a prison, a body
xvii. helen. females
The message arrived at Helen’s phone late at night, as she stood with Rabbit at a crowded vegan wrap stand. She checked it out of a bad habit of not knowing how to disconnect, even on nights like these. As she read through it, she grew paler by degrees, and when she finished it and the initial shock faded somewhat, she opened her mouth to tell Rabbit that there was an emergency, and she would have to go. But as she looked at them, nibbling at their kimchi wrap, swaying absent-mindedly to some unheard tune, Helen instead made the conscious decision not to think about it. She closed her mail, smiled apologetically, and went through the rest of the evening with the dreadful feeling of guilt pushed way out of her attention.
The morning of the next day found her in Rabbit’s bed. She kissed them on the neck and whispered a goodbye, promising to see them again sometime mid-week. Then, she took a tram home, but she did not linger in her apartment longer than she needed to get changed and pack her laptop into her bag before setting out to a nearby cafe, where she wouldn’t be tempted to open the Galatea stream out of base fear for someone looking over her shoulder. She ordered herself tea with spices and some toast and, when the food arrived, she thrust herself into a whirlwind of work with as much commitment as she could muster.
When closing time approached in the evening, she packed up again, dropped her bag at the apartment, then put on a warm jacket and went on a long jog down lantern-lit Liberation Street, all the way and around Royal Park, and then back the same way. By the time she returned and showered off the sweat, she was just about tired enough to crawl into bed and fall into sound, restful sleep.
She pushed herself until the days that followed were a blur of activity. Bohdan needed help shooting material in some backwater at the other end of the country, so she lugged the heavy equipment into his battered volvo and accompanied him on a roadtrip through the barren, late-winter landscape. She spent a confounding evening at a country home of the one man who walked out of the DigitEX fiasco with any sort of dignity and returned home shortly before the dawn of the next day. She barely slept, and when she woke up, she put herself to transcribing the four hours of interview material, finishing just in time to make it to Rabbit’s invitation to the movies.
They watched a pretty decent Korean social drama, then Rabbit dragged her out to get drinks. As usual, the date almost came to an unpleasant end with Rabbit going off like a live grenade over something they both knew to be irrelevant, shouting at Helen to get out, then coming to their senses a few minutes later to apologize in an unmistakably belligerent fashion. Helen did not mind, not too much. Such were their charms.
She finished writing her piece over the next day, and spent the rest of the day helping Bea organize a talk with some Dominican feminist, which mostly involved trying to track down a quality Spanish translator for the event. She managed and was rewarded with a warm invite to Bea’s home on Sunday; as usual, she responded non-comittently. Unfortunately, the weekend remained some time away still, and she had managed to work through her obligations with enough time and energy left to spare. So she called Anna and found out what bullshit tasks she could make up on the spot in response to asking if she needed help. The errands she made Helen run ate away at the rest of the week until she managed to wrap them all up too. In the end, she woke up late into the Sunday morning with the grim but resigned realization that there would be no more running away.
Even then, she tried. She got a jog in, long enough so that by the time she was done with it, it was a good hour for an early lunch, so she walked for an hour to an Indian restaurant that she particularly liked and gorged herself on curry hot enough to make her mouth feel like someone was running electricity through her gums. But when she finally trundled back home, she wasn’t nearly lethargic enough for a solid post-dinner nap.
So that was that. She rolled herself a joint, baked herself just a bit, just to calm the fraying nerves, then opened the terrifying message again.
As per your request, your friend has been alerted to your continuing surveillance. Her reaction is available for viewing, starting from 19:23:11 of today’s recording. I recommend that you review this material, as it is pertinent to some of your concerns.
She stared at it hatefully for a moment, then past it, eyes glazing over some indiscriminate point of her apartment wall. Ever since she’d alerted Aphrodite to her wish to let Rowan know, she had been expecting something like this to come her way. And yet, the idea that she would have to watch through a high definition recording of Rowan learning just what kind of a friend Helen had turned out to be was viscerally upsetting. And that was assuming that there would be a person left inside of Rowan not too far gone to care.
At times, it seemed to her that this entire Galatea thing was just one big swamp; the moment she thought she freed herself from some of its pull, it would rise up again and drag her down into the mess of doubt, anxiety and anger she’d been through ever since Rowan had disappeared in the concrete maw of the Galatea building.
