water and skin

Ever since I moved into the house in the trees at the edge of the city, frames have been changing shape, shifting without my understanding or consent. Laws of physics seem not to obey themselves and I don’t know who’s in charge of enforcing these laws, of doling out punishment when objects fail to fall at an increasing rate or when time jostles. Here. I will try to explain what is happening. What is happening is thieves will be rapping on the windows and I’ll be screaming. Everything will be blue-lit and cold and then suddenly I’ll be curled and blanketed in sheets of RaeAnn’s auburn or Ondine’s blonde locks as they sit lipsticked and smiling at the end of the sofa, eagerly thumbing at my soles. And then I’ll find myself crawling along the street below the hill of the house, pebbles and shards cracking the discrete membrane around my body and letting red run. I crawl and crawl scraping my hands against pavement and leaving a trail of blood and skin, only to find myself alone in the even-tiled shower with hands soft and continuous, with legs covered in smooth hair.

Something is not right here. 

I’ve checked the medical textbooks in the living room and this does not quite fit the description for any condition. Patients have not suffered delusions of coming loose in time, or of unprompted plummets into the unconscious followed by sudden returns. 

Is this delusions?

Are my hands clean, or are they shredded? 

Since the medical literature has nothing to offer me, I try taking this upon myself. I set out to the magic shop, to a tarot reader, to the consciousness studies department at the university but every time I leave the house I find myself under sewer grates running from giant-toothed rabbits, or else sucking my thumb in rag diapers under billowing coral skirts. I check the Internet but sometimes I wonder if the people who live here with me are creating all the content I find, or if my brain is. Every day it is 78 degrees and there is a round yellow sun against a blue rectangle and when I look up schizophrenia, it’s described as a condition in which a person has the special ability to slip easily into dream. 

What happens: I’ll be planting bulbs for chard in the garden and then Miranda’s there pale and naked and pointing at me saying if I would just take off my platform shoes I could inseminate her like a real man and then at least I’d be worth my keep.

I think the Internet is how I got here but I can’t (obviously) be sure. I remember an ad on craigslist; Miranda’s dark mane falling over those gold disco ball eyes and words that read like a poem, like a song. If only I could find the ad now, or remember it! I was lured. Completely. 

Am I kissing Ondine in the parlor, or are rats gnashing at my ankles? 

The girls all sleep piled together in a bed-sized room, in the bed from the Princess and the Pea, I think, all colorful, feather-filled things. Silk, chenille, Egyptian cotton. I think I sleep outside in a kind of shed built just for me, an egg crate for a mattress, but I don’t know if this is a real or imagined space.

Am I tucked alone under a white sheet with hospital corners? Are the teeth the rats’ or Ondine’s?

When I showed up here for our date, Miranda was laying on a lounge chair by the pool in a gossamer white dress and circular black sunglasses. She was thin but timeless, with pronounced cheekbones and black hair that was so precisely bobbed it didn’t appear to be made of hair at all. Her body was long—it seemed, from her reclined position, as though her legs alone would dwarf me, as though she would stand and I’d be face-to-face with the white triangle of her bikini bottom. I couldn’t believe she’d ever needed an ad, that there weren’t admirers waiting in the shrubbery. 

Miranda removed her sunglasses and looked me over, up then down, and announced that I would stay. She peeled the thin white fabric from her body and led me by my hand into the water.

Now when I see Miranda, she’s feeding me fruit pie with a plastic sand shovel. She’s vigorous and bug-eyed as she does it, and always in tall patent stilletos.

When I turned around there were Ondine and RaeAnn lying on rafts and I realized the pool was not a pool at all, but the back of a pickup truck lined with nylon and filled with water. Blonde Ondine bathed me with oversized cups of water, turning them over above my head and laughing melodically while RaeAnn’s fingers played my scalp like a harp. Miranda drove. Those fingers. They suctioned and caressed in time to Ondine’s laugh-song. The fingers were maternal, the most loving touch, and then they were mining me. 

I remember asking Miranda if she was real. Are you real? I wrote in my email which is a thing wary or weary people ask too-perfect people on the internet, though I’m not sure now what it means. What else would I be? She wrote back. An illusion? A joke?

I don’t know where we drove because all I saw were milkbowl hips and bones like harpoons. I saw nipples and hairshine and the sun’s reflection in changeling eyes. I saw water, and skin. I don’t know where we drove but when we arrived we were on the third tier of a backyard tiered (like a wedding cake?) behind this house, the house in the trees at the edge of the city. 

I remember I was a caterer. I served martinis and plates of sauceless chicken to wealthy Americans, including many celebrities. I wore a bowtie and drove home in my 10-year-old Honda and tried to convince myself I was a man. I made sculptures out of found objects, and told myself that this was enough, that this was not a purgatorial way station where I’d gotten detained en route to manhood. 

They enjoy when I am humiliated or confused. Whenever I’m in a cage on all fours with a tutu around my neck whimpering like a dog, they are standing around laughing gleefully. They flap their arms, and I swear their skin is feathered. I swear they are clawed. 

