Ron Ogórek tiptoed away from his daughter once her eyes were fixed to the TV screen. The calm that came over her when she stared into LED was so intense that he was sure in that state Jane could learn differential equations or ancient Chinese; yet mostly she watched Arthur reruns and YouTube videos about historical fires. (Currently, a documentary about the Chicago fire of 1871.) Sometimes he thought he was a bad father for letting a fire fixation fester in her, but nothing soothed her like holding a screen and staring into flames.
Through the kitchen window, the setting sun bulged like a mango in a fizzy jar. Ron went through the basement door, his shin splints slowing him on the steps down to the wine rack—wine as a hail mary after huffing on a paper bag and watching his favourite Genghis Khan episode. He wanted to sit under the stars, zooming in (if he could remember how) on Canis Major with the telescope his middle daughter, Bela, had given him. On the bottom step his left arm throbbed like he’d hurled a piano over the roof. He kicked open the cellar door, wedged it with a brick. As he reached into the rack for his last bottle of u-brew Jutrzenka, a flurry of pinpricks tickled his chest with dark pleasure. He inhaled: one, two. Had he drunk too much at dinner again, or not enough? His daughters had turned on each other at the dinner table, the stupid girls had almost murdered each other over some kraut, a głupi niemiec boyfriend. He didn’t know if he’d get outside with the telescope. Maybe he would just go to bed and be nice to himself.
Through the basement window, a crescent moon shone like a watermark in the sky. Wondering if it was a bad omen to see the sun and moon so close, he turned around and his foot smashed the brick, sending it to the wall. The door slammed. The bottle detonated on the concrete and lightning shot through his heart. He writhed on the floor, chewing his tongue among the shards, thinking about bad omens.
Ariel idled in her new-car-smelling Kia, wondering if, as a feminist, she’d made the right decision. She’d decided against the Honda Civic and Mazda3 as too bourgeois, too fratboyish. She’d felt “respectable” in the Ford Fusion, but didn’t trust this quality—a dog-whistle of structural violence—plus there was Henry Ford’s antisemitism. She’d considered the Chevrolet Malibu in solidarity with Labour, but the thought of her Coors-guzzling, buck-shooting cousins in Michigan had quashed that. Questions of practicality had kept her from a Tesla much less than an association with tech bros. As she’d planned a second test drive of the Toyota Prius Hybrid, the Kia dealership had called to slash the price by $1400 and throw in a year of oil changes. So here she was, waiting in the humming Rondo for her sister Bela, and she’d claim poverty and ignorance if anyone raised objections to her choice of car.
Idling behind a fleet of taxis, Ariel stared down the dusty, mirage-wet street towards the crescent-topped Bloor Tower. She wondered which of Bela’s friends would want to live in such a market-slaughtering condo—probably all of them—and which would have the money—probably none. But then again, Ariel could hardly name a single one of Bela’s friends.
Ariel spotted her sister coming out the automated doors. Bela had a springy step, as though her heels were outfitted with hover pads. As Bela neared, Ariel saw the creases in her cheetah-print dress, saw the swollen purple of her eye contours. Once a year, Ariel appropriated this look through $40 of Sephora, but Bela achieved it on the regular.
Bela got in, her dress hiking almost to her thighs, and Ariel counted the seconds before Bela closed her legs. She put on her left-turn signal and looked for an opening in the traffic.
“Who lives in Bloor Tower?”
“Jerry. My friend.
“Just a friend?”
Ariel looked over her shoulder and throttled into the traffic, overtaking a Dodge Ram whose driver blared his horn behind tinted windows. Fuck! If there was an accurate dictionary entry for “patriarch (n.),” then the cowboy in his tinted space-truck would be it. Ariel decided against venting these thoughts to her sister, because Bela tended to look for an exit when Ariel started expounding on social issues, and Ariel didn’t need her walking into oncoming traffic—the family had enough issues. She also didn’t want to look down too much on Bela, for whenever Ariel made her monthly visit to her father and two sisters, her general competency and aptitude, of which she had a ceaselessly fluctuating view, was thrown into generous relief.
They slowed to a red and Ariel said, “How do you know Jerry?”
“His cousin owns The Rubik’s Cube, on Queen West. He pays me sometimes to hang around there. I mean, to hang out at the tables with bottle service.”
“Are you sleeping with him? You can tell me.”
“No. He gives me money and he gets nothing in return.”
Ariel smiled at the not-fucking and at Bela’s cute conception of this supposedly zero-sum exchange. If someone in her graduate seminar was asking, she was against her sister trading on and perpetuating trad-femininity for a bit of coin, which only strengthened the nexus between money and male sexual power. But she was well practiced in the woker position: that Bela should make money however the fuck she wants.
Ariel pulled onto Jarvis Street and tried to think of some remark to defuse the tension, or what she would describe to her therapist as tension. Before she could think of something, Bela said, “I have a date tonight.”
Ariel didn’t know what to make of this.
Bela said, “He’s coming to the house for dinner.”
“You have a date? That’s so old-fashioned.”
“Well, I did meet him online.”
“Where? OkCupid? Plenty of Fish?”
When Ariel finally swallowed, she was unsure whether her feeling of alarm was alloyed with a grain of admiration—whether her sister was more a sultan’s concubine or Miley Cyrus.
“Do you get worried that all sorts of weird men on there are going to recognize you on the street?”
“I don’t show my face in my pictures.”
“That’s good,” said Ariel. “I mean, you do you. It’s good that you don’t show your face if you don’t want to. But if you did show your face, that’d be OK too because no one owns–”
“Yeah, OK,” said Bela.
“Whatever!” snapped Ariel, one-upping her. As she drove, she thought of a paper she’d written during her M.A. degree, “Three Simulacra of Sexual Traumas and Cultural Signalling,” which made use of Bela’s stints as a webcam model who’d fallen into this type of sex work by accident, after witnessing, alongside a friend on Chatroulette one tipsy Friday, how the flash of a nipple, or the potential for one, could make men on the Internet part with their money. Ariel’d then gotten permission to watch Bela on Chaturbate as Bela chatted, fully clothed, with anonymous men in free chat and waited for one of her “regulars”—those who paid for items on her Amazon wish list—to message her for a session. When one did, Ariel had slipped off downstairs to start her essay, adding the cryptic conjecture (unbeknownst to Bela at that time, and still unknown, as Bela didn’t read Ariel’s blogs) that Bela’s life had been altered by an Oedipal trauma related to their parents.
“Why’d you start using SeekingArrangement?” Ariel asked.
“I need to help more with the bills, now that dad’s at home all the time. And this puts me in a better position.”
“As a woman?”
“I guess. I don’t know. I’m done with the webcam. And I’m deleting all my online dating profiles.”
“Well, Rick doesn’t like it. And I can see why–”
“What the fuck? You’re letting some john you met on the Internet control your body?”
“He’s not a john. He’s actually really successful in the media.”
“What? What media?”
“I don’t know. You can ask him tonight, if you come to the house.”
As she drove, Ariel fought her overeager expression, which she imagined as like a Rottweiler sniffing a half-opened can of Chef Boyardee. Although she was seldom jealous of her sister, save for her looks (notwithstanding their problematic alignment with cishet norms) and—once in a while—her gall, she did admire Bela’s ability to maintain a blunt affect in the face of stimulating news—or maybe it was just that Bela didn’t really give a damn about anything, which was out of reach for Ariel in a world of gross inequality, rising sea levels, and Donald Trump.
Bela passed her a $20 bill for gas and Ariel imagined its sweaty provenance in the back pocket of “Jerry,” if that was really his name. Her eyes followed a contrail in the horizon as she tried to remember what it was she wanted to say. She called up the keywords in her mental cloud—income inequality, rising sea levels, Trump, Jerry, ass sweat, infantilizing commodification, the Simulacra of Sexual Traumas and Cultural Signalling—but whatever it was flew over her head like the jet in the sky. Her foot lifted from the gas as her eyes retraced the arc of the contrail.
She swerved back into her lane as the Jeep behind them blared its horn.
“Camille Paglia!” said Ariel.
“I just remembered: Are you still coming to my talk tonight on Camille Paglia and crypto-fascism?”
“Rick and I are going to a show. Assuming you get me home alive.”
Ariel bore her teeth simian-like, raked over the coals by this insult burning with the embers of family absenteeism—her guilt that she didn’t come around the house much. She gave the stink-eye to a blonde woman in the Jeep in her rear-view, remembering how Bela had promised—or at least said—she’d come to the talk. But Bela and the stupid blonde had rebuked her driving; she’d lost leverage. She drove on, her face a sullen mask of guilt and passive aggressiveness, hoping her silence would replenish some capital. She often worried that she ignored Jane, their youngest sister, the way Bela ignored her. But, on the other hand, she’d raised awareness of the autism spectrum through her highly trafficked Buzzfeed features, and what had Bela ever done for any cause?
Ariel drove faster, feeling the scales tip slightly in her favour. She relaxed: she had to let herself. She drew Deepak Chopra ohms into her diaphragm, topping up her authority over Bela—who, far from being qualified to bitch about her driving, lacked even a beginner’s permit—the two of them waiting as a sirening ambulance wove and sped in fits through an intersection. As they let it pass, Ariel saw that the blonde in the Jeep was actually a woman in a hijab.
Ariel was relieved, as they waited for the cars to start moving, when Bela broke the silence by saying, “We need to do something about the Pomeranian.”
But at this name, Ariel’s heart blipped. This was her father’s neighbour, “the Pomeranian”—whose pigfucker misanthropy had been debated and soliloquized for hours on end by the Ogóreks, with nothing to show for but palsied vocal cords. He was, in short, a bastard. There was nothing to suggest he was Pomeranian, or even Polish, except a vaguely Teutonized Slavic surname, but the moniker had stuck around to add to the legend.
“Have the police been involved?” asked Ariel.
“No, but he’s claiming he owns a strip of our front lawn. And he’s been cutting it. Just a metre across the length of it!”
“But it’s on the other side of his driveway. What good is it to him?”
“He showed dad this land survey. And then dad showed him ours, which shows something different. And the Pomeranian keeps cutting the strip.”
“Did you do anything about it?” asked Ariel.
“Last time he was cutting the strip, I went out there with dad and we asked him to stop. And he ignored us and we asked him again and he went inside and brought out the survey. I thought dad was going to murder him.”
“Maybe he should,” said Ariel.
Bela smiled. “I’ve been going out there and cutting the rest of our lawn afterwards so daddy doesn’t notice.”
“That’s treating the symptom, not the cause. Let’s go there right now.”
Ariel drove over the valley of gnarled trees under Sherbourne bridge and into Rosedale, downshifting upon the budding helicopter leaves, the bumble bees sprung from their pangs, a bandanaed woman sponging soap from a bucket and massaging her SUV. Ariel’s visits to her father and two sisters in the trellised, redbrick, lopsided house had grown more sporadic, and she needed to make a bigger effort, needed to do better. But here she was now: it counted for something.
She parked behind the old shell of a station wagon, which was rusted like a caboose. The oversized family house, mortgaged recently to help pay down debt (including Ariel’s grad school), was to Ariel a symbol of The Fall: the lie of Ron’s bourgeois largesse, his belt no longer containing his gut. Despite her memories here, she would’ve rather pulled into a small duplex in a noisy Filipino or Tamil enclave, although she knew Jane needed space to destroy.
Bela started to the front door and when she examined her flower box of lemongrass and lavender—at least Bela’d achieved that—Ariel said, “Where are you going? We have business to attend to.”
“Can’t I pee first?” asked Bela, squatting in pulses, her hand ironing down her dress.