The book she’d “borrowed” from Rowan’s apartment lay on the table nearby. She hadn’t had a chance to open its garish pink covers yet, but just the mere presence of it registered a bit like a taunting gesture from her own conscience, reminding her that however she explained to herself that she was just looking, there could never really be a passive observer. The way she felt was just a punishment, she assumed, fitting the crime of playing peeping Jenny with Rowan’s life.
After all, that wasn’t just being a passive observer, was it now? If she had been watching, she had been involved. And, probably, also complicit. She only wished she could know the degree.
“Stop working yourself up,” she mumbled without much conviction then, reluctantly, booted up the surveillance app and started digging through the archive for last Saturday’s footage.
But what if—what if it wasn’t just surveillance? What if the thought about her being complicit should be taken literally? She paused her search, lips pursed. What if this entire thing, down to the time-stamp, was just Galatea putting on a show for her eyes only? The conspiratorial part of her brain accelerated from zero to sixty in no time flat.
What if it was all conducted just because she continued to resentfully watch those pornographic livestreams? Would it stop if she had stopped? Would Rowan be made redundant? Was Aphrodite trying to mess with her? What if all those videos were in the end just deep fakes for…
“Stop,” she gritted her teeth. Whatever Galatea seemed to be—a monstrous machine for exploitation, a logic-defying emergency of capitalism and human rights, or whatever else it seemed to be—it probably had no reason to play petty games with her like that. It would just be so much easier to understand the entire thing if she could pin on some nefarious will and someone cruelly fucking with her and Rowan both.
There was no point in trying to think about it anyway. Her comeuppance was waiting to be served. She hit the play button, and braced for the worst.
The camera’s eye displayed Rowan, stripped to nothing but the plastic belt around her crotch, her body coming across even more nude for how hairless it was. She stood under a shower, her hands manacled over her head, her skin glistening with water. Helen winced; dozens of little bruises, blue and red, covered her chest and arms, like pox or a nasty allergy. It looked like she had lost some weight in the tank; there was a boyish slenderness to her frame now, of the kind that, with her genitals obscured and compressed, gave her an almost genderless kind of a look. She was breathing deeply; whether in distress or exhaustion, Helen could not tell, not without looking at her face. But she couldn’t: she was turned away from the camera lens, staring instead at the white “drone” standing right next to her, a white-striped flask and a breathing mask in its fingers.
“Yes,” it said, sounding like a computer imitating human speech. At times, Helen wondered if there were even people inside of those latex suits anymore. “The surveillance started soon after your arrival at the facility, and continued uninterrupted since. Every moment of your contract has been recorded and passed over to Helen Hu, in hi-fi audio and video. According to our statistics…” it pecked its head to the side, as if looking at something only it could see, “she averaged watching between fifteen to thirty minutes of recordings a day.”
Of course they were keeping a record of Helen’s activity—why wouldn’t they? She kept on watching, chewing on her lip until it was all raw. She waited for the penny to drop, for Rowan to… show how it must feel. But her friend remained turned away, not speaking, not making a gesture, head just tracking the drone around her.
“You have no questions?” it asked, and there was a ripple in its voice that made Helen think of amusement. Was this the sound of a computer mocking someone?
“Do you know why?” Rowan rasped.
It was a shock to hear her voice. It hadn’t changed. It was still the same. Deep, very masculine. Helen tasted blood; she bit through the lip. She shouldn’t be thinking thoughts like that. It stung to hear her again, but it also troubled her in a different way. She had grown so accustomed to the Rowan from the footage being silent and mute.
Why would hearing her speak back rub Helen wrong?
“No,” the drone replied with a very slight shrug; despite herself, Helen felt a sense of relief. Over what, she didn’t even want to know. “Ask her, when you see her again.”
With a hand in her mouth, Helen stifled whatever sound she was going to make, her brain late to remind her that no, even if she was to scream now, her friend would not be alerted about her presence. It was just a reflex of someone stealing looks at something she knew she shouldn’t be watching. She paused the recording before Rowan could answer.
What she should be worried about was what she was going to say to her friend the day she asked her that question. “I wanted to understand?” But hadn’t she explained her rationale well enough, and she just couldn’t bring herself to believe any of it?
