Beauty is terror. Whatever we call beautiful, we quiver before it. And what could be more terrifying and beautiful, to souls like the Greeks or our own, than to lose control completely?
Miwa’s Friday night starts going sideways sometime around midnight. She’s throwing back her third whiskey sour of the night in a grimy dive bar on the Lower East Side when she sees the girl. And the girl sees her.
See, this is how the body comes undone.
The sudden shock of eye contact, lightning-sharp under the red pulse of neon lights.
The odd shudder of desire, searing down the spine. All blight, crackle, bloom.
Miwa swallows. She watches this willowy girl-creature make her way across the bar towards her, hoops glinting against the pale curve of her throat. She smiles at Miwa, fox-like, and then she’s sliding onto the bar stool next to her, the smell of her bright and sweet. She props her chin up on her hand and tilts her head to look down at Miwa.
“‘I would give you some violets, but they wither'd all,’” she hums, voice silvery. Miwa’s breath catches. The girl leans forward.
“I’m Alisa,” she says. “I like your tattoo.”
Miwa’s gaze drops to the fine slope of her collarbone before darting back up to the thick spill of pearly lashes. This girl is something else entirely, something forged of gossamer and steel, something far too lovely and inscrutable for a slick, dirty night in Alphabet City.
“Thanks,” she manages, clearing her throat. “I’m Miwa.”
“Miwa,” Alisa repeats, rosy lips curling around her name. “Pretty name, too.” She smiles again, then reaches forward, letting her hand hover an inch above the bare skin of Miwa’s shoulder. “Do you mind?”
Miwa sets her glass down slowly.
“Go ahead,” she says, and she really doesn’t want to regret this, this breathless moment before collision that settles deep between her ribs, crackling past every last one of her defenses.
Alisa curls her fingers gently over Miwa’s shoulder, tracing lightly over the ink there. Miwa shivers.
“‘There's rosemary, that's for remembrance. Pray you, love, remember. And there is pansies, that's for thoughts,’” she says, pressing her fingers lightly to each flower as she names them. She looks Miwa in the eye then, and Miwa feels wide awake, every last inch of her laid bare by this silver-haired stranger.
“It’s not every day I meet a pretty girl with an Ophelia tattoo,” Alisa says, leaving her hand where it is. Miwa can feel it burning all the way down to the bone. “Are you mad, or just a romantic?”
“Both,” Miwa answers unthinkingly, swallowed up by the emerald glint of Alisa’s eyes. “And it’s not every day I meet a pretty girl who quotes Hamlet to strangers. Are you mad, or just a romantic?”
Alisa laughs, voice honeyed with delight. “Mad, probably. Do you mind?” She leans back and turns to the bartender to order two shots with a flick of her fingers, and when their eyes meet again, it startles the breath right out of her, the unmistakable thrum of attraction blooming so quickly between them that she tastes ash on her teeth.
Miwa takes the glass offered to her, keeping her eyes on the graceful arch of Alisa’s neck as she throws the bitter drink back. See, she should know better. The first thing about loving women is to know that to want and to be wanted is to be made savage, to be burnt to dust and remade in the body of desire.
“No,” she says, and she feels the embers stirring in her chest. “I don’t mind.”
“Good,” Alisa says, and she eyes Miwa with interest. “I’m playing Ophelia in a production my troupe’s putting together. You should come see it sometime.”
“Maybe I will.” Miwa lets her gaze drift from the inviting tilt of Alisa’s mouth to the dangerously pointed tips of her heels. “But I like this version of Ophelia. No pretenses. No crazy eyes. No man to die for.” Just a girl I might even reach out and touch.
“‘No pretenses,’ huh?” Alisa raises her empty shot glass in a mock toast. “I like the way that sounds. Can’t say it’s the truth, though.”
Miwa raises an eyebrow. Her heart beats out a messy, furious warning. “I think we both know what you want.”
“Oh? And what’s that?”
There’s a silky strand of hair stuck to the pink gloss of Alisa’s bottom lip. Miwa reaches out and smoothes it away, letting her thumb linger at the corner of her mouth for half a scorching second. She drops her hand to circle Alisa’s wrist, so slim that her fingers overlap each other, and stands without a word, tugging her behind her. Alisa bites her lip around a smirk and slides to her feet. She follows Miwa to the bar’s dingy bathroom, the walls plastered with peeling band flyers and faded graffiti, cocking her head when Miwa turns to look back at her, one hand on the door’s lock and the other sliding up her waist.
