The West |

The Failure Age (An Excerpt)

by Amanda Montei

edited by Mathew Timmons

He reads her poetry that he hasn’t written. He weeps as he reads it. The words loll around on his tongue like melting ice cubes. He says the first one needs more salt. That one’s just right. She likes to think of poems as food. As the hours pass, all that movement desiccates his tongue. “It’s feeling dry! That’s how you know it’s upon you!” she says. “I think how you know is your whole body feels dry, like your tongue seems to feel right now!” (There are things that make you fall apart so fast.) * He is on the bearskin rug with toy cars. She makes love to him on a bed of rug and tiny vehicles. She knows her body undulates oddly against his, knows her eyes are winking unintentionally, knows her stomach is puddling. She misses scheduling cigarettes. (She knows that eight water glasses used to offset the dehydration caused by four cigarettes. Like most things, it never felt like an even trade.) “I just forgot who you were,” she says as his hands slip around her butt cheeks. “For a moment, I couldn’t make sense of anything.” * His hand is down his pants. With his other hand he speaks to the ground with flamboyant arm movements, pointing like he has a Power Point setup or a big pie chart. “I am practicing for academia,” he says. He scratches around down there, pulls out his hand, smells his fingertips, digs something out from under his fingernails. “We don’t have to practice contradiction,” she says, “it just comes so naturally. It’s like hiccuping, too. Hard to get rid of. It would be nice to explain things to no one, instead of to myself.” (She is sincere.) “Will you just lick down and around?” she says. “Down and around the nubbin. I just need you to lick right there, right now. Please?” * She begins receiving text messages from someone she doesn’t know. They say pray for better days LOL. She can’t seem to tell this apocalyptic guy to leave her alone. She figures it is always a good thing to be reminded to pray for better. She prays alone on the rug every night. She remembers long ago when she could lay in the glowing blue-green tanning bed and pretend to be under the sea, singing in that archetypal so-wrong Jamaican crab voice while she shifted around the sunglasses that he never noticed. Her flesh always burnt. She prays, and she remembers the smell. She prays, and she remembers feeling like roasting meat, like she was on a spitfire. “The horizon is already charred, “ she says. * “Life is sad like a twangy Bollywood soundtrack,” she says. “You almost feel like you’re falling into something every day, over and over.” He is on the rug playing a sitar. She knows this is an appropriation. “It’s so true!” he says. “You feel like you’re falling down a well, but you’re not and you never will. But you wish you could.” She bucks and twirls. “No one should have to appropriate alone,” she says. She wants to be a string on that sitar. * The mail brings surveys about shopping experiences. They fill out these questionnaires elaborately together on the rug, just make their mark. “You’ve got to seem irate!” he says. “Be injured! So we will accrue coupons! We can live on paper!” I lost all my teeth when I bit into that bone! A very old man should never have to bite bone! They attach mawkish missives, addressed to the customer service representatives. You all work the type of job that keeps the world afloat. You are a true altruist. “Wow!” she says. “I really get off on this!” * They fill the apartment with organics, nestling into a carpet of peaches. “You are bruising them,” she says. “You are hurting them.” Skins fading, going brown and soft. She has heard that in New York you can rent walls. She has heard that good people drink green tea. She has heard so many things about wrinkles. (How does she resist?) He is deep under now, sleeping on his rug, peace juice all around him. Her feet soften. She sees a man out the window. He is carrying a water bottle in a crochet pouch. Water in baby socks. Flesh and fur in her toes. * “I want to be fondled by academia,” she says. He says this does not make sense, like saying fuck when something feels good and also when it doesn’t. She must make up her mind. At the park, a white-bearded man mutters in Spanish every day. The man hands out letterpress broadsides, folded in half. (Messages from God, she can tell.) The man never approaches her, never harangues her. “Is God having a closeout sale?” (She wants to ruffle the dirt out of the man’s snowy chin.) “Where do you think he sleeps?” she says. “Who do you think he loves? Hasn’t God a message for me?” * He is picking at his feet on the rug, saying he has heard that fungusy toenails can transmogrify under UV light. “Clean up after a night out?” she says. “Like mascara beads wiped from inside eye corners?” They decide to mail order a tanning booth. (She too wants to be new again. She too wants new words for everything.) She purchases new sunglasses for delivery day. “Did you even see my new sunglasses?” she says. He offers nonchalance like hors d’oeuvres, on a platter. “Solidity is impossible these days,” he says. “I’ve always wanted to touch myself in front of you,” she says. “And I’ve always wanted to ride bareback while drinking a lemon drop!” She feels something like relief. * She can’t stop thinking about the poem she read. About the girl who gets bleach water thrown on her feet. (They’re cleaning the street?) The poem didn’t say what happened to her feet afterwards. Whether they burned right off, or whether they were bleached out. He has taken up the violin. He plays it on the rug. Says the sound of the strings is what he imagines the inside of letting go feels like, though he wouldn’t know. (Aging is hard for him, too.) “What would it be like to walk around with absent feet?” she says. “Would it feel like floating?” * She sits balled up, walled up with couch cushions all around her, in an acetaminophen high. She has been taking Tylenol for days. She is trying to feel her body that deeply. Cells like white elephants. She thinks of a question she won’t ask. (He is busy learning a concerto, and he is weeping.) She bargains a dance. His fingers cramp on her back, so she dances with her bra and he weeps more heavily. “A saint relenting doesn’t ever wear a bra,” she says. “Though once I made out a sheen on some ethereal stained glass lips.” * “I can’t hold the bow,” he says. “I think I have carpal tunnel.” He has lived too long. His body is rejecting the