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---   N A T H A L I E   C H I C H A  


the swans
Against the sidewalk of the Hotel Venetian, Las Vegas, laps a fake canal. A wave machine ripples and gleams the dyed blue waters. Sunlight bleaches the side of each mechanical crest and overexposes tourist snapshots. The scene smells calm. Colored gondolas bob. Middle-aged couples in white shorts hold hands. The hotel's two live swans preen themselves.

It takes me a moment to realize why the swans, naturally so peaceful, look out of place here. The waves push them down, up without pause. They can't glide back and forth, so they sit all day, tossed around, and hunching their necks over to pick themselves. Venice doesn't even have swans.

night at fifteen
"Estelle?" Kenneth called and opened his window. A girl too thin and short to be fifteen, but was, climbed in. The knees of her jeans had turned red in the dark, from falling off Kenneth's backyard fence.

"It's one a.m. Are you okay?" Kenneth placed his skinny hand on Estelle's cheek. The girl shrugged away.

"I've decided something. I'm giving you a proposition and then I'm leaving. You write a story about me-and if it's good-I'll be yours. I'll sleep with you."

Kenneth said nothing. Estelle went back out the window, her body with no breasts running back into night at fifteen.

Kenneth stayed awake all night in front of his computer screen.

her family line
My father pulled me aside one day to tell me my life was rusty. My childhood had been a smooth plate of metal before my mother tossed it in the sun. That wasn't fair of her, he said. Her family line, not his, crumbled into rust; she wanted to redden me and mark me as her own. "I'll tell you where she wants you to come from," he said. This is the story of my aunt Georgianna: My grandmother (my mother's mother) was a ballerina before her parents died and her sisters went to the orphanage. She was 4'11", 78 lbs, bore a striking similarity to Audrey Hepburn, and, at sixteen, danced before the prince and princess of Morocco. The royalty gave her metals and a box of chocolate ants.

She toured the country but after the death of her parents, quit ballet and married. She was only seventeen. Several months after the wedding, she began to put on weight: 81, 85, almost 90. My grandmother commenced a strict all-water diet-with the occasional chocolate ant.

She was only pregnant, though, and my mother's eldest sister came out of the womb pink, smelling faintly of rust. The smell never left, white skin never flushed out the pink, and she grew to 4'5". "Your mother will make you one of them."

(She'll feed you water and ants.)

Times of Day:

5 a.m.
My favorite time to fall asleep is 5 a.m. The night sky turns navy, and instead of the cold ale of night, you float asleep on the froth of early morning.

But to wake up at 5 a.m. is to find a fatal pale chill trying to break into your room. If you step outside, the sky will freeze your heart.

7:45 a.m.
I wake up with a shot of sugar to the brain. Classes start at nine.

The dorm's bathroom is stumbled into. Blue tiles and neon lights. The taste of candy matted on my tongue, I start the shower water running.0 0 0 0 I squeeze the bottle of liquid soap. Out slurps a green jelly caterpillar on the white palm of my hand.

11:05 a.m.
My second class, and my blood begins to slurp thickly through my veins from lack of sleep. My heart laboriously pumps the blood-mush. It swirls up to my face, clouds the pupils. I can only now watch the classroom through my irises. When I turn my head, images double and jump back into each other. My heavy head keeps on trying to knock my body over; the blonde head ahead of me is twinned; and I snap my neck back, to look at the professor. Forty-five more minutes must be eked out.

12 p.m.
I haven't had anything but licorice and a birth control pill, and after the day's first two classes, my stomach is whining so loudly people turn to watch me as I pace back to my dorm. I jump up the stairs, and swing open the toilet stall. My body wants to flip my throat out into the bowl. But the water's yellow, and wet paper floats gently. Stupid water conservationists in my hallway don't flush. I stumble to the porcelain sink. Above me are two bands of neon lights. Between the bands sit dead bugs, their organs fried out and transcalent shells with nail-clipping legs left behind. I spit up a bit and feel better.

4:50 p.m.
I nap in the silence of late afternoon. I float away from the world. I wonder what's happening there, but this motion-away won't stop.

