She just happened to be. Her anatomy was coincidental. Each breath could have been another’s breath. Her hair lost its way growing. Laila knew no way to go forward that did not involve sideways.
She found Nan or Nan found her in just such a confusion. Walls not where they seemed to be. Room after room dark as the inside of tunnels or of thighs. Pitchers, dampened tables-everything smelled of inside of woman.
There was a struggle of starts away and starts toward. An examination of the veins of the wrist to feel how thin the skin. In the inner ear, a recognition, as though it had heard her sound before.
They followed each other through streets that did not involve sky. There were cracks in the concrete. These streets had perhaps fallen. Laila and Nan tired their way through homes mistaken for their own. Ended in an apartment so incontrovertibly square it had no room to be anything else.
Nan’s hair wished down to that part of skin where shoulder struggles. She unlayered, sprawled thin on the sheets. The unwrapping of her ribs. Laila echoed deep in her clothing, found in its cover the nakedness of knowing what it constrained, the plottings of her skin and the organs blossoming underneath. The ways her body betrayed her, misshapes and fleshenings. She took Nan’s skin for her skin. It was a night of sorts. Her body so briefly alive.
They left themselves in that apartment for how long it takes to disappear. They shunned out cold, or tried. Leaks where outside got in. Sometimes a sound. Traffic. Neighbors that should not have been.
They were happy in each other’s hair. Ate only from cans, glass bottles, jars. All was stoppered and held in. Each other’s breath. They left themselves on the other’s body. Stained and purple. Scent.
They developed a method of communication involving tongue and little else. Words turned to gestures. Some phrases took hours. Silence only when their bodies were still.
They tried out forever, wrangled seconds, collecting them like pennies. They withdrew from the world, hoped to be overlooked.
They figured each other into creatures they thought they wanted. They covered themselves in something other than themselves, lotions and shampoos, synthetic blends. They left themselves on the other’s body. They bit. They wanted scars.
They let the world die around them. Apocalyptic scenes outside their window. There was silence on most avenues. They were no longer certain if there was road. When their doorbell rang they looked to see which of them had made the sound. Surely there was no one else.
The man who stood in their doorway was not at a loss for hair. He was growing from everywhere, regardless of altitude or texture of terrain. His was a landscape to which they were not accustomed. The ill-conceived roads of his face. His openings and how they wished them closed. His way of posturing himself was new to them. They could not understand his spine. They ignored time, each day the same, but he seemed a Sunday morning. A wrap of cloth tending toward robe. Same his slippers. His mouth hinted speech, guessed at a toothbrush’s proper usage.
Apparently there was a confusion, some malingering of mail. The man pointed at Nan an envelope more open than it should have been. Between speech still he was a thrumming in the ears-those sideways sounds, the herms and hums and movements of his mouth. The man left the envelope foreign in Nan’s palms. How long since her fingers felt anything but skin.
As Nan held the envelope, Laila thought on the neighbor and what was other, on why she and Nan had not yet made it through their days. In the apartment they were insides only. They were the splintered workings of Laila and Nan held together by skin. So fragile as to require caution. They kept the curtains drawn. So long as they kept out the wind they would remain together, their skin enough to hold them. So long as nothing else got in.
Laila looked at the envelope. None of the names was her name.
Nan put the envelope beneath the mat, shut the door. She hid it in her coat pocket or one of the few other pockets of space devoid of Laila. Tore it to pieces for the sound. Bookmarked it where it would be another nothing. Nan swallowed it or laminated it or left it on the kitchen table. Nan lost it, knew nothing more about it. Laila thought it everywhere.
These are pictures of destruction: a room without Nan in it. No one to turn down the tea. An eyelash without the brush of cheek. The kitchen counter clean of her touch. No crumbs. An apartment emptied of Nan. Heavy curtains graceless without breeze.
Nan grew tired of herself. She knew herself by heart. So much she in one small room. She wanted a cigarette, to trace the breath inside of her, proof that she was more than skin.
