Severin

Fiction / Rachel Levy

 

:: Severin ::

I.

Sev­erin is a char­ac­ter in a nov­el. He is a Gali­cian gen­tle­man and landown­er. He is thir­ty years old, a smok­er. He is sex­u­al­ly inex­pe­ri­enced. He craves eggs, soft-boiled, and likes to press his face against stat­ues. He likes stat­ues. He loves fur. He dab­bles in poet­ry and sci­ence. He col­lects ani­mal skele­tons, stuffed birds, and plas­tic cats. He does not want to be hanged by a woman, so he trains women. He rests his chin in his hands. His hands are del­i­cate­ly veined. Accord­ing to his neigh­bors, Sev­erin is dan­ger­ous and odd. He has zero friends, unless you count the nar­ra­tor of the book. Sev­erin and the nar­ra­tor are best friends. They smoke cig­a­rettes at Severin’s estate. They talk about lit­er­a­ture, domes­tic vio­lence, and the fig­ure of the cru­el woman. The cru­el woman ambles roughshod over the grass­es in the art­works of wealthy het­ero­sex­u­als of Euro­pean descent. Sev­erin con­fess­es to the nar­ra­tor. Once he used sci­ence to bring the cru­el woman to life. Like the wife in the block­buster film Bride of Franken­stein (1935), the cru­el woman was ill-suit­ed for love.

For exam­ple: The cru­el woman chains Sev­erin to a thick wood­en rod. Then she orders a man of Greek descent to engage Severin’s body in a whip­ping with­out Severin’s con­sent. In addi­tion, she breaks up with Sev­erin while his body is still attached to the thick wood­en rod. She refus­es to have pen­e­tra­tive sex with Sev­erin. No, they nev­er have pen­e­tra­tive sex. The absence of pen­e­tra­tive sex is demor­al­iz­ing to Sev­erin, and yet it helps him to devel­op a polit­i­cal ori­en­ta­tion which posi­tions him favor­ably on the job mar­ket. I will elab­o­rate.

What doesn’t kill you births a more vir­u­lent strain of your kind,” writes Friedrich Wil­helm Niet­zsche. Niet­zsche is a Ger­man bach­e­lor who rejects the com­pan­ion­ship of peo­ple, pre­fer­ring an assort­ment of hand-held fire­works and domes­tic tools, such as sparklers and a ham­mer. He is famous for his vir­ginal mus­tache. You aren’t allowed to touch it! Oh, Niet­zsche. While Sev­erin is attached to the thick wood­en rod, he is over­whelmed and close to death on account of the man of Greek descent who is whip­ping his body. Fast for­ward a few days, and Sev­erin is on hol­i­day in Rome tap­ping the virtues of socioe­co­nom­ic sta­tus to process the trau­mat­ic roman­tic expe­ri­ence. In short, Sev­erin endures. He per­se­veres like Queen Mab and push­es the hazel­nut car­riage of day labor­ers through the har­row­ing tun­nel of the absence of maid­en­hood, dip­ping into the fam­i­ly cof­fers to buy him­self a ration of the most exquis­ite cocaine. Lat­er, in the heat of an Ital­ian night­club, Sev­erin snatch­es a neon glow­stick from a les­bian! Then he is danc­ing. Sev­erin dances to express his sense of humil­i­a­tion and loss. It isn’t long before Severin’s danc­ing draws the atten­tion of a well-con­nect­ed group. In a qui­et vel­vet cor­ner, nes­tled in the rear of the night­club, the group plies Sev­erin with liquor and a flight of hens stuffed with sur­pris­ing fla­vor com­bos like cheese and nuts. Sev­erin swears the group to secre­cy. Then he shows them the blue­prints for orga­niz­ing soci­ety along strict hier­ar­chi­cal lines. They decide to get brunch after. The morn­ing is dewy and bright, veined with sil­ver tor­rents. It’s beau­ti­ful! My god. It’s beau­ti­ful. Sev­erin is cry­ing now. He is slob­ber­ing. He’s chok­ing a lit­tle. It’s just so. So. Beau­ti­ful. He com­mits right then and there to join the fight for men’s rights. In due time, he inher­its his father’s estate. That’s how Sev­erin evolves into the polit­i­cal per­sona we know and love today.

Sev­erin owns clas­si­cal paint­ings. Sev­erin owns impor­tant books. Sev­erin owns top-qual­i­ty cig­a­rettes. There’s also a silk-clad thingy, plump in a bodice, walk­ing on stilt­ed doe’s legs through­out the cor­ri­dors of Severin’s estate. The silk-clad thingy car­ries a plat­ter of boiled eggs and meats. As not­ed above, Sev­erin is an active par­tic­i­pant in the men’s rights move­ment. The author uses plain lan­guage to com­mu­ni­cate Severin’s iden­ti­fi­ca­tion with the fig­ure of the tyrant on both a per­son­al and polit­i­cal lev­el. For these rea­sons and oth­ers, the naïve read­er might be tempt­ed to con­clude: “Well, there you have it! Severin’s a tyrant. This is a tyran­ni­cal book!” But the com­plex­i­ty of the text threat­ens oth­er­wise. For exam­ple, when the silk-clad thingy presents the plat­ter of boiled eggs and meats, Sev­erin reacts in an unex­pect­ed man­ner. He is over­come by anguish because the eggs are not cooked to his lik­ing. The eggs are hard-boiled, but Sev­erin prefers soft-boiled eggs. His pref­er­ence for the soft-boiled egg sub­verts the log­ic of tyran­ny.

I will elab­o­rate.

Through­out the his­to­ry of the West, tyrants have pre­ferred to asso­ciate them­selves with hard objects. Since there is no rea­son to assume this pref­er­ence does not extend to eggs, the read­er spec­u­lates that it is the nat­ur­al ten­den­cy of the tyrant to choose the hard-boiled egg over the soft-boiled egg. If Sev­erin were actu­al­ly a tyrant, then he would have wel­comed the hard-boiled egg into the sen­si­tive inner-mouth space of his head. Sev­erin does not wel­come the hard-boiled egg into the sen­si­tive inner-mouth space of his head.