2 a.m.
My roommate props Heidegger on her knees, her socked feet nicely scraping the side of my arm. I read about Picasso.

"Estelle, I'm going to sleep," she says and slides off my bed. I switch over to my desk. At first, under the tiny bulb, silence aches me. But slowly, the ache becomes the grainy paper of the book, and it's just the letters in black that meet me there.


Raymond was my first boyfriend. I was seventeen. We pressed our chests as hard as we could against each other, but still weren't close enough. "I love you, I love you, I love you." I wanted the flesh around our hearts to melt and two red bulbs suck into each other. We would turn siamese twins; that was the sweaty intensity (the white and pink ferocity) of a boy and girl, in love, at seventeen.

When I was young, I found lopsided couples sickening. A short woman-a tall man-altered the other to dwarf and giant. Love was a mental trap if humans turned freaks for the sake of holding hands on sidewalks, parking lots-in supermarket aisles.

But my head rested neatly against Raymond's chest. His hand was my foot. He wrapped his fingers around my waist and we laughed/smiled.

The summer before college, we had sex four x a day. I'd sit on his lap and he couldn't stand my not being naked. I'd just smile at him and he ripped off my shirt. "Stella," he called me after he came, and his huge naked body, light pimples spotting his back, was perfectly limp on my bed's white down comforter. "Stella, I love you."

my cheek
Our colleges were three hours apart, and since I had more money, I visited him by train on weekends. His room reeked of microwave burritos and unwashed bedsheets. Every morning, I lifted my cheek from his pillow to find it caked with rashes.

3 a.m.
Over winter break, his mother let me sleep at his house once. She thought we'd get married soon. At 3 a.m. I was waiting for him in his bed, dressed only in a t-shirt I borrowed from his dresser. By 4 a.m., no light had cracked yet in the dark, no warm shape had crawled in next to me. I stood up, and the shirt barely covered my pubic hair. My contacts were out, so I shuffled carefully to the hallway. My right hand scraped the wall:to help me push through black blurs to the hall's deep end. One stroke of light above the last door, and I pushed into the house's computer room; Ray was slumped before a flashing monitor; I squinted; he masturbated and smiled w/th all of his teeth. Mousy-high tears and my short white legs ran me back to his bedroom. His large shape ran after me and locked me down on the bed. He squeezed me violently, I tried to kick him off. We both were crying. I couldn't see anything.

He said I love you more, but had stopped kissing me with his tongue. We had sex once a weekend, when I pleaded with him and the location was risky. I let him pound in deep, thoughtlessly, from behind me in the basement of the library. I often bled afterwards, and had to walk quickly to the dorm or library bathroom to pad my underwear w/ toilet paper.

I still keep in touch with Raymond. Including me, he's had sex w/ four women. I'm the only one he didn't pay for. He still sends me Valentine's Day cards, that I don't respond to.


Raymond's digestive track was rusty. A turd squeezed its way out in one hour. He set his laptop on his lap as he shat, believing that if he wrote constantly, by the law of coincidence, a good piece of fiction would eventually float up/flush out. He brought the laptop into even my house's bathrooms-that had no locks. Click-click-click-clump.Clump-click-click. Aghhh! Crap! That was the sound of my stepdad walking in on Raymond; a usual occurrence. My stepdad never knocked.

When Gregory visited me sophomore year, winter break, not even stepdad could imagine him sitting on the toilet. He controlled his head nods, his smiles, like my father polished silver watches. My mother stayed away from him b/c he stank of wealth, family after white family mating for the perfect silver-blooded spec-imen. Like his aunts and uncles, he will marry under the family estate's sole pale-oak tree.

the second date
Gregory and I had sex on the second date. He took off his clothes and I wanted to cry. I had never seen a boy so hairy and a penis so small. But slowly thumping against each other, his chest hair brushing my body was softer than cashmere and his penis swelled inside me. Oh.

I met him in a French lit. class. His presence across the seminar table chilled me to silence. His face had the white cloudiness of the interior of an ice cube. His lips were frozen in a meaningless smirk. And his eyes: so cool a grey they could have shot me dead with liquid nitrogen.

