Love Letter to Lady Lazarus
Stepping into the funneled air of the oncoming subway train, the woman thought mainly of her shoes. Funny thing, shoes. The way they carry us, without judgment. The way our oxfords or slippers or stilettos know the intimate places we take them, places perhaps unknown to all others. Accompanying us as we tread through our secrets.
She was purposefully not thinking of the night before. Or the night prior to that one. But still, the soft stink of sweat and body fluids clung to her hair. She could catch it, just barely, if she turned her head quickly, smelling the ruptured air after her curls had rearranged its atoms.
Instead, she cast furtive looks to her fellow subway riders and boarded the train, her commuting comrades, releasing a line and searching for any possible takers. Painfully aware of every retina attuned to her, the woman chose the decayed yellow seat furthest from another passenger. In the quiet of the early morning, there were few others on this, the first train of the day. The woman was becoming accustomed to zipping through the belly of her city in the fuzzy light of predawn, the dampness of the air sticking to her skin as she descended stair after stair into the labyrinthine underground world of public transport, always sure to watch each step, her heels or boots or sandals clicking on the pavement, a lullaby increasingly lulling to her, this ritual, the infinite novelty of leaving the strange bedclothes of stranger men. At once she hoped to be unnoticed and noticed by the other passengers. She wanted to be invisible and to be glowing, a shimmering iridescence, like that wavy air over hot hot blacktop. She picked her cuticles and scanned their faces, hoping and not hoping to make eye contact.
The woman picked a flyaway curl from her forehead and felt the stiff, tired soreness of her scalp, remembered the prickled stubble of the man from last night, the sharp pain of teeth scratching against her neck, her cheek, her collarbone. How he’d grabbed chunks of hair at the nape of her neck and pulled her from her knees to her tiptoes. This man, she saw on a semi-regular basis. His Saturday nights usually rendered the shell of her body tender on Sundays. This man fucked her senseless then braided her hair, making it curl and swell to twice its volume the next morning when she unplaited it while he said, “thanks, doll.”
She smiled at a tired-looking Hispanic man, the heaviness of his lids apparent even at this distance, even under the tatters of his baseball cap. Two black women conversed across the train, sitting next to one another, their shoulders touching and their hands gesticulating, a skit of normalcy and comfort and closeness and ease with another human being our woman could not fathom, and she watched them as if watching television, seeing but not believing their friendship. A businessman punched digits into his phone without blinking, with eyes that did not stray and rove over the rest of them, and certainly did not make eye contact with our woman. This was both a victory and a defeat, victorious in her need to be unobtrusive, defeated by the fact that she wasn’t attractive enough to attract his attention.
The conductor’s voice purred from the audio equipment above. At least, the woman thought it a kind of purr, a catlike allure to his voice, and she wondered how he looked, and she wondered whether he went home to a house lit and warm with life, and she wondered if he spent nights with lotion and porn or making love to his wife. The brief crackle before his speech seemed a spell, some kind of statically charged hypnosis, and our woman licked her lips, imagining running the heat of her tongue over the tiny holes of the speaker box.
No one talked much. Later in the day, this train would be filled with all types: groups of petite and smiling Asians whose uninterrupted stream of giggles would make all others feel left out, backpackers who would unsuccessfully try to keep their burdens from bumping into fellow passengers, panhandlers with outstretched fingers and notes of wretchedness in their voices, businesswomen in black pencil skirts checking their lipstick between stops. Not now, though. No one among them – our woman included – wanted to be on this train.
Stops clicked by. The woman studied her windowed reflection surreptitiously, lost in the blackness of underground tunnels, eyes crawling over her freckled skin, pouting lips. This early, there were few others shuffling in and out of the train’s recycled air, few opportunities for the electricity of locked eyes. Most stops were deserted, or perhaps enlivened by small clusters of human beings, night workers and vagabonds.
