Authors: Darcey Steinke
S u i c i d e
B l o n d e
S u i c i d e
B l o n d e
D a r c e y
S t e i n k e
Copyright © 1992 by Darcey Steinke
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the publisher, except by a reviewer, who may quote brief passages in a review. Any members of educational institutions wishing to photocopy part or all of the work for classroom use, or publishers who would like to obtain permission to include the work in an anthology, should send their inquiries to Grove/Atlantic, Inc., 841 Broadway, New York, NY 10003.
Published simultaneously in Canada
Printed in the United States of America
FIRST GROVE PRESS EDITION
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Suicide blonde / Darcey Steinke.
PS3569.T37924S85 1992 813'54—dc20 92-03754
Design by Laura Hammond Hough
Epigraph copyright © 1992 by Bill Rutherford
New York, NY 10003
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S u i c i d e
B l o n d e
C h a p t e r
O n e
AS IT THE BOURBON OR THE DYE FUMES THAT MADE THE PINK
walls quiver like vaginal lips? An acidy scent ribboned the pawed tub, fingered up the shower curtain. My vision was liquid and various as a lava lamp. In the mirror I saw the scar from the blackberry bramble that had caught my chin and scratched a hairline curve to my forehead. It was hardly noticeable, but left the impression that my face was cracked. Taking another sip of bourbon, I put on the plastic gloves and began parting my hair at the roots. As the dye snaked out there was a faint sucking sound, like soil pulling water, and I wondered: if I were brave enough to slit my wrists would I bother to dye my hair?
This is what happened: all day yesterday Bell had stared out the window, smoking cigarettes. There were his usual reasons—his father, no acting jobs, that he was getting ugly and old. Plus there was Kevin to moon over. He eyed the eggshell envelope of Kevin's wedding invitation and stared out the window for hours, his face vaguely twitching as he moved from one memory to the next. His melancholy made me think he was getting sick of living with me. And this, in turn, made me want to please him, to show him I was not one of his worries. So when he went walking I put on my black teddy and arranged myself on the futon. Looking at my breasts covered in lace flowers, I thought I seemed overly anxious, like a Danish or a little excitable dog. I looked desperate . . . using the one thing that would keep him near. It seemed manipulative, even if it was an attempt to jerk him from his melancholy. Men are never more appealing than when they brood.
Bell came in and walked to the foot of the bed. His eyes narrowed with lusty admiration for my forwardness. He lay over me and said, “I'm in charge now.” But when he didn't release his weight I asked him if he was going to take off his clothes. “You seem to want me to,” he said. I blushed and asked him if he felt bullied, told him now he knew how women felt. “You take off that,” he said, stretching the lace of the teddy. I rolled it down and then adamantly pulled his shirt off. There was something hard in me that wanted him, no matter how awkward it was going to be. We kissed in a distracted way. Eventually, he turned his head, as if watching a bird move across the horizon. I saw dark continents under the paint of the walls beyond his profile.
“I'm bored,” he said.
I sat up on the edge of the bed, then walked to the closet. Shifting the hanging clothes, I felt my hands already beginning to shake. I dressed and went into the kitchen. There was a taste of pennies in my mouth, a fierce nausea and tinny rawness, like the moment after you break a bone.
Bell sat in the dark at the painted table by the window. Occasionally the streetlight would show a wisp of cigarette smoke, his face dissected by crossing panes of light, his eyes clear and vacant like a cat's.
“I have to get more cigarettes,” he said.
He didn't sound mean, just sullen. And I couldn't tell whether he was falling clunkily out of love with me, or if, as he claimed, it was just his usual reticence. Sometimes I suspected he was stunted, not capable of predictable human emotions. Last week he had laughed at a tourist couple separated by the BART train doors. I imagined a wire grid behind the skin of his forehead and a cold metallic look in his eyes. Of course it was only my imagination, but the sensation was terrifying, like finding out your lover is a killer.
Now he'd been gone twenty-four hours. For a while I had found his habit of floating off charming, but to appreciate this suddenly seemed masochistic. I didn't want to be one of those women addicted to indifference.
