It’s 4:30 in the morning, my roommate’s lover rolls out.
I hear him leave and pad out naked into the dark to check that he’s locked the door behind him- and he hasn’t-
-the burbling fishtank, the silent kitchen, everything blue in the dark-
“Moonlight. Her shadow flew over the room like a sweeping hand as she dipped to fluff her hair, still listening. The expectancy of silence. As if these rooms were waiting for something to happen. Their sudden, prickly closeness pressed in around her like cupped hands: where was he? Mary turned on the light.”
And now I can't sleep. I run from room to room in the house of my head, looking for a place where I can stop thinking. But each of the rooms- I’m dreaming now- has something off about it, until finally I’m in the garage of my parents’ old place on Alvamar. I slip into a sumptuous black town car- whose?- I’m cradled in its cool, soft black leather; sinking into deep sleep, into a final absence of thought.
Then there's a sudden, blistering awareness of the garage door being opened; I’m turning, there’s a trollish man leering there. Red-haired, with an anonymous, generically terrifying face. I’m simultaneously trying to cant myself back against the horn, to slam down the garage door opener, but my body is locked into slow gear. I jolt myself awake, whacking the lampshade so that Andrew flops over, groaning.
Then, as I waft about in unsleep, something whole comes to me. I write it down.
It comes to me now, who the man in my nightmare is.
he’s the man from the soup kitchen in my hometown. I remember that I wrote a story with him in it once, and do a quick search through the old stories on my drive, using terms that I think will be in it.
And boom, there it is. Titled Separation, although I could have sworn I'd always called it The Lizard King. I wrote the thing a long time ago, and there’s bits of truth stitched in between the fiction, so its sort of like having a conversation with my 15-18 year old self. Maybe you'll like it, too. This seems like as good a place for it as any.
Separation, by Pauline West
He was basking in the sun, letting this girl pour herself all over him. She’d been buying him drinks all afternoon, but now he started singing to me from across the patio. He had a wonderful voice. And his eyes could charm the halo off any girl’s finger.
But I hardly reacted. You’d have thought beautiful older men sang to me every day. The thing was, I was there pretending to be a sophisticate--pretending to be glamorous, wearing an old dress out of my grandmother’s closet. It was a dive where the real artists went, and I wanted to make the right impression.
He came to sit with me. I let him stay. The way he moved and spoke made me think he was some kind of lounge lizard king, and I liked it. Before I left, he made me promise I would see him again. He wanted to show me his poetry, he said.
“I hate bad poetry,” I said.
“Are you trying to make me nervous?” he said.
“It’s working. You keep messing with your hair.” I reached out and smoothed it behind his ears.
We started seeing each other all the time.
“It doesn’t bother you that I’m fifteen?” I said.
“How old do you feel?”
“Twenty-two,” I lied.
But Tyler was twenty-eight or something. The truth was, I still felt like a kid. That’s why I wore my grandmother’s dresses. I wanted to learn how to be a woman, a real woman, like my grandmother. She was halfway famous once. When I was little she told me it was because her dresses were magic. “Black magic,” she said. “You can have them when you’re old enough.”
I believed in those dresses. They made me feel like her—mysterious and remote, carelessly elegant. But I wasn’t. I was only a girl, abstract, unfinished. No match for the lizard king.
We liked to sit on the bridge with our legs dangling and throw berries at traffic. We could never do it for long before somebody tried to come up after us, but that day we’d stayed longer than usual. He was teaching me how to smoke.
“No, no, you aren’t breathing in right. You have to breathe it into your belly, see, like this? And then hold it there.”
It burned. “I’m going to swoon,” I said.
“Swoon?” he said. “You read too many books. Come here.” He took a quick, sharp hit, and grabbed me. “Breathe in,” he said, and exhaled into my mouth. I sucked him in and held him there, staring at him while I did it. Something lit and flared at the end of my spine, making me tingle up and down. I glowed at him.
He smirked. “I feel like we just kissed.”
“Kiss me really,” I wanted to say, huskily, like an old-time movie star— but really I just sat there, staring.
He laughed, and helped me stand.
“Marlowe, Marlowe, Marlowe,” he said. “If I say it a fourth time, you’ll belong to me.”
But after that he was silent.
Our hands lingered; then he had to go away somewhere. I wandered home alone, high as a bat. I teetered at stoplights, waiting for the light to change, and men honked crazily.
I was seeing halos around all the streetlights and it got me thinking about how I used to believe in angels. For some reason I thought the Virgin Mary was my angel. I had dreams about her coming to me in my sleep and everything. Probably in some other age people would have thought I was some kind of shaman. But you learn to be secretive in Catholic school, at least if you've decided not to believe in all the parts that they teach, so I kept Mary my secret.
