When the greenish lights hit the smoke rising from the DJ booth, it formed a noxious cloud. If you dance inside it, you die, Alice decided. They were there at the behest of someone called Darien, a stick figure given life and stringy black hair. Elyse had sent him for drinks.
“He’s a millionaire,” she said. “We should pay for nothing.”
“How did that happen?”
“I don’t know, some Internet thing. He’s retired now.”
He returned with twin cylinders filled with neon.
“You know, Darien’s a town in Connecticut,” Alice told him.
“And also, my name.”
“How are you enjoying your retirement?”
“I don’t feel retired. I want to open a commune on City Island. I want to learn how to make my own compost—supposedly you need at least two years for everything to really ferment the way it should. I want to bring back the zine. Who can bear to read shit online? I’m concerned with the rise in intangibles. I really need to finish my screenplay. It’s a reimagining of Crime and Punishment, set in a Long Island high school.”
“I grew up on Long Island.”
He spoke to her as though she could parse a thing he was saying. As if she wasn’t the sort of person for whom going to a club still held an odor of the forbidden. Everyone seemed older. There was the sense that they all owned the same kind of makeup, something you could only buy on the black market, something that filled in the crevices and caverns on your face, that smothered years rather than peeled them away.
Elyse asked, “Will you put your own shit in the compost?”
“Will you dance with me?”
Alice sipped her neon and tried to move her hips without thinking about it. She knew these first moments would be unbearable, to the point that she’d be wildly angry at her companions for plucking her out of the night and dropping her here. It was the challenge she knew she could not meet, to seem as though she were simply one of many of Elyse’s intimates, to bump hips and laugh with during an unexpected but welcome nighttime encounter, rather than a classmate invited out on a whim, probably with the sole purpose of self-amusement, someone who’d never be here if it weren’t for the accident of fate that the registrar placed their fraternal twin names side by side on a roster. She’d imagine smashing her drink in their faces, and that would calm her a little. Then finally the neon would reach her head and shift the crowded dance floor into focus, and all the silhouettes would be ringed with joy.
Elyse felt frantic. She sank her face into Darien’s damp neck to muffle it. She’d thought Alice might blossom into ebullience, but now she saw she was the sort to stand in the corner, fold her arms, send her sour expression forward, floating overhead like poisoned pollen. Darien’s erection poked at her thigh and she felt nauseated. “Alice,” she said. “You look like you’re watching a puppy being tortured.”
Darien gave her a look that was too familiar: don’t get like that, Elyse, as though he really knew what she could get like. Fucking isn’t osmosis, she wanted to tell him. There was an aching bracelet around the meat of her upper right arm where he’d been squeezing. “Nick,” her mother used to say, when they rolled around on the floor, Elyse refusing to tap out even when her windpipe felt ready to fold in on itself, tissue paper in her father’s headlock, “you don’t know your own strength.” That was bullshit. Men knew their own strength exactly.
What was the consolation? To pretend she didn’t know, to agree in earnest to an arm wrestling match, poise her elbow on the table with great seriousness that belied a faith that it was possible, at least, to win, seated across from the guy with mirth stretched across his face like a second skin, him thinking he’d go easy but not so easy that she wouldn’t be slammed back to reality like her humerus hitting the table, her chest full of the bittersweet throb of secretly knowing more.
“Let’s go get another drink,” she said. As they walked to the bar Elyse could feel Alice’s edges soften and blur. Tenderness suddenly filled her chest, warming away the anxiety: she remembered a time when she craved female attention. Before she found all the things that would happen were she the one to give it. Leaning over, her tits resting on the edge of the bar, Elyse tried to think of who the bartender reminded her of, until she realized it was a character from her novel. The warmth fell away.
Last time she’d seen her dad they sat on the creaking back porch drinking beers out of a silver bucket of melted icewater as the day sizzled out around them. From inside the house his girlfriend, Beth, would occasionally peek out the kitchen window and smile, to the point that Elyse began to suspect it was some sort of Pavlovian response to the glassy clink of their bottles. Clink, smile. Beth had long straight gray hair and Elyse privately nicknamed her the Iron Curtain. Beth’s arm was in a cast, which went unexplained.