“Let’s get this over with.”
“At least let me change out of this.”
“What does it matter what you’re wearing?”
Bela followed her sister’s orders and they walked down the driveway, Ariel snickering at the bolt of short weedy Ogórek lawn now nationalized by the Pomeranian. They reached the sidewalk, went left, and turned left again up the Pomeranian’s brick pathway, towards the snot-yellow house, the sight of which always injected a little infectious agent into whatever state Ariel was in. On the left half of the Pomeranian’s front lawn was a thick-trunked, Y-shaped ash tree with a little door under the fork.
Almost two decades ago, at Bela’s fifth birthday, when the legion of party girls were hoola-hooping on the front lawn, Ariel’d led the girls to the Pomeranian’s to open the tree door and discover what was inside—a baby? an elf? a birthday cake? As they acted out stereotypically feminine girl roles, the Pomeranian had run outside in an apron and with a butcher’s knife (there was a bit of uncertainty over this), gnashing his teeth, at least according to her memory (which was accurate in spirit, in his posture towards the world), and shooed the girls away. Ariel still didn’t know what was behind the door in the tree.
On the stoop, under austere, human-length shrubs, Ariel reached her hand out to the doorbell.
“Wait!” Bela said.
“I don’t want to deal with this now. Please. I’m not prepared. Can we do this later?”
“I can’t believe you right–”
“He’s not who you think he is,” said Bela. “This is not going to end well.”
“Just stand there and look pretty,” said Ariel, ringing the doorbell. She was incredulous at this damsel-in-distress performance (although it was admittedly a bit funny, her sister wearing the cheetah-print dress). She heard footsteps inside, but didn’t flinch. What could she be afraid of? She regularly brunched with former Toronto MP Cheri Dinovo and had been in a polycule with the daughter of a U of T provost. She had 8,000 followers on Twitter, including ANTIFA functionaries and hackers from SF to Berlin who’d cream themselves to put a white, heteronormative, patriarchal creep in their scopes. She patted the bulge of Mace Triple Action pepper spray—which she’d smuggled in with Shahzad on a cross-border trip to Port Huron and *always* kept in her pocket—the wind of the zeitgeist at her back.
A veiny hand opened the door half-way.
The Pomeranian squinted like a night-watchman shining a flashlight on peasants.
Slowly, Ariel ascertained that he wasn’t going to speak or open the door. She said, “Hello sir, we live next door—I mean, my sister here does. We’re the Ogóreks? May we have a word with you?”
The Pomeranian grunted in a way that was affirmative but showed his burnt wick.
He averted his icy, purple-ringed eyes from Bela and gawked at Ariel like a paper-skinned monster. Ariel said, “We understand there’s been a little altercation over the subsection of our lawn adjacent your driveway. And I want to tell you personally that I recognize your right to your own claim, your own semantics, and I want to strive to avoid any failure of language here. But practically speaking, because we should be pragmatists, unless you want to enlarge your driveway, which is already somewhat sizeable, then we ask, neighbour to neighbour, that you give up the claim and accept our gratitude…”
The Pomeranian turned away, the leg of his corduroy overalls stained with oil or ink. He disappeared somewhere, maybe to the next room. Before Ariel could appraise the expression on Bela’s face, the Pomeranian was coming at them through the door, carrying a folded map. Ariel hadn’t seen him in at least five years, and yet he looked identical, as though at some point his features had been cryogenically frozen in place: his meaty, lopsided ears and orkish nose, his full head of Siberian-white hair, his cotton-stretching potbelly, the serpentine eyes behind horn rims.
“Look here,” he said, unfolding a paper. He traced his stubby finger along the property border, which stretched past the sewer drain on the street (marked “SD”) to encompass some of the Ogóreks’ driveway. “It goes past the drain.” He pointed and they looked behind them at the current de facto border—the edge separating the Ogóreks’ lawn and the Pomeranian’s driveway—which aligned with the middle of the sewer drain.
“Be that as it may,” said Ariel, “practically speaking there’s little benefit to you unless you want to expand your driveway. Also, we have our own map, which shows the boundary to be in line with the current norms.”
“Your survey is from 1974. I’ve seen it,” he said, pointing to a little crown and signature beside the legend.
“Be that as it may–”
“Please don’t interrupt me when I’m speaking.”
“You have no legs to stand on, girls.”
“Excuse me? Sorry, I’m going to let that go in the interests of cooperation here. Do you intend to pave over this strip you keep cutting?”
“Maybe. That’s for me to decide.”
“Sir,” she said, arresting her vocal tear, “it would benefit all parties in this community if we could reach a short-term agreement to be revisited later. I have experience in these kinds of mediations. Maybe we could mow your front lawn for a month as a gesture of goodwill. Bela, give him your phone number.”
Bela ruffled through her purse, excavating her Galaxy as the Pomeranian shook his head, hissing “no, no, no.” He licked his lips and stared at Bela as she held the blinking LED. “No battery,” she said.
“I don’t need the number.” He closed the door a few degrees.
“Excuse me! See this line?” said Ariel, pointing back without looking. “This is not the Oder-Niessa line. Excuse me for being curt, but we are not provinces in the Soviet Union. You do not get to annex our property!”
The Pomeranian’s eyebrows formed a bushy arch over his reptile pupils. He tremored, his fingers flushing pig-red as they gripped the door.
“I don’t understand you!” he blared, like someone hard of hearing. “Why are you still here? Go on!”
“That’s exactly what men like you always say! ‘I can’t understand you.’ Always–”
“Get off my doorstep!”
The door flew in Ariel’s face, fanning it with heat. The deadbolt clicked: “Always telling women and people of colour, ‘I don’t understand you. You are so mysterious! I am unable to fathom your exotic and inscrutable viewpoints and desires, so I’ll pretend I didn’t hear them!’”
Ariel turned to see her sister turning 90 degrees on the sidewalk. Ariel was throttled like a hummingbird as she left the Pomeranian’s stoop and walked across his lawn and driveway, almost beating Bela to their door. Anger ejaculated through her ribs, eviscerating the detritus of her bourgeois, academic day writing PPT slides. She was *addicted* to the feeling of scaring herself—of summoning that Mesolithic feeling of shame that came from subverting hierarchies and town elders, of trolling white men.
Bela unlocked the front door and Ariel followed her, whiffing the woody musk of the foyer, dozens of shoes stacked like egg cartons. A bouquet of dandelions and forsythia soaked up dirt-flecked water in a square vase on the windowsill. Ariel wondered if Jane was home, but she didn’t see her pink Reeboks on the Welcome. She’d heard how last Wednesday the Pomeranian had threatened to call the police after seeing Jane screaming in tears on the front lawn in a kimono and zori sandals, her skin powdered white and hair tied with a tortoiseshell kanzashi. Ariel had meant to tell him to be more tolerant and understanding. She almost wanted to go back now.
In the tearoom Ariel dropped down in the rocking chair, its limbs squealing a little more under her weight than she remembered. She was sure no one ever came in here, which had remained undisturbed since their mother left them nine years ago: the teak China cabinet, Bubble Boy painting, Singer sewing machine. The sun had bleached the quilt at the window and the grandfather clock was frozen at 9. Ariel sometimes wanted to enter with a garbage bag and purge the room of its memories, but stopped herself because she didn’t know how Jane would react. As Ariel tapped out a badly auto-corrected text message to Shahzad, her boyfriend, telling him to come for dinner, Bela entered in her sweatpants.
“Can I use your phone?” she asked.
“What happened to yours?”
“I forgot the charger at Jerry’s.”
She handed over her iPhone. When Bela left, Ariel read the text she’d written, which gave their address and to “come in 45.” She wondered about Rick’s media connections, whether he had cache in New York; whether he could open doors. She’d never met any of Bela’s boyfriends, except James, who was older, but they were not to speak of him anymore because he was too much of a case for Bela’s head.
A lid crashed on the kitchen floor, spinning out of control till it suddenly stopped.
“Do you need help in there?” called out Ariel.
“No,” said Bela, and she was relieved.
Ariel righted her posture, straightening her back against the old oak and sliding her hands along the sloping arms. Closing her eyes, she funnelled air through her lungs and, when she was full and had conjured a sparkling, cathedral-sized Vishnu over a calm bay of tropical water, she exhaled through her nose, inwardly chanting “ohm” as the air stream fluttered the first arm of Vishnu—a gay mocha Buddha—like a wind chime. She drew breath again and swooshed the air toward the next arm—a non-conforming turbaned immortal cyborg—till the air fluttered the arm. And then she redirected the stream to a Hasidic boy on hormone replacement therapy, the smell of bigaos filling the tearoom, the western sun glimmering through the skylight, pinkening her closed-eye vision and warming her neck. The sunlight twirled on her face, jumping it like a battery. In her vision, below the levitating Vishnu from whom all creation stemmed, a golden urn leaked vespers over the water, which made her think of her disappeared mother, for some reason. She examined the next arm on her holy wheel and redirected her breath towards it, an asexual Kyoto herbivore man dressed for a Dragon Ball fair. As she alighted upon an Uppsala woman whose blond braids hid behind a niqab but whose aquamarine eyes were immodestly bright, the smell of pork crockets wafted like a street smell through her sensorium. She saw herself enshrouded last month at the #hijabweek solidarity drive organized by Cell #282. The smell of crochets was like a fart and her thoughts unspooled into BDS, the petrodollar, Muslim female modesty. She took a breath. She refocused her vision on the next arm of Vishnu: a dark, green-eyed Semitic girl in the holy land, burning in the pyre of history. Ariel’s ohm echoed under the cliffs and through the tropical bay as she aligned her breath with the little girl’s: same blood, same fears, same clock. As Ariel fused in oneness with the girl-bodied child, the appalling stooped silhouette of a Wojak flickered in the sky like a hologram. She tried to ignore it—Bela’s new boyfriend—but the specter lurched over, speeding her heart rate, sending pulse waves of dread down her spine. Ariel said her mantra louder, defiantly embedding herself in the girl’s green irises, which reflected the water: a dark purple convexity swelling, churning the surface, a scaley limb rising, currents pooling below, the tentacle soaring in the sky, a twin-headed serpent with two dozen eyes, a terrible island rising in the water.
Ariel tried to banish the omen, but the octopus tentacles took their grip, gnashing jaws, leviathan skull. She opened her eyes and reverted to a low-energy meditation, focusing only on her breath, which gradually overcame the tightness of her chest and the violence of her third eye. She restored calm and fell asleep in the afternoon sun.
Ariel opened an eye, wrenched from the REM-puzzle of sleep as if waking on the subway in her underwear. She hurried to the window, the essay sub-heading “Means of Reproduction” unreconciled with the under-ripe banana taste on her tongue. A gun-metal grey BMW sat in the driveway. A tall white man with black hair cut close at the sides and gelled in a flop on top passed the window in chinos, Birkenstocks, and a navy button-down. His silver Rolex relayed the sun into Ariel’s eyes. As he rang the doorbell and glanced over, Ariel fled, her world tattooed ultraviolet, to the bathroom, which was glistening and humid with the smell of bath salts.
Ariel looked into the mirror, but could not see her eyes behind the sun’s imprint. She ran a hand over the two clover-green strands in her hair; she twitched her nose, which bore a two-week-old septum ring that was for once not bothering her. As her vision resolved and the horseshoes faded, she saw her inflamed, swamp-green eyes in the mirror. She traced her hand over her belly, pushing against her t-shirt, and then removed her pop-bottle glasses and stood straighter. She contemplated the phrase “appearance is ideology,” which some frog-Nazi had spammed on Twitter yesterday, and shifted her stance, unable to find visual peace. She started dry-heaving, seizing up in remnants of body-image problems that were supposed to have been brought under control by Dr. Larsson.