But when I sat next to him during a film screening for class, his body heat let me peel off my sweater. Twenty minutes into the film, he fell asleep, and I petted his hot elbow gently. He thanked me, the most polite smirk I had ever seen, for waking him; and five minutes later, I pretended to fall asleep so he would recipro-cate (warmth) touch ----

At parties, I couldn't stand him. He laughed with friends. My face turned grey, I hung back, I wanted to take him home again. On my bed, I fed & pet him. I made him a cage of blue bedsheets; m-I-n-e; and I didn't mind the dead look that flashed in his eyes when I said something intelligent. But when we walked outside the cage, I felt he'd escape and my clammy hand held to his fiercely. (No one will ever know the wonder it gave me to see his cold white face pinned down, smiling, not smirking, on my light blue pillows.)

When naked at seventeen, I drew over my breast-nodes with lines of blonde hair. But eighteen, a C cup pushed out fresh flesh and I drew my hair back for Gregory. He suckled me like an animal. We never talked much, and I loved him. But the summer months aired out my warm bed. The pillows came cold. The chill that the bedsheets protected us from crept down. We sent each other words, coast to coast, and I cried because I could never make sheets out of them.

The beginning of summer, I began to dream again. It had been a long time. I was always searching for Gregory in my dreams, for a flash of his face. Never-ever did I find it. I was exposed, I turned red, no cashmere hair keeping me warm.

(Greg turned my body silver like his, and now I'll rust in the oxygen. Greg.)


no one
This semester's start, I began smoking. The burning near my fingers was a weapon against conversation.

1. When I felt the sinking into discomfort, down-down past my routines in conversation, down to words and gestures as pointless, directionless as smoke, I had the long stick in my hand to solidify Estelle: she's "that-girl-who's-smoking". A being, personality, all to itself. Nothing else needed.

2.  And: When people said something wrong, I could just blow smoke in their faces. Or I could ash in the space between their shirt collar and neck. Sensing possible violences, they'd become more respectful.

But my lungs had lining like bubble gum. Ash stuck to them, and I coughed up juices. Until the ash lined my lungs like armor, I couldn't inhale. Suck in, puff out; no one should look too closely or else the weapon limps in my mouth.

A month ago I tried to smoke while walking. The brown-cancer-spotted-filter matched my new coat's color. Steam in my lungs, I walked quickly. My coat flapped behind me; I tried to aim my ashes away from me. I took another drag, but no smoke lifted; I looked down. I had put out the stick on my coat. A round black mouth with little teeth, howling at me.

A couple days ago I tried to type while smoking. (A true smoker tries to do everything while smoking.) I caught the smell of burnt peanuts, then saw strands of hair bursting into spiders. I lost a couple inches. The spiders crawled cautiously through the air and landed skitter-skatter on my desk.

When I was five, the sun soaked down to my bones on the beach at Nice. I pealed off layers of skin each morning like I pull apart Twizzlers. I burn my lungs everynight, and in the morning it tastes like melted licorice. I wake up wanting to navigate a q-tip shining with aloe and moisturizer into my throat, dab it (generously) on the red sugar bubbles (popping) in my lungs. Sugar-clamps around my chest, it's getting harder to breathe.


Shadows of moths frantically hit the restroom window. To keep the swarming moths out, we suffocate in the heat of trapped steam-of-showers. But bug legs still float next to my flip-flops on the tiled floor. Pushed by water, the legs swirl close to the drainhole but never climb in.

My roommate Jessica and I bought scented candles, red, pink, and blue, for the room. We burned the pink first, dipped our fingers into the wax, let our bedsheets take on the scent of cream and strawberry. We burned the red next; black cherry. But halfway through the candle, a black shape twisted its way around the wick. The fire cackled. We brought our heads in close. A worm had been sitting in the wax and now its meat, bumpy on the horizontal axis, slowly fried into charred blck & red. The room smelled like chalk.

Before the divorce, mom used to take me & my brother & a man she kissed to a neighborhood playground. The man gave me piggy-back rides to the ice-cream truck and paid for snowballs in pink blue and red.

How could I ever have a clean/smooth love for my father after that? I felt the rust inside.

