New York |

Celestial Bodies

by Annabel Graham

edited by Kyle Lucia Wu

The photographs could have been of anyone.

They had been uploaded from a digital camera onto the shared desktop computer in the Soho apartment, left there on the bright screen like a spill someone had forgotten to clean up.

Daisy had not meant to see them. They had popped up as she double-clicked the mouse to wake up the computer, so that she and Adelaide could look up Doctor Eugene Shoemaker, the only man buried on the moon.

And now: she and Adelaide have both seen them. Flesh tones blurring and melting together. Tangled bed sheets. No faces, just bodies. Parts of bodies: the parts you aren’t supposed to see.

The photographs could have been of anyone, any two people, any two bodiesshe keeps telling herself this, in those hot strange moments after they imprint themselves upon her mind—but something inside of her buzzes with the knowledge that the two bodies belong to her father and a woman who is not her mother.

Just the two of them, Daisy and her father, in the Soho apartment for the month of July. Father-daughter bonding time, her mother had said, and Daddy will show you his New York. Daisy expects New York to be grand and shining and polished clean—she remembers palm fronds and brass balustrades and magenta carpets at the Plaza Hotel, and the gleaming legs and Vaseline-slick teeth of the Rockettes, and riding in a horse-drawn carriage, and Central Park all blue and burnished in the snow at dusk—but this is a different New York. There is white graffiti scrawled and dripping in messy squiggles like melted ice cream down the front door of the apartment building, and a homeless man in a rainbow Afro wig shouting each day on the street outside, and a narrow winding staircase covered in cracked tiles the color of stained teeth, and a dim hallway that smells of Chinese food and cigarettes. Nights, Daisy sleeps fitfully on a daybed in the corner of the book-lined living room, haloed in bronze streetlamp glow, sheets tangled around her ankles. She keeps a standing fan close to her sleeping nook—more for the purpose of drowning out the shouts of bar-goers on the street below than for its labored redistribution of air throughout the room—and slowly grows accustomed to its dull nocturnal hum. It takes some getting-used-to, as her mother would say. Still: the apartment is two stories high, with a spiral staircase, and overlooks a private garden in the back, and even has a laundry room. Adelaide, who grew up in Manhattan, assures Daisy that this is rare for the city, especially for this neighborhood.

The reason for their stay is an internship: Daisy’s first real job, at a highly regarded literary magazine. The founding editor of the magazine, now deceased, had been a boyhood friend of her father’s. They’d grown up together on the Upper East Side, attended St. Bernard’s school for boys, summered together in Cold Spring Harbor. Daisy remembers the first time she heard the word celebrity, as a young girl. Her mother had said, in reference to the editor, He’s a bit of a celebrity, and Daisy had asked what a celebrity was. It’s someone who everyone knows about, her mother had said. At dinner parties, Daisy’s father likes to tell the story of how he accidentally set off a firecracker in the editor’s hand one Fourth of July: how the black air had been thick with ocean salt and charred wood, how the fireworks had whistled and popped around the two boys on the Sound that night, how the wind had been so strong it had felt to Daisy’s father as if it might blow him right off the cliff and into the surging water, how the editor had set the firecracker down and run back to their lookout spot behind the trees, how just before he’d gotten there Daisy’s father had yelled out Wait, I don’t think it’s lit. How the scar had stretched like a silk ribbon across the palm of the editor’s hand, how the editor’s mother had forbidden him from seeing Daisy’s father for years afterwards. The dinner guests beam and set down their dessert spoons when her father tells this story. When it is over, they laugh and gaze at him with shining eyes.

Her father is a charming man, a man who people flock to, as if his shine will rub off on them. He makes them feel special, seen. As if they are the only ones in the room—in the world, even. Daisy knows this about him.

