The clothesline was to blame. Back in Ishewa, his grandmother had a clothesline that stretched the full length of the orchard, and he remembered picking cherries and getting wind-boxed by a pair of shorts. Nothing erotic about that, but things were different here on the coast. Here all his girlfriends had black hair and clotheslines became objects of sexual obsession.
Susan, the first girlfriend, told him: “Bryan, you have no idea how self-absorbed you are. You think you love the whole world and that it loves you, but that’s because you’re a fucking moron. If you weren’t so good-looking you could move mountains.” She said this when she found him in bed with the second black-haired girlfriend, Veronica. He hadn’t meant to go to bed with her, it had just happened.
Having the freedom to go to bed at all—not having to make it in haystacks or in friends’ cars—was a novelty after Ishewa. He and Todd, another film student, had lucked into the ground floor suite of a house near the university. The clothesline next door ran alongside theirs and was joined to the same pole at the end. If sheets had been blowing on both lines at the same time, they would have ended up crazily tangled. Bryan thought about this sheet-copulation as a film opening, full of shadows and creases, although he hardly even washed sheets. This was before the empty house sold, when Todd still shared the apartment.
But in April, when Todd went off to his uncle’s dairy farm and Bryan’s part-time job stacking shelves in the public library was barely enough to pay the rent, somebody bought the house next door. An English professor with a daughter. Bryan was going through some kind of catharsis at this point, due to the way he looked. Not that he thought he was good-looking, but girls kept saying it. He would stand naked in front of the mirror (there was a full-length one on the inside of the bathroom door) and wonder what had happened to turn him into a chick magnet, practically overnight. The current girlfriend, Jazz, claimed to be in love with him, although he never said the same to her. They were working on a film project together—a quasi-horror thing, with a Nirvana soundtrack. He would have been willing for her to move in and share the rent but felt awkward suggesting this. The politics of love and sex are delicate.
One day he came back from the library and saw a moving van and a red Miata outside the empty house. The movers were hoisting down a baby grand, which was giving them some difficulty. Someone was at the back in the kitchen, listening to FM radio. As he went down his walk, he heard a crash through the opened window and a girl’s dismayed voice saying “Rasputin!” It sounded like an archaic oath. He imagined her sitting in a pile of smashed dishes and fallen tins while Beethoven, oblivious, played on.
Afterwards the professor started to put in a vegetable garden. Bryan saw him often in cut-off shorts, crawling on his hands and knees through the dirt. His name was Tyson Mulhearne; he taught a course called “Literature and Symbolism” and discussed with Bryan the merits of snow peas versus broccoli. He had incredibly white, hairy legs.
“So you play the piano?” Bryan asked him, one day.
“Alas, no. The piano is Francesca’s.”
“Is that your wife?”
“My daughter. She’s a third-year music student. The piano belonged to her mother.”
Playing the piano seemed a pretty high-minded occupation to Bryan, who didn’t know a lot about classical music. More interesting were the clothes which began to appear on the clothesline soon after she moved in. Black bikini underpants, white knee socks. Black mesh stockings full of holes. A purple camisole. The girl herself never materialized in the act of hanging out her underwear, but he knew what she would look like. Pale, with high cheekbones and long dark hair. Inexplicably sad and mysterious. A girl in a movie.
In the evenings, the piano would start up at the front of the house—melancholy, haunting tunes he’d never heard before. Tyson Mulhearne usually chose this time of day to sit out in his back yard, among the California poppies and burgeoning foxgloves. He always read with a brandy in one hand and one white leg crossed over the other. Bryan sometimes talked to him over the fence.
“Read anything good lately, Bryan?” the professor asked him one evening.
In the month leading up to this conversation, Bryan had read 120 Days of Sodom by the Marquis de Sade and Kurt Cobain’s journals. He wasn’t really a reader. Generally he preferred alternative music magazines. “I had to read a lot of Joseph Campbell for my last film course,” he said cautiously.
“Ah—Hero with a Thousand Faces. So what did you think?”
