"Can you see me?" A girl in a thin white hospital gown is lying at the edge of the lake. The hungry tails of the water lap at her dirt-caked kneecaps.
I say nothing.
The S-like curves of her frame are drawn into a crucifix on the hot sand. I imagine briefly that her body is one gorgeous sandbag, and the stitching along her calves and feet and elbows will come undone and white sand will pour from her ragdoll body.
Her eyes shine like black molten glass.
She continues: "You can. It's just that most people can't."
This girl's skin is that universal copper of equatorial peoples, forests of Burma and Belize, water-weary steppes of Morocco and Timbuktu.
The white rim of her gown is tinged green with algae.
"Most people can't see you?"
"Well, no, not usually." Her voice is all sawdust. I can tell what she is. They're easy to spot. Girls who yawn from man to man, from corner to corner, stretching starlight between gaps of fishnet stockings—
"Oh? Why's that?"
"They just can't. But you can, so, um, thanks." She looks as if she were about to exit barefoot across the grass; instead, she leaps with scorpion-like delicacy towards my feet.
"I wanted to talk to you because I thought you might be a writer." The eyes widen in calculated anticipation.
"I'm not." I reply. "Well, kind of. I write research stuff for an agency."
"What sort of research?"
"You have a degree."
"That's nice. I'm going to college in the fall, and I'm only sixteen," she says. "That's not a lie."
I emit a sort of helpless grunt of affirmation.
"I was hoping you'd be a writer," she's saying. As she speaks, her skin becomes thinner, almost transparent. It's as if I can see through her ribcage, watch her inhale and exhale heavily. Her pale bronze-scaled lungs struggle against the flimsy white material with the effort. "There's something very impractical about you."
The hospital gown is cut wrong, too loose on her. It makes her look like an empty canister.
"So earlier," she says, "when you had your head in your hands, were you praying or meditating or—I mean, people don't usually stay still that long."
"Maybe I was doing both."
She nods furtively. The large brown-black eyes grow even larger, threatening to swallow my face whole.
"When you asked if I could see you, I thought you might be an angel." I'm actually half-serious.
"But I am an angel," she says, smiling this sort of bloodless, thick-lipped smile that's at once intoxicating and disturbing. I can't stop looking at her mouth.
Her face flickers in and out of focus. Her lips seem covered in something, maybe pepper.
"That'd be timely."
"What are you sad about? Did a woman leave you?"
"It's more that I can't decide whether to leave her. My wife—"
"You have a wife? I'm sure she's very beautiful. What's her name?"
"Lydia. She was born in Italy—"
"No. She was born in Italy, but she's not Italian...she has blond hair and blue eyes."
"Oh. So what are you upset about?"
"She's with another guy, now."
"I'm sorry to hear that. Do you have any children with her?"
"One. A girl."
"Aw," she sighs in the way that you're supposed to when someone talks about their kid. "Is your daughter's name Clara?"
She doesn't give me any time to continue, just says:
"We put on a play in first grade. We were studying Egypt, so it was a sort of Egyptian version of Cinderella, and the point of the play was that no one liked Cinderella because she had pale blondish hair and watery green eyes and skin like smooth papyrus. Which everyone in class knew was ridiculous because that's the only kind of beauty that really counts.
"I was an ugly stepsister. I told myself that this was a good thing, that it would be a fantastic acting opportunity, but really I wanted to be Clara—a little blonde French girl who'd been chosen for the lead—with the yellow hair and watery eyes. I wanted to scrub my own features out until I was shapeless as red clay and then remold myself beautiful. Anyway, Clara...her name was Clara."
I have no idea how to respond to this, so I focus on the name: "Uh, you're close, but its name—her name—is Chloe..."
It feels weird to mention my kid out loud. I generally only think of it at mealtimes.
"I wish I was at war," she says, unprompted. She's inching closer to me on the wooden bench. And the lake is glinting silver under the white gaze of the late morning sun.
"I want to kill myself all of the time for no particular reason," she's saying, still smiling. "I think I'd be less irrational if I had real problems—if I were a soldier, or if I was a refugee, or a prostitute, even—" This comes in a rush of half-choked thought.
