A LONG TIME AGO WE INVENTED a game about civilization. This was when we were almost nine and sat on the floor of one of the hallways downstairs in the school. There were containers of Scandinavian blocks, red rectangles and yellow human shapes and a few trees. We built twin towns, reflections of each other, each with a fence around it and a factory at its center. One town was full of good people, as represented by the yellow figures: Their factory built cars, their school was full of children, there were trees lining the three streets within their fence.
One day a bus arrived at the gate of the good town. It was a tour bus. The driver was invisible. The invisible driver told the mayor of the good town he had come on a mission. It was his duty to invite all the citizens of the good town to visit the other town, expenses paid, luxury accommodation provided, informational tours of the other town’s factory forthcoming. The mayor of the good town, overjoyed, made a formal announcement, and his constituents piled obediently into the big, blue- wheeled bus, headfirst through its windows. The bus circled the carpet for thirty seconds to represent travel distance before pulling up in front of the opening in the second town’s perimeter fence.
“Welcome to the town,” the driver said.
The citizens of the good town exited the bus.
“The name of the town,” the bus driver continued, “is Torture Town.”
At this, some of the citizens of the good town hopped up and down in distress, but they said nothing, awaiting leadership. The mayor of the good town spoke. “I must know,” he piped, “why your town has such a weird name.”
“That is a very good question,” the bus driver complimented him. “Why don’t you step inside the town and we can have one of our special helpers explain that.”
The mayor lay back down, and he and the rest of the citizens of the good town were transported inside the fence. A finger approached them.
“Welcome to Torture Town,” the finger said. “First we will walk by the apartment buildings where you will be staying. Then,” the finger continued, floating up from the carpet, “we will go on a tour of the factory and find out all kinds of information about how it works and what stuff gets made there. Now, please follow me.”
The finger flew ten inches away to where six bigger blocks represented condominiums.
“Here are apartments for visitors,” the finger said. “Now please come with me to the factory!”
The good townspeople were deposited near the factory, a cardboard box with a pattern of brick and mortar drawn on it in marker.
“Here you must enter one at a time because the entrance is very little.”
The citizens of the good town entered the factory one at a time.
The bus driver was heard laughing. “Quick!” he whispered.
“Yes! Yes!” cried the finger. “They are all inside!”
“Yes, yes,” agreed all invisible dignitaries and citizens of Torture Town.
The factory went into action. Shiny red domino-shaped blocks began to appear in a line on the opposite side of the factory from where the good citizens had entered.
It was the object of the game.
THE STORY I TELL IN THIS PROSE is one about behavior. In this sense, it’s not really a story, but a series of examples. The narrator of this story is destined to live as an idealist, and therefore it is natural that this speaker does not yet realize there exist prescribed, recognizable modes of action—or that she also pertains to this code, which, like language, preexists everyone.
When I see a character like this in someone else’s novel, I often look forward to the method of escape that will be devised by the author in order to release this character from the tyranny of history + other people. If you think about a political work like Stendhal’s The Red and the Black, whose title is both an allegory and a kind of riddle, you are invited to come to the conclusion that certain jealously held ideas can operate like a tear in the page on which civility had been ceremonially inscribed for the benefit of everybody. In the case of Stendhal’s novel, someone named Julien loves and dies, neatly, on account of loving. Someone asks to be paid back and payment is received; the liberating irony is that Julien’s request seems to run counter to his own self-interest. He is attractive and not without intellectual gifts and could have risen in the world. Why does he seem compelled to find the place in the book where his own name had been written only to erase it? I keep adjusting the metaphor, but it does seem like this, a fugitive figure races toward its own reflection. No one else invites her death.
However in this account it is more like a sieve. I will agitate it until there is the sound of something metal.
WHEN WE ARE TWELVE, we walk home together, Larisse, Gwen, and I.
We walk down to 86th. All the way down to 86th it is crowded. Girls are in uniforms, walking.
There is a series of convenience stores. They have flowers. Farther down the hill there is the major deli where you can get a bagel with butter for a dollar. Or an iced coffee that is half-sugar: That is another dollar. This is what Gwen gets herself each afternoon with two dollars. She brings the money out of a zippered baggie and shows her braces to the man behind the counter. Larisse gets diet soda and chocolate. I get the same.
As we go down to the flats we meet girls our age from other schools. There are the ones in plaid kilts. They have maroon blazers. And the sylphs from the Christian school with gray skirts, who wear matching vests.
