You think I have no authority to write Lula’s story. Maybe you are right. And I won’t even be surprised when you bring up certain identities of mine—the kind of identities I don’t know how to transform any more than I do telluric currents—when you discuss—or diss—this story with your friends. And to a lot of you, me saying I was Lula’s best friend won’t make a damn difference. It might even make it worse that I claim this saccharine, American high schooly identity—best friend. Friends, relationships, can change overnight, you’ll tell me, and I’ll say, yeah, that’s true. I’d counter, they can change diachronically too, so what’s your point? Heartbreak is heartbreak.
Even if Lula was still alive, I’d write this story, because this is a Lula story—it isn’t even always about Lula. Lula’s Lula story would be a different fiction. Ilya’s Lula story and Don’s Lula Story and Mrs. Wu’s Lula story would all be different, some adding more than others. Adding more to what? I don’t know. Like all stories, my story is incomplete and deformed. And even if we managed or the Internet’s cloud paws managed to scoop up all the stories of everybody, it isn’t like everyone’s stories would fit together and make rational sense. All the stories of everyone would be more like a cubist painting viewable only through a prism by febrile eyes—one eye born blind while the other eye burns with shampoo.
For starters, Lula’s authentic story would have more Mandarin, stray words in italic wedged between so much English and often, whole paragraphs of Mandarin, the internal dialogue in her head, inaccessible to the millions of us who don’t speak Mandarin, including me. I don’t speak a lick—yet, I am still Lula’s best friend. The only Chinese I know is that the characters for male prostitute contain a knife and a field, which was ominous enough for me until Lula told me that the character of all males contain a knife and a field.
I also know Lula’s Lula story would focus more on her transition from Henry Wu to Lula Lamarr. She may have also told you about her secret dreams to be a hyperpolyglot and a ballerina. How her mother invited all the children in our class to the stables for her fourth grade cowboy-themed birthday party when all she wanted was a sleepover with me, popcorn, and a trip to Blockbuster to rent I Take This Woman, the one with Hedy, not Carole. Lula was afraid of big horses, infinity,—and half our classmates. And I guarantee her story would skip over her affairs with the names Estuary Valentine and Grace Hippocampus.
Maybe you’re thinking—a real best friend wouldn’t have mentioned those old names, those pantalettes names, names between what she was born with at her crotch and what she wanted the world to gaze upon. But see, I like Estuary and Grace and Henry—I knew them. Lula’s family is Christian and despite my family comforting themselves with a more secular faith in choice, happiness, and the American Dream, to assuage Lula’s begging, I would often attend mass with Mrs. Wu, the spider sisters, and Lula while growing up. I don’t remember much from those Sunday services, except the ancient smell of incense, the heavy books the altar servers had to hold up for the priests, and this concept of the Trinity, which meant batshit to me at the time. I’d cross myself repeating the players of the Trinity in the same rote way I placed my palm over my heart and pledged allegiance to the flag at school every morning. But over time, this is how I grew to think of Lula, Estuary/Grace, and Henry. My Lula was three divine persons, distinct, but made of the same stuff. Her life experiences were thrusted upon her by a world at a time perceiving her as either whore, son, or holy ghost.
I remember, shortly before Lula left DePaul, the younger of her spider sisters, Jenny the Vengeful, showed Mrs. Wu Estuary Valentine’s Facebook page. We would later learn a friend of a friend of Jenny’s had met Estuary at a bar in Boystown and they added each other. Estuary and I didn’t stay long on that aspect of the story, because that part of the story meant that Estuary might have been unfaithful to Ilya and hiding something from me. In Lula’s Lula story, maybe this would be a bigger segment, the friend of a friend—I don’t know. At the time, Estuary was dating a sweet younger exchange student from Odessa who had the dreamscape face of Maud Allan and curiously, liked to dance too. It was fun for me—watching Estuary and Ilya dance, because Ilya possessed a straight-backed formal English like a toy soldier, but when he danced, I got the sense of what a freer-tongued Ilya must exist in his head.
Ilya hadn’t been getting along with his host family, so he had left the host family and the high school, and was living “off the grid” in Estuary’s dorm room downtown. Ilya told us he didn’t like being so far from water, and he missed the hems of his mother’s red and white dresses; for us, he invented Odessa, a port city on the Black Sea, a city of quaint trams and snow, signs in Ukrainian and gossip in Russian, and histories older than America, a staircase city into the clouds.
