We came across this story in the 2005 edition of the anthology Best New American Voices (Harcourt), which collects the finest unpublished writing from college writing programs and workshops around the country. We weren’t the only ones who fell in love with it, and by the time we inquired about a reprint, it was already part of Eric Puchner’s first collection of short fiction, Music through the Floor (Scribner). We’re reprinting it here for the benefit of readers who haven’t yet discovered Puchner’s unique voice. “Essay #3: Leda and the Swan” is excerpted from Music through the Floor, by Eric Puchner. © 2005 by Eric Puchner. It appears here by permission of Scribner, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, Inc., New York, NY.
Although the swan is not a delicate creature like a butterfly, and is not cuddly and cute like a kitten, it is a living thing that can feel pain and hunger just like any other living creature. In “Leda and the Swan,” by William Butler Yeats, a perverted sort of swan ends up performing sexual intercourse with a loose girl named Leda. The motive of the swan is shown when he performs only a few foreplays, like caressing her “thighs” and gripping her “helpless breast,” before revealing his “feathered glory.”1 He’s got only one thing on his mind: shuddering his loins. This swan is clearly a sex-starved animal that doesn’t belong in Ireland, let alone a city park! In this essay, I will argue that Mr. Yeats is actually a mentally ill person who lives poetically through swans and furthermore knows nothing about swans and their gentile mating habits.
First of all, Mr. Yeats is a mentally ill person who lives poetically through swans. I know this for a fact because my older sister, Jeanie, is mentally ill and used to write poems about animals before she ran away from home to become a missing person. However, since she isn’t a pervert, the poems were not about intercoursing swans. Instead, they were about animals we see on our tables every day. One of the poems (which I still have) goes like this:
Cow, what do you chew? Big peace, bothering no one Who later chews you.2
This is not an American poem, because it has syllables. In fact, it is a haiku, which is a popular form of expression in Japan. Jeanie wrote this after I stole her boyfriend and she started to become mentally ill. Mentally ill people come in many different guises, and for Jeanie the guise was Veganism, a religion where you can’t eat eggs or dairy products, such as cows. Like many poets, she has a soul that she wants to communicate with others and liked to put her poems on the refrigerator for everyone to read. Unfortunately, my stepfather, Franz, does not have the soul of a poet, especially if we’re having stroganoff for dinner. Franz would often get angry and make many remarks about cows being more stupid than chickens. Franz grew up on a farm in Bavaria and knows a lot about the stupidity of animals. One poem, in particular, seemed to upset him very much:
Turkey, my cousin We fail to be beautiful Punishment: oven.3
Franz was upset because he felt like Thanksgiving dinner wasn’t the best time for the reading of poetry, especially when he was eating a wing belonging to the protagonist of the poem. He said that Jeanie and the turkey must really be related if she would ruin a family get-together by reading a poem about the stupidest animal on Earth. Franz said that turkeys were so stupid you couldn’t leave them out in the rain or else they’d drown. In fact, his family had lost a perfectly good turkey in Bavaria because his father had left it out in a thunderstorm by accident. Jeanie asked him if we should kill retarded people too because they’re less intelligent than us, and Franz said no, we should leave them out in the rain first and see what happens. This made me laugh, but Jeanie didn’t think it was very funny. She called him a Nazi. This was very bad, and mentally ill, because Franz is not a Nazi even though he thinks Germany’s the best country in the world.
Actually, Jeanie was upset because I’d invited Colin, her ex-boyfriend, to dinner. I didn’t feel too bad because they’d only dated for two months before Colin dumped her, and surely Jeanie should have seen the perfect destiny of our match. Later Colin told me the truth, which was that he’d only gotten to know Jeanie in the first place because he was in love with me on account of my facial beauty. I can tell you right now that my sister’s not so facially victorious. She’s got our dad’s nose, which is a shame because my mom’s been married three times since my dad and all of our stepfathers have had noses that didn’t say from across the street hello I’m a nose.
Anyway, Colin’s dumping her for my less-visible features may have had something to do with Jeanie’s mental collapse. Poets are very unstable people who often go crazy or die, and I should say that Colin is very handsome and popular and we were all surprised when he decided to date Jeanie in the first place. He is in a band called Salacious Universe and has long hair and these perfect gold arms like when you put honey on toast (except there aren’t usually hairs in your toast). He is a construction worker on the weekends and looking at his arms kind of makes me wiggle my toes in an unvolunteering way until my sandals fall off. The wiggling was inaugurated at my first Salacious Universe concert. As it turned out, Jeanie couldn’t go to the concert because she was attending a Vegan rally in front of the Safeway near our house. The concert was in the school auditorium (maybe you remember, Mr. Patterson, the flyers with Colin’s hands shooting thunderbolts?), and I went with my friends Tamara and Tamara. It’s a little weird how they have the same name, but neither of them wants to be called Tammy or Tams or Mara or any nickname I can think of because that would mean the other one got to keep their real name and she didn’t.
