My performance practice approaches storytelling in a way that challenges assumptions authorship, authority and normative economies of the gaze. I celebrate the Noble Savage, interrogate the myth of 'civilised man' and indulge in the cruel, seductive impossibility of being good.

A selection of short fiction from the past few years...

I am currently reading a PhD in Creative Writing at Goldsmiths College, University of London. My research centres around intersectionality and alterity, emancipatory politics and the end of the world within the contemporary moment.

Ken

It was a Tuesday, I think. The sky was white as my mood. I pulled an old grey skirt from the back of my wardrobe and wondered why I didn’t wear it more often. It was flattering but subtle. I assumed that it must be damaged or stained, but when I tried it on it was fine.

The reason came back to me as I walked to the bus stop on my way to work; the zip started to scratch against the small of my back. Of course. The sensation was at first curious, then annoying. By the time the little hand pointed to five on the clock in my office, the rubbing of this sharp little bit of plastic and metal every time I moved had become quite painful, and I found myself touching my back as I walked and then looking at my hand to see if it had finally drawn blood.

I took the 38 bus every day back then. On my way home I’d get on at Shaftesbury Avenue, which was the only way to get a seat, the perfect mid-point between the bus emptying at Piccadilly Circus and filling back up at Tottenham Court Road.

In my peripheral vision I noticed two men rubbernecking as I went by. It was the skirt. I
turned that corner in Soho and giggled to myself about having walked past the only two straight guys in a ten-block radius. Must be cops, I thought, slightly smug. A glance at my hand. Still no blood.

The 38 bus bobbed up to the stop a few minutes later. You never had to wait long for a 38 at quarter past five. I slid into one of the few empty seats and quickly put my head down, reaching into my bag and pulling out a book. The latest Barbara Kingsolver, because that’s what my life was like then. I opened it to any old page, somewhere right of the centre to make it look like I was some way into the story. It was a prop; it allowed me to fail to see when “those less able to sit” boarded the bus. It was shitty thing to do, but I’d had a long day, and this fucking zip scratching would be worse if I had to stand, and anyway I worked hard and why couldn’t one of the spotty little urchins in the back with their tinny mobile discos ever give up their seats?

I looked out the window and blinked a few times, not able to remember what had made me so angry.

The bus shrieked as it rounded the corner onto Charing Cross Road, and I looked down into my book when the doors opened at the next stop. “The forest eats itself and lives forever.” I was touched, and then annoyed. I would never write a book. Not a shitty book or a best seller or a collection of people’s phone numbers. I would wear skirts long enough not make me seem desperate but which would get me quiet attention – no cat calls, just glances. The good things about being pretty without all the fucking noise. The good things about being pretty; that would have to be enough.

Someone moved into the seat next to me and I slid over a bit, a gesture really, and read the same line again. My eyes rose up and right and I watched the guitar shops on Denmark Street pass. Then I smelled something. It was very subtle, something flinty and almost spicy. Maybe it was more of a sensation in my nose, an awareness of some new sharpness like when winter’s coming on. Whatever it was, it made me look to my left.

That’s when I saw the most beautiful man I’d ever seen. At first, the experience of seeing him brought a strange old adage to mind: Let the devil look after his own. Part of my mind tried to remember where I’d heard it and what it meant, while the rest was taking in the narrow lips, the firm jaw, eyes dark and shiny as a violin, thick eyebrows with half a dozen recalcitrant ones, double the length and shooting out wildly. I even let our eyes meet
for long moment before shifting my gaze back to my book.

I was overwhelmed by the certainty that he was going to do something. Ask me about my
book, perhaps? Instead, though, he pulled his leather bag into his lap (this much I could see whilst pretending to read) and took out a Barbie doll. I turned my head now and looked at him. The side of his lips turned up. Just then, some kind of deafness took me, like the way you hear things when you’re under water. The doors opened, people jostled in and out, the robotic voice announced the next stop, very distantly, like the last part of a deep echo.