"I've thought about it, too," I agree, surprised by how calm my voice can sound when speaking to a crazy person. Talking to her is like discussing female circumcision over fruit tarts.
"You ever read any Socrates?" And I have to look up to make sure it's still her speaking, even though there's no one else around.
"Then you're lying. Socrates never wrote anything down. How old are you?"
"That's old. So you were born in..."
I feel kind of old. Sometimes I think I'm already inching towards senility, but that's probably just the drugs. I look down and my hands are shaking.
She gets on her knees in the dirt by my feet.
"I'm sixteen," she murmurs. "I was born in 1994." And she smiles that thick bloodless smile until I return it. We're a couple of baboons.
"Sixteen. God, that sounds young," she whispers, letting her hand trace circles along the fabric of my thighs. "You seem nice, though. I hate that you're nice."
As an afterthought, she alleges: "I wish you were meaner so you would fuck me."
The whites of her eyes roll towards me with this sudden recklessness; her yellow fingernails rake at the soil. A green inchworm is ticking its way across the tops of her breasts.
I think for a moment we both believe that the conversation has smashed to pieces on the ground.
"You wish I were meaner so I would—what?" I say, even though I heard her.
"Never mind," she says. She stands and stretches, tossing her arms like dice at the sun-drenched water, at me.
A streak of dirt lays like a dash of black paint across her cheek.
"What's it like, being in love?" she hums, softly.
"Like you would do anything for that person. Like you would cease to exist if that person left you."
"Sounds like shit."
I laugh kind of noncommittally. And now I'm thinking about what it would be like to fuck this girl—
"The trouble with me—with our generation—" she's saying, in a tone of voice indicative of lighting a cigarette—she smelled faintly of smoke— "is that fame is our addiction, and documentation is our placebo. We're constantly diagnosing and re-diagnosing ourselves, with the help of over-worried parents."It's a crystalline stimulant called notoriety, available in a more condensed, crack like form than it was to any generation before us—so deceptively close that we can taste its odor with the skin of our eyelids. We're not the first generation to dismiss our parents' morality, but we're the first to grow up without even knowing what it is."
I nod. She's talking too much.
"What did I look like when I came out of the water? Was I like Aphrodite in that Botticelli painting?" She's still smiling, dragging her knees across the sand and dirt.
"Let's repeat the process." She stands and rushes to the shore, dunking herself under the surface of the water and then rising from it with hot radiance. "Excuse me, sir? Sir? Can you see me? Oh, thank you, thank you so much—most people can't."
I don't want to look at her and so I look up at the sky. Above us, prism-like clouds gather like cracked patches of stained glass at the whisper of her voice. My hands start to shake harder.
"Your hands are old," the girl comments, holding one of my hands up to the sun. It looks old, translucent, under the hot white light. "You think I'm insane," she repeats, grinning.
"I can't stay much longer. I have to be someplace soon. At noon." I'm not lying; I have to pay my dealer. And then I have a parent-teacher conference with my wife and six-year-old.
"I have an appointment with my psychiatrist at 11:30. In Como. No, in St Anthony."There was a society I hadn't been admitted to in undergrad—Saint Anthony Hall, I remember. An order of blond aristocrats, lips dripping perpetually with gravy—
"Can you drive me to my psychiatrist's office?" she asks. Her thighs are still wet. "I'm not supposed to ride with strangers, but you seem, unfortunately, harmless."
"I am," I say. Mostly.
"Have you ever killed anyone?" Her manner is a little too reproachful, a bit too delicate.
"No. Thought about it...the man my wife was with."
"She was willing."
"You're still in love with her."
"I am." I admit, staring at the girl harder. The sun is getting hotter and the wind starts to pick up.
I decide she's one of those girls who look pretty when they're young but don't age well. Her hollow adolescent beauty wasn't going to survive the harsh sunlight. She might be middle-aged in minutes.
"I'm on about five different psychoactive drugs right now," she's murmuring, making a daisy chain out of the wilted white wildflowers on the grass at our feet.
I'm on more than that, I want to say, but don't. Instead I tell her that: "I'm on about three myself."
