Benny of the Simulacrum
I am dipping my feet into a saltwater pool and sipping mezcal. There are naked women in the pool. Men are lounging fully clothed on the patio. The women have heads as slick as seals and they are laughing. They promise a special kind of initiation, a club of pleasure and ease. They crap and cook and clean like the rest of us, but for the moment they are goddesses, sustained by the green ambrosia of a lighted pool. You can call it delusional if you want to, but it’s more pleasant to submit to the illusion–much more pleasant to imagine yourself in league with the goddesses.
When I first met Benny, we were smoking cigarettes on Ly’s deck. I could smell the dank, overdone, summer foliage below, which surrounded the aquifer’s springs, and see openly into the backyards of an entire neighborhood.
She said she loved opera. I asked her which opera was her favorite. A cool wave washed over her face. You could see the struggle and then, just like that, it disappeared. ‘Sometimes I wish I could live in an opera. Do you know what I mean?’ She was serious now. ‘A life where everything makes sense—It’s all connected and symbolic.’ She wove her fingers together into a mat and pressed her eyebrows closer. She was hitching herself to me, pushing against the inert barrier between us.
I tell the man dangling his feet next to me, whose body is like a clean knife’s edge, that my friend Benny loved this opera—the one Maria Callas is singing through speakers above the pool. I tell him she loved Madame Butterfly because it feels like the right opera for her to love.
He says nothing, but places his slight hand on my thigh and smiles, as if we’ve been having a different kind of conversation.
Barry, who is sitting on my other side and wearing winking red swim trunks, says, ‘I saw that girl swimming here once.’
He takes a sip of his mezcal and openly eyes the goddesses. He does this I’ve noticed, sort of blanks out. I never know whether it’s purposeful or not, but I think I like it.
‘She seemed to be everywhere,’ I say, turning back to the man who has his hand on my thigh. He is wearing a cream-colored suit, a puff of red silk at the pocket. ‘I mean, after I met her, I started seeing her constantly: at the coffee shop, at the springs, parties, gas stations, riding her bike down Lamar.’ A dumb smile continues to hang on his face. This means nothing to him of course. Its Barry who I want to be talking to, but he’s already making steps in slow time toward the goddesses, glass of mezcal raised above the water. Sometimes I sleep with Barry, which is nothing more than a convenience for both of us. He’s competent at sex, but he tends to stares at his biceps in the act.
Scallops are sliding around in a green pesto red bell pepper sauce as I carry it to our table. Jonathan winks at me. He’s handsome, even if his buttery white Oxford is splotched with sweat.
We’re outside on Justine’s patio, and it’s so hot the air feels pliable. That is to say, I feelin-synch with the air; as if the boundaries between us have started to break down. We’re talking about drugs. The drugs that help us sleep and the drugs that do and don’t help us write. ‘Why the desire to amend our realities?’ I ask him. I don’t say it but wonder if it’s because we are artists—we prefer the simulacrum to the reality. I hadn’t known Jonathan long but I felt comfortable around him, which I wondered about, because I could tell many people did not. Many people I knew found him to be harsh and judgmental. He was, it was true. But what I liked about Jonathan was that he didn’t try to be. In other words, his attitude was not an affect. To his mind, a conversation need not be about stroking each other’s egos—shouldn’t be about stroking each other’s egos.
I also happened to love Jonathan’s underdone, crooked smile, the one he’d grown somewhat famous for in his youth—in a handful of underground films that some of us had sought out on youtube. I liked the one shot on the dirty shores of Coney Island, circa 1980. He’s in a lover’s spat and throws a handful of sand at his girl’s immobile face. A pale girl in a pale jean jacket. The kind of girl that looks so pretty she looks breakable. He’d tell me he hated that scene—that it gave him a terrible feeling to throw sand in a girl’s face. Though he said once he’d had to restrain a girlfriend, who is now a celebrity painter, because she was threatening to throw herself off their Upper West Side balcony. But that was the only time he used physical force on a woman, he said, aside from when he would tie them to the bed and such. Those times were different, and it was the women he said who requested it.‘I’ve been tied to a bed and whipped a couple times and enjoyed it,’ I told him. ‘I figured,’ he said, smiling.
Benny worked at McDonald’s. She said she loved McDonald’s—how it didn’t care who you were or where you came from. Twice, I picked her up after her shift at McDonald’s, because she’d begged me to after our poetry class. In thanks, she brought me a puffy chocolate shake.