The Barbie was like millions of others, like the ones I’d played with as a kid. There was
nothing sinister about it. Just that this particular one was laying in the lap of the most beautiful man I’d ever seen on an eastbound 38 bus. Our eyes met again and I followed them when he looked down at the doll. With strong-looking hands he turned it over, holding it, bust down, in his left palm. With his right hand he pulled at the top of its ice-blue ball gown. The rip of the velcro coming apart was the only sound I could hear with normal sharpness. The sound entered me with arousal that quickly turned to terror as he plucked off her pink plastic shoes and put his hand under her skirt, removing her sparkly blue tights with it. I think I dropped my book but I didn’t hear it fall. And I certainly didn’t look. I could take my eyes off that doll. He turned her over and tugged at her sleeves, and finally pulled her dress off, letting it drop to the floor like an empty crisp packet. I looked at her perfect smile and blue-shadowed eyes that gazed up like a fresh, dead fish. She was
wearing a pink bikini underneath and he turned her over again to untie it. The beige triangles he exposed were unsurprising, but when he took down the bottom, her square pelvis, very slightly convex pubic mound and the terribly straight gap at her hip joints made her look so desperately broken.

When I got home I was so tired that I blocked out all the lights. I closed the door and stuffed a towel in the gap, pulled the curtains to and went around turning off all the appliances at the switches so their little eyes couldn’t shed their looks on me. And even though it was only quarter past six or so, I got into bed still wearing my coat, pulled the covers over my head and went to sleep.

This is the first short story in the series, The Most Beautiful Man I’ve Ever Seen.

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Hundreds

“Which one’s yours?” I asked, scanning the meandering crowd.

“University of Michigan t-shirt, over by the Hare Krishnas.”

I looked over at her mark, a man in his twenties or thirties, healthy, seemingly alert, and wondered if Justine knew something I didn’t.

“I’m going to take…Purple fanny pack.” I nodded towards a family buying ice cream from a vendor near the really boring gallery where we always had to go on field trips.

“The dad?” Justine asked. They were all wearing purple fanny packs, along with shorts and tucked in t-shirts.

“Nah, I’m taking the mom.”

We sat, or lay down, shifting our bare limbs a lot, in the crew-cut grass of The Mall. We didn’t have a usual spot. Or maybe you could say we had lots of them. One of them was the Non-Pond, a rectangular water feature that was sort of the Reflecting Pool’s little sister – smaller and situated oddly near a clump of trees and a little brown hut we were convinced had something to do with the FBI or the CIA. We’d been there earlier, smoked a bowl from a pipe we’d fashioned from an apple and bit of foil. Giggling, we ate the apple with alternating bites, tossed the core into the grass and fed the stems and seeds from our off-green schwag reefer to an adolescent duck we’d named James Dean. He was our favourite resident of the Non-Pond, bigger than the other ducklings but still downy, long bodied, almost duck-shaped but not quite grown up.

Still stoned but silent now, we sat on The Mall and waited. Nothing happened for a long time, but that’s how it always went. I kept my eye on Purple Fanny Pack, glancing occasionally at U-Mich t-shirt as well. It was usually easy to keep track of our marks, hunting without having to get up. The Mall is flat and broad, and those long days were harshly bright. And hot. That was the main thing. It started in May or June and lasted until the beginning of the next school year. One hundred degrees, one hundred percent humidity, for a hundred days.

Sometimes I looked at Justine, her green eyes following our marks, but she didn’t look back at me. Some idiot shouted at us – hey ladies, can I come sit with you? We gave him the finger and turned back to our game. We were thirteen and knew we’d have to get used to that kind of thing.

“Dude, dude.” Justine straightened up and nudged me with the toe of her converse high top. I followed her eyes to U-Mich, wobbling now by a map of the local area. He turned, a bit too quickly, and then stopped, mouth open, visibly panting.

“Shit.” I’d lost. He took one step towards a drinks vendor, then another, dropped to his knees and onto all fours. The shock of the fall was restorative, though, and he scrambled to his feet, hurling himself towards the drinks cart where he drained a bottle of water, splashing the last bit over his hair and strained red face. He stood there panting for a while longer with hands on his bent knees, water dripping from his chin.

“You owe me a Coke,” Justine said, like I didn’t know the rules, like this wasn’t the thousandth tourist we’d watched drop down by the monuments and buildings of historical significance.