The subway rides home after nights spent soliciting were usually the worst. That long stretch of minutes, suspended above magnetic rails and trapped like rats, the nakedness of seeing other people preoccupy themselves, or slump in exhaustion, or bite their fingernails. The woman hated this, this part of it. She loved the feel of substances in her system, she loved the magnetic pull of hips and eyelashes, she loved shedding the ill-fitting pelt of her cheap getups and the scratchiness of the sheets she left in the dark. It was this part, though, the ride back to her small apartment, the thick air of the subway and the old smells of shit and food, the stink of unwashed humans and dilapidation. She hated this. Absentmindedly, she fingered the loose curls framing her face.
When she first saw him, she felt him somehow hers. He was sitting alone on a concrete bench, hands folded and staring at his feet and waiting for the train: the sole occupant of a vast platform, a boy no more than eight- or nine-years-old; small, so small, his translucent legs dangling inches from the ground. He waited until the train came to a complete stop before moving towards her compartment. He sat directly across from her, in the seats reserved for elderly passengers, facing her but never looking up, his toy blonde head fixed on his shoes.
Watching the boy with an unprecedented sense of ownership, the woman felt a maternal and protective intuition foreign to her. She’d always felt a disdain for children, generally deigning to be in their presence, but the boy compelled the hot pot of her biological clock to bubble up and over. There was something in the stoic posture of his dwarf body; his composure, almost a resignation. Like an old man.
She studied him studying the floor, and the next stop, which had been hers, clicked by. One stop over meant a longer walk home, but that was fine by her. She exited the train with her scarf parachuting in the whooshed air of parting doors, and put her sunglasses on before she made it back to daylight, back to a Sunday she planned to sleep off.
The next morning found her body a bruised composite of meat and bones. Mondays meant groceries–staples only–since everything was so fucking expensive in this city. Peak commuter hours meant closeness and noise, meant the hustle of bodies, jean-clad and sweatered, loud laughter, heads bobbing to music, eyes attuned to books. Subway dynamics, the woman knew, were markedly different from the interactions of those not subterranean. The shared confinement of strangers created a fleeting kind of kinship, a camaraderie amongst noncomrades. She crossed the threshold to enter the cramped, mid-morning-rush train, grateful to meet and hold the gaze of a middle-aged man as the wind from the subway doors pushed her hair back. She thought, comrade, though this quickly turned to potential client. He rose and left, winking, and she looked away and slid into his seat, a guilty church parishioner delighting in confession.
At the grocery store, our woman foraged and hunter-gathered. She boarded the train home with two paper bags, a receipt for twenty dollars, and fifty dollars’ worth of stolen goods. When she’d been on the train long enough to enter a kind of dreamlike fugue, the woman noticed the bright blonde head of the same boy among the throng of incoming passengers, one stop before her own. In the seat facing her, an obese woman rose with a swift exhalation of air. Quietly, the boy took her seat, across from our woman, his eyes affixed to his dainty fingers, clasping and unclasping them, and she watched his well-manicured fingernails with a fragment of contempt. As again her stop passed, the woman watched the boy pull a sandwich baggie full of little toys from the pocket of his khakis. The bag was not knotted shut but twisted tight. The woman watched him clip the top and allow the bag to rotate, unwinding itself.
He held his birdlike wrists aloft. Small noises floated to her ears.
She glanced around the fullness of the train, but not one other passenger had noticed her boy, their eyes sliding over her own face as if on tracks. No one looked at him at all, as if some reverse gravitation compelled their irises elsewhere. Our woman watched his small hands pick through the mumbling bag of toys, shuffling the figurines about in search of a favorite, the lowness of a murmur accompanying his movements.
The bag’s rustle, what was first the monotone of traffic from a distance, became a steady buzz. Slowly, the bag’s low notes graded into distinguishable sounds, or at least what she perceived to be distinguishable sounds; she seemed to hear the trumpet of an elephant, low, very quiet, like a television tuned to just-above silent. It was difficult to pick the sounds apart within the noise of the commuter train, but perhaps a low roar?