The night was thin and strangers passed through it as though it was nothing to have their way with the streets. The corner store was every store with its crinkled plastics and outside tracked in. Each aisle a block bricked of soup cans or detergent, creams to vanquish ugly, manners of fixing what must therefore be broken. So many choices of cigarette.
She stood smoking with the boys on their corner, ignoring their nameless attentions. She had always turned people toward her. The boys thrust words at each other and laughed up the breath of their cigarettes. She did not speak their language. Their jackets blustered around them.
Nan had known these streets before. The crumbling edict of their architecture. The bowed heads of streetlamps forlorn on their corners. A car horn, driver verifying existence.
The store turned off its lights. Nan sat on the steps leading up to a building not her own. Eventually the boys lost interest in swagger, settled for sleep. They left Nan for the places they called home.
As it became less and less a time of people, there was little to the night that Nan did not provide. She tired of her settling sounds, the creaks of her yawns. She had followed herself here.
Nan stood, was gathering her cigarettes, when from the streets there rose as though from deep within the brunt of her the barest hint of song. It strained from some unnamable place, one of many facades knuckled down and familiar, a structure never before worth distinguishing. Every building now a possibility. Nan lost purchase on the night. She wearied through her cigarettes until the dark was skinned of substance-raw pink of dawn.
That night Laila remembered what it is to be a child. The long hopeless wait of it.
Nan came home to a morning without night. Laila ensconced in sleep, head lost from pillow. There was no outside to her. This was Laila, all muscle and bone and murmur. The furls of her intestine. All the beauty of her breathing and the beauty should it stop. She was blood and mess, stomach and gnarl. A certain gore to the veins of her thigh. Nan touched where Laila stubbled, where her skin harshened, splotched its way to the color of another woman. If she could mangle the hour, twist time into staying. She unsprawled the curtain, waited for Laila to find the day.
Laila decorated the fire escape with rugs and drips of plant. She liked the sky, its quirks of cloud. She saw in the street what may have been beauty but this was close enough.
Laila wondered how many others had had this same thought of falling.
She retired to an armchair existence, watching Nan sidle elsewhere and listening for the hinge of her return. Nan brought back kills of wilted magazines and contraptions of limp feathers. Nan knew the right makeup. She could fool fluorescent light. “This is fashion,” Nan said, pointing to girls Laila would never be.
Empty afternoons Laila practiced her philosophy. What it was to snow. Whether her plants would wither. What of the birds and who had grown these buildings? She dawdled her legs off the fire escape. She did not know Nan’s direction.
She practiced how to distance herself from an afternoon. She took up coding, wrote messages she could not understand. She practiced how best to misremember the day. How to forgo tomorrow.
She practiced pain with a knife, with memories. Shimmed what was tender between plant tendrils and rail. Laila tensed her hand, examined the slide of tendon over knuckle, the worms beneath her skin. She practiced dusk, that confusion of light and dark, squinting as if there was something in the distance for her to see.
Nan returned from farther places. She brought back the way a cloud had fled and how the sun shards water. The unlayering of a truffle on her tongue. She took the severity of rockface for her own. She brought back bitterness and wars, a murky curl of river. Sunset behind something desolate. The industry of pollution. She brought the simple of small children and the complexities of their strollers. How easily snow is removed by touch.
Who could have known the following: the pieces of those places were soon pieces of Nan. She saw in Laila only the stricture of the apartment. She watched Laila when Laila could not watch her back. Laila-there was no other place but here in her. Nan knew her own world lay elsewhere.
Nan practiced terrible things. She wiled home in a stumble of strangers’ arms and taxi cabs. She emerged from the dark of the doorway as from the drear of Laila’s dreams, just as stupored and strange. She blundered her body in Laila’s direction. Laila endured, embraced, her, all the distance of wine between them.
