Rats20 min read
What I am about to tell you is a fairy tale and so it is constantly repeating. Little Red Riding Hood is always setting off through the forest to visit her granny. Cinderella is always trying on a glass slipper. Just so, this story is constantly re-enacting itself. Otherwise, Cinderella becomes just another tired old queen with a palace full of pretty dresses, abusing the servants when the fireplaces haven’t been properly cleaned, embroiled in a love-hate relationship with the paparazzi. Beauty and Beast become yet another wealthy, good-looking couple. They are only themselves in the story and so they only exist in the story. We know Little Red Riding Hood only as the girl in the red cloak carrying her basket through the forest. Who is she during the dog days of summer? How can we pick her out of the mob of little girls in bathing suits and jellies running through the sprinkler in Tompkins Square Park? Is she the one who has cut her foot open on the broken beer bottle? Or is she the one with the translucent green water gun?
Just so, you will know these characters by their story. As with all fairy tales, even new ones, you may well recognize the story. The shape of it will feel right. This feeling is a lie. All stories are lies, because stories have beginnings, middles, and endings, narrative arcs in which the end is the fitting and only mate for the beginning—yes, that’s right, we think upon closing the book. Yes, that’s the way. Yes, it had to happen like that. Yes.
But life is not like that—there is no narrative causality, there is no foreshadowing, no narrative tone or subtly tuned metaphor to warn us about what is coming. And when somebody dies it is not tragic, not inevitably brought on as fitting end, not a fabulous disaster. It is stupid. And it hurts. It’s not all right, Mommy! sobbed a little girl in the playground who had skinned her knee., whose mother was patting her and lying to her, telling her that it was all right. It’s not all right, it hurts! she said. I was there. I heard her say it. She was right.
But this is a fairy tale and so it is a lie, perhaps one that makes the stupidity hurt a little less, or perhaps a little more. You must not expect it to be realistic. Now read on….
Once upon a time.
Once upon a time, there was a man and a woman, young and very much in love, living in the suburbs of Philadelphia. Now, they very much enjoyed living in the suburbs and unlike me and perhaps you as well they did not at all regret their distance from the graffiti and traffic, the pulsing hot energy, the concrete harmonic wave reaction of the city. But happy as they were with each other and their home, there was one source of pain and emptiness that seemed to grow every time they looked into each others’ eyes, and that was because they were childless. The house was quiet and always remained neat as a shot of bourbon. Neither husband nor wife ever had to stay at home nursing a child through a flu—neither of them ever knew what the current bug going around was. They never stayed up having serious discussions about orthodonture or the rising cost of college tuition, and because of this, their hearts ached.
“Oh,” said the woman. “If only we had a child to love, who would kiss us and smile, and burn with youth as we fade into old age.”
“Oh,” the man would reply. “If only we had a child to love, who would laugh and dance, and remember our stories and family long after we can no longer.”
And so they passed their days. Together they knelt as they visited the oracles of doctors’ offices; together they left sacrifices and offerings at the altars of fertility clinics. And still from sun-up to sundown, they saw their faces reflected only in the mirrors of their quiet house, and those faces were growing older and sadder with each glance.
One day, though, as the woman was driving back from the supermarket with the trunk of the station wagon, bought when they were first married and filled with dewy hope for a family, laden with unnaturally bright, unhealthily glossy fruits, vegetables, and even meat, she felt a certain quickening in her womb as she drove over a pothole, and she knew by the bruised strawberries she unpacked from the car that at last their prayers were answered and she was pregnant. When she told her husband he was as delighted as she and they went to great lengths to ensure the health and future happiness of their baby.
But even as the woman visited doctors, she and her husband knew the four shadows were lurking behind, waiting, and would come whether invited or not, so finally they invited the four to visit them. It was a lovely Saturday morning and the woman served homemade rugelach while the four shadows bestowed gifts on the child growing in her mother’s womb.
“She will have an ear for music,” said the first, putting two raspberry rugelach into its mouth at once.
“She will be brave and adventurous,” said the second, stuffing three or four chocolate rugelach into its pockets to eat later.
