Fall From Grace – Ally Shap
August 16, 2023
Tal sized herself up in the full-length mirror. Outstretching one pointed toe in front of the other, she placed a hand on her hip and pivoted her body to examine herself from the side. The black pants she was wearing created a slimming effect that flattered her waistline. The lace shirt was a staple of her night-time wardrobe. As she scanned the room for a finishing touch, her eyes settled upon a spool of ribbon splayed along the nightstand. The ribbon was vampiric red, a color that Tal had always associated with a baroque sense of luxury. Snipping a generous amount from the spool, she wrapped the ribbon snuggly around her neck so that if she spoke too quickly it would tighten, her breath catching briefly in her chest. In the mirror’s reflection, she caught a glimpse of the porcelain ashtray resting on her window sill. Inside lay a silver watch she had received for her bat-mitzvah, a small set of hoop earrings, and a gold brooch gifted to her by her great-grandmother. Holding the scissors up to the mirror, Tal tugged at the front side of the ribbon so that a slight gap formed between the fabric and her neck. She took a single blade between her fingers and carefully punctured a hole in the center of the makeshift necklace. For a moment the blade held suspended millimeters from her flesh. She wondered how a puncture wound would feel. Likely the blood would pool too quickly for her to notice. All would be settled in a matter of seconds.
After securing the brooch inside the hole, Tal cast one last glance at the mirror and walked out into the night. Outside, the spring air had begun to take on the qualities of its seasonal successor, casting a warm breeze across her cheek. The party that evening was being held at a friend of a friend’s apartment in Parkdale. She thought about smoking a cigarette on her way there but decided to hold off. She liked to arrive smelling of crisp perfume, allowing the night’s ash and alcohol to cast over her like a chemical bath. By the end of the evening, she would come away feeling feral and entirely undone.
As Donna Summer purred sweetly in her ears, Tal flicked her lighter off and on in tune with the wind. Her heart leapt and caught in her throat in anticipation of her meeting with Ben. She tried to picture the outfit he was wearing. Mismatched socks, too bright and patterned, with one sock stretching far above ankle length to overpower its suitor. A tattered jacket thrown haphazardly over a set of joggers. Maybe a hoodie? Everything about him was scattered and impulsive. He was anxious by nature, probably by nurture as well. How many of his nervous tics had been born out of a string of adolescent years spent raging as a wide-eyed insomniac? How many remained true to his natural disposition? She was constantly speculating about him. Perhaps they had always been like this, anxiety-ridden Jews fleeing from somewhere or something.
When she arrived at the party, Ben stood hunch-backed in the right-hand corner of the room, nodding along to the ambient discourse while pausing intermittently to rest his lips on a glass brimming with translucent pink liquid. As usual, his eyes darted wildly around the space, looking for something beyond his peripheral vision. Like most of the men Tal fell for, Ben moved through the world as an open wound. His obvious sadness fostered an immediate sense of intimacy with those around him, which he then flagrantly discarded in order to wallow in his own self-imposed solitude.
The apartment suffered from the usual trappings of age, harboring the heat of the evening with an almost menopausal resolve. Tal lifted her hair into a faux knot to temporarily relieve her neck of its hefty burden and felt the crimson strand brush between her fingertips. She made her way towards the deflated couch on the opposite end of the room, where Audrey was already languishing in the company of multiple particularly coiffed young men. Meanwhile, Ben was situated on the outer brim of a larger group of friends, who, judging by the multitude of kerchiefs and statement necklaces dangling from their necks, were heavily involved in the theatrical arts.
The last time they’d met up, she’d watched as Ben’s sinewy fingers played the left side of his ribcage like a fickle pianist, thrumming along to the beat of some internal tune, while he bit his cheek and forced another solemn thought back down into the pit of his stomach. He’d reminded her of an overly anxious court jester, gesticulating wildly as he performed his emotional distress for an audience of one. It was the concept of the collective itself which overwhelmed him because he was, as he perceived, untethered and alone at sea. The only voices to be heard, the only sights to be seen, were the waves roaring and crashing around him, prepared to engulf him in a moment of ill-considered peace.
Tal thought that he appeared at once profoundly lonely and completely undesirous of human connection. She was overcome by the need to be near him.
In a sudden spell of consciousness, Tal heard a syrupy laugh fill the room and turned to look for its owner, before—lips outstretched and teeth bared—she recognized it as her own. With the frantic swell of a dam broken in two, Tal’s mind poured back into her body, returning the throb of the bass to her chest and the flood of chatter to her ears. For about ten minutes, Audrey had been going on about the evolution (or in her estimation, devolution) of male sensuality, beginning in the 1980s and continuing until today. Richard Gere in American Gigolo was the grand ‘ideal,’ before our supposed fall from grace. It was a topic that the two of them had argued over countless times, Tal preferring a less slick model of man herself. Thankfully, at this moment she wasn’t Audrey’s primary audience. That honor belonged to Ciaran, a pretty bulrush of a boy with watery eyes and tight Irish lips. While Audrey confidently relayed her schtick, Ciaran deftly played along, punctuating her points with a coy chuckle that slipped out from under the curl of his mouth.
Taking a generous sip from her plastic cup, Tal smiled and excused herself to the kitchen for a refill.
Ben had also wandered in and was lingering idly by the sink. Clutching her brooch close to her neck, Tal approached him from behind and gently rested a palm on his shoulder. “Hey,” she said, trying to keep her voice at an even level.
Ben braced at her touch. “Oh, hey!” he exhaled, groping towards her in a one-armed gesture that technically amounted to a hug. “How’s it going?”
