Illustrations by Cendrine Rovini
he doorman buzzed. Her visitor was here. “Send her up, thanks,” said Candice. As if she had any authority over Isobel. She checked herself in the powder room. She looked like a Cindy Sherman photograph. A woman pretending to be a woman. Thirty-five years old, hair in a practical bob, mommy arms poking out of a brightly patterned Lilly Pulitzer shift. Her image was framed by sage-green wallpaper patterned with Cyclode moths. All I need is an axe, she thought.
The days working at the firm with Isobel had shaped her, taken her from grieving, bulimic, and alone, to settled and married. Isobel had been the only one at the office to see that Candice wasn’t just some Southern glass of milk, that there was something interesting concealed behind the appearance. A decade had passed, but maybe there was some sediment of darkness that could get stirred up again by Isobel’s presence.
She opened the medicine cabinet, sending her reflection to right angles, and considered a yellow-orange vial. Something for the nerves. Maybe no need. She heard the distant ping of the elevator and shut the mirror. Her face squared again. Her smile, also a square.
Isobel stepped out of the elevator looking like a kind of high-tech utensil. Something you’d use to tighten a screw. Skinny in black cords, black ponytail, black shirt under a tailored jacket. Pale as ever. She didn’t carry a purse. She threw her hands up and sing-songed, “Hi-i-i!”
“Hi, you!” Candice wavered, not knowing what to do with her arms. She didn’t remember Isobel as a hugger. Maybe they would kiss on the cheek, or shake hands even. She looked like a handshaker.
But Isobel came in for a real hug. A scent came off her hair. Like she’d emerged from a chamber filled with incense smoke. Candice closed her eyes and saw peacock feathers and jeweled scarabs. She was careful not to squeeze too hard or for too long, mindful of all the sharp edges of Isobel’s bones and clothes. She stepped back. “You look so thin.”
“I forgot that’s how you people greet up here,” Isobel said, shifting.
“It’s better than hello?” Candice was unsure if she had offended or if she should feel offended. You people.
“Wow, this place looks like something out of a magazine,” Isobel said, stepping into the apartment.
“Soldier of Fortune.”
“I was going for more of a Big Butt look, but I’ll take Soldier of Fortune. Do you want some cookies?”
“Yes. If by cookies, you mean no cookies.”
“If the milk comes from a distillery, yes, please.”
On the way to the liquor tray, she straightened the ebony ashtray on the coffee table. She liked how there were no shadows on overcast days. Less direct light meant less shadow. The apartment became evenly illuminated. The open living room, with its generous footage, its multiple seating areas, the view of Central Park, satisfied Candice’s need for balance. She’d achieved a perfect blend of elegance and earthiness. Pale gold walls like she’d seen in a castle in France, large landscapes in gilt frames, a mahogany desk set, contrasted with a rough sisal rug, a plump rubber tree, and natural-looking animal-print pillows. Piles of coffee-table books and a few random toys created a healthy sense of clutter.
Isobel’s eyes settled on Caleb’s drum kit, red glitter and tight white circles in the sun.
“My son, Caleb. He’s out with the nanny.”
It was a mouthful of foreign words. Candice felt a pressure behind her face. Suddenly she was laughing. And then Isobel, too. Laughing. Hard but not as hard as Candice. It went on for some minutes, ice spilling onto the carpet from the otherwise empty glass Candice had started to prepare. Her stomach muscles began to ache.
They used to laugh like this at the office behind upholstered cubicle boards. The place had been a stage where co-workers sweated out a high-intensity game of charades, while brokering business deals, fully investing themselves in performances—imperious boss, type A banker, overachieving intern. Candice and Isobel played executive assistants with minimal zeal, instead observing and sometimes toying with the others with a ruthlessness and acuity that they shared. Isobel wrote absurdist phrases on sticky notes and posted them in odd places. The average cloud is the same weight as 100 elephants. Candice intentionally tucked her skirt into her underwear to see which of the brokers would overcome his embarrassment to alert her. They made prank phone calls, and once when her boss asked for Chinese food for an important client from Hong Kong, she ordered fish with the heads still attached. They watched as the bankers tried all that much harder to keep up the pretext that everything was just fine. And they would laugh and laugh. Like now.
