TRUE NEUTRAL

P watches L run a bath through the doorway that frames the unlit bathroom. The room has floor-to-ceiling windows that look out over the city, and L has turned her body away to watch the sun sink down into the skyscrapers and the smog. From behind she is wreathed in golden orange light that seems to pierce almost through her skin and illuminate her body from the skeleton out. The ridge of her long, long spine twists down into the steaming water and the wet skin and the water moving around also reflect the late sunlight into P’s eyes that drink in everything, every tiny detail of this scene. Sometimes P can feel herself as just a pair of swollen eyeballs that lie there unable to move under their own power or communicate; only take in every change of light or movement in whatever it is that they are pointed at. Often this physical devolution has the feeling of a horror story, but sometimes it is so pleasurable that P feels herself becoming greedy, a glutton and an addict for this stream of light and intensity that floods in through her visual cortex like honey or thick milk.

When L is finished they wrap themselves together in bed dressed in the white gowns that the hotel has left out for them. P asks if L wants to watch a movie, but her friend is more interested in talking, in asking her questions, and in sleepy snuggling and kissing. At this point they have only been seeing each other for a couple of months and so cannot keep from pressing their bodies into one another, from smelling each other, from running hands over skin and kissing every exposed area. Over this period P has noticed a strange autonomy (or recklessness) growing inside her in the presence of the other woman. When it comes she can feel it physically, spreading out beneath her skin like a cold liquid, and so far she has been happy to allow it to control the movements of her body.

When L falls asleep around midnight P turns the television on and navigates over to one of the twenty-four-hour movie channels. She divides her attention between the screen and the sleeping form of her friend, and watches L’s face shudder and deform under the flaring light that spills from the screen. Her familiar features are etched out wrong again and again in silver and deep black. The movie that is playing seems to be structured around an almost pure economy of action and counterforce; a succession of conflicts and betrayals that have become more and more high-stakes every time P focuses her attention enough to parse what is happening. It is fascinating to watch this arc upwards, this endless crescendo. Every time she thinks that it must finally be the conclusion to all of the carnage, and every time she is wrong, and some new villain or plot twist is revealed that spurs the characters into even greater activity. The film plays without any sound that would contextualise the frantic movement of bodies. They are so vulnerable to damage, exposed to the larger forces that compose and structure the scenes. There is an insistence on brutal materialism, on the fragility of the human form. Very often minor characters are crushed, pulled to pieces, burned alive, cut apart, dissected. The ones that survive are tough and professional and charismatic, and they have all learned to deploy their charisma against one another in their endless conflicts of love and survival. P thinks that all of her life she has been trying to learn these codes by perfect reproduction. Just before she falls asleep she realises that the movie is really about the city where she lives - that in some obscure way all of the heroes and monsters and traitors and cowards, the comedy and the children and even the pets - all of them are really speaking about and framed by the city’s swollen energy. She can see the survivors in faint afterimages behind the light of the screen, see them sitting in rows in soft interior rooms, serried one after the other, in the twilight at the end of the day; the nicer parts of town; rooms that smell of scent and clean bodies and pressed clothing, of cigarettes and white alcohol, rooms that they will return to after the scenes have all been played to finale or exhaustion, away from the cameras and the machines, and the banks of flare lights that cluster at the edges of the set. The ancient trees that line the boulevards outside the windows are moving in the wind, and clouds of pollen drift through the evening air that is thick with sunlight. Their broad leaves are lit up brilliant green. The faces all turn to her in welcome but then unconsciousness swells up and smothers her in sleep.