The author of the book out­fits Severin’s sen­si­tive inner-mouth space with the trap­pings of a bachelor’s boudoir. The boudoir is lined from floor to ceil­ing in the rich­est pink vel­vet. Ever since read­ing the book, I have caught myself sali­vat­ing at the thought of spend­ing the after­noon in Severin’s mouth. One day in the future, after I’ve put in my time and ascend­ed some of the rungs, I hope to take an entire week­end. I’ll bring along a nov­el, plus sev­er­al of my col­leagues and friends! We’ll dis­course on lit­er­a­ture, ethics, and the nec­es­sary exclu­sion of some groups from the pub­lic sphere. Unable to pre­vent our hands from caress­ing the walls, we’ll wipe our fin­gers on the thick pink sur­face. Then the room will begin to vibrate, and a deep-throat­ed purring will fill up our ears.

In addi­tion, and it goes with­out say­ing, the tyrant’s pref­er­ence for the hard­ness of hard-boiled eggs, and for hard objects in gen­er­al, evokes the turgid­i­ty of the phal­lus when it is erect. This thrilling detail con­nects to a com­mon mis­con­cep­tion held by tyrants the world over: the dis­avow­al of cas­tra­tion. The tyrant does not under­stand that he is cas­trat­ed. But what about Sev­erin? Does Sev­erin under­stand that he is cas­trat­ed? Sev­erin absolute­ly under­stands that he is cas­trat­ed! For exam­ple, before Sev­erin real­izes he must devel­op a method for train­ing women in order to pre­vent women from hang­ing him, he takes orders from a woman. For this rea­son and many oth­ers, Sev­erin is not your typ­i­cal tyrant. Sev­erin is a good per­son.

Grant­ed, this book is a com­pli­cat­ed book due to the fas­cist over­tones. Sev­erin open­ly lays claim to tyran­ny. Sev­erin sup­ports his claim to tyran­ny via action. In one scene, for exam­ple, Sev­erin threat­ens the silk-clad thingy with domes­tic vio­lence because the eggs have not been cooked to his lik­ing, but every­body knows that in the old­en days Europe was unseem­ly. The Sov­er­eign put peo­ple to death. He didn’t under­stand that he was cas­trat­ed. Before cast­ing judge­ment, I ask that you con­sid­er the fol­low­ing: Has Sev­erin ever tried to con­ceal his unsa­vory polit­i­cal com­mit­ments from the read­er? No, Sev­erin has not. In fact, Sev­erin has always been incred­i­bly open and hon­est about the most trou­bling facets of his per­son­al­i­ty. His forth­right­ness is com­mend­able in and of itself. In return, we owe Sev­erin a sim­i­lar debt to hon­esty.

Let us strive to be hon­est. It feels good to be hon­est.

II.

Hon­est­ly, my mem­o­ries of Sev­erin are grim. I didn’t like him. We met as grad­u­ate stu­dents in a mid­dling cre­ative writ­ing pro­gram out west. The school no longer exists. It was cheap­ly affixed to the side of a moun­tain. Weak­ened by drought and fire, it even­tu­al­ly suc­cumbed to grav­i­ty and was qui­et­ly shed like a scab. Nobody noticed it was gone.

Sev­erin was a ter­ri­ble writer and an emo­tion­al­ly manip­u­la­tive per­son­al­i­ty. High on phi­los­o­phy and art, he could reor­ga­nize the world just by glanc­ing at it. I still remem­ber how much it hurt to get caught up in his line of sight. I had to go and lie down. If I acci­den­tal­ly sat across from him in a sem­i­nar or work­shop, then I’d be knocked out for days. “Influen­za,” I said. I was always say­ing that. I couldn’t stand him, and yet we were friends. That’s how friend­ship worked in school. Then it was over. Sev­erin and I fell out of touch. The school fell off the moun­tain. Yeah, I’ve thought about reach­ing out. Because I wish I could tell him that the whole time we were friends, I was busy despis­ing, him. Sev­erin, I despised you and every­thing you stood for. I’m sor­ry about that. The truth is, and I know this now, I despised myself. I despised the sight of me, and you wouldn’t allow me to turn away, you nev­er allowed me to turn away, and so I was in tremen­dous pain pret­ty much all of the time. I was a per­son caught in the throes of pain. I’m not like that any­more, Sev­erin. I’ve matured. I’ve learned to empathize with your point of view. I’ve even incor­po­rat­ed your pub­li­ca­tions into my teach­ing and schol­ar­ship. I’ve tapped your book like a keg, Sev­erin, and fun­neled its life force straight into my career. Thank you, Sev­erin, for giv­ing life to my career! Thank you for giv­ing life to my career! Thank you, Sev­erin! Thank you!

Okay. To be hon­est. To be total­ly and com­plete­ly. Hon­est. For a minute I thought we could be friends, real friends. Sev­erin and I, we had a lot in com­mon. What hap­pened was he caught me in the act. Past mid­night. Star­ry sky. Dark, dry air. Cold. Out west. High up on the side of a moun­tain. In the cen­ter of cam­pus, on the lawn of the admis­sions build­ing, there’s a stat­ue of a beau­ti­ful woman ringed by ever­greens. She’s one of the wives of the founder of the state reli­gion, the first wife or the main wife, and I’d wrapped her, beau­ti­ful stat­ue, head to toe, in toi­let paper that I stole from the stu­dent union.

You have to under­stand. I’ve always been drawn to the wife in Bride of Franken­stein. But before she’s opened. When her body and her head and her face are wrapped up in gauze. Gift for a mon­ster. I want her or I want to be her or I’m already who she is but I don’t like being me so I’ll wait it out. I’ll just wait and see. What’s under­neath.