After several unsuccessful pauses, Candice finally came to a full stop. She had to wipe tears from her eyes and felt like she had openly exposed something fusty.
“Wow,” said Isobel. She had not laughed as hard at all. Her eyes were dry. She must not have needed it as desperately.
Candice grasped for something to say. “You do look thin.” Her throat was wet and her eyeliner smudged.
“You don’t, but I like a little chunk. It looks good. I like the colors too,” she said to Candice’s dress.
Isobel could be sharp, but at least she was honest, straightforward, and in that there was a kindness. The other mothers were expert at sneaking their meanness and insults inside compliments.
“I brought your kid a present.” Isobel reached into her jacket for a flat square wrapped in rice paper.
Candice handed her the highball with a generous thumb of scotch and accepted the gift. “Actually, it’s for you,” said Isobel. “I forgot to get something for the kid. But the kid might like it. Open it.”
Candice ran her thumbs over the beautiful paper. “Opening presents is Caleb’s number-one, all-time favorite thing to do.”
“Isn’t it your number-one favorite thing to do?”
“Yes, it is.”
“So why does the kid get all the fun?”
“Exactly. Fuck him.” Candice felt the blade of those words against her ribs. This was what going too far felt like. They sat. She started opening the present. Then stopped. “Wait.”
Candice got up and poured herself more drink. “OK, can you say that again? The last thing you said?”
“Yes.” She took a sip.
“Went too far?”
“Yes,” said Candice.
“OK, then—so why does the kid get all the fun?”
“You’re right. I’ll open it and share it with him later,” she said, no fuck, and then opened the present. It was a packet of exquisite origami papers neatly arrayed so that a tiny pointed sliver of each color was visible. A full spectrum of saturated opaques and patterns.
“It almost makes my mouth water,” said Candice. Isobel nodded in agreement. “Were you in Japan?”
“Last month. On my way to Seoul.”
“Is that where you were when I wrote to you?”
“No, Brazil. I went to Brazil after Seoul.” Isobel’s gaze retracted, she was remembering something.
“I guess that explains your sun-kissed complexion,” Candice said sarcastically. Isobel’s skin was pale as the whitest mushroom flesh.
Isobel touched her jawbone. “I had skin cancer a while ago,” she said. “No more sun.”
Candice held stiff, sorry, but Isobel showed no hurt, no expectation of sympathy.
“I’m fine,” she said. “No worries.” Her face reminded Candice of the president’s. Handsome, inscrutable. There were delicate hollows under her unjoking eyes, and her lips were full but unpainted and pursed, as if she were trying to keep them to herself.
“Anyway. Brazil. Brazil was amazing.”
“Who did you go with?”
“A guide. And my friend Sarah. We spent some time with a tribe.” She said a word that Candice didn’t understand. Something guttural. “It was an experience.”
Candice felt the flesh of her thighs spreading. The scotch wasn’t sitting well on top of the three bowls of sugary cereal she’d eaten in the pantry earlier. Isobel was opening the possibility of a conversation about deep jungle experiences, probably involving shamans and saving the planet. About her wildly adventurous companions who lived life unattached, fiercely and confidently. It made Candice anxious.
“Did you get a lot of mosquito bites?”
“Yes, quite a lot.” Isobel smiled with what looked to Candice like forgiveness but could have been pity. She pointed at the origami paper. “Make something.”
“I don’t remember how.” She removed the tape and took out a cobalt-blue square, petulant. “What’s the catch?”
“No catch. I just liked the colors,” said Isobel, watching.
“I like them, too. I wasn’t complaining. But coming from you, I just thought, like, maybe it would fold itself or something.” This rudimentary gift made no sense. Isobel was usually so forward-thinking, surrounding herself with mysterious objects from the cutting edge.
Back at the firm, Isobel was always on time but often showed up smelling like cigarettes, wearing some cheap suit she’d picked up at Daffy’s. The back of her hand stained with a smudged bar stamp. The venture capitalists didn’t pay attention to details. She was a skirt. Like Candice. They did their jobs. Typing, making spreadsheets, tearing heat-sensitive paper out of the facsimile machine, replacing soggy coffee filters. Cleavage was appreciated. A certain technical ability was required. Candice found a sense of peace plugging in DOS code so that the blinking digits on her algae-green computer screen correlated with an instruction sheet.