Many of the ideal accessories can be purchased at a store with a hot pink awning that reads, GUESS WHAT? Inside a man with a pencil moustache presides over a case of lockets and rubber watches. The rest of the store is taken up by shelving cubes that contain bins of figurines, whales and trolls and pearl-colored worms that smell like raspberry.
Sometimes we go to my house. At my house we can experiment with the phone. I have a notebook in which we note successful numbers, numbers where no one is home during the day and an answering machine picks up and we can record. Gwen pretends she is an old man who likes fishing. “Hey Derr Joe Diss Here Is Pete! Loved Tha Fishin Trip. We Sure Caught Some Big CRABS!” She slams down the receiver. Together we do a sex voice. We do heavy breathing and say, “Unngggghh. My pussy. Is. So. Wet.” I press my face into a pillow.
We call a girl in our grade, Jamie. Jamie has hair that is almost white. She is not an albino but her skin is pretty red. She smells her fingers in class, and everyone calls her LL Cool J, which Gwen says stands for “Lesbian Lover Cool Jamie.” LL herself always picks up. We chant, “We’ve got Cool J, we’ve got Cool J.” I don’t know why we say this. Jamie yells at us to stop and then starts choking. Her mother comes on the line and sneers, “You little bitches. I know who you are.” But she doesn’t know who we are. We know LL Cool J doesn’t have caller ID.
As for me, in addition to having no beliefs, I’m also fat. Before we kicked her out of the group, Hannah used to call me “Fatty Bombardos.” No one else says anything to me about it, but I have a mirror and am not an idiot. When everyone leaves my house I start eating. I microwave a frozen muffin on a paper towel and put butter on it. I make some pizza in the microwave before dinner. I make a healthy banana milk shake.
MY PARENTS START TO GET interested in island resorts south of the continental United States. In particular they like Club Med.
My father says it’s a good deal. “I suppose it’s like Vegas,” he says. He talks about how you have to exchange your money for shells. He says he really dislikes having wet paper in the pockets of his shorts if he has just gone swimming, especially if then he plays tennis.
My parents are happy with Club Med, so they ask Gwen’s parents if they want to come, too. They say they want to go to this island that has been divided in half by colonial powers because on one side you can speak French.
Gwen and I make preparations over the phone. We discuss bathing suits, how to disguise the portions of our bodies about which we might feel concern.
“I’ll wear a T-shirt,” I say.
Gwen says she’s getting something with her mom.
I get my mom to take me to Bloomingdale’s. On the swimsuit floor all the walls and tiling are an immaculate shade of cream. The carpet is grayish cream.
I get a CK swimsuit. It is black with a white “CK” embroidered just below the breasts. Under shorts it looks like a tank top. It does a good job with cleavage.
At the resort Gwen is efficient and finds someone right away. We bring rum and tequila in our luggage. The person is in charge of putting boats into the water and supervises cruises in the afternoon. The first night we go to the disco in the rec building. There are maybe twenty people. The person is at the disco with his girlfriend who is also on staff. She is a petite blond and wears cuffed shorts. The person is dancing with his elbows bent. He dips. He has a pleasant face.
The next day he comes up from the water. He stands over our towels and asks if we want to come on his boat.
“Sure,” Gwen says.
“You girls,” he calls us.
Gwen tells him the number of our room.
We spend the rest of the day with our moms. We go to a nude beach by accident.
Later the person shows.
“You ladies ready?” he asks.
Gwen says, “Want a drink?”
She delivers him to one of the two beds and he sits with his legs apart. He takes off his sunglasses and the pale skin around his eyes makes him seem young.
He says, “What’s going on?”
Gwen gets all of us cups from the bathroom. She kneels on the floor and unzips the top of her school backpack. She takes out a bundle, a purple towel in a roll. She takes out a baggy with something white at the bottom. “Sorry I didn’t bring lime,” she says. She says, “It’s so nice here.”
I stand by the window. I watch the employee press his tongue, the tip of it, into the bottoms of his top front teeth.
“We were just talking,” Gwen says, going over to the bed with a bottle of tequila, “about how much stuff we want to do.”
Gwen unscrews the cap and fills everyone’s cup. She is wearing a pair of men’s boxer shorts and the top of a black string bikini. Her abdomen is pale and loose and folds in half.
