I called Giselle in the morning. “Taylor,” she said, “Oh my God, I’m so sorry?”
“So you’re saying this was not on purpose, not malice?”
“Taylor, no, of course not—I was just being a moron, what can I say? I really hope this doesn’t change your opinion of me.”
“Honestly I don’t think there’s any danger of that.”
She giggled timorously as a schoolgirl, and I wanted to blot her out, cover her up, so I put the phone down without announcing it and trekked to the lobby with heavy limbs and wrath in my heart. Outside in the sickly sunlight a rodential woman with her hair back and a camera in her hands called my name, and when I turned she snapped my face, and I felt that something had been stolen from me, a shard of my extraordinary soul, now expropriated to be divvied up among the average masses. “Fuck off,” I told her. She showed me her middle finger: long, with an acrylic pink nail at its crown.
I walked toward the set—not because I was needed, but because that was where I would feel safe—and thought of Ariel. She was a kind of guiding light. She could become my mentor, I thought: a mother figure. My cheeks grew rosy as I walked, thinking of her—of her long legs and fair hair, of her red wet tongue and the kindnesses she could speak with it. Then, as if I had conjured her with my cathexis, her name appeared on my phone. She had texted me asking if I’d like to come to her place, to chat, because she thought, for whatever reason, that I might like company at the moment. So I ordered an Uber with shaking hands and showed the slovenly driver the address.
Her apartment was thin and modest, an artist’s home, sparsely decorated and smelling of smoke and paraffin wax. She offered me sparkling water and a strawberry scone, which I accepted, and we ate side by side on her expensive sofa, letting the crumbs fall wantonly between the cushions. It was the first time I’d seen her without makeup. The lines of her eyes left phantom slices in my scaly skin. “Let me just say,” she said around her pastry, “Giselle seems a little . . . troubled?”
“No, I mean, yeah. She just seems slightly antisocial or something.”
“I admit I do find her very attractive,” she said, and laughed.
“It’s possible I made a pass at her at that party?”
“I know, I know. I felt bad about it too because she was slightly tipsy, so it’s kind of weird between us. But now I know I never had a chance because she only has eyes for you.”
“I can’t believe what I’m hearing, honestly.”
I ate on untasting, wordless, deadened. My mind spun like she’d slipped me something, a dreadful tripartite spiral. I pictured Ariel playing the predator, pouncing wide-eyed and sober on poor Giselle—what reason could she possibly have? The idea that Ariel found her attractive was simply too implausible.
“Wow,” I went on. “So you’d say you’re attracted to women exclusively or . . . ?”
“Who knows?” she said. “It’s LA, Taylor. Do we really need to quantify these things?”
“No, right, of course. I just mean because, me too, you know what I mean?”
“Glad to hear it,” she said without mirth, and swallowed some more of her scone.
We talked a little longer, recounting without enthusiasm the gossip of Siri’s set. It was cruel, I thought, that she would sit so close to me, that she would tease me with her scent, with her undying kindness. . . .
Then eventually she went to use the bathroom, and I fell asleep on her sofa (for the truth was that I had slept very little the night prior due to my Valium running out a couple days before the refill was available). I dreamed of shapes and symbols, nasty asymptotes and recycling signs and mirrors—more than anything my dream was made of mirrors.
Ariel woke me an hour later and kicked me out kindly; she had a headache. Outside her apartment two men pointed their phones at me and snapped away. “What’s the point?” I asked them. “Look, you want to sell me to a tabloid or something?” They pocketed their phones and watched me dumbly as stones with eyes. “I don’t care; do I look like I care? It’s pointless. Of course it’s all pointless. You can see me in a magazine but you’ll never be able to touch me. You’ll never be able to touch me the same way you’ll never be able to kiss your own reflection. I’ll be in some other world. So go ahead, what do I care? Go jerk off to my picture in a magazine. Get your jizz in my eyes. But you’ll never be able to touch me. Fuck you. Really, fuck you. Go jerk off and then kill yourselves.”
My Uber had arrived by the time I was finished, and there was stale spit on my lower lip, and the photographers stood still, turned to stone by my snake tongue. I got in the car and went back to the hotel because that was the only place, I felt, where I wasn’t unwanted. Once there I wanted to try it for myself, so I kissed myself in the mirror, and I imagined that it was Taylor (as in Hebert) I was kissing, and this offered some anesthesia. Her lips were cold as ice but grew warmer over time.
Siri said she wanted to talk to me when we weren’t shooting, and so I arrived at her office around noon one Sunday and sat in her old armchair. She was once again drinking in the daytime, slipping her silver flask between her thin little lips as quickly as possible. I could smell that telltale rotten juniper on her breath. She said, “Taylor, listen, I think aspects of this thing have gotten out of hand. Today alone I’ve had five so-called fans accost me in the street, in a café, right outside my home. When I worked on the Captain Onan franchise I encountered rabid fans. But these fans aren’t rabid, Taylor—they’re demonic.”