“It was pretty interesting. But I’d rather get right down to filming than read all that esoteric stuff.”
“Is that a camcorder I’ve seen you with?”
“A Panasonic GH5.” The GH5 was his prized possession, hacked with help from a techie friend back in Ishewa. “Right now, I’m working on this quasi-horror thing, using an old Nirvana soundtrack.”
“Ah, Nirvana. Otherwise known as release from the karmic cycle.” The professor fell silent, sipping his brandy. “Tell me, Bryan, what would you say is the driving force behind your generation?”
“The driving force?” Bryan shifted, leaning against the fence. “I don’t think you could say there’s any one driving force. People mostly just want to party.”
“I disagree. I think this generation wants more than it can see or touch. And I don’t mean just the poets or the artists, who have always wanted more. I mean the teenage girls with black lipstick and hexagon earrings.”
“Probably they’re just into Lady Gaga,” Bryan said apologetically.
A May wind sprang up, stirring the poppies. The professor’s cat came walking along the fence. “Ah, Rasputin,” the professor said. “A beautiful cat. Are you a cat lover, Bryan?”
“Not really. Cats don’t like me.”
“Nonsense. Cats are without prejudice. Anyhow, Rasputin is no ordinary cat. He’s part
Maine Coon—look at his plumed tail. So far he doesn’t appear to have any curative powers, however.” He inclined his head toward the strain of music on the evening wind. “Sonata number five, opus twenty-four. Other wise known as the Spring Sonata. Francesca is a great fan of Beethoven’s. And of Chopin and Debussy.”
“It sounds sad.”
“But a good sad, don’t you think? One gets tired of all the manic energy of, for instance, Tchaikovsky.”
“So is she sad?”
“Francesca? She borders on the melancholy.” The professor uncrossed his legs. “As did her mother.”
“So,” Jazz said, “have you met your new neighbour?” She was standing at the kitchen window, looking out at the black lingerie on the clothesline.
“Yeah.” He lay back on the couch, filming her. “We’ve had a couple of conversations.”
“I thought he was a professor.”
“He is. Why?”
“He has interesting laundry for a professor.” Turning towards him, she put out a hand, blocking the camera’s gaze.
Bryan stopped filming. “He has a daughter. Look, do you want to do this or not?”
“No.” She turned back to the window. Only on the outside was she hard. Next to the skin she was into white cotton, with flowers.
Later, when he came home from work, he noticed that the clothesline was bare. He unlocked his door and went inside to get his camera. Then he came back out to the patio, turning it on. “Diary of a clothesline,” he said into the mouthpiece. There was no wind.
Rasputin came walking along the fence, swishing his tail. He saw the camera and stared into it for a few seconds without blinking. Bryan filmed him, angling upwards to take in the empty line.
“Hey, cat,” he said, moving closer and putting out his hand. “What’s she’s like?”
Rasputin stood perfectly still, as if he were considering. Then, without warning, his head shot forward and his teeth closed on Bryan’s wrist.
“Shit!” Bryan looked down at the teeth marks in his flesh. There was a spurt of blood coming out. “Why the hell did you do that?”
The door above opened and Tyson Mulhearne stepped out, wearing a red plaid dressing gown. “Well, hello, Bryan. I thought I heard voices out here. Is something the matter?”
“Your cat just bit me.”
“Oh, my, that’s terrible.” The professor made a clucking sound, which turned into a fit of coughing. “Where is he now?”
“I don’t know.” Bryan lifted his wrist to his mouth and sucked on it. “I guess I annoyed him.”
“Rasputin is a bit of a villain. Can I lend you my car to get to the clinic? I’m afraid I have a touch of the flu or I would drive you myself.”
“Thanks, but it’s probably fine.” The blood was beginning to congeal.
“Well, then, if you’ll excuse me, I shall return to bed. My deepest apologies.”
