Pastel streaks bristle thick and harsh behind eyelid veils, where everything spangles red, kinetic static. It is drawing shapes and they revolve. The heat radiates both away from and towards her. It would be pleasing if she could find a position from which to endure it. Prone is not low enough. She wants to sink into the cushions but the spangles are too hot. She moves. Her body is a long lump of clay. It melts into the crevices of the couch. It scratches where her skin is exposed. The red black feels soft but coarse. She turns over. Her eyes feel bristly. Behind her, her head is molten and thick.
They open. Her vision is liquid but cooling. The ceiling has shapes in it and they fade. Sweat coats her burning skin and the blankets.
Later she stands up and finds all her weight has transferred to her head. In the bathroom the cold faucet gives like a spring but the walls threaten to cave in. She falls back onto the couch.
Ben sleeps in the other room. He is blue and under a sheet. Above him the square digits say 4:44.
When he comes home from work the following evening she has eaten soup but is unconscious, the title screen of a DVD looping in the corner.
‘Vee,’ her grandmother had said through motionless lips, her skin delicate and clinging to her bones, like crumpled silk, her breath a miniature burst of moist warmth in the surrounding dryness of a hospice room; ‘Vee,’ using the name she’d adopted as a teenager, she then proceeded to tell her something.
III. Your brain
Ben comes home with a bouquet of red roses for Vee on the third day she’s sick; he sits with her, tells her he loves her and hopes he doesn’t come down with whatever she has. They both assume it’s the flu. The next day at work he encounters Tara, a former lover, while Vee is lying on the bathroom floor watching the ceiling distend and periodically sitting up to vomit.
‘This is one of the nicest in the building,’ says Ben, a leasing agent, holding the door for ginger Tara, lithe for her height. ‘Corner unit, cathedral ceiling, balcony overlooking the pool.’
She turns and her freckles make his stomach jolt. ‘It’s nice,’ she says, looking at him, not the room.
He swallows and walks farther in. ‘New carpets, walk-in closets.’
She prowls into the kitchen where he tries to show her new appliances. ‘Show me the balcony,’ she says.
And there, overlooking the pool, where he can see his own building’s roof a few blocks away, she pushes him against the railing; she’s soft and orange-hued; she runs her little hands up his back and says in his ear ‘I have something for us.’ Her small fingers with their clipped nails slip in between his shirt buttons and stroke his prickling skin. In her other hand she produces a plastic bag with two white tablets, each with a little ‘i’ on it.
At this moment Vee misses the toilet; a chunk of watery vomit spews onto the floor before she rests her chin on the bowl’s rim, eyes almost shut with fatigue, and then a new wave of full-body gagging wracks her, and more liquid hits the bowl. On her eyelids the wavy gray pattern of roses wiggles across and forms a lifeless maze.
Ben gets lost after work and finds himself in a series of one-way streets leading away from home. Vee snores to the title screen of High Fidelity.
Tara sits in the passenger seat. She is calm. ‘This city was designed by a madman,’ she says, gazing out the window. ‘It’s true. Charles Irwin III was the city planner. In 1888 he proposed using one-way streets in this part of downtown, for the purpose of reducing traffic and promoting walkability. That’s why all these storefronts are here, but they never lasted, because people got lost walking around them. It’s kind of a labyrinth, which contributes to the high crime rate. It’s twice as high as the rest of the city’s neighborhoods, combined.’
Ben stares straight, clenching his jaw to keep from scratching her eyes out of her freckled face.
‘The city accepted it, obviously, and began building right away. He designed one more park, the Arboretum, and then committed himself to a mental hospital. He was never released.’
She’s still. She doesn’t have the nervous energy a lot of people have when sitting with an old flame. Her small hands lay carelessly in her lap.
Ben is calm on the outside but raging inside.
‘Isn’t that interesting?’ she says.
‘Where do you live?’ he asks curtly.
‘Keep going. I’ll tell you when to turn. What’s odd is, he, Irwin, never had a crazy moment until the day he committed himself, and then he was never lucid again. His madness was complete. Some people say he was one of the earliest recipients of E.C.T., though there aren’t any records of that being used in the U.S. until almost fifty years later.’
‘We’re going to turn left at the next intersection. Thanks again for driving me. I think I’ll take the apartment.’
Ben’s fiddling with his tie, feeling the rage boil within him, like lava about to erupt; it’s the kind of anger he finds a morbid pleasure in keeping hidden.
‘Fuck you,’ he says under his breath.
‘Fuck you. You had no fucking right. You’re a manipulative, selfish slut.’
‘I’m sorry you feel that way. I didn’t make you do anything you didn’t want to do.’
‘Give me the pills.’
‘Or you won’t get out of this car.’
Still calm but with a quiver she hands him the baggie.
‘Thank you. We’re here.’