The Facebook page was a billet-doux to their young love. Blonde blue-eyed Ilya and me standing over a pot of boiling water on the portable burner, cooking a surprise pierogi dinner for Estuary. Muscled Ilya on Estuary’s bed holding the ginger cat we found on the street and smuggled into the dorm room. Estuary’s comment underneath: My Holly Golightly, baby 我爱你 with two hearts and three kiss faces. Pink-thighed Ilya in tight white briefs, his bulge enormous, and Estuary in frilly black panties, dick tucked, hugging on the train platform participating in No Pants Subway Ride in January Chicago. I had taken that photo, snug in my wool peacoat and long stockings, I was too self-conscious to wear nearly nothing in public—or in the dark, truthfully. I still remember Ilya spanking me gently over my coat that cold day and saying, “Holly, please take off these garments. You are killing the boys.” I smiled, flattered. “Oh, Ilya, next year, next year. I’ll be better then.” I had recently joined Weight Watchers and was counting points like a zealot. “Holly, a better version than you now? I cannot imagine such a person anywhere.”
There were also countless photos of the two of them, sometimes me and my sorta-boyfriend Dan on the side, all of us, except for my sorta-boyfriend, embracing and holding one another. It was our first year of college, and Lula was into Baker-Miller pink pleather skirts and yarn falls while Ilya looked like a boy from Missouri or Nebraska, a boy who, in the 1940s, would have been photographed genuflecting on one knee with a football in his arm, a big number 12 on his shirt. Except Ilya was from faraway and he liked poetry, not team sports.
According to a curt text message from the the older spider, Wendy the Boirault Machine, Mrs. Wu had initially taken ill after seeing the Facebook page, but now she was back on her feet and attending the 5PM mass every day and praying for her son. “Estuary”—that is how Wendy wrote the message with quotes—was not welcome home, but Yun was welcome.
Lula sent me instead. On a cool-weathered April afternoon, I had my sorta-boyfriend drive me from my dorm at the University of Chicago to Lula’s childhood home in the North Shore to collect the rest of her art books and “the orange Tamagotchi hung on my bedpost” and to make sure her mother “hadn’t keeled over”. When I arrived, I got out of the car and stared at the imposing palatial home. I edged around the house to the yard to enter through the backdoor as I had always done growing up, the footpath like a miniature oxbow lake with banks of yellow tulips. Mrs. Wu was smoking on the raised wooden porch. I had no idea Mrs. Wu smoked. Even more to my surprise, a short man in a wrinkled dress shirt, the top buttons unbuttoned, opened the screen door and joined Mrs. Wu as a I crept up the porch steps. Mr. Wu? Lula had told me how when she pictured her father all she saw was a stout body in a black suit with broderie anglaise cuffs and instead of a face, there was a shiny briefcase with wings like something Magritte would paint. Mr. Wu’s actual face was blotchy and he had yellowy lentil-shaped skin tags piled on his eyelids and on his neck. In all my years of friendship with Lula, I had never met him. I associated Mr. Wu with his absenteeism, red-eye-flights, and hawker markets in Singapore, the latter the result of eavesdropping on a rare Chinglish call of Mrs. Wu’s. I heard her say, “Right now? He is probably doing his favorite activity—eating…satay at a hawker or piyan in Geyland.”
No one spoke when I got to the top of the porch, so I mumbled something about getting Estuary’s books. I’m ashamed of it now, but I couldn’t quite meet Mrs. Wu’s eyes as I uttered Estuary. After I spoke, Mr. Wu grew redder anyway and for a moment, it looked as if he might lunge at me, a nineteen-year-old girl, but Mrs. Wu came and held him from behind, pressing her manicured hand, the one holding the cigarette, on his chest
“Go get Yun’s things, Holly,” she whispered indirectly.
I let myself into the spotless kitchen and scrambled up the stairs to Lula’s bedroom. I had almost finished collecting the books I knew Lula would want before Mrs. Wu came into the room and sat on the bed. For awhile she didn’t speak, just watched me.
