CASUAL DISARRAY



She had a predilection for pony tails. Part of her girlish charm, I am sure, part of an unconscious—but calculated and cultivated—persona. She worked at the coffee stand in the lobby of the Zoonomia Building, and spent most of her time with her back to the customers as she pulled shots with a self-aware irreverence. Her pony tails were always restrained by elastic bands with plastic baubles, the cheerfully transparent colors of childhood, and they were long enough to touch her back, between her shoulder blades.

She has a salamander tattooed there, on her back. A fiercely orange creature, curled like an insouciant smile, outlined in electric blue. I've seen it. I stumbled upon her one night in the Barnes & Noble down the street from Zoonomia, paging through a biography of Lucrezia Borgia. Unrestrained by the coffee stand apron, she was dressed for an evening out—dinner, maybe a little clubbing afterward. I wandered past her, once, stealing a surreptitious glance at the electrified amphibian peeking through the patterned veil of her casually arranged shawl.

"Harry," she says, without looking up from her book. "Are you lost?"

No. I never spoke to her. Not that night.

No? What about the next night, when you followed her home?

No. That's not true. I—

"I've been waiting for you." She puts the book back on the shelf, casually leaving it on top of the other. Casually leaving the world different than the way she—

—never spoke—

—touched it.

I was a summer intern, my sophomore year, and I did menial work for an industrial design company on the 23rd floor of Zoonomia. The company designed libraries; I made copies and ran errands. The coffee stand was in the lobby. She worked the morning shift, always gone by mid-afternoon. How could I follow her home?

No, wait. I never spoke to her in the bookstore.

"Do you want to pet my salamander?" Her shawl undulates and bulges, and an phosphorescent glow rises up her shoulder. An orange snout pushes its way out of the folds of the cloth—the fabric now electrified, now traced with phantasmal light and the hidden palimpsest of her history—and a pale tongue licks out and touches the hollow of her throat. "Do you want to lick—"

Stop it, Nora. This never happened.

There are so many paths that are blocked off, Harry. So many secret chambers and submerged oubliettes. We are opening routes together, you and I; we are finding a wealth of mnemonic history that has been cut off from the rest of your identity. Of course you don't remember this happening because, until we touched this bundle of synaptic impressions, it was isolated from the rest of your matrix.

You are editing me, adding memories that aren't mine.

But isn't this a nice one? Haven't you always wondered who she was? How many times did you dream about her that summer?

Those were dreams.

This is the Oneiroi. What is the difference?

I am different.

How? You don't exist in the real world, Harry. You are only a dream.

"Look," the barista says, holding out her salamander. "He's hungry." Its tongue flickers back and forth across the slit of its mouth like a clock pendulum. "Will you buy me a drink? He likes cocktail olives." The salamander's tongue quickens, and I feel time become pinched. "I have a story to tell you."

"What sort of story?" I ask, and my voice validates this world. It snaps into place, its casual disarray assembling itself into a precise affirmation of reality. I ask, and she answers with a crooked smile and a rising blush that becomes the color of the sun.

What sort of story?

A tale of a world unlike this one. An imaginary world where a boy just like you never spoke to this girl, where salamanders cannot see into the future, where words have lost all their magic, and where love and dust are one and the same.

That sounds like a sad story.

Kiss her, Harry. Tell her you want a different story, that you want a different ending.

She stands ahead of me on the escalator, and I have to raise my head to look at her. The light makes her pony tails seem like feathers. I reach for her, putting my hand on her waist. She comes down a step and, putting her salamander on my head to free her hands, pulls me to her. My face is pressed into her valley and, through the fabric of her pants, through the silk of her panties, I try to kiss her.

She laughs, and her heel catches on the metal rim at the top of the escalator. Our hands tight, we fall . . .

What about the salamander?

There is no salamander, Harry. It's a metaphor.

No, us falling off the escalator is the metaphor. The salamander is a key.

You see, Harry? There is no one editing you but you. How else could you discern the symbolism of the salamander?



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