WOULDN’T IT BE NICE
A chapter from Isle of Dogs, the work in progress that consumes all the oxygen around here:
The dorm room had two bunks. Phaedra had the top one, and it was just big enough if she bent her knees and slept curled up like a dog. The hard mattress was lumpy and smelled of disinfectant. Montreal was an enchanted city of glass towers rising from the frigid grey waters of the St. Lawrence, water taxis cruising between the old granite and brick buildings with bay windows and stoops. By day the city bustled with business like any other town, but at night it became its own. The cafes and restaurants were bursting with people. There were poetry readings and performances, circuses and theatre. There were no Rulers, or rather, they didn’t Rule. There were actually many Rulers who lived in voluntary and involuntary exile. They worked. At academies as fencing teachers, or riding instructors, or as performers and athletes. The Montreal Symphony, because of its Ruler players, was a world renowned group and the basketball and hockey teams were champions. Only Vancouver boasted more Rulers and as many trophies.
The language was Quebecois, which Phaedra knew not at all but quickly understood. It had been a delirious journey, by sea from Dubrovnik to Haifa, then overland to Jerusalem, a bizarre, lunar city that lived underground by day and on the surface at night, a city so violent they had to hire a private guard to escort them to the theatre from their hostel, which was located on Circle Eight of the underground city. From there the bus to Istanbul was grueling. She sat sipping hot water on a wooden bench squeezed between a juggler and a clown, gazing eyeless out at the endless blistered earth. Every week they were in a different country, setting up the show, marching through the streets, blaring out the funky tunes.
She could only bring a single bag, with a few shirts, pants, underwear. She didn’t wear socks. She had no winter clothes. Her armpits smelled from travel. In Amsterdam she bought a cherry red beret. They sailed for Harwich from Rotterdam and arrived at Victoria Station at 6 am, the city just emerging from sleep. She spent an afternoon in the British Museum and sat in Karl Marx’s chair. They sailed from Liverpool to Dublin aboard The Beatle, where they performed in the Abbey Theatre and she bought a hardcover copy of Ulysses. What a maddening book! But she could not tear herself from it. She found herself mouthing aloud its strange sentences, and as she sat in a pub nursing a glass of stout, listening to the customers talk about football and horse races, and heard the ringing of a bell, it might as well have been 600 years ago. She read the book as they rode vertiginous waves across the North Atlantic aboard the Timon of Athens to the Port of Reykjavik, grey stilted houses against elephantine mountains. Here they stayed in a windy campsite outside of town and performed in the bandshell in the Gufunes as part of their summer arts festival. The light lingered until midnight, and the people were mad with alcohol and a cheery sort of despair, as if the truth of life buried beneath the flesh were revealed by the hyperboreal sun.
They booked rooms on the Jabme-Akka, a leaking cargo ship, to their next stop, the city of Nuuk, capital of Greenland, a collection of Victorian houses on narrow dirt streets, a town in the throes of a collective hallucination. Mushrooms and LSD were sold like candy and silent groups stood around chain smoking and mulling the twilight. She watched the sun rise at 3am in a cemetery, the headstones pink and coral. She was startled by a man in rags who wouldn’t let her alone. He spoke to her in liquid Kalaallisut. She tried giving him a cigarette which only seemed to enrage him. She was a foot taller than he was but she became nervous as he followed her back to the University where they were staying. She was distressed to learn later of his arrest, and they witnessed his summary execution by firing squad from the deck of a tiny passenger ship, The Hilton. As they sailed out of the harbor the sun was high in the sky and the house fronts were bright and floral against the grey drape of mountains, a land covered in lichens and moss.
Finally, Montreal! She stepped down the gangway and felt like she was home. She walked the streets and found English spoken in the student ghetto around Concordia. It was here, in a cafe, while eating poutine, a grotesque pile of fried potatoes, gravy and cheese, and drinking a country ale, that she wrote her first letter to Sargon since leaving Budapest. It was late August and she knew school was not in session, but Titania had written that she could address a letter to a friend of theirs, Chris Bell, in New York City. She wrote in long hand on pale blue stationary with a violet pen, specks of grease dotting the page.
The pale surface of the moon is a landscape more haunting and beautiful than any I have seen. The dust is like a silver sea lapping the edge of marble buildings. People here are free to enjoy their lives untroubled by the incessant wars and disputes of Earth and of Mars. I am sitting in a cafe ingesting a plate of the national dish, a blue paste made up of ground insects sweetened with sugar and while it makes me sick to admit it, it is delicious. I have found in the stops we have made in this whirlwind escape from Le Terroir Rouge that this is always the case. The lobster tanks of Vesta yield an incredible, buttery-soft meat for a feelered sea bug, and even in the months of black sailing I would savor the delicacies of each port, tangerines grown in the pod ships of Judah, figs from the Barzakh gas clouds, where Albion dreams. And now this Interzone, this Eden of Glass. To think I thought Uvegvaros the city of Glass! Or those red glass chambers kept by Ocba. I feel for the first time since losing you I have found a place to call home.