Yeah, so. I’d wrapped the stat­ue of the founder of the state religion’s wife in toi­let paper, and I was, you know. Wor­ship­ping her. I was wait­ing. Wait­ing to see. Show me. Show me. I pressed my face against the paper cov­er­ing her skirt. Show me. That’s when Sev­erin intrud­ed, his arms full of furs.

You like stat­ues,” he said.

Why lie. At a time like this. “I do.”

You wrap them in toi­let paper.”

Yes.”

That’s queer.”

Yes.”

You’re queer.”

Yes.”

I like stat­ues, too,” he said. “I drape them in furs.”

I see. You’re also queer?” 

I am.”

Good. That’s good.”

We must stick togeth­er,” he said.

Okay.”

He took me back to his place.

Kind of a shit­ty place. There were room­mates. Every­where. But what­ev­er. They were already asleep. Some cats, too. I don’t like cats. It’s okay. We’d worked out a plan. First, we’d both take off our clothes. Next, I’d drape myself in furs and Sev­erin would wrap him­self in toi­let paper. Then we’d just. I don’t know. See what hap­pened. We had a six-pack. A six-pack. He had some cig­a­rettes. I like cig­a­rettes. So. Let’s see. We’ll just wait and see. Where the night takes us.

Sev­erin hand­ed me an ermine stole and a sheep­skin muff. He pushed me into the bath­room. Closed the door. I was alone. Bath­room was a lit­tle shit­ty. No. Yes. Shit streak­ing the seat of the toi­let. Shit rim­ming the tub. Shit on the mir­ror. Shit stain­ing the grout of the tile. Hairs col­lect­ing along a streak of shit. Pok­ing right up to God like aspara­gus. Okay. Here I am. What is a stole and what is a muff? I know what I look like. I’ve looked plen­ty of times. It’s fine. Some­one should look like this. Some­one should’ve looked like this. What the fuck. Do you want to know? Do you want to know what a per­son looks like? When they are wear­ing a stole and a muff? I already told you. I despised the sight. I got low. Then I got low. I was sit­ting on the floor. Like Bar­bie. Legs straight out. What did they want? My atten­tion. No, I don’t want to hold them. Sev­erin was talk­ing. He was explain­ing how to care for his cats.

What?

His cats. He told me to watch his cats. Over Christ­mas break. Hel­lo. Keep up.

Pay atten­tion.

Give them food and water,” he said. “More impor­tant­ly, get to know them. Spend time with them. That’s cru­cial. For­get to feed them, and they’ll sur­vive. For­get to touch them? They’ll fuck­ing die.”

That can’t be right.

Okay. This is Severin’s bed­room. The win­dow was frosty. Frost is beau­ti­ful. Frost is beau­ti­ful. I need to throw up. I need­ed to throw up. Christ­mas gifts, every­where. Sev­erin had been shop­ping. Now he was tak­ing his time. Pack­ing a bag. He was gonna miss his flight. Then there was that cat at my feet. Roost­ing on an open mag­a­zine. Pink. It was pink. I didn’t know you could get them that way.

Which one is sick? Deleuze?”

I didn’t say that. Please. I didn’t. Is that what he calls his cat? I shouldn’t have come here. I should nev­er have come. I need­ed to throw up. I need­ed to throw up. I need­ed to. I had a knife. Okay, I had a knife. I had a knife. I hat­ed when think­ing hap­pened like this and I could see myself on the out­side. I hat­ed that. She was hold­ing the knife, and then, I see, she cut a gash in her throat. She stood over the cat, the pink cat, just to bleed on it for a minute. She just bled on it? Yeah. Soon she was gonna drop. She was gonna drop. She was gonna drop. Don’t let her drop on the cat. It was pink. The cat. But why was it pink? I don’t know! Stag­gered. She stag­gered. She dart­ed for the book­case. She was look­ing for the book he liked the best. Which one did he like the best? The one where they slan­der the trees. They hat­ed trees, Deleuze and Guat­tari. Ass­holes. She tore a page from the book, crum­pled it up and fed the blos­som to the gash in her neck. She didn’t throw up. I nev­er threw up. It’s like I didn’t get how to do it. Do you under­stand?

Talk­ing. Sev­erin was talk­ing. He said the cats aren’t called Deleuze and Guat­tari, not any­more. He renamed them. He renamed his cats. Yeah, he was always doing that. Giv­ing them new names. 

Why?”

Sev­erin shrugged. He sat down on the edge of the bed, crossed one leg over the oth­er. What was he wear­ing? Indoor soc­cer shoes? I want a pair. I want­ed a pair.

Just tell me which one gets med­i­cine.”

The pink one.”

The pink one. The pink one. No.

No, no, no.

What do you mean, no?” he said.

I mean, who has a pink cat?

I mean, no.

No, no, no, no.

Look,” said Sev­erin. Then he was up again, orbit­ing the bed­room. He was col­lect­ing the Christ­mas gifts in a gigan­tic paper bag. “It’s been a long day. I shopped. I wrapped. I packed. I’m about to fly across the coun­try.” He stopped at the foot of the bed, hoist­ed a duf­fel over his shoul­der. “And now I need to explain the con­cept of a joke to you?”

She couldn’t get a read on his face. I couldn’t see it either. The sky was a snake. It sloughed off the skin of the sun. Dark. It was dark.

III.

Now for a review of the lit­er­a­ture. Some peo­ple argue that this book is a trans­gres­sive book because it fea­tures Sev­erin. Sev­erin is a cas­trat­ed mem­ber of the rul­ing class and an aspir­ing poet with an impos­si­ble desire for sub­mis­sion. Oth­er peo­ple argue that this book is a sub­ver­sive book because it fea­tures Sev­erin. Sev­erin is a cas­trat­ed mem­ber of the eco­nom­ic elite and an aspir­ing poet with a para­dox­i­cal dream to end cap­i­tal­ism. Plus, there are sev­er­al per­sua­sive argu­ments that call for label­ing this book a queer book due to the super­abun­dance of fur gar­ments, which are gay. My take on the sit­u­a­tion is rad­i­cal. I believe it is wrong to argue about books. Even though I spend Christ­mases with con­ser­v­a­tive col­leagues and keep in touch with an elder­ly men­tor who still sub­scribes to the impos­si­ble dream of a white eth­nos­tate, I believe that each and every mem­ber of the depart­ment is free to choose a lit­er­ary her­itage; I choose to join in the strug­gle to pre­serve the rights of the most impor­tant books of Euro­pean civ­i­liza­tion.

