I held my mother’s face in my hands and tried not to drop it into the grey vacant lot below as I showed her the nothing view from my balcony. Can you see it? I asked, meaning: was I right to come here? The pixels of her face underwent a brief turbulence before settling again. She said: It’s beautiful. I wouldn’t go that far, I challenged. I juggled simultaneous conflicting desires: I wanted my mother’s approval yet resented and even scorned her interference. This had significantly damaged our relationship, but sometimes it resulted in moments of miscommunication so jarring it was comical. Fine, she replied, it’s hideous. It makes me want to cry. Sorry, she added, wincing. I know you don’t like that word. It’s unfortunate looking. How’s that? She often apologised to me personally when she insulted someone’s looks, as if I took offense on behalf of another member of my kind. It was her way of reminding me that she was beautiful and I wasn’t.
In her youth my mother had been a rather successful model. She spent long, boring hours waiting around and being told to smile, look up, play sexy, play dead. In primary school, at a time when children develop, expand, and learn how to break people from the inside, boys with holes in their eyes and girls without real voices would come up to me and tell me about her. I was shown images and videos of her on the internet from when she was young and, so she told me, could melt the face off her enemies and lovers alike with a glance. One video I remember showed a close up of her eyes blinking in dread slow motion; her lashes came down like whip cracks, her expression that of a doctor’s patient confused, almost indignant, about a diagnosis of impeccable health.
She never came out and said it, but the truth was that my untimely arrival had in some inalterable way ended her career. She called on old friends and contacts in the business, asking them for help, often over the phone, so that I could watch her expression barely hold itself together as the person on the other line carefully dismantled her hopes and dreams. I didn’t know exactly who my father was. Every birthday, until I hit sixteen, I would ask for her to tell me who the man was. She said things like, He’s a nobody, He’s a loser, He broke my heart and shoved the pieces down my fucking throat. I stopped asking when she started seeing J. I had figured there would be a time when I would have to turn away from home and, for me, it was when terms like ‘father’ and ‘safety’ enjoyed equal liberation from their supposed meaning. If, for whatever cruel reason, I was led to introspection, I envisaged myself as a creature of primitive instincts, one who would wake in the middle of the night, gather my things in a neat bundle and go. I would walk into bars populated by ruined men collapsed over their drinks, and I would utter phrases like ‘I left my man for the road’ or ‘I am a broken woman.’ Of course this wasn’t me and never could be. Instead I took off shortly after J moved in and enrolled myself at one of the many institutions in the city for over-educated, dreamless youths.
When I arrived I was given a choice of employment between butcher and administrator. Somehow the latter sounded more violent than the former, so I quickly became a butcher of mediocre talents. Customers would come in and point to specific cuts of meat, asking politely for me to eliminate fat, pluck out bones, or impale chunks of meat on long thin rods. I won’t lie: I sometimes took pleasure in deliberately mucking their order. More than once I handed over a bag of meats to a customer and watched them leave completely unaware of the cow’s heart sidling up against their chicken goujons, avuncular and invasive, bloodying the breadcrumbs. I preferred working out back in the refrigerated room, where I hacked away at the meat that hung from hooks. The process of de-familiarization was amazing to me. I wondered how my own body would look when stripped and laid bare before another. I thought it might look like a steak, and I was always amazed when it didn’t. Whenever it was my turn to close up shop, I took advantage of the empty space and tapped into my animal. I turned the lights off, went out back, got down on my hands and knees and bayed remorselessly, like I was the last of my species, like I was the last living thing. I nudged the frozen limbs of shadowy carcasses, and waited for their equilibrium to swing them back and nose me gently. This was intimacy.
I paid nightly visits to my reflection. I could only withstand the sight of it in certain schemes of light; in particular, the light that puts out blue paws along the concrete and slowly bruises the window. Naked, I would stand in front of the mirror and begin the inspection. My hands, hanging by my hips, would mobilise and rove around the landscape gently cast in blue. I didn’t know exactly what I was looking for. I resented the results that often came up on the internet—they were so closed-minded, so tied to logic, so lacking in imagination. Vaguely, and with no feeling, I cruised along my body, searching for a mouth where no mouth should be, a whispering hole, something, anything, at the very least a physical manifestation of what I believed to be my fatal illness, a thing upcoiled and undetected, clotted and suspended between my corset of bones. I took no pleasure in these events: the longer I looked at my body, the more it seemed to take on its own alien identity. It looked like it might slip out of view and twist into the night to tango with Francis Bacon’s grimacing misfits. More than once I willed it to. I toyed with the dream of ditching my body. Then again, I toyed with a lot of dreams, only some of them my own.
