Olivia possessed a chic frustration with her inability to impact humankind, or Süskind-kind, for that matter. She kept secrets instead. One was that she would quit smoking soon. Too many of her arteries had been condemned. Those that hadn’t would be finished off by factory smog. Süskind’s dry season came through like a knotted stent. The wind was stabby, bus stop to café. “Need more ice,” she whined to Carlos, partitioned in the kitchen. She would not stop wearing tight pants, even if they sent the wrong message, because of their comfort and compression. At some point she stopped turning to face the men who pinched her. Classically heart-shaped cheeks curving to the palm of another passerby. Even Carlos positioned himself so their bodies touched. The side of his head brushed her bust. He forgot what he was pretending to reach for. She pictured his whole visage as round contaminant.
Her black bib, waitress outfit, and other service-industry adornments toggled on and off over her head like a neon “Jackpot” sign. Being a halfway-decent blonde by men’s throbbingly low standards was reason enough to swap clothes after getting tipped out. A hopeless romantic shuffling between the ghetto’s shadows and soft spotlighting, she considered taking her own life. The knowledge that men desired cripples fortified her even more. Two years after the collision, she was riding buses instead of bikes, warming to her discombobulated leg and its ungodly pangs. She knew promiscuity deluded one’s spiritual self. The oil-slick wing she clutched at night was lathered with human stench. Laying herself bare before a beloved (whomever), she felt born on the shore where life first slithered free.
Slouched in plastic seating, she massaged her left knee until her hands went numb. Yellow pullcords slapped the dirty windows. She positioned her temple against the pane, each whack lulling her further to sleep. Cash she’d made throughout the day sat at the bottom of her string bag, big bills at the top. In this low light, their green glowed. Crisp bills reminded her of her friends, so pristine they looked fake, overtaking beauty for something wordless, more of a blunder. No creases, folds, marks, wet off the press, warm and womblike. The room-temperature world beckoned, then fizzled. Eyes fixed on the oblong mirror above the bus driver’s head, Olivia obscured her face with the seat in front of her and tucked a bill into her mouth. She folded it hamburger-style and let it melt like a giant sheet of LSD, the ink slowly fading, turning her tongue blue. Outside, the sky whizzed by, trees cheering, their leaves shooting straight up like confetti. Olivia chewed, swallowed, shut her eyes.
Her neighborhood resembled an overturned litter box, a shit cascade. The cul-de-sac stank like twist-tied fecal matter. “Every cripple to their smothered cat,” she thought. The freeway was a dumping ground. The weed-whipped, sludgy ravine etched out the face of the block. She blinked the houses gone, leaving only the brown vines that coated them. People walked on air, dry-humping clumped bedding. Ghosts came to mean something to Olivia. People rebranded currency with a value in and of itself. The billfold was a remnant of palms. Rich people didn’t tip, because they were too close to the top to stop. They wouldn’t be shaken awake before the wet dream was over.
Olivia wasn’t convinced there was any separation between the way things were and what they were destined to become. “If only madness could be caught like a cold!” she thought. Men’s mouths opened in the toilet beneath her, a color-changing ink she distributed across their lips. The linen bills she ate absorbed well. The watermark spiced it up. Water in the toilet swirled blue then red as she flushed. She had never been the centerpiece of someone else’s life. She wished for celestial love, not window dressing, but the whole planet was disabled.
Years after the discovery of Süskind, astronomers still attempted to placate the populace, saying we’d missed its existence because it was hidden in a field of our own solar system that had been deemed uninhabitable. An inconceivable number of resources were spent trying to colonize Mars, despite the dangerously fluctuating surface temperature spanning from twenty to negative one hundred degrees Celsius within a single rotation. It was unclear how long it took for Süskind to form, in what was formerly known as the asteroid belt, situated between Mars and Jupiter, where asteroids orbited other asteroids orbiting the sun. The belt was not, as Hollywood would have us imagine, dense with miniature rocks. Even in the nineteenth century, a few dwarf planets in the belt held most of the mass in this orbit, kept in check by Jupiter’s extraordinary gravitational pull. Olivia had watched a video depicting the formation of Süskind with Claymation, goopy rocks coagulating until the planet got so big that its gravity pulled a bright moon in tow. The atmosphere surrounding Süskind – what they called a thermal blanket – was thick, keeping in the heat that tried to trickle through the vast expanse of space. Its moon was named Khonsu, after the Egyptian god of the night sky. In ancient Egypt, the god was represented by bright lights shining through the night, and it’s said that his power allowed women to conceive and filled every nostril with bursts of fresh air. Khonsu, the moon, was made of minerals so heat-absorptive that, even though Süskind was farther away than Mars, Süskind’s surface stayed not only habitable but fertile.