It won’t be long now lost brother. Our spotlights will cross in the sky, and two circles become one shining disc.
Her room was with one of the Albanian jugglers, Fiacre, and a Gypsy clown, Dan Dan, named for his mother’s favorite Sichuan noodle dish. They were not good roommates. Fiacre had an unwashed smell and Dan Dan was always masturbating. His ejaculate had a pronounced fish odor that would diffuse through the room making it impossible to sleep.
She preferred the company of women. Her closest friend, not really much of a friend, certainly not a confidante, but a person with whom she nevertheless liked to roll cigarettes and comment on the passing scene, was M’Lorde Lucy, who had joined the troupe in Amsterdam, an English dissident Ruler who had gone into exile when the Tories seized the government and purged its ranks of bastards. She sang perfectly in 3 octaves, was not tall but had the strength of an 8 footer. She was a born gymnast and in the morning could be found after three hours sleep doing acrobatic tricks in the Parc Percy-Walters, a small municipal park with a green and benches and pebbled paths, where dour Quebecois sat drinking espresso and reading copper electraweave papers. Her lithe form leapt, turned cartwheels and flipped summersaults, which the denizens ignored completely. Phaedra watched her with admiration bordering on erotic enchantment and she realized she wanted to be Lucy. But strong and coordinated as she was she could not become airborne, she was made for the water and for running. Sargon she remembered had the power to leap, to fly almost. Lucy reminded her of him.
Phaedra knew she wanted to have sex with her. The idea was exhausting. Sex would ruin everything as it always did. She never connected and even when she came it was like an event happening to someone else. She liked to make others come, pushed to desperation by her tongue and lips. But she had never been taken. Taken. She imagined being taken when she rubbed one out on the toilet, when she thrust her pelvis forward and let the water from the bathtub spigot pulse over her, a slow blues insanity she had to muffle lest her cries be overheard. Lucy. She was always bouncing by, her small breasts bound in a sports bra and tight ass bulging out of the edge of her shorts. She had gone to her room one afternoon, knocked and Lucy beckoned her to enter, dressed only in a chiffon wrap, her lean, muscular legs sculpted and brown. Phaedra resisted. She chose to be no one.
They performed Ruin to packed audiences in English. Being the only native speaker in the company Phaedra had worked on the translation back in Budapest. Diamond Dzosi had written it in Czech and translated it into German but English was the most widely understood language and the source material after all was American. The run came to an end and the company moved to the Chateau Frontenac in Quebec City, as guests of the Quebec government, where they were to give a series of workshops and perform Ruin, as well as Macbeth and Coriolanus.
She experienced the massive pile of bricks with a mixture of nostalgia and discomfort. It felt like an old dead dream suddenly come to life. The St. Lawrence reminded her of the Hudson and a cruise they took so disturbed her she ran to her room and buried her face in her pillow sobbing, as she remembered, with a clarity that was shocking, hiding in the cave with Sargon. Every word they spoke echoed in her brain and it was as if the past few years were for nothing. She lost her city feet. She smelled horse flanks and stared at dogs not with a wistful nostalgia but crumpling pain in her chest. She sat in sullen wounded silence during the Q&A sessions and answered questions about translating from German to English with monosyllables.
It was an old cobbled city and the canals boats were powered by oar, the water gently lapping the stone walls. The cafes closed early and only a few bars were open until dawn. M’Lord Lucy was her roommate and she found herself drinking until she would curl into a ball like a porcupine and the older woman would stroke her long hair.
Stefan Gorky asked her to coffee at the Musee national des beaux arts du Quebec, whose massive galleries stood empty during the week. Their feet echoed on the white floors and curving stairs. They sat in the cafe and he ordered them a pot of drip coffee. “So,” he said, “What mysteries are brewing in that inscrutable mind of yours? I know when something’s wrong.”
“You’ve been drinking a lot.”
“I can sit here all day watching you shrug, Phaedra.”
“Don’t call me that.”
“Ah, she talks. Sara, pseudonyms are poor disguises. Do you miss your mother then?”
She laughed. “What mother?”
“Then what is it? I miss my Panic.”
“I feel like I’ve come so far just to arrive at the place I started from.”
