by: Laura Vroom
An edifying tale, where desires of the heart are communal, and heartache abounds….
Ell laid on the carpet, her fingertips tracing infinite looped patterns in the blue fabric, her eyes disengaged, her mind adrift in the dim, soft blue light of early dawn. Sunlight glinted across Harry’s stirring figure as he sat up on the couch.
“Why are you sleeping on the floor?”
His words rolled through the blue haze towards Ell. She briefly acknowledged their existence and returned her gaze to the imaginary carpeted swirls.
“I don’t know. I laid down and didn’t feel like moving.”
Wind hit the pines outside the window, rattling their needles against the glass panes. Harry’s head rolled back, his eyes closed, breathing, just breathing. The steady tranquility broke with the sound of Renton’s typical two-step at a time jaunt up the back patio stairs. She didn’t have to raise her eyes to know that the approaching long, aggressive strides belonged to him. Denim-clad knees fell gracelessly into her eye-line.
“Ell. Ell I need to talk to you,” he whispered.
Her eyes were half-closed, shielding her from the ever-rising dawn.
“I’m awake Rent. What’s up?”
“I met her. I fell in love.”
He sat on the floor and leaned on the wall behind them. She nodded, signaling him to continue. “Her name’s Nevine. We’ve been dating for a few weeks. I think she likes me too, maybe even loves me.”
Harry stirred, and Renton noticed him for the first time.
“Sorry man, didn’t mean to wake you. I’m Renton, Ell’s roommate,” he said as he reached over Ell to shake his hand.
Calling Renton a roommate was hardly accurate. There were plenty of rooms in the stolid New England home she inherited from her grandparents. Renton mostly kept to his side of the estate he rented, and Ell to hers. It was a suitable arrangement; she liked the reverb of strangers’ movements in the house. It echoed reminders of life without the intimacy of nostalgia.
“Pleasure man, it’s Harry, Harry Finn.”
Egotistical blowhard, thought Ell. He craves the reaction to his name.
“Wait, like the Harry Finn? I love your designs. I mean your artwork is, it’s iconic,” said Renton. Ell screamed internally.
“I heard what you said. This girl sounds special,” Harry said.
“She is, I mean, she might be one day.”
“That’s swell man. I’ll draw her a present, yeah?”
Harry reached over to a side table for a pencil and sheet of paper. Ell’s lids drooped to hide her category five eye roll. Renton scurried over to the couch corner like a kid to candy.
“What’s her name?”
Harry’s penchant for peacocking was insufferable, but Ell was curious. She crawled over to Renton, who was gazing with fervor as Harry Finn’s pencil scratched paper. He truly had artistic talent, Ell admitted to herself. Using only shades of graphite, Harry shrouded Nevine’s name in gradients of grey. The letters blurred expertly with the background, showing through like a mirage. He finished, and collected his wallet, phone and keys from the couch cushions.
“I can’t thank you enough man, this is spectacular,” Renton said, holding the finished picture. Harry pulled a cigarette from his jacket pocket, smiling slightly.
“Anything for a friend of Ell’s.”
Now I remember, thought Ell fleetingly, he’s been trying to sleep with me. Tragic. He headed for the door. “You know it’s funny, for such a unique name, I dated a Nevine a couple months back. Couldn’t be the same girl though.” Harry zipped up his jacket.
“Last I heard, she ran off to Europe with some skier,” he said with a sigh. “These things happen right? Later.” He left with a thwack of the screen door, leaving Ell leaning on the couch and Renton prickling at attention. Renton whipped his head, at once in Ell’s face, his eyes intense.
“I need to find out if she’s the same Nevine.”
“You shouldn’t let that get to you. Everyone dates everyone around here.”
“It’s not that. She’s missing. Or left. I don’t know which but I need to find out. I need her.”
Ell blinked in the rising sunlight. Sweat beads were breaking out across his wrinkled brow line.
“Please,” he grabbed her wrists, “go grab Harry.”
Renton wiggled and tapped his fingers on one hand, and chewed the nails off the other. Peeking out the kitchen window to the back porch, he watched Ell give him one last glare, then call out to Harry before he could enter his silver Porsche.
“Ell,” Harry said, eyes widening with surprise, grin trickling upwards with hunger, “what is it doll?”