Outside grew just as bitter. Laila hid on the fire escape in heavy coats but the cold still found her skin. Instead she set herself upon the apartment, on the weep of stuffing from couch cushions, on things she could repair. She set herself on the apartment’s smaller sheddings, brushed from mirrors the dust that kept her from herself. She took on linoleum stains. The decomposition of old photographs. These she removed from the dresser and where they hung, leaving walls bare as thigh. Laila cleaned the desk drawers of their paper. She saw little for her to save.
Nights Nan fell at her on the couch above the stitches Laila made that morning. The couch succumbed to the rougher of Nan’s maneuvers. She struggled to friction their bodies until roughed and reddened they gave up on finding what they were looking for in the body of the other. They sat on the couch’s opposing arms and hoped for morning.
They awoke to rumpled skin, postures unbecoming. Laila’s foot interfering with Nan’s thigh. They undid, the imprint of stitching on their cheeks. Soon their skin would smooth, the depression fade.
Later, Laila: “Pity me a glance.” She was as tired as can be human.
Nan located in certain of her magazines sections detailing real estate. Specifications and speculations-so many choices of home. She began to search these listings out, found magazines on wire racks chained to objects just as mobile. Displaced houses and the thumbed-over faces that could reconcile her and elsewhere. She specialized in splays of suburb, rows of houses painted a likely white. This could have been her childhood.
Laila saw in Nan an unanchoring. Nan deprived the apartment of her effects. It began with this and thats-hair clips and ballpoint pens. The smaller bits of change. Soon the clumsy pencils she bared to line her eyes. Her creams and lesser vices. Then her clothing and with it all the joy she took in beauty, in the slink and slay of fabric, in dressing her skin in another skin. Nan’s appearance became habit. Her shirts stole from the dresser. Her presence diminished with her property.
Laila: “There are things that you can keep from me but please don’t keep yourself.”
Someone was old outside the window. Dressed in scatterings of cloth and rag. Face too distant to be seen but likely requiring restoration.
“This must be old age,” Nan said. “More and more cracks in skin until the soul has room to escape.”
“How close,” Nan said. “How close I was to being something else.”
Evenings Nan walked in triumphant and changed. She walked into a room of dust and dim and Laila. Laila on the couch or in Laila’s chair or propped against whatever could hold her.
“What can I do?” Laila asked. “What of me can I lose for you?”
“You have created your own climate here. You don’t even know whether it is winter,” Nan said. “Can’t you feel the cold on my skin?”
There grew such a heaviness between them.
“I had never understood,” said Nan, “that to make a fist is to hold real tight to nothing.”
Laila took to herself. She found obscure surfaces, inks. The heads of used matches. Eyeliner stubs careless in the trash. She claimed backs of papers, undersides of tables, and sketched what might have been.
Laila peeled back paint to examine the strata of the walls: the soft blue of a child’s room, a study’s cigar brown. The bark of wallpaper, color long lost. Other lives had thickened these walls.
When Nan was near, Laila backed her way into closets, corners. She sat among shoes and dust. Even her sneezes were muffled.
Laila slipped Nan’s mind. Nan had errands and bustle and strangers to turn acquaintances. This was day: Laila folded in a corner while Nan went about living.
Nights Laila watched Nan assemble, watched her resurrect her face with skin tones and shadow. How well Laila knew the smell of those oils and machines that translated Nan into another creature, a small thing of skittish eyes and fragile frame, a being too gentle for this night, requiring cab fare, love and touch. This was the creature Laila had met, a chimera of neck and collarbone. She was leg and shoulder and skin, her body a continuation that could be glimpsed only in pieces, such was the draw of each part.
The bare of her back.
The slight of her wrist.
Laila waited for Nan’s footsteps, perfume, to fade before turning out the light.
As lack of light settled to darkness, the apartment grew into itself. The furniture took on its own shape. A table nubbed down to mimic floor. A quilt that had hardly made itself known forgotten on the couch. This was a couch monstered by seams, prolonged by Laila’s ministrations. Its fabric had grown sporadic, distraught from use. Still she traveled her body between its arms. Laila lay under the weight of weeks on their way, supining for Nan, time and time upon her. She accustomed her body to a pillowless night.