Ever since the dawn of the birth of the French per­son Roland Barthes, we have under­stood the col­lege class­room to be an amphithe­ater for bear­ing wit­ness to plea­sure. Barthes worked hard in the pub­lic sphere to devise a reper­toire of ges­tures for tes­ti­fy­ing to plea­sure with­out expli­cat­ing the text. He man­aged to con­duct his life’s work in silence. Total silence. It was impor­tant that Barthes stay qui­et. He didn’t want to spook the jouis­sance. The jouis­sance is skit­tish. It darts like a doe into berry bush­es. Some­times, at school, we coax the doe to the cen­ter of our cir­cle.

Thanks to Barthes’ hard work, we’ve devel­oped a cer­e­mo­ny for gath­er­ing ’round, open­ing our books, and point­ing at plea­sures that can nei­ther be described nor ver­i­fied. What does this mean? I will tell you what it means. It means the unspeak­able qual­i­ty of our ped­a­gogy is the con­di­tion for a rad­i­cal, intel­lec­tu­al faith. Stud­ies have shown that TAs of faith lead health­i­er, hap­pi­er, more inte­grat­ed lives. They’re able to make do on their stipends, with a lit­tle some­thing left­over for the week­end. They out­per­form their peers on the job mar­ket. When they com­pose the for­ma­tion of the sacred cir­cle with their bod­ies at school, the plea­sure touch­es friends touch­ing books list­ed on the syl­labus, rein­forc­ing the mis­sion of the uni­ver­si­ty.

High up. The sky is a snake: it sloughs off the skin of the sun. Dark. It’s dark. In the once-vibrant city of Cher­nobyl, the snow is falling. We must be care­ful, vig­i­lant, and ten­der. Because there are schol­ars who set traps in the snow and the berry bush­es.

They aren’t real­ly schol­ars.

They aren’t even read­ers.

They are bull­ish fur traders whose thick thighs rub snag­gles into off-brand stock­ings! Ambling roughshod over mass graves of frost-bit­ten grass­es! Spook­ing the plea­sure, which leaps like a doe, to impale its soft, soft self on the crys­talline edges of the berry branches—dead! She’s dead! Dead. Dead. Dead.

Sev­erin lights a cig­a­rette.

The nar­ra­tor lights a cig­a­rette. The nar­ra­tor perus­es Severin’s col­lec­tion of ani­mal skele­tons, mil­i­tary hard­ware, and plas­tic cats. Oh, Sev­erin!

Accord­ing to the details of his biog­ra­phy, Sev­erin belongs to the rul­ing class. But what about the nar­ra­tor? Who is the nar­ra­tor of the book? Well, the narrator’s sta­tus is ambigu­ous. He employs a valet to grab hold of his arm whilst he is sleep­ing. The valet whis­pers the word “Hegel” into the narrator’s ears. The inti­ma­cy of the ges­ture sug­gests that these two men are cut from sim­i­lar cloths. If they are not, then we are def­i­nite­ly deal­ing with a class-trai­tor sit­u­a­tion, which is incred­i­bly thrilling and admirable. The nar­ra­tor and his valet are not bio­log­i­cal broth­ers, and yet they man­age to coex­ist in a quiv­er­ing jel­ly dome called “broth­er­hood.” There­fore, struc­tural­ly, the nar­ra­tor and his valet are broth­ers. They are broth­ers.

Let us pan out.

Sev­erin, the nar­ra­tor, the valet, and the read­er each occu­py dif­fer­ent posi­tions along the socioe­co­nom­ic spec­trum. Despite these unfor­tu­nate mate­r­i­al cir­cum­stances, they have all uploaded them­selves into the exact same tra­di­tion of arts and let­ters. Theirs is the sort of mixed cama­raderie that gar­ners harsh jeers from the mem­bers of the old­er gen­er­a­tions. But is it not true that the most impor­tant books dis­rupt the laws of bour­geois deco­rum?

Sev­erin laughs. He lights the cig­a­rette.

The nar­ra­tor laughs. He lights the cig­a­rette.

When the silk-clad thingy presents the plat­ter of boiled eggs and meats, Sev­erin dis­cov­ers that the eggs have not been cooked to his lik­ing, and he sub­jects the silk-clad thingy to the threat of domes­tic vio­lence. The silk-clad thingy flees like a freaked robot on bent doe’s legs. That’s the cue for Sev­erin and the nar­ra­tor to con­tin­ue their con­ver­sa­tion.

Okay. No more pre­tense.

We are friends, yes?

Then allow me to touch you where you need to be touched.

You are a per­son deserv­ing of your life.

I’ll say it again.

You are a per­son deserv­ing of your life.

There was once some­thing sharp and damnable resid­ing in the folds of your per­son­hood, but it’s been lov­ing­ly rewrit­ten or redact­ed at school. Wish it well. Let it go.

Today is the day you sub­mit your dis­ser­ta­tion.

You’re doing what’s right, seek­ing gain­ful employ­ment. It goes with­out say­ing that you’ve suf­fered and per­se­vered. The strug­gle was real, but it helped you to devel­op a polit­i­cal ori­en­ta­tion which will grant you a favor­able posi­tion on the job mar­ket.

I will elab­o­rate.

You haven’t hurt any­one.

You haven’t hurt any­one.

You have want­ed, and your want­i­ng makes you pre­cious, but you have not tak­en what you want by force. You haven’t hurt any­one.

