Calliope stood around an empty room, sun streaming down on her face. Even the ceiling was a stranger to her, though she must've seen it every night before falling asleep.
She took a deep breath. With all the work she had to do, clearing things out, packing things up, filling out paperwork and looking at apartments even shittier than her current one, there hadn't been much time to pause and reflect on this space, on this time in her life. God, it seemed such a blur. Like one week she was being kicked out of her parents' place and the next she was moving to another country to become a dental hygienist for some reason.
She still didn't really know she was becoming a dental hygienist in another country. She supposed she didn't really have any friends or ties to this one, that her bodily autonomy was constantly under threat and that she hated everything about it, but couldn't she have found some another way to emigrate? Was there really such a dearth of dental hygienists in Germany? And when had she even been trained as a dental hygienist or to speak German for that matter?
At times like these she would get a headache and feel phantom pains in her arms. She sat back on her couch–dutifully cleaned and strategically moved in front of some adhesive she couldn't get off. More deep breaths.
But the burning sensation continued. Something was dancing inside her flesh, mocking her. She wanted to be angry, but found herself too tired.
There was something comfortable about the lethargy that overcame her in these moments. She sat lay back further on the couch, finding herself forgetting what she was trying to remember.
Why was she moving to Germany? To escape this godforsaken country.
Why was she becoming a dental hygienist? Because she needed employment in order to be able to emigrate.
This all made sense. Because there were some gaps, a certain spottiness in her account of her life and plans, but the human mind is complex and not altogether rational. Nor should it be, since rationality only tells you what follows from what and since all we're fed is garbage all we can expect from rationality is garbage. Anyone who wants to perfectly understand their own mental life already is trying to make it manageable, subject to some mechanism of control, even if an internal one.
If you're interested in what's really going on in your mind, instead of some idealized picture constructed to reassure yourself, then you have to accept some gaps or spottiness. That was just a fact.
Feeling revitalized, Calliope jumped up and checked her watch. An hour had gone by unnoticed, but that meant there was still another half hour to go before she had to go.
That being said, there was nothing stopping her from heading out early. Maybe take one more walk around the park. After all, she had no more business here and she should make sure to be ready for the train, since god knows you can't trust them to arrive on time.
* * *
Calliope wheeled her solitary piece of luggage around the asphalt, occasionally looking over at the stairs down to the terminal, where the train would arrive to witch her away. She felt the trees changing color around her.
Her music suddenly stopped. Looking down at her watch, she saw it was a call from Yomi. One of her few friends left from college, she wondered how Yomi knew she was leaving the country and then thought how self-centered it was of her to assume that was why Yomi was calling. Probably just giving her the opportunity to invest in menstrual blood NFTs or another one of her "anarcho-libertarian techno-feminist" projects that seem to exist just so tech bros can pretend to believe in "gender equality" (whatever that means).
Calliope struggled with her purse for a minute before remembering her phone was in her pocket. "Hey, babe," she said finally, in her most plastic corporate femme voice.
"Oh, hi, Callie," Yomi smarmed back, "How have you been? I feel like it's been, like, forever."
"Yeah, y'know, I've just been busy with the move." She listened for any mark of recognition.
"Oh, nice, y'know I've been spending some time in Bali myself. Really wonderful. So much culture. And where are you heading off to anyway?"
Calliope blinked. A part of her wanted to hang up right away. Something seemed pointed about the question. Wherever she was going, how could it compete with Bali? But was that Eurocentric somehow, to think Bali was somehow "exotic" as opposed to boring old Germany? Could she be "Eurocentric," since she wasn't white? Well, it's not like she was really connected with her "heritage," since it was on her Dad's side anyway and-
"Germany. A small town outside Munich. A suburb, really." She thought calling it a suburb made it seem more authentic, like she wasn't just a tourist. A counterattack or a parry? She was getting confused by her own metaphor.
"Oh, fun. I'm sure you'll love it there. I spent some time in Berlin last year with Daniel. Being by the wall. So inspiring. You should really go, it's incredible. So much history."
Calliope nodded, not really caring whether or not Yomi could hear her, not knowing whether or not Yomi really cared.