‘I’ve been thinking about starting a band,’ she said. ‘I want tambourines—a lot of tambourines, and those dresses from the sixties. You know what I mean—the fringe ones. You twist,’ she said, demonstrating, ‘and they shake.’
It was cruelly hot standing in the parking lot. There is the romance of the dessert—the kind of thing you watch old westerns for, and then there is the reality, which is that deserts don’t want you. For some reason we ignore their hostility and love them anyway, which is delusional and sometimes dangerous. For instance, recently a German couple and their daughter took a hike in White Sands National Park in New Mexico. The couple had been to the American Southwest a number of times, had fallen in love with it, and were now on their first trip back to share their experience with their five-year-old daughter. Something went wrong—they became lost—and they were found dead of exposure, while the girl was found alive under a creosote bush, clutching the water bottle they’d saved for her.
I affirmed that that sounded cool. Then I asked Benny why she moved here from New Orleans.
‘There were some things going on. I worked at a bookstore, but those people weren’t interested in books. You know?’
‘What were they interested in?’
She stared at a lamppost, which was broken between the pole and the head, and brought her cigarette hesitatingly to her full, chapped lips. ‘It’s not something I want to go into.’
This is how she talked. It could feel like she was begging you for intimacy, but that when you responded by revealing something of yourself, she would shut down and tune out. It was enough to her, maybe, to see that you wanted to know. Once she told me she’d grown up to a gay single mother, and they’d lived in a bungalow in Venice Beach, and her mother dyed her hair blue and pink and let Benny smoke cigs at the age of twelve. I told her I thought I’d read a series of young adult novels about a kid who grew up exactly the same way. When I named the series, Benny laughed. ‘See, you understand. That’s how I grew up. Down to the last detail. Everything is in those books.’
Benny said Bob Dylan invited her to ride in his tour bus across the US and that he taught her to play some sweet phrases on his guitar. It was the kind of story you could almost believe. But suppose it didn’t matter whether you believed them or not? She didn’t tell stories, as far as I could tell, to gain social standing. I think she told them to remind herself of something. To place herself somewhere—anywhere at all.
Topaz, the drunk, spun the pig over flames. The skin of the pig sizzled, shiny and growing redder, becoming demonic. Palm trees shook, bamboo swayed. I slid my sandals in the dirt, making tracks. The McDonald’s cup was resting by my foot. It looked so white, happy, and synthetic next to the dead pig. Topaz tried to kick the cup with his cowboy boot on his way to the cooler, but missed. ‘What the fuck are you doing eating at McDonald’s?’ He said.
‘I like McDonald’s,’ I said, and immediately wondered why, because it was a lie. ‘Fuck McDonald’s.’ Topaz, imitating Benny, raised his Negra Modelo in a willowy arm for leverage and stomped on the cup. Splatters of chocolate shake hit my arm. Benny whirled over and joined him by kicking the flattened cup, lifting her black velvet skirt as she did. Her green eyes glowed black. I got up and ducked into the bamboo to pee. I shouldn’t have brought her here. The party would soon get weird, and I would worry about her. In the center of the bamboo was a soft, flattened circle—home to a stray cat maybe. I didn’t have the heart to pee on the cat’s bed, so I sat down instead, Indian style. I could smell the sweetness of the pig and see the bright flames through the bamboo. I was watching when Benny tried to put an arm around Topaz’s waist. He nimbly stepped aside and loped away.
Lights, big and small, red, white, and yellow, a greenish black sky. I’d rolled all my windows down to stay awake. The scary taco place with bars on the windows, the cemetery, the gas station under the highway. I passed them in a state of despair, so that they became in my mind symbols of my despair. When I’d left the party, the girls were no longer swimming but the TV producer, who owned the house, was dancing with several women in the cleared out living room. Juan in turquoise jewelry was lounging on the upstairs deck, making business plans for a new dinner club. At home in my over-priced duplex, I smoked a cigarette on my small concrete patio. Some of my neighbors were out in the street with their beers in cosies, watching their dogs run circles, and laughing with a lightness I did not at all feel.