An awful thought crawled out towards her attention. Was she secretly hoping that they would just erase Rowan as a person, so that she would not have to deal with the guilt of betraying her trust like that?
“Bullshit,” she spat at the screen, and at herself. She kicked her chair off and stormed out to the kitchen, hoping a drink would cool her nerves a bit. “I’m not like that. What I’m doing is not that bad. It’s not that.”
She didn’t want to wait for a tea, so she just poured herself a cup of water and squeezed half a lemon inside. The tart taste brought some semblance of peace to her thoughts, and, without much enthusiasm, she hit “play” again.
“So,” the drone said after another silent stretch. “You know, she can hear you right now? And I assume she will be watching this part, so if you want to smile for the camera again,” it pointed out straight at the screen, “now is your chance.”
In a gesture that Helen read as reluctance, Rowan turned in her restraints, and stared straight at Helen. The look on her face was not what she had expected to see there. In Helen’s mind, Rowan’s face should be painted with disgust, broken trust, or maybe just the blank stare of a woman erased. But what Rowan seemed to show was—exhaustion? Being at peace? Drugged out? No, just—
“Hi, Helen,” she said, her voice shaking a little, and Helen’s heart hurt. “If it’s true that you’re watching, then…” she paused and looked away; a slight blush emerged on her cheeks. Under any other circumstances, Helen would have found that adorable. “Then I hope it’s because you think…” she spoke again after a moment, pronouncing each word carefully and slowly. If her face reflected anything, it was shame.
“I’m sorry,” Helen muttered at the screen, and held back the desire to try to touch it.
“I hope you think that it’s…” she started for the third time, and again couldn’t finish. She closed her eyes and sagged a bit, but when she looked at the camera again, she was smiling. “I hope you don’t worry about me. I’m finding my place, and I’m happy.”
Rachel, Bea’s wife, was one of the most gracefully aged women Helen knew. Even softened by the years, her features retained a degree of sharpness and, with the way her tarnished silver hair cascaded down her shoulders, endowed her with the air of dignity of a dyke veteran finally at domestic rest.
“Adrienne, out,” she grunted at the disturbingly fat cat trying to climb on the coffee table between them and Helen, apparently looking forward to knocking down the hand-made mugs on it and spilling herbal teas all over the Peruvian rug. “It’s so nice you’ve decided to come,” she turned back to her guest.
“Pleasure is all mine,” Helen smiled back.
That was no exaggeration. The standing invite from Bea Stein was a life-saver, because there was absolutely nothing else that Helen could figure out to take her mind off Rowan. Blazing another joint, taking another jog, scalding herself in a shower—none of it was really going to help. Calling Hank would just drag her down deeper into the pit, and calling Rabbit had good odds in ending up with a scene. So, instead, she caught a bus to that quiet part of the city where Bea had built up her own little nest.
And, besides, maybe she could get some advice there.
“So, what have you been up to lately?” Rachel asked after a moment, picking up a mug. Helen vaguely remembered that it was a keepsake from the time the two lived in a land lesbian community all those years ago. “Bea says you’re awfully overworked.”
“I guess?” Helen shrugged lightly, glancing at Bea sitting next to her wife, white shirt and a cigarette in hand. “There’s this project about the DigitEX scandal and its victims, I’m working on with Anna Kopała.”
Bea snorted at the name; Helen shared a nervous chuckle.
“It’s actually extensive,” she continued, “but… but there’s more. I have some things on side, you know, dealing with…” she cut off.
“Let me guess,” Bea took a drag, the tip of the cigarette lighting bright-orange. “You’re still not over that friend of yours?”
Helen nodded, a silent you’ve got me look on her face.
“Such a good piece you wrote on her,” Rachel added. “Bea praised it quite a bit.”
Helen couldn’t help but smile at that.
“Yeah,” Helen admitted after a moment, “it’s been dragging behind me and… and I guess I’ve been really trying to make sense out of it. It’s slow going.”
“Sense out of what?” Bea asked, shaking off ash into the tray. “Be specific.”
What was she trying to make sense of? Rowan’s decision? She took a sip, retreating into her own thoughts.
“Come on,” Bea urged her own. “First thing that comes to your mind.”
“Okay,” Helen blurted. “What if I’m wrong?”
“About?” Rachel asked, smiling warm. “Also do you want more tea?”