Gwen raises her left hand and licks her palm from wrist to thumb and opens the baggie. She hands the baggie around so all of us can get salt.
We do shots three times.
The person lies back on the bed.
Gwen gets between his legs and takes out his cock.
I HAVE A FRIEND who's kind of a recluse.
I’m still thirteen. I can’t even fit her in the real story because it wouldn’t make sense. She’s that much of a recluse, even at fourteen.
She barely leaves the house except to go to school, if that. She goes to a tutoring school because she hates it. She hates outdoors. She has like two hundred friends, she calls them on the phone and they come over to her house. She keeps a record. She keeps a record of everything she does. On any day she can look back and know if she called you and what you talked about. Her name is Stacey, and she is Gwen’s friend. Gwen made the two of us be friends with each other even though Stacey does not go to our school. Stacey is socially powerful. She knows models and she knows whoever is dating whichever promoter. I go to a real club for the first time with Stacey and Stacey knows people. We sit in a corner because we are so far underage and someone brings us champagne cocktails. I’m only mentioning Stacey because she’s the first person to notice it. She has subscriptions to every fashion magazine. Her mother is a flight attendant and her father is a banker. When I go over to Stacey’s house Stacey doesn’t care if I want to talk. Stacey lets me lie on her bed and read magazines. Stacey mentions something about how there is this hot guy with a public access show about boxing who lives in the building across the street. She says later if I want to stay over she’s going to call his show.
I say sure. I am looking at a photo of Amber Valletta in white eye shadow.
Stacey says it’s like I fall.
Stacey indicates she means the magazines. Like I “fall into them.” She says, “I lose you.”
I have to listen to Stacey because it’s Stacey’s house but honestly I’d rather not. Stacey’s room has navy carpeting and plastic furniture.
It’s like Stacey was supposed to be a boy.
Stacey is tall with long skinny legs, a fat midsection, and double-D breasts. She always talks about her hair, which is perfectly straight and blue-black. She has five pairs of the same Steve Madden high-heeled loafers. She says it annoys her how much she has to think about not eating all the time.
She is four months older than me.
She says in order to save time she invented a regimen. She says it is cheap enough her mother doesn’t care. One container of white take-out rice per day plus water plus one vitamin.
Stacey just discovered realism. Stacey is a painter. She takes photos of aspiring models she knows in her bathroom. She talks about how cute Bijou Phillips is and how she wants to eat her. I am not always sure what Stacey means.
Stacey shows me one of her newest canvases. It’s this thin blond girl I met once before at Stacey’s. This blond girl is dating a man in his twenties who owns a restaurant in midtown. The girl is always upset because she wants the man to marry her even though she is only fifteen. She is sad because she feels like she can never be happy until she is married. The girl is sexy in a way that is pretty valuable right now but is not going to last. Part of the problem is that she takes a lot of prescription speed.
The canvas, which was painted using a projection of the image, is shit. All of this black eye makeup is dripping down the girl’s face and she is crumpled against a tiled wall in an undershirt. Stacey does not say that she wants to paint me, but she does say something about getting inside my brain.
I am looking at Naomi Campbell in a simple satin bra.
I turn the page and read a reader’s letter about eyebrow threading.
I want to keep thinking about lip tint, a subtle just-kissed sheen, a berry stain, or glossy healthy glow.
Stacey gets on the phone for a little while with someone very wealthy named Marina.
Stacey keeps asking if I’ve kissed a boy.
Stacey says she herself is a giant prude. She says how she only wants to go out with the guy in the building next door who has a public access show about boxing. She says it is like a crazy coincidence that she saw his show and then one day she saw him on the street. She says it has to mean something. She really needs his real number.
NOW I AM NO LONGER sure that we are in the present. I want to keep us here, but it’s difficult, since the more I talk about it the more I become certain that the present of this novel also has an image of the present in it. From certain perspectives, this can look like a mise en abyme, as when two mirrors face each other or a character in a novel picks up a copy of that novel from the shelf. Normally this is not the worst kind of device since it frequently serves to make art seem more real. In this novel, however, the image of the present that exists within the present of the novel doesn’t function normally. It is partly a product of its own time and is therefore defective on the terms of its own time. It is like this: Imagine you hold the cover of a book up to a mirror and the lettering is not reversed. What this means is that you are not seeing a reflection of the book but rather the book itself. What this means is that you are not yourself but rather your reflection.
I see the book.