So we were waiting for Salacious Universe to come out, sitting in the front row actually, when Colin pranced onto the stage like a two-legged deer and picked up this guitar he has with a bumper sticker on it that says FEAR ME, BRETHREN. It was very hot in the auditorium, and I could smell the aroma of many armpits rafting in my direction. After the cheering died down, Colin started singing and his face kind of went fierce and angry and these very sexy wrinkles formed between his eyebrows. I said Tamara and she said what and I said no, Tamara, and she said what and I said isn’t he the most incredible human being of the male persuasion on planet Earth and she said yeah I don’t know what he sees in Jeanie the haikuist freak. Salacious Universe plays speed-metal music, which if you don’t know is very difficult and requires you to change fingers all the time. They started right away to perform masterpieces and I knew immediately that I was destined to live my life with Colin Sweep, lead singer of Salacious Universe. The only problem was Jeanie, but I tried not to be a victim of negative thinking and dwell on the fact that she was dating my destiny. Colin is an idiot savant, which means he could play music with better lyrics than William Butler Yeats even though he was failing trigonometry, chemistry, American history, Spanish, and (far as I know) this class as well. In any case, Colin had us all riveted to his lips as he sang the chorus to one of his tour de forces:
All you mortals, I can and will bend Cuz I’m the father of gods and men!4
Believe me, everyone was screaming and wanting to intercourse him if they were either female or homosexual.
Then something happened that wasn’t in the program. Right when Colin was achieving the height of his genius, there was a blackout and everything went dark. You could hear the band playing in the dark, but the electricity was gone and it was just a ghost sound and not the real thing, like when you’re talking to your step-grandparents in Germany and your voice comes back to you all small and distant on the phone. Then the lights went on again and Colin was shocked. I mean “shocked” in the electrical sense, because the microphone made a weird zapping sound and Colin’s hair stood up into a punk-rock hairstyle and he flew across the stage like a migrant bird. Everyone was concerned about his general health, including me, and I ran up onstage to give him mouth-to-mouth. By the time I got there, though, he’d already half recovered and was blinking into space with a very sedated expression that said I’m having a one-on-one interview with the light.
That’s how we ended up backstage, me and Tamara and Tamara. We were delighted to be official Salacious Universe groupies, even though I was clearly the main one and they were really just groupies of me. It was cooler behind the stage and I furthered the recovery of Colin’s head by resting it against a papier-mâché stump. He knew who I was, of course, but I had to introduce him to the Tamaras since they were persistent in their appearance. He found it supremely cool that they had the same name, and Tamara and Tamara were both sort of nonplucked because they did not secretly believe it was cool at all. Tamara asked him why the song was called “Pagan Liver” since it had nothing to do with body parts, and he explained that it wasn’t supposed to be a part of the body at all but a person who lives, like you’re a Pagan and you live that way.
After packing up his stuff, Colin asked me if I wanted to walk with him to the pay phone on the other side of campus. (I didn’t offer my cellphone, because I’d never walked even a few feet with a famous guitarist.) The stars were shining like distant balls of gas, and you could see the janitors sitting on the roof of the library, sharing a cigarette. It was all very peaceful and beautiful with the janitors talking in Spanish and the imported words floating on top of our heads. Everything was really quiet except for the inside of Colin’s pocket, which jingled with coins on account of his pinball-playing habit. That was when he told me that he liked the way I looked. His hair was still sticking magically from his head, all bright and glowing, like each hair was partaking in photosynthesis from the moon. He said he was going to call Jeanie and tell her he couldn’t take her to Hailu’s Tofu Palace because something had come up, something unexpected, without telling her of course it was a secret crush on my face.
But then something truly unexpected happened. When he tried to put a quarter in the pay phone, it refused to part from his finger. He shook his hand, but the quarter just remained there, magnetically attracted to his skin. Colin looked kind of worried and then stuck his hand in his pocket again and pulled it out and there were quarters stuck to each of his fingers, like a mini-family of George Washingtons with very long necks. Of course, it scared me a little that his fingers could behave so strangely. After a minute, Colin’s face sort of changed, and he got this weird grin and wiggled his fingers and they glittered in the moonlight. He touched one of the coin-fingers to my mouth, which caused a tiny spark to enter my lips and electrocute the butterflies in my stomach. I have to admit, it was spooky and frightening and very breathtaking but also the most exciting thing that has happened in my life up till now.5
So that was how I ended up stealing Jeanie’s boyfriend. I know it isn’t cool to steal other people’s boyfriends, especially if those people are your flesh-and-bones sister, and as a general rule I try to avoid it — but this was destiny and you only get one chance to fill it or else it flaps away into the starry universe. When I got home from the concert, I found Jeanie waiting on the porch in her favorite skirt and leather-free high heels. I realized that Colin had forgotten to call her on account of his fingers being so talented. Because I’m a very honest person, I told her in a considerate way that Colin had fallen in love with me, that he was very sorry for the misunderstanding about dating her to begin with. Jeanie just stared at me with this little smirk on her face, like she was experiencing some gas in her stomach. Jeanie’s got these very smirkable bee-stung lips that kind of complement the humongous bee that must have stung her nose. She had an unburning cigarette in her hand and she started to tear off little pieces from the end of it, sprinkling the pieces on the porch like she was trying to grow a tobacco tree. (Even though she’s a Vegan, she smokes about five hundred cigarettes in her bathroom every day, which seems a little contradicting to her cause.) This was about when I started to appreciate her mental illness. I mean, if you’re mentally all right, and you’ve just found out that your boyfriend’s dumped you for your sister, possibly because you’re nasally obese, then wouldn’t you be a little upset? An hour later, when I went downstairs to get some water before bed, I looked through the window and saw Jeanie sitting out there in the exact same place as before, hunched there in her skirt, even though Franz said it was cold enough to freeze the testicles off a brass monkey.