“No, thank you,” Helen waved away. “I’m thinking, just—what if my friend is actually happy? What if she sold herself, is going through things that are just completely awful and abusive, but somehow is happy for that? What if…” she broke again, looking at Bea as if expecting a condemnation.
The woman finished her cigarette, smothered in the tray, then immediately reached for another.
“That’s really a concern for you?” she asked coldly; Rachel said nothing.
“Sometimes,” Helen shook her head, “I feel like I need her to be miserable, you know? Like, whatever is happening to her, she shouldn’t get to be satisfied with anything, because otherwise it would mean that…” she looked at them, hoping that they would finish her thought for her.
“Serfs could be happy with their lot,” Bea observed, tone still cool. “Phyllis Schlafly was a woman. That doesn’t really mean anything.”
“Yeah, but…” Helen tried to say, then paused again. Once more, she felt powerless; there were things she wanted to say, ideas that she wanted to get across, and they did not come out at all. “She consented to all that.”
“Suttee was consensual too, I’m told,” Bea replied; her wife perked up at the mention, but said nothing. “You know whose defense is that, Helen.”
“Right, but if she’s not doing this because of coercion, but because it’s bringing her genuine happiness?” she pushed on with the question. “What if she is actually happy with whatever they are doing to her?”
“What if?” Bea shrugged, looking at the table for that one mug that had wine in it, instead of wine. “Her having fun doesn’t make the entire institution any less wrong.”
“She’s living out a fantasy,” Helen continued, “and I know other AFAB people who think this sort of… stuff that Galatea does is just arousing?”
“You know how many women have rape fantasies?” Bea chuckled.
She shut up; she should have shut up before. The feeling of guilt rose up in her chest; between what she had done to Rowan, and the doubt it had sowed in her, she was making a really poor showing.
“I think,” Rachel said quietly, “that she’s wondering at what point we start to dismiss people for the sake of our ideas.”
“You can’t seriously suggest that…” Bea snorted. “Dear, you know what we are talking about, so…”
“There’s a question in that all the same,” she interrupted her wife smoothly; Bea did not protest. “It’s not about glorifying anything, is it now?” she looked at Helen as she said that.
“No,” she agreed. “It’s—Rowan, my friend, I think she was really, really unhappy before. And I sometimes have to wonder, if they managed to make her happy, by force if needed to, how is it wrong exactly? If that’s what she wanted?”
“Because you can’t manufacture happiness, only an ersatz of it,” Bea replied without missing a beat. “So it’s a sham.”
“But what if sham happiness is still better than genuine misery?” there was frustration in her words; she wasn’t sure if more at herself, or at Bea. “I mean—”
“You’re treading really dangerous grounds here,” Bea said quietly.
Her voice rang out in the room, off the wooden shelves, old mementos; more importantly, it also startled the cat named Adrienne enough so that he dropped from his precarious seat at the edge of a desk, falling to the floor with a loud flop. The sight was enough to make them laugh; the tension gathered in the air abated, just a bit.
“I’m-,” Helen said, taking a deep breath. “I’m just frustrated. I’ve been trying to understand this for weeks now, and…”
She glanced at Bea, but it was Rachel who spoke up.
“And it’s not working out for you?”
“No,” she finally admitted. “Because I have all the answers and I just hate them.”
They said nothing, waiting for her to finish the thought. She drank the last of the tea, cold by now, and tried to finally tie up those fraying threads of her thoughts.
“Rowan—I've always thought that she was smart, that she had a good grasp on what the right thing was. Fuck,” she muttered, before giving Rachel an apologetic look, “I’ve learned a lot from her, about feminism and else, and… and I know she didn’t have the best handle on herself, I know there were things which haunted her, but to make a jump into something so awful and degrading, and find happiness in it? I can’t understand it.”
“So you feel betrayed,” Rachel added with a nod.
“And you start to question if you had ever really known her,” Bea finished.
“Yeah,” she agreed with them. She wasn’t sure if it was a relief, or an admission of defeat. In any case, she wasn’t sure what to say next.
Rachel looked at her wife, a narrow smile playing on her face.
“Remember when Sarah got married?” she asked. “In, what, 1991?”
“Oh, God,” Bea rolled her eyes before chuckling; it was a sound not unlike a dog’s bark.
“I still have that quilt I made in protest. You know that ‘no sleeping with the enemy’ you wanted to use for a rug once? We were all so heartbroken.”