Just then, Mrs Fanny Pack did a swoon of her own; Mr Fanny Pack caught her before she hit the ground, led her by her elbow to a bench and fanned her with some kind of brochure while the kids looked on with dripping twin pops.

“Shit.” It was a good one, but Justine’s mark bit it first, so mine didn’t count.

I picked at the leather where it was coming away from the steel toe caps of my three-hole Doc Martens. It couldn’t have been the game that made me feel strange in that moment, this game we played almost every day in those summers and never named. My grandmother and Kurt Cobain died a couple of months before, but I was pretty sure they weren’t behind it either. I just needed to cry. I needed everyone to clear out and leave me alone to sit in the thick, fat afternoon air to grimace and whine and weep.

I loved Justine’s hair. She’d taken to dipping sections into a bottle of hydrogen peroxide until the chestnut colour had drained away, and then dyeing the blonde bits green with proper hair dye. Back then I blow-dried mine straight and dyed it red with a paste I’d make with cherry Kool-Aid powder. In my head I looked just like a girl version of Kurt on that cover of Sassy Magazine.

I realised that I’d stopped staring at my shoes and was staring at hers. She had a little red scab on her ankle where she’d cut herself shaving. “Your Chucks stink,” I said finally, for no real reason.

“That’s your upper lip, retard.”

“Are we going to Federal Triangle?”

“Later.”

I wanted to go then but didn’t push it. When I wiped sweat off my hairline my hand came away pink.

We picked two more marks and debated what to do that night. I wanted to see Fugazi and the Bad Brains but Justine’s parents still wouldn’t let her go to the Capital Ballroom. Half Street was a shit hole, fine, but we’d be inside the whole time. It’s not like we were going to be trotting around the neighbourhood on a tour of the crack houses and crack brothels and motels where crooked cops and local politicians went for toothless blowjobs.

“I know, I told them.”

“Can you just say we’re going to my house?”

She rolled her eyes and didn’t answer. If I was going to go to see Fugazi that night, I’d have to go alone.

On the first day of kindergarten Justine had worn a yellow dress and purple glasses. She lived two blocks away – the stop before mine on the school bus – and her birthday was two days before mine. She often wrote in birthday cards, “Ha ha! No matter how hard you try, you’ll never catch up”, or something to that effect.

Both of our new marks headed west, so we pulled ourselves up and followed. But after some time they both seemed fine and we grew bored with them.

“Come on. Let’s go to Federal Triangle,” I urged.

“Not yet.”

“It’ll rain.” Not that there was any sign of it. Clouds were conspicuously absent, like you could see where the sun had incinerated them that morning.

“Let’s sit on Abe’s lap.” She knew I wouldn’t argue; Abe was my favourite.

So we bounced around the Lincoln Memorial asking passing tourists to help us climb into the building-high lap of the 16th president. It was obnoxious and we knew it. But there was some logic in our pestering. It went something like: if this is the most unpleasant encounter you have with native Washingtonians, you should consider yourself lucky. This place is sticky. Smog sweat clogs your pores. It’s uncomfortable; that’s how it is here.

And, of course, no one stopped, except for the Japanese tourists, for whom we were a curious delight and a relief for their ears.

“Konnichi-wa!” I’d call.

“O genki desu ka?” Justine would ask.

“Lincoln-san wa sukina presidento desu!”

We’d deploy all the Japanese we could muster from the three years when we had it in elementary school. There was a recession on and Japanic set in, so we had Japanese lessons for an hour a day until the economy recovered and the programme was cut, leaving us with just enough vocabulary to accost tourists. Hi, how are you, Mr Lincoln is my favourite president! And to talk about the weather.

“Astui desu!”

Yes, they would answer. Washington is very hot.

We carried on until we’d even begun to annoy ourselves. “Can we please go to Federal Triangle now?” I tugged the strap of Justine’s back pack.

She considered the sky. “Yeah, let’s go.”

On the way we talked about the sleepover from the night before.

“Melissa’s sister’s such a bitch.” She’d made a point of coming in to make fun of us for laughing too loudly, even though she had a car and a boyfriend and really should have had better things to do.

“She plays field hockey.”

“What a loser.”

“She didn’t have any friends until her dad bought her that Lexus.”

“She’s the worst.”