Then Alisa’s slamming her up against the door, far too close in this cramped stall, far too gorgeous a girl for a sloppy bathroom hookup, delicate features carved in blinking scarlet as she swallows Miwa’s gasp and licks roughly into her mouth. But it suits Miwa: all these sharp edges and bittersweet cravings, the scrape of wood against her scalp as her head tips back and Alisa kisses down her throat, down, down, until she’s skimming her hands over the vulnerable skin of Miwa’s thighs, until her fingers are sliding beneath the hem of Miwa’s leather skirt, and Miwa forgets how to be quiet.
“Fuck,” she groans out, harsh against the soft press of Alisa’s palm over her mouth, and then Alisa’s leaning in again, pressing her lips hotly to the shell of Miwa’s ear to whisper take me home.
The rest of the night stumbles wildly away from Miwa, delirious with kisses. It’s rainy street — stuffy subway car — bedroom door — sticky mouth moving down, down, down —
I could worship you like this, Miwa thinks hazily, hands twisted in her sheets as Alisa leans over her, long hair sheltering them from the rest of the night.
“I like your piercing, too,” Alisa murmurs, and Miwa shudders as she licks slowly over her upper lip, tongue curling around the cool metal there. She presses her forehead to Miwa’s and gazes down at her, sly green eyes devouring her whole. “Medusa. Are you going to turn me to stone?”
Miwa responds with her fiftieth fuck of the night and tips them over in a flurry of limbs, gasping brokenly at the slide of Alisa’s leg between hers.
“Stop talking. You’re making me—”
“Kiss me,” Alisa demands, and even though she’s the one spread out beneath her, Miwa still feels like she’s at this girl’s mercy, kneeling at the feet of some divine force of woman, beauty, skin.
“Touch me,” Miwa hisses back, and she catches Alisa’s grin in her teeth, clutches desperately at her waist, lets her consume her whole until every last sliver of her body is incandescent with wanting.
Miwa wakes to the rumble of the train outside her window and an uncomfortably dry mouth. She stares up at the dull stains flowering over her bedroom ceiling for a moment before she sits up with a groan, scrubbing a hand through her hair.
Last night. An old haunt. A dreamt-up girl. The bruises on her hips.
She reaches for the half-smoked bowl on her bedside table and pauses. There’s a lipstick-stained lollipop stick where her lighter normally sits, the faded crimson tip resting over some sort of ticket. Miwa shoves her glasses on and squints grittily at the thin slice of paper.
The Violet Encounter, it reads in elegant font. 1 a.m., 1st and 13th Street. Then, scrawled neatly under an embossed picture of a butterfly wing: Don’t be late. — A.
Miwa bites at a nail, dropping the ticket on her rumpled sheets. So this is where you’ll be. She casts another glance at her bedside table, considering, then stretches her hand out and traces a finger along the tip of the lollipop stick where it would’ve been pressed against Alisa’s tongue.
“Disgusting,” she whispers to herself. “Or desperate.” I don’t know which one is worse. She presses her finger to her lips, tasting cherry. She knows it’s too late for her to run from this. This is the kind of fuck that eats you from the inside out and spits you out raw, heartless, willing to do anything for one more blur of her mouth against yours. She’s got no choice but to meet this head-on in all its untamed glory.
She slumps back against her pillows, closing her eyes. She needs to wash her sheets. Buy some groceries. Figure out what the hell she’s in for tonight. And she can’t even smoke the morning away because Alisa’s stolen her last working lighter.
12:50 a.m. finds Miwa braced against the train door as it rattles uptown, the soles of her steel-toe boots planted firmly on the floor of the subway car as she flicks through her phone. She knows she looks particularly venomous today; the slick black laces of her leather corset and the shimmery indigo rimming her eyes warn any man to stay far, far away. Tonight is for the girl gaze only.
Miwa can feel the corners of the ticket tucked in her bra scraping against her chest like the nerves scratching down the back of her neck. She’s never let a girl get to her like this before, but there’s something about Alisa that’s more daunting than any lover she’s ever had, something that’s dragging Miwa across the city like a wax-winged boy to the sun. She doesn’t know what to expect.