I peeled down my gloves and threw them gingerly, like used condoms, into the trash. The teddy incident was terrifying because it exacerbated the sensation that my feminine power was diminishing, trickling like drops of milk from a leaky pitcher. I wrapped my hair in a towel. The way I looked reminded me of some clichéd floundering female, so I took off my robe and lay across the couch, a better spot to watch shadows gather in the fleshy green fingers of the big jade plant. He'd inherited it from the last inhabitants of the apartment, because it wouldn't fit through the door when they moved. Near the plant was a cedar wall panel with a Japanese scene. Bell's boa hung on a hook beside his film stills; blurry body gestures from a super-8 film Bell made years ago. There were lots of little things: the blue glass lamp, the leopard with eyes that glowed, empty wine bottles, brass goblets, postcards of Europe from former lovers, candles and incense on a special table with a linen cloth, along with Bell's crucifixes, saints, Hindu gods, a GI Joe doll, obsidian voodoo beads, a dog's skull and an African mask of an antelope.
The window looked over Bush Street and toward the staggered roofs of Nob Hill, slanted like some Middle Eastern capital. The penthouse terraces had exotic French doors, miniature lemon trees and lacy wrought-iron furniture. On one there was a green fountain; another, on warm days, had a stand with a cockatiel. Above it all shone the neon Hotel Huntington sign, drenching our room with wavering green light.
My body was like a part of the room, a chair or a vase. I remembered the first time I saw my mother naked. She stood before a mirror, pulled at her hips, pressing her stomach, checking as I was now for signs of decay. The female body, I thought, has the capacity for such exquisiteness and such horror. I sat up to drink, but the bourbon spilled and trickled over my breasts, running all the way down to form a puddle in my navel.
Watching my body I had the sensation it was the same as Bell's. Images came fast: an expressive hand gesture, his smell—wet dirt and hand-rolled cigarettes—how his features were large and most beautiful when he was meditative, how in certain light his skin paled so that it looked blue, how he seemed at those times like a creature and I half expected to see wings appear on his shoulder blades.
In temperament Bell was not so much exotic as sophisticatedly adolescent. He had intellectualized youth's themes, perfected and lyricized them. And this core of exquisite longing was his excuse for brooding, for his erratic behavior, and the fuel for his philosophy of life's emptiness and the cult of pleasure. But Bell wasn't really immature, just trapped in some premature state, like a beetle whose back is all the more vivid because the last homogenizing stage to adulthood is never reached.
The clock ticked loud; it seemed to mock me with its pointy fingers and monotonous rhythyms. I took a swig from the bottle and realized I was drunk. My thoughts were jagged and I had the sensation that my life was exactly half over. It started with a tingle in the back of my skull that made me shiver, then spread over my head like a hood. But I've never felt any different. And I knew my memories, childhood or otherwise, were simply times I rose up into consciousness and was intensely myself. I heard the hum I always do when a memory is encasing itself and I recognized that sound as my particular and continual way of being alive.
My hair stunk up the whole apartment. I cracked the window and Bell's boa expanded with air. In the bathroom, the porcelain tub was cool to the touch. I adjusted the water, pulled the towel from my head and then got in, kneeling on all fours. My breasts swung down, reminding me of the utilitarian tits of mammals. And through the scope of cleavage I could see the hair between my thighs. The tiny black curls seemed scrawny, even obscene. Water beat on my hair. The bleach was strong. My face became prickly and warm and I realized that even though I was alone, I felt embarrassed. The acidic residue backed up, biting into my knees.
I am dyeing my hair to get Bell back
, I thought,
and because the whole world loves a blonde.
The bright light made the room stark, soap flecked into my eyes and I felt a rising frazzled sensation that always means I'm going to cry. The water ran clear down the drain. When I stood, my hair was steaming, tangled together in clumps like pale shiny snakes.
I moved, dripping through the dark apartment, to the window. The hotel sign blazing through the evening fog. Its aura occasionally flared out like a sunspot and I could feel the power spark into me through the thousand roots of my scalp, each one now flaunting a golden hair.
HE BRASS DOOR OF THE APARTMENT BUILDING SUCKED SHUT
behind me. The night was balmy. I heard the bells of Grace Cathedral, thought of going there, sitting in a back pew, the bloodied light over me, heady as a red-wine buzz. Jesus would be everywhere in radiant stained glass, his face over and over like a man you loved or one you had killed. Bush Street was so steep I had to lean back slightly, which made the comforting city minutiae—the lanternish lights of Pacific Heights, the quiltlike Victorians and the sculptured bushes—seem distant. I held my arms forward to stop this sensation, then quickly let them fall, the gesture seemed crazy.