Knowing Bela would call her out any second, she blinked rapidly, waiting for her conjunctivitis to stop screaming, and then opened the bathroom door. A baritone voice came from the TV room, next to the bathroom. She lingered outside the doorway and entered. Bela and Rick, sitting apart on the chesterfield, turned to her.
“Hi,” said Ariel, blinking.
“Ariel,” she said, moving towards him with her hand out. He shook it gently, weakly. He had a handlebar moustache like a 19th-century Prussian general, and she studied the slick mop of black hair buzzed at the sides. Ariel considered whether he’d snubbed her by staying seated, but she’d have opposed such a fraught formality anyway.
“So we had a tense episode with the neighbour,” said Bela, who started into the incident with the Pomeranian. Ariel, who hated hearing retold something she’d just lived through, shifted weight on her feet, considering whether to interrupt the conversation or stir the bigaos in the kitchen, which was not vegan. Ariel watched Bela, who changed clothes about four times a day and had put on jean shorts and spaghetti straps. When Bela gave the story behind the Pomeranian moniker, Rick exploded into peaks and troughs of full-throated laughter—the kind that overconfident, wealthy men had.
Rick said, “Are you guys Polish?”
“Yes,” said Ariel. “What are you?”
“Kraut–Anglo. My father was born in Germany.”
“I’ll trade you Szydło if you give us Merkel,” Ariel said, smiling at her formulation.
Ariel smiled and then thought about this: “What?”
Bela stopped twirling her hair and left for the kitchen.
Ariel glared at Rick, leveraging her home-turf advantage. “Well?”
Rick looked surprised. “Germany is always in the middle of outside forces. I guess kind of like Poland, but we actually, well, nevermind. It just seems like Germans are always marching too hard in some direction.”
“Maybe you’d like our history instead, of being invaded and dismembered by foreign powers?”
“It’s not like you did it,” she sneered. The truth was that Ariel, though born a Polish Catholic named Agata Ogórek, felt a dubious membership in the rank and file of oppressed peoples, due to her lily-white skin and the womb-obsessed, ethnonationalist politics of Warsaw. She would have gladly traded her ethnic identity for something more Brooklyn-chic; say, Ukrainian Jewish or Armenian.
“What do you have against Merkel?” said Ariel.
Rick laughed. “It doesn’t matter. We just met, right.”
“I want to know.”
Ariel prioritized finding allyship over determining whether someone’s apartment got morning sunlight. She and a classmate at Cell #281 had created an acronym, JILEBAFIRG (they were trying to come up with a better one), as a scorecard of issues—justice, immigration, labour, environment, banking, abortion, feminism, inequality, race, gay rights—to expedite this process. Ariel appraised Rick—his dog-whistles on race and immigration cast him in the reject pile. And that wasn’t even counting the money he was giving Bela or the militancy of his haircut.
Bela came from the kitchen in an apron. “Is she harassing you?” she asked Rick.
Rick smiled as Bela bent on all fours to poke through a snake pit of electrical cords under the table.
“Gonna be seeing more of that tonight?” Ariel muttered a bit loud.
Rick shook his head. He was about to speak, but decided against it. Ariel relished the sight. Trolling a man paying her sister for sex: yes, please!
Bela plugged in the A/C, which filled the room with an airplane hum, the machine squealing and pinging like the seconds before an explosion. Bela dragged over the fan, which added to the noise pollution and rustled Rick’s shirt at five-second intervals.
“I wonder if there’s something wrong with the fan. Maybe the coils are starting to freeze?”
“Sounds like a job for you,” said Ariel.
“Sure,” said Rick.
“What tools do you need to do that?” Ariel asked. “Maybe we have them here.”
“What? He offered.”
“He just got here.”
“Well, I guess it can wait.”
Rick stared at her—whether with incredulity or hate, she didn’t mind which, although she was curious.
“So, where do you work?” he said.
“I’m doing my PhD at the University of Toronto. I write sometimes for Buzzfeed.” She rushed to add: “My friend’s a contributing editor at Jacobin. I just sent her something yesterday.”
Rick’s lips curled. He covered his mouth with his hand and looked off, faking a cough.
“What’s so funny?”
“Where do you work?”
“Free Speech. Do you know it?”
That was it.
She sunk. There could be no meeting of the minds, no matter if Rick built schools in Haiti or sheltered stray cats.
Free Speech was a nominally libertarian blog—an amalgam of Ron Paul supporters, incels, pick-up artists, neo-reactionaries, and all manner of misfits signalling against modernity. A megaphone for anonymous bile, it’d mimicked the glossiness of sites like Vox and Salon. Its lunatic cadre of racists had even mutinied to form an offshoot, Hate Facts, which had been disavowed, unconvincingly, in Free Speech editorials.
“So I guess that makes us enemies,” said Ariel.
“I’m not a writer there. I’m just sort of behind the scenes.”
“Is that supposed to be better?” She sat up straighter on the couch as Bela sat beside her. “What’s your last name?”
“Speer. Ess pee ee ee ar.”
As she typed it into her phone, he asked, “Are you looking me up?”
“Uh huh.” Actually she was sending his name via Telegram to N3MO, a pink-mohawked Oakland hacker with a starfish tattoo on his cheek. A teddy bear in West Coast DSA circles, he completed contracts for the SPLC involving social engineering hacks and data collection on hate groups. As for Free Speech—which had gained prominence with a notorious article on Obama’s *alleged* plan to racially diversify U.S. neighbourhoods through Section 8 vouchers while prohibiting background checks on felons—N3MO could find out what connection Rick had to it, as well as any other dirt.
“I don’t have a lot of Followers,” he said.
Ariel copied his name into Google—5,100 on Twitter.
“Not bad,” she said.
As she scanned his tweets, which were mostly devoid of politics but had a jokey, channish flavor, the door to the basement opened. Jane’s pink Reeboks stepped through and hung suspended, testing the waters, followed by her smiley, squinty, upturned face, weightless as a balloon. She ran to Bela on the couch, jumped in her lap, and stuck her tongue out at Rick.
Ron came down the other stairwell, downcast, eyes fierce and skipping around, his cardigan faded, motheaten, one cuff stained black. Ariel hadn’t seen him in three weeks. His nose looked shiny and Macintosh-coloured, like he’d submerged it in ice. His walk was laboured—all sweaty regret. When he saw Ariel, he did a double-take and looked away.
“Co jest na obiad? Bigaos?” he asked, which Ariel slowly translated to herself as, “Are we having bigaos?” She’d stopped speaking Polish when she went away to undergrad at Sarah Lawrence, and had even resisted before that. Even *Jane* was probably better than her now.
Ron said something to Rick that Ariel couldn’t understand. Rick stood up with his hand out. Ron stared at him from multiple angles as he shook it, as though computing the results of a psychographic examination. Then Ron smiled slightly with, Ariel thought, satisfaction and approval—more approval than he’d shown Shahzad at their first meeting.
As Ron crouched with popping kneecaps to forage in the liquor cabinet, Ariel looked at Rick and said, “Were you the one that published that essay years ago about the Obama Administration’s plan to diversify the suburbs?”
“You mean ‘Against Diversity’?”
“That’s an incredibly fascist title.”
He smiled. “Are you always this nice to people you just met?”
Before she could answer, Ron was in front of them holding out vodka shots. Ariel didn’t really want one, but when Rick plucked one from Ron’s unsteady hands, she didn’t want to come off as a simpering maiden.
“Where’s Bela?” asked Rick.
“Doesn’t like vodka,” said Ron.
“Don’t you know anything about her?” said Ariel.
They clinked glasses and Ariel took her shot, coating her stomach with a warm fire. BDSM movie frames and Google Scholar titles about desiring-production spun on parallel reels in the sieve of her grey matter. The A/C blasted her knee with cheap icy wind. Why was she putting up with this? Rick was a john paying her sister—was also a fascist piece of shit, the likes of whom she’d have shouted out of any classroom by now, if the prof hadn’t. And yet she was drinking with him in her dad’s house.
Just then, Jane—who’d been sitting on the floor swiping through pictures of firetrucks on her iPad—leapt up, stole the vodka bottle, and ran upstairs. Ron barrelled after her, his gut flying like a garbage bag of books, his kurva punctured by dog-like panting on the steps. Through the floorboards Jane screamed in radiant agony. Ariel stared at Rick. As he typed on his phone his neck and arms looked tyrannosauruslike, hunched in repetitive edgelord strain. The wailing crescendoed upstairs, Ariel’s disdain for Rick competing with, and ultimately eviscerating, her embarrassment.
But the screaming continued and she asked, “So why did you print that, anyway? Just for clicks?”
Rick looked up from his screen. “Well, I don’t know where to start. There’s a lot to say there.”
Ariel flexed like she could fight a lion.
Rick sat up, his eyes shifting to the right as he chose his words. “Lack of ‘diversity’ is treated as a panacea for all the world’s problems. I mean, ten years ago, all the guys in balaclavas would protest globalization. Now they protest people protesting globalization.”
Ariel reached for the vodka on the table, but did not take it. She did not want to give the impression she was drinking as a way to wash down this totally dazzling insight, which was a siren song of the privileged. So what if white men had to go to the back of the line sometimes? They’d ruined half the traditional societies on earth, and yet now *they* were an endangered species?
Ariel charged mid-thought to the front door, sliding on the linoleum. She undid the deadbolt for Shahzad, for her reinforcement, who stood there with headphones over his fro—headphones he wore while driving, while shopping, while sleeping—and holding a bottle of Niagara Falls wine. He looked mellow, as usual, and she wanted to grab him and say, “Do you realize there’s a Nazi in the house?”
He’d already kissed her on the cheek and shed his sandals and started to the family room before she’d even briefed him apropos of diversity and Section 8 housing vouchers. She went and watched the back of his head as he shook hands with Rick. She stepped nearer and glared at them, watching closely for signs of micro-aggressions, but Rick’s face merely bore a smirk of social openness as he and Shahzad commented on the ninth-inning home run in the Toronto Blue Jays game (about which, notwithstanding baseball’s appeal across socio-economic strata, she did not give the hottest fuck).
The steps groaned and Ron re-materialized with the sloshing, uncapped vodka bottle. Shahzad handed him the Niagara Falls wine and he took it with an ungracious nod into the kitchen. Ariel sat down on the chesterfield, sweating, potato pancakes reheating in the kitchen, from where a flurry of Polish emanated as she took the measure of the male bonding in front of her. She’d always considered Shahzad too naïve; even if she pulled him aside and apprised him of Rick’s horrendous ideology, he’d probably just say it was in her head.
“When’s your talk tonight?” Shahzad asked, perceiving her bad mood as she reached for—but pulled back from—another shot.
“Are you and Bela coming?” Shahzad asked Rick.
“To what? We’re seeing Father Jack Rainy at the Port Lands.”
“Father Jack what?”
Rick showed Shahzad a video on his phone and Ariel drank the shot. Fuck you, she muttered, suffering this moment as inspiration for a new feature (or at least blogpost to shop around) on race, the patriarchy, and dating.
Bela appeared aproned in the door: “Dinnnnnnnner!”
Rick and Shahzad started for the dining room and when Shahzad passed the door, he craned his neck back and said to Ariel, still on the couch, “You comin’?”
He winked, went off.
Ariel entered the bathroom and put down the toilet seat lid. She sat, pulling out her phone. In her chat with N3MO, she typed, “That guy, you can hurt him if you want to.” She waited to hit Send.