“In Harbin, my parents warned me not to marry a country boy. The universities had just opened back up and I was selected to go back. I was almost too old, but my test scores won me a lottery…a lottery with odds you can’t even fathom, Holly. Yun’s father would never have made the marks. He told me he didn’t even sit for the test. But I was fat and had rough northern skin and felt no other man would love me. I wasn’t even sure why this one man did.”
I wasn’t sure what to say. I knew nothing about Mrs. and Mr. Wu’s education or relationship, about their life back in China. I had assumed Mr. Wu was highly educated and successful, based on where Lula lived, her vocabulary, her father always being away somewhere important. It was a different life than my family on the South Side.
Mrs. Wu smoothed out Estuary’s bedspread. The room was nautical and airy, the wallpaper white with small anchors repeated ad infinitum like a preppy polo. This room was not Estuary’s taste. Her dorm room had a shimmery voile bed canopy and a blooming cherry blossom tree, Estuary, Ilya, and I had painted on the wall. Ilya had even painted some swooshes of pink and white on the tile floor like fallen petals. At the end of term, the school would charge Estuary $750 dollars, which I assume Mrs. Wu eventually paid.
“E s t u a r y,” Mrs. Wu repeated to herself slowly, “E s t u a r y.” She seemed to be flipping the name around in her mouth, letting the letters cascade down like a Jacob’s ladder toy. I turned my back to her hesitantly to finish packing. “Tell my child,” she began, “To choose a better name.” She smoothed the already-smooth bedspread again. “Something more distinguished. Elegant. Not something silly.” She sighed.
“I will, Mrs. Wu,” I told her, quietly.
“The problem with my husband is that he thinks people are nouns, but people are verbs. If we accept this, we can avoid deep sorrow and disappointment.”
I nodded, not entirely sure I knew what she meant, but I felt like I was on the edge of understanding her. I would feel that way for years.
“After I had finished my bachelors and masters in Beijing, Holly, I was offered a scholarship for my PhD from Northwestern. I had never been anywhere. I wanted to go more than anything. I already had my first daughter and though it was too early to be officially known, I felt I was pregnant with my second. I told my husband about the scholarship and he was… displeased. It wasn’t that he didn’t want to go to America, we all wanted to go to America in those days, but he wanted to be the one who took us to America. Do you understand?”
“Yes,” I fibbed. I had finished packing the books and was almost ready to go. From the downstairs, I heard the beginning of Waltz of the Flowers on the piano. One of the spiders must have been home.
“I understand why,” Mrs. Wu started again, “Yun would want to be a woman. I have always known men were jealous of women. Just like your white people are jealous of brown and yellow and black people. When we came to America, I was so big, which was a surprise to my advisor! Yun’s father did not like staying home with his child and he was more than glad when some old family connection got him his job, the same one he has now, and he could make his name doing the grudge work of some other man…You have not been to Paris?”
“No, I have not, Mrs. Wu.”
“I went to Paris once. For a week. Alone. Yun was four—he doesn’t remember. I left the children with their father for the first and last time. I had my bags packed and the trip booked to coincide with when Yun’s father came home from a long overseas trip. He was shocked when he opened the door to see my travel trunk. He thought I might be trying to leave him! Hah, my plan had worked. So, it was ironically a relief to him to learn I was only leaving him for a week. But he was devastated the whole time, calling the hotel nonstop. The man barely knows his children. For months and months before the trip, I had been listening to these French cassettes I borrowed from the library. Listening, listening. I never uttered a single word, but I listened a great deal. I knew hundreds of words by the time I arrived at de Gaulle. My ears recognized syntax and slang. I had favorite French words and words I didn’t care for at all. But for some reason, I couldn’t bring myself to speak to anyone in French. It wasn’t fear of speaking in a foreign tongue—I had already crossed that shore when I moved to America. It was something else. It is something I have always recognized in you too and never in any of my own children…”
“No, don’t thank me, Holly. It is not a good thing. What I know is if we actively listen too long without saying anything, just absorbing and absorbing, we become like a waterlogged wood. We need to tell too. We are living at the boundaries of ourselves, our body. Sometimes when I think of my time in Paris, I see myself glowing, my skin, always so waxen, suddenly bloomed in gold because my very spirit was pressing up against my skin from the inside. My spirit had been so caged. I walked and walked along the river feeling my spirit pressing along my arms, my legs, my fingers, my neck, my inner thighs. I convinced myself I was husbandless, childless, a libertine. I had transformed myself. And when I got to the Musée d’Orsay, I knew exactly where to go. It was the first year of its showing. Courbet’s—even now, I will say the title in English, not French. The Origin of the World! It reminded me of me, of my body before America. Are you familiar?”