The child did not look up, but continued to shift through the bag’s contents. Finally selecting one of the small toys, he plucked it up and raised it to his lips, as if to kiss it, slowly.
Our woman heard the little figure screech between his undersized fingers, a high-pitched repetitive noise, a toy crying thing. Her eyes sharpened, and she saw the sleekness of the thing, with a tail and minuscule fins, a bottle nose, and shiny, so shiny, and its mouth opened and closed, and the tiny white dots of caricature teeth were housed within. A very small, very much alive dolphin squeaked in this boy’s grasp. The woman stopped breathing.
The micro sea creature, it flailed and moved about, wriggling like a doomed, hooked worm. With irises fixed and small pinprick pupils, her boy popped this magicked animal into his mouth like candy. Consistent with the movement of his jaws, the woman heard a faint crackcrackcrack, the pinky-length spine of the dolphin crunching. He chewed with his mouth open, blood slipping in the dark corners of that hot hole, pooling at the sides and waxing between the boxed ivory stones of his teeth. A thread of blood escaped the corner of thin pink lips, and the boy’s fingers quickly wiped, no, scooped the blood, corralled it back to the confines of hungry mouth.
Feeling the rubbery give of waterproof skin, the bouncy and buoyant taste of saltwater trapped in muscles and sinew, the woman experienced a simultaneous revulsion and gravitational pull, the writhe of her innards both disgust and thrill. Eventually, purposefully, he swallowed. She felt a lump rise in her own throat. The strong taste of bile on the tongue. His hands twitched, and an itch rose within the pads of our woman’s fingertips, the need to scratch and claw suddenly strong underneath her nails.
The next stop was miles from her apartment, but she found herself pushing into strangers, a kind of panic filling her, a buzzing in the ears as she exited the train and fast-walked out of the station, leaving her staples behind.
That was Monday.
The boy played barnacle and clung to our woman’s brain in a crusted, sickly fashion. When she met her usual Wednesday for cocaine and sex, she snorted the powder so fast it couldn’t remind her of small white teeth. Her typical, train-track conversations with potential clients dotted her week like a pantyliner. Though she felt entranced by what she’d seen, the woman didn’t mention the boy or his bag of animals to the men she talked to when she went out, hoping to allure yet another stranger; scripted conversations: a formality, really. Without varying her routine, the woman examined the boy from all angles in memory. She flirted with wealthy businessmen and grunted under the weight of their bodies. By Thursday, she believed the animals, not animals, but miniature automatons, robotic delicacies. When the weekend brought her steady upswing of clientele, our woman imagined she hadn’t seen the blood painting the lines between his teeth. She feigned fearlessness and boarded the commuter train to see her weekenders, ignoring the crackcrackcrack of dolphin that echoed through the cavernous recesses of her head.
A week after their first meeting, another Sunday: another predawn morning, the soft part of touching lips, then a wall of cold air as the woman left another apartment and descended the subway steps. At the stop before hers, she instinctively looked out the window, unsurprised to find her eyes locked with the boy’s. This first train of the day, his platform was desolate, his red-vested body a stubby crayon of color in the gray of concrete upon concrete. He boarded and sat across from her; she forced her gaze elsewhere, anxiety making her sweat, she could smell herself. She felt, rather than heard, him rifle in his pockets, small fingers searching for what she knew to be a plastic baggie. She looked, without really meaning to.
Easily, this time, she heard the noises of the animals. Various pitched screams, the caw of birds, the hiss of snakes.