Jeanie didn’t speak to me at all until Thanksgiving, when I invited Colin to the house and she read her Vegan haiku out loud before taping it to the refrigerator. To be honest, I was very hesitant to invite Colin at all, not only on account of Jeanie but because my mom is not a very gifted cook and likes to serve Bavarian carp salad as a tribute to Franz’s ancestors. After Jeanie called him a Nazi, we were all sitting there very much alarmed because she stomped around the room and said “Hi Hitler!” until our plates shook and the saltshaker tipped over on the table. I knew she was really directing her Nazi-bashing at me and Colin, even though she’d ignored both of us since the beginning of dinner. She was wearing a Salacious Universe T-shirt with no bra underneath and her hair was very oily and Jamaican-looking. Franz grabbed her by the arm and forced her to sit down, saying he’d have her delivered to a mental institution if she didn’t stop mistaking his identity. Hitler was a very evil man, but my stepfather is just a bald person who owns a tire shop and likes to watch women’s volleyball on Channel 39. My mom was incredibly pleasureless because she’d made Jeanie a special turkey-free dinner with Not Dogs and thought it would be nice to put some gravy on them, not thinking that gravy is made from the destruction of living creatures and their boiled necks. She finished her glass of white wine and started to get very sympathetic with the turkey’s plight, apologizing to the neckless bird when Franz broke off a wing or a drumstick. We all kind of lost our appetites, even Franz, who just sat there silently chewing without looking at anyone.
Jeanie looked at me for the first time and then picked up a knife from the table and pointed it in my direction. Her face was very decomposed, and for a second I thought she might try to stab me. But then she turned to Colin and said that he was a slut who only cared about getting intercoursed and didn’t he remember how she’d written all of his songs anyway and what was he going to do now, since he couldn’t even spell gargoyle? What about moving to Hollywood and being speed metalists together, like they’d planned? She was kind of smirking and crying at the same time. It’s true that they were friends before they’d started to date, but I didn’t believe that she’d written any of his Salacious Universe masterpieces, even though he did look a little sad when she insulted his spelling. Obviously, Jeanie was just tortured with jealousy. I can’t help it if I’m genetically attractive and have perfect skin and hazel eyes.6 Sometimes she reminds me of Othello in the book we read by William Shakespeare, even though he was a mentally ill African American with no real reason to act that way.
The next day Colin took me to get a tattoo, my first ever, which I designed myself because I wanted something totally original if I was going to beautify my ankle on a permanent basis. Of course I didn’t tell Jeanie, who avoided me the whole week, even when she came downstairs one night to watch a sleep-inducing documentary about the Animal Liberation Front. I couldn’t help noticing that she was boycotting brassieres as well as meat. When the scab came off my ankle, though, I was so excited that I forgot about Jeanie’s green-eyed jealousy and actually stopped her in the hall to show it to her. She lost her smirk for a second and seemed genuinely very surprised. After a brief silence, we had a conversation that I’ve tried to record here for prosperity:
JEANIE: You received a tattoo of a TV set?
ME: It is not a TV set. It’s a cobra.
JEANIE: I know I’m a mentally ill person who suffers from hallucinations, but it looks just like a TV.
ME: In reality, the cobra is coiled up in a basket. Like a snake charmer’s. That’s its head.
JEANIE: Why the [intercourse] does it have antenna?
ME: Those are bolts of electricity. From its eyes.