“No,” I admitted, “I don’t think so.”
“This painting helps me understand my son. The jealousy.”
“I think…,” I stalled. I wasn’t sure how much I should speak for my best friend. I tried again, “My understanding is that this is more than jealousy—her whole life—”
“Holly, I have known you since you were a child. And I am not so old-fashioned as you may think. My husband is never home, I garden and I read a lot. I understand women can be women without certain things. I have not bled in six years, but am I still a woman? I am. I was fat, now I am thin. I used to speak Mandarin with a little English, now I mostly speak English. I had been a woman who had never been to Paris and now I am a woman who has been to Paris.”
“I think—I think you should talk to Estuary.” I couldn’t find the tamagotchi. My phone was buzzing, my impatient sorta-boyfriend. There was nothing on the bedpost. Mrs. Wu saw me stirring, ready to go, she stood up.
“May I have your home address?” she asked and held out a yellow legal pad and a pen.
“Sure,” I scribbled my address. “My home is just a dorm though, it will, uh, change.”
It has been twelve years since that exchange yet I still receive a Christmas and Easter card every year from Mrs. Wu, even after Lula’s murder, I still the receive the cards. And last year, I received a mass card when my own mother died, though I do not know how Mrs. Wu knew of her passing.
During my second year of graduate school for paleography, Lula texted me, then going by Grace, to tell me she needed a change and wanted to come join me in Oakland. At the time, I was renting the downstairs floor of a twin house with my boyfriend Donald, a struggling abstract painter who smoked more than he worked (he had anxiety), but read loads of articles every day on the Internet, so we had a lot to talk about. The house had pale blue siding and an enormous elm tree with grey leaves on the front lawn. Every morning before class my ritual was to stand underneath the tree and follow with my eyes what I had come to think of as prehistoric markings on its bole, casts of some sexless stingray with many glutinous arms. The grass underneath my feet was brown and dying, but the tree felt ancient and fixed and reassuring somehow.
Four days after the text, Lula arrived with three suitcases and a new tattoo on her forearm. Don picked her up at the airport while I was at class. Lula and I hadn’t seen each other in thirteen months. The tattoo was mostly text: Time is Just Common written inside an ichthys. It was late October, but Lula was wearing cutoff shorts with pale pink fishnets. Her face was thinner too, eyelashes longer, lips fuller and shinier, waist narrower. There were small scratches on her arms as if she had been running through a woods. She was a human-sized Bratz doll, and her skin had a blurry pore-less purity like magical Korean photo booth pictures.
Don and I told Lula to make herself comfortable…and she did. She left her things all over the place, went through my stuff, probably even read my diary, and ate all my food. In many ways, she and Don were similar. Lula liked to jangle through the house wearing clanky jewelry and minimal clothes, mostly expensive matching lingerie, the kind I would have liked to buy (where did she get the money for it?). Looking at her wardrobe and expensive makeup and facial products, I experienced whatever is the word existing between realization and memory. I remembered nights staying up late during summer and watching Breakfast at Tiffany’s with my mom and being too young to understand how Holly lived in such style. I was too busy admiring her big hats, her New York City fire escape, and the melancholy way she sang “Moon River”. I liked that we shared a name, if nothing else. I could still sing her song. Oh, dream maker, you heart breaker…My huckleberry friend, moon river, and me. When I asked Lula if she had ever liked the movie, if she could watch the segments with Mr. Yunioshi and still like other parts of the story, she laughed and told me she didn’t remember it. She might not have ever seen it, she claimed.
Don and Lula’s friendship blossomed. I was overworked and studying all the time, I stopped shaving and stopped eating anything I had to clean and cut, vegetables namely, meaning I was expanding and my skin had clusters of pimples on the rim of my forehead. I looked like a different person than who Don had first met and fallen in love with. Lula and I weren’t spending so much time together either. Some evenings, I felt like Don and Lula would make a better couple; they just needed a patron or a pimp. Almost every night, they sat on the loveseat together, smoking, watching TV, and eating take-out while I worked at the kitchen table, a woman hunched over alone on an island of old books. They laughed at hidden jokes, Easter eggs I couldn’t understand, alluding to funny things they had done or read without me during the day.