"I have prom in a few days," she begins, in a tone that insinuates that she'd smiled, cordially, at my last remark, digested it, and decided it was shit.
I just nod. There's something lucrative and inconsistent in this girl's voice; the sound of it is intoxicating.
"My dress is white," she's saying with a bit of a whimper, stringing the wildflowers together with strands of nubile grass. "If you're still a virgin your senior year, you have to wear white. I hate being a virgin."
Let me fuck you, then, you crazy bitch, I want to tell her. But she's sixteen, so I just smile and say, "That's good, at your age."
"Not really. I just really want someone to have sex with me. I stopped caring who a long time ago."
This last confirms my theory about women:
Women are their own agents of destruction.
Their lives are like dry leaves doused in kerosene, and they're constantly craving a match.
"That's not good," I tell her.
"Will you?" Her voice travels with a beam of this almost visible green light to my ears. I can feel the drugs starting to kick in: the sun-drenched lake was writhing like a pool of green beetles behind her tiny body.
"Will I what?"
"Will you fuck me? I'm on a birth control stick, see, it's in my arm. Mom had it put there. Feel."
She extends a plump, golden arm with this sick, sort of saccharine grace, as if she expected me to stroke her. I don't touch it.
It's already relatively clear that this girl deals in subterfuges, that deception is her currency.
"You're too young," I say. "I'm married."
"Can I kiss you?" she asks. "I just want to kiss you once."
"You're too young. But that's—sweet of you, I guess."
Sweet—I'd split her like a rotten cantaloupe.
Her phone rings. I notice that the sound is unmarked by her, neutral and inhuman, like the smooth sand at her feet. It's that metallic, songless tune every phone has before the consumer customizes it—or consumes it.
I play a game in my head with the words: customize, consume, costume, carnival, carnal, carnivore, carnivorous...
She picks it up. "Hi, Mom," she murmurs, stepping off to the side on brown ankles.
I wait a bit and the phone conversation is finished. "That's my mom. She's picking me up, soon."
"I should go," I falter. "I have to walk to my appointment."
"You can't," she pleads, and she's disarmingly sincere.
She puts her forehead to mine "Pretend I'm an angel again, so I can solve the problem of your wife and daughter."
Our faces are centimeters apart; I can see each of her irises like the black marble entrance to an outdoor seraglio, choked with indifference.
"First I need to know if you've ever attempted suicide," she says, and her tone is kind of flat, as if she discusses this too often. And I'm wondering where she hurts or even if she does when I look up at her and say, "Not seriously."
"Me, too. Not seriously. I'm incredibly spoiled. I don't have real problems, so I invent them. What's suicide? There's a song by my favorite band: 'The only difference between martyrdom and suicide is press coverage.'"
Press coverage...she doesn't need any, I decide, she's a walking broadcast, a billboard for the terminally fucked-up. Try to suppress her and she'll sink back into the water.
She's already lived too long—it was someone, maybe Diderot, who said that women all die at fifteen.
I realize I haven't responded to her yet and say, "That's better than having real problems."
"I guess," she says, and I can feel her breath like salt against my neck. "I want to kill myself half the time; the other half of the time I think I'm going to be the greatest writer of the century. Your wife, then—you love her."
"Even though she made you angry."
She says nothing for a moment, then smiles widely. "Come play with me. We can fuck the pain away." She runs back to the muddy shore and splashes herself, drizzling water all over her clothes, dousing herself in it like kerosene. I just stare.
"I feel so dead," she's saying, and a few minutes have passed with me just watching the outline of her small, curvy body through the soaked white fabric of the hospital gown. "This is what I do when I feel dead." She lifted the edge of the fabric, running her right hand up one brown thigh.
"Please don't. It's probably just the drugs."
"You're right," she agreed, grudgingly. I watch her return back to shore and kneel in the sand.
"God, you suck," she whispers. The clouds grow thicker, as if the daylight has shattered at the rich inconsistency of her voice.
She's next to me on the bench once again; I don't remember seeing her walk up to it.
"What's your name?"
"It's nice to meet you, Adam."
"What's your name?"
"I don't have one, I'm an angel." This remark is followed by a laugh that's both loose and callous, like the beating of bats' wings.