Leila and I come from an unlucky town in the West. By the time I fell in love with her, loss had already taught me the value of documentation. I already kept a file on each of my friends where I collected proof of their existence: our correspondence, pictures of us together, video and sound recordings made by their hand or directed by their eye.
Leila and I used to talk about our imaginary house. I knew from the start I would be its architect, if only to have somewhere to store my documentations of Leila. This memory palace is inspired by a real structure we discovered in Missouri the summer after college, a Victorian that had obviously seen fire. We found it near an airport. We'd seen headstones poking out of the long grass by a Steak 'n Shake. The graveyard was badly overgrown, half eaten by forest, beautiful in the purest sense of organic architecture: the prospect of sanctified clearings from the dynamic shelter of trees. We explored. We found the shattered house, really a funeral home. What we did there with our mouths and hands ran the wet of life against the largeness of the grave.
Days later another of our childhood friends died in an accident. Leila and I looked at each other and asked if Junot Díaz was totally right about the systemic nature of bad luck. We had not grown up under dictatorship or hard oppression, quite the opposite. We grew up white, if only middle class. And yet our sweet young friends will never grown up.
From the fúku americanus, The Curse of the New World, it seems no one is exempt, not even the ignorant. After all, we drove each morning from suburb to high school over the sites of Indian massacres. And in that abandoned Missouri graveyard we found a headstone for someone born a slave.
"You can only have so much luck," Leila said after the second funeral.
I said, "That's the same as saying we deserve this, that they do."
"No, only that it had to happen."
Because both Leila and I will inevitably have to move in, I started right away on a networked facsimile of our imaginary house. I present it here to you, immortal reader, in its only possible form: nearly immaterial, caught in the Web. — Tia
At 12 or 13 years old Leila and I were best friends in that extreme, nudging sexual way tween-aged girls have. We used to strip to Christina Aguilera's "I'm a Genie in a Bottle." We didn't know what we were doing.
Oh Leila was a compulsive liar! She would tell everyone she knew how to rock climb, how to belay. Once she dropped me nine feet at a birthday party. All that rope streaming through her hands. Still, I was always capable of anything that would impress her, including climbing up very high, which otherwise sucked the blood out of my head, my hands.
For her, I climbed up trees, up rock walls, up onto buildings.
She was not exactly beautiful then. Like most little girls she grew wide before long. But I loved her plump neck and wrists, her hair in french braids, her bright and anxious eyes before track meets, where at last I could outpace her.
I don’t know what time did to us other than to normalize our proximity until suddenly, we were no longer close.
Then our first friend died in a fire at a gas station. We all came home from college to mourn in Colorado. There she was again. Leila in my arms. Leila spooned around me while we shook on the edge of a sleep we feared. Leila brave enough to get mad first. Leila throwing half a bottle of whiskey into a retaining wall at the park of our high school diversions. "We're fucking 19 years old and she was the good one. What shitty, shitty luck."
Luck. Accident. Fault. Fault. Fault. Fault. Fault. Fault. Something about the good one's absence stitched Leila and I back together. Better a string of guilt than the void.
So she reached out, a few years later, when she felt bad again. We used to talk about grief like a club. In the letter she asks for a cure, but I think she just wanted to hear from someone in the know about loss.
The great pleasure of smoking: brushing close to death. taking it inside your mouth and lungs. pushing it out, perhaps even in rings. perhaps pulling it back teasingly, back in through your nostrils. But Never The Less winning this small, phenomenal victory: style over mortality.
Leila wrote these sentences in 2007. In 2007 she did not kiss girls, or anyone, on the mouth. She was 21 and had disappeared to Brazil to work in a pousada across from a tourist’s beach in Salvador da Bahia. In 2006 the boy she loved went crazy in a series of hyperbolic associative loops, each more beautiful until the terrible last. The story was she went pretty off too, in the way like following someone too far into the woods or desert.
I keep dreaming that he is sleeping beside me. His thumb presses behind my earlobe. Send me something that’s at least a partial cure, or else don’t send me anything.