One evening, while I was probably going blind in one eye from an afternoon practicing my paleographic skills on an ancient letter of Ilya’s great grandmother’s he had mailed me from Odessa (we still kept in touch), I walked in to find Lula and a topless Don at the circular hall mirror admiring Don’s now-waxed chest.
“What is that?” I asked at the same time as I saw what it was. A blue guitar tattoo on his right pectoral. An enormous blue guitar. It took up his entire pec from the base of his throat to below his nipple.
“Isn’t it sexy,” Lula said.
“It’s great,” I responded, “But why? And how did you pay for it?”
“Gracie spotted me,” Don said, trying to flex. “I couldn’t get over her tat—you get Gracie’s tat, right, Hol? It’s Baldwin.”
“It’s from my favorite book, Giovanni’s Room,” Lula stated, rubbing some kind of lotion on Don’s chest.
“I was telling Gracie how I always wanted a tattoo but I could never think of something, ya know. I told you that before, babe.”
“Yes,” I nodded.
“So, Gracie asked me what was my favorite book or poem or song. I couldn’t think of anything, and then I remembered back home in the Poconos my grandma used to read me this poem The Man With the Blue Guitar. And it got me thinking, maybe this tattoo could be the start of my next chapter. Maybe this creativity pressing into my skin would awaken something inside of me, ya know.”
“Don’t people just buy tote bags of their favorite book covers nowadays?” I joked, forcing a laugh. I had no energy, but I was annoyed that Lula had money to pay for a tattoo for my boyfriend when she had not so much as taken me out for lunch in the three months since she had arrived.
In bed that night, Don turned to me and instead of sex, he wanted to talk about Lula.
“Ya know, all these months, I thought Gracie was hurt real bad by some girl, some girl named Tina. I thought she was a lesbian or something—did she tell you about Tina?”
“No,” I said, sitting up, an old care and concern and confusion rising in me for my best friend.
“Yeah, the way she spoke about this Tina. She even used the word ‘break-up’ sometimes. It seemed like they had been off and on for years, but you had never mentioned a Tina to me.”
“But it was more than that, Hol,” Don continued, propping himself on his elbow. “It was the way she spoke, like a mosaic—longing, vagueness, regret—that really had me thinking she was just here because she got her heart broken and we had to take care of her.”
“But I was online, doing nothing, reading, and I realized, Holly…she was talking about meth! Meth. Grace has a drug problem, Holly. How didn’t you know? Gracie was addicted to meth. And I realized, we got to help her. We got to take care of her. This is worse than heartbreak, this could break her whole life.”
“Well, does she know you know what Tina is now?” I had to think. I had so much to say.
“I don’t know, I can’t tell if she ever thought I didn’t know Tina was drugs.”
“Maybe I should talk to her,” I started to get out of the bed.
“No—-,” he grabbed my wrist, “Don’t do that if she hasn’t brought Tina up to you. “Has she?”
“No,” I admitted, half in the bed, half out.
“Don’t feel bad, babe. You’re at school and working all the time anyway, I’m just here at home. I can take care of her. She says she hasn’t seen Tina in months.”
After that evening, standing under my tree or sometimes in the lab at school, I began fantasizing about Don and Lula fantasizing—well, mostly Lula fantasizing—about them having an affair. Don was the kind of guy Lula liked best—hetero, socially liberal, but a closeted domestic retro. I imagined walking in on Don and Lula after my Thursday night class as they just started making out, their first kiss. Don’s coarse hand would be on Lula’s pale shaved thigh, his other arm in her fragrant, all washed and clean, black hair. He’d be wanting to reach under her schoolgirl skirt. He would be getting himself so hot. He would almost be there—but then I’d walk in, the fat workaholic hairy monster, the Trunchbull, and Don would jump up and Lula would look down at the floor, feigning meekness. He would start apologizing—don’t leave, he would beg, don’t leave. But I wouldn’t care about hurting Don. I’d want to hurt Lula.
