Grim stepped out of a warm bath. The unfurling of pink, close limbs into cold verticality jarred. The parts of life sat next to each other. She looked at her body in the mirror and took pleasure in imagining how someone else would view the cypress curves, the taut collarbones, the unexpected lushness of the ass. The desire for an observer used to worry her, spilling into notes in a small black journal, What good is it being beautiful if there’s no one to love my beauty? Why do I care? She had a more peaceful question now— What good are bodies at all?
Last night she’d ravaged her own pussy using the tongue of a philosophy professor. The foreplay began when she woke up alone that morning—pineapple juice, a careful shave, coconut oil—and continued with him, even before they touched. He asked, “Was it hard being a woman in Paris?” and she answered yes, lying.
One night in Belleville, she left her friends smoking hash in a park on the top of a hill. The Communist had invited her to an orgy. “Two of my good friends,” he promised. “A little conversation, soft music, a little wine. La vie poétique.” She arrived at the métro station in a new pink dress, where he was waiting, and they began to walk in the rain. “A slight change of plans,” he said. He took her elbow as they reached the sliding doors of a Novotel, and led her to the elevator.
He didn’t know why he was opening himself up to her, he said. Why he could expose himself without the protective skin of asking questions. “I like questions,” she said. “There’s just something about you,” he said. She swung her head off the bed and looked at the red lamp. “There are a lot of things about me.”
He held her arm back for a moment, so that she turned to face him. “C’est une…je l’ai trouvée.” Grim wrinkled her eyebrows, not understanding. The door opened, and someone wearing a black leather corset, black leather boots, black leather hot pants, and long black hair stood six feet tall.
Malibu rum. Alison. Skin heavy from sun and air thick with night heat breathing through the open balcony door. Jess. I tasted these things together and fell asleep in the middle of the floor wearing nothing but your arms.
She stood and watched a conversation in French and Portuguese. “Do you have…other girls?” the one in leather asked of the Communist. “Oui,” he said, hesitating. “And you?” Grim looked up. “Do you fuck much?” Grim shrugged. “Gently,” said the Communist. “She is plutôt une intellectuelle.”
The lie was this—until Paris, she did not feel like a woman at all.
Yet she was the liar, and she knew it. Who, then, really owns the tongue entering her body, his weight over hers as she reaches for her pants, his naked acts of belief?
Over land and sea, I pull you over me, and find everything in its right place.
Alison and I sit next to each other on red leather stools inside a Golden Age of Hollywood bar in Prague. We look down at our gin cocktails and for words we don’t ever use with each other. “I still feel bad,” she says.
“I know,” I say. “I know what you mean.”
“I still feel like it was so stupid, even for myself. You and he obviously had something that was going to last longer.” I just exhale and shake my head. Maybe not.
“Then why?” I ask. “Why was it worth it?”
“I didn’t see it like it was worth anything. It just happened. After the summer…it was like there were no consequences.” I look at her and nod.
Jess wore a dark wig and pretended to be someone she was not. She and Nick and August and I poured a bottle of gin and a jug of grapefruit juice into a white bowl and placed it on the center of the floor, next to her bare mattress and a dirty hookah pipe, straws around the edge of the bowl like bathers climbing out of a sickly sweet swimming pool. Jess turned on a dim orange lamp and began to dance. Nick passed me a joint and we smoked it, watching Jess as her limbs flailed more and more liquid.
“I’m happy we can do this,” I told him. “I’m happy for myself, that I can do this. Look at me—I’ve put myself back together even better than before.”
He looked. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I know you know, but I am.” The first mistake was facing each other. A greenhouse of juniper trees and sweat. Stupid, dissonant grapplings in the dark. More apologies. The wrong apologies.
The next day: “How do you feel about what happened?” “It happened. Now it’s in the past.”
While Jack plays guitar, lying back on the floor, I scrawl into the pale wood of his table, You are the thing connecting everything you love.
“What are you doing, when you open and close your mouth like that?” “I’m screaming.”
The bartender pours us two shots of Jagermeister. “Thinking about you doesn’t hurt anymore,” I say to her. “Or when it does, now, it’s only a vessel for something else.”
“Right, but…” She pauses. “I still feel bad about what it means for me.” A crust punctures, and I love her. “So let’s change what this means,” I say, with a sudden passion that feels almost like anger. “Let’s use it as an opportunity to be closer to each other.”
“How?” asks Alison.
“I feel like it’s obvious,” I say, and we both smile. “Wait, let’s drink first.”
We lay next to the sofa wrapped in a white blanket, cheeks and hair wet and touching, fingers gently exploring our different smoothnesses. A soft woman’s voice sings. Years later, I will tell Jack, “I felt so safe.”