“It’s not the same, dear.”
Helen glanced between them confusedly; Rachel noticed.
“Oh, right, you wouldn’t be…” she laughed delicately. “I was just thinking back to my first big lesbian betrayal.”
“It’s not the same,” Bea repeated, voice increasingly stern.
“I know. But it made me think of it. We used to call her a collaborator, remember?”
They started to bicker, and Helen took it as her cue to take a bathroom break; besides, she needed a moment to herself.
Even in the bathroom, they had mementos; a framed photo of the outhouse they built in the lesbian community, young Bea posing next to it with a shovel, work jeans, and a sweat-stained flannel; a string of hand-glow pink and white beads hanging from the inside of the door. There was something reassuring about this place, in those layers of shared history from which the house grew. A bit of a middle class domestic dream, but one that submitting to felt so very enticing.
She washed her hands and splashed her face with water. The word “collaborator” returned, and she found herself staring at her own reflection, pensive and tense. Was this the real stake in her entire investigation? Determining if Rowan was, in the end, a good woman, or a traitor to the feminist cause?
Learning to understand her, or having to give up on her?
She returned to the living room on her tip-toes, but unnecessarily so. The argument had long since run its course; Bea longued in her chair, drinking wine; Rachel took out a laptop and browsed something—photos, most likely.
“So, Helen,” she said, closing the machine when the younger woman pushed her chair closer. “What are your plans for when that project concludes?”
Helen appreciated the gesture; she really did. She glanced at Bea—as always, she could not tell if she was fuming, or just focused.
“Can I ask you a question? What happened with that Sarah?”
“It’s not the sa—” Bea started.
“Please,” Rachel raised a finger at her; for a moment, the two women stared at each other, and then Bea just shook her head and took a long sip from the mug. “We zined her,” she said, somewhat wistfully. “You know what that means, right?”
“Yeah,” Helen nodded quickly. It was basically cancelling, only through zines. She had read about it in Carrie Brownstein’s memoir, back when she couldn’t get enough material about Sleater-Kinney in her life “Yeah.”
“It didn’t really stick, though,” she continued, “times were changing, girls didn’t really care about that womyn thing as much as they did a few years prior. But a lot of bad blood remained. She never really forgave us.”
The words sent a chill down her spine; she looked down, silent.
“She probably wants to know if you regret it,” Bea observed wryly.
“Well…” Rachel murmured, pensive, then chuckled. “She might not have been the best lesbian, but she was a good friend.”
Back home, she rewatched the scene of Rowan addressing her to the camera, quietly hoping that maybe in all of her anxiety and anguish, she had missed some important detail, some hint that would finally allow her to unravel the mystery of why would you.
“I’m finding my place, and I’m happy,” Rowan uttered with an awkward smile. Helen stopped the video again, frowning. The phrase—it rang a bell. Where had she heard it before?
“Ah,” she whispered to herself, finally remembering. She opened her email and searched her message history with Aphrodite. The answer to her question about Mircea Leon: He found a place for himself, and is happy.
“Right,” she said, leaning back. She kept on suspecting that there was a link between what happened to Leon, and what happened to Rowan, and this was yet more evidence to the pile. Two people, selling their life’s work just for a chance… at what? Happiness? Lovability? Answers as good as any. But how deep did those similarities run? Once again, Helen caught herself glancing at the book stranded on her desk, and thinking back to that unpleasant moment of looking at Rowan’s awkward photographs, dredged from their hiding place on her hard drive.
The connection was as obvious as it was unpleasant. She glanced at the system clock on her computer—not yet late night. Maybe…?
“Fuck it,” she sighed, and dialed up Anton Hernaszewski’s number.
“Miss Hu!” he exclaimed into her ear, pleasantly surprised. “You keep calling me at the strangest possible hours.”
“I’m sorry, Mr. Hernaszewski,” she uttered quickly, hoping this would not have to end in another date. “But I’ve remembered you offered me…,”
“Another coffee?” he laughed, cutting in. “Of course, but…”
“No!” she snapped. “I’m looking for those infamous photos of Mircea Leon, and you’ve said you have access to them.”
There was a bit of a disappointed pause.
“So, you’re looking for a laugh, or…” he finally asked. “I will need your email. I mean, I could give them to you in person, He… Miss Hu.”