I’d scream, “Have her if you want, Donald. Don’t you know your little Gracie still has a baby dick!”. Maybe you’re thinking—if I had said something that shitty about someone I called my best friend, I wouldn’t tell everybody. I’d counter, I didn’t say I said it, I said I imagined saying it. Heartbreak is heartbreak.
Don and I didn’t last long after Lula moved out. He never did get that surge of creativity from his blue guitar. Meanwhile, after graduation, I received a fellowship offer from the British Museum in London. Lula, now on the edge of calling herself Lula, decided she was moving to Vegas. She knew a friend of a friend who used to work for AVN Magazine and could get her some webcam gigs, whatever that meant. The details were vague. Lula stayed for my graduation before her big move and even threw me a small party in my house, while Don sulked around.
But when Don left me and moved out, I felt more strongly for Don than I had in months. And three months after our break-up, when he moved in with a lithe cashier obsessed with stand-up paddle boarding while we were still talking about getting back together, still sleeping together some nights even, I lost myself. I moved slowly like a lava lamp. I ate nothing or I binged. I expanded and shrank; other men looked at me and then they didn’t. The fellowship offer sat on my kitchen table, my response past due by fourteen weeks. In the middle of the afternoon on Saturdays, I texted Don lines from Wallace Stevens:
“I cannot bring a world quite round/ Although I patch it as I can” and
“From this I shall evolve a man/ This is his essence: the old fantoche”…et cetera.
He replied back with question marks. I Skyped my mother and her advice was to stay busy, try new things. She suggested I could move home. I bought Rosetta Stone French, but didn’t install it. I cried to my friends from school and they took me out drinking and dancing, nights I don’t remember at all except for the the nights feeling long. But one night I do remember well, I was alone and crawling around the apartment, tracing and clawing everything with the edges of my fingers, the spoons, the bedpost, the loveseat, the kitchen table, the chairs, the hall mirror. Everything I touched felt alive with the past, felt like clues, illuminated from the outdoor blue light. Even though everything inside me had always been invisible, only then it felt invisible or made-up. And then I crawled outside into the dark wearing nearly nothing and laid under my elm tree. An ensemble of cicadas performed around me like a nimbus of sound and there was yellow tape wrapped around my tree and a thick sign hammered into her trunk with tomorrow’s date. They were going to fell my tree.
“DED-Dutch elm disease, very common,” the arborist had told me. “It’s amazing it’s lived this long. Those markings there, the squiggly ones, are the feeding galleries of the mighty elm beetle, the first sign of the infection.”
I woke up in the blue slip of twilight smelling wisteria. I forgot about the past death of my relationship and the future death of my elm tree. I turned my head and in the moonlight, Lula was sitting there with her pink suitcase beside her.
“Good morning, sleeping beauty,” she said and smiled.
“Is it you?”
“Let’s get you cleaned up, Holly.”
She somehow took me into the house and into the tiny bathroom. As the tub filled, she stripped off my bra and underwear. Standing in front of the toilet seat, she rubbed her hands down my hairy legs, my arms, under my armpits, even my crotch. “It feels nice,” she stated, petting me up and down, “like you metamorph…ed into a feral cat…or a garden.”
Once I was in the water, she dunked me under and the water turned grey from my filth. She went into the other room and I heard the zip of her suitcase. She came back with a bottle of shampoo and conditioner. “Wisteria Fields,” she said and squeezed some into her delicate hand. She tilted my head back, and rubbed it onto my scalp. Some lotion moved slowly down my forehead and into my eye.
“Ouch, I’m burning,” I laughed, finding my real laugh again.
“Ah, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” she squealed.
“I’m burning!” I yelped, smiling.
“Sing, sing, it will go away.”
“Sing what, Lula, sing what, ouch!”
“Sing anything…sing…sing the song you always sang me when we were little.”
“What song did I always sing?”
“The Moon River one.”
“No, I don’t remember singing that to you.”
She turned my head to face her on the outside of the tub. “You’re fucking with me, right?”
“I love that song, I just don’t remember singing it to you.”
“Well you did, all the time.” She started singing in a high-pitch, each word sounding like a tall glass vase, “Wider than a mile…I’m crossing you in style…styles?…someday…la la la…” She laughed. “But that’s why we are best friends, my Holly. You remember some things, I remember other things. You forget some things, I forget other things. And together…” she yawned, “we remember and forget a lot.”