In the clean white room we ask the artist to play our song. He presses a button and the woman’s voice fills the space. He presses another button and a needle begins to whir in his hand. Alison lies on the low table, shoes off, and we giggle as he aims the needle towards the tender skin of her ankle. “Time to change,” she says. Land and sea.
As a child I used to keep a list of actions that could never be undone, or at least whose reversal would require so much energy and time that the decisive instant must necessarily be daunting—thrilling. To cut my hair. To become a vampire. To pour milk into coffee. To grow up.
One hour later, thin blue lines bleed sweetly over our bones. A half-moon inside a rectangle—her summer balcony, our summer swimming pool. Spaces we had filled happy, fumbling, flickering in and out. Now they walk with us. “What will you think of, when you look at this in fifty years?” Alison asks.
“I don’t want to think of anything,” I say. “I just want to walk over to your house and touch our ankles together.”
Aimer, ce n’est pas se regarder l’un l’autre, c’est regarder ensemble dans la même direction.
We stood on top of a cliff overlooking a green, temperate valley. I gave you my favorite quote by your favorite writer. “How odd I can have all this inside me, and to you it’s just words.”
That night you fucked me wide open and whispered in my ear. Show me how much you want this dick.
The very first time, I found you reading Othello, alone on a stone overlooking the hill. We lay on the grass, me holding a novel above my head and you following along as I flipped through the pages. We looked at the same paintings, and, in between, grabbed the new heat of each other’s bodies in an elevator. I learned the taste of sweat licked from your cheekbones.
Even now, on long drives and massage tables, I write you letters in my head.
I was still piecing you together then. You had been deeply lonely, for a time. You loved Albert Camus, marijuana, sunsets, beautiful and unexpected words. You wanted me to spend the night, and told me I couldn’t tell you too much.
I told Jack and Alison that it was over with you. A band was playing in the corner of a basement that, after two years of parties, already felt played out.
“It just seems like he wants more than I do,” I said. “I don’t know if I’m ready for that.”
They stood silent for a moment. Jack said, “Well, have you asked him?”
I hadn’t. I smiled with the realization.
I drove to your house and I didn’t ask. Instead, I fell for every part of you.
It’s hard to say why, exactly. We sat on the couch, on either side of a puppy you were watching for a friend. The lights were dim. Later we retreated to the mattress on your floor, just holding and talking low, and you confessed to sadness over a coworker who had died. “Life is hard. And it’s short,” you said.
“Yes,” I agreed, searching for the best words to comfort you, “but we remember people.”
And then, after I left you, I drove to the park, to the fountain glowing in cinematic night light. I ran around in circles, arms flung out wide, smiling, floating higher and higher.
Let’s go away for a while.
Over dinner one night, you told me to taste your whisky. I was in a bad mood with you—maybe you knew. So I looked down at the finger of amber in the glass, smirking, and tried to crack a selfish joke. “But how am I supposed to get drunk on this?”
You frowned at me. “Grow up.”
The taste anesthetized. I really liked it. “It burns,” I said, as the whisky swam down my throat.
“That’s how you know it’s good. The more it burns, the higher the quality.” You took the glass from my hand. The scorch reached my stomach.
Maddie says that she doesn’t like writing about the thing. She likes writing about the stuff around the thing. We arrive at the foot of the Eiffel Tower just as it bursts into sparkle, and I know exactly what she means.
My trouble started as soon as I exited American airspace. The words echoing in my head were these: I always will.
But the ones I should have clung to, perhaps: “Don’t get me wrong. We’re breaking up as soon as you board that plane.”
In 1997, Chris Kraus published a book called I Love Dick. In this book, a woman falls in love with a man she met only once. She writes letters to him, sends faxes, composes telephone messages and devises art projects, receiving in return only silence, knowing all the while that with every manic layer of media she is removing herself further and further from Dick and sculpting in his place a creature of her own making: Dick.
After a few weeks I started to realize my slow slide into a nouveau quotidien of tiny, concrete boxes. Inside bauhaus classroom walls, absorbing through osmosis a lecture on Madame Bovary, I began to dream of lying naked in a desert somewhere. I began to picture myself, in my mind’s eye, walking upside down.
“Here’s what I want: I want to love you, and meanwhile, I’ll fulfill physical needs if they arise. I’ll keep myself open to it. I don’t know what you want.”
“I just want you to be happy.”
When the first blow hits in Nikes, I am back there, riding the last métro, drunk and soporific off red wine. Comfortable inside a camel-hair coat and the belief that depression has a deadline.
Maddie and I said our first goodbye under the glooming of the Gare de l’Est. We were fucking miserable.
“Everything ends,” I spat into the night, raindrops barely visible against the glare of orange taxi lights. “Everything gets smaller.”