In the morning everyone was getting dressed. Justine hooked her flimsy pink bra in the front and pulled the band 180 degrees around her torso to pull the cups over her breasts, the biggest in our little clique. She looked up and her eyes met mine. She saw that I’d been staring but she didn’t say anything.

The buildings we passed annoyed me. Everything was concrete and grey with flat fronts or facades aping the Parthenon or the Acropolis, none of them taller than the Washington Monument by some outdated decree or resilient taboo, I can’t remember which. My hometown was half-assed and square, a fake city, a municipality. A swamp with a swamp climate, drained and paved and covered with stupid things copied from other, older, real cities.

After ten minutes, or thereabouts, we reached the fountain in Federal Triangle, sat on its edge and pulled off our shoes. I craned my neck, looking out for cops, and when I gave the nod Justine pulled a two-quart bottle of Mr Bubble out of her back pack. We climbed in and emptied it into the middle. The fountain filled up with froth while lobbyists and interns and grown-ups with jobs we didn’t know anything about passed in suits. We pretended not to notice them as we splashed and made Abe Lincoln beards and stovepipe hats with the candy-scented, pinkish-white bubbles.

After a short while a pair of cops – transit cops – approached, shouting at us to get out.

“What?” we yelled, still splashing, watching individual bubbles and clumps of suds get picked up by the wind that was now rising.

“You two, out of the fountain!”

“What are they saying?” I asked Justine.

“I don’t know but they look mighty angry.”

And just when they were close enough that we couldn’t play dumb anymore, the sky lurched onto its side and the blinding rain storm that broke the back of almost every summer’s day roared down, sending the cops bolting for cover, washing all of our bubbles away.

One hundred degrees, one hundred percent humidity for one hundred days – and nothing at all to do…

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A Place a Single Woman Should Never Go

It all happened in a swimming pool. I could breathe perfectly but the experience wasn’t like breathing air. It was much easier. The water was so clear it was impossible. The clarity was magnified by what wasn’t there; there was no chlorine or sediment – it was like the first water ever to form – and the fear that has always kept me away from pools and oceans and baths and basins was gone too. The water touched my skin and my heart stayed steady. I looked ahead, I looked around, but I wasn’t looking for a way out. I was at home there, in that water. Not at all like waking life.
I was training to be a diver. The light was bright yet cool, the colours muted. I moved through, sometimes brushing my breasts or my knees against the concrete bottom, but against my body it yielded like sand. Smooth, clean water slid along my arms and through my lungs. Appearing at the end of the pool were a pair of slender white legs. As I got closer I could even make out the light playing against the cornsilk hairs that covered them. Her toenails were painted blue. For the first time I wanted to come up above the surface and breathe air. It burned a little at first.
The blonde was sitting on the steps in a modest black bikini. Her hair was dry.
A noise sounded and I woke up reluctantly, trying to fight my way back to sleep. I had just said something to her, but I couldn’t remember what. The thought of never hearing her reply made me feel sick.