You are a peach.

You’re a lamb mosey­ing home on pointy lit­tle feet!

Munch­ing clovers.

Mov­ing slow­ly.

You can afford to move so slow­ly.

Because it feels good to be you.

You’re home­ly and hos­pitable.

You’re inhab­it­able.

You feel good.

You feel so good.

This feels good.

Come. Now is the time to act. Let us not look back on this day and won­der why our eyes were con­tent to be sep­a­rat­ed, stuck in their own jel­lied heads. Lone­ly.

This feels so good.

Forg­ing thick­er bonds.

Build­ing bet­ter bod­ies for whis­per­ing the word “Hegel.”

For shar­ing the word “Hegel.”

Whilst sleep­ing.

Don’t wor­ry, you haven’t for­got­ten how to sleep.

You’re sleep­ing now.

The sky is a snake. It sloughs off the skin of the sun.

Dark.

The way is dark.

Dry air.

High up.

Ringed by ever­greens.

Qui­et. Be qui­et.

Come to us on your hands.

Use your fin­gers to find it.

The pin­hole, the punc­ture.

Grac­ing the skin of the birth­day bal­loon.

That rides on the night of the sky tucked deep deep inside, deep inside the fold of your lit­tle lone­ly lit­tle lone­ly life.

Let it go.

The scream­ing.

It is the sound of the starter.

On its cue, on its cue.

Let us.

Let us let us let us shed our flesh and shed our flesh and and and pool our resources.

Fig. 1. Bride of Franken­stein. Direct­ed by James Whale. 1935. Screen­shot by the author.

 

From the writer

 

:: Account ::

This sto­ry is a satire of lit­er­ary schol­ar­ship. A fic­tion­al essay about Venus in Furs. I draft­ed it while I was in grad school because I want­ed to fig­ure out why they were ask­ing me to inter­pret overt­ly reac­tionary works of lit­er­a­ture through the­o­ret­i­cal frame­works that claim (when tak­en at face val­ue) to sub­vert, decon­struct, or queer struc­tures of pow­er. Much of the schol­ar­ship on Venus in Furs exem­pli­fies that con­tra­dic­tion. Exudes a pathet­ic ener­gy that’s bor­der­line hagio­graph­ic. Casts Sev­erin as the patron saint of sub­ver­sion. Claims he har­bors a rad­i­cal desire to under­mine every­thing from het­eropa­tri­archy to cap­i­tal­ism itself. Part of my dis­com­fort had to do with the hypocrisy of affirm­ing the anti-cap­i­tal­ist pose of a pro­fes­sion that was active­ly con­tribut­ing to my exploita­tion and immis­er­a­tion. It’s dis­hon­est. Dumb. I don’t like to be dumb. I don’t like to hurt myself. Hate it more when my will­ing­ness to do so is praised. Also, the schol­ars’ ver­sion of Sev­erin is just wrong. It’s noth­ing like Masoch’s ver­sion. You should read Venus in Furs. I read Venus in Furs, obses­sive­ly, for the same rea­son I read Eich­mann in Jerusalem. It’s obvi­ous. Why does it have to be so obvi­ous? That’s why it feels humil­i­at­ing. To adopt the schol­ar­ly pose. It’s too obvi­ous. Masoch’s Sev­erin is a proud mem­ber of the eco­nom­ic elite. He’s an avowed sup­port­er of men’s rights, a con­nois­seur of Euro­pean cul­ture, a dis­grun­tled incel. Throw in the fact that most of Venus in Furs con­sists of Sev­er­in’s man­i­festo, which fix­ates on the degrad­ed sta­tus of the straight white guy, and there you have it: Severin’s a TERRORIST. And I’m a satirist. I’m a satirist, hard­core. Some­times I wor­ry that I haven’t spo­ken gen­uine­ly about any­thing, myself includ­ed, in years. But then I ban­ish the thought. Writ­ing this account has been dif­fi­cult. This is my sev­en­teenth attempt. I’m try­ing. I am. So. I draft­ed this stu­pid sto­ry, a grotesque par­o­dy of fas­cist schol­ar­ship. Then I didn’t know what to do. With myself. I don’t know what to do with myself. I was dis­il­lu­sioned with it, my fic­tion. It was dead, lack­ing in stakes. I need­ed to revise. I sat down to revise. I had YouTube stream­ing in the back­ground (aca­d­e­m­ic pre­sen­ta­tions on masochism) because I was hop­ing I’d hear some­thing I’d want to lam­poon. I heard this one thing. I end­ed up tak­ing it seri­ous­ly. How does the philoso­pher put his body where his pen is? I decid­ed to give it a try, to put my body in the way of the sto­ry while I was writ­ing it. It meant tak­ing masochism seri­ous­ly. Which felt like a big deal. Because I’m a sadist. But I took it seri­ous­ly. Used my pain to craft a nar­ra­tive. To fab­ri­cate an aes­thet­ic. I gave my stu­pid sto­ry a wound. That’s part II of my sto­ry, the wound. The mate­r­i­al. I want­ed to make it vis­i­ble. You don’t have to like it. Hon­est­ly. You don’t.

 

Rachel Levy is a found­ing edi­tor of Dregi­nald mag­a­zine and the author of A Book So Red (Cake­train, 2015). Short fic­tions appear in Atti­cus Review, Black War­rior Review, DIAGRAM, Fence, Tar­pau­lin Sky, West­ern Human­i­ties Review, and oth­ers. The recip­i­ent of an NEA Fel­low­ship in Prose, Levy is cur­rent­ly an Assis­tant Pro­fes­sor of Eng­lish and Cre­ative Writ­ing at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Mary Wash­ing­ton in Fred­er­icks­burg, Vir­ginia.