“Mr Hernaszewski,” she replied in a way she hoped conveyed how tired she was. “It is for an important work project. I appreciate your offer, and, of course, we could maybe meet for coffee someday, but I am really overworked right now. I hope you understand.”
“Obviously, Miss Hu,” he replied, the bitter note in his voice indicating he also understood the implication. “I hope you will find this set useful. I’m sending it right now.”
“Thank you,” she said, a bit apologetic, “and goodbye.”
The photos that arrived in her email were exactly what she had feared them to be. Awkwardly shot selfies of a heavy-set young man trying to squeeze himself into a latex catsuit clearly a bit too small for him. His face, still pock-marked with acne, showed something between embarrassment and accomplishment as he posed himself, as if managing to zip the smudgy rubber all the way up was an achievement to be proud of. Helen understood why they’d made him a laughing stock, but could only feel pity herself. To want to look like something you are not…
That checked out. Parallel lives… she tried to map it out mentally, then instead fished out a stack of index cards from one of her desk's drawers, cleared some space on top of it, and started arraying them in two rows, two lines, to biographies.
Rowan: sold herself to Galatea.
Leon: sold his life’s work to Galatea.
She paused at that one card. She didn’t know that for sure—but it made so much sense. People who knew it held him in contempt; Anton, Hryshko, Hurban—they kept describing him as some kind of a pathetic nerd. It just checked out.
Rowan: Kinkster. Leon: Kinkster. Rowan: Likes latex. Leon: Likes latex. Rowan: photos she was embarrassed of. Leon: photos he was embarrassed of.
The two columns stretched across her desk, two biographies side by side. Two images of sad fetishists who ended up in the grasp of Galatea. Two lives culminating in the words found a place, is happy now. But—wasn’t it a stretch? There were gaps in the columns, mismatches. Rowan: trans. Leon: cis. Unless…
She looked at the photo, still displayed on her computer’s screen. Who was this man? A sad nerd? That was not a descriptor, but an insult. But she knew so little about him other than that. She looked away from his body and his rubber, and instead surveyed the room behind him. It reminded her a lot of her brother’s; a lot of electronics, a computer with a fancy side-panel cut with the shape of a coiling snake backlit electric-blue, a shelf filled with garish book spines—all those typical vivid reds, purples and greens that she had learned to associate with fantasy and sci-fi, a few figurines of fantastic creature or warriors striking heroic poses spread between them. A large poster framed on the wall, hanging directly above his desk; a girl in a frilly dress twirling against a pink backdrop. Helen recognized it, but just to make sure, she reached for the book she slipped from Rowan’s shelf. The same character smiled shyly from the cover.
Two more matched index cards went into the two columns. She really should make reading this book a priority.
It was hard not to wonder if Mircea Leon was not, in fact, a closeted trans woman. A lot of them, at least according to Rowan, came from this sort of geek culture, and—the similarities between him and her were striking. So… but then again, would that mean that Aphrodite purposefully misgendered him… her?... when Helen tried contacting her about their ultimate fate?
What would that mean? Would this just suggest that, at the end of the day, Galatea was a trans women’s dream, or…?
“I’m turning into Hank,” she muttered bitterly, and squashed that thought. It was obviously bunk. So what else?
She scanned the photo for any sort of detail she could have missed on her first pass. There it was—just next to the poster. Another framed plaque, a silver play button. Apparently Leon used to be a YouTuber of some renown. Curious, she tried to enlarge the photo, hoping that the resolution would allow her to read the name of the channel from the inscription. Thanks to the magic of overpowered cameras being stuffed into consumer electronics, it did.
Presented to LurkingCritic for surpassing 100.000 subscribers!
It was yet another familiar name, but for the life of hers she could not remember where she had seen it before. Finally, she caved and allowed Google to help. The first result was the link to the channel; she opened it in another tab. Then, the next one referred her to her home turf: gorgonslaugh.com.
Infamous woman-hater troll LurkingCritic suspended from YouTube.
She found herself staring at the link for a long time, refusing to click it. She kept glancing at the two columns, at the two parallel lives she had outlined. They almost looked like the condemnation a part of her had been waiting for.
Instead of opening the article, she checked on the channel. The last upload was from five years ago; she read its title and then, mortally afraid and desperately hopeful, let it play.