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Light reflects and refracts along the mirrorball, strawberry laserbeams spilling into a smoke-machine sea, and as one fleshbug crests the next wave, our eyes fix and the smoke sea turns white, its song replaced by shrill voices.
Three hours earlier, your hair is pulled back to reveal the iridescent green brackets at the corner of your right eye, and like a question that demands an answer, the mark draws me through the tweakers of Koma’s basement toward you.
As I push toward where you are, a gaunt bald dude in tight black zipjacket steps into my path, not dancing but wrenching from his hip, and my head cranes around this spasmodic shadow.
You are on the other side of the tweaker, smiling as you press wet paper towels against the vast glistening forehead of an overweight businessman in drenched white collared shirt and suit jacket, and as you scrub fluorescent paint-pen patterns from his fevered skin, I realize the glistening green lines by your eye are a tattoo.
Is he okay are my first words and you’re already looking up, saying everything is okay, but the man cannot release his fever so I stay with you occasionally glancing into the wells of his eyes.
Too shy to ask your name I ask do you have any pets, which I guess is a funny question because you laugh and don’t say anything, so my next question is you got a cigarette, which you tender and which tastes delicious amidst the one-hundred-eighty BPM gabber quivering the dusty wooden ceiling and cement walls of Koma.
Toward the end of the cigarette your clenched fist blossoms to reveal a keylime pill embossed with a coiled snake that I recognize from Q*bert, and you say fifteen dollar to the top of the pyramid, and when you have the money the pill washes down my throat in a heavy swill from your orange drink.
There is much I want to say but because I don’t know you yet, I do my best to keep my mind where we are, speciously dancing in place, smoking, washing the fevered forehead of the businessman as he appears to grow clean.
I’m good thank you he says while I’m holding the paper towels but he’s looking at you, and you put your hand atop his head to feel the wane in his fever, then begin dancing more fiercely.
The man walks off and you edge into me as I wrap my arm around your waist, and I’m thirsty so I lick your forehead, notice again the iridescent tattoo and ask why the brackets?
I believe in a mathematical universe, you say, the empty brackets represent the empty set, the initial setting and final collapse of all things, and it’s also a reminder that sometimes it’s nice to have nothing on the mind.
Cigarette smoke and a twitch of laughter choke my lungs as I examine the brackets more closely, trying to decipher the absurdity, and when I look again there’s still no meaning other than two ornate curves, so I say, but they’re just lines.
That’s right you say just lines, and for no reason at all you stand on tiptoes and lick my forehead.
I take your hand, lead you into strobelight, watching floor materialize and disintegrate with the gabber.
Boo you squeak as the strobelight bleaches the world one last time before pink lasers cascade from beneath an anemone machine projecting animated cupcakes.
Twenty fingertips join, expanding and contracting from four palms, orbs that collapse mitotically into almond eyes, and as I watch our hands puppet their fleshbugs, I look at your lips and move to kiss them, but you move the fleshbugs between us, laugh, pull me lower and swill again the cold sweat that is my forehead.
When I feel your tongue enter my brain I have a small revelation, there’s also acid in the pill, and you pull back and nod your eyebrows then return your tongue to my encephalon so I can watch the hum of your voice sketch constellations onto my pineal gland.
It’s then I realize there is no universe other than the hum, the floor is the hum, the wooden columns and ceiling are the hum, the troposphere of smoke is the hum, your breath and nicotine are the hum, but as I try to speak this new revelation, I realize there is no need because we too are the hum, so I pull back releasing your protracted tongue from my pineal gland and we kiss.
You move your lips to my left ear and whisper, the guy in the k hole we were helping was my husband.
Then you move your lips to my right ear and whisper come with me, and when I nod you lead me past the smoke machine to a door beneath the rickety Koma stairs.
The only light inside is a rocketship nightlight plugged to the wall, and the floor is just a gray mattress which you pull me down to.
As my tongue exits your skull and wanders its smooth path from lip dimple to lip dimple, from cheek to ear, I whisper, the brackets what do they mean again? and you say everything is empty, and my left hand awakes underneath your fluorescent orange skirt and pulls the right leg from your purple tights, which lay crumpled against your leg like the shed skin of a snake.
You smile, say everything is empty.
Immediately, I felt sober again. I rose to find my husband. But, when I opened the staircase door, I found only noise and smoke on the other side.
At first I couldn’t process the nebula. I inhaled, smoke nettling my throat then searing my lungs. My lids clenched, shielding my eyes from the fumes. Turning, I peered through the chalky red dust that half-obscured your naked body still on the mattress. Only now do I realize the red dust was actually smoke lit by the red wall-plug nightlight.
I dove through the red powder dust and found your arm. I screamed for you to get up. “Fire!” I yelled, but you didn’t understand. And so I screamed louder to drown out the noise.
You finally stood halfway, clothed in scarlet darkness. I pulled you naked into the strobes and panic. We crawled over bodies bent over the Koma stairs. Then you yelled and raced back into the smoke.
As the lights spun, I made out the contour of your silhouette on the other side. For a moment the smoke thinned and I caught your eye staring back and I smiled, hoping to get through to you. I fought those pushing me into the stairs. But where you were, there were no stairs. The smoke choked me, squeezed my every vessel. Then lights came up and music stilled.
My husband pulled me from the smoke, one hand clenching the front of my shirt, the other braced across my back. His grip gave my withering lungs permission to collapse. As he dragged me over fallen bodies, I blacked out.
When I woke outside, the inferno was relentless. Turgid black clouds obscured all stars.
Later I learned there were others inside I knew. But at the time I only knew for certain you were there, claimed by the smoke. There was nothing to do other than offer names to expressionless policemen.
The next morning, my lungs felt like wet bags filled with razors. I went to the bathroom, coughing out the death. I filled the sink with inky phlegm and blood, pushed Q-tips up my nose to draw out gobs of soot.
For a week, my mind couldn’t fit the world back into my head. Then this morning, my husband and I decided to come back to look at that place where the smoke had been.
It’s sunset, and we’re parking our car.
In the rearview, I glance at the green empty set tattoo that stretches from the corner of my left eye to my temple. It is the tattoo I got my first year of grad school, the one you kept asking about that night, two curved lines bracketing the void.
My husband and I step onto empty sidewalk. The humid warmth of June feels too good on the skin, as though time is showing off freshly oiled mechanisms of erasure. Impossible equations drive winds in conflicting directions, lifting and releasing ashes in peculiar cascades.
I gaze into the building’s calyx as I walk the yellow-taped perimeter. I catch glimpses of the night through your eyes, taste ribbons of your voice on my tongue, search for dark pupils in red dust.
At the corner of the night’s husk, the yellow tape ends in a maze of debris, shattered mirrorballs, melted smoke machine, heavy iron brackets that once beamed mesmeric lights.
For a moment, I hear the distortion of music.