A woman hangs from a window over the street. Two, maybe three, stories above the pockmarked sidewalk. She’s hanging from a cord—elbows stiff, fists clenched. A skintight unitard reveals her breasts and cunt, each rib, every curve and dimple. She swings back and forth, back and forth. A featureless white theater mask obscures her face, and two eyeholes allow for sunlight to bounce off her eyes and sparkle.
She swings back and forth, back and forth.
She sings as she swings—a trilling howl, an atonal screech, beautiful in its portrayal of compulsion.
People on the street below march to work. Men and women carrying briefcases and bags, playing on phones or tablets, hustling north or south, east or west; many cross or sidle along the sidewalk beneath her; no one glances at her.
Gears in a machine are not capable of hearing their squeaks or mistimed thumps.
The woman stops swinging, hangs from the cord. She lowers her head and gazes down at me—her eyes shine through the eyeholes and radiate heat.
I lay on the sidewalk and wave.
People flow around me.
The woman splays her legs and spins. She flips her arms and catches the cord and climbs into a nearby window.
The window closes, a blind drops and blocks the sun.
Lying on the sidewalk, I stare at the clouds, at the gray and black wall filtering the light of the sun. Faces crawl by. People flow around me. Flesh screeching in the machinery of the moment, all automatism and no verve. Screams and screeches and howls—silent yet audible. Meat machines programmed for busy bee antics.
Below me, the ground roils and rumbles, flops and floats, as though I’m lying on a waterbed. I perch my arms behind my head and close my eyes. Light taps my eyelids. Pink bleeds into black. Smells of diesel fumes assault and soothe me. The hum of stomping feet, of marching corporate soldiers, relaxes relaxes me.
Then I feel it: a shadow grows over me. I open my eyes. The white-masked woman is standing beside me, hunched over and staring at me. Her hair—knitted into a ponytail—hovers between us. Her eyes break through the darkened holes in her mask. She studies me, her eyes comb over me, her breath smacks her mask, vibrates it and reverberates inside it. It implants chills on my spine and arms.
—You can see me? she says.
—Watching you, up there, was like listening to poetry.
—But how can you see me?
—The same way you see me, I suppose.
I sit up. Then I get to my feet. White Mask jumps back, hunches. Her forearms tighten and ripple.
—What do you call it? I say. I point to the cord hanging in front of her window.
—Loneliness, she says. —Confusion.
—I’d call it beauty.
She and I raise an island from the trembling earth. The sea of busy bees does not penetrate our cliffs.
—Would you like to see beauty? she says. —And loneliness? And confusion?
—Then come with me.
She leads me into her building, up a flight of stairs and into her apartment. Roses grow in cracks in the walls. Clocks are planted in the floor. Couches and chairs are hanging on the ceiling and sprouting from the walls. Sculptures of flowers and legs—without genitalia—are settling and drying in the corner of the room.
I’m standing on a clock, watching time squirm beneath me, when White Mask crosses the room. She stops near the window, back to me, and pulls her arms from her sleeves and wiggles out of her unitard.
Her back is smooth like glass and it ripples—fills the glass with rainbows and bubbles—when she contracts her muscles. She keeps the mask on her face and she stands in front of the window and spins toward me. Centered in the window, backlit by the gray haze of the muffled sun, she is darker, faded—a double exposed form languishing inside a silhouette: she’s built like a pin-up, all tits and curves.
She says something, but she whispers it and the mask muffles it.
—I don’t know, I say.
In that mask, only her eyes are alive.
—Would you like to see it now? she says.
—This isn’t it? I brush the air between her body and me.
—You can’t see it from here.
She opens the window, crawls onto the sill. Then she climbs onto a perch outside and disappears.
I slip out after her and follow her from windowsill to windowsill, up and over four stories and to the roof. A billboard as wide as the building sprouts from the rooftop. White Mask is climbing a ladder another story; she sits on the platform at the base of the billboard—still naked—and swings her legs to and fro.
I climb the ladder and sit beside her, catch a glimpse of the city: glass and concrete and steel; man made chrysanthemums towering over the land; concrete grows on horizons, blurs the curves and melts the edges.
Streams of worker drones scurry around the sidewalks below. Cars and buses god the streets. Feet-slapping thunder and murmurs, engines and horns float up, up and enshrine us in the symphony of routine.
The face of a woman beams on the billboard behind us. Airbrushed, practically painted, the woman is smiling beside a logo and a slogan promising more bang for my buck. She stares off into space, frozen in a drum beat of recycled air.
A horn rises. Tires screech. A car below nearly slams into a bus. A half dozen cars riff in similar keys, and the bus makes a hard left, turns into an adjoining street. And the people clotting the sidewalks flow and flow. The line churns forward, ever forward, and no one stops or pauses or even turn their heads.
—Millions and millions of people, White Mask says, —and yet no one notices me. They never acknowledge me. How do I know I’m not dead?
—Are you afraid?
—Then you’re not dead.
She glances at me. Eyeballs swollen behind the mask.
—How do you know you’re not dead? she says. —Do they ever see you?
—I don’t think so.
—So you might be dead, too. Maybe this is our eternity. Condemned to silence and anonymity.
—If so, I would say this is heaven, not hell.
—Look at them down there, she says. —Just look at them: always on the move. I swing and swing, or I sit up here, like this, naked, and still they don’t notice me. If we’re not dead, maybe we’ve been sucked into a parallel universe.
—They see what they want to see, I say. —We live outside their realm because they can’t squeeze us into any picture they might have.
—Or they’re simply incapable of seeing us.
—It’s not that they’re incapable; they’ve spent so much time ignoring us that they can’t see us any longer. But this is temporary.
—How do we get them to see us?
—We make them confront our traces, I say. —We leave signatures in space and time, signatures from which they infer us.
—But then, to them, we are not alive. To them, if they infer us, we’re merely hypothetical.
—It’s a start.
—I’d prefer to be dead than to be a nameless and faceless, a featureless, figment of someone’s imagination.
—I’d rather be a figment of the imagination than dead, I say. —And how do you know we’re not a figment of the imagination? here and now?
—If we were a figment of the imagination, then someone would acknowledge me.
—I am. Right now.
—But what if I’m dead and you’re a figment of my eternity?
—Do I feel real to you? Right now?
She brushes my cheek, lowers her hand to my hand and slips her fingers into my fingers and weaves a flower, and the flower blooms when she unfurls her fingers.