But the third was not so kindly inclined—if you know this story, you know that there is always one. But contrary to what you may have heard, it was invited just as much as the others were, because while pain and evil cannot be kept out, they cannot come in without consent. In any case, there is always one. This is the way the story goes.
“She shall be beautiful and bold—adventurous and have a passion for music and all that,” said the third. “But my gift to your child is pain. This child shall suffer and she will not understand why; she will be in pain and there will be no rest for her; she will suffer and suffer and she will always be alone in her suffering, world without end.” The third scowled and threw a piece of raisin rugelach across the room. Some people are like that. Shadows too. The rugelach fell into a potted plant.
Sometimes cruelty cannot help itself, even when it has been placated with an invitation and excellent homemade pastry, and then what can you do?
You can do this: you can turn for help to the fourth shadow, who is not strong enough to break the evil spell—it never is, you know; if it were, there would be no story—but it can, perhaps, amend it.
So as the man and woman sat in shock, but perhaps not as much shock as they might have been had they never heard the story themselves, the fourth approached the woman, who had crossed her hands protectively over her womb.
“Now, my dear,” it began, spraying crumbs from the six apricot rugelach it was eating. “Uncross your hands—it looks ill-bred and it does no good, you know. What’s done is done, and I cannot undo it: you must bite the bullet and play the cards you’re dealt. My gift is this: your daughter, on her seventeenth birthday, will prick herself on a needle and find a—a respite, you might say—and after she has done that, she will be able to rest, and eventually she will be wakened by a kiss, a lover’s kiss, and she will never be lonely again.”
And the soon-to-be parents had to be content with that.
After the woman gave birth to her daughter she studied the baby anxiously for signs of suffering, but the baby just lay, small, limp, and sweating in her arms, with a cap of black fuzz like velvet covering her head. She didn’t cry, and hadn’t, even when the doctor had smacked her, partially out of genuine concern for this quiet, unresponsive, barely baby, and partially out of habit, and partially because he liked to hit babies. She just lay in her mother’s arms with her eyes squeezed shut, looking so white and soft that her mother named her Lily.
Lily could not tolerate her mother’s milk—she could nurse only a little while before vomiting. She kept her eyes shut all day, as if even a little light burned her painfully. After she was home for a few days, she began to cry, and then she cried continuously and loudly, no matter how recently she had been fed or changed. She could only sleep for an hour at a time and she screamed otherwise, as though she were trying to drown out some other more distressing noise.
One afternoon, when Lily was a toddler, her mother lay her down for a nap and after ten or fifteen minutes dropped the baby-raising book she was reading in a panic. Lily’s crying had stopped suddenly, and when her mother looked into her room, there was Lily smashing her own head against the wall, over and over, with a look of relief on her two-year-old face. When her mother rushed to stop her, she started screaming again, and she screamed all the while her mother was washing the blood off the wall.
She had night terrors and terrors in the bright sunshine and very few friends. She continued to hit her head against the wall. She tried to hit herself with a hammer and when she was prevented from doing so she lay about her, smashing her mother’s hand. When her mother went to the emergency room to have her hand set and put in a cast the nurses clucked their tongues and told each other what a monster her husband must be.
When she got home she found Lily curled in a ball under the dining-room table, gibbering with fear of rats, of which there were none, and she would allow only her mother to speak to her.
Lily did love music. She snuck out of the house late at night and got rides into the city to see bands play, and she loved her father’s recordings of Bach and Chopin as well. Back when she was three or four, Chopin had been the only thing that could get her to lie down and sleep. Chopin and phenobarbitol. She wrote long reviews of new records for her school paper which were cut for reasons of space. As she got older, she got better and better at forcing the burning gnawing rats under her skin on the people around her. But she still felt alone because they could just walk away from her but she could not rip her way out of her skin her brain her breath although she tried so hard, more than once, but her mother caught her, put her back together, sewed her up, every single time but not once could she clean Lily so well that she didn’t feel the corrosion and corruption sliding through her veins, her lymph nodes, her brain, so that she didn’t feel the rats burrowing through her body.