I sat up and looked out the window opposite. The snow that started before we went to bed seems not to have stopped. My feet are cold – he always rolls over and pulls the blankets off my feet. There is no way to resist seeing this as a metaphor.
I might have been able to get back to sleep, but his snoring sounds like a thousand doors slamming. Nervous of moving, I stare at his body, one leg where it escapes the covers, his arms that clutch them to his chest. I might think it was ugly if only it looked finished. The male form looks so incomplete that it makes the notion of intelligent design seem laughable. The male body is the aesthetic equivalent of truck stop food or a half-plagiarised book report.
Or maybe I just hate him. I must have seen better before, done better for myself. There must have been a time when I touched some man’s side, traced my fingers down his ribs, explored his navel, appreciated a soft-downed pubic mound and thought, dear God, I love this.
Last night was the fifth time, the fifth and last time, I slept with him. Had sex with him, fucked, got fucked, let him fuck me. Because I wasn’t ready to deal with the break up, not another one, not just yet. But I’ll have to do it tomorrow. Over coffee? When he walks me to the station? I know that the longer I leave it, the more despicable he’ll become, and that seems to be the cruelest thing I could do to him. Looking at someone you don’t love as they fall harder for you, loving you so much that they can’t hear the fatigue in your sigh when they tell a joke, see the way your face tilts away from kisses in public. I’ve left it too long, and when I leave him he’ll be thrown.
I dress quickly and leave via the path I’d mapped the night before through the minefield of creaking floorboards in his bedroom – my invisible trail of breadcrumbs. It’s important to figure out the quietest way out in case escape is necessary. So I step lightly into the footprints I’d pressed into the carpet, knowing I wouldn’t be staying for morning cuddles and toast in bed, knowing I’d be slinking out on him before I admitted it to myself.
Outside the snow keeps falling hard. The night drains back and exposes morning as I wait at the bus stop. I’m there for an hour before a woman walking her dog tells me she’s heard on the radio that the buses aren’t running. I thank her and start walking. My toes huddle together against the cold and I lose my balance and slide along the icy street. No one sees.
I’ll never fuck anyone in west London again.
The morning passes heavily, a huge white beast with dirty feet that would swallow me whole if it could see me at all past the snow falling, now in determined parallel lines, now in frenzied helixes. On and on towards home, surrounded by snow, saturated by it. I find Bayswater Road and then make my way down to the river and east along it. A little family is making snow-people sitting on a bench. They’re puffy and clumsy in parkas and mittens. I want to join them, but even approaching would be an assault, a breach of etiquette. I’d never want someone to be so impolite to me, so I pass, looking without appearing to be looking, wondering if my shabby form makes them nervous. The buildings that line the riverbank look squat and powerful like boxers made by a family of giants out of city snow.
I pass the Millennium Bridge and I want so badly to go back in time to a day just after it opened when it used to sway dangerously in the wind, before they fixed it and took away its particularity. I never went across it when it swayed. The phenomenon was on the news, and I kept meaning to go and swing between St Paul’s and the Tate, but I kept putting it off and I missed it. Now it’s just a metal thoroughfare and I walk past without stopping to consider it, lest regret slows me down too much and I drown in the freezing day.
A sheet of black ice shatters under me and sends my feet into a freezing puddle as I reach the alley, a shortcut home that I’ve always called the ‘murder shortcut’. Secluded, badly lit at night, a place a single woman should never go. But I’m more lazy than wise.
Freezing, soaked, my thoughts turn back to my dream where I was totally immersed and I feel that little has changed. I know that I’ll have to face my fear of water when I get home. A hot bath is the only way I’ll be able to get warm again. I’ll turn on the heating and fill up the tub, but I’m so cold that when I step into the water I’ll burst into flames.

Sometimes in my dreams I can breathe under water…

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After the Fact

Only when my foot hits the bottom stair do I become conscious that I have been running. I stop in my tracks, only to realise next that such a sudden stop probably looks more suspicious than if I had continued running. I take that one last step onto the sidewalk and lean against a railing, feigning nonchalance. Sweat flows from my forehead and under my arms like blood from a deep gash. I try to right my blurry vision by fixing my gaze on one object at a time and trying to identify it. If I can do this I might be able to figure out what to do next. Before me I see a car, a red car. I notice that both of my hands are clutching the railing in front of my building – oh God, the building where I live. It’s cold. It must still be early. I look left – east, towards the park – and right – west, towards Broadway, Astor Place, crowds of people. I know where I am now. I can hear something; the boom of an airplane’s engine is only a growl by the time it reaches my ears. I look up and watch the monster pad its way across the sky. The white trail it leaves behind makes me uneasy again.

Oh, fuck1 me, oh God, I’m in trouble.

And all at once the contents of my stomach empties onto the sidewalk. It doesn’t feel as though I’ve thrown up, but more like someone has hit ‘eject’ and my stomach performs its function automatically – automatically and completely, expelling with it every bit of fluid and semi fluid matter inside me, expelling any feeling of safety, exorcising every happy thought. What I see on the sidewalk has no connection to myself. It isn’t me, it isn’t mine.