“I was worried this would be awkward,” Elyse told her father.
“Hey, I know you.”
“I’ve slept with like fifty guys. That I know of,” she thought of saying, but it would just upset him. Not the number: his failure to feel a snap of protectiveness at its announcement. So instead: “My workshop professor this semester is a complete douchebag.”
“When you were little you’d read your mom’s catalogs. You loved the names of the colors for the shoes and stuff. Salmon, burnt sienna, cerulean. Always loved words.”
“Right now I’d call the sky three-day-old bruise.”
“I wish Beth would stop buying this shit. She knows I prefer swill. She knows it, but she doesn’t like it.”
“Did you break her arm?”
“Elyse, I’m sixty years old.”
She even cherished foreign words with a similar sense of ownership: when she took high school Spanish she admired how there were words not only for this and that, but also for that over there, in the distance: aquella. She said it aloud into the deaf ear of the club.
“Huh?” Alice said. “Yeah, I’m okay,” though her face was worryingly flushed. Arthur Kill, she was thinking drunkenly, Arthur Kill as she adjusted the heavy bag (it contained a Moleskine, several pens, a short story collection entitled You Gotta Read This!) hanging from her aching right shoulder. Professor O’Neill had assigned her creative non-fiction workshop an article from New York (cue the quiet after-class hallway smirking that O’Neill read that: it explained her perfectly, the heavy Hoosier with dreams of spike-heeled Manhattan bitchiness) about the objects swallowed by city waterways over the centuries: the dinette set, the rebar, the cache of silver, the bountiful shipwreck sunk down in thick harbor sludge, water skinned by tar, disturbingly soft sand filling the cracks on the bow. They were to each pick an item and crack it open. A predictable contrivance from the woman who handed them lemons on the first day and asked them to practice sensory description. It was unbelievable that this was costing thirty thousand dollars a year. Arthur Kill was the narrow between Staten Island and Jersey where they’d lost all the silver, but it sounded to her more like the name of a Victorian child murderer. She thought briefly of writing a story about Arthur Kill but decided she would ultimately derive more pleasure from secretly turning the name over and over in her mind like a pearl. Alice had always had an excellent memory. She was sure Arthur Kill had stuck with no one else. The problem with her crystal recall, though, was that she was forever yanked by its monstrous grip backward—that is, whenever she wasn’t already drifting forward, sending her astral self floating ahead like a smoke signal, this vapor-Alice telling the story of now in a flickering far-flung apartment or hotel room. Tonight wasn’t even happening; it had already happened, crusted over into something for her to spit up for others, for whatever reason—probably to make herself seem exotic, appealing, a person who had lived.
“I’m a time traveler,” she told Elyse. “For real.” They were all sitting at the bar. She was sweaty, muscles popping satisfyingly inside her legs.
“That guy is checking you out. That one over there, the poor man’s Ethan Hawke.”
“Really poor. Like homeless man’s. But I only travel within my own timeline, so it’s not that interesting. I’m not that interesting.”
“Go over there,” Darien said, as though he had spent adequate time studying Alice and concluded she was the sort of person who needed some platonic male encouragement: he could really turn things around for her. You are pissing me off. It was a scream in Elyse’s head. Surely he could hear.
“I looked into the future and saw that it wouldn’t happen. I can’t do anything to change that.”
“Are you saying you want to leave?” Elyse said.
“Are you?” It was a trick Alice had learned from a college friend, to smoothly hoist the responsibility onto someone else’s shoulders without them even feeling it. Most people were just talking about themselves, anyway.
Elyse sighed harshly. “Fuck, yes.”
