Featured Short Story: Mirrorball by Mary Gaitskill

He took her soul—though, being a secular-minded person, he didn’t think of it that way. He didn’t take the whole thing; that would not have been possible. But he got such a significant piece that it felt as if her entire soul were gone. As soon as he had it, he not only forgot that he’d taken it; he forgot he’d ever known about it. This was not the first time, either.

He was a musician, well regarded in his hometown and little known anywhere else. This fact sometimes gnawed at him and yet was sometimes a secret relief; he had seen musicians get sucked up by fame and it was like watching a frog get stuffed into a bottle, staring out with its face, its splayed legs, its private beating throat distorted and revealed against the glass. Fame, of course, was bigger and more fun than a bottle, but still, once you were behind the glass and blown up huge for all to see, there you were. It would suddenly be harder to sit and drink in the anonymous little haunts where songs were still alive and moving in the murky darkness, where a girl might still look at him and wonder who he was. And he might wonder about her.

It was at one of these places that he met her. She was drinking with a friend of a friend. She was slim and elfin, with dark hair, long fingers, and tapered fingernails. She held her drink as if she held a bit of liquid flame. She smiled at him; he smiled back. The friend of a friend started talking about a movie she had seen, a complicated fantasy in which a hero and heroine fall into a hidden world running parallel to ours, and discover that the two worlds are on a collision course. The elfin girl punched him lightly on the hip. “We should go,” she said. There was a loud crash behind the bar. They both started and turned to look. They turned back to face each other at the same time.

They went to the movie that weekend and then to a bar afterward.

It must be said: She should not have shown him her soul. She flashed it again and again, as if it were a bauble meant to entice him, or a hand mirror flashing signals from a dark and lonely place. Everybody knows about dark and lonely places, he thought. But why was she sending these signals without knowing who he was and if he cared to read them? Still, her constant flashing was dramatic and attractive. Images from the movie they had just seen hovered about her. A woman in black strode through the city with a gun; a woman in white fell on her knees before a killer. The camera lingered on her terrified face; the hero pounded on the door.
The girl’s eyes flashed like her bright, nervous soul.

“Do you know that vintage-record store on Sanchez and Eighteenth?” he asked.

She shook her head and smiled.

“It’s got a mirror ball in the window. It flashes over the whole street at night. Your eyes remind me of it.”

She looked down, her small lips in a sweet pinch. Her soul was very visible, and right then, he didn’t care why; it seemed natural and lovely. He embraced her, and for a moment he felt that holding her was like holding a bit of liquid flame.

“I’ll show it to you,” he said. “It’s right around the corner from me.”

She looked up. “Yeah, right,” she said, and the sweet pinch became a pungent smirk. She took her glass and swallowed the rest of her drink with a tart little face. He felt annoyed, but he walked her home anyway.

It was a cold fall night with a feeling of secret pockets and moving shadows. They walked past a park full of human shadows, drunks, crackheads, and vagrant kids, half-visible and half-audible in the dark. Cars rolled through pools of street light; blurred faces and pale hands appeared and vanished, on their way somewhere else. She put her cold little hand in his pocket, taking the tips of his fingers in her grip, and he felt as if he were in a fairy tale where the hero is led into the forest by an enchanted ball of light. She looked up at him and said something, and once again her soul flashed in her eyes.

When they reached her door, she invited him in, and her invitation had the same tart face he’d seen at the bar. He followed her slim figure down a long dark hall that smelled of onions. Squalid electronic music came from behind a door. The door opened and a roommate emerged, wearing a short robe with a cat face on it. She was introduced in motion, and her gleaming eyes went from the girl to him and back as she continued down the hall. Another girl sat before the TV in the living room and yet another was in the kitchen making instant macaroni and cheese. There were dirty dishes, a shiny garbage pail, fruit on the counter, notes tacked up on the fridge with colored magnets (magenta and orange).

The enchanted ball of light paled in the bright room; he glanced at his watch. The macaroni roommate was telling him how much she’d loved his last record. She had forthright blue eyes and a muscular red arm that stirred the milk into the glass bowl while he talked. His elfin date smiled and petted the sharp-cut hair at her temples with both cold hands. She glanced at him, and there it was again—the forest and the ball of light.