I laughed a little, out of concern more than anything. “We can get a little crazy for sure.”
“It’s not that I don’t value audience input—in fact I think it’s a vital part of making art that glorifies the proletariat, which is what I want to do—but some of them definitely seem more useful than others. So, in that vein, I’ve set out some time where I will listen to them one by one. They will come before me like supplicants, and I will be their enlightened despot.”
“So what do you need me for?”
“Well, I just thought you’d like to sit in on this session. I take your opinion very seriously, Taylor, I really do.”
I didn’t see a way to get out of it, so I agreed. I sat in the armchair, and Siri sat behind her desk, and before I could brace myself the door opened and three strange figures traipsed inside, unified in their moments, odd-faced and nondescript. They stood at the far end of the room with their hands at their sides. There was a gravity to their presence that made my heart beat quicker, as though they represented that unknowable otherworld in which the real world-changing decisions were made.
“This,” said Siri, and gestured at them grandiosely, “is the Cauldron Delegation. I’m told they have a lot of fandom clout.” She turned to them: “Now, if you could please introduce yourselves and describe your concerns. And please, Jesus Christ, please do so succinctly.”
Of course I had heard of these three—they introduced themselves as Peri, Roon, and Gaia respectively—fleshy reminders of those dark years I had spent deep in the murky bowels of “fanspace.” They were shorter than I had anticipated (except for Gaia, who dwarfed her two comrades, although I was still maybe a head higher than her), and more put-together, for lack of a better word.
Roon began: “We are here, Ms. Yelasco, to ensure the Cauldron Characters—that is, those characters in Worm who work for the shadowy international agency known as Cauldron—we are here to ensure they are treated fairly and accurately. The importance of our task cannot be overstated. Although they make few to no appearances in the early chapters of the serial, their presence behind the scenes is of the utmost importance. I don’t think it’s controversial to say that Worm is more a story about Cauldron than a story about Taylor.”
Gaia continued (for they seemed to speak as one): “Take Number Man for example. Surely you, Siri, a Marxist, could agree that in order to understand the culture and politics of a society one must first understand the economic base. Well, in the world of Worm we have one man who represents the entirety of that base. And this is not a blank man, not a man without defining characteristics. On the contrary, he is a sexual being—and the whole of the story reflects this in its very texture. Remind me afterward, Siri, to send you some of my fics for research. . . .”
Now it was Peri’s turn: “Take Alexandria also. Few if any characters are more central to the thrust of Worm, at least up to and including the moment of her death. And yet there are so many misconceptions about her! So much fan-created art of her makes her too busty or not busty enough, her hips too wide or not wide enough. Not to mention all the art of her that does not contain Contessa too! Siri, I’d like to show you my detailed schematics and canon citations.”
“And if I could just step in again,” said Roon. “What people don’t understand about the relationship between Alexandria and Contessa is that it is canonically non-platonic. Because the vast majority of Worm’s readership flirts with illiteracy, this has largely flown under the radar. But look, Siri,”—and here she pulled out her phone and handed it to her—“I think you’ll find that these lines prove the validity of my claim. Take special note of the cape’s symbolism in this passage.”
They chattered for maybe thirty minutes longer—at one point Gaia went on a long tangent, using mathematical nonsense-talk, about Number Man and the dimensions of his crotch, aided by Peri’s illustration (a thick cock for Siri’s viewing pleasure)—but I admit I struggled to pay attention. I was beginning to discover what my fictional counterpart had discovered so many years ago: one should never meet their heroes. Their standpoint was purely external whereas mine was internal, and a kind of contempt accompanied this fact. Finally Siri said, “Well, I’m convinced. Taylor, what do you think?”
I shuddered awake and said, “Uh, well, I noticed you haven’t commented at all on the morality of Cauldron’s actions. Isn’t that central to our concerns?”
“Oh God,” said all three in unison. “Fuck off.”
Silence thick as smog suffused the little room. “I’m sorry,” said Siri. “I’m afraid you three will have to leave. I simply cannot tolerate that kind of language directed at Taylor, whom I love like my only daughter.”
They seemed to shrink—for Siri was nothing if not intimidating—and they shuffled out of the room with their proverbial tails between their legs, already taking out their phones to tell their Discord acolytes what bitches Siri Yelasco and Taylor Schechter were; to tell them that no one should get their hopes up about the movie, that art was dead. A few months ago I would’ve heeded their words without reservation, and I would’ve been right.
“Sorry about that, Taylor,” said Siri. “I guess emotions run high in this fandom. Still, I think they had some good ideas.”
“Like what?” I said sleepily.
“Well, for one thing, I think I’m going to cast a porn star to play Number Man. . . .”
