Jokes and Tricks

Lulu lies prone on the floor of her studio apartment, bloodshot eye transfixed on baseless accusations. Untrue, untrue, she murmurs furiously to herself. She’s weightless, Adderall-wicked of fat, split ends running up and down her head like seams.

A process, spectacular and devoid of apparatus, is underway inside her heart. Tools are for tasks: hammers are for nails, scythes are for wheat. She doesn’t need her phone anymore. If you used your hand to do what a hammer does it would break. Too bad about your head.

Her apartment is small.  “I think it’s cute,” the generous echo of a kind friend passes through her. “Maybe that’s why you’re so short, like how a goldfish only grows to the size of its bowl.”

She stomps out whatever malice she can as she marches down the street in sideways rain. She thinks her neighbor on the train is watching The Sopranos on her phone, but she’s just watching a YouTube clip of a single scene on repeat. You ever feel like nothing good was ever gonna happen to you? Yeah, and nothing did, so what. You ever feel like nothing good was ever gonna happen to you? Yeah, and nothing did, so what. You ever feel like nothing good was ever gonna happen to you? Yeah, and nothing did, so what.

She’s having dinner with her editor and an unnamed friend, his new roommate. She rounds the corner and sees him, Ben, and a girl with no outline, introduced as Hannah. Ben is elegant and specific, the delicate architecture of his being balanced on a single spinning plate. Ben enjoys robust financial support from both parents and healthy encouragement from friends. Whenever either force wanes he mutates, relapses, sleeps outdoors. Ben says thoroughbred horses can run forty miles per hour, but they have a catastrophic injury rate because they’re bred for speed. They travel faster than their skeletal structure can allow.

Wisdom is an accident of suffering. Only cumming matters.

She holds out her phone. She wants to know if she looks anorexic. They’re saying she has an eating disorder, but it’s a stomach condition. I’m not religious but I love the simplicity of prayer.

Hannah is standoffish and spit-spraying, she doesn’t like the phone, she doesn’t like Lulu. Lulu doesn’t feel well enough to walk home. Ben puts his arm around her in the umbilical darkness of the night and she wonders if it felt this claustrophobic in the womb.

Ben and Hannah take her back to their apartment. He starts boiling water for tea. Directly opposite her on the wall is an old landline, perfectly preserved among the fading petunias and jujubees of some derelict 70s wallpaper. Love is a landline; it looks pretty on the wall. Do you remember how it felt to twirl the cord in your hand? She violently gags and bends over to stop herself. Her hand comes up and down in a reflexive attempt to hide her face from everyone. She throws up nothing, a mouthful of spit, and Ben wipes it off the floor with a paper towel and the featureless grace of Christ.

Lulu gets a better look at Hannah after dinner. Gorgeous and enormously tall with a moon-shaped face. She has an interest in feminism.

“I was in an abusive relationship,” Lulu volunteers out of a selfless desire to be conversationally helpful.

“Are you traumatized?”

“I can describe it exactly,” she says. “It’s like lying flat on your back with ants crawling all over your face. You hold yourself really still because you’re like, well, I want to see where this is going. The ants build a beautiful crystal anthill all over your face and you can see everything, all the tunnels they’re building and the rooms they’re in and what they’re eating and doing. You just lie there watching them build this beautiful see-through structure all over your face. Then one day you finally blink or sneeze and the whole thing shatters and you’re lying there covered in broken glass.”

“Heteronormative relationships are inherently abusive,” Hannah says. “My Dad used to hit my Mom and I could hear it through the wall. She would go, ‘Why can’t you be nicer to me?’ and he would go, ‘I have to be nice all day at work, now I have to come home and be nice to my wife?’”

“Aristotle says the high pitch of women’s voices are a sign of weak character,” Ben says.

“My mother’s voice was very low, and raspy,” Hannah says. She starts to cry and makes the same gesture Lulu made a few hours ago: her hand flaps weakly up and down in front of her face, then falls back to her side. “It’s okay. I’m just letting it out.”

Ben suggests they go up to the roof for more drinks and they all squeeze onto the fire escape. Lulu experiences a radical loss of optimism about the night midway up the ladder. She realizes she hates Hannah so, so much.

The three of them are bathed in cold white light on a towel, inordinately weighted at the corners with bricks and mega-size wine bottles. Ben reads a Robert Browning poem from a billboard across the street: A man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a Heaven for? An ad for queer banking.

“I always knew I cashed an empty check when I became beautiful,” Hannah says. Lulu is slick with resentment. She isn’t even beautiful enough to say something like that. “I thought it would fix me.”

“Not everything can be fixed,” Lulu says. She walks to the edge of the building and spits to take the edge off her nausea. She feels the steely recoil of her stomach as she looks at the ground below, radiating fizzy waves of wine and vertigo up the side of the building. She sits down, annihilated by the nuclear freedom of her life. Across the street a boy is watching Naruto on a flat-screen TV, so big she can read the subtitles. When you’ve hovered between life and death so many times it no longer phases you – only then may you call yourself a ninja.

Hannah brings her a cup of water.

“Thank you,” Lulu says.

“No problem,” she says. “I’ve believed in love my whole life, and I still do.”

Tess Pollok is a writer and the editor of Animal Blood Magazine. She lives in New York City.

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