Despite the uproar all around me my mind elsewhere. I looked over the shoulder of an attractive & perhaps too self-consciously hip young woman & her cell-phone read 12:17 (ante meridiem) & refilled my drink & found a perchful corner.
The apartment was massive & expensively decorated. Outside the city of Chicago sprawled itself invitingly everything dusted with an early-November snow. The moon glowed its careless glow over the distant skyscrapers & everything looked like a silvertone photograph. The ghostly tableau soothed me & gave me a pleasant sense of some mystery beneath everything.
I turned back to the party. In contrast to the image outside, it was vital & pulsing. Colored Christmas lights webbed the ceiling & several strategically placed lamps offered circles of creamy white glow. The effect was enjoyable, especially with the tumult of dancing & talking & drinking & beautiful people going about their beautiful business. The lighting & the gin-&-tonics in my system made the simplest gesture into voluptuous movement. Glances here & there & there & there
It was late enough in the evening that sexual partnerships (for the night and perhaps beyond) were beginning to solidify. Just outside the window was silent mystery of an otherworldly register while in the apartment all-too-worldly concerns played out in the usual ways. Am I being too simplistic? Maybe I am. Though this was precisely how I saw it—a perfect contrast between these two arenas of my perception.
When did Thom move in here? a thin man of maybe thirty said, loading his voice up with faux admiration & the woman at his side said Just a few months ago taking it all in & the thin man said Well his father must be paying for it & the woman, without judgment, said He must be.
These two people were members of that inquisitive Chicago genus which busies itself with knowing how people got to be the people they are & how much it cost them. They lowered their voices & took their places (it did seem as though these places were left empty just for them) on an (ironically) tiger-striped couch.
Thom spoke fluent German & Polish & many of his guests were first- or second-generation immigrants sons & daughters of Europe, as many Chicagoans are. He added to his charisma by having brief conversations with these guests in their native languages—never long enough to seem pedantic or to alienate other guests & yet just enough to display his intimacy with certain members of his entourage.
The poor people of this city can’t live like this said a young Democratic activist & her friend said Oh, just have some fun for once & dragged her out to the center of the room where others were dancing.
His father could be a CEO for Blackwater for all I care said a PhD student in philosophy at Northwestern University. I just want a crack at his sister Nicole. Have you seen her?
Who wouldn’t have fallen for Nicole? A girlish woman of twenty-eight & a beauty who might have inspired poets in a different era & who might have inspired poets in this one & who was quick with riposte and joke & who... You get the point. Many of my friends tried to win her over, but I knew she would, like some Sultan’s daughter, remain unattainable. I have learned, if nothing else in my thirty years on this planet, who a woman will & won’t have sex with. You think me crude in saying so? Allow me to offer in my defense that several women have told me they know within minutes of meeting a man whether they would have sex with him. Why should it be so wrong that I have decoded with some accuracy what they admit is true? Though Nicole had not been such an easy read.
Nicole’s dancing excited the other party-goers both men & women to more energetic movement. She combined a purity of animal elegance & some hidden poesy worthy of a master ballerina. She also possessed that casual beauty which eludes those who chase after it & which is, in part, why, when I first met her, I assumed she would never deign to tangle the sheets with me. I have the incurable habit of letting it be known what I want & to what degree I want it.
At the makeshift bar (an attractive addition to Thom’s apartment), during one of her breaks from dancing, we talked briefly. Hello, Isaac Nicole said & I said Hello, Nicole & we chatted about our jobs (hers: assistant director for a nonprofit focused on literacy in Illinois prisons & mine: part-time lawyer in my father’s firm & full-time semi-successful recovering drug addict & alcoholic) & we had a pleasant enough time exchanging obligatory updates & I even made her laugh sincerely once & she reminded me why I once fawned over her like a wilty-hearted boy & then we parted ways. Bye she said. Okay, bye I said. It was probably for the best that we kept things on that superficial level, didn’t delve in to the sad depth of our shared past.
I suppose I should introduce myself Isaac Gasyna. Let’s get the givens given. Parents (both brilliant & ambitious) born in Cracow, Poland. I was born in Chicago shortly after their immigration. Years of poverty I don’t remember while parents were forced to redo law school (father) & medical school (mother), since Polish degrees suffer the unfortunate fate of not being American degrees. Years of relative financial stability I somewhat remember as they did clerkship & residency & first years of practice & then years of wealth & culture & pressures all-too-well-known by way-too-many people. Brilliant rebellious boy the teachers said & What is wrong with you? After your parents work so hard my father said & Fuck you or I’m sorry; I’ll do better I said. Did not make Ivy League, Like you could have if you had applied yourself my mother said, but did receive scholarship to the University of Illinois & there applied myself & so received another scholarship to attend law school there & applied myself so much I developed needs for alcohol & valium on the weekends & uppers every weeknight to beat my fellow 1Ls & then 2Ls & then 3Ls & then other clerks in clerkships & needed more and more of both to keep the see-saw motion of my life in order Great Job & more drugs & more alcohol. Met perfect girl (Nicole) & lost perfect girl (Nicole), about which more later. Breaking point (which all of us have) & lost Great Job & stayed with parents to recover & was begrudgingly given job by my father Your grades were good. Your bar score so promising. You are a good lawyer despite your other failings.