"Yeah, that sounds so good for you." Calliope winced. That was what Yomi had said when she had first told her about Stef. "I'm sure you'll have a great time."
"Yeah." Calliope checked her watch again. She started heading down towards the terminal, awkwardly pushing her luggage with one hand while holding her phone up to her face with the other. Yomi smacked her lips. "Is there anything you wanted to talk about? It's- it's been awhile, hasn't it?"
"Yeah. Just wanted to check in, y'know. See how you were holding up."
"Oh." She felt her cheeks turning a little red. Of all the things Yomi might be aware of in her life, she didn't think it would be that. And it had been so long, too. A year maybe? She could feel herself hyperventilating. Her forehead throbbing.
"Callie? Are you alright, babe?" The cruel bitch.
"Yeah, I'm fine." She didn't know why she hadn't lost this girl's number a long time ago. That time Yomi said "I think I might be straight after all" in bed. But Calliope also knew why she hadn't lost Yomi's number. She was very well aware.
"Well, that's okay," she continued, "Just tell me if there's anything you want to talk about. Anything at all. Just between us girls."
Finding herself growing dizzy, Calliope struggled down the steps into the terminal, returning her phone to her purse so she could grab onto the handrail.
"Are you alright, Callie?" came the voice from her headphones.
"I'm fine," she said into her purse. "Just a little dizzy. Glad to be going away."
"Well, if that's all…"
"See you! Love you! Bye." And she hung up.
* * *
Calliope lay back in her seat, a magazine over her face, some depressing indie rock mix playing in her ears. Airport security was surprisingly relaxed. Luggage person didn't ask too many questions. The line at Dunkin wasn't as long as it could've been. Overall, it was the best experience she could reasonably hope for.
She rolled over towards the window. Little ants outside, moving around carts filled with luggage. She smiled at them, happily doing their work. There was a profound sense of rightness, like these tiny figures were doing exactly what they were supposed to be doing. But it made her melancholic somehow.
The flight attendant screeched something she couldn't hear. Calliope pulled out her earphones. She didn't really believe any of that bull about cell phones and air travel, but she wasn't really feeling this mix. It was usually nice, when you're sad, to listen to something sad and she had thought she was sad before but she wasn't sure anymore. Words that had held some meaning to her in the past just seemed to go in one ear and out the other, while she stared at the happy little people in uniforms.
She wondered if she would wear a uniform, as a dental hygienist. The thought was absurd, but some part of her hoped it would be true. She didn't think she had ever wanted to wear a uniform before.
The plane lurched into motion. The guy two seats across from her slumped forward and almost seemed to regain consciousness. But whatever cocktail of medications he was on, they were too strong and so he just fell back into his slumber. Head cocked, drool fell casually from his lips like some disgusting baby.
She lowered the window cover and slipped the magazine back over her face. It would be 0900 when they arrived in Germany, the pilot chirped, and she had no intention to experience jet lag again after her ill-fated trip to Japan.
Reaching down into her jacket, she grabbed a handful of melatonin and let them dissolve. Melatonin was great, not only for helping for sleep, but also for helping her to forget her nightmares.
She had no recollection of what happened next.
* * *
A dull green light shined in Calliope's face. Looking around, she saw the entire plane was dark. All the other passengers were asleep. A chorus of snores filled the air, presumably what woke her up.
She found herself startlingly awake, which was rare after a melatonin sleep. Tapping on the screen in front of her, she was it was still another six hours until they reached their destination. She willed herself to go back to sleep, but it seemed whenever she shut her eyes her mind just raced faster and faster.
Sighing, she grabbed her headphones from where they had fallen on the floor and plugged them into the console. She had not bothered to download any e-books, having hoped to sleep through the whole flight.
The world narrowed to her and the screen. Superhero blockbuster crap and romantic comedies, prestige dramas with pornographic interludes, sitcoms with deafening laugh tracks. She slumped down in her seat. Finally, something caught her eye. "King Dice," some mobster noir flick about a lounge singer.