A Once-Safe Place

Fiction / Christine C. Heuner

:: A Once-Safe Place ::

The first time I came to his house, it was 1981, late spring. I was sell­ing Girl Scout cook­ies. Back then, it was accept­able to sell door-to-door, par­ent­less. I and my friend Sarah, who loved to read even more than I did, had cov­ered three blocks of small ranch-style homes before arriv­ing at his house, coral col­ored with white shut­ters. The lawn had just been mowed; the gray­ish, fuzzy chaff of expelled grass streaked the weak green beneath it. Long sprays of grass shot out from the bases of lawn chairs and walk­way lights. Weeds lit­tered the planter, the plants over­grown, brown­ing at the edges.

It was Sarah’s turn to ask about the cook­ies (I’d solicit­ed the pre­vi­ous block), but as soon as the man opened the door, she said, “We’re sell­ing cook­ies, the mint is the most pop­u­lar, and can I use your bath­room?”

The man fixed upon her the light­est green eyes I’d ever seen and raised an eye­brow either in hes­i­ta­tion or sur­prise. “Sure. If you real­ly need to. It’s down the hall.”

I stood at the door, sweat­ing so bad­ly my shirt was stuck to my back. I could feel the chilled air behind him.

It’s a hot one today,” he said. “Do you want to come in for some water?”

I shook my head. “No, thank you.”

Maybe juice?”

I denied him again. I might have won­dered if, some­where inside the house, he had a wife, chil­dren. It seemed so qui­et.

I should have asked him to buy cook­ies, but I felt inept with­out Sarah beside me. Plus, I’m an awful sales­per­son when I have to pawn off a prod­uct I don’t believe in. The cook­ies were noth­ing spe­cial. They were too expen­sive, some peo­ple said. I also took every­thing per­son­al­ly, so when some­one said no to the cook­ies, I thought it was because I was ugly.

I felt him look­ing at me as if wait­ing for me to speak. He had light skin, the kind that burns eas­i­ly, and his lips were a deep pink, almost as if he were wear­ing lip­stick. He had a mus­tache so slight it looked like a shad­ow.

So, are you going to sell me cook­ies?” he asked.

Why? Do you want to buy some?”

He shrugged. “Sure. Why not?”

I turned to my clip­board, picked up the pen, and start­ed to read the fla­vors. He stopped me after Do-si-dos. “Just pick out three box­es for me; dif­fer­ent fla­vors,” he said, not impa­tient­ly.

Don’t you have a favorite?” I asked.

I’m not much for cook­ies,” he said. “I usu­al­ly like cake.”

Me too,” I said. “If we had to sell pound cake, I’d win an award.”

*

I went back a week or so lat­er, alone, to deliv­er the cook­ies. I was in charge of two of the blocks where we’d sold them. I had sold so many box­es I made two trips, clat­ter­ing my brother’s old wag­on down the side­walks, sweat­ing in that Flori­da heat so sti­fling it shim­mered and craft­ed mirages on the black­top. It must have been a hun­dred degrees that day because when I arrived at his house and he asked me if I want­ed water, I said yes.

We sat at his round table in the gold­en­rod kitchen. The sun was bright and hurt my eyes. He had a pear-shaped crys­tal sus­pend­ed from a piece of twine over the sink. The sun shot through it, splash­ing cir­cu­lar rain­bows on the floor.

The air con­di­tion­er was heav­en­ly at first, but then I felt too cold.

I drank down the glass of water, packed with ice cubes, quick­ly; he refilled it.

You want some­thing to eat?” he asked.

Like what?” I asked. I wasn’t hun­gry but was curi­ous about what he’d offer me. He had scrawny arms and legs with a small paunch. His light yel­low Izod shirt was tucked into pants with an elas­tic waist­band.

He list­ed for me all kinds of snacks. He added, “I guess we could have cook­ies, but you don’t like them.”

His recall­ing this detail from our first meet­ing sur­prised me. He also remem­bered that I liked pound cake and he told me he had some. “I have this lemon sauce I put on it. I make it myself. It won’t take long.”

I told him I had to go. My Taga­longs were prob­a­bly melt­ing out­side in the heat.

What do you like to do?” he asked even though I was stand­ing and mak­ing my way to the door. “I mean, besides Girl Scouts.”

He stood up, too. His shoes were the kind old peo­ple wear with the thick soles and chunky laces. I must’ve won­dered how old he was, but I had no sense of people’s ages. Any­one over twen­ty fit into that amor­phous realm of an adult.

I hate Girl Scouts. My mom makes me go.”

He smiled at that, rais­ing the left cor­ner of his mouth. I noticed his mus­tache again, so slight a nap­kin might erase it.

What do you like, then?”

I liked to play with my dolls, build hous­es for them with blocks, read and write sto­ries, watch TV, dance alone in my room. I sought any­thing that took me out of myself. At age eleven, I knew it would be baby­ish to admit that I played with toys, so I told him I liked to read.

He smiled, both cor­ners of his mouth raised. He had a slight dim­ple on one cheek. His teeth were all uneven and one was dark­er than the oth­ers.

I love to read,” he said. “I have hun­dreds of books. You want to see?”

I did, but I told him I real­ly had to go. My cook­ies were melt­ing, and my par­ents would be wor­ried about me.

He said okay; before I left, he said, “We haven’t been prop­er­ly intro­duced. I’m James, but my friends call me Jim. Call me Jim.”

I’m Jen­ny.” He reached out his hand and I shook it. He had a tight grip, a quick clutch that held me and quick­ly let go.

*

Not long after that, just before school let out for the sum­mer, I end­ed up at his house again. I hadn’t intend­ed to go there, but my aunt for­got to pick me up at my bus stop. I stood at the cor­ner for almost an hour, fear­ful she’d show up and I wouldn’t be there. I was going to walk the six blocks back to my house when a car pulled up, big and brown, long as a boat.

The pas­sen­ger win­dow rolled down and Jim leaned over. “Hey,” he said. “Jen­ny. What are you doing here?”

I told him what had hap­pened. He told me he’d take me home; I said I could walk, but he insist­ed. I got inside the car, its wel­com­ing cool­ness, and put on my seat­belt.