Now that that is over (introductions are so tedious, don’t you think?), we can get on with things.
Talking with Nicole at Thom’s party, regret wormed its rotting way into my mood. We were civil & neither of us would broach the subject of our previous life together & neither of us would point a finger of blame at the other over how we had fucked that life up. We were professionals & we were cool-headed people. & What utility would there be in reaching beneath the pleasant surface of our assumed roles?
I was still a full-time lawyer & was still a full-on addict when Nicole & I began our relationship. On our first date I splurged on an expensive restaurant, showing in the way successful young professionals like to show, that I was successful & therefore a good catch or a safe bet or a person going places & doing things.
To my surprise, Nicole invited me to her apartment for drinks & chat. It’s too noisy pretty much anywhere on Friday night she said & I said Yeah, it’s going be like this everywhere, I guess, worrying that she would use this as an excuse to end the date, thus submitting me to the fate of so many of my friends before. She said My place is just a few blocks away. We could grab some wine & hang out there & I, in surprised elation, said That could be nice, & that is what we did.
Later: I don’t normally do this she said & I said I didn’t mind & she laughed & hit me & I still had the taste of her on my tongue & she still had the remnants of me in her mouth & I kissed her & our tastes commingled & I was in love already, faster than ever in my life (before or since) & she said I like kissing you & she tilted her head and lowered her eyes faux-coy & I was in love more in love with her & me & the light of the low-wattage bulb on the other side of the room, yellow-glowing everything like in a certain kind of photograph that makes you nostalgic for a time & place you never experienced, but you’re nostalgic for it all the same.
Side note: I do not want to compose a treatise on sex here, but I have always considered oral sex much more intimate than (Which adjective to choose? Regular? Actual? Real? Penetrative?) sex & though I have no idea why we ended up doing that more intimate act on our first night together, I have attributed the speedy consolidation of our relationship to that fact.
Since all news is bad news & any good story is a story of trouble, I will spare you the months of our romantic bliss. Suffice it to say we were happy & I cut back on my pill intake & my alcohol intake because I wanted to be a better man for Nicole who deserved the best I had in me and more. Suffice it to say that we were that couple so sickeningly in love that you hate them a little bit. Suffice it to say that you would be jealous of the sex we had. But trouble follows bliss in the demented logic of our universe.
He was squat & solid like a fire hydrant & I paid him no mind until we were around the corner & it was obvious he was following us. He said Hey & we ignored him & he said Hey again & we both looked back in one consciousness & saw his gun in one consciousness & I still think that was the last moment we were one mind & one person & the first thing he did was swing his gun at me & I dodged & tried to grab the gun but he was faster than a fire hydrant & he hit me in the temple & and the world went sideways & stars & streetlights & the thud of me on the ground & then a moment I wasn’t there at all.
When I was there again a throbbingswelling at my temple where the gun had hit me & I saw he was now bent over Nicole on the ground pushing her black-slick skirt about to but not yet & I thought Run run run but I did not run. I found a loose brick on the ground & I picked it up & it was rough & hard & dirt-covered in my hand & I brought it down on the back of his head as he crouched on Nicole.
I brought the brick down & down & down & his fire-hydrant-face was & was redder & redder & less of a face than a meated-thing.
As I panted, leaning against the wall or as I leaned against the wall, panting, a police officer asked Are you okay, sir & I looked at him, wondering if I would go to jail & I wondered if I would go to jail as I looked at him but no, it was self-defense & I was a lawyer in good standing with the Illinois Bar & my beloved fiancée (yes, I would claim she was my fiancée, sounds better than girlfriend) would attest to the fact that the fire hydrant was raping her almost raped her? did I stop him in time? Yes, I did. Sir, are you alright? & I looked around and didn’t see Nicole. Where is my fiancée? I asked. Is she okay? & the police officer said She’s in the back of my car. She’s fine. But are you okay is what I am asking right now, sir.
