5.04 / April 2010

Tipping the Velvet

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Whip me. Cut me. Maim me. Whittle me to almost nothing. What remains will always love you.

Nightly at the cabaret, we take the stage together, dancing side by side. High kicks; petticoats whirling. Lights cast us blue and orange and yellow. Your face shines beneath paint and rouge. The music shifts and we set our hands on each other’s shoulders, taking turns leading each other across the planks. Skirts whoosh and rustle, rimmed with lace and red. Men swoon at the sight of our white ankles, but I want more than flesh from you. I want the spice of your breath and the tension of your fingertips and the flint in your ruthless eyes.

The rough crowd rumbles behind us, sitting soot-stained in weekday worst, staring out from eyes made blank by absinthe. Flaneurs applaud, grins sly as they partake of their rich man’s thrill, the titillation of watching we poor live our little lives.

Flaneurs sustain our bodies with lovelorn gifts that fetch cash on the nail. But it’s you who sustain my soul.

You and me. Me and you. Footsteps on the floorboards. Laughter in our chests.

Please, please don’t leave me. Please, please don’t go.

After the cabaret, it’s the boarding house, we both pretending respectability as we dodge the lady of the house with her dour eye that accuses us of being pinchcocks, laced muttons, barber’s chairs. Once she found a used skin below your window and shoved it at me, all worked into frenzy. “Do you think this is a bawd-house! Useless bunter! Chicken-breasted bite! I’ll have you both out next week!”

Come Tuesday, when rent is made, she never wants us gone. Not we who have coins left after drinking, who can pay in full to sustain her prudish ways.

Our rooms are just for us. On the bed, on the floor, pushed against the wash basin, I take long leisure tipping the velvet. They’d have it that all sapphists are triblades, but for us, to occupy each other is a sacred exchange.

Mother was a hedge whore, raised me in the gutter while taking men the gutter way. But at her knee, I learned secrets others have forgotten. She taught me that magic is the call of like to like, and exchanging blood is the oldest magic there is.

I have swallowed your blood and you have taken mine. We are like to like, we two, who dance together and live as one.

Please, please don’t leave me. Please, please don’t go. But what good is pleading when you’ve already gone?

You took your things while I slept, whisper-quiet so I wouldn’t wake. At dawn, I rose to emptiness, carved hollow from the absence of you.

I wake in emptiness, dress in emptiness, dance in emptiness. Alone at the cabaret, relentless deluge of whoops and whistles. I kick high. My petticoats whirl. The music shifts and I raise my hands as if holding your shoulders, but I’m dancing with air.

Afterward, a flaneur presses gifts of fruits and flowers and velvet ribbons. Ribbons and fruits will sell, but devil take him for the useless blooms. Blast him more when he lets slip that you’ve become some man’s convenient, removed from our nest to an apartment at his expense. I knew you’d always wanted things no dancer’s wage could bring, but how could you halve yourself for silver? Surely no, I demur — but he has seen you there, his own girl along for a game of brother starling.

Where? Where? The description of a building with a red door, and I’m out of the cabaret and down the alley, fleeing in skirts that cling and tangle, my heart an iron weight.

Rain on the cobbles, mud slick in crevices, heels alternating between clack and squish.                       The sheepsfoot knife I carry for protection clatters down. I bend into mud to take it back. “Ho, girl! Are you hurt?” comes the inquiry from a man veering toward me, black-winged umbrella out. I tear past him, wrecked with rain and mud, mad to find you.

I know you love me, my heart’s sweet. Ours is relish. I will not credit that you have left to become some goat’s watercolor wife.

Blood calls to blood, the oldest of all magic. If you have forgotten, I must help you recall.

There: the vermillion door. And you, somewhere inside.