JEANIE: Ha ha ha ha! (mentally ill laughter)
Obviously, this was all it took for me to reach a sad conclusion about Jeanie’s mental future. To make things worse, she started to entertain nighttime visitors in her bedroom without anyone’s permission. This was very sluttish and maybe could have been prevented by medication, which makes it even sadder. Since my mom and Franz are very leftist and allow us to have visitors whenever we like, and there’s a staircase that basically leads right up to Jeanie’s room from the back door, our slut prevention is not as implemented as it could be. Over the next few weeks, when I got up in the middle of the night to visit the restroom, I’d stop sometimes in the hall and hear sounds of nature coming through the door of Jeanie’s room. These sounds of nature consisted of Jeanie and some boy intercoursing between the sheets. Or else, if they weren’t intercoursing, I’d hear them talking in a private way that I couldn’t hear. I knew she wasn’t dating anyone at school, which means she was performing a major exhibition of her vagina. I must have heard her with six or seven partners. It’s very sad, Mr. Patterson, but I didn’t like imagining my sister and some stranger making a beast with two backs.7
A couple weeks after Thanksgiving, I asked Colin if Jeanie had ever been a slut with him, because frankly it was bothering my peace of mind quite a bit. We were sitting behind the Church, which was Colin’s name for the big electric plant where we sometimes went to pet heavily in his Wagoneer. It did kind of look like a church, with its big voltage things sticking up like spires, but I felt like Colin meant it another way as well. Like there was something churchy about its relationship to his head. He looked at me all serious with his face shining in the lights from the electric plant and said he wasn’t interested in intercoursing Jeanie, that he’d been waiting for her beautiful younger sister to turn sixteen, which made me feel better to the third degree. Then he said he wanted to show me something special. I was in reality a little nervous because of his incredible manliness, and because his eyes were gleaming in a weird way from the sulfur lights, like those reflector things on the pedals of a bike, but then he looked down and started to undo the buttons of his shirt with one hand in a very sexy method.
I was very stunned by what I saw. Starting near Colin’s Adam’s apple, and getting longer with each button he undid, was a big scar dissecting his otherwise perfect breasts and going all the way down to his bellybutton. It looked like a little pink snake crawling down his chest. He told me that when he was eight years old he had become very sick and unable to breathe, and that the doctors had had to give him open-heart surgery and repair his heart. What they did is take one of his valves out and put in a new one, except the new one was bionic and made of metal. I put my head to his chest, because he told me to, and I heard the buzzing of the electric plant all around us but also a little sound under Colin’s ribs, a secret ticking in his heart, like a watch when you put it up to your ear. It made me very sad and amazed. I asked him if he was still in any danger, but he told me that his new valve worked perfectly as long as he didn’t go bungee jumping or scuba diving in some really great barrier reef. I closed my eyes and didn’t see Colin the famous singer of Salacious Universe but Colin the sick boy who couldn’t breathe, a little shivering boy thinking he might not live past age whichever, sitting by himself in the cafeteria or library or boys’ locker room, and it made my insides melt into Natalie soup. That’s when I said I thought I was in love with him. Colin looked at me very carefully, like he was deep in thought and maybe remembering the suffering of his childhood. Then he said that he didn’t ordinarily do this, not after knowing me such a short time, but that he felt an “electroaffinity” between us and thought that we should finalize our love in the back of the car, especially since the Wagoneer had collapsible seats.
The truth is, I was a virgin and therefore the anti-Jeanie, but I didn’t really want to admit it out loud. I didn’t want to intercourse anyone who didn’t love me in the biggest, most eternal way possible. I told Colin I wasn’t ready to go all the way, and he kind of smile-frowned and said that he loved me, he just wanted to prove it to me — that’s all it was, a way of proving his love — but I said it was extremely important to me and I needed time to think about it before yielding to his loins. I got home late that night, because Mom wants to empower us with our own curfews, and then stopped in front of Jeanie’s door, listening for sounds of sexual abandonment. I knew Jeanie was a mentally ill slut, but I felt kind of bad because we used to be best friends when we were kids and now she was just a human sex appliance with no moral fibers. I remembered how we used to play orphanage every day and pretend to scrub the floors to please the evil housemother, two orphans with very miserable histories, but then we’d escape from the orphanage and find a tree to sleep under in the backyard and sneak back into the house like it was a rich person’s mansion, filling pillowcases with whatever things we could steal, candlesticks and spaghetti tongs and big hunks of cheese. We’d sit under the tree and take each stolen thing out one at a time, saying Oh how beautiful! until we were close to tears.
I saw that Jeanie’s light was on and knocked on the door and she opened it in an extra-small T-shirt, one of those slut shirts that have numbers on them like football jerseys. She stood there smirking in that mental way, holding her stuffed hippopotamus under one arm like she was performing a touchdown. She asked me what I wanted and I told her I just wanted to see how she was, which was actually kind of true, though I also wanted to know if she could tell me anything about Colin’s sexual résumé. She didn’t invite me into her room so we stood there in the hall. I wanted to ask her if she remembered being kids, how we used to cry like stupid babies over spaghetti tongs, just to turn her mouth into something less smirky — but I didn’t, of course. Instead I peered into her eyes and asked her if she loved the boys she intercoursed, except I used a less ethical word.
She seemed very unshocked and even laughed. Love’s a joke, she said. Do you think Mom loves Franz? Do you think the President loves the First Lady? Do you think anybody loves anybody? I told her that love had to exist. Why else would people keep getting married all the time? Jeanie seemed to find this very smirk-inducing. Mom’s been married four times — do you think she ended up loving any of them? How many of your friends’ parents are still married? I didn’t know what to say to that. It’s true that almost all of them are divorced: Tamara’s parents are divorced, and so are Tamara’s, and actually I couldn’t think of any original parents who seemed very much in love. And certainly Mom hasn’t excelled in the romance category, seeing how we’ve had a new stepdad every four years — and now she and Franz’s heads weren’t exactly over their heels either, if you take into consideration that they yelled at each other every night about who should have put gas in the car or did she recycle the newspaper article about American children having lower IQ scores than Europe.