The next day P wakes up alone in the room. L has left her two croissants and a plunger of coffee that is still warm on the wooden top of the tv stand. The screen is inert. The light that floods in through the windows is white and very bright and the air is saturated with it; even the furniture is saturated, every contour and detail of the room seems etched and permanent. It is so bright that the white walls lose their coherence and seem almost to vibrate. Outside she can see the flanks of the city’s skyscrapers sketched out in solid blocks of white glare, uniform across each massive glass surface, like rectangular lakes of fire. She can feel her own skin beneath the cotton gown unbearably clean and sensitive. She dresses quickly and pours the coffee into a mug and watches the steam rise and catch the sunlight. She is inert. She cannot remember her dreams. It used to be that on waking she would have some vague feeling or premonition but these days she sleeps as opaque as a block of concrete. There is something beautiful and very harsh in the abrupt transition from this absolute opacity and into the brightness and the singing air. If she could she would scrape out her insides; every dark coiled up thing untouched by the sunlight; strip everything back and let it all be burned away, let only what was opaque remain and allow the rest to be incinerated like shreds of paper and trash in a furnace. As she dresses she sees her own sleeping body from the night before but alone in the bed without L anywhere in view, curled into a dark point like a ball of lead, impossible to transpierce the way the facades and the structure around her have been pierced, and she sees the hotel unfold its corridors and rooms outward around her unconscious form as though it were her body and its density that formed the single gravitational point around which the architecture was organised. That kept at bay the huge wind and the entropy of the sky. The bedclothes still smell of L and of her sex. P thinks she can smell herself also, a lighter scent, of faint urine and burnt plastic, of anxiety in sweat, of brittleness; these weave in beneath the smells of L where she has come. She drinks the coffee and pulls on her jacket and leaves the room to explore the hotel, munching on one of the croissants. She will go and see L talking at the conference later today, but this will not be until the evening and in the meantime she wants to visit the pool and the lobby and gym, and maybe also walk around the block and the surrounding parkland here in this nice and vaguely neoclassical part of town, that for her has the vague feeling of a film set.

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It was early in their friendship that P had had to make a small confession, the way people do while they are lying naked together and sleepy after sex. She is sitting up on top of L with her thighs pressed in around the waist, and speaks softly and clearly, as though careful not to make a mistake. She says that when they had first met she had been overwhelmed in fantasising, more intense than anything she had experienced before; that she could not sleep properly for weeks because of this, that she sometimes imagined L’s features in the sky or hovering before her eyes like a hallucination as she walked at night; that she had imagined her lover’s body posed in every type of sexual submission. As she speaks she can feel L smiling in the dark, feel the muscles of her belly and solar plexus shift as she begins to laugh silently with pleasure. P says that the most potent and recurring fantasy that she had was of injecting her lover with steroids, one needle into each major cluster of muscles. Of disinfecting each steel point with rubbing alcohol and boiling water and leaving them half submerged in a silver tray so that the minute traces of L’s blood would escape from their tips in tiny streams and softly disperse. Swelling out the flesh and bulk over several weeks into something indestructible. She says in the darkness that she wants to be without any fear. She is very small, perched on that larger body that supports her like an outcrop of stone or concrete. L is now laughing openly. The darkness of the bedroom is feverish and warm. P says that there is a diagram that she has found online that shows the points on the surface of the skin which make the best sites for injection, which have the fastest metabolising rate in the body. The needles that they would use would be they same kind that you can buy in cheap injection kits at the chemist, the ones they keep away from the counters and sell at cost to heroin users to stop the spread of HIV. She says that you use a cocktail of drugs to get the effects that you want - some are designed to build muscle mass slowly over time, some are much quicker and much harsher. Almost all of them destroy your hormonal balance and your emotional stability, and most have other side effects too. L has stopped laughing and is quiet for a minute listening to this and then says that she badly wants to paint this body and explore every hidden thing about it but that she would never inject anything into herself for P or anyone, and when she says this P falls silent and leans forwards so that her head rests in between L’s collarbones. L says that they can draw the body together and explore this map of injection points, this diagram of sexual intensity that can never be concretely realised and that lying back here in the darkness she has already sensed could burn them both up like kindling if allowed to swell. Once while she talks she uses the word sacred. P does not answer and listens to the steady expansions of breath in the chest of the woman that she has recently realised that she does love, and wonders if this love will find itself capable of true expression as time flows past and wears the two of them down together. It is no small thing to be worn away by exhaustion and neurosis. It is one of the eternal and great tragic forms: something true and beautiful that cannot survive contact with its own ageing and playing out and eventual degradation and poisoning. She finds herself praying in some obscure way that they might survive together, and as she does the fantasy body with its corded muscles and raw red skin floats in front of her in the darkness like a neon sign in the night time heat tasting of iron and tracing out an image of autonomy as potent in that moment as any promise of compassion or safety from fear.

To be published in ON FIGURE/S: Drawing After Bellmer, Ma Bibliotheque, 2021