I was about to finish university in Montreal. I hadn't seen her since the funeral. I had not been at her little midwestern college to watch her fall in love. I was jealous, yes then already, that someone else had seen her face at the principal moment of realization.
She needed something with the force of colonization behind it. I sent her part of a poem by Tony Hoagland printed onto a piece of vellum so that after reading the last line she could see through it to a picture of where we grew up:
“Thank you, Tony Hoagland!! Thank you, Tony Hoagland! Thank you, Tony Hoagland.” Leila will wake me years later by jumping on our bed, one foot on either side of my body.
She was newly 27 that morning, her brown ankles thin as a colt’s. I could almost wrap my whole hand round each one and I did try. Anchored like that, she went over. I took a knee to my sternum, was rewarded with the taste of honey and split earth.
She couldn't have shaved her freckled shins inside the last five days. There is a roundness to the high point of her inner thigh like the fattest part of an aloe frond. Succulent, possessive over heavy, intermittent rains.
She shouts “Lord!”
And I think, I always do, immediately of that line from the poet Kaminsky:
Lord, one word the soul destroys to make clear.
“Haven't you ever wondered if you've gone insane?”
I am napping on that inner thigh. I shake my head so she can feel it.
“Seven years ago I looked into my own eyes in the mirror and saw another woman, more beautiful than me, who said my soul had already been stolen.”
“That sounds very Calvinist.”
Her laughter echoes systematically through cheek. She’s on the move, orbits until we are both where I started.
Let us pray.
After the second funeral, Leila broke up with me and moved to China, as is her way. I thought back to my life in Montreal, that era between Leilas from which I remember just one white afternoon. I thought of our hometown, where now everyone knew we were bi and crazy on top of having so many dead friends. I followed her at a distance.
In Beijing, city of opaque mornings, of bicycle stampedes, of architecture scaled for antisocial giants, you only had to be White and English-speaking to earn the equivalent of $40,000 USD a year. There was always a collection of us, specific faces coming and going. We wandered the hutong mazes in packs passing foul bottles of erguotou between us, serving out our time, paying down our debts in anonymity.
After a year that felt like three, an acquaintance of an acquaintance said, "Oh you're Tia? I know a girl who says she knows you."
Leila and I went out in the Russian district to a burlesque called "CHOCOLATE!!" A Ukrainian lady danced on stage to an American song from our moody teens, ‘Between the Bars.’ The year had fed off Leila. Her nails had such ridges. We were 25.
"Where have you been lady girl?" I asked. "You scrubbed yourself from the Interwebs. Brett Peters from fifth grade Facebook messaged me to ask if you're dead."
The dancer crouched before us, swollen feet together, knees apart. Leila's fingertips hung in her drink like women at the edge of a pool. I swear to you, she licked that dancer's knee. A stranger's face replaced hers then, someone the dancer seemed to recognize.
"Wine comes in at the mouth.” Leila's thumb on my lip tasted of salt. "Love comes in at the eye." Her ring finger tapped my temple. “And that's all we'll know for true, till we grow old and die!" She knocked her drink against mine, spillage.
"Babe are you OK?" I meant the babe in a friend way but of course Leila could tell I still loved her. I could tell, from the way she finished her drink in one, that she was terrified.
"Yeats," she said.
So this is what the world has made out of Leila, I thought. A girl who throws gin and poetry at every little discomfort.
This idea was only possible because Leila hadn’t climbed on stage yet. They kicked us out for that into a frigid November. All over the Russian district people were burning their clothes in the streets. Of course Leila asked them, and they answered, “It turns cold. We send sweaters to our dead.”
Two years later she does what I cannot: douses coats in kerosene, lights a match. She goes to the train yard to do it as if there is, above the rails, a second set of tracks trafficked by the transient dead.
“Last night I dreamt of driving up a suburban street at the end of the day. I was in the town we grew up in, but it wasn’t, you know somehow it wasn’t our town.”