“You still wish to go to America?” She looked at him with an expression of duh. “I can’t read your mind, but I take that as a yes. You are remarkably single minded, but I suppose that’s normal. I forget your age sometimes.”
“Oh, because you think single mindedness to be a symptom of immaturity, as if determination and a longing for home were not primal human qualities.”
“There are many primal human qualities. The need to love and be loved being the first.”
She smiled and raised her finger. “Don’t you think, don’t you teach, that human affection flows from the satisfaction of human material needs, food, water, and shelter?”
“And haven’t you argued vigorously the opposite?”
“I like to argue.”
“Indeed you do. Would it make you happy Sara Sitar, Phaedra von Doderer, Panic, if I took you to New York as my guide and interpreter? You do know the city, don’t you?”
She narrowed her eyes and thought. “For real?”
“We have been granted permission to perform in Central Park at the Delacort, under the auspices of the Public Theatre this fall. The New York Rulers, Sargon and Renee, are patrons and have longstanding ties to Hungary. He apparently has a fondness for my country and welcomes our visit, despite some difficulties with the central authorities in Washington. So long as we travel direct by train from Montreal to New York we will be unmolested and under his protection. I must arrange things with the City Council, the theatre board of directors, discuss financing with New York University (which is a co-sponsor), and meet various cultural lions and such. The Ruler Sargon has offered to host us at his New York mansion on Fifth Avenue. Are you interested?” As he spoke her heart sped up and then became irregular and her skin iced over. She turned pale and trembled and grew short of breath. “I thought this would be welcome news!”
“Sire…I mean sir, Stefan, it is most welcome news and I would be happy to accompany you, but I beg not to stay with the Ruler Sargon.”
“I am staying there. It would be very strange if you did not.” She bit her lip and the irids of her eyes churned green and blue, the pupils dilating. He reached towards her and she flinched. “Phaedra, who hurt you? What did they do?”
She looked away and said, “Nobody.”
“He’s taking me to New York,” Phaedra said to M’Lord Lucy, passing her the bottle of Jameson’s they’d bought in Dublin and lighting a cigarette. They were dressed alike, in loose T shirts and underwear, and sat at the small table by the window.
“Brilliant! Lucky you.” Lucy poured a dollop of whiskey in her glass and tossed it down. A hot breeze smelling of the river fluttered the curtain and noises from the bar below floated up through the night, while swarms of insects knocked the screen. “Those bloody hornets are terrifying.”
“Welcome to the New World,” Phaedra said.
“Is it true it’s worse in the States?”
“Some places. Not where I grew up.”
“And where was that, again?”
“Well, in New York Harbor, just off the coast of Jersey, on an island.”
“The Isle of Dogs. You know there’s one in the Thames as well?”
“And on that island, hidden deep beneath the river, a forbidden colony dwells. They dress in scarlet robes, their faces hidden behind huge hoods, with gold cords about the waist. They are mutants from Mars, and there they have built a hive for themselves which they inhabit in secret, for if the Rulers knew they were there they would burn them out like dogs with flame throwers and dissolve their mutant bodies in acid. I was brought there as a child of 8 by my father, a human fleeing the Rulers because he had unlawful relations with a Ruler Woman, my mother, a princesse of the North named Ruth Banffy. He died delivering me into their hands and I was raised in the cold stone halls carved out of bedrock, never seeing daylight or breathing fresh air. I learned their savage tongue and spent my childhood exploring caverns drilled and forgotten, schooled only by the books they could not read, until one day I found an old abandoned tunnel with an escape hatch. For months I stared at the hatch, afraid to open it. One day, I mastered my terror and turned the wheel. It led to a long vertical shaft with an iron stair which I climbed, hand over hand, for days, tying my belt to the rungs to sleep, reaching eventually a landing with a windowed door flooded with blinding sun. Paralyzed by a sight I had only read of, I blinked until the pain in my eyes and brain subsided and then, I walked out onto a platform surrounded by water. Towering overhead was the verdigrised torso of the Statue of Liberty. I took my place in a crowd of tourists, boarded the ferry to Manhattan and lived there with a homeless boy I met on the subway named Cielo.”
Lucy smiled and poured another shot, handing the bottle back to Phaedra, who chugged directly from it. “Someday you’ll tell me the truth.”
“Why would I disappoint you?”
“When do you leave?”
“I’m not sure. We are going to stay with the Rulers of New York, the fallen President and his Consort Renee.”
“I thought you hated Rulers.”
“How can I hate what I am? Anyway, you’ll see what it’s like. You’ve never known such luxury. The palaces, the servants, the food and the drink. When my Sire wanted swordfish for dinner he’d send someone by rocket to Gibralter.” She looked wistful.
“Why’d you give it up then?”
