot of the diner, this guy came running up. He was wearing a suit, like he’d just come from work, or maybe he wanted to to impress us. He pounded on the car window.
He yelled: “I have to talk to her!”
I said: “Are you the guy from the phone? Get a grip, dude. She’s right here.”
But no, he didn’t mean Steph. The other one, he said, Wren. He had to see her, where was she, would I talk to her for him, would Stephanie talk to her, tell her to meet with him. His name was Jack.
No, I would not. Patient confidentiality. Also, you’re weird.
He pulled up his shirt and pressed his…do men have a bosom? I guess. Huh. Well, his pectoral, I guess, he pressed his pectoral to the window. Same mark as Wren. Same black streetmap. Same tiny writing.
“I. need. to. talk. to. her. She won’t see me, she doesn’t understand. Please help me.”
Aw, man, I really just have no defense for totally fucking pathetic. I told him to meet me Thursday at the office. Wren’s appointment is Thursday. We’ll see.
Steph was shaken up pretty bad. She’s not a fan of screaming men slapping their flab against her window. I took her home and made her coffee. Mom was asleep.
And while we were waiting for water to boil, she kissed me.
I’m not bragging. I’m just saying.]]>
Turns out Steph was way ahead of me—she called up Wren last night and took her to dinner. Bitch.
Apparently, Wren is a Scorpio and enjoys pho and air hockey. Fantastic.
Stephanie, heedless of the dangers of unemployment, gloated all over the place. She spent half the morning implying she fucked Wren before I got her to admit that it didn’t get past a little kissing. They’re going out again on Thursday, to see some Japanese author read about trains. When Stephanie was a kid, her mom took her across Austria on a train, reading her Grimm’s fairy tales and scaring the shit out of her with all the blood and maidenheads and severed limb stuff. She dug it, though, secretly. And I guess Wren has a thing for this writer.
I should have been a writer.
I wasn’t going to ask. It’s bad enough Stephanie got to stick her tongue in this girl’s mouth, I don’t need to watch. I’m not a masochist. I don’t have that “maybe they’ll let me join in” fantasy. They totally won’t.
But by the end of the day, she’d stopped crowing about it and told me to come along, even though I could give a shit about trains. Fine. I, too, enjoy pho and air hockey.
I had fully three sorority-chick butterflies today. Their moms freaked, I guess. Fucking butterflies. Fucking moms.
After Stephanie packed up and left I got this phone call. I practically fell over the front counter reaching across her damn plants to pick it up. There was some predictable heavy breathing and then a guy said: “I need to talk to her.”
“Whatever, dude,” I said, and hung up over him sputtering that I didn’t understand. It rang again. I picked it up, told him to get over it, and slammed the receiver. It’s pretty awesome to slam a receiver these days. Clicking your cell closed just doesn’t have the same emotional punch.]]>