I ride my bicycle to the library and it goes. It feels like the wind ushers me there, like I’m there within seconds, but I know I can no longer measure time. The library is empty and ochre and I wander the stacks of engraved burgundy spines and look for the psychology section, but all the section titles are bizarre: Hybrid Creatures, Famous Seductresses, Lost Sailors. The librarian watches me and I think she looks like a girl I once dated, Amelia, but with desiccated skin and a steel wool bun. I stalk Famous Seductresses, poring over spines until I see one that’s navy with embossed gold capitals: MIRANDA. I pull at its edge with my finger so that I can see the tops of its pages, which are also gold. The librarian walks briskly over and pushes the book back onto the shelf with a clear-polished finger. She peers at me through her pink-framed glasses with Amelia’s eyes. “We’re closing,” she says, and holds her nose to my shoulder until we reach the double doors. 

“How was your trip to the library today?” Ondine asks. Her plum pink lips kiss the side of my face and she passes me a tan stone bowl of tawny broth. She is the only one I trust, Ondine the maternal one. If she passes me broth I feel sure it will nourish me somehow, that it will not make the edges of objects grow unsolid and blurred, that it will not transport me to a basement where I am drowning in fish. “Drink,” she says.

I don’t ask her how she knows about my trip to the library. I put the bowl to my lips. The steam drenches my face like some sort of expensive treatment and I feel the hot liquid travel down my esophagus and into my empty stomach. I feel the liquid turn to steam there, which infuses my organs with something good—something like health, or vitality. 

“Good,” Ondine says. She sits on my lap and caresses my neck. Her slip is silk and champagne-colored and her hair is like hay spun to gold. I kiss her and kiss her and then she’s sucking on my cock with that mouth between her legs, sucking out all the steam, the steam that’s turned back to liquid, and I don’t know why matter won’t ever stay in its original form here, why molecules are constantly rearranging themselves, forming new kinds of relationships such that the second I try to say what something is it already is not, but she sucks it, the something like vitality, like health, and I’m left so depleted Ondine wraps me up in big sheepy blankets and carries me to my shed. 

That night I hear moans and screeches as I lay in my bed wrapped in fleece. They are ecstatic and weird sounds, at once too deep and too high. They are the sounds of primates and loons. 

In the morning I return to the library. It is empty again, except for the librarian, who is sitting behind the reference desk again, her eyes darting quickly from left to right as she reads. She still looks like Amelia and she also looks like an adding machine. She is wearing a dress with cats on it and a little doily collar. She is whispering words as she reads them and I watch her lips which are thick and cracked. Her voice is a brisk and continuous stream of swift-moving air, and all the words touch: “her seductive ability is all-reigning it holds all human and non-human creatures captive one story is centuries ago she seduced two merwomen who remain with her always caring for her catches and bearing her children is she avian or piscine or a voiceless siren she drives men mad for amusement but women are her pets she believes men must be mad to be kept but women will stay if they are bruised in certain ways which usually they are her” (The librarian’s voice here stops making words and sounds like whooshshshoshohh while her eyes dart quicker and quicker) “whooshshsh another story is she is three women in the day and one woman at night whooshshshoshohh black hair that is so precisely bobbed it doesn’t appear to be made of hair at all whooshshshowshhwshwhushsh sometimes she feeds them and sometimes she bleeds them but eventually her claws come out.” The librarian sets the navy leather-bound book down and Amelia’s eyes look up. I can picture Amelia in a cat dress, but I don’t know if this is a memory, or if I’d be able to picture anyone in a cat dress. She speaks then, in a normal voice. “Is there anything else I can help you with?” 

On the way back I keep getting lost. There are penguins everywhere, bumping and bumping. We’re in a tunnel and I know this tunnel will lead me back to the house in the trees at the edge of the city but I can’t move because the penguins keep circling around my feet and grouping too close. I lay down and flat orange penguin feet trample me. I think I am not going to die because penguins are small. I wonder if penguins are vegetarians and I think pescetarians, probably. I think of blond girls who were not celebrities or the dates of celebrities but who were at celebrity parties and seemed to be the daughters of someone rich and connected, or they were the rich daughter’s friends. They had manicures and looked slightly self-conscious in their dresses and were always pescetarians. They announced this in a practiced way that was supposed to be an apology but reminded me of bonded teeth. Fish was never an option so they got eggplant, thinly sliced and decorated. The penguins feet feel like I imagine the blue lapping tongues of a carwash feel to the windshield of a car and I’ve always wished I could walk through a carwash so I enjoy the rubbery orange smacks to my forehead and knees. The penguins file over and past me, down the tunnel and I lay there feeling trampled and loved. 

I’m sitting against a concrete tunnel wall when Miranda’s truck pulls up. The penguins are gone. Miranda looks like a sun-hatted mannequin and doesn’t even glance my way. Ondine is laying belly-up in the water, her breasts bobbing like blanched jellyfish. “We’re moving along now,” Rae Ann croons. She is wearing a cowboy hat and neon bikini. “You can stay here if you want, or you can leave here.” Her voice is so high-pitched yet so thick. It is like if the singing bowls at my yoga studio, when I had a yoga studio, were able to make words. She jumps over the edge of the truck then and embraces me, and just as I feel certain that Rae Ann loves me, that they all love me, (are they three, or one?), something cuts, into the side where I’m being embraced. It sinks into the skin, into my side-flesh, and emerges leaving an open red gape. I think claw but I look down and see only long fingers with nails bare and neatly cut. She turns to the water then, and as she dives, something flips up—feet or tailfins?—and the water is moving, away. The ship’s heading out and like a reverse or perverse Ulysses, I tie my limbs to its mast, but I don’t know where it’s headed, or if I’m already bled.