Maybe I shouldn't search for Bell, but to stay in the apartment was impossible. What did it mean that I wasn't the kind of girl who could wait, dispassionately passing time drinking wine or reading a novel? My instincts told me to leave him, it's what I always did when I sensed the first soft spot of discontent. I was the kind of girl who left men. It wasn't like me to look for Bell. And I knew searching was no different than putting on the teddy or dyeing my hair. I thought of my mother, how when my father threatened to leave her, she started to take longer to get ready and always wore a bright shade of red lipstick . . . suddenly she was working so hard to be loved.
At first the nights were cozy, I’d make soup and we'd lounge on the bed reading the paper, the radiator crackling. The night was distinctly outside and we were safe in its center. Now, the night is like poisonous gas and infiltrates every room. And Bell, like a whore or a junkie, has changed day into night. My love has splintered, so I saw him everywhere. Inside storefronts and bars, in the shiny elongated cars, even in the eyes of a big-assed woman in pink pants, and a tall thin man with a shaggy mustache like a Texas cowboy. The bourbon exacerbated Polk Street's seedy carnival ambience.
The Motherlode was much like other gay bars on the block, filled with men in casual clothes. The disco music was so loud it shivered the glass. Most watched the large video screen showing a man on all fours on top of a bar, a leather monster, with a little chauffeur's cap and a black leather vest. His pants were around his knees. An identical man was jerking his fist into the first man's anus. The crowd watched, but no one seemed particularly interested. Instead of arousing the men, it seemed to make them shy, and together with the bar's decoration—crepe paper and silver stars—the place had the atmosphere of prom night.
On the corner, a covey of young men waited between windows filled with vinyl shower curtains, sensuous as tongues. All were thin as eels and there was one peroxide blond with a complexion so puckered it resembled the surface of the moon.
His hips were pressed forward and he wore a leather belt with straps circling his thighs. I couldn't help staring, there was something puffed up and trembling about him. He caught me looking and said, “I wouldn't sleep with that,” and flipped his chin toward me. There was a riff of laughter from the others. I tried to avoid them, but the blond stepped forward and nudged me, startled me enough so I lost my balance and stumbled toward the glittery cement. When I tried to stand he thrust his hips into my face. My lips brushed the grainy texture of his jeans. He laughed, his head haloed by the moon.
I stood, ran. My face burned and I yelled, “Assholes!” and the blond camped back, “For sale!”
My teeth clenched and there was that shifting and shaky feeling again. I was terrified that Bell was going back to the boys.
* * *
HE BLACK ROSE HAD A POSTAPOCALYPTIC FEEL, AS IF BURNT
out and only marginally re-established. The interior was black with low ceilings and any light was random and murky. I noticed particularly the metal cone fireplace and how the bartender stoked and tended the fire diligently, as if his were the last embers on earth. It wasn't a gay bar like most of the places off Polk Street, but there was a smattering of queens among the punks with nose rings and ruddy-cheeked old-timers at the bar. All of them, as well as the people in the deep booths and at the carved tables in back, came for the cheap beer. A screamy song blasted from the jukebox. And though I came to wait for Bell, because he had a drink at the Black Rose every night, I was relieved he wasn't here. What would I say? I felt strange for pursuing such an awkward situation. I thought of crazy things: I would walk up to him and tell him my mother died, I would say an old boyfriend called, tell him a magazine wanted my photographs or maybe go all the way and pretend to be pregnant.
But I hated myself for thinking like that. Why should I need anything interesting or provocative to say? It reminded me of the sudden and forced interest my mother took in my father's middle-aged hobbies after he threatened to leave, of how once in the car searching for the church softball game she almost started to cry because we couldn't find the playing field.
I ordered a bourbon and sat in the back. Scribbling on my napkin I wrote,
Just give me back this one
Love is not based on worth
No one is dying from this.
I wrote and rewrote that, and because it was true I felt overly dramatic, even stupid. I realized I was writing phrases with a vague thought that Bell would see them. The idea that everything I did was generated by him made me feel dismal.
Why was Bell so dissolute? When I confronted him on his wanderings, he would say I was selfish to think I was responsible. It had to do with his father, he'd say, how motionless his face had been the moment he died, how the slack skin around his chin reminded Bell of his own loosening flesh. “Do you know how terrible it is to wear the skin of a dead man?” he would say.
Bell came in then, followed by a young man. I knew I wouldn't speak to him. He was intimidating, even stellar. At first I thought the young man was Kevin, but he was one of Bell's old lovers. Kevin was older now, and besides he lived in Los Angeles and was getting married soon. On closer look, the man was tiny, not young. He had red hair and a quick satyric way of moving.