After a second round of applications, I moved to London the following fall and commuted from a cramped flat in Canada Water to Bloomsbury for my fellowship. The weather was dreary and not at all like Oakland, but I liked the docklands and the autumn trees and brick houses. Lula went back to Vegas where she told me she was doing extraordinarily in the desert city. She was a popular webcam girl with “a lot of regulars”. Her webpage was called Club Siracco from her favorite movie. The only problem, she explained, was that she couldn’t go post-op with the demographic she served and she had always imagined herself as a post-op woman someday.
Years swam by. I fell into a relationship with a quiet-mannered professor from SOAS, he specialized in post-Maoist China, and I was waiting to hear back from a job with Helen Shackell, the foremost paleographer in Britain, who was known as the reader of the unreadable things. Lula was dating someone named Billy. From Instagram, I didn’t like Billy. He seemed like the kind of guy who would have been mean to us in high school. He posted a lot of photos of cars, of himself in wife-beaters, and sometimes other girls who looked like Lula. Lula began vanishing for weeks. She wouldn’t post anything online or respond to messages. Her hot pink webpage, which felt strange visiting, like stepping in on her having sex—which is what is was, fell silent.
Sometimes, when Lula did resurface, she’d post blurry videos, close-ups with bright filters, removing all the features of her face, she was a ghost, and she would move her tongue in strange directions like a red leaf still stuck to a branch but being blown hard in inverse directions. She cut her bangs and dyed her hair a white-blonde like the poltergeist girl, Heather O’Rourke. She started posting videos with her makeup half-done or smudged. She had become so thin. Often, I’d write Billy unenthusiastic messages and then, miraculously, I’d get a message from Lula a day or so later saying she was fine. That I need to chill. Sometimes I received unsolicited messages without much context– “Someone asked to borrow a tampon from me today!” or “Billy’s friend’s friend said I could maybe win an AVN award someday if I keep myself up”.
I will say it now, because I know what you’re thinking– I should have flown to Vegas. A real best friend would have flown to Vegas. Maybe a part of me knew what I would find in Vegas if I went. I didn’t even have Lula’s address. But I texted Lula, after not hearing from her for a long stretch, and I asked for her address. She didn’t respond. A week later, I texted Billy and asked for his address. It was my understanding that they were living together. To my surprise, a couple days after I sent the text to Billy—it would have been in the middle of the night in Nevada—Lula Facetimed me.
“You slut,” she slurred, “You cow bitch.”
“What, Lula, what is wrong? Are you okay?”
“You trying to fuck, Billy?”
“What? I don’t even know Billy.”
“That’s right. That’s right. You do not know anything, you fat slut. First Ilya, it’s comical, now Billy.”
I gulped. “Lula, I texted Billy because I want to come see you. I needed your address.”
“You? Youuuu want to come see me? Fuck. You don’t think I know what you do. You still talk to my mom—to Ilya. I saw the cards, Holly. I saw the cards. When I was living at your house, I saw the poems. The poems he writes you.”
“You know I saw Ilya’s video too.”
“Take Me to Church. In the barn, did you see Ilya dancing? You think only you and Ilya get to make your dreams? He is a dancer now like we wanted and I’d be with him now. I’d been with him now if it wasn’t for you.” She was crying, streams of mascara down her cheeks, and walking somewhere outside. I heard cars and saw flashes of headlights.
“Lula—I don’t think that’s true. And anyway, that isn’t Ilya. Ilya never wrote poems, those are poems he likes. And that’s a professional dancer, not Ilya. Lula, Ilya lives in Ukraine again, he is married to a woman named Yulia, they have two sons…Lula, why don’t you go home. I’ll come, I’ll come. I promise.”
“She promises! I loved him, Holly. I loved him–,” her face crumbled from anger into pain. “–And you stole him. I should be there with him. Not here. You don’t think I felt how you felt after Don left? I always feel that way. You don’t think I felt the outside of my body? Or lived deep deep inside my body invisible? I’m not filthy.”
“Of course—I understand, Lula—”
She turned off the call.
