“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.”
This is the story of Leila sucking honey off a dusty butter knife. Which is to say, in my memory I often find her here: sticky, waltzing through a November afternoon, westlight in shafts from the kitchen window. She wore blue pants and her rusty hair straight long. We were both turning 27 all year. At last we'd settled in Denver, near but not too near our homeland-of-the-wide-sky where nobody would look us in the face anymore. We'd lived on dry wind. Now we spent all our money.
“I know what you mean about that."
I pressed the ball of my foot against our iron bed. When I was a little girl 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 the dream it was the night?” I asked.
“It was the light in a Monet painting of the London Bridge.”
The dumpsters behind our 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. Today we are in love, we said, and struggled to live the meaning of it. Basically we were 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, 2013 — 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 —
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 and First Baptist got a new patron saint. 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? Why didn't I 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.
After I got off the lam, Leila and I went to a party hosted by my boss. He edited an online magazine called Western Humanism and would sometimes pay me $200 to write about humans in the West. Leila waited tables all night and painted in a cold warehouse all day. She didn't believe I "worked" and 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 my brother told him I'm a copycat, from the grave. Once you unlock that room everyone is inside and cannot get out. Leila knocked over a glass, which shattered, saving most everyone.
Except 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 that night, though we were both drunk. 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 somewhere is a room catching afternoon light through two corner windows at once. Jonquils yellow in a brown glass. Somewhere a screen door opens. 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 one, shared room. I fidgeted beside her in the dark, located a disposable e-cig in the sheets. Pacified, I continued to fill up the studio with bones:
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 Michelle, Zanzara 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 moved away. 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. Zanzara 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 a 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 would 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 first home together with Trader Joe’s miniature roses. They’re still exploding on some kitchen windowsill, immortal or at least immune to me.
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 in the place. The jonquils had all dried up. We 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. She did not like to compete with them, my dearly departed. The 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. Writer of things like:
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.
So Leila danced before a full-length mirror propped on a table painted silver. So 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.
"Who is Doubtless X?" I asked.
"And you say I am the cruel one, the one with flat feelings."
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. We have another year.
On March 9, 2014 at two in the morning, tired of asking me to make the mark, Leila draws the cut herself. Twenty-eight years old today, she looks at her own face bouncing between mirrors.
“The point of this is to separate me from a past that isn’t useful.”
A big long line, immaculately straight, from the tender pit at the back of her skull to an invisible point between the tips of her wing bones.
“Ink it, please.”
And I do, with the hot tip of a knife.
Is she quite well? How to love someone who chooses the exact folding hour of daylight savings for such a desperate leap?
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.
These are sentences from a letter Leila wrote me in 2007. In 2007 she did not kiss girls, or anyone, on the mouth. She was 21 and had moved to Brazil to work in a pousada across from the 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.
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 Shakira'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.
And then this letter, during my first year of college in Montreal. How many months, miles, minutes away from me was she then? I had not been there at her little midwestern college to watch her fall in love and was jealous, yes then already, that someone else had seen her face at the principal moment of realization.
I sent her part of a poem by Tony Hoagland written 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 wakes me by jumping on our bed, one foot on either side of my body. It is a frightening, delicious thing she does.
She is 27 this morning, her brown ankles thin as a colt’s. I can almost wrap my whole hand round each one and I do try. Anchored like that, she goes over. I take a knee to my sternum, am rewarded with the taste of honey and split earth.
She cannot 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.
Beyond Will: how a good sentence attaches itself permanently to a word and follows it, netting together all the scattered phrases of a life (mine) under an arbitrary, irreversible aesthetic category.
“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.
When I first caught tail of her, at 25, Leila was drunk. We were far from Colorado. Having both more or less come out in college, neither of us could boomerang to our childhood homes. That, and people we knew had been dying there like the land was poisoned with bad luck. Later we both admitted we were too scared to return. At the time we thought we were too brave.
But in the city of opaque mornings, of bicycle stampedes, of architecture scaled for antisocial giants, you only had to be white and English-speaking to earn $40,000 a year. We wandered the hutong mazes in small packs, passing a foul bottle of erguotou between us, serving out our time, paying down our debts in anonymity.
After a year an acquaintance of an acquaintance said, "You're Tia? I know a girl who says she knows you."
Leila and I went out in Beijing to a Russian burlesque called "CHOCOLATE!!" A Ukrainian lady danced on the bar-stage to a song called ‘Between the Bars.’ I hadn’t seen Leila since we were kids. She used to have blond curly hair but now it was red, straight, long.
The dancer crouched before us, swollen feet together, knees apart. Leila let her fingertips hang into 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, taste of salt. "Love comes in at the eye." Her ring finger tapping my temple. “And that's all we'll know for true, till we grow old and die!" She knocked her drink against mine, spillage.
"Just think of that on the spot?"
Her white throat moved around its drink.
"Yeats," she said with her face close. The smell of juniper almost covering sweat.
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 onto the 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 two coats in kerosene, one lit match. She goes to the train yard to do it as if there is, above every train, a second set of tracks trafficked by the transient dead.
Salt ate our soles all March long. Last Spring. The skin between Leila’s fingers grew taut, split. Her blood dried very dark in thin lines. On the surface, she never seemed afraid.
“My skin is like a crust!”
The ground beneath our feet is like a crust and the strata beneath that was shattered, years ago, by something radioactive.
At night, curled together in the twin bed, I felt her sweat and knew she rustled on the smooth edge of sleep. Her heart moved between her ribs, threading in and out, testing its limits in the nighttime wideness. She still breathed in. Her heart nosed up under my fingertips for a pet and when soothed, purred, let one of us sleep.
Leila had a tattoo of a blue circle behind her right ear. It appeared from the baby-fine dapple of her hairline, then disappeared into the same. To hear with, she had the softest, felted shell of an ear, which I clicked out of place and took with me to our little kitchen. I hung it by hooped earring in the window.
An orange sky produced sudden revelations of snow perforating the city. Next door the neighbors— a young woman and her ex-prostitute mother — were watching a sad movie, or else they were fighting. They will move out next month. A boy who likes to play the guitar and sends weed smoke into the halls will replace them. This is how you know you are in Denver.
“Leila, there is nothing to be afraid of.” I held my own neck in my hand. My lips brushed her earlobe. I prepared my words carefully.
"Leila, there will be at least one more deep summer night for us. There will be a hot streetlamp outside our window. Some million handfuls gnats, moths, the occasional water beetle, will fling themselves toward that core. Satellites illuminated by frisson, they will be eviscerated by want somewhere in the blue penumbra."
“You are always by the window, like a cat,” she said out of the darkness. "Just spoon me, while you can."