Divide et impera
For as long as I can remember, people have been telling me I look lost - on the street, in my own birthday parties, in fetish clubs. They say it kindly, with big eyes and mild concern in their voice. You seem lost, so how can I help you? I only wish they would stop assuming I want to be found. I love having no spatial awareness and floating just outside my body; I love it and it is terrifying. Terrifying when I float too far away and I’m not here anymore. When I am lost like that, no stranger can give me the directions back to where I need to be. Does that place even exist? The older I grow the more I doubt it, and the less it worries me.
‘You look lost’, a man shouts at me over the music. ‘You OK?’. I nod, and he nods and shows mercy, disappearing down a darkened corridor. Sometimes the right to remain lost is only given after lengthy negotiations. Luckily, I am in a party full of people who are all too happy to focus only on themselves.
This night is syrupy, suffocating, and I’m struggling to keep my head above the surface. The waters aren’t gentle. At the edges of my consciousness, a static buzzes like a chainsaw, grinding violently. I’m not going to listen to it. I’m not going to die. Besides, this house is already a little hell, so hot and humid that everyone needs to keep moving just to stop spores from growing on their clothes, on their skin - I imagine little colonies of black mould covering my arm and shudder, drowning the thought into a kiss. My target is chosen by pure proximity, or it could be fate. A tattooed man with close-cut hair, his mouth bitter and stale. He laps at my tongue like a big cat licking a saucer. I squeeze my eyes shut and try to stay very still.
‘Why don’t you kiss me like you mean it’, he says. I open my mouth a little wider. It’s disgusting.
‘What’s your name?’ he asks, and I say the first thing that pops into my head. ‘Celia.’ I don’t want to know a single one of his biographical details, so I lean closer to his ear and whisper: ‘Do you want to fuck me?’ in a crude change of tactics. He stumbles on his feet before nodding. I kiss the tattoo covering his neck, a red orchid with a blue dove in its mouth. I won’t look at his face, because only his stranger-ness can kill the familiarity of my dread.
The bathroom tiles are swirling in blue, a cold comfort against my knees. I unbuckle his belt without glancing up, take him into my mouth, and it’s like the kiss, comfortingly unpleasant. The man is too high. I work him for a while before giving up.
‘I don’t think it’s going to happen’, I say and get back on my feet.
‘Wait’, he says. ‘Let me take you home.’
‘Where do you live?’
‘Just two blocks down.’
‘Okay.’ We don’t turn the lights on when we get there. He’s sobered up enough to take the reins, his hands pressing on my shoulders, steering me. He stops in the middle of the pitch-black hallway, embracing me from behind, pressing kisses on the side of my neck.
‘That’s not what I asked you to do.’ There’s a challenge in my tone, and it works just right. I need another fight to pick. He pushes me into the bedroom, against the wall, and throws me onto the bed. I’m struggling in form, but really I’m just drowning.
‘Shit’, he says, stilling for a moment. ‘I don’t have a-’
‘No’, I interject, and my hands are already smoothing him over, negotiating. ‘Please. I need it’. That’s all the coaxing he needs.
I wake up with a sandpaper tongue, straining to open my eyes. The blinds are drawn, but sunlight is streaming in. A man’s arm snakes across my chest, heavy with sleep and sweat. His face is turned away, and there is a tattoo on his neck. I close my eyes and try to grasp at the night, but nothing comes back to me, a nothing so complete it makes me shiver. There is a shape slithering underneath, but I can’t possess it.
My coat is bundled on the floor. I check the pockets: keys, phone, with its battery is only quarter-dead. A notification flashes at me - fuck, I’ve got fifteen minutes. I dress myself frantically and run out of the door. On the steps in front of his building, I breathe a sigh of relief. At least the place is central. I glance at my reflection on the windows of a department store. My dress is too short for a job interview, but the real problem is the tangled hair, the dark circles beneath my eyes, the half-moon scratch mark on my cheekbone. I’ll have to win them over with my personality, I mouth at the dirty glass, and the mere shape of the words makes me wince.
An expressionless teenager shows me through to the cramped backroom of the café. The manager remains seated at her desk and stares at me with unveiled disdain. Her fake pearl necklace is so shiny it makes me imagine her kneeling by her bed at night, polishing the individual spheres like a rosary. Her own surface looks uncracked, too.
‘Take a seat.’
‘Thank you for having me.’
‘My pleasure.’ Her eyes glaze over her print-out of my pitiful CV. ‘So tell me, how much café experience do you have?’
‘I used to work at a service station. It involved making and serving coffee.’
‘Not the kind of coffee we serve, I presume.’
‘I’m a quick learner.’
‘You’re going to have to work under pressure.’
‘I’m used to that. I like having something to fight against. Not that I’m an aggressive person. It’s just a figure of speech.’
A nurse is poking her head out of the door.