Benny stopped coming to poetry class at Ly’s and started posting these youtube videos in which she’d painted her face gold. She did nothing but stare at you for five minutes. She posted things to facebook like a photograph of a pair of white, blood-stained Keds in a plastic bag. I considered doing nothing, then one afternoon I felt guilty enough to drive to McDonald’s. I ordered a large fry, which I told myself I would throw in the trash on the way out. ‘Missed you in class,’ I said, glancing at the delicate tattoo of twining black roses on her forearm as she handed me my plastic tray. I just got it, she said. I noticed the red around the edges. That’s why I wasn’t in class. Her eyes were starry and strange. Did you know this morning I saw Exene Cervenka and her girlfriend?!”
I’d just posted about Exene’s former band, X, on facebook. Listening to “Los Angeles” this morning and sitting on my front porch. Perfect punk rock start to the day. I was ashamed as soon as I clicked Post. But then I was anxious to see how many Likes I would get. When I saw that I had 25 Likes in the first hour, I deemed the post a moderate success and decided against deleting it.
‘I guess she was visiting her son, who lives here. That’s what she told me. I mean I just saw her walking down Congress and started talking to her. Have you read Adulterers Anonymous?’
I could imagine the scene. Exene walking from her hotel to Jo’s to get a coffee, and finding this eager-eyed girl blocking her way, spraying her with questions as if from a fire hose. And Benny, sweet old Benny, of course would be oblivious to Exene’s attempts to free herself. ‘I’ve always wanted to be like her, you know.’ I might have also at one point wanted to be a punk rock goddesses, but I didn’t say so to Benny.
I ordered my fries and a guy built like a gladiator in sandals and swim shorts behind me asked us if we were sisters. This wasn’t the first time we’d been asked if we were related, but it was the first time I had seen Benny lie about it. She told the man we were, and I didn’t correct her.
She left the book by Exene Cervenka and Lydia Lunch on my porch chair the next day. I loved the dagger-like, heavy metal font on the cover. They were wearing long black velvet skirts like the one I had seen Benny wear at the pig roast.
I met up with Jonathan at Justine’s the day after we found out Benny was dead. He brought me a copy of one of his novels. After eating dinner, we found ourselves in a conversation at the bar with a guy who’d been stood up on an Internet date. Not knowing we were writers, he started telling us about this really great writer named Flannery O’Connor. Explaining the end of “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” and looking for the right words, I filled him in, ‘Why, you’re one of my babies.’ He clutched at his chest, not melodramatically, but with real feeling, and a baby tear actually squeezed from his eye. A moment of recognition passed between us and Jonathan said, ‘The misfit has more morality than any of them.’ You could tell the guy didn’t understand. ‘Right,’ he said. Jonathan asked him if he wanted to join us, but it seems the man was embarrassed now and he declined.
‘You think that’s true?’ I asked, watching him walk under a nest of white Christmas lights at the front gate.
‘In a sense he’s the only one that isn’t completely lost,’ Jonathan said.
I thought I understood. To the misfit, the world was not ambiguous: it was cruel and so he’d acted accordingly with a logic that maybe you could call moral. The clarity of the act anyway was impressive.
‘I’m writing about her,’ I told him. ‘But it’s strange. I didn’t know her at all. I knew her for about a month. I’m embarrassed to admit that maybe what interested me most about her was how absent she was to me.’
‘Did she want to sleep with you?’ Jonathan stamped his cigarette out in the glass ash tray. The base of his neck was smooth and strong, and his eyes were tender—a very persistent feature, and one I knew he would prefer to hide.
He shrugged. ‘She was putting on an act to impress you then.’
‘No, it wasn’t that,’ I said. But at the moment I didn’t know how to say more.
We’d discovered she’d died only because her facebook page had been turned into a memorial. There were hints in the posts that suggested a suicide. If not for facebook, we wouldn’t have known. We would have been left to assume that she was living a new kind of life somewhere else and choosing to bypass social media for the moment. We could have created all kinds of fantasy endings that resembled not at all the real one.
Where were we? Oh, right: the man sitting next to me had slid his hand coolly onto my thigh, saying nothing. It would be the first thing I would remember about him when I saw him only a week later at Ly’s. I noticed him from across the deck as he flirted with three young women who I knew were studying in the writing program at UT. Ly had invited him to her house to read his poetry. I don’t remember much about his reading other than the expression of excitement on his face and his feigned introspection. He seemed to be focused on one of the girls, the one with dark hair and a strong jaw, who giggled and hunched her shoulders attentively. Someone near me was talking about Kundalini yoga. She knew a man who used to be an opiate addict and was now a Kundalini master. Yoga, he said, was his new drug. Another woman I knew, a visiting professor at UT, was talking vaguely about a book she’d written about Gertrude Stein. I said sometimes I liked Stein and sometimes I felt like she was a fraud. ‘A lot of people say that,’ she replied, kindly. ‘I personally think she was a genius and used language to obscure her lesbianism.’ I can’t remember this academic’s name. She baked pies and she ran marathons. But where was she, Gertrude I mean, in all that clever language? And why did I care about such things as the presence of the author?