It’s smart you wear your seat­belt,” he said. “Though I assure you I’m a safe dri­ver.”

My mom works with lawyers,” I said. “They have court cas­es with peo­ple in car crash­es. She tells me sto­ries that scare me.”

Well, that’s not very nice.”

I’d nev­er thought of my moth­er as being any­thing but nice. I was a lit­tle annoyed at him then.

I’ve just been to the library,” he said, ges­tur­ing toward the back­seat where three thick books were stacked on one seat like a pas­sen­ger. “You sure you don’t want to come and see my books? Maybe have a snack?”

For some rea­son I don’t under­stand even today, I said yes.

He had an entire room filled with books, stuffed in those wall-to-wall book­shelves with very lit­tle space for more. A love seat in the mid­dle of the room made me feel small, sit­ting in the cen­ter of all that majesty: the palette of col­ors, font shapes and sizes on the thick or thin, new or worn spines. The plas­tic blinds on the tall, nar­row win­dow emit­ted a weak light. He turned the wand on the blinds and dust-flecked light entered the room. The car­pet was pea-green with gray balls of dust gath­ered at the edges of the book­shelves. It smelled like an old library and I loved that.

Take what­ev­er you want,” he said. He turned to one shelf. “Let’s see. You might like this one.”

He hand­ed me a book with a group­ing of girls gath­ered around a piano on the cov­er. The black spine read: Lit­tle Women.

Take it with you,” he said. “Let me know what you think.”

With­in a few pages, I rec­og­nized that I was in the pres­ence of genius. Sweet Val­ley High and Judy Blume books, my usu­al fare, were a snack com­pared to the meal Alcott spread before me. I read the book over Memo­r­i­al Day week­end. My moth­er made me come out of my room, and I resent­ed her for it. “Come up for air,” she said. “You’re like a her­mit.”

She asked what I was read­ing, and I showed it to her.

For school?” she asked.

I told her yes. Even though I didn’t feel odd about going to Jim’s house, I knew she wouldn’t approve of it.

I went there again after I fin­ished the book, knocked brazen­ly on the door one day after school.

Do you have any­thing else for me to read?” I asked. “I loved this one.”

We sat at his kitchen table eat­ing pound cake with lemon sauce, the per­fect com­bi­na­tion of tang and sweet. He’d just giv­en me anoth­er book, To Kill a Mock­ing­bird. I want­ed to go home and read it but didn’t want to be rude, so I sat with him, squirm­ing a lit­tle in my chair as I fin­ished my cake.

You prob­a­bly do well in school,” he said.

Math’s a killer. I’m good in Eng­lish.”

I’m good in math,” he said. “I could help you.”

I con­sid­ered this. We had a math final the fol­low­ing week. I had a C in the class. I was hop­ing for hon­or roll, but it wasn’t look­ing good.

I’m also flu­ent in Span­ish,” he said. “I bet you didn’t expect that. I used to trans­late for the FBI.”

I didn’t know what the FBI was but pre­tend­ed to be impressed.

You want me to say some­thing in Span­ish?” he asked as if I’d nev­er heard Span­ish before. We lived in South Flori­da not Wyoming.

Sure.”

Tu eres muy boni­ta y inteligente y sim­páti­ca.”

The fix­i­ty of his gaze con­firmed that he was speak­ing about me. I told him I had to go home; he told me to come by Tues­day after three if I want­ed help with tutor­ing. My par­ents told me I could get the Nikes with the rain­bow swoosh if I made hon­or roll, so I went back. He helped me with long divi­sion. We ate Ring Dings and shared an orange to make our snack healthy.

At five o’clock, he told me I should prob­a­bly get home, that my par­ents would be wor­ried about me. I told him that they came home late. My old­er broth­er was in high school and stayed after school every day for sports, so I was only respon­si­ble for myself. No one arrived home until after six, usu­al­ly.

You must get lone­some,” he said, try­ing to catch my eye. I wouldn’t look at him. “I know I get lone­some.”

I like to read,” I said. “That pass­es the time.”

He didn’t ask me if I had friends, and I was grate­ful not to have to report that I only had two: Sarah and Michelle.

Do you want to see some­thing?” he asked.

I wasn’t sure and told him so.

It’s okay,” he said, reach­ing for my hand. “Come with me.”

It didn’t occur to me not to take his hand. One action seemed to fol­low the oth­er in a nat­ur­al pro­gres­sion. I was not scared.

I fol­lowed him to the part of the house I’d nev­er been in, a hall­way off the liv­ing room. In one of the rooms in that hall­way, two couch­es of dark fab­ric clut­tered the space, ensconced with side tables cov­ered with doilies and match­ing flow­ered lamps. It smelled vague­ly of oranges in the ear­ly stage of rot.

He dis­ap­peared into a clos­et and returned with a dress, white lace with a shiny belt adorned with a clus­ter of three tiny ros­es.

Do you like it?” he asked.

I did. It looked like my size.

You can have it if you want. Try it on first.”

I had no idea how I’d explain such a gift to my par­ents. Last week, he’d giv­en me a rhine­stone bracelet my moth­er asked about. I lied and told her Sarah gave it to me.

For no rea­son?” she asked.

I said not real­ly.

Well, that’s a fan­cy gift for no rea­son.”

In the dark room, I held the dress up to my tor­so and asked, “You bought this for me?”

Not exact­ly. It was my daughter’s.”

You have a daugh­ter?”

He nod­ded, a quick shake. “She’s gone now. That’s all I want to say about her, okay?”

I agreed by nod­ding.

Why don’t you try it on?” he asked.

I couldn’t deny him. The bath­room was pink every­thing except for the toi­let, which was white. I imag­ined that he’d once lived in this house with his daugh­ter and maybe a wife, too.

The dress wasn’t as white as it had seemed in the room’s dull light. A slight yel­low patch stained the dress just below the belt, and it smelled musty. It fit, though, and when I came out of the bath­room his eyes widened. 