Alice had learned a lot in college. Then there had been the times when she would come home for visits, the weird backsliding of creeping late into her parents’ dark house after nights out with friends and their increasingly tenuous shared histories, gossip about post-high school activities of now deliciously remote people, her own sludgy feelings of disgust at engaging in these conversations at bars that now just seemed depressingly provincial, now that she was of age, her delight at the sinking stars of those for whom high school had been the zenith: because it hadn’t been for Alice and her friends, so clearly their time was now, with their impressive colleges, and beyond them smooth wide carpets extending into a future that knew nothing of Long Island.
Finally one night her mother told her: it wasn’t that she minded Alice’s going out, but wouldn’t she come up and let them know when she got home? She couldn’t sleep well until she knew Alice was safe and sound.
So she obliged, at two a.m. padding into the cave of their bedroom like her childhood self fallen out of time. She heard their paired steady breathing.
“It’s me,” she said softly.
Her mother snapped straight up and shrieked.
“Jesus Christ Carol,” her father mumbled through fog.
“You told me—” Alice began. Her mother’s white hand fluttered in the dark to her chest.
“She’ll give me a heart attack,” her father said. “One of these days I’ll wake up dead.”
Alice retreated, the room smelling of foreign sleep. It had been beginning to dawn on her for a while then that her mother was faintly ridiculous: she preferred the idea of herself as the mother who waited up to being the one who actually did. Alice had been supposed to know better than to follow her rules.
On their way out of the club, Alice was groped. A man reached over, took a breast in each hand, and squeezed as though that was what they were there for.
“What?” Alice said, as though it was a question she’d misheard. He was already turning away. “What the fuck is wrong with you?” It poured out of her, a liquid yell, consuming the bass thrum in her chest. It became its own energy source. People were looking at her with mild annoyance, sleepy cats roused by a slammed door.
“I’m sorry, but he should be shamed,” she told them. Elyse and Darien were pulling her away. They leaked out onto the street. A cold gust of wind unblurred the streetlights, righted the loose clusters of kids headed to wherever. She used to want to black out, honestly, in those headlocks squirming there at the end of a long tunnel of years. Not to chasten her father: to show him she could. How far she was willing—wanted—to travel. As a baby, her parents said, Elyse would hold her breath until she turned blue to get what she wanted, sitting in her high chair furious and violet, bulging eyes swimming with wordless extremism. She hadn’t asked to be here, to come out from death’s velvet enclosure, but since she had she would laugh at it. Her father was this way, so said the box of Purple Hearts tossed unthinkingly into the corner of his wardrobe, and she was the same, but there was no proof then, no way to reveal their communion other than to go gladly limp in his arms. To enter the black nothing of unconsciousness. Of course, it had happened plenty since then, but always out of his view.
“Holy shit,” Darien said, “Alice is fierce.”
“Alice is a second-wave feminist,” Elyse said.
“Alice once spit in John Updike’s face at a party.”
“Alice came up with Obama’s campaign slogan.”
“Alice is the Poet Laureate in perpetuity.”
“Alice is the leading cause of death in twentysomething men.”
They were all doubled over in the street, holding on to each other, and Alice was suffused with generosity for both of them, she could see now their essential humanness, and she saw the earlier tensed Alice of that night as pitiable, a petty fool. But there was the knowledge lurking beneath like a sea snake that of course she only felt generous when it was convenient for her: like riding the subway home from school at the end of a long day, the sun still up, surrounded by crumpled dusky people who unlike her had to work for a living: then, too, she would feel this way. And she recognized their laughter as the dangerous social laughter that when heard from outside feels like an assault. That is, certainly, a double laughter, not only at the actual funny event or thing but also at everything beyond the edge of the silvery bubble the laughter constructs. And then she thought, well fuck it.
“I’m not like this,” she admitted, gasping, gathering herself. “Usually I just ask, Will this suck?And if it’s a yes I don’t say anything.”
Elyse struggled past the initial shards of judgment that formed at this pronouncement, so certain and unaware, so—she tried not to think—repressed. Her ex-boyfriend used to ask her why she’d get so angry at people who did things differently, but of course he wasn’t really asking, he was telling her she was deeply insecure, she didn’t know what she was doing. Will this suck? Was the sucking worth it, worth some inner assurance? She had never known until the end. The night after the visit with her father, standing in front of the mirror in her underwear, Elyse had pinched at the pale flesh pooching over its elastic band.