She is a good four years younger than the rest of the interns, all of whom are bookish and severe and do not take her seriously. They wear horn-rimmed glasses and go out for beers together after work at a dark quiet bar near the office where they discuss things like Postmodernism and OuLiPo in unnecessarily hushed voices. Daisy knows this because they invite her once. The bar is next door to a shop that sells neon signs. The interns sit in a corner booth where an air conditioning vent blasts them with icy air, where the backs of their legs stick to the cracked crimson vinyl. Daisy’s cheeks ache from a tense smile, her mouth grows sour with Chardonnay, and she can feel the bright and worried and wanting look in her eyes. She knows she will not be invited again. She turns her attention to the people who pass by on the street outside, pausing briefly outside the bar, bathed in neon.

The summer has been long and humid and filled with heavy gray days. Each morning Daisy walks from the apartment to the office through Chinatown. Subway grates burp gusts of hot steam up around her ankles. Toffee-colored duck carcasses pirouette languidly in shop windows. Daisy holds her breath as she passes fish markets and gyro trucks, keeps her eyes down as she pushes through crowds of sandaled women whispering Handbags, perfume. Weekends, her father takes her uptown to show her where he grew up, the blocks wide and verdant and scrubbed clean. He points out the apartments he lived in, in tall buildings with jewel-colored awnings and white-gloved doormen standing guard like soldiers. He takes her to the Met, where they look at the Ancient Greek statues, men hurling spears and wrestling sea serpents; and to the Explorers’ Club, where he takes her picture next to a taxidermied leopard caught mid-roar. He takes her to Neil’s Coffee Shop for bitter coffee and greasy eggs and bacon charred black. It’s not about the food, it’s about the atmosphere. They walk around the Bethesda Fountain. She gets her hair cut at a fancy uptown salon.

Downtown is a different New York: one that is hers to discover. There is the tiny French bistro across the street from the apartment, where the waiters wear long stained aprons and serve moules frites and Moroccan lamb tagines with couscous and carrot soup and where the rickety tables spill out onto the sidewalk. There are the looming fashion billboards on Houston Street: feral twentysomethings, all jutting clavicles and unbuttoned jeans, glaring down at the gridlock. There is the billiards hall with the big glass windows, men with pillowy torsos and vague jawlines under the dim green glow of the overhead lights. Daisy wonders why they don’t feel funny, these men—so many people watching them from the street. Maybe they’ve forgotten they’re being watched. There is the jazz club Adelaide takes her to in the West Village: underground, like a secret. Brick walls and mismatched chairs. They stand and sway near the back, ice cubes melting in their mouths, drunk on new sounds and smells, on being seventeen in New York.

Adelaide wears a stack of gold bangles that clatter up and down her left arm when she moves it, announcing her presence. There is a pale pink streak woven through her long hair—underneath, so you only catch it in flashes: when she pulls her hair up, or when she decides she wants someone to see it. This summer, she has taken to buying secondhand nightgowns, cutting them short and wearing them like babydoll dresses with jean cut-offs and scuffed ballet slippers. Daisy tries it too, once, the nightgown look. She goes to an East Village thrift shop congested with old t-shirts, sun-bleached motorcycle jackets, stiff taffeta prom dresses in strident hues that cringe and recoil under fluorescent lights. The shop smells like other people’s lives. There are stacks of unwanted china in hospital colors—dusty rose, chewed-spearmint-gum-green— their edges scalloped in gold, like the ones her grandmother uses. Daisy mistakenly buys a maternity nightgown, its nursing holes hidden until she slips it over her head later, at home, in front of the mirror, once it’s too late. She decides not to tell Adelaide about the nightgown mishap.