Summer in Los Angeles is a flat note. The heat scoops out the third-dimension to images, saving their fullness for fall. I composed letter after letter to Greg on my patio, and tucked almost all of them in the backs of Bronte novels. "Greg, will you always remember me scratching your back? Us eating pizza on my bed? Or are these moments lost forever? --- The only way to keep them is for us to stay together. Or at least touch my breasts and kiss my neck 1 last time."

A little after my eighteenth birthday, my aunt Carla took me to lunch with her boyfriend from Brazil. I met him 1nce 10 years ago. He had scanned me up/down, grimaced, refused to shake my hand when I stuck it out- & then said to Carla, "This girl's a freak. She needs growth hormones. Why aren't her parents giving them to her? What she'll never have-is a normal life." I excused myself into Carla's kitchen and hid under the sink, until I saw a spider, screamed, and crawled out.

But at lunch, my girlish face embarrassed his body so that he couldn't, wouldn't, talk to me over the pasta.


I dyed my hair black two months ago. Blonde roots now rebel against the black like a delicate solar flare exploding into outer space.

According to mom, Georgianna was a booger-counter when they shared rooms in my grandmother's house. She picked strands from her nose and pinned them on the wall: her mucus butterfly collection.

I have a reoccurring fantasy of ripping up nudie pics of myself and scattering the pieces -round campus. A picture of my breasts showing up in the cafeteria's macaroni & cheese.


Kenneth's want to tuck me in was violent. On his way out my room, he didn't just pull the comforter up to my chin. He sat down and meticulously tucked the material under my back and legs, so the bed mummified me. He liked seeing my shape caught- so neatly.

Greg avoided me when school restarted. Avoidance is the coldest rejection. I cried, then let Kenneth lick my nipples. "You're the most beautiful-" His bedsheets were soft and damp from the washing machine. His bony little boy-hands swelled with sweat. He had framed my breasts between the bra & shirt he had tugged below my ribs, and the choker that sliced black between my neck and head. Wet air closed my eyelids.

Kenneth might have been attacked by a new army of spiders everynight. His face was a sheet of red bubble wrap. ("Anyone who still has acne at twenty is an asshole," Zayd said. )

His chin, though, was smooth and tan. It looked like half an egg jutting out from his jaw. I thought if I tapped it too hard it would crack like shell. Nobo-y should be that fragile.

Estelle, Estelle
I read his story once. "Kenneth said nothing. Estelle went back out the window, her body with no breasts running back into night at fifteen. Kenneth stayed awake all night in front of his computer screen. He wrote worship. Estelle, Estelle." In the hallways of our high school, I turned into the bathroom every time I saw him coming. His lust echoed too loudly off the lockers, and in the white bathrooms I could calm myself and wait for the sound to fall from my ears.

know where
Last year, when Gregory went drinking with friends, I took brisk walks through campus, hoping loneliness wouldn't know where to find me. 1 night I accidentally found Kenneth and, only friendly when loneliness is catching up, again befriended him.

Pet-gay, II:

I could feel his wanting me everytime I sat on his dormitory bed. The molecules between us spun faster. I got dizzy and fell on him. He took off my clothes, and then slowly his. His ass was more girlish than mine-soft tan and round. He mounted me. Robbing his virginity took eight minutes. His skinny legs rubbed up against mine. He tried to kiss me, but I looked at his face and its rust, and thought, even his teeth are probably rusting. I shrugged my torso away from his chest (hairless) and he lost his erection. He lost it three times before he was able to come.

Jessica called the room right after Kenneth's virginity fully faded. "I just saw Gregory in front of the dorm! Come home." I put my clothes back on. Kenneth didn't want me to go. So I let him follow me back on the 2 a.m. street.

We didn't hug goodbye when he turned for home. I wouldn't let his skin's red stain my cheek.

Zayd made Kenneth cry. "How can life be this unfair? Estelle."


On the West Coast, people displayed their feet as signs of royalty. Barefoot celebrities glazed magazine covers-lives so perfect, these covers said, the celebrities never have to watch out for rusty nails or burrs on their floors. My dentist's waiting room entertained clients with a family portrait: the dr. showed his hairy-monkey feet and his wife, her salon-red toenail paint, each diminutive flesh-shell lacquered in it. Zayd wore open-toed sandals in the snow, but I forgave him.