“Sometimes I feel like a beast,” she told her ex-boyfriend, half-asleep on the couch. She felt all the beers with her father from that afternoon, the window of Beth and her broken arm, sloshing in her gut, an off-color sea. She lurched over to him in a way she might have designed, somewhat, to confirm her statement. “Do you still find me attractive?”
“Not at the moment, no,” he said.
“I would never say that to you.” It was true: he would have crumpled.
“I would never ask you a question like that. It’s wildly unfair.”
She filed it away, did not fight: she let the frustration mount silently in her chest like mucus and went to bed feeling restless, noble.
And months later, as they cleaned up the kitchen after a quiet dinner, he’d asked softly, barely audible over the running water in the sink, “Are you sure you’re not getting bored of me? Like—you still find me sexy?” The softness bothered her, like he wasn’t really sure he wanted her to hear, or he wanted her to have to lean into his orbit, a comforting satellite. And the unspoken nod to “her past,” which he thought of as still out there, a semi-separate entity living it up on night streets, outshining him.
It would have been easy to reassure him, it would have been easy to think instead of the way he’d gently push her hair back from her forehead as he kissed her so he could reach every part of her face, which he’d gaze at like it was something more than it was. But there was the fact that once, she had been punished by him, for a twinned moment of fear. And he thought he shouldn’t be.
So she’d had to bring it up and they’d had to fight. That was what it was like then, for them. She never told him what she had once seen: a small college town in the mountains somewhere, the two of them on a balcony, their lean faces, lined with character, turned toward peaked roofs, chimney smoke rising remotely away. She’d teach a couple classes a week, maybe; students would visit their drafty living room with its high ceiling, its wooden slats, the lofted bedroom overhead, and they’d admire the nest she’d made with him, to be seen but never quite felt, deliciously out of reach. A life that was hushed but thrummed with mystery, the echoes of a drunken stagger through city alleyways no longer needed. Things accomplished, consummated, to make way for this peace that was for them, the fresh hungry faces, decades away. But she saw this was to be Alice’s future, not hers. In some other pulsing cell of the city now he was pushing back another girl’s hair, learning the texture of another bedroom’s dimness. And if he imagined Elyse at all, she was doing exactly what he imagined, having merged again with that once-dancing once-distant past. There would be book parties in the spring, flirtatious young men with their own dreams to be beamed off her luminous flesh (already her classmates were hovering over the success-to-come, sharks pulled to bloody water), herself bounding through one portal after another, none of which emptied finally into the quiet country home.
Darien stopped short in front of them. They were standing in front of a narrow tall building, a muscular leg in black tights. The blinking sign said eep Show.
“A ghost of old New York,” he said. “From the age of smut.”
Elyse said, “I don’t remember any eep shows.”
“Come on, Lisey. We have to.”
“We don’t have to do anything,” Alice said.
Darien looked at her sadly. “That’s not true.”
It was all the clichés, sticky floors and old tobacco and the bleachy smell of come. Was this authenticity, then—depressing odors and the remnants of Type A influenza? As they climbed the stairs Alice’s buzz dissipated proportionately. You paid in a coin machine that looked like an antique. It was the sort of thing someone like Darien would have in a corner of his apartment. He’d stack the DSM-V on top of it for a high-low affect. Alice couldn’t have grasped after the diaphanous tails of her previous generosity had she wanted to.
They climbed into a booth and pulled the black curtain closed around them. There was just enough room for the three of them. Alice felt Elyse’s downy upper arm on one side and Darien’s pointy elbow on the other. Darien reached over and pressed a stamp into each of their hands. “It’ll make her look like the Loch Ness Monster,” he said. The complete blackness assured Alice it was all right. It seemed to hum with approval. The air inside was stale but hushed, reverent.