She suppressed exasperation. “I just had a question, back in the house, you mentioned the girl who ran off….?”
Harry released a half-hearted laugh. “Renton send you?”
She flushed. “You catch on quickly.”
“It’s the same Nevine, right?”
“I’m hoping it’s all one miraculous coincidence, but that would be too convenient, wouldn’t it? Have you seen her?”
“Sorry no, not for, well it must be over three months.” He stretched out against the car’s side. “That girl flew into my life. Full speed, just hit it.”
“What do you mean?”
“We meet, she’s beautiful and charming, really into me and my art, and we basically live together for a month. Things are going great, and I bring her and some friends to stay at my ski lodge. A few days in, she leaves some cryptic note on the bed while some of us are out on the slopes. I find out she skipped town with this Swissie fuck skier who was there with Stefan’s crowd.”
“Shit. So she ran off with a guy who was staying at your place?”
“Yeah, peachy right? Last I hear she’s fucking traveling with him in Europe.”
“Wow, Harry. That’s sick. I mean, it’s awful.”
He shrugged. “I’m fine now. Renton seems like a nice guy. Sensitive. If she skipped out on him already, then he dodged a bullet. He may not think so now, but he’d be better off letting her stay lost.”
“Do you know where she is?”
“So?” said Renton, once she was back in the house. Ell gave him her phone.
“There’s a message with contact info from Harry, for Bern, the guy she ran off to Europe with. That’s all I got.” His shoulders sank. A wave of exhaustion ebbed at her capacity to empathize. She yearned for the glazed light and soft carpet of her glass sunroom.
Ell and Renton went to the back patio, an expansive stone rectangle interrupted only by a thick, leafy tree growing out of a deep hole in the center, encircled by a short, stone wall. They smoked cigarettes and stared at the garden, which fell off the raised patio, the stone stairs leading to green acres below.
She could see Renton was learning what the numbing blue haze of obsolescence felt like. It crept, disarmingly subtle, paralytic and comfortable, a plush, slow suffocation, a noxious side effect of loneliness. When Ell first inherited the house, she found it almost enchanting. She was free to prance in all that, to pretend her family was just a room away.
Soon, however, the point of moving from one room to the next became unclear. No one was there to notice. Why should she bother treading through empty hallways from the living room to her bed? Who would welcome her with tinkling laughs and morning greetings if she chose to sip coffee by the bay window breakfast nook like her mother and grandmother used to, before their accident, before their illnesses? Why bother with social niceties like sitting in chairs or lying on couches when a pillow, blanket, and the carpet would do?
The fog infected her limbs, rewarding her with gaseous pleasure as her mind floated in stasis whenever she lay down, but choking her with sharp, ashen melancholy when she moved around too much.
If only Renton wasn’t renting a wing of her estate. He was always scaring away the comforting fog with his problems and his speech. His baffling enthusiasm – and amazingly, an equally baffling anxiety – for just about everything lay in direct opposition to her sepulchered apathy. Too much of this, and she felt raw, exposed.
“Why do you like this girl so much?”
“Ell, do you remember the first time you realized you were happy? Not the first time you were happy, I mean the first time you were self-aware of your own joy? It’s almost a loss of innocence, in a sense, when you realize. But this knowledge is like a drink of water. It’s you realizing you are alive on an earth that possesses the ability to send your neurons into a frenzy of electric activity.
“When I saw Nevine, something stirred in me. Our first night together we played like children under the stars and lay in the cool grass. I realized she awoke what remained of my pure joy. She brought it out from the deep recesses of my chest, coaxed it out from beneath the layers of defense we build up after each disappointment, rejection, bullying or heartbreak. Every moment together with Nevine was like breathing for the first time.
“I woke after three weeks of this and she was suddenly gone. Not at her place, not here, and her phone was disconnected. After a couple of days I asked around and no one had seen her in town at her usual spots. Not a trace. I can’t even fathom that she would leave me. I need her back. It’s like a lung’s missing.”
“Rent, can you tell me about feeling happy again?”
Ell woke curled up on the sunroom’s green velvet couch. She twisted onto her side and saw Renton standing in the doorway, staring at her. “I found Bern. His Instagram says he’s attending a gallery opening tonight. Come with me.”