“Pretty good,” she nodded. “How’ve you been?”
He fidgeted with a stray button dangling off the cuff of his fisherman’s jacket. It looked like a carp’s eye bobbing there, hanging onto its half-life. “Yeah…,” he trailed off, attempting a laugh. “Not great.”
“I’m sorry,” she said, trying to communicate the depth of her intention through the strain of her eyes.
He shrugged. “It’s fine.”
Tal toyed with her brooch, stroking it between her thumb and pointer finger. “What’s been on your mind?”
“You know,” Ben’s voice wandered, “a sense of purpose…wanting to be anywhere but here…not having the guts to do anything about it.”
“Oh,” he chuckled to himself, “and I think I may be in love.”
Fuck. Tal flinched. Her hand slipped on the brooch’s pin and a small pearl of blood started to form in the center of her pointer finger. “Oh yeah?” She stuck her finger between her lips and began to suck it dry.
He was looking away from her now. “Yeah, this girl I met the other day.”
She swallowed the blood. The ribbon felt too tight.
“That’s exciting,” Tal heard herself say, “What’s she like?”
“She’s great. We had a lot of fun together. Like the first real fun I’ve had since…forever.”
The air in Tal’s chest turned thick. She felt it stick to her lungs like a web of molasses. Some sort of congratulatory statement managed to escape from her lips. She kept rubbing the back of her neck.
Before she could think to say anything more, Ben mumbled something about needing a smoke, grazing her shoulder in the rote gesture of a cultivated sleepwalker as he vanished into the crowd.
Tal’s legs grew heavy. She stumbled forward, moving with an unconscious propulsion toward the bathroom. Both halves of a couple hovered on either end of the door frame, their heads bowing into one another to form a sort of mangled half-heart. Like a grotesque version of those crooning swans on love-themed paraphernalia, Tal thought to herself. She brushed past them and flung the door shut.
Right palm still clinging to the back of her neck, Tal steadied herself against the sink. In the mirror her early evening glow had already begun to fade, alluding to the heavy bags and dry skin that lay just below the surface. The walls dripped cherry red on all sides. What kind of psychopath paints their bathroom bright red?
She focused on the mirror. It was only now that the ribbon seemed like a ridiculous choice. She looked less sensually vampiric and more like she had just emerged from her local Hot Topic. The walls seemed to press in on her. It was too early in the evening to leave. She was fine. Everything was fine. She’d recompose herself and have a good time. She thought there might be shrooms somewhere in the bottom of her purse.
Suddenly someone was pounding on the door. Pounding on the door and laughing. The sound reverberated in her ears. Tal wanted to curl up on the cold tile and close her eyes.
Instead, the door flung open.
“Oh, hey angel! Sorry! Do you mind if we come in? We just needed a little breather, you know?”
“Yeah, for sure,” Tal replied, trying to focus her eyes on the blurry figures standing before her. She couldn’t have been that drunk—still, her head was spinning fast, forcing her breath in and out in violent spurts.
There were two of them, girls around her age—maybe a few years older or several younger; lately, it was impossible to tell. The first, long and wiry with large anime eyes, boasted bubblegum pink bangs and a matching fuschia set paired with platform gogo boots, elevating her already significant height to Amazonian proportions. She possessed the warmth and confidence of a provincial dictator, while the second, a tiny box-dyed black bob, appeared to be functionally mute, save for a few tight-lipped smiles and eyebrow raises that gestured at the presence of selectively withheld speech capabilities. Tal thought she may have met the two of them the other weekend at a bar on Dundas, or if she hadn’t, she easily could have. Their kind could be found at any gender non-conforming bathroom on the west side of the city, injecting inebriated young women and gay men with temporary boosts of self-esteem and drug-induced euphoria. They were her saving grace, and Tal was thankful for their presence.
The bangs sifted a generous bump of white powder onto the curve of her hand and held it up to Tal’s nose. “Want some?” she asked. “Thanks,” Tal snorted. “What is it?” The bangs smiled, “Just some Ket.” Her freshly coated lips glistened in the reflection of Tal’s eyes. “Have fun tonight,” she sparkled, planting a sticky kiss on Tal’s cheek before proceeding to grab her by the shoulders and stare directly into her newly dilated pupils. “No one owes anyone anything. Remember that.”
“Also, I think you’re bleeding-g-g…” Her voice trailed off.
In the next moment, Tal was thrown back into the depths of the party, wading through a sea of not-quite acquaintances. The ketamine had slowed down her perception significantly so that the room no longer spun but rather took on the quality of delayed motion. Three increasingly blurry hands appeared before her eyes and she realized that she was in fact bleeding. The pinprick on her finger had failed to contain its plumage, coating the entirety of her palm in a glistening red resin. Where had the sink been again?
Then, she was on a bed. A nude painting of an old woman hung on the opposite wall next to a deformed bunny that looked to be the result of an amateur pottery class. To her right sat a tall, handsome man who appeared to be absorbed in his own incisive monologue. When she looked to the bed, Tal saw her right hand cradled in his own, his muscular thumbs gently stroking her fingers. Where had the blood gone? Her other hand lay outstretched on the duvet, openly displaying two perfectly cylindrical white pills. The man took one and popped it into his mouth. To her surprise, Tal proceeded to do the same.
He was edging closer to her now, his lips large and wet. The blatant hunger in his eyes made her stomach lurch. Where was Ben? Had he left the party to mourn his own good luck? Tal slid her fingers further up the crease of the man’s thigh. “I think you’re the devil,” she said, though it sounded more like, “Let’s get out of here.” He caressed the back of her neck.