She steps off the train at her stop, losing herself in the rush of strangers spilling through the station. It’s easy to pick out the other locals from the tipsy students, weary Chinatown chefs, and overeager tourists. It’s a Saturday night, and the heavy air of the station is laced with the bite of alcohol, the whisper of perfume, the promise of skin. It’s that familiar thrum of glamour, the same dull gleam of anticipation that seeps through the city’s dirty walls every night it wakes.
I wonder how many of these people are going to the same place, Miwa muses as she climbs the stairs to the crisp night air, surfacing to the familiar buzz of traffic and chatter. I wonder how many are going back to the same person. She spots the club across the street, THE VIOLET ENCOUNTER blinking fluorescently over two imposing doors. There’s already a line of exquisitely dressed people waiting outside. It looks ordinary enough, but the image of Alisa, wraith-like, waiting somewhere inside transforms it into something much more unreal.
She pockets her phone and crosses the street quickly, finding a spot behind a towering blond wrapped in a fur-trimmed coat and a skintight bodysuit. The woman turns to her with a glittery wink, which is — odd. Strangers don’t acknowledge each other in this city. What’s even odder is the lack of chatter in front of her, not a single person in line conversing with another. Did they all come here alone?
“First time?” The sibilant rasp of the woman’s voice startles Miwa, grating huskily against her ears.
“Yes,” Miwa confirms, wary. “What’s the deal with this place?”
The woman laughs and turns back around. “Just you wait, darling. You’ll find out soon enough.”
Miwa scowls at her back. How unnecessarily cryptic. She’s about to snap something in response when she feels familiar arms draping loosely around her neck, the flowery scent of Alisa’s hair crowding her senses.
“Hey, you,” Alisa hums, and Miwa tips her head back against her shoulder, baring her neck unconsciously. “Don’t be mean to Madoka. We don’t need to wait.”
She pulls away and loops her arm through Miwa’s, and the sight of her jars the hunger in Miwa’s chest to life. Her makeup’s done up with a dangerous kind of artistry tonight, glitter and smoky plum winging viciously across her lids.
Miwa clears her throat, trying not to let her eyes roam too obviously. “You look good, Alisa.”
“You look better. Here.” She slips Miwa’s lighter into her palm, and Miwa savors the lingering heat of her hand on its casing, curling her fingers tightly around it to chase the fading warmth. Just what the hell are you doing to me, she wonders, disbelieving. One reverie of skin and she’s reduced to some acolyte of longing, the chipped contours of her lighter made precious by the phantom memory of Alisa’s touch.
“Come on,” Alisa says, and this time she’s the one tugging Miwa behind her, heels clicking sharply against the sidewalk as she makes her way to the front of the line. The bouncer waves them forward with a nod from Alisa, and Miwa glances at the line of glamorous strangers they’re leaving behind.
“Are you a VIP here or something?”
Alisa laughs. “Something like that. Don’t worry, love — just follow me.” She pushes the door open with a flourish, and the club greets Miwa with a frantic burst of sound, the furious demons of drumbeats thrumming over the brassy timbre of sax and the deep rhythm of bass. There’re bodies twisting around them in every direction: the graceless sweep of an arm here, the silverfish flash of an ankle there as the jazz band in the corner croons restlessly to the crowd. A trumpet player sways back and forth as he belts out a solo, the bright tones of it snaking through the dim room. The music’s already sinking into Miwa’s bones, the stuttering, syncopated beat carrying her pulse away with it.
“Come on,” Alisa repeats, and then she’s leading her through the crowd, the sweaty press of skin closing in around them until Miwa’s fevered with it, gasping as Alisa pulls them to a stop in front of an unmarked door. There’s a girl leaning against it dressed in some kind of costume, curved horns glinting dully under the lights. She lifts her hand towards Alisa, the curve of her wrist arched languidly.
“Don’t wake the dreamer,” Alisa says, and she bends to clasp the girl’s hand in hers, pressing a kiss to her knuckles. The girl looks up at Miwa as she does, and Miwa inhales sharply — her eyes are a strange, acidic yellow, pupils catlike and lashes unnaturally long.
“Here to stay?” she purrs, and Alisa tightens her hand around Miwa’s wrist.
“Not tonight, Akane.”
Akane smiles, baring tiny, pointed teeth.
“You’ll say yes one of these days, Haiba,” she says, pushing off the door and gesturing lazily towards it. “Don’t let them taste this sweet girl of yours. They might not give her back.”
