Give me gore over this. Piss, shit, blood, placenta — I’d take it, this is the ugliest birth. I stand over the printer like a father, watching it grind and scrape and shake the photo out. First to come out are her feet, bare ankles and black pants, the concrete, an enamelware cup of tea on the dirty concrete, wet stains. It’s pushed out of that roaring machine inch by slow inch. Next come the legs — legs of the guards in green, legs of the boyfriend sitting in the background tied up with white rope. So far Tao Jing is all pants, sitting with her knees up and ass on the concrete. Her black leather jacket comes out next, a white armband strapped to her bicep. Or is it rope? Is she already tied? Scrape, scrape, scrape her hand over a big white porcelain bowl, her last meal. She wields chopsticks. The shirt beneath the jacket is black and white speckled, unless our mother-printer is betraying her photograph-child with cheap pixelation. She’s pushed out further and Tao Jing’s face appears, staring straight into the camera, her face squarely framed by bangs and short black hair. She doesn’t look hungry but at least the bowl looks warm, there’s something in the way she grips it that tells me so. She’s in an alleyway of some sort — her and the boyfriend and all these guards. He’s curled away from the guard’s hand wrapped around him. His head’s turned so far he doesn’t have a face, just hair. The guards behind Tao Jing watch her eat her last meal. They’re holding lengths of rope, holding them just behind her head. The photo drops out into the tray complete, Tao Jing born again in my living room. She was the youngest Chinese woman to be sentenced to death in fifty years, caught smuggling drugs for her boyfriend. They shot her at twenty. It was an ugly dry birth, but a birth no less.
Tao Jing’s face is the moon. I pick it up and lightly blow to dry the ink. I rise and tape Tao Jing to the bathroom mirror — her face beside my face staring back at me. I take a comb and run it through my hair, strands fall out and float to the ground. Now that the printer is silent I can hear something in the walls, muffled heaves. It doesn’t sound like a rat, but rat’s where my mind goes first. What is it? Short little gusts of sound like moguls on a ski hill, speed bumps of breath. I look at Tao Jing one more time and walk back into the main room. I’ve got a little kitchen, a table and a comfy chair, that’s all there is. Books lie on the floor and on the shelf. I open up a bottle of Lillet and pour myself a demitasse. I feel like Picasso when I drink Lillet, my own version of Picasso — how I want to feel in his body. I am strong and old and capable and withered and dominant. I hear he was a rapist. When I become Picasso I’m not a rapist, but I do suck the body up and spit it out, like a chewed piece of meat, gnarled and tired and spent. I do it in a way that makes us both happy. The difference between the real Picasso and I is that I take orders. I chew up only the bodies that want to be chewed. I stop when I’m asked to stop, I check in, I stop for water breaks. I’ll bet Picasso never stopped for water breaks. I’ll bet he never understood that you could play a lot harder if you ask for permission, can go a lot further, relax beneath your mask.
But I’m not thinking about Picasso, I’m thinking of me-Picasso, in an old shirt, fashionable really only because of its age. So much sentimentality is slammed into that one shirt. It makes me feel good to carry the history against my back and breasts — huge right now. Then I think back to Tao Jing. I put on my leather boots.
I think it’s a person next door making that noise, I’m almost sure of it now. I’ve never heard any noise over there, had always assumed the walls were thick enough to block out the sounds, but now I can hear so clearly. Are they fucking? I think they are crying, actually, I hear a long wail and now I’m sure of it. How ugly it is that it took me so long to realize, how ugly of me.
In the closet I reach up to find the leveller I bought to install some bookshelves. The little bubble in the tube sways from one side to the other as I carry it to the bathroom. I look for a long while at Tao Jing, her moon face. She knows life is fucked, everything is fucked, a sad joke from beginning to end. The soup is good and life is fucked and that’s all there is. I pull my long hair over my face, placing the leveller under my bangs. I stare carefully though my own strands into the mirror to get the line straight, leveller pressed to my forehead, then I take the scissors and cut straight across. The hair falls like confetti into my sink, fluffed and charged with static. I pull the shears and leveller away and take a look. Pin straight, nice and level, perhaps a bit too rigid, not quite like Tao Jing yet but so far so good. I pull my tools up and continue.