Bryan stood there a moment, after the door had closed. Some sorrowful sonata was playing at the front of the house. Then a frenzy of barking started up on his side of the fence—his landlady’s dogs, let out to do their business. Later she would creep around in the garden with a plastic bag, looking for turds.
The next day he went into the university to see about his fall courses. Outside the Student Union building he ran into his old girlfriend Susan, who had always been a strong-willed sort of person. Now she was into Wiccan rituals and body piercing. Her hair was blacker than ever.
They sat down on the grass. “Why do you never look people in the eye when you’re talking to them?” she asked. She was wearing quite a few silver rings, which she slid back and forth over her white fingers. “I noticed that the day we met. You think you look them in the eye, and they think you’re looking them in the eye, so they end up believing you have a shitload of confidence. But really you’re only looking them in the face. You look at the mouth a lot, actually.”
He’d been glancing up to see if anyone he knew was walking by. Now he stared at her metal lip ring. “What the hell are you talking about?”
“I was fucked-up when I got involved with you.” She took out a cigarette, lit it and inhaled briefly. “You have this illusion of omnipotence and I pandered to it. It was masochistic of me.”
“Is that what your shrink says?”
“Not my shrink, my psychic. I had her read your numbers. Apparently there’s this anomaly. It’s a misalignment or something of your ruling planets. It’s supposed to explain”—she waved her hand— “well, a lot.”
“You asked a psychic about me? Fuck you.”
“Don’t knock it, Bryan. There are these energies out there. You’re probably not even aware of them, but they’re out there. For instance, a curse might be impacting you this very minute.”
“Yeah, right. Maybe that explains why this cat bit me yesterday.” He lifted his wrist to show her.
“Good for it. So what were you doing before it bit you?”
“Filming it. Him. I asked him what this girl was like.”
She stubbed out her cigarette on the grass. “You know, I actually think you might be losing it at last. Do you realize how messed up that sounds?”
“You should talk.”
“Yeah, well, it doesn’t suit you, Bryan.” She stood up, slinging her bag over one shoulder. “Maybe you should start listening to the universe. I think it’s trying to tell you something.”
He watched the black hem of her skirt trail away. He thought he’d noticed a faint meaty smell emanating from her when she stood up. It wasn’t a malicious observation.
When he got home there was something new hanging on the clothesline—a long brown dress with a velvet sheen. He went inside for his camera and came back out to the patio, turning it on. Panned in on the dress, filming it from every angle. Then he went down to the grass and aimed up into the bottom of it. His wrist hurt like hell.
Jazz came out of the house, yawning. “What are you doing?”
“Nothing.” He stopped filming. “When did you get here?”
“Half an hour ago. I fell asleep.” She came down and stood beside him, looking up at the dress. “I don’t think you’re allowed to do that.”
“Film people’s laundry. I think there’s some privacy clause that prohibits it.”
“Yeah, well, I’ve never even seen this girl. I can’t exactly ask her permission.”
“You know what I think? I think she doesn’t exist. I think maybe the professor made her up.”
“Why the hell would he do that?”
“To hide the fact that he likes to wear women’s clothes.”
The dress was still on the line the next evening. He came home and someone was playing the piano again in the professor’s living room, a tune that made him think of French cities in the fog and girls in black stockings sitting in smoke-filled cafes. Some movie, although he couldn’t remember which. He unlocked his door and went in and made himself a sandwich. The fridge was almost empty and his dill pickle tasted sour.
“You’re getting thinner,” Jazz said to him later, putting a hand on his rib cage.
“I can’t help it. Food is expensive these days.”
She turned over his hand, examining the bite on his wrist. “What’s this?”
“It looks like a vampire bite.”
What he’d found himself thinking as they rolled around on the bed was that all the girls he knew lacked layering, somehow; you could so quickly get to the bottom of them. Dyed black hair, magenta toenails, a quick step down to the cotton flowered panties, and that was it. He felt an odd restlessness for something out of the ordinary, and it made him uneasy.