But Isobel had gotten bored with it. For entertainment, she started trying to understand what they were doing exactly. “These dicks are making millions of dollars,” she had said to Candice. “Do they seem all that bright? Or hardworking?” Then the computer tech she’d been flirting with gave her a CompuServe account as a present. He showed her how to send messages over the internet. She decided to introduce the firm to the concept of email, the World Wide Web, and digital ticker tracking. It was that long ago. Early 90s. She saw the revolution coming and didn’t quake. She quickly bought up URLs for a number of major companies that hadn’t yet gotten into the game—Merck, Pepsi, Sony, Exxon—so that they would have to buy the addresses back from her at hugely inflated prices. Isobel went from secretary pool to tech adviser to running her own multimillion-dollar company in two smooth gear changes. Now, a devoted crew of geniuses worked for her out of a loft in Tribeca while she traveled the world, though rarely north of 23rd Street.
The speed had given Candice anxiety attacks. Things were moving too fast. Becoming increasingly intangible. Maybe that’s why Isobel had given her a gift of paper now. Maybe she recognized that Candice belonged in a sandbox with blocks and Play-Doh. She didn’t even want to know what had happened in Brazil.
“You think I’m a philistine,” Candice said.
“I think you remember how to fold something.”
Candice flipped the paper over. She didn’t like how it was white on the other side. She wanted complete blueness through and through. “I could probably make one of those coke envelopes…”
“Do you still do cocaine?” The word on her tongue suddenly sparked a craving she hadn’t felt in a very long time.
“No. No coke. No speed. I quit smoking too.”
Candice felt sticky with self-loathing. She had trouble finding the next thing to say. She flipped the paper, folded it into a triangle. “I can fold a cootie catcher, you know, one of those fortune-teller things.”
“Now you’re talking.”
Candice folded triangles toward the center of the square. A test of her motor skills. “But we have to come up with the fortunes to write inside. Otherwise it won’t function. That’s the hard part. We have to come up with eight different ones, one for each triangle.”
“You write four fortunes, and I’ll write four,” said Isobel.
“I suggest you write the meanest things you can think of. Write the things you think would hurt me most.”
“Is that what you call fun?
“Eye-opening,” said Isobel.
“What will you write?”
“You’ll see when we play.”
Candice flipped the square over and folded the corners inward again. Isobel sat cross-legged by the rubber plant, paging through a book she’d pulled from the coffee table, Vogue’s glossy tribute to the world of costume jewelry.
Isobel’s presence was making it difficult for Candice to breathe. Like when she was a girl and she’d had to help her father save the chickens from a raccoon who had gotten into the coop. The air choked with feathers and dander.
“I pay someone to make me starve,” Candice said, creasing the corners of the paper. “Just so you know. In case you want some ammo for your fortunes. And the amount I spent on fertility treatments could probably fund the reforestation of your Amazon. I wanted to have my own genes. I wanted to see me and Avi morphed into a being. Of course then I had a mommy special. You know, they cut you open for the cesarean, so why not a little liposuction?” Candice looked down at the roll of her dress. “I know you can’t tell.”
These confessions provided some ventilation. “There are other things. Botox. I like things to be smooth. See? I can’t move my forehead. And I’m addicted to diet soda and network television. And I don’t really like people, any people, so I pretend I’m busy all the time. That’s probably my number-one ambition. To steer clear. Otherwise, I have no ambitions, and I don’t want any ambitions. I take pills, two at bedtime, to keep me from freaking out. Just so you know who you’re dealing with here.”
Isobel laughed lightly. “That’s so good, Candy.”
“Don’t laugh at me.”
“I’m not laughing. I’m moved. You’re taking care of yourself. You should do that. Whatever it takes. Whatever that looks like for you. It’s really so good. You should keep doing that.”
“Then why doesn’t it feel good? Why am I totally ashamed to tell you any of this?”
Isobel said, “Because. Because you believe so utterly that you truly exist.” Candice waited for her to finish, but Isobel returned to casually leafing through her book. “Diamonds,” she said quietly.