It’s a quiet, modest cry going on over there, a man’s voice. I picture him over there, probably only ten or fifteen feet from where I stand. He’s hunched over his body on the edge of the bed, palms pressed to his cheeks or chin or forehead. Most of us curl into our bodies and stare at our laps when we cry. It would be strange to look up, to look around, wouldn’t it be? I haven’t cried in a long, long time. That doesn’t mean I don’t have bad weeks, I have bad weeks but this is a good week and I wish this fellow wasn’t crying right next to me. I take a sip of my aperitif and think about playing some music over him. I don’t because I know the idea of his cry is worse than the reality, the sound — I’d rather just hear it.
It’s all cut, needs some evening-out, but I put the leveller away. I lit up a joint, walk around and around my apartment like a shark in a tank while I smoke. Sometimes it gets to be too lonely in here and I have to go out for a walk, that’s alright. This is alright too — this guy’s right there and he’s alone and really going at it, really lettin’ loose. I think I like the sound of his voice. I think I understand his cry, it’s harsh yet confined and necessary, no frills. He knows he’s alone the same way I know I’m alone right now, but we’re both wrong. Picasso spent so much time trying to interpret the female body when its most divine interpretation was always right there in front of him. He couldn’t give the flesh of the female body what it needed, never figured that out. We know what it means. We don’t need it interpreted. We know what pain is, it arrives like clockwork, you’re lucky if your pain comes on time. Do not tell me what it is to see blood, I know blood. I am the new and improved Picasso, the one who’s solved all the mysteries in the first blink of my eye. It was never a mystery in the first place. He sat in his well lit, well heated studio all through the war, pondering these questions, pondering me, my body, though I knew it all the minute I was born. And now what? I have that knowledge, I embody that knowledge, I grew up, I think and think like he did but I’m ten steps ahead — now what? I cut my hair, I buy a whip.
There’s this little girl I babysit, Emma, she couldn’t get to sleep one night. I was sitting on her floor trying to get her to close her eyes but she couldn’t, she was scared. She looked at me, frustrated, she was not baby-talking any more. She said, what do you do when you can’t sleep? I said I go out for walks. It was dark out but still early, only seven thirty, some people were still coming back from work, some were going out for dinner. This night-street world was new for Emma. There were dogs out taking long pees on the grass, they’d been inside holding it all day. Emma looked up the sidewalk and saw one come out of the darkness and into the orange streetlight.
“What is that? That’s not a dog,” she said.
“Yes it is, it’s a greyhound.”
“Why does it look like that?”
“Well, that’s just the way they look. It’s walking that way, all stiff, because its whole life it was a racing dog, they are the fastest dogs in the world. They train and train and they race and people bet money on which dog is going to win. Their owners don’t give them much love, they sleep in cold, lonely cages at night and all they do is run, even when they don’t want to. When they get older and they can’t run fast anymore, their owners don’t want them anymore, put them up for adoption. Some nice person, like that lady over there, takes the greyhound in and gives it love and it can be happy and run only when it wants to. When you see greyhounds on the street you should be nice to them, they’ve had very hard lives.”
“How do they make them run if they don’t want to?” Emma asked.
“On the racetrack they have a little white toy bunny attached to a string that pulls it just a bit faster than the dogs can run, they chase after it as fast as they can.”
“Yes, but how do you know it’s the bunny they really want?”
My face is now in a perfect frame. I’ve clipped the hair on the sides a little longer to create more of a curve, just like Tao Jing, a semicircle to hold the face and make them look. The crying is quieter now, low and slow and tapering. The lowest moment hits once the crying ends, the release is over and silence takes hold. He was getting closer. I put my scissors down and walk towards the wall we share. Trying to be silent so as not to alert him, I walk up and slowly press my fresh forehead to the wall. I close my eyes and focus and send some good, loud thoughts through the insulation.
Charlotte Van Ryn just completed her first novel, Noise. In 2016 she won the Blodwyn Memorial Prize for her short story “The First Time I Ever Used The Path”. She is the co-host of the reading series The Listening Party, in Toronto, where she currently lives and works.