I. A Cosmopolitan Avenue
…where a girl pretends the whole city is dead. She is too old for games like this one, but she indulges herself anyway, dangling her legs from a low structural wall outside her parents’ house. Sunlight moves across her knees. Her eyes and scalp itch with hay fever. She’s been eating too much dairy and her guts don’t feel well.
In her fantasy, the project of living turns predatory and meaningful. The population has almost disappeared but buildings and infrastructure remain, jutting from the landscape like the bones of a carcass. She says, nearly in prayer, ‘This is the future.’ An annulment of time. There are no other countries. There is a yellow star but no sun, a white rock in the night sky but no moon. No evolution, no smart, no stupid, no college, no virginity, no cellphone, no money, no exercise. Strange, windy new gods blow in and she announces their names from the highest empty skyscraper. Scraps flicker along the empty streets. Wild dogs hunt in the streets and sometimes she feeds on the carcasses they leave behind. She has no family and no friends. Without them she moves as sexless as thought, eating, sleeping, and copulating according to need, devoid of expectation, just a shape among shapes. Her body hardens with muscle and instinct. She imagines herself with a boy’s long back and long hair. A flat chest.
But in real life her breasts, already pendulous, stretch-marked, are growing larger. She is smart and overweight. She gets out of breath going up a flight of stairs. Friends have lately taught her to smoke cigarettes and drink gin out of a plastic bottle. She has never touched anyone else’s privates. Sometimes, at night, she still frightens herself into hearing her own name when her parents aren’t home.
In real life, it’s a Thursday, 11 am, mid-summer, and she has chores.
Store: Eggs, eggplant, dish soap, kitty litter. Money on fridge.
Bathroom: Clean sink, scrub tub.
The two bills—ten and twenty—fit neatly into her back pocket. She walks along the avenue towards the grocery store. Little plants grow between cracks in the pavement. They move in the breeze as if waving hello. Telephone poles form a roofless colonnade and she strikes every other one with a piece of long grass. After three blocks she comes to a building that was a feed store, then a library. Now it’s something else. The cornerstone reads ‘A.D. 1907.’ The girl stretches on tiptoes and closes one eye to look in through the grated window. Coloured wires spill from rows of shelves but the wheeled ladders remain; it’s a server. Communication embodied. She arrives at the thought all by herself and enjoys the grownup feeling it gives her. Leaning against the bricks she sucks in her belly and cheeks in order to become an equally resonant image.
Will today be the day? Will she encounter the thing that will change her forever? The limits must be straining at their seams. So many days have passed, one after the other, and all she’s done is have some birthdays.
Feeling clots in her throat.
She kicks a small stone into the street and picks up the pace.
All the dogs she sees are leashed.
The car that pulls up behind her is a strange surprise. Its window slides down, revealing an older person in an Oxford shirt and wire-rimmed glasses.
‘Excuse me, young lady?’ His voice is low and friendly. ‘I was wondering if you could answer a question for me.’
Shy and helpful but still androgynous with her fantasy, she steps forward. ‘Okay, sure.’
The man hooks his elbow out the window and leans forward. ‘I was wondering…’ he says again. He looks embarrassed; she empathises.
‘Can I pull down your panties and lick your asshole?’
As the words float from his mouth, the girl’s vision vibrates. Her eyes might wobble right out of her head. She places one hand against her own throat for support and the man—red-faced, sweating—speeds away, towards the onramp that leads to the suburbs.
For comfort and shame she imagines her mother at work, selling jewellery and loose diamonds in the mall.
For comfort and shame she considers her father at work, peering at an endless screen and collecting fat around the muscle of his heart.
II. A Winter Acquaintance
At the far end of the counter, a cluster of white narcissus erupts in a ceramic pot. Their musk and brightness thrust the cafe’s interior into a different season. Outside, too late in the year, it is finally snowing.