Lily ran away to New York City when she was sixteen and a half and in what her parents loathed, she found a kind of peace, in the neon lights and phantasmagoric graffiti that blotted out what was in her eyes and especially in the loud noises and the hard fast beats coming from CBGB that drowned out the rats clawing through her brain much better than her own screaming ever had, it was like banging her head against the wall from the inside. She knew there was something wrong with her—she talked to other people who loved the bands she saw because the fast and loud young and snotty sound wired them, jolted them full of electricity and sparks, but Lily just sped naturally and all she wanted was to make it stop.
On her seventeenth birthday, Lily went home with a skinny man who played bass and shot heroin. Lily watched him cook the powder in some water over his lighter and stuck her arm out. “Show me how,” she told him.
“You have easy veins,” he told her, because her veins were large and close to the surface of her skin, fat and filled with rats. They showed with shimmering clarity, veiled only by the fleshy paper of her lily white skin.
He shot her up and just after the needle came away from her skin—it stopped. It really stopped, not just the rat-pain that she knew about, but the black tarpits of her thinking and feeling—they stopped too. It stopped, and God, it felt so good and free that she didn’t mind the puking, it even felt fine, because everything else had stopped, and she could finally get some sleep, some real sleep.
The next morning she woke up and felt like shit again. And it was worse, because for a while she’d felt fine. Just fine.
We should all get to feel just fine sometimes.
So Lily found some kind of respite on a needle’s tip and the marks it left were less obvious than the old dull hard scars on her wrists that she rubbed raw when she needed a fix. She worked as a stripper, using feathers, black gloves, and fetish boots to hide all kinds of scars, and sometimes in a midtown brothel. So she was often flush, and if she was still a holy terror, a mindfuck and a half, now she was flush, and had some calmer periods and a social circle, even if they did sometimes ignore her. She wrote pieces on music for underground papers, and once every two weeks her mother came to visit and bought her groceries and took her out to lunch and apologized when she threw cutlery at waiters and worried and worried over how thin Lily was becoming.
You can’t stay high all the time, but you can try.
Lily knew she was getting thin. She would stare in the mirror and not see herself, and when she could put the rats to sleep she wasn’t quite sure who she was or how she would know who she was.
Who are you? asked the caterpillar, drawing on his hookah. Keep your temper.
The rats were eating her from the inside out and she was dissolving, she was real only under her mother’s eyes—the power of her mother’s gaze held her bones together even as her ligaments and skin slowly liquified, dissipating in a soft-focus movie dissolve.
Fade in. We are in London with Lily, far enough away from her mother that she could dissolve entirely. Lily had heard that there was something happening in London, something that could shut down the banging slamming violence in her skull even better than the noise at CBs, some kind of annihilation.
Look at Lily at the Roxy, if you can recognize her. Can you find her? She is in the bathroom, shooting herself up with heroin and water from the toilet. She is out front sitting by the stage, sitting on the stage, sitting at the bar, throwing herself against the wall so violently that she breaks her own nose. The rats are still following her, snapping and snarling at anybody who comes near, and when nobody comes near, they turn on themselves, begin to eat themselves, gnaw on their own soft bellies.
Can you recognize Lily? When her face and form began to dissolve in the mirror, she panicked and knew she had to take some drastic action before she blinked and found only a mass of rats where her reflection should be, a feeding frenzy. In London the colors were bright like the sun when you have a hangover, so bright it hurt to look at them. The clothing was made to be noticed, to cause people to shrink back and flinch away. Lily wanted to look like that. She bleached her hair from chestnut brown to white blonde and left dark roots showing. She back combed it so a frizzy mess stood out around her head like a halo: Saint Lily, Our Lady of the Rats. She drew large black circles around both eyes, coloring them in carefully. She outlined her lips even more carefully, and the shine on them is blinding. Her black clothing was covered in bright chrome like a 1950s car.
She was visible then. She could see herself when she looked in the mirror, bright and blonde, outlined in black. Covered in rats.
Her mother thought she looked like a corpse.