He went to a party, a dressed-up event at the home of a faculty member who’d befriended him. A few students were loafing around in the kitchen, smoking Tunisian weed and eating sushi from a glass plate. He hung out with them for a while, drinking champagne punch, and then wandered over to the library (it was that kind of house, with ceramic tile floors and a library and sea views) where a crowd had gathered around a theatre student whose name he couldn’t remember. He recognized a couple of his more lenient professors, the ones who always drank too much at parties.
The theatre student was in the middle of a dramatic monologue—My Last Duchess by Robert Browning. Bryan knew because he’d had to read it for an English course. He came to the lines: She had a heart – how shall I say? – too soon made glad/ Too easily impressed; she liked whate’er/ She looked on, and her looks went everywhere.” Bryan moved around the grand piano to get a better view and there was the brown velvet dress, just a few feet in front of him in the crowd. The girl wearing it had her back to him and her hair was done up in a French braid.
He inched his way between the bodies until he stood directly behind her. The back of the dress was scooped so low that he could see the knobs of her spine snaking their way down toward her tailbone. Her shoulder blades seemed unbearably erotic, exuding a faint ylang ylang scent. Then came the line his fair daughter’s self, as I avowed at starting, is my object, and his hand went out and touched the back of her neck. The girl made a startled noise and dropped her wine glass to the floor.
Bryan beat a hasty retreat to the back of the room and stayed there, skulking behind a large potted plant. The recital finished, the crowd dispersed, and he was still there concocting his story: “Sorry to have freaked you out, but I thought there was a spider on your neck.” He saw the dress disappearing through the French doors, headed toward the garden with the theatre student and a couple of other people. He left the room the other way and went home by bus, hoping she wouldn’t drive up the moment he got to his driveway. He still hadn’t seen her face.
After that he found himself unofficially lying in wait for her. He didn’t want to see her, but not seeing her made him obsessive. He kept expecting to run into her at bus stops or at the grocery store, but it didn’t happen. If this been one of those period flicks instead of real life, Tyson Mulhearne would invite him over for tea and Francesca would pour from a silver teapot and pass around a plate of cakes. But the professor obviously didn’t mean to bring life and literature together. All Bryan saw of his daughter was her intimate apparel on the clothesline. Lying in his back yard, breeze stirring against his skin like an unbearably soft hand, he looked up at pale pink leggings and ballet slippers hanging by their ribbons; a ragged crinoline with yellow trim; a Kashmir shawl; a steampunk corset in metallic grey. Twice there was a long white nightgown, transparent as rice paper; once, a flesh-colored thong, but an hour later it was gone. He envisioned her in a nightgown like the girl in The Fall of the House of Usher—running down ghostly corridors with moonlight streaming between her legs.
“So,” Jazz said to him one day, “is the professor’s daughter a peach?” She was sitting in the middle of his unmade bed, eating a pastry.
He felt annoyed, then, and got up and went into the bathroom. His wrist was still sore, but the red was starting to fade. “Definitely,” he called out, shutting the door partway so he could see into the mirror. “Shit-hot. Gorgeous.”
She followed him in, licking the cream off her fingers. She was wearing his blue bathrobe. “Tell me,” she said, “are we in love?”
He couldn’t meet her eyes. “Well, yeah, I guess. Sort of.”
“You must be joking,” she told him.
He didn’t know what to say after that. He thought that she would try to manipulate him into an apology, or at least a confession, but instead she went and had another pastry. Then she got dressed and gathered up her school books. “Well,” she said, “so long.”
After she had gone, he stood at the door for a minute. The women who came over never left a scent behind; they were animals you couldn’t trace. A few flakes of cream puff remained on the plate. Over in the professor’s garden, a grey wind had sprung without warning. The evil cat, Rasputin, came gliding along the porch railing. He stopped to observe the crinoline, which had been hanging on the line for several days now. Maybe there was no other place to hang it. Out of reach, the crinoline billowed, opening fully in the wind. Rasputin considered it, paw raised; then continued on course, sniffing for rain.
Photo courtesy of Jason Cline; view more of his work on Flickr.