Olivia slipped another bill into her mouth, fiddling with the security ribbon. Black ink from the representation of a famous face dissolved, edges wrinkling, pooling in the clover of her tongue. The bus driver glanced back. She sat up in her seat. A line of wet plastic remained where she’d been leaning. Her baggy blue jeans rubbed nicely. She smiled without opening her mouth. The eyes floating above the bus driver’s head returned to the road. The bus screeched to a stop. A passenger wrapped in rags staggered up the steps, gloves so old they eroded in the whoosh of the folding doors. The man took a seat near the aisle, head wobbling as if it might come loose. The trunk of his body moved deliberately, deeply rooted. Olivia swallowed, but the bill got stuck in her throat. The man’s neck swiveled as she coughed. She tried to hold it in, but the bill slapped against her leg: pale green, blank.
Her tongue looked like the inside of a ballpoint pen. She smiled. The man grabbed the bottom of his facial wrapping and peeled it back. He saw thirty-two archaic-Egyptian symbols, which looked remarkably like a sentence he’d read in The Pyramid Texts – the unillustrated funerary text that predated both the Book of the Dead and Coffin Texts – one hieroglyph imprinted on her every tooth. His cane slipped from his lap and rattled on the rubber floor. There they were, each angled toward the other, magnetized beyond flesh, drawn into an expired prescription, the compressed air in the bus tires bouncing them closer. The death drives they both experienced were blurring. Night sky opened to crisscross two frozen asteroids, lighting their faces. Every painful step the man took was one step closer to this creature he’d written alive, this woman that, in his dreams, cut open his newspaper-wrapped organs and, sticky and red, pieced him back together.
Olivia didn’t know anyone else who was physically disabled, not well enough anyway, to mix and match lifestyle perks. She’d come to the planet to support her cognitively impaired parents. The plan, before her accident, was to stay only a few years. The pharmacy wouldn’t stop calling about her mother’s medication, but her mother had died months before. Olivia planned to scream at the technician in person. On her way to the pharmacy, she got clipped making a left turn. Now the leg was immobile. She continued to work, no alternative. Her father wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford any kind of palliative care.
Many cripples toured museums for free and embraced VIP status at restaurants, all in their luxurious wheelchairs. For Olivia, having a disability was like having a child. The extra time, care, and energy it took to do the things expected of her, with her bum leg, raced the hours by, her free time evaporating in a sauna of pseudo-healing. At her local café, she’d heard whispers of a facility, in the New Kingdom of Bagan, where real healing might be possible. Women prattled on about how they “got their lives back.”
“Do you ever astral project?” The man’s question manifested too confidently. She looked at his bootstraps, worn from being stroked. His immaculate posture inclined her way. She’d forgotten she was on a bus. She stammered, hawed, “I’m not d-doing anything this afternoon.” The authenticity of her stutter made her seem innocent, even if she looked like a witch. The man smelled her black-market L’air du Temps by Nina Ricci, sprayed and leaped through in her bathroom this morning. Perfume was illegal on most of the planet, even though most sensory sensitivities involved emotional problems. Most patients were too fussy about the separation of mind and body to agree to psychiatric care. He smelled the vegetarian meals she’d nibbled throughout the day, the peppermint toothpaste she hadn’t used since last night. She ate her way through her bottom lip. He said she should come over. “My stop,” he said, looking out the window, “is coming up.” He pulled the yellow cord and the clang noise froze in the bus speakers.
His presence jarred something in her. She was in it for the hidden quotidian, magic morning light substantiating the detailed texture of one’s palm. She’d never exited here before. Houses were built into the hills. He limped his way to a mound that looked as if it might heave over. “People ‘round here avoid the sun. It’s nice to spend most of the day underground without having to live in a sewer.” An entire ecosystem she hadn’t explored. No one appeared, even as dusk settled. His front door opened to a kitchen lined with jars of herbs and powders. Fungi stretched from the walls. “Have a seat,” he said, unwrapping the layers on his head. Their shadows danced out of sync with the candle’s twisting flame.