Settling in Denver was the story of Leila sucking honey off a dusty butter knife. Which is to say, in my memory I often find her here: 27, sticky, waltzing through a November afternoon, westlight in shafts from our studio's kitchen window. She wore blue pants and her rusty hair straight long. We'd lived on dry wind. Now we spent all our money.
“I know what you mean about dreams of home."
I pressed the ball of my foot against our iron bed. When we were little I dreamt repeatedly of red brick houses on gridded streets buried in trees. At first I overlook the wood-fenced yards, then find myself standing in one. I run barefoot over the dark wet grass. I leap, all wrenched knees and glory like a seven-year-old ballerina. It happens. I stick in the air, and then up I go, over the fence in a bound. And then the next! And the next! Only grazing a toe down in each yard to push off again as at the bottom of a deep swimming pool.
“So in our dream it was the night,” I said.
“In my dream it was the light in a Monet painting of the London Bridge," she said. "Don't worry, I have a recording just like it. You'll see, you'll totally get it."
The dumpsters behind our Denver apartment had stiff metal locks. During very cold February I found a baby's severed hand inside the recycling bin. The blood froze before wetting any broken-down boxes. I waited for Leila to say something. It's possible no hand was there at all.
We were both turning 27 all year long, right to the end. Today we are in love, we said, and struggled to live the meaning of it. After all this time we'd ended up lesbian sincere. She felt her way without a light through my basements, flirting with my ghosts. I hope you love me, I never said, and it’s not just that you like the danger. I'd find her wrapped in smoke, reading my journal:
Feb. 13, 2014 — Lately everyone annoys. I run short on words, attention, sleep, sobriety. Feronia, goddess without a face, I only want to be clean and hollow for that new shit. Strike me from all the records. Release me back into whatever languorous current, whatever brown, unknowing waters. I cannot bear to write “I” another time. I —
"You need to think of somebody other than yourself," Leila advised and took of her shirt.
Just once during that dark month we got a day so liquid bright it felt like May: thunderous drips down all the wide warped drainpipes. A black man I named "Doubtless X," with whom I quickly became obsessed, started hanging out in our alley.
Homeless Doubtless X, docile, wide of eye, always staring down, always sitting calmly and staring down.
Doubtless X never shouted rudely.
Doubtless X never asked for 43 bus cents or a cigarette.
Doubtless X complimented neither my work outfits nor my play outfits.
Doubtless X was the very form of a peaceable homeless man.
Why did Doubtless X chose the back stairs of First Baptist Church for his eight-hour sits?
Leila: "Why don't you just ask him?"
True, I talk to people out of fear.
True, I write more from an impulse to defend then reveal.
My parents gave me all they really had: letters arranged in the mouth.
A fat crack of salt. A few spoonfuls sugar. Her bright face over the purple pudding diffused by steam. Smells of coconut and cinnamon. The sky outside was for the fall, though it was March, yellow-white and waning. I cut my finger and there wasn't a band-aid anywhere in our place. The jonquils had all dried up. Leila asked: "Have we forgotten that spring comes here?"
“Yes! Here I am, the only one to live till 27!” I sometimes shouted this, though only when Leila had gone out. A new haircut was the trigger. Would they even recognize me — skinnier than before with curls nosing out from my head? And bitter, too, like a little French woman. All I did was write about them:
Though I stand sock-footed on a Navajo rug looking out our south window, they will never leave that liminal place. That cataclysmic dream of the self between 18 and the morning you wake up knowing you’re responsible for your day and all the ones after it. Yes they are out there, somewhere skirting the arched edge where time collapses, their beautiful faces and bodies fully grown around the pure hearts of children.
Meanwhile Leila was happy for the first time in a long time — beautiful to watch, difficult to understand. She danced before a full-length mirror propped on a table painted silver. She wore a loose shirt cut above her belly and her jeans rode high on her hips.
Did she wonder, watching my reflection: what creature is this with the closed up face, the open mouth?
In an effort to be attentive she asked me if I'd seen Doubtless X lately. I had not and felt as bad as if I'd killed him myself.
"Who is Doubtless X?" I asked.