Who was she that she should have this? He sincerely wanted to know.

When she led him to her room behind the kitchen, he followed. She lay on her bed, eyes full of invitation. He sat beside her. He said, “I usually like to get to know a girl better,” even though it wasn’t true. “Why?” she said. “Can’t this just be for now?” He felt insulted, although he didn’t realize that was what he felt. She lay like she was posing in a mirror, except that she was trembling slightly under the pose. He felt like he wanted to take her and throw her away; he didn’t realize that, either. He kissed her. She rose through her body to meet him. He touched between her legs; she opened her pelvis and recklessly unfurled her soul. He felt like a man in a small boat under which a huge sea creature has passed, causing the boat to pitch gently. Like a man in a boat, he could chase it or run from it, and he picked chase. If he felt it on her lips, he put his mouth on her lips. If he found it on the palm of her hand, he opened her hand and licked it up. Her soul darted here and there, sensitive as any creature, tipping her center of balance back and forth as it oscillated.

She liked this, and if she had any fear, she did not take it seriously. He liked it, too, so much that he could barely concentrate on the chase. Sensation nearly overwhelmed him; his will strained almost to the breaking point when he felt her soul gather its vastness in one small spot, pulling so hard that it yanked him off the boat. He felt her all about him in a tingling feminine myriad; out of this myriad appeared formless spirit that lived in the form of their bodies, touching their eyes, their mouths, their limbs, their genitals. The unknown rose up through their souls and became joined with the known in the form of feelings. Something hot and glowing flew from her. It was joined with Ardor, and it compelled him; it compelled the part of his soul that was joined with Hunger. He reached for it, and she did not hold it back. She cried out, delirious and ignorant of her danger. Hunger snapped shut its jaws, and her soul, which should have filled the room with her, contracted and went silent. Her cry was clipped off with a sharp, bewildered gasp. Her liquid flame was out, and she was just another girl who shared a flat with too many other girls.

Still—he was not indecent—he felt tenderly toward her body, and toward his own body, too, and he held her close while she buried her face against him. He could sense her diminishment, and that made him feel protective toward her. He meant it when he kissed her good night and told her he’d call her. But out in the hall (which still smelled of onions), he changed his mind. He weighed her good qualities as he walked home in the interesting light of 4:00 a.m., but he did it like a man counting pocket change, yawning and half-interested. When he got home, Hunger yawned, too. He dropped her soul on the floor, where it quickly became invisible to him. He forgot her.

Because the dark-haired elfin girl was also a secular-minded person, she didn’t know he’d taken a part of her soul any more than he did. But she knew she would not hear from him again. And she knew something was gone. She woke the next day feeling bereft and heartsick. She sulked and drooped around her flat while her roommates exchanged knowing glances. She vacillated between anger and contempt and terrible longing, and a sense that she must see the young man again no matter what. Because she was a rational person, she was sure that her feelings were illusory. Because she was a proud person, she was determined that she should not act on her feelings and call him. Rational and proud, she controlled her feelings by categorizing them in terms of obsession and projection. “I don’t even know him,” she said. “I’ll get over it.” And she waited for it to pass, much as she might wait for the end of a flu.

What made it worse: Her soul was connected to her through her brain. This was not a fault or a virtue; she was just born that way. Heart, viscera, genitals, brain—none is better than the other; it’s a matter of where the soul has found a place to cling. The brain is not higher in moral or celestial terms, nor is a person with a soul connected to the brain always unusually bright. But such connection can give the soul a kind of shocking electricity that will make it stay up talking its head off for nights on end. Now he had it and it was talking to him.

He did not understand where the talking was coming from and he did not like it. The soul spoke in images of sight and sound that were quick and multiple, and which changed form by blending into one another. Because the young man had seized a piece of the soul linked to Ardor, many of these images were about love. But the glowing unknown attached to Ardor was, in the soul of this girl, Effacement. And so the pure, exquisite voice of her soul’s love could flowingly transform, for instance, into the shape of a naked woman on her hands and knees, holding a knife in her hand, poised as if to cut her own face. In the physical world, a picture like this would describe insanity and suicide. In the world of this particular soul, it described a mystery of Ardor and Effacement, a mystery the girl was expressing in human form on the night she invited the boy to have her. The soul addressed itself to the girl, innocently and literally mirroring her actions—and she could still hear it, albeit dimly. She did not hear it with her conscious mind; she heard it like she heard her own breath, without being aware of it. And because the young man had possession of it, he heard it, too—and it was not like his breath.