Stoned and alone in the dark, I tried to remember what it felt like to believe. I couldn't, and felt ashamed. Because I was the kind of girl who was still trying to see angels, or because I no longer could? You tell me.
Another night, Tyler and I were out walking. We’d spent all day together. Now it was dusk, lights were coming on in all the houses. People’s windows were open, and from the sidewalk we could hear inside--people setting their tables while their kids played. Televisions on in the background.
“Electric light takes away the mystery,” Tyler said. “Anytime we feel like it, we can just flick a switch and see what’s really there and what isn't.”
“Huh,” I said. He was always saying things like that, practicing how he sounded. He didn’t care very much what I thought because I was too young to really count. When he started talking like that, I’d just smooth down my dress and relax, letting his handsome voice trail all over me. I didn’t even need to listen to what he was saying. I felt like we were inside a beautiful painting. That was all I cared about.
“What do you think?” he said.
I looked at him.
“Well, I like to see things as they are,” I lied. “Not the ways I’d imagine them, if everything were dark.”
“I bet you’d believe in God if we didn’t have electricity.”
I shrugged. “He’s the best bedtime story I know.”
“Maybe you need a new bedtime story then.” We stood close together.
“Look, watch this,” he said.
He swept his hand in front of us, and just like that, all the lights in the city went out. He pressed against me in the warm dark.
“Do you believe in God now?” he whispered.
Shrieks and then laughter lifted around us--little kids running to get candles. Soon little dots of light showed behind the curtains of people’s living rooms.
“I love the smell of matches,” I said.
He came closer. I was aware of the warmth of the road as it drifted up beneath my dress. My grandmother’s perfume slipped out from the warm fabric and coiled behind my ears. Ask him to give you a bed-time story, it whispered.
“No,” I said.
He walked me home. He didn’t turn the lights back on, and I was glad. I was embarrassed. For all my bravado, even in my grandmother’s clothing, I still couldn’t figure out how to be a woman. What was my body supposed to do when it was kissed? I was aware of my posture, my movements, but I did not live inside those lines: my body was something separate from me. Where I was actually located, I didn’t know, but I knew that a kiss, a real kiss, required for me to meet him halfway, which I could not do.
I liked the idea of him, and the ideas I had of sex and forgetting, freedom—but suppose you did give yourself over, what if you lost yourself forever? I wanted to learn to live inside my body, live in the moment, but I was so terrified I’d be taken. You can’t ever really trust someone else, especially not with yourself. My secret self was safer where I kept it—in a place unknown even to me.
And Tyler could swallow women whole.
I’d seen him do it—women he introduced to me and then discarded, replaced—women who loved him, who gave themselves to him. They trusted him because he was beautiful. But he ate them whole like fruits, and threw them away. Each one of them probably thought she was going to be the one to change him, but he was insatiable.
I imagined his discarded women drifting like ghosts in the streets, Tyler turning the streetlights out after each of them, one by one. If you love somebody and they throw you away, you can never get over it. Part of your soul disappears, becomes a ghost. My mom was like that after my dad left. She was helpless, like a ghost. Grandmother had no sympathy for it. After a while she didn’t visit us anymore.
Maybe that was why I used to feel like the Virgin Mary was hanging around me all the time. I needed somebody. I’d feel the Virgin touching my back when I was asleep; I was aware of her still when I woke. The way I imagined her, she was very feathery and pale. I believed she was next to me all day, no matter if I was sucking dog kibbles or terrorizing my younger brothers. It was like some kind of secret superpower.
At our school we put on two masses a week. On Sundays, we had to go to a third mass, and afterwards my mom would volunteer us to work at the LINK kitchen, which was this free slop line for the homeless. You chopped up stuff and prepared it, and then you stood behind these big tables and doled it out to the bums. All kinds of them came through. Scary ones, junkies, drunks. Once time there were a bunch of hippies. You didn’t see a lot of those in Kansas. They all walked like they were dancing, and their eyes were shining, some of them were even singing. I told one of the younger guys that his scarf was very beautiful.
He didn’t miss a beat. He dashed it off and tied it around my own neck so that I looked like some kind of Parisian. I couldn’t believe it. The scarf was black silk with red and orange tie-dye. I’d never met somebody who just gave people things, and all I could do was look at him with this big stupid grin.
“Wear it in health, girl,” he told me. I looked for him after we were done serving but I never did see him again.
Mostly it was scary there, but when I felt the Virgin’s hands on me, I could do anything. The hungry people would smile or cough, their mouths were black with desperation—a lot of the time my brothers ducked under the table and hid when someone really creepy came through, but because of the Virgin, I could take up their ladles and serve for them, too.
We could have hidden upstairs in the church, but we didn’t think that way then. That’s the funny part about being a kid—you haven’t figured out how to protect yourself yet. We figured we were stuck there until mom came back, and that was that.