“We shall not talk about what we just saw,” said Bela, “till the morning.”
“It’s not too late to go to the police,” said Rick.
“I know, but there’s nothing we can do this second and I don’t want to ruin tonight. We already paid for the tickets.”
“We could go to the police. What if he goes near your sister? You’re crazy.”
Bela and Rick stood in the drink line at the Port Lands behind a guy who’d used a full bottle of grooming cream in his hair and a girl dressed like Pocahontas in a leather headband and feathers. An indie rock band was playing, a blonde brother–sister duo on guitar and keyboards. Bela and Rick’d broken into the Pomeranian’s house an hour before, and what they’d seen in the basement made her want to drown herself in the port-o-potty, but she also didn’t understand it, didn’t know if they could get charged with B&E. And besides, she needed to be out right now, needed this, she thought, as she started moving her hips. Despite how fucked it was, she felt excited, like how you did when the night was young and you’d had one and a half drinks.
Bela watched Rick pay for two tall cans. He asked the Spanish lady in a visor, “Two hundred percent mark-up?”
She danced, “Eet eez what eet eez.”
Bela led them to a fence and sat on the concrete ledge in front. They clinked drinks and ate Portobello poutine in the shade. Bela looked back and forth from her food to the stage, to Rick, thinking she was seeing a shadow in her peripheral vision, a recurring hallucination spiked by the acid she’d done last night. Nonetheless, these few seconds were a good moment for her. She remembered how often she’d had good times tightly coiled with freak accidents. The day of her violent death, she decided, would surely be the sunniest day of the year.
A man with full-sleeve swan tattoos and a waxed moustache that she wanted to touch sat cross-legged on the ledge with a girl with straight bangs.
Rick stared at them. He said, “So what is this? What do you call this, is this a subculture?”
“Is it like, in the past you had people who followed weird trends, disdaining everything that was too normie. But then one day, maybe after September 11th, the KKK cool kids club decided it’d be ironic and rebellious to admire the mainstream, Beyoncé, Taylor Swift, whatever. Now these people are the conquistadors of all culture and you’re considered an asshole if you don’t like something.”
“I don’t know,” said Bela. “I guess. I mean, I don’t like Beyoncé. Or whatever.”
“Even this event,” he said, “like, is this some kind of culmination of our society?”
The void in her sleep last night, the springs on Jerry’s couch, scraped her tailbone. “That’s stupid.”
“What do you expect from this?” she said.
“I don’t know. Something more meaningful.”
“OK, how about we pick flowers under a waterfall and then poison ourselves?”
“I know, I know. But sometimes it’s just… just.”
“Just like, how do I put this: the industrial revolution and its consequences have been a disaster for the human race.”
He burst out laughing, choked on a cheese curd. She handed him his can and he pounded it back, laughing a few seconds, looking insane for another few. Bela didn’t find it funny, but at least he looked better when he smiled. She stared at the Toronto skyline with the CN Tower lit purple and red for the Raptors. People in her peripheral vision seemed to be drawing closer, unless it was the shadow-glitch, and, when they kept their course, she turned her head: it was her friend: was it? It was Silvia. Ariel’s friend. She returned Silvia’s wave and elbowed Rick: “What do we tell them about us?”
“What about us?”
Silvia was trotting over like a high-jumper about to clear a bar, arms outstretched, compelling Bela to jump up and follow script. They hugged, Bela feeling Silvia’s silky tie-dyed scarf as Silvia squeezed her. Silvia finally relented and introduced her two friends—Jess, a small-breasted girl in a bandana and bikini top, and Hernando, who had a Spanish accent and hovered around, tired and blinking out an obligatory smile.
“Hi!” said Silvia, centering Rick. “Have we been acquainted?”
“It’s…” Bela looked at Rick. “…my boyfriend. Rick.”
Rick’s eyes rose in a wave that quickly crashed.
“How’d you guys meet?”
“Of course!” said Silvia. “It’s weird not to meet that way!”
Silvia gushed with cosmic festival energy that made everything interesting, as if she was on Adderall narrating a TV documentary—like, Stalin killed a lot of people, but, like, it’s all in the past and it was just kind of part of the times!
They went off into the smallish crowd, following Jess, who rallied everyone with a plastic sword she held to the sky. Bela kept looking sideways at Rick for a read on what he thought of their “relationship.” She’d tell him later that the reason she’d introduced him that way was because Ariel’s friends always pitied her like her only skill was spraying OxiClean or sucking dick in club bathrooms.
The band played their last song. Rick said, “We’re in a relationship?”
“Was that bad? I don’t know why I said that, to be honest.”
“Well,” he said, drinking half his can. “I might be open to it.”
“Well, if we’re together, then we have to maintain each other’s attraction levels at all costs. We can have passionate intensity, we can let ourselves go sometimes, but we must acknowledge that unless we manage this by maintaining a certain distance and detachment, then bubbles will form, which will kill things. We have to treat attraction like we treat money or sleep or food.”
“I don’t like that,” she yelled into his ear.
“And I don’t like working every day.”
“So you mean you want me to push you away when I want to be close.”
“Yeah, sometimes. If you come on strong and I don’t reciprocate, you need to pull back. I mean, lab rats behave this way.”
Bela finished her can of Sapporo and danced into him lightly, looking at the rip in his khakis, seeing how he responded to her rhythm. Or didn’t. He seemed more into breaking and entering than dancing.
Bela: “But if we’re constantly trying to outdo each other to be blasé–”
“Then we could fall out of orbit.”
She nodded almost violently: “And it feels fake.”
“That’s because we’re not used to treating relationships as having laws, except in a kind of lame pick-up artist way. People want the lack of regulation, they want to cry.”
“Cry all day, dance all night.”
He didn’t respond to this. “They don’t want to demarcate their feelings too closely because that’s what robots do.”
“I don’t follow,” she yelled over applause.
“It’s like if this concert was kind of shitty, you could complain and leave and just burn all the money. But that wouldn’t be pragmatic. So instead you manage your expectations, drink more, take more selfies, and later you’ll tell people you had fun, or at least that it was OK. Or if the concert was totally amazing, you could lose yourself in it but then maybe you’d get bummed out in the coming weeks when your life was boring in comparison.”
“That’s not how it works,” she said.
“OK, bad example. But just think of marriage. People get married and they take this leap of faith, they sign this contract that’s against so much reason, and then they’re unhappy. Why? Because they stop following these dynamics I’m talking about.”
“I’m not proposing.”
At the intermission, walking through walls of bodies lined up for the port-o-potties, Bela pulled Rick by the hand and cut through a pair of war-pig chicks with Coach purses, at which point Rick wriggled out of Bela’s hand and turned his head from then, mouthing something in response to something they’d said, or just cursing life.
“What was that about?” she asked.
“I don’t know.”
“Why’d you let go of my hand?”
“Tell you later,” he said.
She punished him by taking his hand again and swinging it apelike and ever-higher, which, being tense as fuck, he must have disliked, but he let her. They walked back towards the plastic sword, Bela thinking she had no right to hold his past against him—and she didn’t actually care whether he’d fucked some Kanadyjke with an ugly purse. She wasn’t jealous, exactly, but there was something beyond curiosity. She didn’t mind the feeling of his hand, the veiny brittleness, the sense that he was an alien species coming into orbit with her. Maybe she could walk along the river with him at 4 a.m. He was good-looking but didn’t know what the hell he was doing.
As Rick left to buy beer, Silvia asked over the crowd, “How long have you been together?”
“About a month.”
Bela’s need to explain was relieved when Father Jack Rainy walked onstage in black with black-clad band members. He looked like a bipolar Amish funeral home worker off his meds.
Stab me in the face, you can call me Sid.
Father Jack Rainy gyrated his hips in a Figure 8 as he strummed a guitar. He was the only celebrity she found hot. Bela wondered what he’d say if she met him, if he’d try to tear through her with bad jokes.
The permed keyboard player hit the first notes to “Shorn in the USA” and the crowd held up lighters and smartphones. Did his wife peg him like the one song said?
Bela looked at Rick and then backed herself into him, wrapping his forearms around her abs. He secured her and they swayed to and fro, Bela trying to get him to move more rhythmically, Rick’s body (just a little bigger and stronger) feeling scientifically designed to fit hers.
She stared again at the CN tower, thinking about Rick’s past, her past. They’d only met twice before at a coffee shop. She’d only ever had one boyfriend, a 40-year-old sax player she gave her V-card to her second year of university before he left her for a salsa instructor. She’d been reeled in at the after-hours club by tunnels of tenor, rings of sound splashing everyone in the dark room, where you bought drinks with little tokens like Pachinko balls. The way he had that non-verbal power that made people cry with his music. She dropped out of school after he betrayed her. She’d seen him on Queen West the first day of spring, had turned to run the other way, and he’d trailed her a block, pleading, “Let me speak!” She hadn’t wanted to see his bowling-ball head, unlike before, when she’d implemented a black-out between them as a means to lure him back—a strategy that royally fucked her over, making her a magnet for his associations. It was worse than what Rick was prescribing.
There’s no need to love me, darling, I hate you as you are… when you’re alone.
Bela looked back at Rick, who was lightly rocking in an almost hypnagogic state, which pleased her to see. She felt vacantly vibrant, the clouds and sun playing tricks like when she’d use the fisheye mode on her webcam to make her tits look bigger. She felt like she’d lost the dial tone of herself and yet she felt OK. Rick looked at her and she thought about kissing him, but she turned back after a beat of hesitation. She waited before plunging herself deeper in his arms. She looked around—a butch girl in a Yankees cap smoked a vape and gave her the evil eye, as if they were crowding her—wondering what kind of bed Rick had, whether she’d lie in it tonight, having lain in so many to no end.
When you’re frowning and beneath me, I can hardly believe you’ve found me and I’m thrilled by that.
After the song, Father Jack Rainy pointed to the Budweiser truck bar: “Budweiser? That’s so fucking stupid.”
Silvia tapped through bodies along to the bass drum to “Bollywood Cemetery.” She got to Bela, jabbing the sword in the air for a 20-second dance circle. Silvia said something and Bela couldn’t understand even after two repeats, so she just smiled and drank the last drops of her can. She thought of grabbing Silvia’s arm and saying, “Do you want to do sewing this week?” because she knew Silvia did sewing, but something stopped her, some knowledge that Silvia would agree but it would never transpire, some anxiety like a two-foot wall that made her turn back.
Silvia unzipped Hernando’s backpack and pulled out a water bottle. Bela thought she saw a swirl of dissolved granules, unless it was a strobe effect. Silvia smiled and gave her the bottle in both hands, flat, as though presenting baby pajamas at a christening. Bela looked both ways and took a drink, remembering that she was on a date, at which point Silvia did a hand motion for “keep going.” Someone grabbed it out of Bela’s hands after her second drink. It was Rick, sucking down the bottle.
“This tastes like plastic,” he said, his Adam’s apple slowly putting through the order.
Silvia started laughing and then covered her mouth and neck with her palms, which made her look like Bane from The Dark Knight Rises. Bela pulled Silvia by the scarf, yelling into her ear: “What was that?”
“MDMA. With a twist.”
Bela said, “Should I tell him?”
“Tell me what?”
Silvia wielded the sword in the air and went off.
Someone’s gotta help me, pig. Someone’s gotta help me, pig. Someone’s gotta help me, pig.
Bela watched Father Jack Rainy jump on the bass drum and shake his bony ass. She didn’t know what to tell Rick. She had no idea if he did drugs. She countenanced the possibility that he would freak out, but there was no use lying to him if he’d had half the bottle, and it was his own fault anyway.