He did not see the naked woman in his mind’s eye; he would never have allowed himself to become conscious of something so violently ugly. But he sensed it in his body, and sensed why it was there. Thoughts of the girl came to him, and with those thoughts, fear that he didn’t understand. Because he didn’t want to be afraid, he had contempt for her. He thought that would work.

The girl tried to feel contempt for the boy, too, but it is hard to have contempt for a person who’s made off with part of your soul. She went about her life—her job at a used-clothing store, her once-a-week volunteer stint at the Outreach Center for homeless youth, her evenings out with friends. Outwardly, she did not appear much changed by the misalignment; the first layer of her thoughts was more or less the same, logical and competent enough to get her through the day. But the next layer down, her mind was slowly becoming disintegrated and febrile, unstable on its primary support. Her perception was both heightened and dulled; she would suddenly weep at the sight of an old woman on the bus, or bewilder a friend with her excited analysis of a television character. But the intensity of feeling was misplaced and did not satisfy her. Her mind seized on triviality and substance without being able to tell the difference between the two; she went through it all like a computer on a search, looking tirelessly for what she lacked without knowing what it was.

And constant through it all was the memory of the boy she had so casually taken into her body. He was now always present for her, more overtly than she was present for him. She thought of him against a vast, open sky, with a halo of piercing white. She thought of him astride a leopard, light and graceful in mid-leap. She thought of him moving in an aura of electrical fire, his heart huge and glowing with blue fire. She did not realize that these pictures came from her own soul, which was steadfastly signaling her from the boy’s room. She thought she was seeing the boy’s fantastical nature. And so she overruled her pride and called him. In two weeks, she left two messages on his answering machine. They went unreturned. She thought, I was very stupid just to have sex with him. I loved him, and I degraded us both. I am a terrible woman. I love him and now I will never see him again. Tears ran down her face.

Meanwhile, the young man was having his own difficulties. Al-though he was quick to be insulted by a girl who didn’t seem to take him seriously, he generally didn’t take girls seriously. But serious or not, he’d regularly made off with prize bits of their souls: One (Gentleness) sat quietly, chewing its cud, one (Forbearance) grew up his wall like ivy, and one (Instinct) blundered dazedly around in the closet, looking for release. They were pacific and untroublesome, subtle feminine presences that soothed and grounded him—until now. The newly stolen soul was so talkative, so increasingly restless, that it had gotten all the others going; if he could’ve seen the female souls clustered in his room, they might’ve looked like sexy juvenile delinquents hanging around a street corner, smoking and muttering. It wasn’t just the girls, either. His soul was starting to get in on it, too. The new captive was talking to it and it was beginning to talk back—or at least half of it was. For this was a young man with a soul in two parts; he’d split it up so it would be harder to get.

He’d done this when he was about two. He’d done it at his mother’s advice; she had done it early in life herself. She advised her son to follow her example after his father had walked away and left them in their small brick house. His mother was glad she had kept part of her soul back from her former husband, and she thought her son should learn to do the same. When she sat on his bed at night, singing lullabies and pop songs, he heard her advice, not in the songs, but in her supple voice. Her words would say, “You’ve got to hide your love away,” but he understood that meant “hide your soul.” Not all of it, just the vulnerable part. And, as he lay on the verge of dreams and sleep, she would show him how. One half of her smiled and bent to kiss him, and the other vanished in the dark like a cat. And, in the moment between waking and sleep, he followed her lead. The bright, strong half of his soul smiled back at his mother and received her kiss, and the weak part of him withdrew, even deeper than she. For although he took after his mother enough to follow her advice, he could not split so easily. His fragile soul hid too deep inside itself. It made the darkness into which it fled a thing of shape and substance: a tiny model of his childhood home, except the model had no windows and only one door, which was always locked. The strong soul, out in the world of light and movement, forgot his fragile brother. The dark house became a prison and the soul inside a shapeless, nearly voiceless mass of pain that did not stir except in the young man’s deepest dreams.