Candice pressed the paper into its final shape. She inserted her fingers into the folds and expanded the origami form—four connected pyramids, the undersides of which would hold the fortunes. Clicking the pen, she regarded her friend.
“Oh shit! I’m clicking my pen,” she said.
“It’s OK,” said Isobel.
“I’m so sorry.”
“Really, it’s fine. It’s annoying but I’m not going to…”
Candice had forgotten that part. How they once stopped speaking for a whole week because of the pen clicking, because Candice couldn’t help herself in dull moments and how Isobel had exploded. Isobel had hearing like a dog’s. Flinched at the sound of a can opening. The pen-clicking incident had been the first time Candice had seen her mean side, the side that wasn’t on her side.
“Really, go on, it’s fine. Click. Finish the fortunes.”
Candice bent over the paper and wrote down the first four fortunes that came to mind, folded the origami back up, and handed it to Isobel. “Your turn. Have fun with it.”
Isobel took the paper and pen. She carefully covered the side that Candice had written on and began to scribble. When she was done, she smiled and said, “Let’s eat.”
“I’m not hungry.”
“I have drugs that don’t work well on an empty stomach,” said Isobel.
“Did I say I was going to do drugs?”
“Not yet. No, you didn’t. Do you want to?”
“What kind of drugs?”
“Just one kind. It’s special. It’s not anything you’ve tried before.”
Candice took a lot of drugs, but it had been a very long time since any of them came without the approval of the DEA. Sometimes for fun she pinched her thumb and pointer finger together as if holding a joint, put them to her lips, and inhaled slowly, filling her lungs with a toke of nothing. Perhaps it was the movement and change in her breath, but this gesture could evoke a small shift in her sober perception.
“Are you insane? Do you know what it means to be a mother? I can’t just snort drugs all afternoon.”
“You don’t have to snort it. But snorting is best. We can smoke it too.”
“Caleb is coming back at four, and I have to be able to deal. Avi doesn’t come home until nine usually.”
“It usually takes about ten seconds to make it into your bloodstream,” said Isobel. “And then it only lasts about three and a half minutes. But we really have to eat first.”
“But we haven’t even talked about regular things yet. Like, how are you and what’s new and all of that. I think if I’m going to take drugs with you I want to know those things first because maybe you’ve gone totally crazy and you’re about to poison me or something.”
“I can do that, we can chat. We should do that. Sorry, that was rude of me. I’d love to catch up. That’s why I’m here, right? Let’s have some lunch and chat and then we’ll snort some drugs.”
They sat in the breakfast nook and shared some leftover paella. They talked about the usual things, Isobel’s boyfriends, cancer, politics. When there was a suitably long pause in the conversation, Isobel put both hands on the table and raised her shoulders.
“So. What do you say?”
“Where should we do it?”
“It’s comfortable right here. You have a lovely kitchen. And the view of the park is so nice.”
“I do have a lovely kitchen. I love my booth.”
“You always wanted a booth.”
They cleared the table and Isobel said she had to collect a few things, she’d be right back. When she returned she had the origami, two glasses of water, and a silver tray. They sat again. Isobel rolled up a piece of lime-green origami paper, white side in, to make a straw.
“So what’s it called? What does it do?”
“It’s called Mara’s Arrow. There’s a chemical name for the synthetic version that was developed in Houston by an ethnopharmacologist who’d spent time in the Amazon. But what I have here comes from nature. They also call it the Shaman’s Shield.” She made another guttural sound.
“Marasarrow?” Candice wanted to write it down.
“Arrow belonging to Mara. He was the personification of evil who shot arrows of negative emotions at Buddha when he was under the Bodhi tree during the final stage of his enlightenment.”
“Is that how he died?” asked Candice.
“The arrows never reached Buddha because he had achieved a state of having nothing to defend so the attack lost its power. Arrows of jealousy, anger, fear, they all turned into flowers because Buddha was protected by egolessness. The shaman had a similar story but different characters. I think Buddha died from eating some bad mushrooms.”
“So what’s going to happen?”
“You will feel attacked but you will feel protected.” Isobel took a small envelope out of her pocket and poured a gray powder onto the tray.
“Will I hallucinate?”