V. Flu/Take pills
Her breathing is heavy, it comes slowly like the air is mercury, uneven, using all her energy. The blankets have melded into her; their quilted stitches have stitched themselves into her lids, and they travel, like insects looping through undense air. The patterns form themselves first on her body and then on her eyelids. In the distance a door slams. The looping gives her a visual focus, but also churns her stomach, which, empty, still rejects its phantom contents. Her eyes stay closed. She wants to disappear into sleep. There is warmth nearby, wet red pressing against on her forehead, and then it is gone. Her consciousness is a watery furnace. She has only seen red for days.
‘Vee,’ her grandmother had said, lying in fluffy repose, her kindness having earned her a bed near the window, from the nurses who were kind to her indeed. The word came like baby’s breath, like the space between words, but it was all she could do; it could have been an accidental union of her teeth to lower lip, but Vee knew it was her name. ‘Nan?’ she’d said, her hand gripping Nan’s as tightly as she could without shattering it. ‘I’m here, Nan.’ Her grandmother’s hair was as thin as a spider web. Her skin looked ready to dissolve into dust. ‘I’m listening.’ Her grandmother had been in hospice for a month. She weighed less than seventy pounds and had not opened her eyes in a week. Vee leaned closer.
‘Let me out…of here,’ her grandmother said.
When Ben returns home the lights are out and Vee is breathing heavily on the couch. The air feels stagnant so he opens a window. He is shaking with leftover rage. He didn’t screw Tara. The roses on the coffee table need water. He clears the table of the used dishes and replenishes Vee’s glass with flat ginger ale. They are almost out of straws. He let her kiss him and he felt her whole body on him and her thin legs straddling him supine on the balcony, but that was as far as it got. She wanted them to take the pills then and there, for old times’ sake. They didn’t. He was at work and hated himself already. She sat in the waiting room for an hour until five o’clock. He dropped her off and came home to Vee.
VIII. Death comes as the end
She passed away the next day. When Vee came to visit that afternoon five years ago, the window shade was drawn, the bed empty, the nurses sympathetic but busy.
IX. Rosy red
On Friday Vee feels better but stays home from work. She sits at the computer in a gray sweatshirt, finally able to think about food without retching. The glowing words scroll across her vision. A glass of ginger ale waits undrunk on the desk next to the keyboard. Last night Ben had presented to her his new cache.
She always researches the chemicals she plans to ingest.
…is a short-acting synthetic psychedelic phenethylamine, illegal but not controlled, depending on whom you ask… similar in effect to LSD, which some say is much weaker, comparatively, even for so-called connoisseurs.
‘I have something for us, for when you’re feeling better.’
…snorted triples the effect fatal substituted amphetamine core as is the case in many empathogens and entactogens.
‘Where’d you get them?’
‘Thanks babe…’ Fades to red. Nonaddictive and no substantial evidence of long-term health risk. Beware, though, if there is family history of mental illness…Use extreme caution…Usually taken orally or insufflated, a typical dose being in the range of 10-20mg. May awaken latent…
‘I thought this stuff was hard to find.’
‘Ha. Just a fluke, somebody selling some.’
Sometimes Vee wonders if the dead are judging us.
‘You’ve done it before?’
‘Yeah. It’s just like acid. I think you’ll like it. But we should wait till you’re all better.’
May exacerbate pre-existing conditions symptomatically.
There is a concert the following weekend.
Fluffy sparkling-white powder pressed into tablets of 30-40mg
X. Death comes as the end?
Her grandmother had been an artist in her time, an alleged acquaintance of Jay DeFeo and avid devotee of surrealism. Vee and Ben have a painting of hers hanging over the TV in their living room. It is of couples waltzing across a chessboard in a cage, all dressed to the nines, the women in ball gowns with bodices and the men with suit tails and top hats. And/except you can see through their fancy clothes to their organs, their bones and veins, but in such a way that you don’t notice you’re looking at their brain folds or intestines until you’re up close: from far away, they are just regular dancers waltzing. Such was the extent of Nan (nee Nora)’s artistic skill. Vee’s favorite part is in the top right corner, a trio of birds drawn like v’s, the way kids draw them, incongruous with the rest of the painting, which is quite sophisticated. Vee has always thought of them as an encoded dedication to her.
When Nan died five years ago, Vee came home from the hospice and just stood and stared at the painting. For the first time in ten years, she noticed that the whole scene took place in a cage. Strangely enough, she had never seen the thin silver bars in the background before. The canvas-square in which the viewer enters the painting does not have bars. The cage is a five-sided cube, the sixth wall existing, presumably, behind the viewer’s head.