Adelaide shows Daisy how to brush her eyebrows out with a toothbrush, how to put mascara on her bottom lashes, how to walk in high heels, just lean back a little, how to show up at gallery openings in Chelsea on Thursday nights for the free wine, how to drink white instead of red to avoid staining your mouth purple. She takes Daisy to St Mark’s Place, where the girls have their ears double-pierced at a place called Addiction, giggling and wincing and gripping each other’s sweaty hands, My mom will kill me. In the shop next door, the one with the windows lined with pipes and bongs made of rainbow glass, Adelaide knows to ask for someone named Reno, who emerges surly and tattooed from a back room. Reno takes the girls one by one into a dim closet with a dirty-looking pale blue paper backdrop and a camera set up on an old tripod. When it’s Daisy’s turn, he locks the door behind them and leers, and just as she begins to feel the pool of fear creeping up from her gut, he gets behind the camera and says Smile, and she is blinded for an instant with a flash that fills up the room. He unlocks the door and she trips back out into the grimy heat, and an hour later the girls’ deerlike faces are captured on laminated plastic, the worst fake IDs you’ve ever seen, from Florida no less, and they are laughing till they clutch their ribs and groan.

In the afternoon, before they look on the computer, before they find the photographs: The sky hangs low and white, the air electric. Daisy’s father is out, and the girls walk to the bodega at the corner. Daisy leans hard into the doorframe like she’s a part of it, twisting the strings on her cut-offs around the tips of her fingers till they go purple. At the counter Adelaide slides her new ID across the finger-smudged metal and both girls hold their breath. Adelaide twirls a tangle of brass-colored hair like a living thing around her fingers: flash of faded pink, strawberry Bubble Yum snapping, eyes burning. The boy behind the glass has a mustache growing in all the wrong places, like sad patches of mouse fur pasted to his face. An old Batman comic book spread over his lap. The nametag pinned to his shirt says Ned. He gives Adelaide a long aching look, the same sort of look that Daisy has felt from men on the subway, a look that she has begun to understand and expect. A sort of resigned hunger. Soon the girls are skipping back down Prince Street towards the apartment with a case of hard apple cider in sweating glass bottles and a pack of rainbow Nat Sherman cigarettes in a gold case. Thanks Ned, yells Adelaide, to no one in particular.

They sit on the balcony all afternoon in the cottony heat, blowing smoke rings and taking gulps of sweet cider that rush straight to their heads. They talk about the boys at their boarding school and which ones live in the city, which ones will be at the party tonight. They dangle their bare feet over the garden, which is lush and green and makes the girls feel they are not in Manhattan anymore but in some secret and wild place. The air darkens and the rain begins: softly at first, then pounding down hard and true in that summer way, thunder splintering through the trees, and the girls get up and dance on the balcony. They wave their pink cigarettes in the air, they twirl and blaze like two dervishes.

And now they are lying on their backs. Heads spinning. The balcony is strung with red chili pepper lights, the kind Daisy’s parents have hanging in their kitchen at home in California, and the red glow reflects off the girls’ damp faces. Here’s an idea, says Adelaide, We should make the moon into Earth’s cemetery, and the girls collapse into each other giggling. You are so bizarre, says Daisy, and Adelaide says No, there’s one man buried there, I swear, you can look it up. Doctor Eugene Shoemaker: the only person whose ashes have been buried on a celestial body outside of Earth, Adelaide says. She talks about the comet he discovered, the Shakespeare quote inscribed on his memorial capsule: And, when he shall die / Take him and cut him out in little stars / And he will make the face of heaven so fine / That all the world will be in love with night.

I promise, let’s look it up.

And now the photographs have come and gone.

Daisy remembers passing a car accident once while driving with her mother on the freeway in Los Angeles. She had been very young, in the back seat, and her mother had said Don’t look, but Daisy had looked, she had seen the metal crumpled like paper and the jewels of shattered glass and the desperate glint of a woman’s eye and the limp body strapped to a stretcher, and then it was gone, just like that, and the sun was shining and the roadside offered once again the husks of shed tire skins and those bundles of discarded blankets that always look as if they might contain something living, and the palm trees were shimmering again in the brutal sunlight like mirages, and the mountains carved as if with a dull knife from the burning sky.

Just like that. As if it never happened.