The gallery was part of an ostentatious gift to the town by a local family, styled as an eclectic take on 1940s old Hollywood elegance. Staff employees opened gold embossed doors which led to white marble floors, sleek black trim details, with hot pink glittered walls in jarring contrast.
An assortment of artists, writers, loosely-tied corporate sponsors, and a gaggle of film professionals mingled on the upstairs floors, sipping champagne and browsing the art. It was an intricately choreographed imitation of New York City’s gallery scene. Creatives, weary of the cities but not yet ready to slip completely away into their isolated Ridgefield, New Canaan, Darien, Redding or Greenwich estates, brought the mirage to life.
They circled around a waist high, obsidian column, a moody addition to the otherwise sharply colored featured pieces. Renton suddenly clenched Ell’s arm.
“There,” he whispered turning her slightly towards a cornered alcove across from the column. “I recognize Bern from his pictures. Come on,” he said, still gripping Ell’s bicep.
“Wait, wait. Let me handle this one. We can’t just harass him about where Nevine is. He’ll get defensive and clam up. She’s not here, which means she might have left him too. Just blend in somewhere.”
Ell stood beside the skier, both staring appreciatively at a canvas of abstract splashes of color. He was tall and lean yet solid like a pine. A small grin danced across his stubbled cheeks and sharp, oblong features.
“What do you think?” he asked.
“It’s lovely.” Ell continued considering the painting.
“The artist created this collection with a singular purpose in mind. The bright colors catch our attention and send waves of pleasure through our brain. But it’s the contrasting soft strokes, which provoke a sense of calm, of lightness. It emulates happiness: a calm sense of pleasure.”
Is this guy for real?
“So,” she turned towards him nonchalantly, “are you pleased?”
The grin widened. “Pleased to meet you. I’m Bern.”
“Ell, what a ring to it.” He spoke with an ambivalent accent, a consequence of Switzerland’s adoption of the German, French and Italian languages. “There is something about you Ell. I feel like you’re a great listener.”
“It often depends on the speaker.”
“So I’m not a bore?”
“That’s a boring question.”
“Touche. I’ll raise the stakes. Answer my questions, I’ll answer yours. Why are you here tonight?”
“I’m helping a friend look for a long lost lover.”
“Exceptional. Your turn.”
She smiled, considering. “If you could steal one painting, what would it be?”
“Alfonso Ossorio’s Untitled number fourteen. It is a swirling, chaotic masterpiece, and under the interminable stronghold of the Whitney for the time being. If your house caught fire, what would you save?”
“A book of watercolors my mother painted for me when I was girl. Most daring thing you’ve ever done?”
“Besides answering a strange, beautiful woman’s questions? Skied a double black diamond on hallucinogens. The most reckless thing you’ve done for a friend?”
“Besides blindly helping one look for his long lost lover? I broke into a director’s house to steal back my friend’s monogrammed underwear she left at one of his parties. She was horrified by the idea that his cohorts would be able to link the initials back to her.”
“To the grave.”
“The mystery deepens.”
“Dying in an avalanche. First love?”
I’ve never been in love.
“A high school beau who dropped out to help run his family’s tobacco empire in Colombia. Last time you were truly happy?”
Here it was. A shocked look came over his face, eyes wide and mouth agape. She knew he was thinking about Nevine. Come on. Spill.
“Ah, the last time I was truly happy was with a woman. We were living in Switzerland for almost a month. But like all sweet things, it was fleeting. One day she simply disappeared. Went back home to the States.” He took a large swig of champagne. “As usual, man’s downfall is linked to the charms of a woman.”
“You don’t know where she is?” Ell touched his arm. His toothy grin reappeared.
“You already asked your question, it’s my turn! When was the last time you had a cigarette?”
“Oh, over an hour ago. Far too long.”
“Ha! You’ll be the death of me, Ell. Let’s go outside for a drag.”
She laughed. “I’ll meet you out there, I just have to let my friend know where I am. One last question though.” They locked eyes.
“What was her name?”
“Yes, and to your earlier question, I don’t know where she is, and if I’m lucky it’ll stay that way. See you outside.”
He gave her a peck on the cheek and strode off. She saw Renton gesturing furiously for her to follow Bern. She shook her head. Bern was a dead-end.
Ell’s car hummed as she shifted into gear. “We should try her place. The one you told me about off the Parkway.”
She whipped her car around a corner and sped past a stop sign.