Miwa bristles, leaning forward. “Sweet”? “Give her back”?
“Leave it, Miwa,” Alisa says, stepping in front of her before she can say anything. Miwa narrows her eyes, scowling darkly.
“Not so sweet, then,” Akane muses, looking pleased. “You might want to keep this one on a leash.”
“Enough teasing.” Alisa looks over her shoulder at Miwa. “Come on,” she says for the third time that night, and the irresistible pull of her voice drags Miwa forward, commands her to forget Akane’s taunts and the strangeness of this night, commands her to follow her wherever she goes.
Alisa opens the door, and it’s this view of her back that inducts Miwa into an entirely new world, the borders of reality blurring out of focus as she struggles to understand what she’s seeing.
She can’t make sense of any of it at first; bursts of fin, feather, and fang kaleidoscope wildly across her vision, flashes of skin and scale overwhelming her as the other room falls away behind her, disintegrating with the soft click of the door swinging shut.
Alisa leans in close, wrapping an arm around Miwa’s shoulders and pressing her nose to her temple.
“What do you see?” she whispers, and Miwa shudders.
What does she see? Some Dionysian fantasy of ecstasy and abandon made flesh: girls winged and unclothed, the open back of a minidress melting into fur, the forked tongue of the half-woman, half-snake waitress offering them drinks. Maenads, all of them, girl-creatures twisting on tables, pointed teeth bared to the magenta lights of the club. The terror of it, twisting uneasily in Miwa’s stomach; the wonder of it, rising harshly in her throat.
“What is this place?”
Alisa grins against her skin, the curve of her cheek pressing into Miwa’s.
“The Violet Encounter. This is my city. Yours, too, if you want it to be.”
If this is Alisa’s city, then she must be something unholy, masquerading as girl. These girls are all inhabitants of some world Miwa can’t breach, inhuman and horrifyingly lovely. Unease and reverence battle wildly in her chest, her skin burning where Alisa touches her.
“It’s real,” Alisa murmurs. “Just let yourself believe in it.”
With a start, Miwa realizes that the girl guarding the door outside wasn’t wearing a costume at all; the horns and cat eyes must’ve been her own flesh and blood.
“What the fuck,” she manages, and Alisa giggles in delight, squeezing Miwa’s shoulder.
“Don’t think about it too hard. Just dance with me.” And then Miwa’s following her into yet another crowd, gasping at the silky stroke of feathers against her back as they brush past stranger after stranger. They pass a tiny blonde with gossamer wings knocking back a fluorescent pink shot, a raven-haired girl with wickedly curved talons arching her back against a pole, a brunette with piercing owl eyes shouting wordlessly to the throbbing drums. Just when Miwa’s starting to think she can’t take it anymore, Alisa turns to face her, wrapping her arms around her neck and pulling her in close.
She rests her forehead against Miwa’s, and Miwa breathes with her, steadying herself to the slow press of Alisa’s lips against hers.
“Let go,” Alisa breathes into her mouth, and then she’s moving, hips swaying as the music starts to pick up. “Don’t think. Just dance with me.”
“I can’t,” Miwa mumbles, but she’s closing her eyes, losing herself to the tangle of Alisa’s arms around her neck and the slide of her chest against hers. She curls her hands over the slim jut of Alisa’s hips, pulling her body even closer and hissing when Alisa drops her head to mouth at her neck. The infectious mania of the song and the insanity surrounding her are settling deep in her marrow, and slowly, slowly, she lets it take over, lets it cut her down to nothing more than sound and frenzy.
Her eyes jolt open when Alisa bites down, hard, and she makes eye contact with a blonde moving sinuously behind them. One side of her head’s shaved, the cropped hair merging closely with the viridian scales climbing over her neck and blooming down the bared slope of her collarbone. Her mouth tilts into a slow smirk, and before Miwa can register anything close to danger, she’s moving in, sliding one hand around Alisa’s waist and lifting the other to cup Miwa’s cheek. Alisa whines prettily and raises her head from Miwa’s neck to meet the blonde in a messy, open-mouthed kiss.
Fuck, Miwa thinks, dizzy, and then Alisa’s curving back to catch her mouth in hers again, the blonde behind her slipping her hand up to close around Alisa’s throat as she does.
“This is Saeko,” Alisa whispers into her mouth, leaving the girl’s name on her tongue like a present. “You’ll like her.”
