Originally published in Susan Hamilton vol. 4.
Feebs, before she died, liked to say that this story made a good story to tell the kids, if you left out all the parts that were gross and sticky, but when you did you ended up with the wrong kind of story to tell the kids.
On the first night they met, lying there next to her, Feebs remembers the peppery smell Olivia’s armpits. It was just that at the end of a long day Olivia’s stinky pits stunk differently from the smell of everybody else’s pits because everybody elses’ smelled like swamp hippos, forest boars, and tundric bears – something savage and ancient. Olivia’s pits never smelled or seemed like anybody else’s pits but Olivia’s, all pepper and paprika. Olivia was a complete sentence. A novel. A Friday crossword.
Feebs, being shaken awake now, must’ve passed into sleep. Pushed down slightly into the mattress by the weight of Olivia’s hand on her shoulder, sinusoidally falling and rising. Struck even then, in the shitty incandescent light, by the sight of Olivia and Olivia’s fully living in the moment, all liquid darts and acute angles, subtextually broadcasting to the world that she was going to be OK and that anybody she loved was also, yes indeed, going to be OK. Then Olivia’s voice pierced the sleepiness and Feebs fully awoke.
“Sorry. Sorry, Phoebe,” she said, holding out Feebs’ clothes (underwear neatly folded on top of socks on top of shirt on top of pants, in that order).
Feebs corrected her. “Feebs.” She felt around for her glasses and the blurs resolved to Olivia, fully dressed and zipping up a suitcase. Olivia, rummaging around her suitcase for something. Olivia, pulling out a long kerchief. Olivia, making one knot and then a second knot on top of the first knot.
Olivia, ending up not with two knots stacked on top of each other but a limp, wrinkled kerchief, as if the first knot had multiplied the kerchief by some amount and the second knot divided it by the same.
“Hrlhwhazat,” gurgled Feebs, who had propped herself on the bed by her elbows and was feeling the warm parts of her underneath the blanket poured out into the cold bedroom’s air.
Olivia got into bed next to Feebs; their two bodies leaned against each other, heavy-like, because bodies are always heavier at 4 AM.
Olivia told Feebs this outlandish story about Alan Turing, a World War II codebreaker who in doing so became obsessed with the idea of machines that could think for themselves. He set about attacking the problem mathematically and then, realizing quickly that the math we had would not be enough, retreated and snuck up on the problem again. He attacked the problem militarily. He attacked the problem biologically. He fell in love with another human being; he fucked like every human being.
And since then something about humanity changed. Weapons became complicated. Glowing thinning rectangles plugged into big grids of silicon and copper were taught how to talk to one another. Atoms were split. People woke up and began to riot. Time seemed to move faster. We put our trust in this thing called complexity.
“Complexity,” Olivia said, “invaded our world. I was declared unpopular for saying this but I believe we opened a door that swung into our world,” Olivia said, “And we couldn’t smell the world or dimension on the other side and we couldn’t touch this other world but we could see this world affecting our world at every level of being, making our world more complex.”
Current configuration: Olivia lying her head in Feebs’ lap; Olivia, voice drifting up and over to Feebs; Feebs, noticing for the first time that the stucco pattern on Olivia’s bedroom’s ceiling formed a spiraling grid; Feebs, attemptiung to recall any other time she had seen stucco form any pattern at all; Feebs, drawing a blank; Feebs, trying to remember to ask Olivia about it (politely and only after Olivia had finished with her story); Feebs, fogetting about it and its coming to her years after, just once, just in a dream; Olivia, drawing galaxies in the air with her hands.
“But something is happening,” Olivia said, sitting up suddenly. “To me, anyway.” She furrowed her eyebrows, which made her look wicked.
“Here.” Olivia put the kerchief in Feebs’ hands. “Tie a knot.”
Feebs was up for a promotion at work. Her boss and sole coworker, a bossy short man who wore brown and blue, had told her once that late people spent their lives making lattes and, Feebs, did you want to spend the rest of your life making lattes? More recently her boss watched his wife lose a “fight” – that’s the word the doctors refused to stop using – to metastasized signet ring cell carcinoma over a 13-month period at the hospital and then the very next week started coming to work. As if a carcinoma hadn’t radiated outward from his wife’s stomach, lighting up (on the X-ray) every organ along its path. Her boss had otherwise had remained the same. Feebs wondered, as an outsider to the whole situation, how someone is able to tie himself to the bed every morning when he wakes up just to prevent himself from propelling himself through the roof. The two of them worked in the accounting department of the local marine sanctuary. Feebs used her employee badge to get a free pass to the adjacent museum all the time. Some of the high-school teachers that ran the field trips recognized her on a first-name basis. That’s what “all the time” means. She had to be at work at 9:15 AM. She liked her work, which was quietly fulfilling and rhythmic in a way that seemed American and patriotic. It was now 5 AM in Olivia’s apartment and probably even later outside. Everybody shakes off their sneakers the end of jogging. Feebs would sit and get her breath back and then untie them. At this point in the story she did not yet know what Olivia’s job or Olivia’s “deal” was. Olivia had been in the museum, tracing the path of one of the cannonball jellies with her finger on the glass. That sort of behavior is visually arresting. Feebs was visually arrested then. Feebs was visually arrested now. Feebs tied a workmanlike knot in the kerchief, the same one she made for her sneaks.
Olivia studied it and then tugged at one end. The knot came apart.
Feebs tied a nonsense knot, filled with loops and nooses. Olivia studied it and then tugged at one end. The knot came apart. The kerchief, had it possessed any sort of reflective quality, would have twinkled with mischief.
“So something is happening to me, Feebs, something eerie and otherworldly. Something simple,” Olivia said. “My last night in the city and I decided to listen to my phone one last time and it told me about you and I found you. I found you.” And this she said looking right into Feebs’ eyes, and the words were like a match being struck.
On a train that sailed over the city and brought people to the ex-beaches-now-airport, Olivia sat in a car that smelled faintly of spit and chlorine across the aisle from (1) an older couple who had formed a sandwich with their hands and then dozed off against each other, a triangle fortressed behind their luggage; (2) a bald lady ghost crying into her lap while rubbing her nose dry with the crook of an elbow and checking her phone, no luggage; and (3) Olivia’s own wan face staring back at her, out of focus behind it the crooked-teeth skyline of the outer borough lit by dawn – some luggage. At the transfer to the airport’s shuttle bus, everybody but the ghost got off and before Olivia passed through the doors to receive judgment from these copper skies she handed her kerchief to the ghost. That’s the story. That’s all I know and all I was told. █