Until now, that is. The chattering soul of the infernal brain girl was everywhere, including outside the prison, tapping on the walls and whispering through the bricks. Her terrible pictures penetrated the thick walls of the prison and the soul inside saw and understood—for he had been effaced for a very long time. The pictures did not seem terrible to him; on the contrary, their violence gave him hope because they confirmed what had happened to him. In the language of the soul, his eyes spoke to the girl through the prison wall in feelings, words, sights, and sounds.

Naturally, this response only increased the girl’s pain. On top of her own soul calling out to her, she was hearing from him, too, in the most confusing way possible. She heard him like the American sailors searching the Baltic for a wrecked Russian submarine at the bottom of the ocean heard, with their elaborate sonar, cryptic tapping, which they could not be sure of as signals, and which did not help them rescue the doomed crew. The signals of his soul were like this tapping, which could be anything or nothing, and they haunted her day and night. Day and night she heard him, and nothing she knew about obsession and projection could help her.

She wanted desperately to buy his records and bathe herself in his voice; she didn’t because she knew that would only enflame her. But now all music was about him, and she heard his voice in every singer. And she craved music almost as much as she craved the boy. Where her soul had once held space, there was now a ragged hole, dark and deep as the pit of the earth. At the bottom of it ran boiling rivers of Male and Female bearing every ingredient for every man and woman, every animal and plant. Without the membrane of her soul to buffer and interpret the raw matter of the pit, her personality was now on the receiving end of too much primary force. Music temporarily filled the empty space, soothing her and giving shape to the feelings she could not understand.

She went with her friend Angelique to see a live band with a powerful woman singer. The woman sang like her songs were giant weird-shaped things pulling her this way and that as they came through her body and out her mouth. Her songs rose through the room in huge moving tableaux that dissolved in the darkness, then rose again—fantastic pictures heard as sound by the clumsy ear, but seen vividly by the souls present. The songs reflected these souls and spoke their language: Emotion, thought, sound, image, wordlessness, and words mixed together in the place between the life of this world and the pit.

But because the girl’s soul was missing, the music didn’t reflect her; rather, it filled her, and she reflected those around her. She experienced these reflections as a feast, as if she were a clear pool with senses and a mind, glutted on the sights that passed through it. She wandered away from her friend into the live darkness, blooming with the painted eyes and lips of a hundred stories. The rest room was a burst of light and filth, rushing water and voices. A young pregnant woman in high-heeled boots and a fur collar laughed and shook water off her fingers, as if she were scattering tiny jewels into the air. A sparkling bracelet flashed on her wrist. She smiled into the mirror and rubbed her belly, and this double reflection was delicious to the girl.

Still, she was full of humiliation and pain. She was full of anger at the boy and fear of him because she believed he’d caused her suffering. But because she still heard, without knowing what she was hearing, the plaintive message of his trapped soul, her abjection and anger were strangely mixed with tenderness and pity. She came out of the bathroom staggering a little; she already felt drunk.

Meanwhile, onstage, the singer was singing about love. She stood still with her naked legs apart, as if the song were splitting her open and offering her, whether she was wanted or not. Offering layer by layer, until she was splayed so wide that her spine was made to offer its long, sensitive nerves. It was not an abject song; it was proud. It said, See how I can open. And at the end, when she put her legs together with a quiet “Thank you,” it said, See how I can close again. The crowd was still and rapt, receiving her, honoring her, acknowledging all things that open, including themselves. Bouncers and bartenders presided with nimble grace and witness.
They had been there a thousand nights and they knew it already.

But the girl, who had opened with the song, could not close again. She found Angelique standing alone with her arms wrapped around herself, her teeth clamped against the rim of her paper cup. When she saw the girl, she took her teeth off the cup, leaving a dark, blurred imprint of her lips. “What’s wrong?” she said.