My father said, when next day I told him what had happened, When I was still living in Poland, I threw a Molotov cocktail at a tank & then he paused (dear reader, he paused, he actually paused; this is not for literary effect) & then he said & I did not know what he meant & I wanted him to think I had done something on his scale, but I had only destroyed a fire hydrant; no tank was my target. After another, longer pause, my father said You did what a man should do & gave me a fraternal pat on the shoulder & a serious look dead in the eyes.
Since the attack (or capitalized & bold, The Attack, which is how I had come to think of it), I had not approached Nicole sexually. When we came home from the gym, where I enjoyed seeing her in exercise tights and loose gray t-shirt, I did not follow her into the bathroom to join her in the shower as had previously been our habit. In bed at night, I did not cup my body around hers, pressing my hardened penis against her buttocks, and so she did not let out that happy-moaning-noise mmmmmm did not wiggle herself against me, did not roll over to invite me on and in. I wanted her to initiate sex, wanted to be sensitive & understanding. I wasn’t sure if her hesitance was because she was nearly raped & so could not find pleasure in sexual contact, or because she had seen the animal glee in my face as I pulped our Attacker’s face with a brick, sending him to the hospital where he required reconstructive surgery.
Nicole insisted that we both go to therapy after The Attack. No one can experience that & not need help she said & I know I need to talk to somebody & We should do some sessions together. Nicole was one of those types who put great faith in therapy (no idea if she still does), whereas I was (and still am) one of those types who thinks it’s a scam. If you want to work through your problems, if you need the talking cure, I say sit down with someone you trust & who is smart & drink some cocktails & spill your guts; repeat for as long as necessary. & It’s not as if we ever actually recover from anything. If that’s what you want I said that is what we’ll do.
& So we went to therapy, individual & group & we talked about The Attack & its aftermath. I can spare you some suspense here: the therapy didn’t work & we slowly admitted it wasn’t working & though we had a few lifeless sessions of tentative sex, we had lost that as well & eventually we just gave up. It was the most civil break-up I have experienced, as cool and passionless as our relationship had previously been hot and impassioned. We’ve both known this was happening she said & I said Yeah, I guess it has been pretty obvious. Ever since The Attack things have been different I said & I have to know, was it because of what I—but she put hand up, silencing me. Not this again she said. We’ve been over this a thousand times. It’s not you & it’s not me. It’s just the situation & random & unlucky as hell, but neither of us are to blame.
& So I was single again & with no need to be a better man for Nicole as she deserved, I became a much worse man, as I decided I deserved & so I drank more than ever & popped pills more than ever & held onto my job by a thread for a few months before I fucked up a big case & was told that my services were no longer required at Great Job & would I kindly remove all personal belongings from the office & take my severance pay (Generous & against our usual policy said a senior partner) & be on my way.
Aside from my alcohol & pill habits, I had lived frugally during the two years I worked for the law firm & so I had several thousand dollars saved & thus could live in self-destructive & self-pitying squalor, drugging and drinking myself into oblivion & thinking of ways to rejoin with Nicole & calling her to tell her we should give it another try & her politely telling me she still cared for me but that after all that had happened & that it could not un-happen, she just didn’t see how we could go back to the way things were before. I knew she was right & slowly the point sank in & instead of trying to get our life together back, I focused on destroying what was left of mine.
One night, I ran into Nicole outside my favorite bar. I had eaten an assortment of pills and downed several gin-&-tonics. She stopped, mostly out of politeness, to see how I was doing. I’m just wonderful I said & she said Really, Isaac & gave me a look of something like pity & so I said You know why all the streets around here are so neatly organized? & she looked at me not-understandingly & I continued It’s because of the Great Chicago Fire. After that, they rebuilt the city according to a logical plan, not like most cities, which just grow in random ways. They rebuilt it better than it was & she said How many drinks have you had? & I said What do you care? Fuck off. Which she did, but with a slack sadness in her face.
When the money was gone (faster than I had expected by a few weeks) I called my father & said, as I had rehearsed a hundred times Dad, I have some bad news & to my great surprise, he agreed to let me move in & even promised he’d find some way to get me back on my feet & in the life you deserve.
& All of that brings us up-to-date. We can return to the party.
I sat there thinking how the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 burned for two days, killing hundreds of people & destroying over three square miles of the city. Afterward in the aftermath, during the clean-up solidified puddles of glass were found all over. I first learned this in my high school history class. The teacher did a month of Chicago history. You kids should know the city you live in he said. I don’t remember most of what he told us, loading his voice up with dramatic importance, but I remember those glass puddles. The running molten goop transparent lava the boiling glass as it ran down, still filling the windows for a moment, even as liquid. I loved (still love) the image of a liquid window, much like that moment when a building has been dynamited & it’s begun its collapse but for that split second is still in the shape of a building & much like a flock of birds rising all at once from a winter-branched tree but for the briefest of moments retaining the shape of the tree. I loved (still love) that waterfall of window, that boiling glass.