“You’ll think you are hallucinating, but you won’t hallucinate. OK? You have to understand that part. It’s not a hallucination. And you might even think you are hallucinating when I’m the only one high.”
She began chopping it into fine lines. Candice noticed that she wore several unusual rings on her long fingers. The kind people inherit or have designed especially for them. The stones had personality. Candice’s wedding ring was entirely unoriginal. Her fingers had grown fatter. Her nails were painted with what now seemed a garish pink compared with Isobel’s natural shine. In the brighter light of the kitchen, all of Isobel’s clothing appeared no longer black but midnight blue. Her hair, too. If a person scaled the stone gargoyles of her building and perched outside the window, they would see a magician serving ash to a clown, she thought.
“I don’t know,” said Candice.
“No, you don’t.”
“I mean I’m sitting here loathing myself. Comparing myself with you. I don’t think it’s a good time for me to be taking drugs. I get so paranoid when I smoke pot.”
“It’s the perfect time. You might get a little paranoid at first. I won’t lie. But then you will get the opposite of paranoid.”
“I still think you should go first.”
“For sure. No problem,” Isobel said. “Just do what I ask you to do. I’ll need your help to make it good. And what you see when I snort, it’s not a hallucination.”
Isobel put the straw to her nose, then paused. “And I mean, whatever I say. Just do it.”
“I said OK.”
Isobel snorted two lines in quick succession and set the tea tray to the side. She held her breath and made a face like she was listening intently to something very quiet. The kitchen clock ticked. A whole minute passed and then two tears slid down her face as she slowly exhaled. She put her hand to her mouth. Her cheeks puffed out as if she were about to vomit, but when she set her hand back on the table there were—what looked like to Candice—crushed flower petals on her fingers. Isobel brought her feet up from under the table and sat cross-legged, her eyes opened, but only slightly, gazing at the space just past her nose. “Read those fortunes to me, Candy. The ones you wrote.”
When she spoke, violets spilled from her lips. Real violets with soft velvety petals. Candice reached across the table to touch one, and Isobel opened her eyes. “We don’t have a lot of time.”
Candice snatched back her hand. “But there are flowers.” She put the violet to her nose and inhaled.
“Yes, they come. Now read.”
“That’s not how you do it. You have to pick a number and then another number and all that.”
“It’s OK. We both know that it just comes down to the number at the end. I just want to hear the fortunes you wrote.” Her voice was low. “Read nine.”
Candice unfolded the paper and read the fortune. “You make people uncomfortable.”
Isobel nodded slowly. “And then?” As she said this, three gerbera daisies fell from her mouth. They had no stems and were fresh.
“My husband thinks you screwed Chuck.”
Isobel looked up with bloodhound eyebrows that said, Are you crazy? She shrugged her shoulders. “And then?” There were no flowers this time.
“You wouldn’t make a good mother.”
Isobel nodded. Some petals fell.
Candice wished she hadn’t written this last one. “Your cancer isn’t really gone.”
Isobel opened her mouth and this time many orchids piled out from her lips onto the table. Candice touched one to see if being inside Isobel had warmed it, but the stamen was cool. “OK, now go get a knife.”
Candice stood and got a knife from the cutlery drawer.
“Now,” she put her hand on the table, “cut off one of my fingers.”
Candice had seen the flowers falling from Isobel’s lips, she had touched them and believed that something special was happening for sure. But this was too much.
“Candy, I mean it. It’s OK. Please do this for me.”
“Then just stab me once. Somewhere you feel comfortable with.”
“That would be nowhere, Isobel, I—”
“Here, my forearm. We’re running out of time. It’s going to be OK as long as I’m still high.” She didn’t look high. Her eyes were clear. She appeared frighteningly calm. Candice had only grabbed a serrated steak knife. She thought maybe it was for cutting the stems off the flowers. Something like that. Now she wished she’d chosen a sharper one, a paring knife that would go in smoother. “Please, Candy, we’ve only got a minute.”