“Oh!” Heavily, the girl put her arms around her friend and laid her head on her shoulder. She rubbed her cheek against her denim jacket and, shuddering, felt the movement of every stranger’s reflection flitting through her. Especially, and gratefully, she felt Angelique.

Angelique was a chunky redhead with a beautiful face: big lips, scarred skin, and green eyes that were watchful and passive at the same time, like an animal’s. Except her eyes were sad, too. Once they’d gone to L.A. and stayed on Venice Beach for a few days with some Mexican boys they’d just met. The boys had renamed them. They looked at the girl and said, “You’ll be . . . Prestige.” To Angelique, they said, “And you’re Infinity.” They were joking, but they were also right: Angelique had a window in her soul and Infinity poured through it, slow and sorrowful as dust. But while Infinity can be sorrowful, it can be calming, too. Right now, for the girl, that desolate calm was like a draught of opium. She shuddered again; in this borrowed Infinity, the boy was just one tiny star among thousands, speeding past.

Abruptly, Angelique shrugged her shoulder and stepped away. “What’s wrong?” she asked again. The girl looked up, to see Infinity staring at her with the face of a worried office mate.

“Nothing,” she said, straightening. “I’m just drunk.” She looked at the stage, but instead of seeing the singer, she saw the boy, sitting next to her at the bar. He was talking about the movie they had seen. In amazement, she gazed at this ordinary boy who had apparently destroyed her. Help me, she said to him. Please help me. I don’t understand what is happening.

And he heard her. Her soul, still in his possession, made sure of that. He was sitting in a bar, half-listening to his drinking partner talk about the ghosts in his apartment while he brooded about his music. His songwriting had not been going well. He was used to writing music that was light and lovely; it had no weight because all the young man’s darkness and heaviness was concentrated in the prison house. It could’ve been a good thing artistically that he was finally hearing from the forgotten soul inside it; he could’ve used the weight of sorrow in his songs. But since it had been awakened by the foreign agency of the hijacked female, its effects came through an alien sensibility and were distorted. He felt chaotic inside, his thoughts like tiny boats scattered on a strange sea with a cold, unknowable heart.

The ghosts, his friend said, had come out of their usual corner and had taken to floating up around the bed as he lay in it, even floating between him and the books he read before going to sleep. The young man smiled.

“Why don’t you try slamming a book on them?” he asked.

The friend said something, but he didn’t hear it. He thought the ghost thing was ridiculous, and anyway, he had noticed a girl sitting across from him. She was beautiful, with dark, heavy-lidded eyes exaggerated by makeup, and an almost overly full mouth. She looked at him, frank and confident in her beauty. There was a black bat tattooed on her clavicle.

Well, chaos was not unfamiliar to him. In daily life, his emotions were chaos. He let himself become a vessel for them, letting feeling roar through him, pulling him around like a kite, boiling him like water in a kettle, dissolving him in a whirl of elements. Except that normally he could go into his studio and make order. He could make songs that were satisfying containers, for the kite, the kettle, the whirl of elements—he could put each in its place. The things he was feeling now did not fit into the songs he was used to making.

Thinking he had smiled at her, the bat girl smiled back. Her smile slit open her personality, and out of it tumbled sultry little demons with black curly hair, bright eyes, and naked bottoms. He let himself be distracted. He dropped down into another layer of drunkenness. One of the little demons hiccoughed and sat down heavily.

That’s when he heard her say Help me. He receded more deeply into drunkenness, and, with a little shock, felt her acutely. She was reaching out to him, but he didn’t know for what. He stepped deeper into himself, into the little swift-moving stream of music that always played inside him, a stream of songs running together with memory. His mother’s smile was there, the one she had smiled when she was young and beautiful and ready to disappear into the dark. Her smile ran together with the smiles of girls he had loved, or tried to. Mother became an old radio song that cascaded into dozens of songs, sweet and cheap, with something real hidden inside each of them. Still he heard the call—slow and repeated—for help.

He had no ill will toward the girl. On the level that he heard her, he would’ve been willing to help her. But he had no idea how. He propelled himself back up into his personality and stopped hearing her.