Anyway, one Sunday we were really busy, and I had to go into the outer room for some reason, I think to get more bread. They kept the bread in the room where the bums ate so that if any of them wanted to take a bag home they could take it without needing to ask. As I walked out into this room, a little redheaded man grabbed me. He and I were smaller than everyone else, standing well beneath the sight line of the crowd.
We were the same size, but he was old. He put his face right up to mine. It was terrifyingly blank, emotionless, something from a nightmare. I’d seen him before—a lot of places downtown gave him free coffee and food, like he was some kind of mascot, but now he clamped his hand over my face and started to drag me to the men’s room. He hobbled; one of his feet was clubbed. I saw everything like it was happening from far away, in slow motion, like a dream.
I screamed and screamed, but only inside. My angel had vanished. I felt like one of those baby gazelles you see when the crocodile has it by the neck and the gazelle understands that it will die, but then somehow my mom came from out of nowhere and grabbed me back. She hustled me away from him, and as soon as we were alone she shook her finger in my face.
“Nothing happened,” she said. “Do you hear me? Nothing ever happened, nothing ever happened.” She stood next to me the rest of the afternoon until I’d finished my shift, and then she never took us there again. We didn’t talk about it either. I forgot about my angel Mary. I wore the black silk scarf all the time.
A couple years later I took to wearing the scarf wrapped around my hair, always with these big gypsy earrings. I still religiously wore my grandmother’s magic dresses, even though I’d worn them ratty by then. I was seventeen, and I believed in Jack Kerouac, too, besides her dresses. A fraying black ball-gown seemed like something he would have liked, and I didn’t feel right wearing anything else.
I also had this idea that I needed to get away from the ordinary, safe little life my mother craved, and was always trying to create with her new boyfriends. After a particularly bad day at home, I decided I should see the world instead. Tyler would take me, I figured. We’d been in and out of touch, but when I called him the first thing I said was, “Remember how you told me anytime I needed you, you would come and get me?”
“Yes,” he said.
If he didn’t recognize me right away, he played it off beautifully. And his voice, oh his voice, it was more wonderful than ever. Low and intimate. There were some people at our old bar who called him the Radio, because he was such easy listening. I loved the nights he brought me to parties and I could fall asleep on sofas beside him, his voice slipping into my dreams.
“Where are you?” he said, sounding like he was already right next to me.
“I’m under the tree,” I said, knowing he’d remember the one that I meant.
It was an old tree, easy to climb; we used to climb up into it sometimes instead of going for a walk. I waited for him a long time, day-dreaming about skittering all over the world with the lizard king.
And suddenly he was there.
He was nothing like I’d remembered. His voice didn’t match him anymore—he was skinny and dirty, he was broke, he’d stopped writing (“everything’s been said, anyway,”), and the ponytail I loved was gone.
But I decided to believe that these things were what made him a true poet. He was too pure to care about the conventional trappings of success and competence. We took off in his car, a little hatchback.
He squeezed my thigh, a little shyly. “Watch this,” he said. He waved his hands, and all the stoplights flickered out.
“Seen it,” I said.
Still, it was nice: driving all the way out into the country without having to stop once.
We camped three days. The plan was that we’d live on fish and flowers, but that didn’t work out, so we were always going back to town to get donuts or pizzas out of the dumpsters. Tyler knew all the places.
“I live outside the system,” he said, pulling out a spotless long john. “See? Live free or die. None of that J-O-B stuff, not for me.”
But all the time he was watching me carefully, like he was worried I didn’t believe him. He took a huge bite of the donut. I noticed the skin under his neck had become loose, deflated, like an iguana’s, and all I could think of was that old Peggy Lee song—“Is That All There Is?” I thought we were going on this great adventure, but instead I’d just become another bum. I wondered if this was how that redheaded man fed himself, too.
I was still a virgin and wanted to wait, although I didn’t understand why. Catholic school gives you these knee jerk responses.
“No,” you hear yourself saying, to everything: “no, no, no.”
Tyler said he understood. At night he just kissed me and held me, even though I knew he thought I owed it to him. He’d grind on me from behind, kind of softly, hoping I wouldn’t notice, and this made my heart turn cold.
I started to hate him.
It was only when he went into the trees to take care of himself that I’d think anything nice about him at all. Maybe we were spending too much time together, I don’t know. But I couldn’t think of anywhere else I wanted to be, except inside a book. I wondered if I would have felt different with a real artist, maybe, instead of somebody who just looked like one, talked about being one.
“We should go,” I said, on the third day. “My parents will have called the police.”
“They don’t know about me, though, do they?”
I chewed on my thumbnail. “I forgot my journal,” I said.