"And you say I am the cruel one, the one with flat feelings." She misunderstood.
Meanwhile the cat-tailed ends of our lavender plant kept brushing the net curtains aside, reaching for the sun. Only a camera's eye could watch slow enough to see how they did it.
I disappeared to Montreal for a fortnight. I stayed and slept each night with a boy I'd known there. Leila called it "going on the lam" and forgave me easily. I had only wanted to see if I'd go on being without her. Though nobody had died in years it seemed prudent to check. I pretended, during both long weeks, that she was already lost to me. I worked on our imaginary house day and night as if she were already dead.
When I returned we went to a party hosted by my boss. He edited an online magazine called Western Humanism and would pay me $200 a shot to write about humans in the West. Leila waited tables all night and painted in a cold warehouse all day. She didn't quite believe that I "worked." I intended this party, in Boulder, populated by older couples, as a kind of proof.
Instead my boss made a long joke to this effect: that one of Leila and I's dearly departed, a boy who had been like a brother to me, had visited my boss to deliver a message.
"He said you're one hell of a copycat." When nobody knew what to say next he added, "Because you're both journalists."
"Tia isn't a journalist, she's an architect! She builds stories so that our characters won't die." Leila said this with the very flushed face she gets when she's had too much to drink. Then she knocked over a glass, which shattered. She cut her hand.
For the rest of the night I thought of pet rabbit Pepper who lived litter trained like a cat to 12 years old. Pepper died in circles from a stroke. Pepper died at the vet's office from a needle. Pepper died in my arms on the way to the vet for the needle. Pepper died in the basement after hopping in hilarious circles, catching much air. My brother laughed. I was very mad at everyone who laughed.
Leila drove us home, though we were both drunk. At last I felt she had returned to my level, was ready to speak our familiar nostalgic vernacular.
"You know what I worry about?" she asked. "That you only love me because we share ghosts."
I thought back to the first funeral, when Leila's was the only touch I could handle.
"I loved you while they were still living."
"So I'm right."
After that we listened to five distinct covers of Elliot Smith's Between the Bars, avoiding the original. It took me a long time to find the version she liked best and would always play. It's this one by Madeleine Peyroux, here...
Leila could not sleep after the party and asked me to narrate her down. I whispered to her that a room in our imaginary house is catching afternoon light through two corner windows at once. Jonquils yellow in a brown glass. A screen door opens. We hear each other through the floorboards. A busy fan sucks in the smell of linden on tepid air.
When she did sleep, Leila left me very un-privately alone in our apartment. I fidgeted beside her in the dark, located a disposable e-cig in the sheets. Pacified, I began cataloguing my bones, whatever ghosts were mine alone:
In fifth grade I rowed a boat on a caught country club pond with a boy I loved. We saw a beautiful silver shiny way out center. We paddled, oh yes we paddled! Whatever it is, it is mine, I said. He said, you have to pick it up, whatever it is, even if it is a dead fish. It was totally a dead fish and I totally picked it up and I threw it at him. He pushed me from the boat. I will never forget how close his hands came to where my boobs would be, or how viscous, how cloying, that brown lake bottom. Mine kicking through uncountable feet of bloated goose poop.
Before she fell in love with Tom, Angela had a very hard life. That's all Dad ever said or knew about it. Otherwise she did Reiki on the third floor of the house he rented when he left us. I visited Dad on the second floor with its picture window overlooking the bay. I was 12. The carpets did smell like they'd never been dry. Angela was always walking through on her way to the garden. She liked to grow and eat orange flowers. Nasturtiums, which taste like green pepper.
Pet rabbit Pepper, who died —
In the morning Leila bought me another lavender plant because the smell makes me docile and content. It is fair for a partner to want that affect in their lover and good for them to support it. Only I will drown the lavender, not on purpose, just from too much attention. Earlier, in the time before Leila, I drowned a succulent. The base rotted. One day the whole fat body just fell over onto the ground. She christened our home together with Trader Joe’s miniature roses. As of now they're still exploding on our kitchen windowsill, immortal or at least immune to me.