“It had a tiny bit of MDMA.”
“Oh my God. Are you serious?”
His eyes pulsed and he looked around, sticking two fingers in his mouth.
“Wait! Have you never done it?”
“Why don’t you see how you feel?”
“I don’t want to end up with some dude’s tongue down my throat.”
“What are you talking about? I thought you were supposed to be badass. I thought you wrote weird things on the Internet. You’ve never gone to a festival?”
Her chirping seemed to get to him, the arguments advancing like lava.
“Do it for me,” she said. “You broke into a stranger’s house tonight. Are you telling me you can’t handle a few hours of feeling good?”
He looked both ways, weighing options, and started coughing, as though to trigger puking, but then swallowed again and stood straighter, blinking hard, as though committing to the course.
FJR started his last song, holding the mic in one hand and swinging the cord like a jump rope.
Bela tried to change the subject: “Do you think Father Jack is past his prime? His new album kind of sucks and he’s always getting in political arguments on Facebook.”
Rick didn’t say anything.
“At least he’s not a one-hit wonder,” she said. “Or one of those artists who–”
“Who has a good first album and then makes another four with expensive production but no purpose left except trying to maintain a fan base that hasn’t taken the hint he’s never going to put out anything good again.”
Getting high on this ratshit as the global market crashes…
Bela smiled, trying to think of some way to tie a ribbon around this topic, as a token of appreciation for Rick taking drugs. In his ear: “The key to Father Jack, to being any sort of artist, is the mask. The persona of a tortured asshole. The second he takes the mask off and becomes Tosh Stillman the person, he might as well be giving a TED Talk.”
Bela wanted to listen to the end of the music, but Rick shouted in her ear, “I wonder if he minds that people don’t want the real him. But with everything videotaped, there’s nothing real left to preserve, and he knows that. So at least he’s smart.”
Father Jack Rainy played the last chord and the lights dimmed. The crowd did an exodus like a bunch of brats. Bela whistled and screamed and said a little prayer to the Creator if only Father Jack would play one more, pledging three days at the end of her life as an offering—and wasn’t this walk-off-plus-encore just expected now?—but the kids had ruined it by leaving and she knew there wouldn’t be one. Nevertheless, she looked over at Silvia and Rick and it dawned on her that she’d been left with the first rays of a burgeoning MDMA high.
She felt like an abandoned child in an amusement park. Bela could still hear Father Jack Rainy in her inner ear as the crowd thinned into stray colonies on the concrete. She followed her friends away and, if before it was like kayaking through a maze of rapids, now it was like circumnavigating ancient mossy pillars in the deep sea.
She remembered how she and Rick had planned to go to the police station in the morning.
The new chemical reality was altering that.
“Are you guys coming to Loft404?” Silvia asked.
Bela looked at Rick. He said nothing but his eyes said yes. They started to the exit by the lineup at the Korean-Mexican fusion vendor, Bela blossoming with peace even as she remembered what sick shit her neighbour had done. The ideology of serotonin.
She was thankful to have some MDMA suddenly imposed, that she couldn’t get nervous over—molly seemed too easy a hack to not feel guilt over—so long as this was good stuff Silvia had gotten. She judged people over their drugs the same way you’d judge someone over their punctuality or hygiene. She could deal with a micropenis or a bit of poverty, but bad drugs made you as cool as Chelsea Clinton or Meghan McCain.
A girl in a beanie was paying a vendor when Rick said “oh shit!” and blocked his face with his hand. He looked sideways to gauge whether Bela had heard. She made sure her grin said that, oh yes, she had. They caught up to Silvia with her sword by a taxi parade. Rick said, “I’ll explain.”
“It’s on Adelaide, between John and Duncan,” said Silvia. She pointed to an SUV with gold rims and an Arab guy in a purple suit staring out the window.
“You guys can take this if you don’t mind paying a business-class fare.”
Rick opened the door for Bela and she grabbed his shoulder and ducked onto a leather seat. Rick climbed in and closed the door. “You have some explaining to do,” she said with a huge radiant smile, like she was 12 years old in a caravan in starry Arabia, or Palestine, a caravan following the North Star to the manger. Rick smiled: “Explain what?” The driver looked back and said gruffly, “Where we go, folks.”
Bela laughed, having forgotten the driver. “Hey,” she said to Rick, but he was buried in his phone.
“What’s the address?” Bela asked.
For Bela, watching him on MDMA was like watching a wolf play with a baby chick. He told the driver the address and they pulled onto the expressway. The traffic was molasses, but she wouldn’t have objected to an eternity like this.
“So, you want me to red-pill you on my woman situation.”
“I don’t know what that means, but OK.”
“First thing is I do have a girlfriend. None of those girls at the show. Yes, I’m a piece of shit. Or, I guess I have two, now that we’ve consummated our love publicly.”
Bela tore her mouth open with her smirk and took a stick of gum from her pocket, the flutter of sparks in her taste buds making her lick her lips. “Look, I only said that because Silvia doesn’t take me seriously. I’m not some… jezebel.” She smiled, she imagined, in a witchlike way. “I don’t just clean toilets and do nails. I just feel like none of Ariel’s friends take me seriously. They treat me like a lost puppy.”
She wasn’t sure what he meant, so she just smiled out the window and then said, “Do you have a picture of her? Of your girlfriend.”
Rick swiped through his iPhone, through wedding photos, resort photos, bridesmaid photos of a dirty-blond girl with a long large jutting triangle of a nose that made her look like an opinionated lawyer who had a mortgage and a pantry full of organic food.
“She’s an app developer,” he groaned.
He swiped through the phone till he got to some red-panties pix, a belly button glinting gold, more than a little enticing (Rick was not dating down). He shielded the phone until he got back to bridesmaid photos, breasts clamped by the purple cups of her dress. He cautiously rotated the screen towards Bela. The girl in the photos had no bags under her eyes, no runaway feelings. She looked upright and demanding and Bela imagined her calculating the price per kilo of broccoli or directing a construction crew to rewire her kitchen. She would not take Bela seriously if they met in person.
Bela thought this and sawed her jaw, but then treated herself to the observation that this girl was endowed with a slightly hulking forehead and mouth—to buttress her beefy brain—and sharp unground incisors that were vampirish when she smiled, which was not often in the pictures.
Bela said, “Can I read the last few texts she sent you?”
He surrendered his phone with a shrug, but his hand was ready to spring.
Telia: I was thinking about that conversation we had last week. there was one thing that bothered me that you said and I thought it would be good if we could talk about it?
Rick: What thing
Telia: What you said about priorities, with regard to what my mom said
Telia: Where are you
Telia: Are we going to breakfast tomorrow
Rick: I don’t think your mom meant anything by that
Telia: Can we still talk about it though
Bela cycled back to messages from unnamed numbers. She looked at Rick; he nodded, permitting her to click. One was a picture of two girls in pink gym shorts in a bar, leaning on each other with elbows jutted chickenlike. Another said, “im alone here bb 😘.”
“Dude, you’re throwing up red flags like a matador.”
He flushed with embarrassment but didn’t stop her from cycling through more messages.
“Wait. Are you saying you’re judging me?”
“What the fuck does that mean?”
Silence. A bus honking at a renegade cyclist. Seeing herself from the sky, panning into inflammation.
“I’ve only ever slept with one man.”
The driver, a statue among their ranting, turned around to look Bela up and down. She was not afraid of anyone right now. She felt like she was underwater in a cocoon with jet streams massaging her temples, even as she felt she would be impounded by walls of betrayal. She wanted to say she’d only fucked James three times and the first time hadn’t worked, but she chose to let the men’s judgment fan out and breathe.
“You know you were talking about sticking your tongue down some guy’s throat, maybe you and this g–”… she didn’t finish. The driver didn’t flinch and she wondered if he comprehended as Silvia’s magic water leapfrogged through her synapses and jammed any potential for confrontation. It wasn’t the driver’s fault anyway. She looked at Rick.
“I’m sorry,” he said.
“I’ll delay your punishment till tomorrow.” She laughed at the writhing Medusa mass of cocks that Rick ascribed to her, a twinkling mass like stars.
“I can assure you that you’re the whore in this vehicle,” she said.
“No. This isn’t who I am.”
The driver pulled off on the shoulder on Adelaide and looked back. Rick said, “No, continue.”
“All this degeneracy on my phone, I didn’t mean to become someone like that. It’s not who I am.”
“Anything that inhibits human progress.”
“Isn’t busting a nut in a chick progress?”
“Not your average Tinder crazy.”
“Where do I fall on that spectrum?” she asked, her stomach flying on a broomstick through a cloud of narco-turbulence.
He reached out his claw and they clasped hands, his fingers sharp and surprisingly small. Bela’s vision was swelling into a glitch-art forcefield. She turned to look at her reflection in the window: her pupils were soaring and alien and did not fit the rest of her face. Molly had saved her life, but it always made her look like a UFO crash site.
“I never meant to go on all those websites,” he said.
“And you think I did?”
“Well, I did go on them. I went on as a sociological experiment. The sugar-daddy sites. Maybe I wanted to get addicted.” He looked introspective for the first time since she met him. “I used them past the point of research, but here I am. But if it’s what it took to meet you, it was worth it.”
They stuck their claws toward each other and clasped again slowly.
“Am I a research experiment?” she said.
He bent to kiss her neck and the driver shot them a look in the rear-view.
She sat up: “Why do you feel bad about going on those sites?”
“I help run one of the biggest websites for men and politics. All we do is rail against excesses in the current year. Most of our readers think of women as fallen creatures. But then we publish articles on how to game them, a whole encyclopedia on how to sleep with every nationality of slut under the sun. And I’m getting pix of some girl’s vagina I’ve never met… It’s like I’m a recovering drug addict who does a tour of high schools sharing his story to inspire kids but then does lines in the principal’s bathroom.”
“We arrive, folk,” said the driver. They got out on Adelaide West at a dusty office building with “Herald” lettered in the window, maybe the old headquarters of a newspaper. Across the street, a firetruck pulled into the station as a homeless man passed. In the lobby below Loft404 they flashed IDs to a short guy with a turtle-shaped head.
“It’s on the fourth floor.”
The elevator arrived after a few minutes, two steps out of alignment with the floor, its lights buzzing and flickering. Bela and Rick held hands and entered. The elevator started to creep up. She didn’t know what to say: they’d barely talked before tonight. What are we? The cable wobbled and went taut, the industrial whir skipping a beat. Bela smelled sandalwood incense that diffused like a blown dandelion as they rose up.
She’d always pictured herself with someone musical and local, not rich and unknowable. She wondered if Rick just viewed her as a womb for his progeny, as social proof for neckbeards. If he gave her a monthly allowance, if she could lie under his weird shade, if there were more states with him to ascend to—maybe they could make this work.
The elevator opened upon chugging basslines and an earpieced security guard who last month had thrown out a rapey Sigma male following her from room to room. Bela kissed him on the cheek and Rick took out his money clip to hand bills to a frizzy redhead in a corset that suffocated her freckled tits. Bela stared into their jiggliness and Rick waited for her. She felt like a little girl about to dive into a ballroom at Chuck E. Cheese or McDonalds—Scrooge McDuck paddling through his gold safe. She took Rick’s hand and went slowly towards the Skittles strobe hues. This was a test for him, she decided, and she would give him a report card.
The first room was playing slow minimalist techno and Bela didn’t recognize the DJ or the people. She pierced her hand with a laser, catching it in her palm as a guy with a blue beard and a blinking WWE Championship wrestling belt crossed. She looked at Rick, who was already at the door to the hall to the next room. Minus one point.