Still, I felt like I had to defend the most important part of my life, even if I had my own doubts about the future. I looked Jeanie in the eyeballs and told her that anyway I was in love, and that nothing else mattered. This actually did end Jeanie’s smirk, because she looked at me kind of like she was the rich mother of the mansion pitying a starving girl orphan. She dropped her head a little bit and said that she needed to tell me something about Colin, that he’d never actually broken up with her completely. In fact, ever since Thanksgiving, he’d been visiting her room in the middle of the night while I was asleep! It wasn’t just to relieve his loins either: they’d talk until morning sometimes, about the universe and its general lack of meaning and how they were the only people at school who knew that we were all just animals. He could never dump her for good, because their brains were conjoined. Jeanie was staring at Hippo and wouldn’t meet my eye, and really I had to guess that she was speaking to me at all.
You don’t even know what’s real! I said.
I felt very depressed after our conversation, even though I knew Jeanie was extremely diluted and making up stories. I went downstairs to see if I could locate my mother. Instead I found Franz sitting in the TV room watching beach volleyball on Channel 39 and eating a carton of Häagen-Dazs vanilla-fudge ice cream. He did what he always did when I discovered him watching women’s volleyball, which was to get a blushing face and then tell me how he enjoyed the game of volleyball because of its “strategic nuance.” I didn’t see much strategic nuance, whatever that means, except that the players kept having to brush sand from their buttocks after they dove, which meant that there were four buttocks on each side to de-sand. I sat down with Franz to try to appreciate the game of volleyball, but when I asked him what the score was he said he wasn’t sure.
So I went upstairs and knocked on my mother’s door. As usual, she was drinking white wine because of her nerve-wrecking marriage and lying in bed with the covers pulled up to her waist. I asked her if she was all right, and she said that yes, of course she was all right, if you call being married to a Nazi tire salesman with one ball all right, then I should send my congratulations to Eva Braun. I had no idea what she was talking about, at least with the congratulations part, and I was worried that she might be getting mentally ill like my sister because I’d heard about these things running in the family. She asked me if I knew who else had one testicle, and I said no, and she said Hitler! I was very upset that Franz had the same testicles as Adolf Hitler, because I wasn’t even aware that he was disabled. I wanted to make her feel better, so I crouched beside her and took her glass of wine away and then kind of tucked her into bed like she used to do when I was a girl. It’s a weird thing, tucking in your own mother, and I don’t really recommend it unless you’re a professional nurse and have a diploma in drunk-mother-tucking. Before I turned off the lights, I asked her why she’d married Franz to begin with, was she in love with him, and she looked at me sadly and said she didn’t remember now if she ever was, wasn’t that the bee’s knees?
I went into my own room after that and took out this picture I have of my father, my real and un-German one, who died when I was six in a car accident. I sat down at my desk and took it out of the CD case I keep it in and held it at the corners so I wouldn’t vandalize it with fingerprints. In the picture, my dad and I are in a boat together, one of those ferries you can take to Alcatraz to avoid the sharks. He looks young and very smart in his glasses, and you can see this funny detail above the enormousness of his nose, how his eyebrows kind of join forces in a unibrow. I sat there at my desk and stared at the picture for a long time. Our hair is levitating from the wind, which seems very fierce and bone-chilling, and by the way I’m tucked into my father’s lap it looks like he’s protecting me from the cold.
The next evening, Colin and I went to Mr. Pizza Man so he could play pinball on his favorite machine, which had a scoreboard featuring women in costumes from the future and very true-to-breast cleavages. I sat in one of the booths, watching him dominate the machine with his perfect skills. Then we drove to the Church like always and parked in front of the big transformer with the sulfur lights brightening the sky and putting the stars out of business. He tried to pet me for a while, but I guess I wasn’t in the mood because I didn’t return his advances in a right-away fashion. He stopped advancing and frowned for a second and then looked at me seriously, his eyes shining in that weird way they had. That was when he told me about his secret powers. He made me promise not to tell anyone and then explained that he could see into the future before it happened, which was why he could play pinball forever without losing a coin. He knew the itinerary of the pinball before it occurred. I was very startled and didn’t speak for a long time. I asked him if he could see into my future like the pinball’s. He said yes, he could see my whole life and even beyond that, but that the knowledge was in his body and the only way to share it was to pass it directly. The Gift, he called it. I didn’t really believe him, but probably I was so in love with his Colinness that it didn’t matter what was true or not. I thought for a long time, about how he used to be a sick boy with no power even to give his heart enough kilowatts to beat, and about how I thought of him twenty-four hours a day until I couldn’t sleep, and how if I knew my future for real, I might stop being so scared about everything in this great and mysterious world founded by God — about my own helpless feeling and my mom being an unrecovering alcoholic and Jeanie being mentally ill when she used to be my friend — and then I told him that next Saturday, not the coming one but a week from then, December 18, 2004, I’d be ready in my room at 9 P.M. sharp.