I glance around rapidly. PLANNING TO SCORE? a bright green poster asks on the wall to my right. A basket of condoms is laid out on a table like a bowl of candy for trick-and-treaters.
‘Ms. Ellis?’ the nurse repeats, looking at me like she knows me.
‘I’m here’, I say, getting up.
In the treatment room, she pulls up my file on the computer.
‘You booked in for an STD test, but it’s only been two months since your previous one. We don’t usually recommend doing them that often. I assume there has been a change in your circumstances?’
‘Have you been assaulted? We have a process for - if you need any support.’
‘I don’t want to talk about it.’
‘Are you sure?’
‘Yes.’ I know I’ve been irresponsible. Not me, but something in me, and really it’s all me. I’m not sure it matters that much. Only it matters more than anything else in the world.
‘Let’s get some bloods as well’, the nurse says.
I go home, and the fridge door is smeared all over with strawberry jam. I glide my finger over the surface, sweetened dermis, and lick it. It’s thick and strangely bitter.
The tape breaks, and the frequency of static has changed. I’m at a party, leaning against a wall with a glass of wine in my hand. I know I have been here for a while, holding a conversation with a guy with whom I once went on a boring first date. I can’t remember his name. He is looking at me expectantly, but I’m not sure what we’ve been talking about, if anything, so I say the first thing that comes to mind.
‘Recently I’ve been so horny for domesticity.’
‘I’ve had it in the past, briefly, and it’s always slipped through my fingers. Nothing ever feels like it’s meant to last, and that’s the beauty of it. That’s what I should hold on to. But I want to be devoted to someone. Maybe it’s just because it’s late summer, but I want to settle down a little.’
‘Why are you surprised?
‘Well, you have a habit of making people feel like they’re just a very small part of your life. Like you have something colourful and exciting going on all the time, and they’re just a footnote at best.’
While he speaks, his mouth twists into a horrible long-suffering smile I’ve seen before. He is beautiful and I want him to run away from me. Still, I can’t make myself push hard enough.
‘I’m just being honest. It’s not supposed to be an excuse, or a jab. If anything, it’s a challenge. I’m saying look, I’m not going to just sit at home and wait for you. I’ve got too much to give. But if I’m talking to you about my love life at all, that means I already give a fuck about you. So if you can take me, you can have me.’
‘It’s a lot to take in.’
‘Trust me, I know. I need to find someone who can defeat me.’
‘Do you ever feel like you were born in the wrong era?’
‘Maybe men used to be harder.’ I feel the gears of the conversation turning, shifting into a two-way exchange of fantasies, and it makes me a little hot in the face.
‘I have no interest in life between a fist and a stove. It’s got to be a fair fight.’
‘But you admit you’re looking for a fighter.’
‘Sort of. I guess.’ All I want is the pure thrill of a hostile world, begging it to swallow me, bones and all.
There is a birthday cake on a glass table, colourful cards scattered around it. I recognise my old classmates’ faces. All of them are smiling.
Time won’t heal a girl who loves to hide.
‘Are things OK between us, now?’ Alice asks. ‘Am I allowed to speak to you?’
It takes me a while to realise she’s talking to me.
‘Of course’, I say, bewildered by the question. ‘You can speak to me anytime.’
The way she looks down at her shoes, her brow furrowed in frustration or embarrassment, makes my heart sink. I’ve always cared about Alice. I used to crush on her in school, cling to her like glue, until things got weird. Now, we’re almost like siblings. She’s from a good family, one I could never really belong to. She’s studying philosophy in the capital, writing long essays on the pain of being. When I’m alone and I think about her, I feel so proud it makes me tear up.
‘You didn’t respond to my texts for weeks, and I asked around, but nobody knew what you were up to. I wanted to come banging on your door, but the spring term was so busy I couldn’t make the trip. I kept trying to call, to make sure you’re OK. When you finally responded, you sounded really angry. You told me to never call again.’
‘I’m so sorry.’
She looks me straight in the eye. ‘Do you not remember?’
I shake my head, and she sighs.
‘You’re getting it wrong’, I say. ‘I wasn’t fucked up - not like that. My head’s just been a mess.’
Changed my mind again, bleaching carpets until all that remains are the stains. ‘It was blood, wasn't it?’ I ask my mother, and she just shakes her head. I have the scars to prove her wrong. It just takes me a while to find them.
Now my cut glass fingers beckon disease, little murders.
‘You’re splitting again?’ Alice whispers, glancing around as though she’s afraid of our conversation being overheard. The buzz of other voices continues reassuringly. I’m not scared to tell the truth, anyway. I could tell every single person in the room that I’m insane and not even flinch.
‘Guess so. Yes.’
‘I’m sorry to hear that.’
I wave my hand dismissively. ‘Don’t say that. You don’t have to worry about me. I’m okay.’
‘But are you staying safe?’