The hallway connected to old hardwood rooms with mirrors and antique bookcases, one with a clawfoot tub with three people spooning. Bela and Rick blew like a jet of exhaust upon the main dance floor, where Matt Von Wilde in his Mad Hatter Hat spun jungle house. She took a step forward and felt herself crystallize, felt many pairs of eyes alight on her in a way she welcomed, as though offering herself at a shrine. She wouldn’t have minded seeing Silvia even. She recognized people, but she closed her eyes and a voice, as though tapping the back of her head, told her there was a lot going on in her life, that she was treading in a hot-water pocket in the Arctic and that if she strayed too far or lingered too long, she would freeze. She remembered Rick Speer like a crossfire among the ambiance and opened her eyes to see him entering the final room with the bar. She told a girl she liked her fury gilet and then tapped Rick on the shoulder at the bar, docking him points for abandoning her but giving him a temporary exemption. She turned to the smoothie stand, read the whiteboard: Awakening, Phoenix, Revival, Angelic, till settling on a Nightcrawler with acai, quinoa, and passionfruit. She hesitated to order. On MDMA, she was afraid to break the ice, although when she did she couldn’t shut up. (When she talked to people high, she often felt the next day that she’d harassed them, because she often had, asking them to speak Japanese when they looked Japanese but turned out to be Chinese, or offering drugs to some lonely yuppy who only resented her for breaking their mono-person in-group.) The smoothie-stand owner was her friend’s cousin, but she did not bring this up, just held out the money and placed her order with a clean smile, hoping her pupils weren’t sucking in the whole world and that she was able to determine the change—2 dollars—he should give her. She wanted to plant herself by the DJ like an old tree and just sway to the sounds, but Rick was nudging her back to the hall and she was too high to swat him down.
They went into a little room and Bela fell back in a nest of downy pillows on a purple velvet sofa. She wanted to take her clothes off and get in a hot tub.
“Where did we leave off?”
Rick shifted his jaw and brushed off pant crumbs that, to Bela, seemed non-existent.
“What do you think of this place?” said Bela.
“This place. One time I accidentally wandered into a place like this in Russia. But it was less gay. It was for oligarchs.”
Bela did not want to think about Russia, for it brought her father’s rants to mind.
“What’s your girlfriend’s name?” she asked.
“Am I going to become her?” asked Bela.
He hesitated: “I think so. I need to get away from her. She’s good to me, but we’re not on the same page.”
He looked at her intensely and suddenly looked away, as though she’d caught him staring at her.
“I’m a culture warrior but she’s apathetic to all that. Which I like… but for the wrong reasons. I want her to be apathetic because of apathy. But she’s apathetic because she’s too busy going to Women in STEM conferences and doing Python on Coursera. The second she takes the time to read up on anything and opens her mouth, I just want to die.”
“Why are you with her?” asked Bela. She felt adrenaline cresting in her heart, like she needed to dance or detonate.
“You want to hear my theory? My theory is you shouldn’t date someone who’s more than a 7 out of 10 unless you’re a sultan or an idiot. Because of jealousy. And second…” He shook his head, his pupils rolling like marbles in the red of the lamp. “Nah, I can’t tell you.”
She slapped his arm: “Say it!”
“Only if you tell me a secret too.”
“But then we have to go dance. Seriously man. I could talk to your grandfather’s grave right now. But I want to dance!” She slapped him close to the crotch, which made him jolt up. “Mine is probably worse than yours anyway.”
“Fine,” he said, drawing breath. “When I started going on those sites, like, SeekingArrangement, it gave me a kind of rush to tiptoe around Telia getting these pictures from girls, planning my next tryst. Like if I was single it would be desperate and sad and I wouldn’t have the patience for it, I’d just be depressed I was single. But because I have a girlfriend it’s forbidden fruit, it’s something I juggle with my excess mental capacity, and girls smell it. It raises all my boats even when it destroys me.”
“I should tell her!”
“My phone is dead anyway.”
He took out his iPhone: “All these billions of high-time-preference bonobos ordering food and fuckbuddies to the door 24/7. The idea of just not doing something, of having a negative opinion about consumption, it’s anathema.”
This was not the direction Bela wanted to go in. Sitting here like this on MDMA was like putting on a ballroom dress to buy smokes at 7-Eleven.
“Okay, I’ll tell you mine,” said Bela.
“Let’s race to the bottom.”
“Well, yours is like that. Mine not so much.” Bela did not know how he responded to insults. “I told you I haven’t seen my mom in years. She went to Argentina to live with a plastic surgeon. The last Christmas card, from two years ago, had a Florida return address and some money.”
“So now you’re the mother figure?”
“I got so angry at her I started to wonder whether she was my real mother. People say I don’t look like them.” Rick nodded in agreement. “So I took a 23andMe and got Jane to take one. She loved spitting in the cup.”
“Oh, I know how it works.”
Bela lost her train of thought as banana lasers lapped against the hallway wall. She felt like she’d slid through a trapdoor into a new phase of the drug lifecycle where she was splayed out on an operating table with the molly irradiating the amino acids in her eyes. Why was she sitting here talking about genetic tests? She remembered: “So our mitochondrial DNA groups were the same, which means our mothers are quite likely the same–”
“I know how it works. I’ve gotten six different tests.”
“High five,” she said, clasping his hand. “That must be the first thing we have in common, right? Buying genetic tests.”
“I think so.”
“I also got Ariel and Ron tested. I said it was ‘genealogy research.’ But the real reason was that Jane’s test was so different from mine that I thought we must have a different father. And then Ariel’s test was like Jane’s, and my dad’s was pretty similar.”
“What did yours show?” He blushed like his face had a boner.
“It showed Polish but a lot of, um, you know, Siberia…”
“Yakut? Lapp? Mongolian?”
“The Yakut was absent from theirs but it was 22% in mine. Even the traits were different, the earwax, the sprinter. I had one copy of this mutation in the BCS-something gene but they didn’t. I ordered us tests from another company and it was the same shit almost. And it’s not like I don’t look a little Asian if you look at me from above.”
“No wonder you work at a nail salon.”
“Fuck you.” Bela stood up: “Dance with yourself tonight.”
“You don’t even know how to dance,” she said, “and you want nothing more than a reason not to.”
Rick’s face went wrinkly and flappy like a Basset Hound’s, and Bela wanted to grab it, but she hated him right now, on a microscopic but ocean-deep wavelength.
“I didn’t mean it as an insult. I stan Asians. Asians are good at visual tasks. Computers, ping pong, Photoshop. By the way, what’s your Neanderthal admixture?”
“My dad is 2.9% and my sisters are 2.8, but I’m 3.6.”
“I salute you, Neanderthal master-race.”
Bela thought of the war she’d seen on TV between tall, warlike homosapiens and stocky, beetle-browed cavemen. How would a Neanderthal act on Methylenedioxymethamphetamine if they couldn’t talk?
“So you’re an orphan,” said Rick, “with your mother gone. Not knowing who your father is. Did you try to find him?”
Bela shook her head. “Ron’s my father now. I don’t even know if he knows he isn’t. Whoever my real dad is, he didn’t stick around. Plus he was into my mother, which doesn’t recommend him highly.”
“Did you tell Ariel?”
“No. She was pissed she didn’t have African DNA and only a tiny bit Jewish. If I told her what I found in my test she’d turn it into an essay. I’m pretty sure she doesn’t know any of it.”
Rick laughed deep in his belly and Bela imagined him laughing at a skinny kid in a locker room.
“What about her?” Bela was not averse to Agata-trashing—Agata, who’d abandoned Bela to raise Jane, as she wrote articles from her apartment about autism. (Jane was featured humming and throwing mud for a few seconds in a Vice special.) Still, Bela did not want to hear his laugh again—maybe even felt a shiver of protectiveness over her sister—and so did not tell him that Ariel’s birth name was Agata Ogórek, or that she sometimes wrote under “Ariel Ogberg.”
“Your sister is an exemplar of white women in the current year.”
“Your sister thinks everyone can just work at a media company and take part in some passive Internet revolution to put down the drawbridge and extend the franchise to all of humanity. The whole impossibility and laziness of the project is what elevates it to a religious level. She’d ridicule somebody who believes in creationism or won’t vaccinate their kid. But then she’d assail you with equally stupid beliefs.”
Bela closed her eyes; kaleidoscopes hatched.
“It’s just all dildo-pluralism. She wants to be a mother hen, in an armchair, pumpkin latte way.”
“You’re a horrible person,” she said, turned off by the phrase “dildo-pluralism.”
He shrugged. “We’re all just riding our own wave, we’re all social engineers. You, though…” He looked at her in a doctorly way, nudging her chin up delicately. “Everything makes sense now that I know you’re an orphan. Your lack of a father. Would you describe yourself as a girl surrounded by mostly guy friends?”
“Not really. More like a girl surrounded by guys who want to bang me but aren’t my friends.”
A fortyish guy in a kilt and his girl made for the couch, startled when they saw Bela and Rick.
“Why hello! Good tidings!” said the guy. “Do you mind if we use this mirror?” The girl was reaching under his kilt.
“Not at all,” said Bela. “We were just talking about genetic tests and dildo pluralism. Now we’re going to dance.”
The girl’s cheeks dimpled with her colossal smile, the kind of all-purpose smile Bela gave when she didn’t know what someone was talking about. The girl said: “You mean PLUR like peace, love, unity, and respect? Like, LGBTQ+ rights in EDM?”
“Exactly,” said Rick, leading Bela away before she could say anything else.
“Is there a Facebook group for that?”
“It’s in the bathroom,” Rick said.
At the bar, Rick bought two beers.
“Hold your horses,” Bela said.
She drank half of her forgotten, mostly full smoothie, which had melted in her hand. She offered the rest to a bug-eyed, quivery guy on the dance floor who kept removing and donning his shirt and looked like he was going to detonate. She took one of the pilsners, unsure Rick could handle himself, and led him by the hand deeper into the dance floor, which was teeming like a squatter house, purple nets of light bisected by yellow bananas. A couple made room for Bela and Rick, the guy saying in a butler’s voice “right this way,” and when they planted their feet on their own square footage facing the DJ and Bela moved her feet, casting off leg irons, it was like a force (she pictured a sperm) swam down through her leg (originating in her pineal gland) and she wondered why they hadn’t done this the second they got here, but she was glad to be here now in their own private archipelago that could end any second if the drugs or the sound technician pulled the plug.
Bela nudged Rick lightly on the shoulder and he chugged a bit and she put her hands on his shoulders till he moved with her. He had dark eyes and a chiseled grandfather hawk face. The sounds transmigrated through her stomach, gravity delayed, Bela putting her head back and sighing so long, unable to believe that she’d met someone—had she?—no matter what he looked like in the morning sun. She put her hands on his hips and she spun them like a wheel of fortune to unlock their rhythms. He was like an 18-year-old who’d left his mother’s house on a first date.
Near the “No photography” sign, Bela watched a permed strawberry blonde in a headband dancing. The woman had taken two of the many balloons in the Loft and tied them around her wrists, her long, black-clad legs and balloon arms gyrating in cunnilingus alphabet patterns. Bela went up to her just to be closer and the woman came to her, creating a bicycle motion with her hands that cast an electric force over Bela. They looked at each other till the woman said something about “happy” and when Bela said “what?” the woman pulled a balloon down and said, “This is Happy” in a northeastern European accent.
Bela turned around. Rick stood there almost slobbering in a way that’d be creepy if she didn’t know he was high as fuck. The blue beard with the WWE Championship belt said something to him. Bela waved him over and the European girl said “how cute!” Rick looked puppylike and confused, and, sensing that he had nothing to add, the European woman turned around and returned to her prior state of carving bassline triangles in the air with Happy.