And then there was light on the other side of the glass. The girl, who was just a girl, started twisting around behind it.
“Oh God,” Elyse said. “I thought I could do this.”
“Don’t think about it,” Darien said. “Don’t think about how after work she has to suck off her boss and the dead look in her eyes makes it even better for him. It’s just a story you’ve heard a million times.”
Elyse tried to resist, because what Darien said was so often trite and clearly planned ahead of time—she imagined nothing but journals stacked against the walls of his apartment with “Conversations for Every Situation” scrawled inside—and because she wasn’t sure she only meant the booth, the blank sea creature inches away. But sometimes his words nevertheless resounded inside her till she began to vibrate. After the break-up he’d said, “But it’s also kind of beautiful, isn’t it?” so that she wanted to scream but also saw, captured in his voice, a reflection of the broken glass feeling, the way the light shone off it. She let him come toward her, let him think it was all his strength.
They were making out in earnest now. Alice fit herself into a corner of the booth and tried to enjoy it objectively: the writhing couple, their soft open-mouthed moans beside her, the sad bouncing titties on the other side of the glass, co-monologues of stale carnality. But their lips smacked together hungrily and she felt annoyance and something else flare deep within: she saw orange flame streaking through thick darkness. This was the sort of story (here again she traveled through time) book reviews and author profiles would one day yearn for, the wunderkind unmasked. And she would have, at least, the defense that she’d known Elyse before she became the first ever graduate student in the program to have a manuscript accepted before earning her degree: that it hadn’t been about being able to say she was the sort of person who knew intimately this sort of person. She could say she felt then no impatience, only detached happiness for Elyse and silent assurance that her time, too, would come, perhaps minus the fireworks but no less (in fact, probably more) worthy of them. Elyse turned her head toward Alice, lipstick smeared, ghastly, waiting, and Alice fell forward at her with her own mouth, as though she could communicate to Elyse that way how she saw her: how she saw through her. She tasted like secondhand whisky (Darien) and the waxy lipstick and under the lipstick—cherry. Elyse was a secret wearer of cherry gloss. Alice saw her as a little girl in front of a mirror, before consciousness. She pulled away.
Elyse turned back toward Darien, her eyes leaving an aura of mild disappointment, nothing more, hanging in the air. She was slapping at him, scratching, tugging his pants. He threw his head back and it rang loudly against the glass. Even the dancing girl’s expression registered surprise. Alice realized this would go on forever. They would devour each other, pick the strands of muscle from between their teeth, swallow the cartilage whole, watch it ripple down each other’s throats.
“Bathroom,” she muttered, the word utterly Dada inside the booth. She grasped the railing on her way down the stairs, which were squirming with amoeba, thinking vaguely about Purell. Before she opened the door she saw her face reflected in its cracked plastic from every angle, Picassoesque, jutting cheekbone and vertical eyebrow and slashed lips and thought, Good. Now they’ll know.
Outside the sun was coming up. The subway now would be insurmountable. She walked instead, amazed to feel her bag still swinging from her shoulder. I’m Old Faithful, she thought, and then, what was that other phrase I liked? Arthur Kill. Arthur Kill.
Alice reached the river. Beyond it, New Jersey: putting on the coffee, getting dressed for church, newsprint smudges on fingertips and faithfully chugging car motors. Sitting on a riverfront bench, disheveled and drugged as if that was who she really was, Alice longed for the imagined life.
That median strip of rippling gray began to churn. There was a noise like a monstrous burp and the seagulls stopped dead in the air at the sound of it. They hovered, watching, as the river began to vomit its contents, all of them: the dining room table and chairs, bobbing and waiting for their owners to take them home; the abandoned appliances, the building materials, the unfulfilled potential of a hundred objects buoyed by their own wordless yearning for use, the crest of a ship fallen into majestic ruin and then finally, the bars of silver, gorgeous gleaming rectangles floating in the water before Alice like so many false teeth.
Alanna Schubach is a writer living in New York. She edits the website Such Sweet Thunder.