violin. She dreams of mail order roses, and of mail order fruit shaped like roses. She wonders if the only cereals that are good are frosty. “Why is fake snow so popular?” she says. “And why do I so desperately want to be elsewhere?” * “Is there something inside you?” he says. She says she hopes so, but he means he can feel something. “One of those rings? A tampon maybe?” She pushes him off, decides to cook up the sky for him. She’ll cook up the clouds. (He once told her that clouds are made of snowflakes, that a cloud is just a tuft of snowflakes.) He gets bigger day by day on that rug. “We can split some SpaghettiO’s,” she says. He gesticulates, sings an aria about Meg Ryan and how she is not beautiful. “Yet our sad trust in that plastic face is fraternity, isn’t it?” She buries her head in Tylenol. His familiar fingering like a tremor. “Oh, quell this latent infancy!” she says. “Come share with me a non-dinner!” * They fashion graphs and indices to account for the failure age, but they aren’t sure they’re getting anywhere. She suggests they interview someone. She suggests they track down people who have experienced it. “How will we know where to start?” he says. The newspaper says that women feel it three decades earlier than men. (She does the math, can’t account for this.) “Why is it that people think they understand their bodies?” she says. “Like, how can you know that your insides yearn for salad?” He is eating the violin bit by bit. His body yearns for artistic expression. “Like the man that ate the airplane!” he says. “I will eat the world!” * He is indolent on the bearksin rug. “You must have received a malediction,” she says. “Let me feed you soup, beautiful soup, the kind of soup you could float edible flowers in, the kind of soup that has beef from far far away, all red and raw and marbled with fat and so very far from aging. If you give me some time, I can make a soup that will smell like childhood, like your days on that green-lit porch swing, when you used to watch your legs dangle, when you used to watch your feet stretch towards the floor, knowing your toes couldn’t touch, but aching for it just the same!” * Time passes like an old ship. (Loud.) Mother always said that people all look the same inside when you remove their skin and genitals. Mother always told her to look for the good in everyone. Mother never told her she would disappear. Mother never told her that her feet would feel like absent feet, that life would feel like floating. Mother never told her that aging would feel like an inescapable impropriety. Mother never told her that they wouldn’t be drinking lemon drops for years, on a steamboat that makes clouds. * “Today, I will walk,” she says. She loads up her bag and fills water bottles. “You can move right where you are!” he says. He is on the rug, doing somersaults for exercise. She layers. Too much heat or a chill will induce regret. She won’t be able to wrestle down regret. On the way to the park she sweats, she cries. She walks past the park, past the sunset. She walks to a dried-up wash because it’s the closest thing to a field around. She puts her bag down, but finds herself heavy with something else. Empty sky? (She is in dust and concrete. She is disappointed.) “There is nothing out here!” she says. “Nothing open in a field or in a wash treated as field! We do not live in fields! We live in stone-cold houses! Rotten peach filled apartments!” She can hear a blade of dry grass yelling something at her. Blade-friends huddled around the yelling blade. Are they whispering divine secrets? She crouches. No one is whispering divine secrets. No one is whispering at all. There are only muddy car tracks, carved out like craters. Truck tracks? She sits. She cry-sweats. She leans over the blades of grass. She contemplates such mud. * He takes up peripatetic dialogues on the rug. She misses the violin, the sitar. “Let me spread something on you,” she says. She begs. “I have to roam!” she says. “I have to see new angles!” She imagines she will attend yoga by moonlight someday, high on a skyscraper. In a spinal twist, the moon pressing patterns into her eyes, she will consider meditation as the ultimate postmodern act, but will not be sure if she likes this revelation. “We’re here to shed our stories,” the teacher will say, a warm palm on her back. “We’re here to shed ideas.” * She will shed the idea that as a child she cried over ponytails, the idea that she was once a poor casual lover, the idea that her nostrils flutter when she is tired, that she may have some form of Asberger’s, that her vision will someday fail her, that her head will never grow into itself, the way people say your ears do. She will shed the idea that the failure age is upon them, and then all the ideas will come rushing back. * He paints a picture of her on the bearskin rug. It is a poor representation, but she can see he has been careful. The canvas is a quiet place. The moon is a peach, and she stands under it alone. “I can’t get above it,” she says. He braids every hair on the rug. He plays a concerto. He weeps. “There are no actors on any stage besides us, fondling each other’s napes!“ he says. “There are no actors that perform as well as we do!” * They plant a lemon tree in the sink. They sprinkle seeds into the drain and pack soil down into the piping. When it grows, the lemons are suns hanging over the bearskin rug. He plucks them with his feet just to meet the impossible. They tear apart each lemon with their mouths: one set of lips and teeth on each end, they chew through the rind until they meet. They time themselves, to see how quickly they can destroy a thing. “Mother used to set the timer to encourage me to do chores quickly,” she tells him between lemons. “What do you think that meant?” His mouth is puckered and bleeding from their game. So is hers. They kiss, exchanging red, burning each other’s cuts. * “What is your favorite form?” she asks. “A cyclical anything. The shape of a crown.” “And what is your favorite mythical creature?” “Big foot, to be sure.” “And what is your favorite way to style a face?” “Unpowdered and bare. I like splotches from tears. Like yours now.” “And describe your favorite impossible dreamscape?” “A city all quiet. A ghost town metropolis.” “A surface you’ve seen?” “Slate flooring. That mouthless cool, of course.” “And what of frozen foodstuffs? Which comforts you the most?” “Diet desserts for baking. Duh.” “And the day you first began to feel it? The day you knew it had taken you?”