She shook her head and freed bits of black hair from under her scarf. “I know. How do we go home after this? How do we come back?”
Like most things that winter, the station above us seemed larger than it was. Maddie broke open a bar of chocolate and we stood there together eating our little pleasure. It was happening, it was beginning, but I didn’t have the words for it then—she was saving me.
We made another sex tape. Me in pink pyjamas, you in grey socks, up high in a tiny room in Hell’s Kitchen. I watched us the day after my 22nd birthday, but we left me lukewarm. My body has changed, and anyway, the scene isn’t how I remember it. When I see you, there, I’m looking down at my thighs over your chest, your face as sweetly free of any expression as if you had never learned to perform one. You ask me, “Are you ready to do this every day of your life?”
I start to answer, and you hold a finger to your lips.
Oranges in our pockets, we kick through sleeping grape fields, we hold hands as we duck wires and No Trespassing signs. We reach the top of a white cliff and laugh over the roar of the wind. We’re invincible, because finally, we’ve found the sea—even if we can’t touch her.
We are very far away from each other.
Now, I can sit alone in my room and feel no distance at all. And sometimes, in these moments of sloughing off, I see myself in the shifting shapes of was and will be.
Once, I was thirteen years old. Dreamy, disdainful, profoundly bored. Unsure if the skin I lived in was my own. I discovered the nineteen-sixties when I needed them most. The door locked to the outside, I could put on an album by Jefferson Airplane or the Beatles and say to myself, I’m not here.
My mother reprimanded me, then, for this golden glow escapism. “You can’t romanticize the past like this,” she would say. “What about the drugs? The segregation? Women’s rights weren’t even on the table.”
But here’s the thing. I never wanted, do not want, to go back in time. I just want to make this clear—when the present becomes the past, nothing falls away. Different, not less.
“Look. It would make me sad if we lost the details. I like knowing the rhythm of your days, where you are, what you’re thinking.”
“No, I don’t know…I don’t want to hear everything. Just the important parts.”
Once, I will be firm and rosy, laughing and giving good advice, framed by friends and a sunlit window on my way to the rest of the world.
“I can do better.”
Somewhere outside the art museum, I forget my name. I cling to your hand suddenly, whispering, “Hold onto me.”
Butterflies explode prism perfect across towering ferns and sun-washed glass ceiling. We giggle with upturned faces, and stroke soft pink moss dripping from the trees. The faces of mothers and children begin melting into each other—it’s time to go.
When we reach the edge of the park, we see bees circling our heads, start swatting them away; not sure if the danger is imagined or real, we save each other anyway. Inside your room we strip furiously, confident in the epiphany that clothing is a lie.
I don’t see your face for a while. You’re safe inside a blanket. I spend infinite moments threading a blue silk robe through my fingers, watching the soft flicker of lilies and bamboo. When you emerge, you say, “Watch this,” floating a speaker in the air so that our music makes tracks like water in the sun.
Later, you exclaim that you’ve found your pattern, a familiar friend—little shapes swimming in harmony across the surface of your notepaper and my skin. You try to capture it with a pen, but it slips away from you every time.
“I wish I could show you more, outside of this sordid little box,” you say, shaking your head. “I wish I could give you an island somewhere, and watch you frolic and make art, and teach you…” Tears stand in your eyes when the song changes.
The sun slowly fractures through the window. The light tells the time. Horizontal on the mattress, I remember who I am. And I have to, have to, have to tell you the thing I most fundamentally believe in all the world, if I can catch the right words out of the air.
“Here’s what I would do. I would throw a party. A small one, around a swimming pool, with flowers and candles floating on the surface of the water. At sunset. Somewhere near the beach. With hills in the distance. Yes. I would invite ten people, and I would tell them to just talk to each other. To ask really meaningful questions. To listen to the answers. What am I trying to say?…yeah, to listen. And not just to the words, but the trying. We’re humans, and if we’re trying to care about each other, we can’t let anything stop us…small mistakes, or time, or different bodies. Once we see the person inside, we have to protect them, like something tiny and precious…It’s like this. Here, look.”
I open your notebook. Together, we’re filling it. Thoughts on movies and books. Little rhyming couplets you write while I’m asleep. A record of Cloudland, drawings of invented creatures, perfected signatures. Notes not to worry. Notes that say, I’m sorry. Notes that say, here is where to find me.
“Look, Kelsey. Look at what we made.”
Griffin Reed is a life-long resident of St. Louis, Missouri, and a graduate of Washington University in St. Louis. Griffin spent a year at the Sorbonne in Paris studying 20th century literature, art history, and cinema; they recently completed a 90-page thesis on the semiotics of Los Angeles literature. Griffin currently works as an editorial assistant at River Styx Magazine in St. Louis.