But wasn’t it just this morning that Daisy’s father had made her oatmeal with blueberries and a glass of fresh-squeezed orange juice,a special treat, he always said, though he had it every morning—wasn’t it just this morning that he had looked at her over The New York Times with those blazing blue eyes and told her he was proud of her, so proud of her.

She wants to think of him as a good man, a man who belongs to her and to her mother, a man who is theirs.

But now Daisy is back in the room, in front of the computer, and the images are still there, in her head, like when you close your eyes but still see what was in front of you, and the standing fan is humming along like always, and Adelaide is standing behind her and giggling and saying something like God, men are such pervs, and Trust me, I’ve seen it all with my dad, and Let’s go, let’s have a drink and get some food, and Daisy is nodding through the slow sick weight that pools at the base of her skull. She has heard about Adelaide’s father, an Upper East Side lawyer, the way he burns through women like cigarettes. She can hear herself saying, Yeah, let’s go.

And now Daisy and Adelaide are out in the hot streets, arms linked, the city spinning brightly and terribly around them, the pavement slick with rain.

And now they are uptown, at a sushi place near Lincoln Center, one Adelaide knows doesn’t card, and everything is green—the lighting and the edamame and the too-sweet apple martinis, and the sick feeling swells and surges blackly inside of Daisy, and she can see the photographs behind her eyelids when she closes her eyes, the skin on skin, the rumpled white of the bedsheets under the skin, but she smiles till her cheeks hurt and laughs too loudly at whatever Adelaide is saying and nods when the waiter asks, One more?

And now they are bathed in the electric blue light of Koreatown, on an escalator going up, fun-house reflections of themselves on the opposite wall. Daisy is grotesque, a caricature: a smear of pink lipstick and two dark holes for eyes. She can feel the night spreading through her body like a drug, the almost-tears that throb through her neck and chest, but now they are in a karaoke club, surrounded by boys from their boarding school, older boys, all of them nearly a foot taller than Daisy, and they are laughing and smiling and saying hello and half-hugging, as if they know each other, as if they’ve missed each other, as if they do this all the time.

It is a silver box of a room, lit with that same electric blue light, and someone is singing off-key, and there is a bright screen filled with words that move and disappear and are replaced with other words, and a camera flashes sharply in her face, and as her eyes adjust back to the room she can feel Adelaide’s hot whisper in her ear, thinks you’re cute, and an elbow in her side, and yes, she remembers him, a senior, Georgetown-bound this fall, his cut-glass jawline, the signet ring he always wears, and she sees him across the room, looking at her with eyes that are both kind and vicious at the same time. Come meet me, he is saying, Later, Central Park, under that bridge, you know the one, near the reservoir. Daisy knows the spot he is talking about, remembers it littered with cherry blossoms after the rain, remembers saxophone notes echoing off its tiled archway during a walk with her father. Her father. She can feel the sick feeling roiling once again in the base of her skull, can feel herself saying Maybe in a voice that doesn’t sound like her own, and her legs crossed too-tightly on the hard silver bench, and his hand warm on the small of her back, just so. Sharp thrill like a zipper up her spine. Glimmer of teeth—too straight, too white to be real, bluish in the cold light of the screen. He has never looked at her this way at school, has never even looked at her at all.

She will remember the way it hurts, but not in the way it is supposed to, not in the quick searing way she had imagined it would. A deeper, duller, slower pain: like a bruise blooming inside of her. She will remember the night: the feeling of it, warm and still, as if nothing is wrong. Familiar hum of cabs rushing past in the distance. Yellow smolder of windows in tall buildings on the edge of the park. As if she and this boy are the only two people on Earth. His hands, his too-white teeth. His ring glinting faintly. And the rustle of wet leaves under her back: this sound will replay in her head, again and again, like it’s the only sound in the world. She will remember the light: fading, rising, echoing off the reservoir in bronze squares. The sky dark blue, the slice of moon. She will picture Eugene Shoemaker’s ashes floating in a foil capsule. And afterwards, lying on the bridge: cold coarse wood and the boy’s arm warm beneath her as she watches a hawk lift a squirming mouse in its claws, devour it on a tree branch.