“Ell, slow down.”
“No, we’re almost there.”
“Ell, the odds she’d be there are nuts.”
“Because sending me to talk to all her ex-boyfriends isn’t nuts?”
“Ell I’m serious.”
“So am I.”
“Christ just STOP.” Ell slammed the brakes, startled by his outburst. She pulled off the road and put the car in park.
“The fuck Renton?”
“Let’s just go home.”
“Home? We’re so close, and you want to stop?
“I know, I know,” he said, putting his head in his hands. “I don’t think I can keep doing this.
“This whole search. Since I met her, I thought she was going to be the love of my life. Then every time we talk to someone, I find out they thought the same thing. It’s fucked up, Ell. I can’t keep finding out this shit. I just want to forget. I’m so tired.”
Ell didn’t see Renton for a few days after that. To be fair, she hadn’t been leaving her favorite rooms of the house. The sunroom, her bedroom, and the breakfast nook with the large bay windows were her local haunts. She was smoking a cigarette on the back porch in mid-afternoon when she heard the telltale two-step-at-a-time beat of Renton, hopping up the patio stairs. She smiled when she saw him. He looked better. Fed, not as pale, and smiling.
“Ell! Fancy seeing you here.” She grinned as he strode over to her with a schoolboy’s pep. He kissed her on the cheek and sat down.
“You wouldn’t happen to have a smoke for dear old Rent, would you?”
She laughed and stuck a cig in his mouth. He lit up and sat there talking through the afternoon into early evening.
Having Renton back forced Ell’s haze into retreat. He would storm into her rooms, declaratively stating she had to come see some newly discovered grove he found in the backyard, listen to his absolute favorite new band, blaring in a room he recently doused with speakers, and drink the most exquisite wine he’d ever tasted down in the cellars. She had forgotten the empty house even had cellars. It was exhausting. She loved it.
They got drunk in the gardens and tried to catch fireflies, smoked cigarettes on the roof, and listened to records, loudly, while passing joints back and forth, talking about life, childhood, and the strangeness of it all. Hallways untouched by laughter since her family passed again reverberated exultant echoes. This joyous constancy helped her smooth Renton’s staccato movements into productive legatos when his frenzies became overwhelming.
Soon, Renton was full of projects. He cleaned out her grandfather’s old barn. He updated the cocktail room. He converted the lower attic into a plush, Moroccan style lounge area. She reminded him this didn’t mean she wasn’t going to charge him rent anymore. He would laugh and ask her the last time she even remembered to ask him for rent.
“Well,” she would say, “at least you’re useful for something.”
“Useful? I’m exhilarating, Ell. Now help me with the groceries from the car. I may or may not have bought some exotic meats for us to experiment with in the kitchen.”
They gorged that night, choking back laughter at each other’s food-stuffed cheeks and shameless gluttony.
The next morning he jolted her awake at the break of dawn to jog around the lake. An iridescent blue mist rolled over their bodies as they ran. Ell imagined ghosts were watching them from the surrounding woods.
“Harry’s having a party tomorrow night. Want to come with?”
Renton threw his dart at a giant, paint-splattered canvas leaning against the side of the house. It hit one of the paint filled balloons with pinpoint precision. A dark purple explosion. They high-fived, and Ell stood at attention, aiming for a red one in the upper corner.
“Of course I’ll come.”
She squinted her eyes at the canvas in total focus, when yellow exploded, wet, around her. She turned slowly, dripping color, Renton doubling over with laughter. She quickly retaliated, launching an orange grenade at Renton’s gut. Reds, blues and greens splattered kaleidoscopic patterns on the driveway. They ran inside, breathless, dashing to get to the closest shower before the paint dried.
They tumbled in the shower door together, clothes still on, alight with laughter. They rubbed paint off of each other’s cheeks, chests, thighs, lips. A rainbow of colors began to marble around the abandoned clothes on the shower floor, paint dripping in quick rivulets where flesh met flesh, and hands gripped hair.
In bed, Ell felt Renton’s broad chest against her back. His arm rested across her ribs and he curled his fingers around hers.
“You’re it, baby,” he said.
She smiled and dreamt of dipping her feet in the warm crepuscular rays reflected off a cool creek.