My heart beats as if it’s constantly on the verge of exploding, its critical mass creating pressure in my chest that I’m not sure I can bear. I feel suspended somewhere outside of time, as if in stepping out of my apartment I inadvertently wandered into limbo. I find myself thinking ‘oh God, oh God’, and feeling the impulse to reach up and out, to scream for help, to beg someone to save me. But I can’t let myself do this now. I never believed in absolution before, nor salvation, de-burdening and having everything washed away. I have always believed in honesty, responsibility, personal accountability. This happened, I did it and nothing can undo it, no one could excuse and erase it. I never had time for God, so how can I expect God to have time for me, having sinned, having done something so wrong, how can I expect to reach out my arms and ask someone to allow me to feel better about myself, about what I’ve done?

I’m not ready to draw attention to myself. Not yet. So I follow the airplane and walk east into the park, away from the sick and the scene of it all.

I do not cry as I walk. I have no right. I am not the victim. I did it. I did it. I will have to face it, but – oh God help me, please, oh God – I’m just not ready yet. Today the sky is so clear with fat storybook clouds that almost invite me to leave myself, leave this city, this planet. It’s okay if I just go to the park for a moment, just to collect my thoughts, just quickly to figure out what to do.

When was the last time I really looked at the sky, at the clouds? Will this be the last time?

Although my apartment is only a block away from Tompkins Square Park I suspect that it is taking me longer than usual to reach it. But I can neither feel time nor my own legs. I can see pollen in the air around me, glowing in the sun. I can focus my attention on one single particle. I seems sentient – it knows me, knows what I am. I can feel its ego-less recognition. It circles my head. It moves forward at the same pace at which I am walking. Then it leaps ahead. Finally it stops and falls, equally disinterested in my innocence and my guilt. Suddenly it is clear to me that the pain I feel is sorrow only for myself, for my own life which is now ending, and I am more determined than before not to cry.

I cross Avenue A and enter the park. The sound of bells nearby reminds me of Hare Krishnas and I smile. I pass the stone gazebo on my left. I don’t have to read the inscriptions – Temperance, Charity, Faith and Hope, each etched into one side – I know them all already. I walk further, into the centre of the park, step off the path and onto the grass, locating a soft spot near enough to one of the park’s great elms and lie down to look at the sky.

 

‘What do you see?’ A voice startles me. I forgot that there was anyone else alive in the city. How long have I been looking up at the sky, and how long has this person been looking at me? Do they know? Is it over? I don’t know what else to do, where I can hide in a world with such a big sky, and so I reply:

‘An elephant’s rib.’

‘For making the elephant’s wife?’ It’s a man’s voice. Yes, I can see him now, coming into focus. He’s squatting down at my left. His voice is soft and calm. I want to be as calm as this voice. A breeze picks up, carrying a smell that I can’t identify. As if he can feel me begging for it he speaks again.

‘I never went in for that either,’ he says, sitting, confident that he has been invited to do so. The clouds move and shift subtly across the sky, and I feel panic and despair as they disintegrate out of one form and a joyful reassurance as they assume another. I experience this fluctuation a thousand times before he speaks again.

‘Do you see the butterfly?’

‘No.’

‘Look, there, do you see it?’

‘I don’t, but I’ll keep looking.’

He sits, I lie. I see a baseball bat, a top hat, a window. He sees a woman’s face, a bathtub, a potato. I tell him that the potato is cheating and doesn’t count. He laughs.

‘Do you live around here?’

I look at him, trying to understand the question. His eyes are very blue.

‘What?’ I squeak. His smile is generous towards my confusion.

‘Where do you live?’

Yes, of course, I understand now. ‘There, on 9th.’

‘Café Gigi’s is on your street, right?’

‘I live above it.’

‘Do they give you a discount?’

‘No, I mean yes, sort of.’ Deep breath. ‘They give me free coffee sometimes.’

‘Would you like to have a coffee now?’

Oh God, oh God. I can’t get up. I can’t stand up and leave this spot. I’ve been safe here so far. If I stand and walk someone will see me, someone who has found out will see me and take me away from him. But if I don’t go he might leave me and have coffee with someone who has never done anything bad in her whole life, someone who could live a thousand years and say, I’ve always been nothing but good. I can’t let him leave me. I couldn’t stand it.

I take another deep breath. I’m not ready to go yet. I turn on my side to face him and ask, ‘Where do you live?’

‘3rd between B and C. It’s an interesting place that my friend built.’

‘What’s that?’ Genuine curiosity slows my banging heart. ‘Is it a house?’