Saeko grins at her, revealing two slim fangs curving over the plush of her lip. She tightens her grip, pulling Alisa back until she’s splayed against her shoulder, watching Miwa through heavy lashes.
“I like this one, Alisa.”
“I like her too,” Alisa says, and Miwa thinks fuck it, fuck this night, fuck everything, and leans forward to lick at the long curve of one of Saeko’s fangs, grinding up against Alisa’s thigh as she does. She bites down on Saeko’s lip, swallowing the sigh she lets out, and kisses her once, twice, three times, until she’s defenseless against the longing that stabs through her, tongue slipping deftly against hers.
“Let go,” Saeko hisses, and Miwa finally stops thinking. Gives herself up to the sublime madness of touch, taste, terror; lets her thoughts start and stop at the rough spray of glitter over Alisa’s neck and the metallic taste of Saeko’s piercing on her tongue. Distantly, she hears Alisa laughing giddily, and then Saeko’s pulling away so Alisa’s lips can slot back over hers. Miwa doesn’t even get a chance to catch her breath, just clutches at the sheer front of Alisa’s dress and loses herself to the violent encounter of their mouths, colliding again and again to the blunted roar of music.
“Have fun,” Saeko says, slipping away into the crowd, and for the second night in a row, the world shudders out of Miwa’s grasp. Somehow, the most maddening part of this night is still the girl in front of her, the crushed-sugar grit of hunger scraping through her veins until her heart is sore with wanting.
“Miwa,” Alisa breathes, and she turns her name into an invocation, transforms her from spectator to gasping participant in the fantasy around them.
The club dissolves into a collection of stop-motion moments after that, frames snapping into place one after another. This time, it’s sweat against feathers — boots on table — neck under fang — body twisting again, and again, and again —
Choose me, Miwa thinks desperately, holding Alisa’s gaze over the shoulder of the girl in her lap, choose me, want me, only me , and soon enough, they’re staggering into the subway together, the joy immense, fractured at the edges, a glass ball slamming fist-first into the sea.
The first time is frantic and brutal right in the entryway of Miwa’s apartment, both of them too impatient to even kick off their shoes. Alisa’s dress is rucked up to her hips, her underwear lost somewhere around her heels as Miwa fingers her relentlessly until she’s coming once, twice, head slamming back against the wall with enough force to rattle the paintings nailed next to them. She’s so tense around her fingers, and Alisa feels giddy with the control she holds in her hands. She wants more, wants to sink her teeth right into the fruit of this new craving, wants Alisa to stay here forever, vulnerable and irresistible beneath her.
“Stop looking at me like that,” Alisa says, chest heaving, but she’s gorgeous; Miwa can’t stop staring at the spread of her fingers over Alisa’s bare hip and the pale swell of her breasts where they slip out of the top of her dress.
“Take this off,” she mumbles, helping Alisa pull the dress over her head, and then she’s bare except for the wicked black curve of her stilettos, splayed against Miwa’s wall like something out of a hallucination. Miwa’s still fully dressed, only the zipper of her pants undone where Alisa had shoved her hand in and brought her messily off.
She slides her hands down the curve of Alisa’s waist, catching her breath as she looks at her.
“You’re beautiful,” she says, painfully honest in the aftermath, and Alisa smirks, hooks her fingers in her corset, and reverses their positions to pin her roughly against the wall. Miwa can’t move — her cheek’s pressed firmly to cool plaster, and the extra height from Alisa’s heels allows her to drape herself over her, the heat of her skin suffocating as she tugs teasingly at the laces of her corset.
“I like you better like this,” Alisa whispers into her ear, teeth grazing the lobe. “You’d let me do anything I wanted, wouldn’t you?”
Miwa chokes back a whimper. She can’t even speak. Alisa slips her hand back into the top of her jeans, letting her fingers tease at the front of her underwear. Miwa can feel the crook of her neck against her neck.
“What do you want, Miwa?”
For you to devour me whole.
“Let me touch you,” Miwa says instead, curling her hands into fists. “Please.”
Alisa hums in satisfaction, scraping her nails lightly over her stomach.
Then they’re plunging back into motion, Alisa’s heels abandoned somewhere by the couch and Miwa’s corset undone against the doorframe, and Miwa’s straddling Alisa on her bed, gazing down at her as Alisa waits, glorious and impatient.