Ell and Renton danced in Harry’s living room, dipping, twirling and gripping. Renton was fluid with her, their limbs and bodies intertwining like melted wax. Their rhythmic heat carried dreamy music like rising smoke.
The last time she was here, Harry had helped her stumble across the ivory white gravel pathway, together giggling at her high-heeled clumsiness, to catch a car back home. The dimmed lights, echoing music and endless cocktails were always hazy in her memory, blurring with Harry’s charming gestures and the eye-catching party dresses of the delicate girls who played there.
“Hey you gorgeous bastards! Cheers!” shouted Harry.
Ell laughed as Renton nodded at Harry and lowered her in a dip and pulled her tightly back against his chest.
Suddenly, Renton froze, a stone column in the center of gyrating bodies. She looked in his eyes, then turned to follow his gaze across the room, past Harry, his arms around a pair of young roses, Bern, his tongue tip to tip and pushing a small round pill into a girl’s mouth, and a group of wet dolls in their underwear, stumbling in from the outdoor pool, sharing a bottle of champagne.
She followed Renton’s gaze to the front door, where a man had just entered with a slight figure whose features were suddenly illuminated with the flash of a nearby camera. Long, dark, thick hair, delicate, impish features and wide, doe-like eyes. She saw Harry put a hand to his eyes to block the flash and then blink in stunned, open-mouthed recognition. She saw Bern’s eyes widen as his tongue finished his transaction, spinning to the side wildly, bumping the giggling wet dolls.
In that moment of recognition, Ell felt her bones lose all sense of solidarity with her body, her organs mixing suddenly in an amorphous entanglement.
She somehow knew. It was Nevine.
Ell turned back towards Renton, her hands falling limply from his stone appendages. The music swelled to the floor, where it greeted Ell’s stomach. A voice cut through.
“Nevine? Are you fucking kidding me?” Harry had pulled away from the girls. A section of the crowd had stopped to nervously watch the coming spectacle. Nevine bit her lip and turned as if to leave.
“Oh what, you’re seriously going to run out again? Big fucking surprise!” Harry threw up his arms, teetering backwards. “So how many guys here have you fucked? You know, while you leeched off them for a month or so.”
The man she had entered with raised his eyebrows and backed away in an effort to become enveloped in the crowd. More people at the party started to listen.
“Did you really think you could come back and expect respect from the people who know what you are? Do you know that everyone who knows you thinks you’re a social-climbing bloodsucker?”
Nevine turned towards Bern with pleading eyes. “I can explain.”
He shook his head disdainfully. “You could have at least given back the ring.” He turned away to guide the champagne dolls outside.
“Renton.” Nevine’s voice was girlish and pouty. “Please,”
For a moment Ell could see Renton’s eyes grow wide with pity and his muscles slacken.
“I know you still love me.”
With that the spell was broken. Renton crinkled his nose, shook his head and pushed towards the backyard.
“See! No one wants you anymore! So get out of my fucking party!” Harry groped towards a group of giggling girls. Someone tried to take Nevine’s picture. She ran to the front door. No one was following her. Nobody was there to defend her, tell Harry to fuck off, or throw a drink. Ell sighed. Goddamnit. Fucking rocks.
Ell’s heels haphazardly navigated the white, gravel driveway.
“Wait!” Nevine turned but kept walking. “No, seriously, wait! Walking on this is impossible. Please.”
At this Nevine stopped, confusion playing across her wet cheeks. Ell breathed a sigh of relief and hobbled over.
“I’m Ell. You don’t know me, but I live with Renton.” I sleep with Renton too now, apparently.
Nevine wiped tears from her cheeks. Ell looked around the driveway. She had a feeling that none of the luxury sedans or sports cars belonged to Nevine.
“Do you even have a car?”
“I-I,” she sniffed, “g-got dropped off here.” By another sucker, no doubt, thought Ell.
“You do know we’re in the middle of nowhere, right? You can’t walk home. Let me drive you somewhere.” At this, Nevine’s face crumpled even further. Ell crouched down a little to look up at her.
“You don’t have anywhere to go, huh?” Nevine shook her head. “Okay, no home, no friends – ” Ell caught herself “ -I mean shit, sorry, um get in my car. Just get in for now, we’ll figure it out.”
“W-with Renton? I can’t stay with him. He h-hates me.”