You look so pret­ty,” he said. “You should take it home, wear it to one of your school dances.”

I didn’t tell him that the dress was more of a First Com­mu­nion vari­ety and that we didn’t have school dances.

He came toward me and touched me on the shoul­der.

I stood there, my under­arms start­ing to itch—the dress wasn’t as good a fit as I thought—and to sweat. The room was warmer than the rest of the house.

Are you okay?” he asked, remov­ing his hand from my shoul­der and star­ing at me.

I told him I need­ed to get home and thanked him for the dress. I wore it home, the sweat mak­ing it more and more itchy. I hid it in my clos­et toward the back so my moth­er wouldn’t find it.

*

I some­how got a B in math and made the hon­or roll. I wore my new Nikes to Jim’s house. I vis­it­ed him once a week or so once school let out. I went to sum­mer camp for a few weeks, which I hat­ed except the days we went to the movies. I tried to con­vince my moth­er that I was too old to attend camp, but she told me I need­ed struc­ture to my day and to “get out and enjoy the weath­er,” but the weath­er was so hot we near­ly wilt­ed on the play­ground and couldn’t take much more than an hour out­doors.

At Jim’s house, I would prac­tice my math for at least a half hour. He con­vinced me that it would help me make hon­or roll next year, sev­enth grade, and that meant gifts.

Jim bought me gifts, too, those that I could eas­i­ly hide or pass off as bequeathed from a friend. I even made up a friend, Leslie, inspired by Bridge to Ter­abithia, who liked giv­ing me things. I told my moth­er that she gave me the tiny hoop ear­rings with the dan­g­ly hearts and the Guess t‑shirt with the inter­wo­ven hearts. I asked Jim how he knew Guess was “in.” He squint­ed his eyes—his expres­sion of confusion—and said that he hadn’t looked at the brand at all. He just thought I’d like the hearts.

And all the books he loaned me? I got them from the library of course. My par­ents didn’t notice that the call num­bers weren’t taped onto their spines and they weren’t cov­ered in plas­tic.

I didn’t tell any­one about Jim since there was no rea­son to, and I knew I wouldn’t be allowed to go over there if I did. He was my secret friend, some­one who I didn’t have to talk to very much. Some days, I’d just sit in his library room and read. I’d take a break for cake or Cream­si­cles. We ate a lot of straw­ber­ries, too, to be healthy. He said I need­ed my vit­a­mins.

*

And then in July, Adam Walsh, six years old, went miss­ing from a Sears not ten miles from my house. My moth­er didn’t like that mall, so we didn’t go there often, but my Gram­mie took me there some­times; she liked the Woolworth’s, which she called the “five-and-dime.”

They found Adam’s body in a canal. Head­less.

My par­ents bare­ly watched the news but did so on this occa­sion, care­less that I took in the grue­some­ness of this real­i­ty. A reporter claimed that most chil­dren are abduct­ed not by strangers but by some­one they know.

Great,” my moth­er said, near tears. “Now we can’t trust our neigh­bors.”

*

The next time I went to Jim’s, he pre­sent­ed me with anoth­er gift: a bathing suit, elec­tric blue with one neon pink stripe from shoul­der-to-hip.

Try it on,” he said. “See if it fits. This looks like your size.”

It was a per­fect fit. I want­ed to change back into my clothes, but knew he’d want to see me in the suit.

I put on my shorts over the suit and came out of the bath­room.

It fits,” I said.

Take off the shorts,” he said. “I want to see how it looks on you.”

I felt dizzy. “I need to go home,” I said.

He came toward me and put his hand on my head. “What’s wrong?” he asked. “Why are you cry­ing?”

Are you going to hurt me?” I asked, snot drip­ping from my nose. “You’re not going to hurt me, are you?”

I imag­ined myself in a canal: bloat­ed like a dead frog; head­less.

He looked at me, squint­ing as if to see me bet­ter, to under­stand this new girl I’d become. “No, Jen­ny, I’m not going to hurt you. Why would you say that?”

I don’t know,” I said, my voice thick. “I just need to go.” I pushed past him and ran out of his house. I ran the three blocks home, my san­dals smack­ing against the con­crete.

*

That was the last time I saw Jim. I threw out the bathing suit and the dress, pushed them to the bot­tom of the garbage bin. I still wore the Guess t‑shirt and jew­el­ry he gave me, though. After all, they came from Leslie, my invis­i­ble friend.

Today, fif­teen years lat­er, all of the gifts Jim gave me are gone save the rhine­stone bracelet whose stones have fall­en out. I keep the bracelet and loose stones in a bag­gie in my jew­el­ry armoire. The med­ley of col­ored gems reminds me of the sus­pend­ed crys­tal in his kitchen, how it caught the after­noon light, the dots of rain­bow splayed across the floor like con­fet­ti. He turned the crys­tal for me, spin­ning it, so I could see the span­gles dance.

 

From the writer

:: Account ::

I came to this sto­ry through a reflec­tion upon the vio­lence against chil­dren and young adults that occurred at dif­fer­ent points in my life. I am a Flori­da native and grew up in the after­math of Adam Walsh’s mur­der, which occurred less than ten miles from my home. I also attend­ed the Uni­ver­si­ty of Flori­da a year after ser­i­al killer Dan­ny Rolling claimed five stu­dents’ lives. In writ­ing this sto­ry, I want­ed to con­sid­er how the media’s pub­lic­i­ty of vio­lence affects the psy­che of a child, exac­er­bat­ing her fear of attack and death at the hands of some­one she once con­sid­ered an ally.

 

Chris­tine C. Heuner has been teach­ing high school Eng­lish for over 19 years. She lives with her hus­band, in-laws, and two chil­dren in New Jer­sey. Her work has appeared in Philadel­phia Sto­ries, The Write Launch, Flash Fic­tion Mag­a­zine, and oth­ers. In 2011, she self-pub­lished Con­fes­sions, a book of short sto­ries.