The next day Daisy will stay in bed until the afternoon, blinds drawn, standing fan whirring like a motor. Her father will come downstairs; he will ask her what she wants for breakfast, he will offer her orange juice and oatmeal, and she will curl up into herself, turning her body away from him. She will not look at him. Her mother will land at La Guardia, will call her from the airport taxi with a smooth brightness in her voice, I can’t wait to see my girl, to be in New York with my girl, and when she arrives at the Soho apartment Daisy will still be woven into the cocoon of her bed sheets, last night’s mascara smeared under her eyes like two bruises and the pain between her legs and the fan still going. Why are you being so mean to Daddy, her mother will ask, after a few days of this. Daisy will turn away from the question until she cannot anymore.

You’re going to break up this family, he will say, when she tells. His blue eyes burning.

After her father dies, in Los Angeles, thirty-six months later, she will wish she had saved something—a lock of his hair, anything. Her mother will have asked for a lock of hair, and Daisy will remember thinking it morbid—the grayish fluff like duck down. Dandelion, they had called him in school, for his baby-soft puff of silken hair. Her mother will take photographs of him—the sunken cheeks, the gaping mouth, the eyes settled in their sockets, the skin yellowed and waxy, then reddened; hardened from the freezer in the hospital morgue. Her mother will want to watch as he is cremated, will want to save every last morsel of him, to clutch it tightly to her chest.

Daisy will want to remember the old him, before the bicycle accident, before the brain injury, before the summer in New York and the photographs—the sharp cheekbones, the aristocrat’s nose, the wiry eyebrows, the long torso, the faded tattoo on his bicep, the one he got in the navy at seventeen—red and blue ink blurring into his sweet skin. The orange juice and oatmeal, The New York Times. She will want to remember him driving her to school, patting her knee with those big soft hands, taking her to her violin lessons. She will want to remember him eating coffee ice cream with a fork. Cooking chicken cacciatore, his taxes spread out on the dining room table.

She will not want to remember the vacant look in his eyes, the way they will seem to bulge slightly after his accident. The weight he will lose. His legs like crooked tree branches, as thin as her own. At the dinner table, in front of the puréed vegetables they will feed him with a spoon—the way he will hang his head, like a thing too heavy to hold up. The way he will cry out in anguish when his caregivers bathe him. The elastic bands of his sweatpants, the thick socks and ugly rubber sandals they will dress him in, like some ironic form of punishment. The table strewn with medical supplies. Rubber gloves. Diapers. Machines to prevent bedsores, tubes to prevent aspiration. Thickener for his orange juice. The metal crane they will use to lift him from his wheelchair into his bed.

And then the dim stale light of the hospital room at Cedars Sinai. The view from the window. La Cienega Boulevard moving in a slow calm blur. The city waking up, just as Daisy’s father is shutting down. The feeling that will ripple through her chest—hollow, blunt. Hurting in the way it is supposed to.

Years later, her mother will run into the doctor who pronounced her father dead, in another doctor’s waiting room. I remember your face, she will say to him. You pronounced my husband dead.

He was so handsome, she will say, later, to Daisy.

When Daisy tries to imagine the doctor, to remember him, all that comes back is the swish of a white coat in the dim yellow light of that room, a swathe of dark hair. Glasses, perhaps. Did he wear glasses? A nametag.

She does not remember the handsome doctor.

She remembers her father, imprinted darkly onto the white of the hospital bed, like a figure someone had drawn. She remembers his mouth, gaping open, stretched into a painful rictus. She remembers his hands. Too big for his body. Pressing the white sheets down, sealing his body in. His hands—firm, triumphant—certain in their final gesture.

Illustration by Carolyn Tripp