Everyone can see her now, everyone who matters, anyway. She is out and about and she is sleeping with the young man playing bass, well, posing with the bass, on stage. He is wearing tight black jeans, no shirt, and a gold lamé jacket. He is a year older than her. Neither of them is out of their teens. They are children. Despite everything, their skin looks new and shiny.
She had been frightened of him the first time they met. Now she was visible but that came with a certain price as well. Usually the rats kept everyone at arm’s length if that close, so that no matter how desperately she threw herself at people they shied away. They knew enough to frightened by the rats, even if they couldn’t see them, even if they didn’t know they were there. They told themselves, told each other that they avoided her because she was nasty, the most horrible person in the world, a liar, a selfish bitch, and she was, she knew she was, but really they were afraid of the rats.
But the rats stood aside when Chris came near. They drew back at his approach, casting their eyes down and to the side as if embarrassed by their own abated ferocity. There was something familiar about him, but Lily was too confused by the rats’ unusual behavior to think much about what it was. Chris was slight with skin so pale that Lily longed to bruise him and watch the spreading purple, skin that had sharp lines etched into it by smoke and sleeplessness, and zits all over his face. One of them was infected. When he spoke she could barely understand him, his voice was so deep and the vowels so impenetrable.
When she shot him up he said it was his first time but she knew better from the way he brought his sweet blue veins up so that they almost floated above the surface of his sheer skin. When they fucked later that night she could tell that it was his first time.
Lily didn’t have much curiosity left—it hurt too much to be awake and she tried to dull herself as much as possible. But while they were kissing for the first time she felt a chill that startled her into wakening and she looked over his shoulder and saw what was so familiar about her Chris (she knew he was hers and she his now). Over his shoulder she saw his rats—just a few, younger than hers, but growing and mating and soon the two of them would be locked together, breaking skin with needles and teeth, surrounded by flocks of rats that could no longer be distinguished or separated out, just a sea of lashing tails and sharp teeth and clutching claws. But she wouldn’t be alone, he would see them too, and he wouldn’t be alone, she would see them too, their children, their parents, their rats.
Do you recognize this story yet? Perhaps you’ve seen the t-shirts on every summer camp kid on St. Mark’s Place as they fantasize about desperation and hope that self-destruction holds some kind of romance.
Do you recognize this story yet? Perhaps you’ve read bits of interviews here and there: she was nauseating, she was the most horrible person in the world, she was a curse, a dark plague sent to London on purpose to destroy us, she turned him into a sex slave, she destroyed him, say the middle-aged men and occasional women who look back twenty-five years at a schizophrenic teenage girl with a personality disorder shooting junk—because here and now we still haven’t figured out a way to make that kind of illness bearable, who’d wanted to die since she was ten because she hurt so much, and what they see is a frenzied harpy. She destroyed him.
And her? What about her?
Can we not weep for her?
Look again at those photographs and home movies and look at how young they were. Shiny. Not old enough ever to have worried about lines on her face, or knees that ached with the damp, or white hairs—every ache and twinge is a fucking blessing and don’t you forget it.
Do you recognize this story yet?
Don’t you already know what happens next?
Kiss kiss kiss fun fun lies. Yes oh yes we’re having fun. I’m so happy!
Kiss kiss kiss fight fight fight. He hit her and she wore sunglasses at night. She trashed his mother’s apartment. He left her and turned back at the train station. He was running by the time he got back to the squat they had been sharing—he had a vision of Lily sprawled on the floor dying—not alone, please, anything but alone. He lifted her head up onto his lap; her heart was beating still but her lips were turning blue. His mum had been a nurse and he knew how to make her breathe again.
On tour with the band, away from Lily, he became a spitting wire, destroying rooms, grabbing pretty girls from the audience, shitting all over them, smashing himself against any edge he could find, carving his skin so that he became a pustule of snot and blood and shit and cum where oh where was his Lily Lily I love you.