That week, I was totally aside myself. I must have been wearing Colin goggles that I couldn’t remove because everywhere I looked he seemed to be coming toward me, kind of scary and beautiful-looking at the same time. I couldn’t get him out of my thoughts. On Wednesday I went to Open School Night with Mom and Jeanie, which was very challenging because Jeanie and I weren’t on one of our speaking terms and we had to meet all the teachers while pretending to be a happy family unpopulated by sluts and alcoholics. Perhaps, Mr. Patterson, you remember talking to us?8 I kept looking around at the other families on the basketball court and seeing Colin’s face attached to some distant boy’s neck, even though I knew he wasn’t coming on account of his own parents being in Hawaii. When the boy turned out to be a stranger, I’d Colinize someone else’s face instead. There were about a million families all squeezed into the arena, and I watched all the married couples following behind their offspring or step-offspring and it suddenly seemed like Jeanie was right, like it was just some meaningless random thing who intercoursed who, like the moms and dads had just picked whoever was around because they were too lonely or desperate or sex-crazed to wait. It’s really weird, but I had this Jeanie-ish idea like maybe we were in a giant barnyard.
When Saturday finally arrived, I couldn’t wait all day in my room without becoming mentally ill myself, so I drove to the construction site in El Cerrito where Colin was working. It was a very warm day for December, and I parked behind a trailer where no one could see me. Colin was up there on top of the house he was building, kneeling like a Japanese person and hammering nails into a two-by-four made of wood. A radio on the ground was blasting hard rock from the eighties, all metal all the time, so I don’t think anyone heard me pull up. It was kind of weird that Colin was working, because I saw the other guys on the crew taking their lunch break on the gates of their pickups in a very chummy manner. Colin had his shirt off, and when I first saw him from the back, the way his muscles kind of remained invisible until he bent down to hammer a nail and they came up like a secret promise to Natalie Mudbrook, a volt of longing went through me and all my doubts about intercourse were exploded. It didn’t matter to me that I was only 99 percent sure of his devotion. I fantasized that Colin and I were already married and that he was building us a house, a big beautiful mansion where we could live out our days in endless eternity.
And then something very strange occurred. This woman walked by in one of those running tops that show your bellybutton, walking a big dog in front of her, and the crew started yelling at her in this very discriminating manner. They were wiggling their tongues and making their hammers into phallic symbols and even performing air intercourse. I glanced up at Colin and wondered if he’d come to her rescue, because I knew he was very respecting of women. Instead, he put his hand on his sewn-up heart and called her a mamacita in Spanish and asked for her phone number in this loud voice that everyone could hear. Of course, I knew that he was just trying to impress his co-workers, that he didn’t really want the little mama’s number at all, but it gave me this weird feeling like my own heart was struggling to beat.
I left the construction site and drove around for a long time, sort of without knowing where I was going, like a ghost or something, until finally I stopped at a random Burger King for a Pepsi. I sat in one of the booths by myself and stared through the open window at the neon sign, which said HOME OF THE WHOPPER in big buzzing letters. I remember thinking how everything was supposed to have a home, even the Whopper, but what if you weren’t the Whopper but just a girl whose mom and stepfather couldn’t get along and everyone you saw or loved — even a beautiful boy you were about to intercourse in a couple hours — seemed to belong to a secret home somewhere you couldn’t find? I mean it was out there, but no one had bothered to tell you where it was? So you had to go and sit in the Whopper’s home instead, like a burglar.
When it was dark, I drove around some more to unwind my head and then went up the back way of the house like always, passing by Jeanie’s room on the way to my own. I was feeling a desperate need to talk to her and started to knock on her door, but then I heard her plowing her slutdom and froze in midknock. I pressed my ear against the door. Jeanie was talking to someone in a strange voice, kind of loud and whispery at the same time, like she was trying to melt an ice cube in her teeth. Now and then a deep voice would interrupt her in a very personal fashion. It wasn’t a slut-a-thon, I realized, but just a conversation. Then the deep voice said something and she laughed. It was a woman’s laugh, un-girl-like and beautiful. The weird thing is, I felt kind of jealous. Not because I wanted to be a full-time premier slut, or because a boy had never made me laugh like that — but because I wanted to be the one making her laugh. Then whoever it was she was talking to got up and walked around and I lost my breath for a minute, because his shuffles were united with a faint sort of jingling, like coins.
I went to my room and lay in bed, trying not to think about nine o’clock almost arriving. It was storming pretty hard outside, and for some reason I thought about all those turkeys stuck out in the rain, all soaked and miserable, drowning maybe because they didn’t know enough to get out of it. It made me very sad. There was this little worm of rain moving on the window, kind of wriggling for no reason, and I watched it for a long time.