At three in the morning, Angelique had gone home, leaving the girl alone and very drunk. She was sitting on the pavement in the doorway of the vintage-record store at Sanchez and Eighteenth, the one with the silver mirror ball spinning in its window. The mirror ball was full of light from the dimly illuminated store, and out of it flew a horde of ghost lights, skimming dark walls and sleeping windows in a slow, shimmering curve. Secret and tucked away, the girl knelt beneath the curve of light, her hand on the pavement for balance. Her tapered nails and sparkling rings were fascinating against the concrete, which appeared wonderfully porous and soft, as if it had magically absorbed all the softness of the night. She was waiting for the boy to walk by. Even if she couldn’t talk to him, she wanted to see him.

It was a sad situation and might’ve been a disastrous one, except for one thing: It had caused the girl’s heart to come open. This had never happened before. Because of the way her soul was hooked into her brain, whenever it had been touched by love, her brain had taken control and overruled her heart. But because of the missing place in her soul, her brain was in too much chaos to control her heart. And so it had come open for the first time. It was as if she had just discovered a hidden door leading to a place inside herself she’d never known to exist. This was a marvelous thing. Of course, she did not experience it that way; because her openness had come for someone who did not want her, she felt it as painful. And yet she made no attempt to close it. Her mind was still strong enough that she could’ve tried, but she didn’t. The stolen piece of her soul silently compelled her to let it stay open. Her soul did this so that if it got loose, it would have a way back in. And so, without knowing what she was doing or why, the girl obeyed. She was steadfast and loyal, and she did not know it. She thought she was just a lovesick bitch. Because of what she thought, it shamed her to keep her heart open. But she did.

The ragged man approaching her on the street could see all of this from almost a block away. Significant pieces of his soul had been missing for years, and his endless search for them had caused his normal sense of sight to grow an invisible, voracious eye, which tirelessly scanned places most people would not wish to see. He saw her emptiness sucking at everything around it. He saw her open heart, full of feeling and pouring it all out. Emptiness and fullness, pulling in and pouring out with equal and opposite force, gave her an extraordinary psychic discharge more visible to him than the ghost lights. It made him curious. When he got close enough to see her, he was even more curious; she did not look like that kind of person.

Meanwhile, the boy was heading home in a taxi, bat girl in tow. He was in a philosophical mood. She was talking nonsense about art. That was okay with him. Her talk was like a glimmering curtain pulled back to reveal a stage with costumed people on it—and he was one of them. The curtain was moth-eaten and torn at the bottom, but that only made it better. The taxi turned down the mirror-ball street. He interrupted the girl. “Do you know why this is my favorite block in the city?”

She looked out the window, then looked back at him. He could tell she was thinking hard about it. He looked past her out the window; the dancing lights flirted with him and ran away. There were homeless people huddled in the dark storefront. He felt pity, plus curiosity. What was it like for them?

“Oh!” said the girl. “The record store?”

In fact, the ragged man was not homeless. He had a room in a tiny, rotting hotel with a hot plate, a buzzing box refrigerator, and stacks of magazines piled up against a wall. People assumed he was homeless because he stank and was ragged, because he asked for change, and because he was empty like the girl. His soul hadn’t been stolen; he had lost it, gradually, over a period of years. He had lost much more than she had. Unlike hers, his soul had been connected to his heart. Because his heart had been deranged by the loss, he’d tried to call back his soul by opening his mind. It didn’t work, and he had been without so much of his soul for so long that his open mind was like a gaping wound. His openness had made him wise, but it was not a wisdom he could do anything useful with. His mind hurt him all the time, and the constant hurt made him full of pity for everything that hurt. But because his pity came through his mind, it translated as a thought disturbance rather than feeling, and so was hard to express. He stood before the kneeling girl full of sympathy he couldn’t feel and didn’t know how to express.

“Do you want money?” she asked.

“Could you help me out?” He hadn’t known what else to say. Reflexively, he extended his hand.

“Um, hold on.” She opened her purse and pawed through it. Absently, she wondered if the man might rob her. She found her wallet, pulled a dollar from it, and handed it up to him. He took it and paused, as if trying to decide what to do. The circle of whirling lights enclosed them like a spell cast long ago and forgotten, all the force gone out of it but still haunting its spot. He was trying to remember how to talk to girls.