The band broke up. He could fuck up but he couldn’t play. They moved to New York and bopped around Alphabet City. They tried methadone and they need so much they stopped bothering and anyway methadone only stopped the craving for heroin; it didn’t give her any respite. When they were flush they spent money like it was going out of style, on smack, on make-up, on clothing, on presents for each other.
She bought him a knife.
If there is a knife in the story, somebody will have to get stabbed by the end.
Lily knows that she can’t stand much more of this, much more of herself, much more of her jonesing, much more of the endless days trapped in a gray room in a gray city, and even though it’s all gray the city still hurts her eyes it’s a kind of neon gray. The effort it takes just to open her eyes in the morning (afternoon), just to get dressed is too much and if she could feel desire any more, if she could want anything, all she would want would be to stop fighting, stop moving, to sink back and let herself blur and dissolve under warm blankets.
But the smack-sickness shakes her down and she has to move.
Even her rats are weak, she can see. They are staggering and puking. Sometimes they half-heartedly bite one another. She wants to die, but her Chris takes too good care of her, except when he hits her, for that to happen.
When they were curled up together under the covers back in London which is already acquiring the coloring of a home in her quietly bleeding memory, Lily had asked Chris how much he loved her. More than air, he said. More than smack. Would you douse yourself in gasoline and set yourself on fire if I needed you to? she asked. Yes, he said. Would you set me on fire if I needed you to? she asked. Not that, he said. I love you, I couldn’t live without you, don’t, don’t, don’t leave me alone. Not that. Anything but alone.
The regular chant of lovers.
If I needed you to? she pressed. Wouldn’t you do it if I needed you to?
He couldn’t. He wouldn’t.
Then you don’t really love me at all, she told him, if you don’t love me enough to help me when I need it.
So he had to say yes. And he had to promise.
Now, in piercing gray New York City she puts the knife in his hand and reminds him of his promise. He pushes her away. No. But he doesn’t drop the knife. Perhaps he’s forgotten to. She reminds him again and somehow she finds energy and drive she hasn’t had in months to scream and berate and plead in a voice like fingernails on a blackboard. She hits him with his bass and scratches at his sores. A man keeps his promises, she tells him. A real man isn’t scared of blood.
She winds up shaking and crying to herself on the bathroom floor when Chris comes in, takes her head on his lap and stabs her in the gut, wrenching the knife up towards her breasts. he goes on stabbing and sawing and stroking her forehead until she stops breathing.
The last things she sees are the are the expression of blank, loving concern on his face and the rats swarming in as her blood spreads across the bathroom tiles.
He watches the rats gnaw on the soft flesh of her stomach and crawl through her body in triumph until finally he watches them lie down and die, exposing their little bellies to the ceiling. The next morning, he remembers nothing.
The police find him sitting bolt upright in bed, staring straight ahead, with the knife next to him. They take Lily away in a body bag. No more kisses.
He is dying now, he thinks. Her absence is slowly draining his blood away. His rats are all dead and their corpses appear everywhere he looks.
You know the rest of the story. He dies a month later of an overdose procured for him by his mother. Why are you still reading? What are you waiting for? The kiss? But he kissed her already, don’t you remember? And she woke up, and afterwards she was never alone.
They were children, you know. And there still are children in pain and they continue to die and for the people who love them that is not romantic. Their parents and friends don’t know what is going to happen ahead of time. They have no narrator. When these children die all that is left is a blank, an absence, and friends and parents lose the ability see in color. The future takes on a different shape and they go into shock, staring into space for hours. They walk out into traffic and they don’t see the trucks, don’t hear the horns. A mist lifts and they find that they have pinned the messenger to the wall by his throat. They find themselves calling out names on streets in the dead of night. Walking up the block becomes too hard and they turn back. They can’t hear the doctor’s voice.
Death is not romantic; it is not exciting; it is no poignant closure and it has no narrative causality. There are even now teenagers—children—slicing themselves and collapsing their veins and refusing to eat because the alternative is worse, and their deaths will not be a story. Instead there will be an empty place in the future where their lives would have been. Death has no narrative arc and no dignity, and now you can silkscreen these two kids’ pictures on your fucking t-shirt.