Nan had known the city by night but now in the dark waited streets she could not quite recognize. Every corner, sidewalk, an almost, not quite. Nan’s forgotten city: a stereotype of buildings, crosswalks spanning darkness she assumed to be road. She fell in with others similar to herself, drifting toward the city’s deeper parts. She sifted through ordinary, seeking something to find.
Nan unearthed city stall by stall. In these stalls, walls overcome with obscenities and the floor just as obscene, the complexities of Nan’s body simplified to mere functions of anatomy. In these stalls, these backway hiddens, the city unmasked itself, stepped free from its paperback guide trappings to expose not underbelly but stomach: mess of muscle and masticated girl, all decades of woman caught in breakdown. Listening to the secret sounds of other women, Nan with her fingers dismayed herself, set aside her outer layers and strained toward something she could not quite make truth.
Laila attempted assertion. She thrust at Nan sentences she hoped would meet Nan’s gaze. Nan passed through them as though they, the apartment, held no relation to actuality.
Laila pinched up an old envelope, hid N, for you I would become even less than you had hoped.-L inside its tatter. She gummed the envelope shut, evoking the already taste of tongue. Laila snuck into Nan’s magazines, tucked her own words among those Nan loved, those words which held in their permutations some meaning Laila could not provide. N, was it the dress? That slip of dress? A mistake. I had not known it so delicate.-L
N, when it is night and you are deep in beer, some basement bar, dress coaxing up your thigh, when you are fallen upon by men, their morals misplaced, do not forget that I am home dreaming up just such a scene for you. I do not care who you have touched. I will push you down, press against you until it is only me.
Chipped into the wood of Nan’s emptied drawers: N, I am like you only farther.
Leading to the bed: N, when first N, if you N, I
And softly petaled between Laila’s lips: N.
Nan returned stained and spent from what had leaked from body. She removed her shoes to soften sound, snuck her way to where Lailaless she could hold on to that particular feeling of having on her own uncovered a city. It was not until she settled in this different darkness, night wiped from face, that she understood Laila gone.
That day took days. A slow search for Laila’s scatter. Nan picked Laila from carpet, scraped her out of wood, cleaned all surfaces of Laila’s message.
Nan distanced herself through the apartment while it was still an apartment and not a time to be erased. Here the chair in which and over there the plants that she. And that couch. Nan turned the tv to whatever late-night movie, tried to frighten herself into feeling.
She woke on the couch in a light that was dawn or dusk, some time of change, still feeling her dream in the couch’s fabric: something she had always known, some skin. In this between, fingers self-minded in their wandering, Nan discovered the last of Laila scarred into the velvet.
N, there is so much of you to be unlearned. The tilt of your breath. Your softening sounds, the mutters your body makes. I wanted to picture you, tried with pencil, coal, whatever left a mark.
I never could quite capture you.
Drains annalled with hair.
On the fire escape, a threaten of sky. The plants’ uncanny bloom.
Nan cut a blossom long-stemmed, livened her hair. She sought a vase but she could not find the flower’s place, this tiny burden.
She populated her bag with things that she would never use but worried she might need. Nan faced the door. Held in her hand the incarnation of flower.
The walls of the staircase were blank with dust. The same turn after turn. Nan knew well the descent, each step the same, but could not maintain so repetitive, so meaningless, a motion and she quickened, stumbled to a landing. The flower was lost between her fingers and palm, so pressed it felt only like skin. She did not unfurl her hand to see. She did not want to have caused its ruin, the loss of what kept it flower and not something limp and less.
Nan walked down the steps to the street as though she had not just fallen. She walked with what wisps of Laila remained and a fist that she was afraid to open.
The sky made an attempt at light, unveiling fragments of a softened city.
It had just stormed, or was just awakening.