“Poems eat people, like people eat poems,” she whispered through the stacks. I was pretending to be a librarian, but I was really on the run.
“Do I know you?” I hissed; pissed that she was calling attention to me. I had been studying the dewey decimal, learning the landscape, finding abandoned book-carts and restocking with a vengeance. I liked to look busy when doing nothing.
“Moonshine,” she licked her lips.
“Isn’t that some kind of bum booze?”
“Yeah, but I like to think of it as the stuff that oozes from the moon. The best light to read by, kiss by, sit in rose-gardens and hold hands by. You can call me Valentine, if you prefer. I go by either. Depends on my mood. Depends on the month.” She curtsied.
“Hi Valentine. I’m Bee.” I said, reaching my arm through the hole between books. Instead of shaking my hand, she kissed it. I jerked my arm back, knocking Plath’s Colossus to the floor.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to freak you out. I’m a bit of a gentlewoman.” She winked. “By the way, I know you don’t work here.”
I looked down at my torn tights, platform boots strapped with spurs, dirty fingers. “Of course I don’t work here.”
Valentine took my hand and led me out into the dismal gray of Larkin Street. There were old crazies all over the place—old crazies always seemed creepier than young crazies—and pigeon shit, and the sausagey smell of weed smoke that permeates San Francisco. We walked together for a while, not talking. I was surprised by the cool, moistness of the August air; I pulled my hoodie tighter.
“Look,” she pointed, “don’t go anywhere near that corner. Those guys will rob you blind.” She looked me up and down. “Not that you really have much to rob. And you may already be blind.” She peered directly into my eyes. I peered back into her very round, almost-bulging eyes—until she flinched. Shadows like blackbirds beat their wings beneath her lids.
“You haven’t been here long.” It was a statement, not a question. I wasn’t sure if it was a compliment or not.
“Nah. I’ve been in L.A. It’s warmer down there. I might go back.”
“The song of the two-headed turtle is quite alluring,” she almost-sang. “But, how can you handle all that sand in your boots?” She frowned.
“Doesn’t really bother me.” I felt a bosomness budding.
“Really though, what brought you here, Bee-sting?” Valentine adjusted my name to her liking.
“LA was starting to feel over. Before that I was in Austin, before that Chicago, before that New York…”
“I was living in this cruddy studio without any windows and I was always tired. Like I thought I had mono or something. I figured a change of scenery might make me feel better.” I shrugged. I wasn’t very good at explaining myself.
“LA is all foreheads filled with toxins, and girls ripping each others’ eyes out on street corners. The salted skyline oozes purple and metal,” she erupted angrily. “I mean, that’s my perception,” she switched from yelling to purring in a half-second; she was volcanic. “Do you feel better yet? More awake? More alive?”
“Something seems to be shifting,” I admitted.
“Poiesis: the blossoming of the blossom.” She grinned. “You think you might stay here a while?” There was a bit of pleading in her voice.
“Mabes.” I was feeling non-committal.
“Well, you’re at least staying with me tonight.” Valentine led the way.
Her place was just another cruddy studio in another cruddy city, but because it was hers, it was filled with magic. Books piled in every corner, acting as table tops and lamp holders and coat hangers. Shiny blue Christmas lights twinkled, hammered haphazardly into any bare surface. Seaweed snack wrappers, discarded bottles of water, and mostly-melted candles were strewn methodically, looking like found-object art. In the corner was a pile of clothing and towels, un-cased pillows, stray socks, bandanas, and feathers.
“Welcome to my nest,” Valentine said, with another curtsey. “What’s mine is thine. No silverfish, or scuttlebutt.” She giggled.
“Thanks,” I smirked, slightly nervously.
“So, Bumble-Bee, what’s your sign? You must be a Libra, living in your airy bird-house head. Little miss peaceful peach-pie, focusing your love and attention on others.” She seemed to think she knew me.
“Yeah, I’m a Libra. I don’t know that much about astrology though. What are you?”
“Pisces, queen of the sea, always diving deep deep deep,” she swooned. “In fact, I’m gonna go take a bath now, my skin is thirsty and needs some bubbly. Pop!” She was in the tub for over an hour. I imagined her bathtub swelling into an ocean, Valentine drinking in the blue like Kool-Aid, adept toes paddling like tiny fins. Being near Valentine, amped up my right-brain braininess.