She leans down and hesitates. Alisa watches her, the hunter pinned under the hunted. She has the eyes of a girl but the mouth of a sadist, ravenous and vulgar where she teases Miwa’s skin. Miwa wants to kiss her like a storm of teeth, a rain of mouth striking the skin again and again until it bruises.
She smoothes her finger over one of Alisa’s eyelids, dragging smoky purple down her temple. She presses her thumb to Alisa’s mouth, shaking, then drags it down the hollow of her neck, over her sternum, smearing a wine-colored trail all the way to the dip between her hips. Then she’s licking over her, slow, devout, pressing a hand to her stomach as her back arches. Alisa is so lovely it’s awful, the barbed edges of her beauty rubbing Miwa’s mouth raw where she tastes her until she’s swearing and pulling harshly at Miwa’s hair, all animal sound and ruthless grace.
“More,” Alisa groans out, and who is she to disobey? She lowers her head, anoints herself in desire, loses herself to the profane rite of their bodies rising against each other again, again, again.
Miwa wakes to violet smudged on her sheets like old bruises, the morning light mottling the empty space beside her. She stretches a hand out to trace the phantom shape of Alisa’s sleeping face on her pillow, now long gone, rubbing some of the glitter against her fingers.
“Morning,” she whispers to herself, hoarse.
She’d marked the tender skin of Alisa’s thighs like that last night, bleeding color over the pale canvas. So easily marked. So easily gone. Yours, she’d wanted her teeth to spell out, I’m yours, so want me, want me, want me as badly as you’ve made me need you. There’s no card waiting for her on the bedside table this time, just the stub of the cigarette she’d smoked sometime before dawn.
There’s nothing of last night in the plain white walls of her bedroom, no trace of the multicolored frenzy she’d plunged into in the depths of that club. It’s the same as the hundreds of other rooms stacked above her. Simple. Ordinary.
But she wants more. She wants something real. She wants the savage pulse of freedom she’d felt clawing among those girls; she wants to learn how to give herself over completely. The wicked memory of all that untamed beauty slits the belly of this morning wide open, the remains of her old life leaking away. She’s not coming back from this. She’d left some part of her behind in that neon underworld — there’s something awake in her that wants, something starving for the truly vivid.
She doesn’t wash her sheets. She gets up, gets high, plays an old song, turns her lighter over and over and remembers the curl of Alisa’s fingers over the metal. She puts on the smallest dress she owns and twirls through her kitchen, the weak sunlight leaking through her windows blurring around her. Don't try to blow out the sun for me, baby, her stereo croons, I'm not asking for what I know can't be.
“Nobody, nobody, nobody,” she sings along, words swallowed under the aching swell of Nina Simone’s voice. “Nobody, nobody, nobody knows.” She stretches her arms out behind her. Pretends they might be wings.
In the afternoon, she goes to the movies by herself. She watches the characters through a haze of blue, barely registering the quiet, gasping breaths of the woman onscreen as she sprints headlong for the edge of a cliff. I’ve dreamt of that for years, she pants, frozen on the brink of flight, the crash of the surf below muted by the wonder on her face. Her partner watches her, wary. Dying?
At night she dreams of Alisa, dreams up an Alisa with wickedly curved horns and a lovely smile. They’re at a poetry slam at another dive bar. It’s empty except for a solitary poet onstage, reading for an invisible audience. The silky hum of a saxophone drifts sluggishly through the walls. Please be warned, the poet intones, the sky is falling down.
Miwa reaches forward, pressing the pad of her thumb to the point of a horn until it breaks skin. Alisa drags her hand down, closing her lips over the blood. She looks up at Miwa through her lashes, demure even with her finger on her tongue.
“Will you remind me? What it takes to survive me?”
Her cheeks are a cool, licking flame in the dim light, flushed prettily as she waits for Miwa’s answer.
You could teach me to be cruel, the poet chants, voice rising harshly. You could teach me to be cruel. You could teach me to be cruel.
Miwa leans forward and kisses her more gently than she dares to do in waking life, tasting her own blood on her teeth.
“Teach me,” she whispers.
Then the dream is blurring, shattering, and they’re sitting cross-legged on the floor of Miwa’s kitchen. Alisa is slicing open a pomegranate with slow strokes, hands moving carefully over the glistening red seeds. The sound of the saxophone follows them, a distorted song echoing through the room.
