by ELEANOR MORROW
Just now, taking Coleman off the turntable, the cold sharpening my bones, I had a sudden intimation of my true character.
- Rosmarie Waldrop, A Form/of Taking/It All
Red-rimmed or opaque, Sheila manages a coil (hair-wise) with an aubergine staff. When she approaches, her stopping point is a lecturn. The right skirt ascends slightly above the waist, where it resembles a massive throat choked by a giantess.
This was before, but only moments before, each individuated object in the extramuros became the subject of a photo. A necessary preserve evolved, completely online, and the ensuing catalog became too extensive. If we did not have someone to reduce our number of choices, it would be easy to turn into Jonah Lehrer, or if not him, a fern.
Sheila was three years older than me but nowhere near as accustomed to the vagaries of urban living. She came from a troubled upbringing; her father was no longer living. She spent hours shifting things around in her immediate space. She was not shy of asking my opinion, and when I detailed my views, I found her absorbing them slowly, like a medication designed to release its contents at a nonspecific, later date.
The world outside a 12th century convent must have appeared impossibly fast to its citizens. Extrapolate: are we the ones beyond the high walls, or essentially contained in that cloister, in the original sense of the term? We elide in open air, what some call the sinful, extramuros world, where this could be referred to as a dog:
Sheila began to mirror her roommate in a number of ways I found alarming. One day she saw me wiping up the windowsill with a paper towel. Every morning thereafter she ran them clean with steel wool. When I asked her what she was doing she nearly screamed.
Sheila's vision was severely worse in one eye, and when she took out her contacts before bedtime she often got a headache. (Watching her touch an eye with the tip of a fingernail was an evening in itself.) Instead of resenting the pain, she felt she deserved it. Or maybe I just wanted to believe this because it made me feel better.
There were other things. She eliminated any visible mark. We had one marble countertop, far more "marble" than marble. She guarded this thing as if it was sunrise at Le Havre. It held something for her, like a repository. The countertop rewarded what she put into it, because I could hear her version of an orgasm through the wall, and there's an app that tells you whether it's real or not, for $2.99.
So I went out more. When I came to others as a stranger, I felt the first, most advantageous way of seeming. I myself marvel at how many people keep it together so well. They look prepared for this, cast in a certain light, turning to a partner or loved one in the vague, abstract background of my day-to-day life.
The most ubiquitous combination in the extramuros is mother-daughter. This is followed by
a senior citizen and another senior citizen
A chatterbox and someone who listens to it
five Hasidic men eating licorice
A woman, another woman, and an ugly man
I never knew Sheila to drive a car, so I was mildly surprised when she brought one around. It was not a Cadillac. She mainly drove it on Saturdays to the laundromat, and I never knew where else she went. When I tried to follow her she always lost me without meaning to.
In restaurants, I'm usually into hearing other people's conversations. I like to know what they're talking about, but only in the broad outline. When it gets too serious I focus on my food.
Sheila got a boyfriend on New Year's Eve. He came up to her at a party and complimented her shoes. At first all I knew about him was that he loved Riesling. When he didn't fade after a few awkward, drunken dates, she appeared visibly relieved at this turn of events. Strange southern expressions started creeping into her day-to-day dialogue, so I made assumptions, but instead Timothy was a thirty five year old Korean obstetrician. One of his loves was origami, another was Sheila, a third and yet still essential desire was for fondue. He ate it whenever he could.
When I went home to see my parents, I was astonished at how much they'd changed. Perhaps they were a certain kind of individual, and combined, none of their specific qualities emerged from the collision. With enough distance from a mistake, the bad choice transforms into something completely unexpected.
I heard that Sheila had a baby and named it Chelsea, after nothing.
In the extramuros, a place represents something else besides itself. It is a natural inclination, I am told, to return to the sight of familiar shitholes and stuttering haunts. The abandoned meeting space of my old school reflected at night elicits anguish, but I also have to admit I feel relieved in the presence of familiar environs. I am glad to know that I am altered from what I was, for if not, everything would necessarily be the same. The lack of change would be a worse kind of horror.
In Sheila's photos (easily available online) she dresses differently now, but it is all the same notes. I have to wonder what the person she is parroting now is like, whether this particular woman salvages any of my verve or grace. There might well be a house somewhere where all its denizens are people she has iterated on. Parcel to post, a safer existence — not that I'm tarnishing hers — remains unacceptable.
Photographs by Kara VanderBijl.
"Swanlights (live)" - Antony and the Johnsons (mp3)
"Rapture (live)" - Antony and the Johnsons (mp3)