Because she doesn’t know how to drink coffee the girl orders tea. ‘You look taller,’ the man says when he takes her money. He is clean-shaven tonight but his long, rough hair reminds her of a witch. He deposits change into the girl’s palm without touching her. Can he read the feeling in any of her gestures? Perhaps her lust and embarrassment smell like all the clefts of her body at once.
She carries her drink to a table near the door and sits down. She knows little about him besides what she has observed from afar. Other customers—women and girls and several young boys—also want him, but manage to make their desire useful. They bring him little gifts: cigarettes, candy, brown bags of liquor and, of course, extra tips. The girl is old enough to see that he encourages their affection but too young to determine if he does so out of a craving for money or validation.
The man goes out the front door with a snow shovel. It difficult for the girl to look at his entire body when it moves. Instead, she watches the snow and thinks of the dark countryside, of the plains with their diminished farms and abandoned outbuildings. A fantasy of a homeland, buried under the snow.
The girl swallows the rest of her tea and stands to leave. She has not even pretended to read her book. The man intercepts her at the threshold.
‘Why are you leaving me already?’ he says. He has never spoken to her in this way. Snowflakes rime his eyelashes. The girl knows that between them he is the prettier. Beneath her sweater and shirt, her breasts are big and ugly.
‘So go and come back. I’ll be closed by midnight.’
‘Okay,’ the girl says.
At home the her mother has been asleep for several hours. The house is dark and quiet. The girl goes to the toilet and shits herself empty, then sits in the living room with all the lights off until is it time to go back, where he waits beneath a floodlight, his coat open at the neck as though his long body belongs in the cold.
‘This is my mom’s car,’ the girl says as he climbs in.
‘Isn’t that nice?’
It occurs to the girl that he might not have her welfare in mind, and she is glad. Inside his apartment everything is shabby and spare. She follows him down a tiny hallway, through a doorway with hinges but no door. The place smells strongly of a human body and of old oil and incense and the girl thinks she was right: he is like a witch.
In the bedroom he takes off his boots and coat and sits on the edge of the bed, which is a futon on a homemade platform. In place of a headboard, he has tacked a garland of dried flowers on the wall. ‘
Sit with me,’ he says and, in a movement that betrays his strength, which in turn betrays his masculinity, bundles her tightly onto his lap.The girl cannot locate her intelligence.
‘What…What did you do in school?’ she says. An outdated map of Europe and Asia hangs on the opposite wall and she looks at it.
‘I studied mushrooms,’ he says into her ear. A laugh percolates in the back of the girl’s throat and she gags. Mushrooms! His hair is so pungent she can hardly breathe. He has one hand on her waist and another on her thigh. She can feel his heartbeat against her back and his erection under the seat of her jeans.
Fear swells her desire until it forms a monstrous shape inside her. He has told her before: he is nearly thirty. She has never touched anyone’s breasts but her own, has never seen a penis in real life.
‘I call them skin-needles, because they poke you and prick you and fill you with goo,’ said the classmate whose father had raped her for years and then gone to prison. As she remembers this, the girl’s vagina opens and closes like a fist. It feels warm and alive, the opposite of a hole. Images of needles and meat and heavy, dangling fruits fill up her skull.
‘I have to pee,’ she says.
‘Hurry back.’ Frozen by sarcasm, his tone indicates this will be her only chance. No further overture will come from him. He releases her body from his grasp. Receptive and dominant, eyes closed, he lays himself back among the pillows. She imagines the secret fruit of his body—his penis like a big, weeping thumb behind his fly.
The bathroom is so cold that ice glazes the windowpanes above the tub. Stretch marks inside her thighs have turned purple. Between her knees, her underwear is slick and odourless. She tries to urinate but produces only a thin stream. Her neck hurts with the awareness that she has done nothing to deserve this opportunity and will do nothing to bring it to fulfilment. Her naïveté will not correspond to bravery. She knows that she will be home soon in the dark house with its sleeping mother, hysterically intact.