Before we fucked hurriedly in Ly’s living room, the poet said the story I had told him about Benny reminded him of a poem. “O’er rough and smooth she trips along,/ And never looks behind; / And sings a solitary song / That whistles in the wind.”
I had already developed a theory about why I had been trying to tell the story about Benny and her supposed love of opera to him at the producer’s pool. The naked women and the beautiful breeze had reminded me of Benny’s vitality and also the mode of her death, which I heard had been razored wrists in the bathtub. Furthermore, I was reminded of desire in general, which I didn’t feel for the poet but which I felt painfully for the world, sometimes so painfully that I too longed for death. Maybe I also wanted to make some kind of moral statement to him about the blindness of youth, both in its obsession with what it can’t understand and its willingness to violate the self.
‘I know those lines,’ I said. ‘Wordsworth.’
‘Mmmhmm,’ he nodded and kissed my neck. ‘Lucy Gray, the girl who got away.’ He whispered this in my ear as if it was him that was fading away.
When I closed my eyes, I thought for a brief moment, before I was carried into other sensations, of Lucy Gray on the moors, the light of her lantern bobbing over the hills, a field of snow blurring out sky. She’s not a person, I thought—just an idea, as the misfit was only an idea to the grandmother. A sort of epistemological symbol for life—in other words, a myth that developed as a way to tell our own deflated story.
Before the sun rose, I called a cab to take me home. Then vomited in my front yard. I sent the poet a facebook friend request later in the day, but heard nothing back. Years later I would read about a big prize he’d won for a book of poems about an obsession with a dead woman.
I’m cooking a stir-fry with ready-to-die vegetables that I ignored too long in my fridge. I can already tell the stir-fry will turn out badly, but I’m going through with it. I wait for the rice to finish in the steamer. I pull out my phone and check my facebook page. Jonathan has sent me a message, which is unusual—I haven’t talked to him in a year. This is because it’s been a year since I moved, reluctantly, to the midwest, and I’ve been bad, am always bad, at staying in touch. I open it.
Feel like a fool? it says.
I open the link in blue beneath his words. It sends me to the facebook page of a young girl with full red lips and gold hair. Her name is Abba Gold. She has 988 friends. She lives in New Orleans. A video link from YouTube shows her on a street corner, playing a guitar. A sign hanging over her neck reads The Way I Am in daggery, heavy metal black marker font. She’s looking down at her frail hands in concentration and then peaking up between curtains of hair to flirt at the camera with her green cat eyes. I don’t recognize the song. But when I call Jonathan, he tells me it’s Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy’s cover of a Merle Haggard song. ‘It has to do,’ he says, ‘with dreaming—and fighting against reality.’
‘So speaking of fighting against reality,” I tell him. “I don’t understand why someone would go through all that trouble–and can you really just turn your facebook page into a memorial? He’s hazy on the details, too. We talk about other things, then eventually come back to the topic. ‘Looking back,’ I say, ‘I don’t think we should be surprised.’
I had been trying to recall an honest moment between Benny and me. Strange, I thought. All of them had felt authentic in the moment. I wondered if even her death had felt real to her. It must, I thought, have been acted out as an honest expression of something. Then I wondered why it was important to me that it was authentic.
I hung up with Jonathan and put out my cigarette. I watched videos of Abba Gold/Benny as I ate my crappy stir-fry. Here she was being filmed on Desire Street; and here she’s filming herself reading an Adrienne Rich poem in her closet in a video she calls her “Tiny closet reading series” except there’s only one video. Here there’s a link to a new documentary about Hurricane Katrina, which she labels F*cked up. The movies, the posts, the pictures proved that she was alive and yet they seemed to belie another truth. I had thought I’d recognized something of myself in her, but was it true I had actually just made the same ego mistake as the grandmother toward the Misfit? The honest act had been the Misfit shooting the grandmother, not the grandmother’s supposed recognition. The honest part had not been the way Barry fucked but the way he stared at his biceps. The poet’s honesty had not been in his poems but in the way he put his hand on my thigh (because he sensed Barry’s hand had already been there).