“Took you long enough,” she says, dripping scarlet over the tiles. This Alisa has long, sweeping wings, the dusky plumage arched proudly against the scratched legs of Miwa’s dining table.
“Have you fallen yet?” she asks, tilting her head quizzically at Miwa’s silence. “It doesn’t matter to me.” She sets her knife aside and curls her fingers into the heart of the fruit, prying it apart. “Open,” she says, and Miwa’s mouth falls open without conscious thought. Then Alisa’s hand is moving forward, the air parting between them like skin under a scalpel, and she lays a single seed on her tongue. The sweetness of it blooms down her throat, the wet crunch of her teeth harsh and sudden.
“Good girl,” Alisa murmurs, and she moves her hand down, smoothing her thumb in a sticky red trail over her cheek, down her neck, between her breasts. She bites down sharply on her neck and drags a hand between her legs at the same time, and the two-pronged pleasure-pain strikes hard, rattling Miwa’s voice in her chest. Miwa reaches out blindly to clutch at one glossy wing, the soft feathers a sharp contrast to the teeth piercing her skin. The juice on her chest burns like liquid wax or a lover’s tongue.
“Don’t wake the dreamer,” Alisa hisses into her neck, and Miwa jolts awake in bed, soaked in a cold sweat and abruptly alone.
“Wait,” she gasps out, hand going to her neck and finding the skin unmarred. There’s something lodged in her throat. She stumbles out of bed, clawing at her chest as her breath chokes out unevenly. “Wait—”
She staggers to the bathroom and falls to her knees in front of the toilet, gagging until a single pomegranate seed tumbles out. She presses a hand over her mouth in horror. It’s a tiny, jeweled thing, oddly pretty for how absurd it is. There’s crimson juice stained under her nails where she grips the sides of the toilet bowl, sweet-smelling and awful. Her back aches.
She starts to laugh. It comes out shaky, jagged, just a little bit unhinged.
“Don’t wake the dreamer,” she whispers, pressing her sweaty cheek to cool porcelain. “Don’t wake the fucking dreamer.”
Alisa haunts her dreams for days. Sometimes she’s stalking her between the shelves of a bookstore, sometimes she’s scratching their initials into a train window with a rusty nail. How do you keep finding me? Miwa asks once, swinging her legs over the edge of the bridge they’re on that night. You keep calling me, Alisa says simply. You need me. She dreams of all her inhuman shades blending into one, a specter of desire waiting for her whenever her eyes slip shut. The night after she dreams up an Alisa floating down the Hudson, violets clasped in one hand and lace dress billowing sluggishly as tourists snap photos from above, the real Alisa shows up outside her door. She’s bundled in a furry lavender coat, sucking casually on a lollipop like it hasn’t been a week since she took a sledgehammer to the walls of Miwa’s life.
“Hey,” she says, flicking her lollipop stick between Miwa’s boots. “Up for another night?”
“What are you doing here?” Miwa says instead of yesyesyespleaseyes. She swallows. Alisa looks so warm. She wants to step into the folds of her coat, wants to rest her cheek on her chest and feel her arms wrap around her. “What is The Violet Encounter, really?” What are you, really?
“If you come with me, I can show you.”
She pushes past her into the apartment, slipping her shoes off. Miwa follows her into her kitchen, trying not to think of all the dreamt Alisas she’d kissed against this very counter.
“Are you like them?” Miwa asks, watching Alisa pour herself a glass of wine from the bottle she’d forgotten to put away after trying to drink a particularly grisly dream away. “Those girls? Something… more?”
Alisa takes a slow sip. She’s far too familiar with Miwa’s apartment for someone who’s never stayed.
“How do you know you aren’t, Miwa? Like ‘them.’ What makes you so special?”
Miwa digs her fingers into her thigh.
“Can you just give me a straight answer? I know who I am. I know—”
“Do you really?” And suddenly Alisa’s right in front of her, caging her in against the counter. She dips her head, nosing at Miwa’s collarbone as she speaks. “Do you know what you look like when you’re under me?” She smoothes a burning hand up her back, wrapping her fingers around her shoulder. “Do you know what your voice sounds like in someone else’s ears?” She kisses the shivery pulse at the base of her throat. “Haven’t you ever wanted to be ‘something more’?”
