There were clouds that day. I had gone to the cemetery because something was wrong between myself and my boyfriend. I felt emptied out, like he had taken the last thing I had. I thought I could try to pray it back to me at the cemetery. It was the biggest one in California, just hills and hills of neon green. There was a little chapel tucked up high in the corner. I liked to go the garden behind it, and drop down onto my knees feeling the blades of grass imprint themselves onto my skin. I was hoping for a kind of benediction. But I never got it.
I had gone too late in the day this time, and was worried about walking back in the dark. The last time I did, a man pulled out his dick and the noises he made sounded like a dog panting. I kept thinking—where’s that dog?
The sun was setting when I walked out of the rectory, and the clouds had gone from balls of crumpled paper to some a kind of pink and orange fantasia. I felt like I was in a dream. Or the cartoon version of heaven. For a minute, there was love all around me. Two undertakers took a coffin out of their hearse. One was short and fat and the other was tall and skinny. They carried the coffin up a hill to the chapel. Before going in, they put the coffin down gently and turned around to witness.
I saw the movie, “Lost in Translation,” with my father when we discovered that I could no longer attend Sarah Lawrence College. There had been some kind of perverse loophole within the Financial Aid office that stated I would never be eligible for monetary help. The tuition was forty thousand dollars a year and with three years to go, it wasn’t even a consideration that I could remain in school after my first semester. I thought I had gotten it wrong when the school gave me the news, so Dad drove down with all our family papers in hand to try and bargain a deal. It didn’t work. The meeting lasted all of ten minutes—they said there was nothing they could do. That’s when Dad lost it.
“We’re finished here,” he said, storming his two-hundred-and-fifty-pound frame out of the office. But he stopped before getting to the door. He whipped around to face the administrator and pointed a finger in her face. She was a small round woman, almost jolly looking. She started to say something, but Dad stopped her fast. “Goddammit. I’m talking,” he said. “You should be ashamed. We can’t pay for this. I’m retired and my wife’s a secretary.” The lady simply paused, letting Dad’s words hang between them. Dad eyed the hallway behind us and I knew he was wondering what we should do—leave stay. Right in front of me, he became a little boy afraid that the corridor would swallow him whole. During my orientation tour, the student leader told us that some hallways were wider than usual so the first female attendees could walk comfortably without their hoopskirts crashing into each other.
I remember the first time I saw Mary. It wasn’t truly the first time—I had been on the campus for months at that point. Back then I was a sophomore transfer student to a small alternative college situated on the west coast of Florida.
It was hard to miss her, even though Mary was plain. She had horsey brown hair, and muddy eyes, pale skin with ruddy undertones. She was very short, standing just five foort her diminutiveness and her deep dimples where her claim to fame. She trotted around on her tiny legs like a pony in a ring. But Mary was alive in the truest sense. Everywhere she went she brought with her an enveloping energy. Sometimes I could feel her before she arrived: I’d know if she had walked up to my table in the cafeteria even if my back was to her.
One night, I went to visit her roommate, Cal. He was becoming my friend, and it felt like through him I could reach her. Or, I could just prove something about my own worthiness. I stood outside their dorm room, and looked through the windows to see if Cal was there. Instead I saw Mary. Her door was ajar, and from my position I had a direct sight line straight through into her room. I couldn’t turn away. Mary had her back to the door. She didn’t know anyone was watching. She wasn’t wearing a shirt, but had on a pair of children’s gym shorts, blue with a yellow stripe around the waist band. Mary liked to dress like a child, she thought it accentuated how small she was. I knew she bought the shorts at goodwill on the side of the 401. We all got our clothes there. There was one light on in her room, a small reading light attached to her bedframe. Perhaps she thought no one could see her because it was dark. Instead, it created a spotlight and she was backlit from behind. Her back glowed. It was pale despite the Florida sun, but it lit up. I felt something call to me. Mary started to pull a sports bra over her head, struggling to get it passed her shoulders. I felt like I was watching a movie, a small very private show made just for me. The banality of the moment, such a small gesture made it both exotic and familiar. How many times have I had to wriggle into a sports bra myself, had to inhale sharply while I jammed over my breasts? For a second, it was like it was happening to me.
In front of us there is a man and a woman swimming. The man is so tan that the color of his skin looks unnatural, like an animal hide. The tan man catches our attention first, but we can’t look away because of the woman. The woman is the same color, though she has long black hair that slithers wet down her back like a snake. It is shiny, iridescent, venomous. She wears an emerald bikini. Her brown skin is lit up against the scorching green of her swimsuit, setting her on fire. The woman and the man open their mouths in wide smiles, uttering low guttural chuckles. Every now and then they spit out the salt water that keeps creeping past their lips. Something starts to twitch inside me while I watch them drool the ocean.