Afterwards, I talked to Nicolás, the professor, and he agreed I should go to Vegas. He had another two week of classes, so if I waited, we could both go. He brought it up like a suggestion, but it wasn’t a suggestion. He had always wanted to hike the Grand Canyon, he explained. I told him he could join me after his classes or we could go another time, but Nicolás was disgruntled. He did not like this plan—my plan. We argued for three days. On the fourth day, the immediacy of Lula’s call of pain began to dissipate. I found myself telling myself that if Lula was on drugs again, it wouldn’t be the first time, and she had gotten clean before.
Now, I know what you’re thinking, you should have gone to Vegas immediately, Holly. Also, what happened with Ilya? That’s the thing, in another Lula story, maybe Lula’s Lula story, she would have spent more time on Ilya, his confusion, his homesickness, his back-and-forth.
It was the following Sunday evening in England, late Sunday morning in Nevada when they found Lula strangled. She was in the backseat of a car without plates in the middle of some field. Nicolás asked me, what kind of field? I would go alone without Nicolás. I was in Vegas by Thursday night and in the grey office of the the LVMPD.
“Drug-related,” the officer told me.
“Drug-related, sure,” I nodded, “But that’s not the whole story. That’s just one part of Lula’s story. We can find who did this?”
They asked me about relatives, family. I asked them about friends, Billy. They told me that in cases like this most times the boyfriends, the pimps, the friends, they scatter. I thanked them and told them I would take care of any arrangements, that I would help in any way I could. But I hadn’t, I had not helped in any way I could.
When I got back to my hotel, I drew the curtains open wide. Below me, the strip buzzed and blinked like the thousand eyes of Argus, a thousand stories racing by, so many fictions. The room was painted a dark blue and I sat on the edge of the mattress facing the endless window, the bedsheets were bloated and so white. I smoothed them with my hands. From my purse, I took out my phone and scrolled until I found the number. I dialed the number from the hotel phone and waited as it rang and rang. Finally, a little boy answered the phone.
“Hi, sweetheart,” I said.
“Hi, hi, hi, hi,” he repeated.
“Papa?” I tried.
“Papa, papa, papa,” he repeated and ran off without the phone. I heard some shuffling across the world and then the receiver picked up.
“Ilya?” I spoke.
You might still think I have no authority to write Lula’s story or any of these people’s stories. Maybe you are right. When I got back to London, I walked the canals in my neighborhood and tried to think like Mrs. Wu, but I could not feel what she felt exactly, only pieces of it. I could not feel the liberation of the freedom she wanted. I left my glasses at home and the world was blurry. I found a podcast for learning French and began listening to it while I walked, but all I could think of was my best friend, of the smell of wisteria under the dreary London trees, thick-trunked, embroidering the canals. I imagined Lula had transformed into one of the towering trees like the tree-women in Delvaux’s painting L’Aurore. But the painting had four tree-woman, so I decided we could all transform into tree-women—me, Mrs. Wu, Ilya, and Lula, and our trunks would never matter again.
Helen Shackell called, she wanted to hire me, but I told her I needed some time. I was thinking of moving back to America. I called my mother, she had to go in for some tests, without saying it, I knew she wanted me home. I spent many days trying not to spend money, I stopped answering Nicolás’ calls. When not walking, I rooted myself in the Canada Water Library, which was like a docked spaceship surrounded by a rippling lake. I sat inside the library’s small café eating cherry pie and drinking milky tea. All around the shape of me, the library hummed with foot traffic, all kinds of people, school children and bespectacled adults, hands, scanners, a whiteboard wending, lanyards with names and square faces, lives, the library was never quiet. Underneath me, the omega carpet was rough and trippy like a bowling alley. Wobbling away from their mothers, I watched toddlers fall down on their pinked palms and stand back up–I watched the quick pass of cloud over their faces–to cry out or not.
I couldn’t read, my eyes were tired. I may never read again, I thought. My brain, bogged. I flicked a pen back-and-forth in my hand. I opened my laptop and found a new email from Ilya.
There are many things I wish to say. I will say them when I am in London with you again. You are my best friend and I am sorry you lost yours. I am enclosing a poem by a better version of myself, a smarter and more clever Ilya from Odessa.
If I speak for the dead, I must leave
this animal of my body,
I must write the same poem over and over,
for an empty page is the white flag of their surrender.
If I speak for them, I must walk on the edge
of myself, I must live as a blind man
who runs through rooms without
touching the furniture…
Artwork by Paul Delvaux “L’aurore” 1937