The next day Ariel and I went shopping at this quaint little mall near the water. Sea fog floated slowly over us, dappled with the spray of waves, shot through with sunbeams like the legs of ancient insect gods. I wanted to be near her more than anything. So much depended on our simple physical nearness. I put my hand as close as I could to hers without touching it.
She wanted to help me change my style, for I was still trapped, at least when it came to my casual wardrobe, in the wasteland of the Midwest—or at least this was what she claimed. (I didn’t see anything wrong with my wardrobe.) She found a fancy store, The Whited Sepulcher, which smelled, inside, of aerosol odor-eliminators and the perfumes used by the wives of aging rapist producers. Flamboyantly outfitted cashiers watched us eagle-eyed, trying to guess what we had for lunch. Other employees walked between the racks waving their price guns back and forth like beeping censers. I had never felt closer to anorexia—no, bulimia: I was always interested more in emesis than starvation.
She took me to the underwear section, which got my heartrate up. She gestured ironically at some lacy lingerie and said it would look good on me. I laughed and put my face in my hands, worried she would read too much into my reddened cheeks—and they were indeed red, crimson in fact, like a lethal fever, but I couldn’t tell whether it was from flusterment or fury; this was all some elaborate ultra-tease, I was sure. Then she found some pinkish panties she said she wanted to try on, and I had to stand lamely outside the changing room door, asking if they fit her well, asking if they made her look desirable. In the end she decided they weren’t worth it.
Then she went to find clothes for me, and all her suggestions made me nauseous, namely because of the amount of skin they would show. Sometimes around Ariel I wanted her to see as much of my skin as possible, but other times I wanted to cover myself, drown myself in linen, die from the heat of concealment. Today was one of those cover-up days. My pores spewed noxious fumes.
Finally she forced me to at least try some well-fitting jeans and a cornflower-blue crop-top type of thing (this, she said, would make my breasts look bigger, free me from the family curse of small-chestedness). In the changing room I took off my t-shirt, which I had owned since Freshman Year, and slipped on the little thing, to which there was something wan and flimsy, as if it were a cowardly piece of clothing. I looked at myself in the mirror and felt no urge whatsoever to kiss myself; I didn’t know why anyone would kiss me ever again, least of all Ariel. Nonetheless, looking at my reflection and hearing her tap her foot outside, I couldn’t help but fall into a vivid sensuous fantasy of what our domestic life together might be like. After we were married we would embark on this kind of shopping expedition often, always her forcing me out the door, although I would come to love it, and only play at reluctance, because it was tradition, one of our old games. I imagined if we lived together all I would ever be able to talk about was the shape of her body, her soft plump lips, and she would only be able to shut me up by . . .
She snapped me out of it by knocking at the door. “Taylor?” she said. “You okay in there?” So I shuffled out, and she looked down at my midriff and said, “Wow! Looks fantastic. I love the—”
I cut her off by kissing her. It was angry and mindless, almost violent. And she, well-versed in reacting to her partner, responded with equal intensity. To touch her lips at last was an almost spiritual experience. I shivered spasmodically, and she put her hand on the back of head to steady me.
Then Siri called cut, and we broke apart. “Taylor, Jesus Christ,” said Siri, her face in her hands. “When you said you wanted to play up the sapphic tension between Taylor and Lisa I thought you meant, you know, subtextually. This is not subtext, Taylor.”
“No,” I said, and shook my head vigorously. “No, of course not. I don’t know what came over me. Sorry. Sorry, Siri. Sorry, Ariel.”
“Look,” continued Siri. “I don’t think you’re wrong to read this scene as being romantic. I mean, Taylor’s basically doing a fashion show for Lisa. It’s intimate, there’s no denying that. This is where they really get close, this sequence at the boardwalk. But Jesus, some subtlety, please.”
“Yeah,” said Ariel, and wiped at her lips. “I don’t think that worked very well.”
“No,” I said, “definitely not. I’m really sorry. But you shouldn’t have kissed me back!”
“Acting is reacting, Taylor,” said Ariel.
I apologized to everyone once more and told Siri I needed a minute to clear my head and sprinted to the shitty mildew-smelling bathroom on site and washed my hands—but I stopped short of washing my face, partially because I didn’t want to ruin the expertly applied makeup and partially because I could still feel the press of Ariel’s lips against mine, their elegant imprimatur. I was still swimming in her scent, which was as slick and toxic as mercury. I felt as if I could pass through walls if I only tried.
Coraline came into the bathroom and asked if I was alright. “I think I’m going insane,” I told her, and put my back to the wall and slid to the floor. She sat down beside me and put her head on my shoulder.
“Me too,” she said. “Malik and I broke up this morning.”
“Sometimes I wish I had your power,” I said.
“I’m joking. What I really think is that I’m in love with Ariel, and I worry that I will never not be in love with her, you know what I mean?”
“I know exactly what you mean.”
I looked down and saw that two cockroaches had started to fuck on my ankle.