I was provided with earplugs but I preferred to sleep exposed to the world. I heard alarms, car horns, the distant, diligent thud of sentient machinery. The occupant in the room next to mine frequently rubbed our shared wall, with a hand I presume, and the scuffling noise registered deep within my body. It was not unusual for me to send out a searching hand; I imagined a hand meeting mine in silent, uproarious defiance of what some experts had dubbed the Death of Contact. I knew that one day I would find myself locked out, shut in the long corridor of shame with the lights blowing out one by one, and the hand that held my hand would suddenly squeeze, crush, and drag to bubbling depths. I had no plan for when that moment came. Perhaps it will never come, I sometimes thought, the way I sometimes closed my eyes during violence in a movie or in passing a beggar shivering in the cold.
There were weekly parties thrown to universal dread. They were supposed to encourage the construction of meaningful relationships between us, but what usually happened was far from meaningful, and only technically relational. I was not a talented dancer by any stretch of the imagination, but that did not stop me from stepping onto the dance floor, closing my eyes, and swinging my arms around, disco fingers wagging to the beat. Snake-hipped girls would swoosh past me, using their bodies in ways I envied hugely, and if they caught me looking at them they would snap shut and slink away. The males mostly looked like lost pedestrians. Others had the total disregard for scrutiny and an uninhibitedness that only children and natural disasters possess. Ida—the girl whom, after a while, I had come to suspect to be my neighbour—came up to me one night and asked me would I like to dance. Looking at her, one could almost hear the sound of her body uniting in seamless harmony, the contact of bone upon bone. I am dancing, I replied. She looked put out, so I fished around for her hand and reeled her in. Try to keep up, I laughed. After a few songs, I leaned in and asked her, Do you dream at night? All the time, she said. Of the walls coming down? I asked. We had both stopped dancing. She nodded. We stood there—for how long I don’t know—until the alarm rang out, the lights came on, the faces reverted to their habitual impassivity, and we were all dismissed. That night I lay awake until I heard the familiar scuffling along the wall. I could no longer tell if my eyes were shut or wide open.
She came into the butcher one day not long after our dance. Good evening, miss, I said. Why, hello there, you, she replied. I blushed mightily (what would the customers think! there were children present!) and bent my head so as not to betray the furious passion in my eyes. I watched her hands as she requested a large portion of mince. Would you be in the habit of dining alone, miss? I asked. She nodded, adding: It’s a filthy habit I’m trying to kick. I did not let her hands leave my sight: like fish in water they bobbed, waiting for me to follow them. Finally, I asked: In that case, I see it as my personal duty to share that mince with you. Our eyes met. Coins, forgotten, fell and startled several customers. All the air had been sucked out of the shop.
Every few days, usually in the evening, men would break free from their rooms and you could hear them walking down the hallways, knocking on doors with one hand, peering into the keyhole and asking to be let in. They did not care which room they entered. I knew not to let them in; when J moved in with me and my mother, I had learned to lock my door at night, or, if something was to be endured, to feign sleep and transport myself to a different body, a different world. It did not occur to me that not everyone had received such thorough education. It did not occur to me that one evening, while I lay cooling off by the window, Ida would open her door and let the wrong man in. Before I knew what was what I had burst into her room and howled at the man to leave her alone. He had a goofy grin and vacant eyes. Oh, he breathed, you want to join? Ida called him ugly names as I beat his head with my bunched up fists, and I looked at her over my shoulder. We smiled and continued our onslaught; we made a good team. Eventually the man left, or else he was wheeled out. Thank you, she said. I did not make to leave. She did not ask me to. That night I dreamt of walls coming down and it was not night and I was not dreaming.