“Don’t worry about running into him. Trust me, you could hide out in my house without him noticing. He’s probably getting sloshed right now anyways. He won’t be home till way later.” Just get in the damn car before I change my mind.
“Mmkay,” said Nevine.
What are you doing, Ell?
Her car whipped through the wet summer night. She couldn’t leave a girl, even Nevine, stranded in the dense Connecticut woods. It’s just for one night. Just deal with her for one night.
Nevine was prone, curled on her passenger seat. Obviously Harry had been overly harsh. But had he really said anything untrue? Nevine preyed on the generous hearts of men. She was crafted around men’s desires but had no structural foundation to support herself with. There was no underlying personality, distinctive traits, or ideological footholds. But yes, she was pretty, a vulnerable free-spirit, and unerringly supplicating. A total dream girl.
Ell pulled into the driveway which was still spattered with paint from a few days ago.
“Can you stay up with me for a bit?” asked Nevine, eyes wet and voice soft.
Is that how you melted all those hearts, little siren? By acting so blisteringly innocent and needy?
Ell was mostly unmoved, but couldn’t help feel pity for this tepid creature in front of her.
“You can sit while I smoke cigarettes in the back.”
Ell inhaled another drag, blowing it towards her nighttime neighbors, frogs in chaotic symphony, crickets playing stridulate music and the flute-like notes of thrush determined to eke out one last chorus before nightfall.
“You’re a sad trope, Nevine,” said Ell, her words heating the cold silence of her porch. Summer humidity clung to the two women, who were draped over white wicker chairs. The last light of day was pressed against the rich blue sky and hid the stars for a few moments longer.
“I know how you’ve moved around and treated my friends like stepping stones when they showed you kindness and care. I hated you for how you made Renton feel. The more I knew about you, the more I couldn’t fathom how someone so shallow and careless could make someone so full of goodness and life like Renton feel worthless. He came around though. Everyone did. But I’m also sorry that you felt you had to run away from them. Sometimes, I think I understand. When the love ran out, you did too. You were just shitty about it.”
Ell inhaled and blew smoke as Nevine curled up on the porch chair across from her.
“Did I really hurt Renton?”
“Yes. You did.”
Nevine hiccupped a sob. “I never wanted to hurt anyone. I just had to get out.”
“What if I was meant to be with someone else?”
Ell blinked. “Do you like skiing?”
“I hate skiing.”
“It’s not for me.”
It made Ell vaguely sick seeing and hearing such insincerity. Those weepy eyes and black hair, like a blanket trawling obscenely down her back – for some reason it was her hair, inexplicably long, that seemed most offensive to Ell. It represented the false fantasy of Nevine. She was a projection of fairy princess imagery, the hair a garish, forced detail, purposeful and inauthentic. But here she was, crying on Ell’s wicker chair, distraught like a child just ousted for trouble-making.
A wave of exhaustion hit her. Ell’s patience and resentment begin to ebb in response to this poor girl. She was probably raised to be like this, to seek the capture and ownership of another human being’s heart, never once thinking if it was a prize she really wanted or needed. She was like the fisherman who catches more fish than he could ever need, and in his blind greed, sinks his boat under the weight of his prize. Nevine was sinking under the weight of too many stolen hearts. Ell rubbed her forehead as the nicotine buzzed swimmingly between her ears.
“I need to lie down. Stay in the blue room down the main hallway on the right. The bed’s made.”
Renton never came to bed that night. Ell woke, expecting Renton’s characteristic closeness, his heavy breathing on her back and hands wrapped around her waist. She peeked into the room Nevine had slept in. Empty. A small panic gnawed at her stomach. She started towards the back porch door then stopped. She could see Renton and Nevine outside, sitting across from each other, both looking down.
She inhaled sharply. They rose. Renton pulled Nevine close, whispered something in her ear, and slipped a piece of graphite-shaded paper in her hands. A silver Porsche pulled into the driveway, Harry’s. Nevine squeezed Renton’s hand. She got in the car.
The car left.
Renton walked across the porch into the back gardens. Ell’s hand hovered over the doorknob. He froze in his tracks when he saw Ell through the screen door.
Laura Vroom is a writer based out of Brooklyn, NY and creator of the lifestyle and culture zine, Rank + Vile.
Header art is the work of the incredibly talented Alfonso Ossorio.