‘Yeah. He inherited the plot from an uncle or something and built a little house there. It’s great; we’ve got a front yard with a hammock and a great stone Buddha.’ As he talks he slides down into a half-laying position mirroring me, and props up his head, his chin in his palm. He bites his fingernails. His short, dishevelled hair makes him look like a newborn kitten. His arms, and, yes, his torso as well, are slender yet not without muscle tone. I want him to pin me down and make love to me with abandon, bringing time to a standstill, destroying everything but our bodies and our sky and our storybook clouds.

How can I feel like this, how can I want sex with this stranger? Didn’t something bad happen today? I can’t remember.

My breathing is closer to normal now. ‘What’s your name?’

‘Joseph.’ He lifts his eyebrows inquiring the same of me.

‘Guess.’

‘Madeline.’

‘Do you like that name?’

‘Yeah, I do.’

‘Then that’s what you should call me.’ And so it is agreed between us. He stands up first and offers me his hands which I take gratefully. Touching him for the first time drains something out of me and I feel empty, like a baby who knows nothing, and in knowing nothing simply feels and experiences.

‘So, should we try our luck at Gigi’s? Or I could go to Café Pick-Me-Up and get a couple of coffees to go and we could have them here?’

I look around. Some kids are taking bottles out of trash cans and throwing them at each other, ignoring a woman shouting at them to knock it off. A group of homeless men slouch and wilt on two benches as two suited men walk past pretending not to see them. I’m relieved that I don’t know any of these people.

Beyond the park buildings stand like four solid brick walls trapping us inside. I strain to think of anywhere I’d like to go; at this moment it feels impossible to escape the sensation of being surrounded by four walls.

‘Tivoli,’ I finally respond. Joseph’s mouth forms a sort of question mark. ‘It’s a little town in the Catskills, near Woodstock. There’s a café there, The Hatter, next to a little stream where ducks and geese make their nests. They have blues bands playing at night and really great pancakes during the day.’

Josephs listens with his eyes closed as if he’s trying to picture it. ‘Sounds perfect. I’m starving, actually.’

I notice then that I’m hungry, too, as though I haven’t eaten for days. But this feels a shade worse than hunger – it burns. I also notice a sour taste in my mouth. I must have bad breath, but if Joseph has noticed he doesn’t show it. I lean back away from him just in case.

‘So, how do we get there?’

‘The Adirondack Trailways bus from Penn station.’

‘Well, if we’re going to run away together I’ll have to go back home and get some money. Don’t worry, my roommates’ll be there. I’m not going to take you back to an empty house.’

I know what my mouth tastes like, and shards of memories of my morning come up to the surface of my mind. Looking up into Joseph’s blue eyes I manage to brush them away. I just want to have this for a little while longer. My ears start to ring, but this is something I can ignore.

‘Don’t worry about getting money. This one’s on me. Really, you’re doing me a favour by coming with me. And I think you’ll really like this place.’

‘Are you sure?’

The three hundred seventy-two dollars and fifty-eight cents in my pocket should be plenty. ‘Yes, I’m sure.’

‘Okay then.’

We take leave of the park and head west on St. Mark’s.

‘I haven’t been Upstate yet.’ He sounds giddy, and puts a little bounce in his step as if to punctuate his sentence.

‘How long have you been in New York?’

‘I moved here from Arizona about a month ago to try to be a writer. Not that you can’t be a writer in Arizona, or anywhere else really, but, I don’t know…It’s a cliché but I do think there’s something…inspiring about New York.’

I think that what he’s experiencing is a common placebo effect, a self-fulfilling prophecy, but I don’t tell him so.

‘What about you, where are you from?’

‘The suburbs.’

We walk past a group of gutter punks sitting on the sidewalk. One of them – a girl who can’t be more than sixteen, with baby doll eyes and blond hair – holds a sign that says, ‘Need money fer BEER’.

We turn right and go north towards Washington Square. Outside of St Mark’s Church is a poster with a Renaissance-style image of Christ’s torso, showing the wounds on his chest and hands. The caption under the picture says ‘Original Body Piercing.’

‘Nice ad campaign. Do you think it works, think the alternative crowd sees it and says, “Wow, that guy’s just like me!”?’