“That’s— thats not what—”
“Enough,” Alisa says. She slides her hand up into her hair, curling her fingers and pulling hard at the roots until Miwa’s eyes are watering and she’s baring her throat to the ceiling. She braces her other hand against the counter behind Miwa, caging her in.
“Wh—” Miwa gets out, and then Alisa’s curving over her so suddenly it slits the words right out of her throat. She stops an inch above her, breath warm against her chin. They watch each other like that, frozen for one, two heartbeats, and then Miwa’s leaning up against the fist in her hair, tentatively catching Alisa’s bottom lip between hers.
“Please,” she pulls back to whisper, and the kiss shatters into something much more frantic, rough enough that she knocks Alisa’s glass onto the floor, wine and glass spraying over the tiles in a flare of sound. She yanks them away from the broken shards, tongue sliding over Alisa’s, and closes her eyes against the red on the floor, refuses the memory of another Alisa sitting cross-legged in the same place, red juice trickling over her hands as she offers her the first bite of pomegranate.
See, this is how desire inscribes the body.
Rapture is the trip of her feet between Alisa’s as she walks her back towards the couch, the arch of her leg against the armrest, the crook of Alisa’s fingers in her mouth.
She’s staring up at Alisa as she rides her fingers relentlessly, beatific, all animal, just the whites of her eyes and the heave of her chest. Miwa wants her to swallow her whole. She’d let her slam her head against the corner of the bed frame, let all the roses spill out of her in one messy heap of torn water. Maybe the sublime is just this: the soft skin of a gorgeous girl and the gleam of city lights in her hair.
“More,” Alisa gasps out, hips rising and falling unevenly, and Miwa arches up to bite at her neck, slipping in a third finger. “More.”
It shouldn’t surprise her how much it hurts, to be so close to this girl and still so much a stranger. This kind of loving only knows how to be violent. But she wants more, too.
“Wantyouwantyouneedmeneedme,” she gasps out deliriously as Alisa pushes her onto her stomach, sucking marks into her back and curling her fingers sharply inside her. “Please—”
“Louder,” Alisa demands, and Miwa moans, a litany of prayer rising unbidden in her throat. Sanctify me, devour me, love me, love me, love me—
“I couldn’t dream it well enough,” she gasps out, face buried in a pillow. “Not like this, not like you.”
Alisa kisses the base of her spine, snaking one hand around to scratch down her belly.
“Good,” she whispers, and Miwa is drowning, drowning like young, muddy Ophelia at the bottom of the river, clothes heavy with their drink.
Miwa wakes up alone.
This time, Alisa leaves withered violets strewn over her skin, crumpled petals caught in the creases behind her knees. She can’t tell if they’re dreamt or real.
She washes herself with care. She feels unmoored from her body, watching from afar as some other girl soaps herself up and tips her head back under the water. Wake up, she urges her, but her body won’t respond, moving so slowly that she feels like invisible, water-logged clothes are dragging her down. Nothing feels as real as the memory of Alisa’s mouth at her throat or the wild song of The Violet Encounter. Nothing feels as worthy.
She’s toweling herself off when she sees it — the purple-edged red of fresh bruises scattered across her back. They spill over the jut of each shoulder blade, winding down her back like new blood. She drops her towel and trails one reverent hand over the marks, breath caught in her throat. They’re bitten in the shape of wings.
She smokes the day away.
At night she takes the subway back over the bridge. She watches the reflection of the giggling couple next to her superimposed over the glittering skyline. They’re lost in each other, the dreamy curve of the girl’s smile melting into the river reflected below. Her lover presses her nose into her neck, and Miwa closes her eyes. She lets the quiet groan of the train take her far, far away.
See, true beauty is something monstrous. Something that slicks its claws down your spine, slides its teeth over your belly. The sinister rattle of desire creeps up on you when you’re weakest; it curls its talons over the fire escape and clamors for you to let it in every time the sun goes down. At night you dream of limbs undone and girls unshaken. At daybreak you wake and find wings unsplayed and bodies unbecome. You will never be clean.
Miwa pushes through the crowd. She’s alone this time. Akane’s waiting for her at the door.
“Don’t wake the dreamer,” Miwa says. The words come easy. Akane bares her teeth in a grin.
“Here to stay?”
If we are strong enough in our souls we can rip away the veil and look that naked, terrible beauty right in the face; let God consume us, devour us, unstring our bones. Then spit us out reborn.
— Donna Tartt