Bela felt her brain flicker with a doppler effect, a sudden isometric hallucination of standing in a dance floor, removed from her body, time dragging her by the hair into the future. She felt like she’d lost a physical dimension and she held out her hand to Rick, who took it. He pulled her close and he stank so good, his lemony deodorant a halo around his misanthropy. She smelled him and he, for once, slunk a bit, let his posture down and mingled with her.
She looked around as he looked around. A guy in a cab-driver cap was looking at them. She wasn’t ashamed as she put her arms around Rick and looked him in the eye, in the part of him taking her in under the shadow. She undid his cuffs and slid his sleeves up, stroking his forearms. More people were staring and she put his hand on her back and moved closer to his face until it was a fuzzy presence so near and welcome that it was like it wasn’t separate and she puckered her lips. There was a movement like a stirring in his lips and she moved her head forward and paused it on his, letting their surprising coolness suffuse a second and transfer her a bit of moisture until she decided to take it from him, whatever was owed her. She thought of dancing in the Baltic as a little girl and draping herself in a skin of seafoam. She thought of Telia and whether they’d get along. Her brain created a sort of pink-splashed, linear graph of Telia’s personality that she could interpret but not explain to herself. She could only compare it to the green, chaotic graph that she rendered for herself. And then she tried to make one for Rick but there was something occluded, or maybe it was light yellow and misty, and she put her tongue out and he opened his mouth and released a beer vapor like the smell of her one handsome uncle who slept in the spare room before her mother left, and she felt like she knew Rick, but she knew no one knew anyone. She slid her tongue in his mouth and he closed his teeth slightly to tame it and then he slid his in hers and she did the same with her teeth until they fell back on shallow kisses and met again more lightly. She tucked her chin back and looked at him. The DJ was mixing in the intro to Bowie’s “As the World Turns,” the masque from Labyrinth. She wanted Rick’s taste buds again on her tongue and she took it as he said, “We’re going to have a good future,” and she wondered if this was being streamed from her REM sleep. She put her arms at the nape of Rick’s neck, slow-dancing, but she moved her feet faster. Rick smiled and she could feel this being strung to the ball of five or so memories that formed her identity, could feel the aura casting light over the coming days, like the aura of a pleasurable migraine. Rick said something and walked backwards before turning to the bar. There was a short-haired woman DJing and Bela went up to her and said she was the greatest of all time and the DJ thanked her, putting her palms together and closing her eyes like a nun in prayer. Bela wanted to freeze this moment forever, like pausing a horror movie on the one hidden frame of a lily.
She leaned against the wall, people-watching during the downbeat, the culmination of her 15-year-old obsession with MDMA. She still couldn’t believe a scene like this existed. When she was 12 she’d log onto Dutch drug forums and scroll through pictures of empathy-enhanced people who’d achieved a beautiful crumpled wonder as they watched the sun rise after dancing all night in a warehouse. She’d avoided trying molly for a decade, having read that it would splice her nerve endings and leave her perma-tired and hungry like black spots on her soul. But when she finally did it, she realized that taking it once every four months was more therapeutic than daily Effexor. It was like uploading her memories to a removable hard drive, formatting her brain, and reinstalling everything. Half of her thought process would be purified in the coming days, but there was always the suspicion that something had changed, that the contents had shifted during the flight, the slightest hum not there before.
She clenched and lined up to buy water as the DJ handed off the decks to an Asian-looking guy in a straight-brimmed cap.
Rick came to her. “I can see why you do this,” he said in her ear. “At concerts, everyone stands like zombies waiting for their feeding. But this is like some primitive Mesolithic ceremony. And this drug. Just… just.”
Ninety minutes later, her knees feeling blown out by dynamite, Bela took a three-quarters-full tall can from Rick, put it on a ledge, and led him by the hand through the hallway to the couches. She was getting a chill. Two of the three couches were taken and the purple velvet one had space for one body. She let Rick sit and she sat on the arm.
A BBW with an LED tiara who reeked of Flowerbomb was being repeatedly told by her smaller friend to “believe in yourself” as the friend swayed her hands in some California Dreaming luau way, even though it was trance through the walls. The sight of Rick sweating made Bela sicker, like she’d snorted a rhinitis spore. His forehead looked like it was slathered in sunscreen under the Caribbean sun. Bela reached for a tissue in her pocket and dabbed his head, but this only made him mad.
“What did you do to me?” he said.
“What are you talking about? You grabbed that bottle out of my hand.”
“Yeah, I didn’t expect you to put fucking psychoactive chemicals in your water.”
He burped and inhaled with a swoosh, as though his stomach had a little vacuum inside.
Bela felt disconnected from her fingers, flipping her palms over and down again. She wondered what the fuck the “twist” was in the water. She should’ve cut Rick off after three drinks, because he clearly could not hold his own—although she knew there was something to be said for having experience with drugs, for having teetered hundreds of times on the edge of psychosis and vomiting.
“I’m sorry you don’t feel good.”
A guy with a shaved head, backpack, suspenders, and boxer-briefs came into the room. Bela couldn’t tell whether he was more some rarefied gay fashion autist or else a perverted street guy who’d jump on any eye contact like a fly on shit. She rubbed Rick’s forearm to distract him.
“I can’t go to the police in the morning,” said Rick.
“That’s okay. You might feel better.”
“What are we going to tell them? That we met on SeekingArrangement?”
Rick looked at the boxer-briefs guy. Bela wanted to tell him not to stare, but she felt a great wall rising between the two of them, the U.S.–Mexico border.
Rick muttered something that tapered off.
“What?” Bela asked.
“So am I supposed to pay you an arrangement?”
“Fuck off,” she said. “Why would you say that?”
“What, isn’t that the deal?”
She waited a moment, as though pressing her face into a blank white wall. Then she shook and a tear fell down.
“Can you calm down,” she said.
“I feel violated. This is not OK.”
She thought how even in a world where you might get kidnapped or run over by a car, she could not count on anyone for refuge even for one evening.
“I needed you to be different,” she said.
Rick writhed on the sofa like a worm on a sidewalk.
“I’m sorry you feel that way. I don’t like me either. But would you rather it took five months to figure out who I am?”
The couches swelled with refugees from the dance floor.
“Part of being human is to hide the shitty parts of yourself.”
Rick said nothing, splayed back in discomfort, his gaunt, pimply belly winking under his shirt. Bela pitied how ugly he looked: how low his form could go.
“You act like you’re living in some unrestrained way but your life is a lie.”
“Honestly,” he burped, “I don’t know why you’re mad at me. Did we not meet on a disreputable website? Yes or yes?”
Bela loathed his snakelike voice, as though she were some Facebook comment being deconstructed. The way he marshalled all his venom to make the world her fault. Even if he said something that made sense, she’d fight back, she decided, because he was dismissing her, and she’d bleed herself dry before she let another person do that.
The guy in the boxer-briefs perched on the other arm of the sofa and looked at Bela. She wondered why everyone had converged in this room. She hated them all and everything was severed and snipped and convulsing, like the foot bath massager at the salon when it malfunctioned and the mechanical limbs hummed for nothing, the empty vessel’s clicking noise.
“It’s not what you said, it’s how you said it. The way you brought up this ‘arrangement’ when you didn’t have to. The way you blame me for feeling like shit.”
“So it is what I said.”
Bela shifted a few inches on the ledge, away from Rick, until she was sharing breathing space with the wall and some girl with full sleeves who looked pissed off. Bela looked across the void to Rick, his large, flat forehead greased like a frying pan. She noticed that she had no desire to argue with him, that she was not even sad yet, that the sadness would take a few days.
“Come back here,” he said.
Bela stared at the wall, on which tracers crumpled and uncrumpled like candy wrappers. She hadn’t seen Silvia in the Loft except for two minutes, but she hated her for the “twist,” a twist of the knife in her brain.
“Bela,” said Rick. “You don’t have much going on in your life…”
Her chest lurched and she considered elbowing him in the face.
“…but neither do I. Well, I have a condo and more ability to milk resources out of the environment. But I like being around you, we could lean on each other. We could live in the Alps or something. But you’d have to accept me because I’m not sorry and I’m never sorry.”
He looked so piggish and diseased that Bela didn’t think he could pay a crackwhore for an arm wrestle. But she did not want to do him a favour by telling him this, did not want to get between silence and eternity. She felt a ghost limb of fascination that he could be so awful.
Clapping came from the main dance floor. Bela imagined pursuing Rick to a thatched cottage in the mountains, where she could escape her family and send them care packages every few months. She could study Japanese and live near a sauna. Maybe she could finish her last year of school as a child grew inside her, as she crawled on hands and knees through the dirt as she always had, low-down and close to the earth as she would for the rest of time.
She looked at Rick and didn’t know where she was.
“This isn’t normal,” she said.
Rick tsked. “Nothing’s normal. You have a smartphone, right?”
“Well, if you have a smartphone then you’re not normal. You missed that opportunity. We’re all…”
“I get tired of your commentary. It’s all some rationalization for your sexual frustration. You have no idea how to talk to women. You don’t even know how to dance. All it takes is a bit of enthusiasm. But you’re looking around like the world is some museum.”
His line of sight focused a second before returning to wiggles.
“Bela, congrats on this analysis. I’m sure you’d be a really clutch partner if I ever want to, you know, water plants or play Ouija.”
“Fuck you. I’m leaving.”
She shivered, the dam of pent-up self-hate crumbling under her tears, her face raw and cold under Revlon.
“Wait,” he said. “Don’t go. You’re right about me, everything you say. And I wouldn’t let anyone talk to me like that. But get real for a second, the deck is stacked against you. I’ll message Telia and tell her it’s over. I’ll help you with the mortgage payments. I’ll find Jane a support worker and we’ll go to the police. I’m fucking sorry.”
Bela thought of Oscar, a black tabbie hit by a station wagon before entering ultraviolet convulsions. She started to sob and the tattooed girl asked if she was okay. She could feel, on a time delay, her hatred of Rick converting into a more low-level, familiar hatred of the world. It wasn’t that he’d seemed like somebody she could huddle with in a warm refuge against the outside until he’d shown himself to be shit. It was more that he was the Arctic wind itself, a modulated computer voice telling her she wasn’t enough. He could serve no more purpose in her life than pushing her to withdraw into the invisibility she craved—more likely, pushing her to charge at the nearest electrical socket with a fork.
“I need you to do one last thing for me,” she said. “I need you to call me a cab and delete my number.”
“No.” He burped and covered his mouth, leaping from the sofa and barfing on his hand beside an antique horse. He looked back in her direction, not making her out between his flooding eyes and puke hanging like string cheese. “Wait,” he yelled, “wait,” stalking into the hall. Bela got up, but couldn’t see him behind the wall of people in the hall, people with high self-esteem, who, if they’d ever experienced anything like this, had gotten it out of their systems years ago. She returned to the couch, where some guy sat like a hen incubating rotten eggs in Rick’s seat. He jumped up, almost knocking her over, and she reclaimed the seat—toasty. Bela watched a girl with a large block head and hyper-focused eyes behind problem glasses. If you were a doctor or lawyer, she thought, you just leapfrogged the lower halls and qualified for better partners. And if you weren’t respectable, but you were reasonably attractive, you could still find decent specimens and gradually trade up. But Bela was not respectable—she did not register on anyone important’s radar and merely straddled a low rung of girls who posted vintage clothes on Instagram. She could not hope for anything but future sad trajectories with wiry, sick-minded Internet men with shitty jobs and dysfunctional relationships with their dicks.