“Care for tea?” He knocked a jar down off the top shelf with his cane, the glass shattering on wood planks laid directly over dirt. “They seal themselves shut like that when they need privacy.” He gathered two handfuls of tea in his hairy, fingerless gloves and stirred the contents into separate mugs. The muddy powder barely dissolved, most of it clumping to the surface like a rash.
“Lemon’ll cut the taste. It’s strong at first.”
“What is it?” she asked, squeezing an eighth of a lemon, pulp and droplets bouncing on the top of the concoction.
“Don’t be afraid if your mouth goes numb.” The herb grew halfheartedly on Earth, but due to the acidity of the soil, the stock was even more potent on Süskind. “Better if you don’t know its name; you’ll experience it fuller.” His eyes looked wild through the steam above his mug. He downed his cup in two large gulps, holding eye contact. His tongue read the spattered mud at the bottom like braille. A green access card lay on the table between them. Her black one, in her bag, didn’t open half the doors a green card did.
Olivia took a small sip. Her tongue went numb. Playing with it against the roof of her mouth, she watched him move through a series of stretches. Each movement revealed more and more of his physique. He was very flexible and rarely blinked. His sandy-colored hair flopped across on his forehead; tight bulges of shoulder muscle winked through the haze.
There was a point before orgasm when anything could be done to her, potentiating, never diminishing, pleasure. Feathers, whips, razors, fists: the list was endless. This feeling of no-going-back swelled in her, an egg broken between her eyes. His gestures fiddled with the rings inside her, unlocking a liquid warmth that spiraled through her skeleton, saturating her, thickening her bones, bolstering confidence. The dim lighting increased the sense of smell. The humid air bloated with the scent of edible flowers, rags disappearing off the man’s body one by one. Archetypal fugue states flexed through shadows; a complexity beyond diction pared down their bodies. They were hovering inches above each other. The ash on his breath distended.
She didn’t know why she’d said it. Something about the mint flavor that her words had taken on, dissolving into night. One way to experience love, she thought, was to face the fear she had of her body. The man sat before her at the breakfast table. The mysticism that had festered the previous night slowly rung its worm as he rewrapped himself, covering what looked like shingles blisters on his trunk. He scrambled some eggs, dropped bread directly on the stove’s electric coils, and then poured juice after clandestinely scraping mold off the top. Olivia peeked past a blanketed window. Groups of soldiers rounded up citizens wrapped in cloth, not even their eyes visible. She imagined the sound of metal chains as the soldiers dragged the citizens into the train compartment. There was no resistance. She’d heard of these roundups. They were administered under the guise of medical testing. In the kitchen, the water table looked as if it had risen. The floorboards were damp. Particles floated up to swim atop the wood, collecting in the pockets where the legs of their chairs anchored. Her body was speckled with the man’s filth, this grit that, at first, she had hoped would consume her, her secrets.
Last night she’d wanted to witness his decay. Without wraps, he looked to be in his early thirties, with black hair, brown eyes, and an olive complexion. When he stretched, she lost track of time. It was an invitation to build her cocoon inside his head. If only she hadn’t told him he was different. She watched him slouch over the eggs as if he’d wept them there. Stains caked his jeans. A hole near his belly button showed itself. He tried to act as if he didn’t notice how filthy he was. Now that the tea had worn off, their experience was dipping away. She noticed how tense he was. Never had anyone tried so hard to breathe.
Halfway through the spontaneous embrace he’d been planning since he first laid eyes on her, she asked him for critiques of her technique. She instantly regretted asking, and knew she shouldn’t have. His reply made her retreat immediately back into herself. She was choking on her prayers, undoing the wish for a man who could provide and receive in equal measure. In this weakening infinity, the afterglow their sex produced, he mentioned his memoirs, and how he’d been writing about her, abstractly, for years. Now that they had found each other, he’d be able to edit. And would she help?
“Depressing,” she thought. All the world’s dogs were barking inside her. Her pores were filling in. The translucent film that kept her together sprang leaks. The man didn’t have a bathroom indoors, so she excused herself from the table, grabbed her bag, and then sat in the outhouse. A fenced backyard full of nothing but rotting pallets and a landlocked boat. She set the seat down, sobbing. Every prophecy she had ignored was coming true. Her hair, too heavily bleached, pulled out in clumps. Olivia wasn’t here to confess, but to bury herself in intestinal strife. She could steal his access card and gain entry to the Federal Reserve, but was it worth the mess? If he caught her, she might have to squash him dead. Peeling a fifty from the stack, and deciding she didn’t want his stink on her shoes, she deep-throated the bill.
Image Credit: Merigold Independent