Lu, slender boy body leaning towards the mirror, bare to the hips, skin as smooth as the glass he peers in. “Thank the good lord for glitter,” he says as silver arches form from his fingertips, curving where eyebrows once were. Behind his back, Greta, light and dark like a silent film star, rolls large, gray eyes, and I smile in return. Across the invisible mirror flashes Lu, Homecoming Queen in high school, roses in arms, sparkling tiara in dark hair — he has never gotten over that. Nor has the football-star golden boy who was king. My laugh is as silent as Greta’s film star looks. I lean on Lu’s shoulder — bone under the warm skin pressed to my cheek — and there I am, manifesting in the periphery of the mirror, smear of black hair, scarf, dress, pale brown face, newly real to the world on the other side.
The words slip from my mouth, murmured, slurred perhaps from the warmth of Lu’s skin, the warmth of brandy in my belly. “Ella crea que pareces como una puta,” the words say, and I smile — too many smiles on my lips tonight. The mirror shows me that too much of me is mouth. I think of feathers brushing across my lips, teasing the smile out of me — Lu is made of feathers, I think, knowing that it’s not quite true.
Glitter from Lu’s fingertip brushes across my eyelids, and his voice answers, soft, floating — from the mirror or from his mouth, I can’t tell. “¿Qué sabe ella? Parece como una….” Hand on hip, undulating and puckering drag queen style, and we laugh together, silently.
Greta breaks it, though, flicking ashes from her cigarette into the cold fireplace, pouting with her small, bow-perfect Louise Brooks mouth. Her words fall from her mouth, break the quiet in the room, but I love her no less for it. “You know I don’t like it when you do that,” she says, jealous of the hours Lu and I sit together, foreheads nearly touching, the atoms of us touching, in front of the lit fireplace, reading El Amor en los Tiempos del Colera with softly rolled r’s and silent h’s, while the fire heats us like a fever and we imagine ourselves melting like glass. Heavy eyelids dropping, fingertips still cold, trembling on pages, Lu would sigh, “One hundred years, alone alone.”
“I’m here, I’m here,” but my words are light off glass, Lu as cold as glass. Greta, hot words spilling from red lips, fire in her touch, has no reason for jealousy. The only thing Lu is jealous of is the image in the mirror. “No country for old men,” he says, his fingertips touching nothing but light off glass, lips barely able to melt the ice of his reflection.
And so we maunder, mad women in our blacks that crackle and drag, and my long coat billows behind me — A sail! A sail! — on the chiaroscuro streets, streetlamps loving Lu’s skin, shadows clinging to the hems of Greta’s skirt, and mine, my cheek near Lu’s warm shoulder, left hand touching Lu’s cold fingertips, right enveloped in the heat of Greta’s hand. Our shadows heighten his light, never invading it as the night invades daylight, taking it by degrees; “Está frío, frío.”
“Como el frío si estés muerto,” I answer, catching the melody in my voice so Greta will understand. She still does not, so I hum the opening strings and then murmur, “Plainsong.” She nods, and her laugh is not silent — I hear the hammer on hot yellow metal, the delicate work of tapping out gold into leaf — a little goldfish or a little golden bird on a golden bough. All this, all that Lu sees through the mirror and wants to be, Greta is in a single gesture. I touch his shoulder — he is solid, he is real. But impermanent. Not like Greta, eternal Greta’s artifice. Lu imitates — the enameling of his fingernails, feathers of false birds on his shoulders. But cold fingertips betray him. Art is hot, hot, hot as the fire that tempers gold, hot as Greta’s laugh, hot even when the air freezes the surface of dirty puddles on the Divisidero.
Poor blind Lu, sick with desire, I think, and the words shape my lips, and the sounds slip from my throat before I can stop them. And Lu stops, lets go of my hand — I am glad, for it was growing cold. I slip it into my pocket, curling fingers round warm wool and wads of tissue turning to fluff. “¿Qué dices? Who’s blind? Em? Em?”
M, M, M. What of that? My name turned to a single syllable, a letter. Lu’s voice slips into the cold of the air, and I scan the street for my name — there, on the cross street sign; there, in the name of a passing car, all neon reflection in the dark; there, on the yellow tag on Lu’s boot. “I live not in myself, but become portion of that around me.”
“What are you talking about?” Greta’s voice now, the voice of a silent film star, unreal, music made by clockwork birds. “Em, you’re not making sense. Em, you’re always doing that. You know everyone doesn’t understand. Why do you do that?”
“It’s part of my pose, sweetie, you know that. We’ll go into Dead Air and you’ll see all the poses. Look at Lu. He has a pose. He wants to be you. You have a pose, but you’re nothing but the pose, honey, so you seem like you’re not posing at all. Lu wants to be like that.”
“Not true!” Lu’s voice has no artifice, no artistic tinkling. He whines. No wonder he wants to be what he sees in the mirror, no wonder he spends all his time weaving images in his mind of what he thinks he sees in his reflection.
“Lu is half sick of this world, not of shadows,” and my laugh is in the words.
“You’re not making sense, Em.” Greta pouts, Eros’s bow bending before he lets fly an arrow. I have seen that arrow pierce through the thickest of leather jackets, eluding steel chain, eluding Peter Murphy-posed indifference.