She didn't know why she liked noirs, but it was a fact that she did. They were always so misogynistic. But that made it more honest in a way. There weren't any "girl power" moments hastily thrown in by "male feminist" writers between harrassing their female co-workers and going on one night stands their wives "consented" to. No, girls were always pure maidens or evil manipulators. They were only good if they were powerless. If they turned good, they lost their power. Evil was power.
And the evil manipulator was always way prettier. It felt like the creators secretly wanted her to win, but couldn't because of the constraints of the medium, though maybe Calliope was just projecting.
The protagonist, Marcus, lived the same night over and over again. It wasn't clear if it was a time loop movie or if that was just his life. Wake up at noon. Get drunk. Have meaningless sex with some unattractive hot girl. She was hot, but she wasn't pretty. That felt like an important distinction. Sometimes she wore different clothes or had a different haircut, but it was always the same actress. The sex scenes were clinical. They felt educational, but also judgmental. "This is what heterosexual sex looks like. Isn't it disgusting?"
Then he would have a fight with his manager, a balding middle-aged man who acted flamboyant in front of the guests but just seemed broken and empty with Marcus. After that he'd do his show, each night a different jazz standard but they all made Calliope cry. Some Russian mobsters would eye him from the crowd, breaking his momentum. Afterwards, they'd beat him up in an alley, never explaining why. Then the girl from before would hand him a bottle of whiskey and leave him to drink himself back to sleep.
She lost count of how many times this cycle repeated. This wreck of a man, making the same decisions each day, seemingly unaware that he was making decisions as well. He had not written this play, he was just passively moved along. The only moment of agency he had, picking up the girl, was also him at his lowest. He seemed to enjoy getting beat up more. Perhaps he was some kind of closeted masochist.
Calliope felt herself falling deeper into her seat. She wanted to curl up in a ball and die. Her world was limited to the screen, but she was not yet in it. This was not her life, but she was consumed by it. It was the center of her existence, but still apart from that existence. She just kept crying. It seemed as though she should be worried about waking up the other passengers, but she couldn't bring herself to do so.
Then, it happened. She felt herself hyperventilating. The last time she'd had a panic attack like this was when her parents kicked her out. All those feelings of rejection brought up again.
"Stef…" she whispered.
It had to be her. Short blue hair, too much makeup, though she wouldn't be caught dead in a gown like that. Marcus didn't seem to notice, though. That this was a different woman than the one he'd been picking up every night (or was a woman, rather, instead of a girl). And she did not reject him. It did not even seem to occur to her that she could. He simply took her. She was no more a woman than the rest of them had been.
It made Calliope want to vomit. She shook uncontrollably. She wanted to shut her eyes, but she couldn't. To shut her eyes was to face what was going on inside, which was even more horrible.
It was subtly different at first, when they got back to his room. He was a little more tender, perhaps. There was some illusion of sensuality, though only an illusion. To see him enter her filled her with righteous anger, though more confusion, to see her like this.
The rest of the day continued as normal, but next time it was her again. The camera work seemed to change. She kept seeing over Marcus' shoulder. The lens seemed glossy when it centered on her, like those old Hollywood movies. And the same for the sex scene. She was her a lot more, almost forgetting that he was there.
The next time, it shifted to first person. She found herself looking at her chest. She had to. She had no choice in the matter. It had been written in the screen directions.
And when they got back to her room, that horrific thing was nowhere to be seen. She saw herself touch her and felt herself be touched. Her breathing slowed. Though she was verbally and physically attacked, she took comfort in the fact that she had her to hold onto. Though she was still not pretty, she could at least be safe with her.
Again, she lost track. Over and over, she took her and had her. And then she comforted her, in the end. There was an upswell. Gone was the ambient score. This was old Hollywood as it should've been. A smile came over her face.
One time, as they lay in bed afterwards, Stef asked her, "How do you feel?"
"Good," she said. "Really good."
Stef nodded. "And how did you feel before that?"
"Bad. Empty. Broken. Powerless."
"You have regained your power."
More questions now. What did she remember of the past few weeks? Did she know why she was going to Germany? Who had told her to go to Germany? Had she bought her own plane ticket? Where was she going in Germany? Was she staying in Munich or going somewhere else from there?