For my birthday, Kenneth bought me a comforter; I had sex on it the next day w/ Zayd. I was not attracted to him, but he was the most beautiful man I'd ever known. He skin looked and smelled like apricot. His eyes were pure-yellow. His nose was straight, his jaw a rectangle, and his hair, dark blonde, curled into forty perfect ringlets.

Sex was drenched in apricot sweat. He did sex like push-ups, but I taught him how to kiss gently, slack his jaw for me. He gently let out apricot-spit between my lips. He would never have a girlfriend, and I told him about the other boys I was fucking. He had a 39-year old on the side, but told me, Your guys sound like assholes.

His parents bombed the Pentagon and were jailed when he was six. He hates the government and tiny spineless boys. I introduced him to Kenneth once, he laughed & named him Pet-gay.

Pet-gay, III:

:::In the sunlight, his skin looked like it was boiling. "Tell me again, Estelle, I don't understand. We have a physical relationship, we talk all the time-you treat me like a boyfriend. Why won't you let me be-?"

:::"His skin looks like cheesecloth saturated in oil," Jessica said. She put down her Heidegger. "His loving you and that skin of his aren't an even trade-off."

:::When we say goodbye, I grab his crotch, kiss his chin and laugh. He looks surprised, every time.

:::"Why did you introduce me to him? Why did you even ever mention him? It's bad enough that you sleep with other boys when you know how much it hurts me. If you cared for me at all, you'd stop sleeping with them. But then, you talk about them! Why do you talk about them?!" "Calm down, calm down, Kenneth."

the other boys
:::Sandy: Zayd's best friend. He works out 3 x a week. In bed, he gives me explicit instructions. I'm sure he wears lifts in his shoes.

:::Thomas: A sarcastic sense of humour, but I can't remember anything he's ever said. He drives a hearst and we have sex in the back. His left eyelid hangs low.

:::Brian: One of Gregory's friends. Wants to be an artist or a writer, but he's bad at both. I read his stories, undress him, then make sure he leaves before Sandy, Thomas arrive.

other boys
I smoke a cigarette in bed with him, I practice inhaling.

"You keep saying I shouldn't tell you, about other boys. But you're my best friend, I need someone to talk to, you understand."

Kenneth makes the sound of a pet-gay, a little mph.

"There's a lot I haven't been telling you, if that makes you happy."

"Why, what have you done," Kenneth says.

"I slept with Thom last week."

"Why do you keep me crying? Is this how to treat me, your best friend?"

The third time we have sex, I instruct him not to touch my face. "I'm horny, this is only sex, you understand?" He keeps his erection and comes in six minutes.

In bed next to each other I tell him, "You should have a girlfriend, Kenneth."

"You should be my girlfriend."

I laugh. "No, you should have someone who feels for you the way you feel for me.

What's wonderful about love is being more real to someone else than you are to yourself. That's why I make you cry."

I accidentally burn my left hand with my cigarette and scream.


My mom's boyfriend had orange hair and orange glasses and drove an orange porsche. My brother fell asleep on my shoulder during the car rides home, but my sight jumped from streetlight to streetlight, and the shorter the distance between each light, the more intolerable my childhood became. Her boyfriend was speeding, but it was my mom's recklessness showing through. Sometimes I thought it had enough fury behind it to explode the car and, for minutes, I stopped breathing.

Like Zayd, Sandy didn't mind blood. It was the night before his first-year anniversary with Isabelle, his girlfriend, and I could feel my red staining his sheets. "Don't worry, I'll wash it," he said.

Eleven years before my dreams of Greg, I had nightmares almost everynight. In them, I woke up on my bed and ran to the door, but the handle wouldn't budge; I'd wake up again, and run to the door, but I still ran in the dream. When consciousness finally sweated through me, I ran to my mother's bed, half-sobbing; she laid me beside her and thought she petted me to sleep, but my eyes never closed. In the middle of the night, I heard her conversations on the phone. "My daughter, we got the tests results back. She'll be too short. Nobody knows what went wrong. . ." I sobbed myself to sleep, but quietly, so she couldn't know I'd eavesdropped.

the press-
Rain mottled the window, and the pressure of my bladder hurt. "And what do you think of this paragraph? Will the teacher like it? Should I keep it?" I didn't have answers for Jessica, because I derived a nihilistic metaphysics from my bladder hurting. I don't know, Jessica, when I want to pee, words become water; the-pressure-of-my-bladder-kills meaning.