Then I heard a knock and the room’s energy changed completely. The energy collected around my body and seeped into my own skin too, like I was a giant battery getting charged. Everything seemed connected: the rain squirming, my heart pounding, the earth turning on its axle. Colin opened the door. He looked more beautiful than I’d ever seen him, face glowing with confidence and his hair kind of floating around him like a commercial. His clothes were only a little damp, despite the undry weather. I was very scared. He walked over to the bed and knelt beside my face. He didn’t say a word, just reached down and touched my lips, which made my eyelids sparkle at a very high frequency. I knew I wouldn’t stop him from transmitting me the Gift. He stood up all of a sudden and walked over to the window — I guess to close the curtains so no one would witness my conduction. His jeans were kind of slipping down like usual, and I could see this strip of skin below his tan line that was all bumpy and wrinkled from the elastic force of his boxers. I imagined it was one of those Braille messages for blind people to touch that said BELOW THIS LINE IS THE REST OF YOUR LIFE.
But just as Colin was turning around to come back to bed, we heard a sound on the stairs that sounded like my mother’s coughing lungs. This was very unusual, because she almost never came to visit me, and when she did it was generally during the daytime when I wasn’t being deflowered. But sure enough, her steps began coming up the stairs. For a second, I just lay there like an embalmed person. Then I grabbed Colin’s arm and put him in the closet, telling him to wait there until the coast was cleared.
I was glad to see my mom wasn’t completely drunk yet, because she didn’t have the sniffling nose and bare feet she got when she was inebriated. There was just a frizz of gray hair like a piece of tinsel hanging into her eyes for Christmas. She walked over to the bed and looked at me with a sad expression. She said she was sorry, and I said what for? and she didn’t say anything but just kind of looked around the room, like she sensed Colin’s energy. Then she bent down and hugged me. I held her back and didn’t let go right away. Her hair was soft, and I could smell the maximum dandruff control of the Head & Shoulders she uses. She said, My god, sweetie, you’re trembling like a leaf. I wanted to ask her some questions about what it was like to be a full-grown woman with gray hairs in your face. Like, had a man ever solved her problems even for a week? Was being a woman, at least, something to look forward to? But I didn’t. I just hugged her until I could feel her heart beating through my sweater. I was squeezing pretty hard because she eventually had to peel my arms from her neck on account of her historic back trouble.
And then she left, except I didn’t tell Colin that she was gone right away. Instead I just lay there by myself and thought about this song Jeanie and I used to sing, the one with the double intenders in it. “Miss Lucy,” it was called. I lip-synched it in my head, picturing us under our favorite tree and clapping each other’s hands in a fast-motion rhythm like we used to:
Ask me no more questions, I’ll tell you no more lies, The boys are in the bedroom, pulling down their . . . Flies are in the meadow, bees are in the park, The boys and girls are kissing in the . . . D-A-R-K D-A-R-K D-A-R-K Dark Dark Dark
When I was a kid, I always loved the ending, how you spelled out “dark” with all its letters, like you didn’t want the song to end and spelling the last word was a way of putting it off for as long as you could. Sometimes, when my mom used to tuck me into bed, I tried to do the same thing in actual life and spell out the words of whatever I saw in my room, saying the letters in my brain, like it could maybe stop her from leaving and turning off the lights. C-L-O-S-E-T. There was a noise against the door, like the rustle-around of an animal. C-L-O-S-E-T. Soon I would know everything. C-L-O-S-E-T. I stared at the thing I didn’t want to say, listening for Colin’s breath behind the door, trying in my wildest brain to imagine what he’d look like when it opened.
Love exists. It has to.
I’m sorry, Mr. Patterson. I know I’m going to fail this essay, and probably the whole course, but it seems like William Butler Yeats has a lot of very talented groupies to explain his poem — but who’s ever going to explain my story except me? Who’d ever waste their precious time to sign up for Natalie Mudbrook 101?
It’s been two months now since Jeanie and Colin disappeared. Franz thinks they were in a conspiracy and ran off together, but perhaps it’s just an accident that they vanished at the same time. My mom and Franz filed a Missing Jeanie report with the police, even though her duffel bag is gone and she clearly packed up her own things because she remembered to take Hippo with her. Some guys at school say that Colin kidnapped her and took advantage of her mental unfitness, or else that they’re both crazy and made a suicide pact like those Davidist people in Texas. But I try not to listen to anyone else. Sometimes I think about Colin’s face that night after we’d become single backs again, when it wasn’t so wild and unhuman but more like a little boy’s in the hospital, looking sad and far off and not known by anyone — which was the way I was feeling too. On the weekends, I drive out to the construction site where he used to work and watch the crew nailing our house together. I just sit there in the car, watching it get taller every week. Sometimes I close my eyes for sixty seconds like a game, imagining that when I open them again I’ll see Colin walking toward me with his long hair and tool belt and glowing tan arms, the house finished and waiting to be peopled with newlyweds, like a movie version of my destiny.