The boy’s fingers rifled through his zoo, though our woman wished it marbles. An accompanying squawk and squeak of the animals worked a charm on our woman; she watched and listened and waited and held her inhale to the soundtrack of a rainforest. He selected something, pulled it from the bag, she knew it was intentional, the hesitation in his movements, and she heard the elephant first, she heard it’s trumpeted agitation, and her eyes found its impeccable ivory tusks, the length of her fingernail. The whole thing was no bigger than a large coin. The boy ate the animal in a more fluid motion this time, less muss and fuss in the crunching of elephant bone than in the chewiness of the dolphin’s skin. But oh, so much louder. Each movement of the fair boy’s jaws rang through her. Electrified her.
He gulped once, and his small eyes, which had been glued to the baggie’s contents, met hers. His hands, holding both sides of that tiny circus, rose and outstretched, and he was reaching out to her, and she couldn’t think, the world seemed a loud sharp pang of sound and light and bells, the woman couldn’t think because she didn’t know what to think, how to react to this, this child, to what appeared to be an offering.
Our woman leaned forward, bridging the gap between them with one long arm. The growls and cries of individual creatures became louder as she stuck a tentative hand into the plastic opening, her fingers closing about a fluttering shape she hadn’t seen from her seat. She pulled her hand back as if burned when she felt its hysteric presence inside her cupped palm; though she didn’t let go, she broke the boy’s gaze to stare at her now-foreign fist.
Our woman felt the miniature body frenzied in her grasp. She distantly remembered catching fireflies in the thick dark heat of her childhood and the way their spindly insect legs brushed her skin. Slowly, she brought both hands together to make a small enclosure, peeking through her thumbs at the little alive thing she’d chosen.
It was an owl. A perfect owl, she thought, with eraser-length bristles of undersized eyebrows over its golden eyes. She felt little pricks of talons when it landed on her palm or fingers, though mostly it fluttered about, terrified within this new enclosure; sure, the woman sensed, of its fate. How often had this penny-sized owl evaded that boyish clutch? How many of its comrades had it watched rise above itself, clipped between near-transparent fingers, only to enter the greenhouse of the boy’s warm body, the planters of his teeth rendering life, lifeless? And what would it taste like?
The conductor announced an upcoming exit, his voice a bread-crumb trail back to the woman she had been minutes before. He said a name she’d heard in the mouths of friends, a part of the city unfamiliar. She stood up abruptly, feeling self-conscious and lightheaded. She didn’t know how to hold her body, or what to do with her cupped hand. First she held it at her chest, then let it hang limp against her side. With her free hand she held onto the subway rail with a slick, white-knuckled grip. She didn’t look at the boy, though she felt his eyes on her.
Our woman left the station at a near run, the owl going wild in her hand. She moved through the streets as if underwater: slow, deliberate strides and a look of discomforted awe. She waded into first one unknown establishment then another: the earthy smell of an organic food store, a pool hall backlit with neon, tie-dyed Bob Marley handbags displayed on a head shop’s sidewalk. Her palms were wet from nervous sweat. She bought nothing, she said nothing, she moved as a woman moves when she is sure she is the only person in the room. When our woman passed a jewelry store with a glass-walled storefront and strange, glittering pieces on display, she entered without hesitation. She looked through the store’s boxed glass showcases, the shining items inviting and calming, and her stare found the glint of a gold necklace. A birdcage. She purchased it in breathy tones, concerned that the nearly-maxed credit card she handed the saleswoman would be declined. It wasn’t.
Folding her receipt, one hand confining the owl, our woman asked to be shown to the ladies’ room. After locking and re-locking the bathroom stall, she looped the long chain of the necklace around her, a delicate and ornate miniature birdcage suspended between her breasts. Her free hand fingered the latch and opened the golden dome from a hinged side, the top separating from the bottom like the gaping mouths of plastic Easter eggs. Trembling slightly, she put the minuscule owl in the cage and clicked it closed. It hooted at a near-silent volume.
That Sunday, our woman left the store with her breathing erratic, and her heart beat a new rhythm. The owl flew from corner to corner of its gilded home, the scratch of its feathers against her exposed skin a Morse code. She was glad of the company.
Kayla is currently an MFA Fiction candidate at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.