On the other side of the room, Nicole was talking with a handsome man—stylishly unshaven, stylish suit, stylish shirt with top two buttons stylishly unbuttoned. I wondered if she would go home with him, allow him the privileges I had once been the sole benefactor of. Unbidden the vision of her kneeled before him entered my imagination. Unbidden a soft pit like falling opened in my stomach. I popped two valium & looked out the window & leaned against its cold glass & let the cold travel the nerves through my face & down my back & across my arms where gooseflesh raised up with a pleasant tingle. I let my mind wander briefly back to The Attack & to the fire hydrant & to the bloody brick & the fragments of teeth on the sidewalk.
What was that I saw you take a bit ago asked a woman in her late thirties & I saw no reason to lie to her. Valium I said & she looked me in the eyes & leaned back & I couldn’t help but see how her silky-hanging dress showed off her athletic body (she must have been a stunning beauty a decade ago, I thought, and still is in that healthy-vital way of the compulsive gym-goer in his/her late thirties). Want one? I asked & she said Sure & I said Let’s make it two & I handed her two pills & took another one myself. I looked over to where Nicole & her handsome companion were laughing & decided I had better focus my attentions where my attentions would be welcome. I need a refill I said & gave the ice in my glass a musical little shake & Daniela (as the woman’s name turned out to be) & I went to get drinks to wash down our pills & then we danced a bit & then we took up my perch near the window to talk the talk talked between people in such a situation. My assessment was that Daniela would definitely have sex with me, either tonight or at some point in the future & this thought made me happy because it got my mind off of Nicole whom I had not seen nor thought much about until this evening & because Daniela seemed a driven & smart & authentic person & there was the fact of her physical beauty which was not as much in decline as I could tell she worried it was.
Side note: Many people—both men and women—disregard that particular kind of beauty that comes in a woman’s late thirties, especially if, like Daniela, she is athletic. I often find a woman of thirty-eight more beautiful than a woman of twenty-two, even though most people assume youth is a necessary component of feminine beauty.
& So I was enjoying myself & looking over at Nicole less & less & thinking of the past less & less when Daniela asked Do you want to do a line? & I said Sure, why not? & we went to the bathroom & locked the door & it was pleasant to be in that small space with her. She cut out one line & another line, hers & mine. She did hers & handed me the rolled twenty-dollar-bill & I did mine. We stood letting the rush come on and sniffing a bit, trying not to lose any granules of cocaine. Then we stood there a bit longer & in that space it was too intimate not to, so I kissed her & when she kissed back, I pulled her to me & the tautness of her stomach & the hard, small mounds of her breasts & the transgression of it all along with the drugs & the alcohol was almost too much & I slid my hands up her thighs, pushing her silky-hanging dress up slowly, letting my hands press their way up her legs toward but then I slid them back down at the last moment & now it really was too much, so I stepped away & motioned for us to leave the bathroom & kissed her one more time.
As we exited the bathroom, Nicole was standing a few feet away & saw us & gave me a little look of disappointment & maybe even hurt, but I couldn’t think of any of that right now. Right now I needed to have a night of it & tomorrow I would go clean again for a week or two until the next time I needed this release.
Daniela said Let’s get out of here & I knew we would end up together for a few months, maybe longer but doubtful, & I felt that was what I needed—tonight & for a few months—a smart woman several years older than me & needful of attention as I was needful of attention at that juncture in my life. Sure I said but let’s sit here a minute longer. I took her hand & pulled it to my face & kissed the inside of her wrist.
I looked across the room at Nicole & looked at the taut-not-yet-wrinkling skin of Daniela’s neck & then I looked out the window on the moonlit snowy city & tried to make fire sprout forth on that white-dusted tableau. I wished for the fire to come consume us all. I would die here with all of these pretenders to humanity & with Nicole who did not deserve to die but must be sacrificed so that the city might be cleansed & though I knew I would already be dead by the time the glass of the windows melted, I imagined that as my dying gesture, I would lean forward & extend my tongue & slowly press it into the boiling glass & I would black out from pain but not before I heard the sizzle of my flickering flesh, a wriggling eel cooked to silence.
Okla Elliott’s work has appeared in Harvard Review, Indiana Review, The Literary Review, New Letters, and A Public Space, among others. He is the author of the fiction collection From the Crooked Timber, and his novel The Doors You Mark Are Your Own, co-written with Raul Clement, is forthcoming from Dark House Press.