The concert Ben and Vee go to is at a theatre near the main drag, away from the dark mess of one-ways that Tara had led him through. It has balconies and opera boxes, and the stage is behind an enormous red velvet curtain, with shadowy folds from the ceiling to the stage floor. It looks like an old vaudeville theatre, but tonight a jam band will be playing. There are iron wall sconces and a bar in the back corner and the floor is sloped downward toward the stage. On the ceiling is painted a long black snake, looping over itself to form a coiled maze, black on mottled brown; in one corner, where it’s too dark to see, its tail is in its mouth.
Vee is excited to be feeling better and even more excited about the pills. They smoked before they came. Ben’s got them in his shoe. They arrive an hour after doors open and stake out a spot on the cement floor in front of the left subwoofer. They celebrate Vee’s feeling better by taking a whole one each.
The lights dim, and a drone emerges from behind the red curtain, oscillating toward them greenly. It is scratchy like a record needle; it gets louder, like a sea creature rising to the surface, and when it meets Vee she opens her mouth and feels the bassy scratch make her heart shiver. The guitar washes over her body. She swims. Somewhere behind her Ben is dancing too. If she turns she’ll have to reorient her whole world. She pulls and pushes against the music’s swell. It is turquoise and moves in waves. Now it turns metallic but still long and thick, and smooth, like a vein, and it twirls, she feels she could swim in the air if she wanted to. The redness of the drawn curtain makes her feel she’s outside a vein, sliding over its slippery unbroken surface, seeing and touching what no one sees or touches, an elaborate labyrinth coursing through the body, knowing just where to go to bring life; she thinks, as the music throbs around her, that veins carry life, that they are literally in our faces and yet we never think about them touch them recognize them for the beauty of the mazes inside us which we depend on though we cannot navigate. Ben dances behind her. What’s glorious about now is that the vein, the slippery, rubbery, bloodless curve of the outside of a vein makes her revel in not touching it, for fear of bursting it or diverting its precise course or simply of getting too close to the source. There is fear in closeness. The music tenses; it clashes with itself; it makes the vein loop around and pass through itself without breaking; it builds and builds, the tension, turquoise and purple, then red, it breaks free of the knot of veins; it climaxes, they are outside the vein now; people cheer because it did not burst.
The smell of blood permeates, as if an olfactory echo of what she just saw; now the guitar spikes out of the bass pool, sharp and slanted like a slide, sending her up and dropping off. She feels nauseous. The room is dark except for the color of the music and the red folds of curtain. The speakers are monstrous. Bodies dance and writhe around her like broken veins. She wonders if she’d know if someone were dead just by looking at them. Her stomach churns raucously but her body moves beyond her control.
Ben appears next to her when the colors fade to black. He guides her shoulders with his arm. Outside the sidewalk is hard and unevenly lit; the buildings wait like cubular giants in the shadows. At home the lights turn on to reveal their living room. Ben puts on a record; he has chosen something quiet and perfect. Vee theorizes that being dead is like finding out you were in a cage that now you can look into from the outside. Ben says if that’s true then by knowing that you should be able to see the cage, if you look for it. Not necessarily, Vee says, but she squints and wonders where to look. Vee, Ben says, there are so many things to experience that if you start to imagine them all you’ll never stop. There is never any reason to be bored. But if you get lost imagining them you risk never actually doing them. Hence the danger of imagination. What is the difference, says Vee; together they contemplate this thought.
Before she knows it, Ben is asleep and Vee has the apartment to explore for herself, and she does, and falls asleep on the couch as the sun is rising. The bristles now feel like weeds growing underneath her, thick and insistent, red again. She lies prone and stares up at the painting in which the dancers move freely but frozen behind the imaginary bars. The sun rises and there is day. She feels safer knowing the cage’s sixth wall is closed behind her. She imagines she’s dancing with them. Ben comes home from work and asks her how she’s feeling; he worries that she is sick again, or still sick. She does not answer because she is feeling too many things at once and she knows to put words to them would flatten them, would take her out of the painting. His voice contributes to, gets lost in, the flow; she hears him, she is listening; she does not respond.
Sometimes Ben wears a tie and sometimes he goes to bed. He’s not as interested in sharing her theories anymore and one time she smells red on him, like ginger, as he passes through the house at night. She sees the cage bars clearly now, their silver glint, how Nan managed to make them round and bend at the joints. Vee remembers how once she didn’t know that the entire painting takes place inside a cage. Outside the cage, through the bars’ interstices, fly the birds, the flying vees. Ben loosens his tie and looks worried. He apologizes for coming home late again and she hides the fact that she didn’t notice. And the music continues, created by the veins in her limbs as she lies on the couch, the pastel weedy couch which is not red unless she closes her eyes, and she spends much of her time in the painting from her childhood, where the music is louder and unmuffled, and one day lying there in yet another burst of infinite lucidity, blood pulsing through her body like music in a maze, she sits up with a jolt: but the painting was created before she’d picked her nickname, realizes Genevieve, so how had she known to paint the birds?