Lucy became pensive and the sadness that always weighed on her face grew heavier. “I think, because, it was wrong. I grew to hate my position. When you’re young, you aren’t raised by them, you’re raised by humans, by your Surrogate especially. Mine was Egyptian. Her name was Nefertiti, but I think my Sires named her because they preferred the Egyptian Gods to the mere mortals who inhabit the ancient monuments. Nef had beautiful black hair and an African face with the wisest smile. She made me warm milk when I couldn’t sleep and told fantastic tales of the Arabian Nights and Alexandrian demons. They sent me off to Harrow when I was five. Can you imagine that? I hated every minute of it. A thousand years of sadism distilled in the souls of the inmates. I swore I’d run away and when I was seventeen I did, with a girl I was in love with. We had no idea of where to go but it wasn’t hard to earn enough jewels to board a ferry for Amsterdam. At Harrow you learn how to survive: how to play a rich mark out and the five minute blow job.” She made a face. “Men don’t really care that you find it nasty.”
Phaedra laughed. “Well I’m afraid of staying in a Ruler’s Palace.”
“You don’t look afraid of anything, my dear. Except maybe me.”
Lucy was bashful. “Pass the bottle, baby.”
Phaedra passed it, feeling a bit drunk and more than a little sorry for Lucy, whose slurred voice was full of tragic longing. She had never trusted her true story to anyone and was not about to now but the impending trip worried her so much she felt she had to divulge something. Because she would soon be in a house that had banished her. What would happen then? But she couldn’t back out of it now, it obviously pleased Stefan to no end to be able to do this for her, and he needed her, he said, to assist in negotiations. And it was her way to New York. It was the perfect cover. Except it was no cover, unless she could stay somewhere else.
Lucy said, “What are you thinking about?” Phaedra felt the lock click in her brain. Lucy sighed. “If only we could get past this! You shut down every time I ask.”
“I’m sorry Lucy. It’s habit. Look, I grew up in the Hudson Valley, where Sargon and Renee have a Palace. My mother, my real mother, my real, human mother, who lives in Transylvania now, was a cook in the kitchen, and I played there as a child with the little Ruler boy and girl. They were my best friends. One of our favorite places to play was the library. The librarian was a saturnine opium addict and child molester named Baby Sip, and he molested me regularly when I was eleven and twelve. In all innocence I showed my young friends what he had done to me and we were caught by the house Steward, Albion, who reported us to Vice President Sargon. The Rulers were enraged and threatened death, but through the pleading of their Counselor, showed mercy and banished us to Hungary, where my mother’s people came from, never to return. I am afraid if I stay with them I will be recognized.”
“I’m actually tempted to believe this one.”
“I swear it is the truth. You mustn’t tell a soul.”
“No, your secret is safe with me.”
“It would feel safer if you told me something,” Phaedra said.
Lucy became thoughtful again and held her half full glass aloft, inches from her lips, which moved slightly as she thought to herself. She uttered a soft laugh and tossed down the rest. “Drink,” she said. Phaedra drank. “Let’s cut your hair and get you a good suit. After you cross the border and clear customs, disguise yourself as a man. You were a girl when they last saw you. Believe me, Rulers don’t really see the world around them. Sure, we have those heightened senses. The nose and ears of a dog and the eyes of an eagle and all that, but most of them lack the most important senses, curiosity and imagination. They will remember you as a dirty little corrupting girl, if at all. They will not be looking for a nineteen year old man.”
“What do I tell Stefan?”
“We’ll think of something. Now how about a little kiss?” asked Lucy, presenting her cheek.
Phaedra chugged some more and smiled, quite drunk and even more pleased by the plan. “When do we start?”
“OK. And when we’re done, let’s see if the five minute blow job works on a girl.”
“The girl’s version is more like 20, but I’ll give it a shot if you do too.”
“A race to the top?” Phaedra asked.
“To the bottom. Now go get your head wet while I borrow a scissors and a razor.”
Phaedra sat naked in the hard wooden chair and stared at the bugs hitting the screen, some so hard it left dents in the mesh, while Lucy cut off hunks of her abundant golden hair, crying a little as it hit the ground, lifeless and brown. She felt the cold metal blades against her scalp and Lucy’s hand fluffing out her hair until it was short enough to shave. She showered again and Lucy joined her, soaping up her head and shaving the remainder off, the steam rising between their flanks. When she was done they toweled off and Phaedra surveyed herself in the mirror. Her eyes looked huge. Her denuded scalp was pale compared to her face. It felt strange. Why had she wept for her hair? She felt so light, so free, like no one she had ever been before. She turned around and leapt at Lucy, forcing her to the bed. “The clock starts now.”