Maybe it’s fucked up, how my mind only knows to protect itself by terrorising my body. But whatever happens, I am in charge, only me, an indivisible multitude, and I refuse to be afraid of myself.
Mercifully, my phone rings - a callback from the café. They want me to start on Monday. I suppose they have taken pity on me, for being a 22-year-old NEET with a bruised face and tatty clothes. They don’t even know half of it. Still, it calls for a celebration.
A text from my dad flashes on my overheated phone: Would be great if you could pay me back ASAP so I don’t have to sue you in small claims court.
Even when I am fully in myself, present tense, I am always observing the world through a screen, transparent but slightly clouded. I forget it is there, but sooner or later, I catch a reflection. Sometimes I’ve desperately wanted to punch through it, to know how it really feels to be in this skin, how it feels to feel, but I understand it is a blessing. Pain experienced through the veil is subdivided by it - I only get the aftershock. Such as this. A little shiver. Far from the kind of death rattle my sister might have experienced.
My cheek rests against something very cold. My teeth are chattering, and with each little movement my face bumps against the hard surface, causing some pain. My panties are bunched at my ankles, and my pulse is very fast, faster than the beat flowing through the walls.
There’s a knock on the bathroom door.
‘Is someone in there?’
I don’t want to keep them waiting, but I don’t know where my voice is. It’s so loud outside. I would have to shout to be heard.
Another bang. Bang. Bang.
‘Fuck off!’ I mouth.
The noise from outside goes into my head and scrambles it so the boundaries between past and present leak like a ghost ship. I am being kissed against the door, my neck straining in a weird angle - now the blood beats against my skin like it’s out for revenge for what - I am on my knees, closed, open, my head lolls back and I’m not there. What did they look like? What were they looking for? I know their fingers were rough. I shoved them out, locked the door behind them. Good riddance. Their face, the way we fucked, if we fucked, all of it gone. Shouldn’t get my panties in a bunch, ha, but suddenly it’s driving me crazy, the facelessness of my memory. Who the fuck was it? Why this again?
The door rattles, the people outside are kicking it now. If I walk out there will I recognise the person who claimed me? Will they claim me again? Will I pick some other person without a name and let them do anything they want to me and wilfully forget all about it?
I get up on shaky legs and walk to the window. The roof of the garage is just underneath it. Softly softly, I open the window and slip through it. They can kick the door down and see I was never really there.
Another conversation. I can’t do this anymore. ‘Please just let me listen’, I say.
My friends look at me, bemused. ‘That sounds wrong, coming from you.’
I walk into a corner of the living room, laughing and choking back tears. Ever so perceptive, Alice asks: ‘Is everything okay?’
‘Yeah. I’m dealing with it’, I say.
‘With what? Has something happened?’ Lucy asks, shrill and annoying.
‘Nothing.’ I shake my head wetly, like a dog that has just crawled its way back ashore.
‘You seemed a lot better when you came in’, she continues.
‘OK, thanks. I’ll send my regards to whoever was in charge of this meat vessel.’
‘I saw a TikTok the other day about systems therapy-’
‘I’m not on fucking TikTok.’ I rub my face with my left hand. ‘I’m sorry. I’m just tired.’ Desperate to busy my hands with something, I latch onto the phone in my pocket. Seven missed calls from the café. I must have missed my first shift, or set the place on fire. I’m not sure which would feel worse.
Alice takes me down to the river. She lets me drink a couple glasses of vodka before confiscating my card.
‘Can you tell me’, I say, and the earnestness of my tone makes me cringe despite the alcohol, ‘What is the difference between dissociation and transcendence?’
‘That’s a big question’, she says.
‘You know I barely got a middle school leaving certificate. Anything you say will be above my level’, I say, and although it sounds sycophantic, I mean it. Alice’s face is blushed, but I don’t think she feels that intimidated by my question. It must be the matte Merlot staining her lips. I hold my breath while she gathers her thoughts.
‘Transcendence is divine, going beyond your usual self - leaving it behind for something better. A state of enlightenment. Dissociation is its twisted mirror, preventing you from knowing and developing yourself.’
‘Okay’, I say. ‘But it feels like enlightenment, sometimes. It feels like I’m touching something that I’m not allowed to - something vast and forbidden. It’s just beneath the surface. I get so close to understanding.’
It is more a womb than a void, whatever it is, birthing me over and over again. The residue of lost time sticks to me like bits of placenta. Can they smell it on me? I watch myself go, over and over again, saintly touring clinics and pharmacies. Mea culpa, corpus meum, holier with every resurrection, and less whole. I know I am closest to God when I lose myself in vacuums.
‘It sounds intense’, Alice says.
‘I’m so glad you don’t know what it’s like.’
There must be something wrong with my face, because Alice looks away and pulls me closer, suddenly embracing me so warm and tight it knocks the breath out of me. My eyes are stinging with tears. I am here now only here only now maybe I can stay for a little longer.