A guy with sunglasses and a beater and a five o’clock shadow was inching closer to her on the couch—unless she was paranoid—his arms stretched in a cycling motion in the air, in some drugged yogic posture. Bela’s eyes were weighted by marbles crashing down. Strung out for the third time in two weeks. Deep under her skin, under the synthetic melt of eyeshadow, there was a little girl’s voice crying out for childhood, or just for self-destruction, crying out for the fact that she wanted to be delivered from this but had nowhere to go, crying at the drumming of trance in 4:4, a marching band in cyborg hell.
I need to get out in the world, but what did this mean? Not getting high and sleeping till 4 p.m. Maybe she could take on extra shifts, buy a plane ticket to Japan, and have enough left to pay for a PSW for Jane while she was gone. Bela already knew the kana scripts and 800 kanji. She had an app.
A bearded guy in a cape squeezed in beside the beater guy and when they offered Bela a line she hopped up from the couch, berating them with her inner voice, but there was nowhere to hop to and she had to tap her way through bodies. She averted her eyes in a state of bawling and not existing, and heard a voice, maybe her own, ask if she was okay. After a minute, she asked the people in front of her if anyone was lined up for the bathroom, and it turned out that no one was, according to the facial expression of one of the staff collecting empties, so she barricaded herself in there, locking the door, re-locking it.
In the mirror, Bela took a strand of hair and then a clump of her locks, trying to refashion it to fit her jawline, but she looked haggard, her eyes schized out and puffy, her jaw bulky after so much sawing, or maybe she was gaining weight. She saw a preview of her future self as someone knocked on the door. She started removing her eye makeup and shouted “wait a second!” as a male voice said there were plenty of mirrors in the other rooms.
She took a breath and he started pounding, and when Bela opened the door she stared at the guy and he looked back insolently till putting his head down and going in. Kill yourself. The dildo pluralism girl’s eyes hit on Bela in the hallway, and Bela put her finger to her lips as if she was sneaking around the living room on Christmas Eve. She’d never seen the Loft this packed before, and when she returned to the room with couches she didn’t see Rick, but saw a fresh wave of fucking Toronto douchebags hollering and reclining, trying to jumpstart the night.
Bela went into the hallway and paced around. She cut through bodies to the bar. Past two guys kissing, she thought she saw Rick ordering something. He downed a water bottle and passed the bartender another bill, the bartender raising her hand to level with him, maybe about the dangers of water intoxication, and then he took a phone call, did a 360-scan, and started walking back to the entrance. Bela followed, three-dozen bodies between them, the DJ playing an ambient track to clear the dance floor. At the exit she nodded to one of the bouncers, the one who’d saved her from the supercreep, and saw the elevator closing, Rick’s Swatch glinting, disappearing. Bela went down the fire escape, wondering why he was leaving, why she was following, what she should say, whether she should say anything at all, or maybe this was the best ending possible. When she got to the street, she saw him sticking his head through a cab window and opening the passenger door. He looked more sober than 10 minutes ago.
Bela breathed in the wet, exhaust-pricked air, stepping out of the way of a procession of suited-up, loudmouthed Toronto men marching to a victory beat. Bela thought about what it’d be like to snatch up one of these assholes—could she even?—as she hailed a cab. Rick hadn’t thought enough of her to say goodbye. She waited five minutes until someone picked her up—her worth. As the cab turned onto University Ave, she saw her life framed behind glass and it was like a rat-chewed watercolour, a winter funeral with no one attending.
She would not dangle over the rabbit hole of disturbed men on the Internet who could only alter her life in disturbing ways. She would stop going to clubs, which gave her nothing but the occasional envelope when she worked the coat check or brought bottles to a table. She would take on more shifts and work harder on her hiragana and conjugation until she could get a loan and go back to school. She would take Vyvanse when she had a heroic shift. She would go to the police station in the morning, alone, first messaging Rick, but probably not. She took out her phone to compose a goodbye message that she knew she wouldn’t send—got the no-battery flash. She resolved to be someone who kept her phone charged at all times.
Bela heard nothing but crickets as the cab sped closer to Rosedale. The driver lingered at the bending three-way stop where cars often skidded and crashed. Maybe, after checking on Ron and Jane, she would take a walk in the ravine and sit among the trees, waiting for the sunrise and reading manga on her phone.
When the driver said “hmmm” she untangled the red and blue lights from the memory of the Loft’s strobes. A police car was in her driveway.
The door blew open and hovered, almost closing before flying open again, buffeted by winds, a tropical electrical storm. Rick Speer stood in his housecoat in the hall, not knowing if the lightning flashes were in the world or in his head. Who had opened the door, and why?
His mind flickered with senility, trying to find a signal among the static, and when he found a channel, it was, “I am in my apartment, and the world is gay.” He shut the door and checked his phone—an act that didn’t ground him or restore his vital signs so much as plug him back into the bright blue glow of Sponsored Content and status updates high-beaming the fetal ball of his cognition, a symbiosis close to what it meant to be alive in the current year.
“Where are you?” Telia had texted at 7:49 a.m.
“This is the last time,” she’d written at 11:02 p.m. “I hope you’re having an amazing night wherever you are! Clearly, what you are doing is so much more important than me!”
The little twister forming on the sea of Rick’s moral sense did not have a witness in the plaque of his consciousness, and so it died. He’d learned to leverage these low points in his relationship with Telia in order to accent the peaks, rather than chasing the dodo of a “happy, sunny relationship” or whatever the hell they talked about in the Russian novels he fell asleep reading. Mostly, he did what he wanted, seeing girls from the Internet behind Telia’s back and then, once the winds got too rough, showering her with sweet texts and attention and facing down her threats till one night she was lying under him, parting her rusty locks once again and telling him she loved him, at which point they’d reached the next phase of their sunny relations, framed by a knowledge of trauma and a history of collaborative overcoming.
His mind was dripping like the AC he’d fiddled with at Bela’s. He felt like his mental searchlight was unable to devour anything. There was a reason you didn’t take MDMA if you were somebody. Besides promoting extremely gay thoughts last night—lending answers to life’s impasses that were no more realpolitik than Bambi gallivanting through the meadows—it’d tattooed his grey matter, lasering his short-term memory like hairs in a Groupon session.
Rick Speer lay in bed, feeling dozens of feet below the floor, below the planks, in the cold earth. He picked up his phone again. He needed a VPN like Bela needed an IUD. It was only the morning, or the early afternoon, but already he felt like his phone was a ghost limb, like he would need to scull through the day on little boosts of notification dopamine.
He had bruises on his neck and didn’t know if Bela wanted to talk to him or if he wanted to talk to her. Last night, when the Pomeranian pulled the Glock out and stuck it in his mouth, Rick had promised he wouldn’t talk to the police about what he and Bela’d seen. It was all gauzy and maximally fucked up, fat deposits transubstantiating in water, all these coiled insides of Bela and her family, Bela and the party, Bela and the Pomeranian, Bela and Telia. He did not know where he stood with her, and a larger part—or at least his id—didn’t care. But he felt in the not caring the footprint of serotonin leeches.
His Lake Shore apartment was a convection oven tickled by Freon; he was empty. He could not achieve death by jumping out the window; maybe a broken ankle. He said to himself, I’m bleeding…, a mantra he’d whisper when he looked out at the void, which he was old enough to know not to plumb, for it led either to the emergency room or a hooker’s perfumed embrace. (He couldn’t think of a situation—funerals, his aunt’s cystic fibrosis diagnosis—that wasn’t overshadowed by a hologram of his dick, by the impulse-opening of an Incognito tab with Sugar Babies and Craigslist, or an 18-year-old Moldovan on a webcam.)
This is my struggle, he’d say to his four real-life friends, not knowing what was worse—the shockwaves through his life of having no self-control (especially as a half-German!), or the hypocrisy of editing a men’s webzine that ran three articles a day excoriating “degeneracy” and sexual licentiousness.
He went to the kitchen to pour himself a glass of water, then another.
The water could not breed stability. His ruminations were a spiral staircase to a resinous dungeon with candlelight flickering over sleep-sapping repetitions. He scanned his faculties: he was a bit hungry. He felt no direct sexual urge; his testes were inert. His blepharitis was overshadowed by brain damage. His heartbeat was surprisingly light, and he did not feel as groggy as expected. He got distracted taking his pulse after five beats. The real question was the woman question, the question that kept on hatching new versions of itself. He edited a file on his phone:
Telia – Bad fashion – 115 IQ – 42-28-38 – Dutch, Scottish (Beaker) – Mid Beauty – High Economic Usefulness/Agency – Maybe Child rearing – BAD conversation – High Neediness, Blah sex – Obama, Kanye West, accounting, Python, C++
Bela – Good fashion – 107 IQ – 37-26-36 – Slavic / Siberian, Yakut (high Neanderthal, high EHG) – High Beauty – Low economic Usefulness – Child rearing yes – Neediness? – Sex? – Party, drugs, music, dancing, Japanese
Rick wanted to start a family in order to create a productive prison for himself; he wanted to send sons out into the world to fight the rising tide of high-time-preference degeneracy. (If all the last men became remedial teachers in a critical studies class headmastered by the Zuckerberg dynasty, why not commit seppuku now?) He’d given Telia a “pre-engagement” opal ring, though he wasn’t sure he wanted to commingle with her genetic matter and risk the passing on of her love of Beyoncé, notwithstanding her Mensa brain (he rated her IQ lower than what Mensa had, which rated it 133), as well as the manifold advantages of her being a Woman in Tech.
He’d never had sex with Bela, he thought, collapsing on his bed, and therefore didn’t know her, but having a SeekingArrangement profile painted a black mark on her forehead (he was aware of his double standard; he knew he deserved to be thrown out of a helicopter).
As he lay back and stretched, he started feeling more mentally hygienic, as if someone had unscrewed his brain casing, vacuumed the dust, and streamlined the wiring. But when he nodded off and his brain entered pools of false-alarm dreams (more just ephemeral flittings of the dance floor) till he really was sleeping—doing breaststroke in a stone pool overlooking an orchid-lined fjord and shooting his arms out and scissoring his legs froglike—he sensed a karmic shadow darting across the pool floor, or was it his own? As he summersaulted into the wall and kicked out, an infant hand gripped his ankle. He stopped kicking. He could not see anything in the pool but sunflecks on the surface. He tried twisting his head back, but the hand adjusted its grip and he spun in circles. He used the other foot and kicked at the hand, hitting a small torso. He kicked at it again and torpedoed forward in a frenzy, squeezing the kid until the hand pulled him underwater, and he fought to resurface, drawing air, but the hand dragged him to the bottom of the pool and he cracked his hand on the concrete, chugging water, opening his eyes underwater and seeing the child, a beautiful burgher boy in Alpine Swiss suspenders killing him.
He woke to the sound of crashing glass as his skull went through the bottom of the pool. The crinkling continued as he drew consciousness and touched his head, thankful it wasn’t busted open, thankful he’d achieved a few minutes of brain-defragging REM. He lay panting at the stucco ceiling, more optimistic he was going to recover from MDMA and from all his bruises, even if he was still a few feet in the earth. He went to the bathroom to piss a radioactive stream, and when he went to the fridge to pour a new glass of water he noticed the broken window. A rock shaped like a distended brain sat on a kitchen tile. Rick didn’t know whether he wanted it to be real or a serotonin syndrome glitch. He picked up the rock and it felt evil. He put it on the counter, broomed up the glass beneath the curtain. He turned on the light and the rock glared as though hexed by a Javanese shaman. Who had done this?