“That’s all I can give,” she said. “I’m not rich.”

He saw she had no idea what was happening to her. Even if he could talk to her, she would not be able to answer. Sorrow and loneliness roared through him—so much force that came to nothing. He decided to try anyway. “You aren’t what you think,” he said.

“I don’t know what I am,” she answered.

You are a sack of things without a sack, he thought, but the thought sped by too fast. “Six farts going off in a bag,” he said. “Broke the bag and fell out.”

She gave a short, nervous laugh. Making a girl laugh—that was good. Grateful for her laughter and wanting very much to help, he decided to show her what was inside him. If you had been looking at him, you would’ve seen him open his coat and stand as if he were sexually exposing himself. But that gesture was symbolic. Hoping that the girl would have eyes to see, he made his coat the cover for his daily self and, in opening it, revealed the disfigurement of his soul. He did it like a leper might stand in mute greeting before another leper. He did it to show understanding and also to warn.

Her personality didn’t see, let alone recognize, what she had been shown; her personality just saw a homeless guy holding his coat open. But beneath her personality, her soul saw what he was showing and shrieked in fear. A block away, the missing piece came awake so suddenly that the other souls trapped in the room with it started and stirred, like restive animals. Do not let that happen, it signaled her. Do something—now! NOW!

At that moment, the boy and his guest walked into his room. Even though the boy was drunk, he was sensitive enough to feel the agitation present there. Not guessing what it was, he mistook it for his own excitement, and he thought he was more attracted to this girl than he was. The girl felt it, too, but, likewise, mistook it for the intensity of the boy himself. Within moments, they were stretched out on his bed kissing. This girl had no intention of revealing her soul. But in the charged atmosphere of the room, she couldn’t hold it back altogether, and it floated to her surface, where he could feel it, just under her skin, delicious and tantalizing. She closed her eyes and arched her neck, and he saw the subtle beauty of her eyebrows, the elegant bone of her nose, the down that covered her face. He felt like he loved her, even though he knew he didn’t.

The ragged man sighed and closed his coat. He thought he saw a flicker of recognition, but she just sat there, staring at him. He tried another approach.

“Why don’t you go home?” he asked. “You shouldn’t be out here.”

“I’m waiting for someone.”

“Oh,” he said. “A . . . boyfriend?”


His memory became a tunnel of girls, and he fell down it. Some of them were shouting angrily, others were indifferent, and some were laughing with happiness and kissing him with warm, live mouths. One was crying because she was pregnant and too young to have a baby. He sighed again. Now here was this one before him, pert and pretty and torn down the middle. Of course this boyfriend had something to do with her predicament, but what could he do about it? He gave up. “Well,” he said, “don’t wait too long, sweetheart.”

“I won’t,” she said. She watched him walk down the street, hunched as if subtly crippled. There was a drunk scream from the next block over, and she heard it as a refrain: Do something—now! Now! She took her cell phone out of her pocket and dialed the boy’s number.

When he picked up the phone, a dark little silence followed his hello and he knew who it was. “Hello?” he said again. The girl on the bed propped her head up with her hand and looked at him. Wonderful: her deep eyes and her blunt-tipped nose and the sharp angle of her elbow.
“We have to talk,” said the voice from the phone.

At the sound of it, her captive soul unfurled itself again, and a wave of urgency passed through the room.

“It’s four in the morning,” he said.

“I know. We need to straighten some things out.”

“Well, we can’t do it now. I have company.” Her soul rolled through the room, crashing like Rip van Winkle’s ninepins. He couldn’t hear it, but his soul, which was getting nervous, roughly and quickly translated it to his mind as Give me back my Golden Arm!

“You treated me like shit!” cried the girl.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said. “I treated you like you treated me.”

She didn’t say anything. She gazed at the new place inside her, longing to enter it with him. She thought, I love you, I love you, I love you.

He sensed the new place, but he didn’t see what it had to do with him. He sighed. “Call me tomorrow and we can talk,” he said. “But right now, I’m busy.” He hung up and the ninepins crashed again as her soul flung its full weight against the prison door inside him. The girl on the bed sat like an alert cat, sensing an invis-
ible war.