This was not irritating conversation. This was life asking to be split open. Candice wanted nothing more than that. Sober, thrilling, she covered her eyes and stabbed her friend in the forearm. The knife didn’t go in far, the flesh of Isobel’s arm wasn’t very meaty. But the knife stuck straight up when Candice let go. She opened her eyes. Roses plumed out of Isobel’s mouth. The fragrant red petals layered on top of the orchids and daisies and violets. “Thank you.” Isobel pulled the knife from her arm, shut her eyes, and sat quietly. There was a wound but not much blood. No more requests. Her lips relaxed.
“There it goes,” she said finally. She opened her eyes and sighed softly. “Nice.” She ran her fingers through the petals on the table. Her arm now free of incision. “Pretty. You can keep them.”
“Are we going to talk about this?”
“Of course. But it’s your turn. I think we should both go before we talk about it.”
“I just stabbed you.”
“What’s happening on the outside is a little different than what you feel inside.”
“I don’t want you to stab me.”
“That’s fine. I don’t think you need that.”
“How come I hallucinate when you take the drug?”
“I told you, it’s not a hallucination. Feel them.”
Candice ran her fingers through the flowers on the table, then put the straw to her nose and snorted two lines of the gray dust off the tea tray. She could see her nostril looming in the reflection. She looked like a maniac with her dumb-blonde hair bowled around her face. She could feel the drug spreading through her system like a roll of seawater moving up dry sand. A sensation not necessarily pleasant or unpleasant, it gently overtook her, sinking in with a light fizz.
The fabric she’d chosen for the breakfast nook stared her in the face. A garish backdrop for Isobel’s minimalist figure. It had obviously taken so much work, so much precision and expertise to create. How many hands had been involved, how much energy, how many seas crossed, just so that she could have a pretty place to drink her diet sodas? She had to turn away. She sharpened her focus on the lushness of the park. A pretzel cart was parked at the pedestrian entrance—steel and wheat and rocks of salt under a yellow-and-white umbrella. She wanted to fill her cheeks with dough and mustard. Beyond the cart, acres of hazy nature. The heart of Manhattan. Candice felt a tongue of guilt reach down her throat. The park was always there for her, and she barely gave it a glance most days. Treated it as an abstract swatch of color to complement her interior decor. She lived in a bubble. Ignorant. Wasteful. It was such an incredible privilege to live so close to this park, to own a direct view of it from her home. That she could claim ownership of this, or of anything, was not right. A man was running with a newspaper over his head. It had started to rain. Her son was out there. She was an awful, awful person. She longed for a brother. She wanted to drown herself in a pool of sugary cereal and whole milk. She wanted to make more babies. Avi had talked about it. They had been trying. It gave their love life a layer of importance and closeness that Candice had never experienced as a single woman dating random men. Men are like trains. They keep coming. She was actually doing it with purpose, creating a lineage. She wanted that bloodline. She wanted sex. She wanted to taste it.
“OK,” said Isobel. “Now exhale.”
Candice exhaled a mouthful of flowers. It was a pleasant feeling, like a dry sneeze only less effort. Receptors yawned open and satisfaction flooded in. Petals fluttered out of her mouth in a long stream. There was no taste, only the texture of release. Cravings ebbed and disappeared. It wasn’t so much that she was satisfied but that her need for satisfaction was gone. She felt a profound sense that she could no longer be swayed by anything, no thought, nothing external. Her body inflated with stillness. The flurry of thoughts disengaged from her like a soap bubble leaving the wand. She thought for a moment about the Defense Department. If warlords could only harness this feeling, there would be no more war. There would be nothing to defend.
“I can see why you wanted me to stab you. I mean, just to see.”
“Shall I try to insult you instead?”
Isobel said some words to her. They passed through Candice like a breeze through grass, sometimes shaking her but never uprooting her. Something about her wide hips. About her consumption. Petals fell.
Then she said, “Caleb is dead.” Candice opened her mouth and a bouquet of chrysanthemums plopped onto the table. She started to laugh. It was true. One day he would be dead, certainly. In that sense his death existed now as much as it ever would. More flowers, big and fresh.
Looking, really looking, out her window, she saw individuality among the branches. Mammoth superstars stood out from the rest. Old trees that must have witnessed the dusty neglect of the Great Depression, witnessed Diana Ross belting in the rain and the moon shadow of the preppy murderer slinking home beneath the branches. Those trees should have names, Candice thought. And then, they should chop themselves down.
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