So we drove all day and night to Monahans, Texas, where just about everybody is hiding from something, and they know better than to ask you any questions. We got ourselves jobs at a steakhouse. Everybody there stole food all the time, so we always had enough to eat.
We skipped out on rent all over town for months before anybody caught on. Our last night there, with nowhere left to go, we hiked into the sand dunes and went wandering deep into the shifting landscape. Oil pumps heaved up and down under the moon like they were kneading something shameful back into the ground. Scorpions scuttled all over the place.
“Put on your shoes,” Tyler said. Things had changed between us. His voice was bright and hard and flashed in the air.
“No,” I said. “I don’t need to.” Even after my feet started bleeding, I wouldn’t put on my shoes. Everything was fine.
Finally the sun roared up on the horizon, and Tyler said he thought he’d go to Mexico. The way he said it, I knew that I wasn’t invited, even though by now he’d said my name plenty of times.
It didn’t count unless you said it four times in a row, though. “Tyler, Tyler, Tyler.” I said. “Tyler.” He looked beautiful all of a sudden, with the sun coming up behind him. I felt bad how things were turning out. Also he’d seen me grow up, and I knew that little-girl part of me was going to go with him the moment he left.
“Okay,” he said.
“Listen,” I said.
Someone had tipped me with a little vintage watch on my last day at the steakhouse, and I’d kept it in my pocket. It was the kind you could hear ticking.
Tyler didn’t wear watches because they always stopped when they touched his skin. He was the kind of person who could have turned everything off in the world if he wanted to, but I guess he was afraid. Neither of us was quite all the way shaman. I bet you my grandmother was, though.
He listened to the watch’s polite ticking and smiled. The watch had a picture of a penguin inside, and the man who gave it to me had taught me the word “penguid,” for somebody fat who waddles when they walk.
“It’s for you,” I said. I strapped it to him and listened to the watch’s heart drop silent. “Don’t forget about me.”
“What will you do now?” he said.
I was as surprised as he was when I heard myself say, “I guess I’ll go to college.”
“Oh, honey,” he said, and that meant something, because he'd always called me Marlowe.
But I wouldn’t let him kiss me goodbye. I saluted him and went off in the opposite direction. I didn’t look back until I was so far away I knew he couldn’t see me, and then I sat down and cried. You might think two near-shamans might have made a whole person between the two of them, but you’d be wrong.
Now there was even less of me than when we started. My body felt different. There was less of me for the sand and the wind to push against. But instead of blowing back into the desert, it was easier to slip away.
Sometimes I dream that the little man comes back and gets me. I dream that my mother never shows up to save me, and the man takes me down with him, all the way to the darkness. But the Virgin follows me down. She stays beside me the whole time, feeding me dreams within dreams, so that I look the other way and my heart stays safe.
I wonder about what I remember. Maybe it didn’t happen that way—maybe I just wish it did. I’ve asked my brothers about it. They don’t remember our mother ever coming into LINK to pick us up, much less working beside me on the line. So I wonder if time has scabbed across the truth, and it is hidden inside me where I cannot get at it—black under the skin, like a broken blade, my body healed tight around it.
My family has a bonfire every November. We come from all over. My brothers and aunts and uncles, all the cousins. There’s a lot of us. The fire is for brush, but sometimes we also burn old chairs, bad photographs, or court summons. When my grandmother was alive, she threw all her rings in, and the fire burned blue for hours.
I hadn’t been to the bonfire for a long time, but a few years after Tyler left me for Mexico, I decided to show up. My family and I were strangers to each other by then, but they were surprised and happy to see me. They let me stand in their circle to watch them burn up their pasts. We ate gumbo and they sang songs and asked what had happened to my pretty dresses. They seemed pleased that I was in school, and it was nice to see my brothers again, although there wasn’t much to say. Nobody knew where our mother was. I guess I wouldn’t have known what to say to her either.
After a while, I walked back to my car. I had parked a long ways off in the dark. I couldn’t see well. The fields waved in slow currents and it was like crossing a river at night. The world stretched out wide and dark, but I wasn’t afraid. It occurred to me that I was part of it. I was part of everything all around me.
I belonged to it—the prairie, the darkness. Even to my family behind me, huddled around their vanishing pasts. And this vastness, it belonged to me, too: my grandmother’s magic, still alive in her dresses; my mother’s lost ghosts and her angels—I could even feel Tyler somewhere inside me, too, very small as he went across the desert, looking for the place that would love him.
I hoped he would find it.
P.Z. West's first novel, EVENING’S LAND, is a Library Journal Self-e Selection, winner of the Helene Wurlitzer Foundation Award and recipient of the Carol Marie Smith Memorial Scholarship for the NOEPE Center of Literary Arts.
Pauline West's books on Goodreads
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