But the weird thing is, with my eyes closed, I don’t see Colin at all. I see Jeanie’s brown eyes and size-challenged nose, which aren’t the movie features I was thinking about. We’re sitting in the half-built house, all hunched together because of the wind, pulling candlesticks and egg slicers and curtain-tier-uppers out of a pillowcase. Our eyes are crying at the beautiful objects. That’s how I know Jeanie’s really just run off like an orphan, except this time for real — that she’s waiting under a tree somewhere, living out of her duffel like a duffel-bag lady, except I don’t know where.
Other times, I drive up to the city and hang out in the park, watching the ducks and swans swim around in the little lake next to the paddle-boat dock. The swans are very peaceful and not at all like William Butler Yeats describes in his poetry. Perhaps they have “strange hearts,” but how would you know without performing surgery?9 I’ve never actually seen the swans intercourse, but I can tell that their mating habits are not perverted or interracial when it comes to humans. I look at how beautiful they are with their swan-shaped bodies and necks like question marks and imagine that there’s a daughter growing inside of me already. I know I’ll have a girl because of the Gift, which gets stronger and more giftlike every day. For example, I know she’s going to be very beautiful, like Helen Troy, who launched a thousand ships with her face. I know for certain that no one will ever want to disappear without telling her. And I know just as certainly that she’ll be famous and worshiped in the chests of strangers, that men will fight over her and even meet tragic endings.
Meanwhile, Franz hides in the TV room after dinner, and my mom complains to me every night while I tuck her in, and the elm in the backyard where Jeanie and I used to play is invested with bugs.
I wonder, Mr. Patterson, if you can change something that’s not assembled yet. If you know the future, can you keep it from happening? The Gift is very strong, but actually it hasn’t come all at once like you’d think. Instead, I’ll be sitting in European-history class with my eyes half closed from boredom, or just staring out the window of my room while Tamara bitches about Tamara on the phone, and suddenly I’ll see a whole scene flash through my head, a perfect smellable dream-picture except I’m awake, like I could walk into my own brain and take a photograph. Sometimes they’re people I don’t recognize, but usually it’s someone I know pretty well or at least have seen before in my regular life. I’m trying to make sense of the dream-pictures as they come. Like my mom with a black eye and slippers on her feet, hiding on the roof of our house while it’s raining out. Or Rogelio, the school janitor, staring out the window of an airplane with his hands trembling a little bit under the tray table in its unlocked and downright position. Or one that I’ve seen more than once, which is Jeanie lying totally alone in an apartment somewhere without furniture, her ear pressed to the rug and listening to music through the floor. She’s wearing one of her extra-small T-shirts with stains under the arms, like maybe she hasn’t changed it for a while, but she’s smiling with this little-girl look like the music is the Secret of Everything and making her extremely happy, reminding her of something else, like maybe the secret really has to do with the past and not the future, but I can’t get close enough in my head to hear it.
Or sometimes even you, Mr. Patterson. Take right now, for example. I can see you sitting in your office at school, reading this essay before I’m even finished with it. You’re holding a coffee mug that says READ BANNED BOOKS. Your office is very cold and sweet-smelling, because you just finished smoking a pipe filled with illicit marijuana buds that you hide in your glasses case (you blew the smoke out the window to prevent your being narced on by another teacher’s nose). I’ve never noticed from the back row of class, but your eyebrows kind of connect into one. I see that you’re wondering, as you read, how much you smoked. That the hair on the back of your neck is tingling. That you’re finishing my essay. Right this second. And that you might even know now who I am.
1. William Butler Yeats, Selected Poems and Three Plays (New York: Macmillan, 1986), lines 2–6. (back)
2. Jeanie Mudbrook, “Cow Song,” lines 1–3. (back)
3. Mudbrook, “Ugliness,” lines 1–3. (back)
4. Colin Sweep, “Pagan Liver,” 2003. (back)
5. Mr. Patterson, I know this is supposed to be a paper about literature, and the particular literature named “Leda and the Swan,” but you also said that we could use examples from our own life if we found something of “universal interest.” That’s why I’ve departed on a tangent and am writing this essay about love. I guarantee, universally, if you asked people which they’d prefer — a topic about LOVE or one about PERVERTED SWANS — they’d choose mine in a second. (back)
6. I’m sorry to keep stressing this, Mr. Patterson, but I also want to make sure you know who I am since you always confuse me in class with Maria Zellmer, who sits in the back corner and digs the earwax from her ears. (back)
7. I know now this means intercourse, and not a camel like I wrote on my last paper, but I think that literature — and especially literature by William Shakespeare — should be less fascist in what it means. (back)
8. You: Hi, Maria. This must be your mother.
Mom (drunk since dinner): He doesn’t look like your dad one bit. Where do you see it? He looks like a . . . teacher!
You: Ha ha ha. Maybe I should get a tattoo or something to disguise myself better.
Jeanie (smirking): Natalie’s got a tattoo. My sister, Natalie. Go ahead and show it, Natalie.
You (lifting your glasses): Wow. Look at that. A microwave?
Me: It’s a cobra.
You: Gosh. (back)
9. Unless by “strange” he means like everyone else’s and therefore alone under their swanny feathers, in which case I’m not going to argue with that. (back)