The woman mesmerizes me. The man only exists as something to activate her. The man swims closer to the woman. His hands disappear beneath the seafoam, grasping between her legs.
Sitting on the beach, I drag my palms through the sand. I am not embarrassed or afraid. I do not think about my brother or sister, who are sitting on opposite sides of me. Though we are together, I feel alone. There is something soothing about the repetitive movement of endlessly picking up sand and then just as quickly releasing it. I think I have control with this comforting gesture, but that is a fallacy. The woman is in control. She is the flame, and we are the moths. With a flick of her wrist, the woman bats her own hands at us. She knows we are watching. I know she is enjoying herself.
Then the man’s hands come up out of the water, and with them, the woman’s bikini bottoms. She simply throws her hair back like an oily tail, a thin river of gasoline dripping over her spine. She cackles at him. He is under her spell, acting the fool. He puts the bikini bottoms on his head. She reaches to him, pulls them off, and wraps her body around his.
One summer, when I was thirty-two, I bought an almost identical green bikini in a vintage store. I had just lost my job writing content for a tech firm, and I was broke, but I still purchased the swimsuit. I told the saleswoman I needed it because my lover was taking me on a holiday. I told myself that if I said it out loud to someone it could come true. The reality that summer was that the best beach I could hope for was with an unemployed painter in his sad bungalow on the Jersey Shore. But when I put that swimsuit on, and looked at my own inky hair, I felt the power of that strange woman projected onto me all the way from my childhood.
Once Michael got a nose bleed when he came. If I could have a photograph of anything I’d want it to be that. I’d want both angles: him with blood running out of his nose, and me on the bottom my body covered in droplets like the red polka dots on a white dress.
Who needs a dick pick? I want a nose bleed photo. I want a photo of a body in turmoil, a messy sick body, with all our emotional scars visible. I am tired of seeing his body turned on, erect with desire, the anguish on his face from pleasure––and all of it sent to me via my phone. I want to see him hurt and battered. Is that wrong?
Her body and face takes up almost the entire picture. She looks like she is floating in the photograph, but she has a powerful momentum, as though she could come right out of the image. She is nude but we can only see the outline of her breast, perhaps an indication of her nipples, but nothing else. Her pale body glimmers like the inside of a clam shell. The blackness behind her is so dark it could have texture or dimension. I wanted to run my fingertips over it, feeling the velvet weave move this way and that way. This is why, I originally thought it was a picture of a woman flying through the sky. Her shoulders are pulled away and down as she arches her body. She is a bell ringing towards me. Her clavicles stretch up and out like wings. Half of her face is completely in shadow, but haloed by hair that is wild and crimped, possibly just shaken lose from a braid. It is the mermaid hair we said we wanted on the playground when we imagined our future selves. We picked different qualities from all the images we saw every day of different women. Back then we thought we had a choice.
It was 2009 and my boyfriend was visiting me in New York from London. He was a painter, but let’s face it, all my boyfriends have been painters. We were walking around SoHo, trying to find art to look at. I was staring in a shop window, hoping my boyfriend would buy me a present, when he came running up to me, and took me by my shoulders in both hands. He was so excited he could only whisper—if he spoke any louder then then it wouldn’t be true anymore. He told me I had to come see it.
There were rooms upon rooms. All so heavily detailed it was as though the people who had been occupying them had just been told to evacuate. They had to get up and leave—the tornado, the hurricane, the flood, the fire—it was all at their heels. Order were, only take a couple of possessions and leave the rest behind.
The objects in those rooms were performing for us. A VHS tape of Richard Simmons’s Disco Sweat is forgotten about on the derelict kitchen counter. Walking through I had to stop myself from blowing off the plaster dust.
That’s what made the work so compelling, and that’s what made it so terrifying too. It was the most frightening haunted house I had ever been in. Maybe that’s because there was such sadness in the rooms. They were so ordinary and yet so sordid, modern day Chekhovian cautionary tales. There was a desire for magic in each of those spaces, or at least a kind of alchemy that would change the lives of those who were living there: make me meth, make me happy.
Servane Varnese is a French artist born in Paris, who works on the link between the subconscious and places/objects. Her performed installations deal with genealogy, unseen roots, the flesh of places and their memory, what happens when synchronicities are followed, and the medicinal properties of poetry in action. Her childlike-protocols drawings (ambidextrous, made while waking up, etc.) are often exhibited in hidden places (night trains, hotel rooms, etc.). She lives a nomadic life, following coincidences like a map.
Lacy Warner has had essays in Tin House/Open Bar, Guernica and Narratively. Lacy’s first essay was published by Roxane Gay in The Butter (RIP). She has an MFA in Nonfiction Writing from Columbia University and an MA in Text and Performance from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and King’s College, London. Lacy is currently working on a collection of essays about the intersection of sex and art, and the currency of desire. She lives in Los Angeles with her boyfriend.