When Barry swam after the goddesses, I told the poet that I needed another drink and got up, sliding my heels back onto my wet feet. I didn’t ask if he needed one. It’s as if I already knew that our paths would cross, that it needn’t be forced or avoided. It would happen in its own time whether I wanted it to or not. Girls in silk and leather were resting on counter tops—a whole salmon was flayed open on the kitchen island—picked straight through, though its opal, opaque eye remained intact and staring.
I found some French bread in a basket and stuffed it into my mouth because I was starting to feel sick and the shapes in the room were bending. I put my hand on the cool granite countertop and stared at my veins, trying to convince myself that this frail bluish hand belonged to me. A man who smelled like hay and expensive cologne was hovering near me and talking emphatically, shouting, really. A group around him—around me—was laughing, but I did not understand what they were laughing at.
I edged out of the kitchen. The young producer was dancing solo with a very small, agile woman, who did a move with him where she twirled across his back with her legs in a kind of scissor kick and landed in the splits on the floor. Had they practiced a routine for the party? Were they secret dance champions? I didn’t know what he was a producer of—only knew he was a producer because my friend Kristen who had brought me to the party told me so—and now I wondered if it was dance-related. When another agile woman in an afro twirled into the dance, kicking her leg to her nose, I decided this must be the case. I realized then, too, that the uncommonly attractive women in the pool must also be dancers. Then across the floor, which was actually the producer’s sprawling living room, cleared of furniture, I saw a girl with gold hair and a green terry cloth headband holding back her bangs. She was sitting on a gleaming black piano stool, her back curled and resting against the bridge of the keys. She had the kind of smile on her face that reminded me of an eight-year-old in a school picture—thrown under the lights and told to please. In the eyes in these school pictures there’s almost always this sort of bare terror. And I have never understood it, but have seen it in many of these photographs. It’s as if you can hear the voice on the other side of the lens saying: this is you, this moment will and must define you for as long into the future as we deem it necessary and you will have no say in the matter at all. In one of my photos from when I was six, my hair is braided in pigtails, coming loose at my crown so strands of it are falling toward my small, mousy face. I do not have my two front teeth because I knocked them out on a tricky jungle gym maneuver. I am wearing a white tank top with rows of identical bright red strawberries. I am smiling, or trying to smile, but my lip is dry and halfway stuck up my gums, missing my dead teeth. My eyes say that I know I am awkward, and I know I am being looked at, and the lights are too bright and I actually have suddenly forgotten who I am. I look at this photograph now and see all my vulnerabilities—the things I’m trying not to show, the things that are just too clear despite my desire to hide them. It is this picture that describes best the impression Benny gave me that night. I could see that she wasn’t really there—as the child floats alone in the wallet-sized photo—and the desire to be was apparent on her face. She was stuck because she didn’t know how to do it—she’d been caught in a limbo, unattached and unsure of how to connect. Of course at the time I had already thought she was dead, so I did not think it was her. Only acknowledged the resemblance and told myself I’d had too much mezcal. In retrospect, I realize if she had already communicated her death, she was now perhaps trying out the role of dead person. If this was the case, there was something much more appealing about her, much more honest, much more alive about her in death than in life.
It’s only now that I am making the connection to the Misfit’s last lines. “She would of been a good woman if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.” At that point, I still hadn’t made the connection. I was just floating around, drunk and high, wondering about a dead girl I used to sort of know and gently lamenting that I wouldn’t be going home with anyone. As I passed through the front door, I noticed a couple was making out on the porch next to a beautiful red rose bush with fragrant blooms, so fragrant I felt myself resenting them as I passed. Further down the moist lawn, a man in slacks was on his knees in the yard, and his date, in a dress that looked like a purple bandage was waiting by his side, pretending she didn’t know him but just happened to be standing next to him. It appeared that the goddesses were no longer swimming in the ambrosia, and only one couple remained at the pool, but they were talking too quietly for me to hear.
Katya Reno’s fiction has appeared in journals such as the New England Review, Revolver Reader, nth word, and 34th Parallel, among others. Her poetry book, Slip, a semi-finalist for the Sawtooth Poetry Prize, will be published by Press Otherwise in September 2017. She is currently completing work on a post-apocalyptic novel based on Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. She lives in Galesburg, Illinois, where she is a visiting assistant professor of English and creative writing at Knox College.