Times of Day:

2 p.m.
The first time Raymond and I kissed we were sitting after lunch in his car. We neared each other. He didn't trust sight to carry him to me so he closed his eyes. I couldn't close mine. His face's earnestness, the concentration on his brow, the slackness of his jaw. His expression burnt itself on my brain's electrical circuits like one neon image. The water in our kiss didn't heal the burn. (Raymond, he was my twin in love.)

3 p.m.
It's the last weekend of the semester. I lie in bed. I don't know where this sickness came from. "Knock, knock, I have chicken soup for you." Pet-gay enters and places a plastic carton by my bed. I peel off the lid and find smoke and a fly, floating. "Oh, I'll get you another. How are you feeling?" He sits on my bed and his bony hands pet, rub my shoulders. Rub and rub and then his bony, sweaty little hands are on my face & neck.

"You're my first lesbian experience."

He stops. "That story of the swans, you told it to me the first time. We talked. In college. You. I think. You. Cried. What happened to that. Girl who cried? She was 14 and saw the swans on vacation in Vegas. Estelle."

3 p.m.
One letter I knew I wouldn't tuck away in the back of a Bronte novel. I thought I used the words to make him love me again. I sent it off at 3p.m., June 27. July 7, 3 p.m., it came back: "Return. Address incorrect. "

7 p.m.
Hot water might make the sickness steam up and away from me, so I take a shower. And while I shower, I hum. Being able to do these normal things, like everybody else, makes my heart shrink with delight.

1 a.m.
The party is loud and I'm quiet. I'm sure everyone who talks to me is peering over my shoulder, waiting for someone else to appear. Jessica leaves the party, and I walk to the kitchen. I pour three hot shots, to burn a hole through myself.

I walk back out and smile at anyone I've ever seen. Through the new hole words pour out quick and quick. A girl and a boy smile at me. My hot hole grows, and I can feel my stomach falling through it. The white bathroom tiles are cold against my palms. "Who's in there? You've been in there for ten minutes!"

A girl escorts me out. December has chilled the apartment steps, but we sit on them. "You okay?" "It's cold, I think I'll have a cigarette." I inhale, and vision tumbles forward. A building across the street crumbles, leaving its lights behind, hanging like stars. "You okay?" "Fine, fine." I spit up some poison, it hangs from my mouth like three limp silver threads. "You're going to throw up, we all know that kind of spit." "I'm fine." "Is she?" "Do you know her? Can you drive her away, home?" "I'm fine."

Greg props me in the passenger's seat. I'm limp and fall back with my eyes half-closed. He speeds, and the rush of the street and streetlights relax me. "Take me to your place, I'm sick. It's close, closer."

His bed is the softest thing I've ever known. I reach my arms out and pull his sweater close to me. "Greg," I say. "Estelle?" "Greg, kiss me." His lips are on mine, I try to open them with my tongue. It takes him a while to oblige. "Touch me." He touches me, he helps me pull off my pants.

Sex is violent like it's never been. He pumps thoughtlessly and fast. I feel his room spinning and nothing makes it stop. I hold onto his neck. "Greg, Greg." He wipes sweat off my cheek. "Estelle," he whispers. "Estelle, let me come, in you. In your mouth. That's what-I want." I say nothing it's done. And my forehead flashes bright hot, I choke and spill out everything on his floor. Silver drips, I wipe my mouth. "I'm sorry."

"I'll clean it, then we'll drive you home, okay?" "Greg, let me stay-here. I'm sick." "I'm going to drive you home."

4 a.m.
I write a letter to Kenneth. "Forgive me, K. The thought of breathing, you know, kills my breath. & When I think of blinking I keep my eyes dry. I can't stop thinking, about myself. Signed,


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published in association with the |
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