‘Nope,’ I reply. And just then he reaches out and gives me a firm, warm hug. All the people and objects on the street become blocks of colour, and all the colours combine and the world melts away as I stand in his arms outside of St Mark’s Church. And again, arousal and guilt do battle in the lower part of my body.

When he releases me everything becomes realistic, like we’re walking through an excellent model of the city. Everything’s here – the bums, the punks, the checkered cabs, the avant-garde all in black, the urchins and the spoiled brats, the mommies and the Jamaican nannies, the smoke through the subway grates, the pigeons pecking at discarded nubs of Gray’s Papayas. I survey the scene around me, impressed at how very realistic it all is. I’m almost convinced.

‘I’m so glad I met you today,’ Joseph sighs.

I smile and close my eyes. A very thin tear rolls down my cheek while the whole morning replays in my head, from the moment I woke up to that second against the railing in front of my building. It feels like another life, but I know it is the same one. This is no escape. But still I have to agree.

‘I’m glad too.’

Joseph takes my hand again and laces his fingers with mine. We turn right on 2nd Avenue and midway down the block a barefoot dreadlocked kid sits on the sidewalk playing a familiar tune on an acoustic guitar. I squeeze Joseph’s hand and stop in front of the guitar player.

Well the first days are the hardest days

Don’t you worry anymore.

‘Cause when the life looks like easy street

There is danger at your door.

I start to hum along, then mumble the words, and eventually I’m singing with my full voice, lost in the nostalgic innocence, the clichéd hippie glee of a Grateful Dead tune crooned on the street in the summertime by a couple of kids with nothing to lose.

We sing two verses together before I notice that others have stopped to listen. I look around at the faces in the assembled crowd, my eyes moving a bit too quickly, making me nauseated and confused. The sun’s rays whip me with cruel lashes of heat and brightness. I try to take a few deep breaths. The air quality isn’t very good today.

Everyone is looking at me.

‘Are you okay?’ Joseph moves his head in front of mine, making me meet his gaze. Why couldn’t I have met you yesterday? I want to ask him. Everything would have been possible then. We could have fallen in love.

‘Fine. I’ll be fine. I’m just feeling…overwhelmed. Let’s keep going.’

I look straight ahead as we walk towards Cooper Square, but in my mind I’m trying to memorise Joseph – his duck egg blue eyes, his dishevelled hair, a hole in his grey shirt just above his heart. I replay everything he’s said to me and allow myself to be happy.

‘Your mother must be beautiful,’ I say to him.

‘You should tell her that someday.’

‘I don’t know,’ I shrug, knowing I’ll never get the chance.

We reach the subway station and take the chewing gum-speckled stairs down to the ticket gallery. I buy two one-ways with a $20 bill and leave the change in the machine. I hand one of the orange plastic fare cards to Joseph and he lets me go first through the turnstile. I love the platform at this station and take a second to appreciate its shape as we walk along it, a long, gentle curve, like the moon the night before it disappears from view.

‘I’m getting excited.’ Joseph’s grin looks like it might explode into a laugh.

I don’t have time to concur. As he speaks my attention turns towards the sound of the mechanisms in the turnstile rotating and clicking twice, followed by determined footsteps and the authoritative clanking of keys. I look in the direction of the noise and see two officers conferring. One looks up and I meet his eyes peering down the platform at me from under a blue hat. He looks down and speaks into his lapel. With this I turn to walk further down the platform. A dirty breeze rushes into the station along with dull rumbling and crashing noises. The officers start to take long, deliberate strides towards me.

‘What’s the matter?’ Josephs asks, following me. I have to find a way out. I can’t let them take me away from him. Not yet. So I keep walking, my tears leaving little spots on the platform.

‘I can’t go to Tivoli with you,’ I force myself to say. Just then two honks of a train’s horn precede the appearance of its headlights at the mouth of the tunnel. The officers have quickened their pace to a jog. There is nowhere left to go.

‘Well, I won’t go without you.’

‘Look away,’ I instruct. His calm blue eyes are an amazing last thing to see as I take two forbidden steps backwards, letting my body meet the headlights of the uptown Q train.

She had to stop panicking. This would be the best day of her life.

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