Lu puts his hand in my pocket. “I’m sorry, Em. You’re mad at me. I’m sorry.” He doesn’t know what he did wrong. He didn’t do anything wrong.
“You don’t need to be sorry, mi’jo. I’m not mad at you. It just seems like you don’t know as much about you as I do sometimes.”
“Em, you shouldn’t say things like that.” Greta bumps her hip into mine. “That’s not nice.”
“No, not nice, Greta, but not un-nice either.” I confirm, steam from my mouth out in a sigh like Lu’s sighs when he’s longing for glass images. No answer, but a squeeze from Greta’s fiery hand, and Lu’s cold hands thrust deep into velvet pockets.
There’s Dead Air, spot of fizzling neon on the drab street, sign not really broken, only rigged to sputter and waver drunkenly. “There’s your Byzantium,” I say, and laugh, not liking the sound of it, the sound so cold. “Like the cold if you were dead,” I sing under my breath, imagining the words in the steam, and hold out my hand. The man at the door, flash of bald scalp, silver eyes, knows us, brandishes his stamp like a quill, and then there are stars, inky black on my skin, bleeding into the tiny lines of my skin, might as well be part of my skin those stars are there so often.
And then we’re inside, black walls and blue smoke and colored lights and beating music, scuffed dance floor as familiar as if we’d taken our first steps there. Greta’s first steps were dancing steps, never clumsy in platforms, never heavy like mine in buckled boots. Eternal, this place, as if it knows everything we’ve done, everything that’s been done to us, hiding it all in the dark mirrors behind the bar, fragmenting it all in the ludicrous mirrored globe, and showing it back to us every Saturday night.
And in the invisible mirror flashes a vision of shards of reflection, a jagged wedge reflecting the black of the ceiling, splashed with darkening, sticky crimson. I squeeze my eyes shut until light like golden chrysanthemums floats across the darkness. Push down the image of feathers drowned in the syrupy red that my buckled boots slide in, the image of white stars on indigo as I hit the floor, the pound of my body into the floor, into the wall, the pound of footsteps that are running towards choking screams, my voice stuck in a loop: mi’jo, mi’jo, mi’jo, mi’jo.
No. Estoy aquí. I’m here, I’m here. There is no blood, no screams. No gurgling from the lips barely able to melt ice, no once half-cold hands gone as cold as stone. Dead Air may show me that, the invisible mirror may be etched with the images, but it is a lie. This is what is real, as real as Greta’s pose:
My hand in Lu’s soft, cold clasp, and we’re heading towards the back, to the purple-painted bathroom, to the full-length mirrors, silver-smooth worlds made of light. A look back at Greta, glass beads around her neck like hard candy — John Ruskin would not approve — fishnets and patent leather, a wink of a pale gray eye, red curved smile, wiggling fingers to bid us ta-ta. I raise my eyebrow, shake my head. Lu’s hand freezing my fingers as I watch the heat rise around Greta like a halo, Dead Air’s beats pounding through me like her pulse, my soul split between them, my soul half Greta’s and half Lu’s and all Em, my soul which I’ve always pictured as an uneven wedge of blue light, dotted with gold, though silver-haired Anna told me it is black with burgundy splotches like crushed flowers.
Cold porcelain, cold tile, fading disinfectant smell, and two Lu’s — one who is, and one who wants to be. “What is it that you’ve been saying, Em? I don’t understand. Greta’s right. Nobody understands.”
I put my fingers on his glitter eyebrows and the soft feathers at his shoulder, feathers brushing against my lips, and I smile. “You understand, Lu. You said it yourself — That is no country for old men. ¿Recuerdes? Byzantium.”
Lu’s eyes light up like jewels, jewels set in polished gold, jewels hiding mechanical wheels, turning and turning. “Therefore I have sailed — ” he begins, but I shake my head.
“No, Lu, no. It’s cold there.”
“I’m half-cold already, Em. Don’t pretend. It’s where I belong.” And he touches fingertips with the other Lu.
“Why here? Wait till we’re home, wait until we’re near the fire.”
He shakes his head now. “Homes come and go,” he says, “but Dead Air stays.”
“Then out there, Lu, not in here.”
A wink, raised glittering arches. “The lighting’s better in here, Em. I couldn’t see you and Greta out there, couldn’t hear you.”
“You won’t hear us — do you hear what goes on there? And maybe you won’t see anything at all, Lu.” My lips, my fingertips, my toes in my buckled boots, all numb, my body trembling, my arms twining round him like vines, trying to bind him to me. “Lu. I was mean. Greta was right, I was mean. I’m sorry. I wasn’t mad at you. Please. I need you to stay. Lo siento, mi’jo, lo siento.”
“It’s not because of you, Em. Don’t apologize. You were right. I’ll be nothing but a pose.” And he smiles like angels, and touches the glass, cold fingertips on cold glass, cold lips on cold glass. My arms drop as the lingering warmth, the last bit of life still clinging to his body, disappears. I raise my eyes to the mirror, and see only myself looking back, silent as Greta’s filmstar looks.