“An old girlfriend?” she asked.

“No, just somebody I went out with once.”

Give me back my Golden Arm!

“I hope she’s not a stalker,” he added. He sat on the bed; his guest sat up and watched him intently. Deep inside him, deeper than dreams, a drum was beating. It had taken several hours for the girl’s call for help to filter down to the bottom of the boy’s soul; it had just now gone through the prison wall and reached the prisoner inside. He recognized her voice instantly. He rose and gripped the handle of the prison door. With all his strength, he pulled from the inside while the female pushed from the outside. The boy’s inmost foundation began slowly to rock. Debris was loosed. The pit was disturbed.

“Do you want me to go?” asked the tattooed girl.

“No,” he said. He meant it; he didn’t want to be alone.

The girl lay against the storefront door, her open lips pressed against the tiny, hateful phone, her eyes closed, her face knit tight with pain. Day was coming. In the shallow dark, the mirror-ball lights swarmed biliously. Her heart felt swollen and grotesque, as if it were taking over her whole body, including her head. Her mind felt nearly gone. But the ragged man had helped her after all. Because a tiny bit of her had seen what he showed and had the sense to fear it, she made herself stand up. “Don’t wait too long, sweetheart,” she muttered through her teeth. “Don’t wait too long, sweetheart.” She imitated the ragged man’s voice as she walked home, hunched in the cold and nearly growling.

The girl from the bar was naked before the boy, as he was before her. She had the turgor of a healthy plant, dense with moisture, so aroused that she was already lost in it. Her soul moved beneath him, luxuriantly turning in her fecundity. The crashing inside him was matched by the hard, socketed joining of their bodies; he pushed from the outside, she from the inside. Deep things were roused and driven toward the surface: Bits of primary matter joined with feeling, memories, and dreams swarmed upward like bats from a dark shaft. The girl beneath him released her own darkness like a wave of perfume. Overwhelmed without knowing why, the boy pressed into her body as if for refuge. She gave it to him, hot and jumping. Her little demon consorts punched their fists in the air and cheered. He let go of everything but the feeling of her body and the sight of her face, her lips parted just enough to show a sliver of teeth. The prison broke. The boy had a sensation of flying as his freed soul shot up and up and up. The boy rolled off the girl, so moved that he nearly passed out. He touched her face with astonished fingers. “Who are you?” he whispered. She smiled. His awe was misplaced, but that scarcely mattered.

Between sleep and wakefulness, he remembered the soul of the girl he’d taken and thrown away; it was like you might suddenly remember something strange that you’d done during a blackout drunk. He got up to look for it, and, to his amazement, bumped into several others before he found it. It was clear what was called for—and yet, as he looked at them, he realized he had grown attached. He had to sit for some moments, just looking at them—Gentleness, Forbearance, Instinct, and Ardor—before he could herd them into the hall and out the door. Perhaps some of them were attached to him, too, for, once outside, instead of dispersing right away, Forbearance and Gentleness clustered at the door, giving off an air of doelike confusion.

But the intrepid soul attached to the brain of the girl who had knelt under the mirror ball that night did not hang around. As soon as he released it, it made a beeline toward its proper owner, who was mercifully still asleep, and so was spared the strange sensation of reentry. The window of her heart was just open enough for it to slip in.

Almost a year later, they passed each other on the street. They might have tried to avoid meeting, except that neither recognized the other until it was too late. This was because the appearance of both had been subtly altered. Each of them was vaguely aware that the other had changed, but neither suspected that the other had a thing to do with it. Each merely recognized the other as an enemy with whom they were no longer at war, and they both had tentative, tolerant eyes that said, I like you fine as long as you don’t start anything. They said, Hi, how are you?” on the approach and “Good!” on the way past. Both of them turned to look at each other, got caught, and quickly turned back. Neither of them saw their souls, unfurled in the sun and glimmering at each other with recognition and regard.

Excerpted from Don’t Cry by Mary Gaitskill Copyright © 2009 by Mary Gaitskill. Excerpted by permission of Pantheon, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.