Calliope knew she didn't have to be worried. After all, she was hers, completely hers. For her to ask her a question was simply for her to ask herself a question, in a mediate way. She answered freely, knowing that this was only a way to talk to herself, a way to free herself.
"Did anything strange happen to you recently? Anything you can't quite make sense of? Anything that frightened you?"
She shook her head, but stopped herself when she recalled the man in her apartment.
Stef cocked her head. She play-acted a psychoanalyst for Calliope.
"I went home one night from a walk in the rain. A man followed me, from the train. He followed me to my apartment…" She stopped. "No. He was in my apartment. He was there before me. Then he asked me some questions. He made a reference to Harry Potter. I told him to leave."
Stef smiled. "I think I know who you mean." Which of course meant Calliope knew who she meant. And of course she did, because she had met him, had wanted to attack him and taken pity on him. She wouldn't do so again, she decided.
That evening over steak, her manager mentioned she would be doing a duet tonight. She didn't care, as long as she would get to see Stef again afterwards.
For the first time, it was a song she'd never heard of before. Strange melodies. Her duet partner–a woman in a midnight blue dress with an abundance of curly blonde hair–introduced it as "Weep You No More, Sad Fountains." Calliope recognized it instinctively and knew every word.
For the first time, she didn't stop crying when Stef handed her the bottle of whiskey. She didn't want to drink it, but Stef wouldn't leave until she did. The girl's presence made her shake.
The next evening, Calliope knocked on her duet partner's door. "Wait a moment," she said. "I'm not quite dressed."
She opened the door. "What is it?" she asked.
"Take me," Calliope said.
The woman smiled. "A little forward, don't you think?" She slammed the door shut.
Shattered, Calliope did not even go to the show. She wandered the streets of what she supposed had to be Las Vegas, though none of the familiar buildings were there.
What was the name of the casino she performed at? It seemed like something she should know. Why was she going to Germany to work as a dental technician? She could've gone to school there, with her background and language skills. Where did those language skills come from? It seemed like something she should know.
That night, she passed out in the desert, having walked as far as her feet would carry her. She felt like she could see something on the horizon, a thin black line, and began to shake and cry. She wanted to be held.
She avoided the bar the next day, where she normally picked up Stef. All those previous times. They felt like violations now. Stef had rejected her. What was she doing now, reliving those good times? Were these memories or new experiences?
Calliope found herself in the women's restroom. She had never gone to the bathroom before, nor felt the need to. She didn't feel the need to now, not really, but she longed to feel it, she wanted so badly to have to pee. It amused her, to feel such a sense of absence about what was a monotonous bodily function.
The door opened and she panicked. She tried to recall having seen guests at the casino use the restrooms, but she'd never paid attention.
A hand on her shoulder. She looked up.
"There you are," she said. "I've been looking all over for you."
She fell into her.
The woman stroked her face. "Don't worry." And Calliope knew that she shouldn't worry. She felt the other woman's arms, her flesh. Stef, she thought, hadn't had flesh. She'd never realized it before, having been conditioned by the educational films, having been told, "This is flesh, this thing you're having," though she hadn't understood it at the time.
She looked up. This revelation, she recognized, was not her own. It had been given to her by Helen (for that was the woman's name).
"Come now," she said at last. "You have had enough of this for one day."
Helen walked her over to a bathroom stall. "Feel your breath," she said.
Calliope took a long, deep breath. She felt the seatbelt, firmly fastened against her stomach. It was beginning to grow light, in the plane. The other passengers would wake up soon.
Helen threw the stall door open. There was a pillar of blue flesh. It flowed over itself, like a chocolate fountain, but she recognized it as flesh. She just stared at it for awhile.
"I will come for you soon," Helen told her. "Wait for me, on the other side."
"Yes," she whispered and stepped through the gates (for it was a gate now, a gate of flesh which intruded through the bathroom wall).
The guy two seats nudged her awake.
"Hey," he said. "We've landed."
She nodded. "Thank you."
The screen in front of her was black.