To keep myself preoccupied, I carefully pulled a book from its precarious Jenga-stack. Inside, the pages were bent and frayed, their insides filled with underlining and highlighting, notes, ink blobs, and lipstick smudges. It looked like she had literally made love to her books. No matter how arcane, to Valentine, words were never dead, but endlessly throbbing with gristle and light. I fell asleep easily that first night, as she read quaint, French fairytales to me, changing her voice with each character.
The next day, we went to City Lights and used our recently-CoinStarred-dollars on books. We chose only pocket-sized ones, so we could carry them with us everywhere, and yell verse at passerby as an act of adulation. Most of North Beach’s former glorious grit had been power-washed clean, but Valentine knew where to find the grime.
For dinner, we ordered cheese and crackers and cans of Ranier at Spec’s. V pulled a dented can of sardines from her purse and popped it open ceremoniously.
“The taste of the ocean, the slime, the brine, souvenirs from the sea,” she placed a tiny fish on each cracker. We feasted.
The dusty memorabilia of nautical warfare and skulls loomed upon us, feeding our hearts like letters stuffed in bottles. Cockroaches danced to Tom Waits, while ancient maps on the walls helped us plan our fictitious destinies. The ghosts of the Beats throbbed in the floorboards.
“It’s starting in on us, brick by slimy brick. And we are doing everything in our power to ignore it’s wild call,” Valentine sang. “Have you ever been to a place that felt like home, but knew that you couldn’t be there because it would kill you? That feeling of homesickness so deep in your guts, it’s the only thing that keeps the poetry flowing.”
“Um, not really…” I was grasping for a response that didn’t sound lame.
“It’s okay, Bumbles, I don’t really expect anyone to get it.” I had failed her.
“Want another beer?” I asked, jumping up too quickly.
“Fill’er up,” she pounded her can on the table, scowling like a drunk cowboy—though she looked far away.
“Poems eat people, but only when they ask to be eaten.” I winked, as I returned to the table—harkening back to Valentine’s abrupt library introduction just a few days prior. It felt like it had been years.
“Uvula vibrating, epiglottis inverting; swallow swallow stuck.” Valentine took a large gulp of beer. “Look, that woman over there is doing readings,” she nudged me and smiled.
“Tarot cards, Silly-Bee. They are like little psychic maps. Mirrors that show your interiors instead of your ex—you can peek in, brush away the dust, and just listen.”
“Eh, I don’t think I’m really into that stuff…” I nervously chewed my nail.
“Quiet, naysayer! The Queen of Cups commands thee,” she adopted a royal-sounding accent, and used her parasol as a cattle-prod, guiding my way into the dark, red corner. Esmerelda, a heavily-accented woman with ouroboros bangles up to her elbows, had me focus on a question and cut the deck. She laid the cards in a cross-formation in front of me and started crooning. I couldn’t really listen to what she was saying because I was bombarded with images: bird bones decaying, little bits of feather afloat; lightning striking down ancient redwood trees; moons rising high and blinding onlookers; fish metamorphosing into people. I walked away from her feeling swollen and empty at the same time. It wasn’t until later that night, when crawling into the nest with Valentine, that I found a tarot card stuck in my pocket. It had a bat hanging upside down on it. No cups, no swords, no wands, no pentacles. Just a bat, eyes closed, wings wrapped tightly around his furry body in a sacrificial position—The Hanged Man.
“Look, Valentine, he looks so lonely.”
“Enemy, oven, sorrow,” she sighed, before kissing my eyes closed.
The next night, we went to the Church of the Eight Wheels and roller-skated under a disco ball. Valentine was showing me a side of the city that I didn’t know existed. I had gotten so distracted by all the shiny condos sprouting up tyrannically, and the Google busses attempting to mow me over at every crosswalk, that I forgot to scratch beneath the surface. My Tales of the City dream had been etched deep and was in discordance with the loads of tourists clogging the cable cars, and maple-bacon-doughnut-eating hipsters that cluttered every block. The only remnants of weird I found readily were sleeping on storefronts in the Haight: yelling at cops, aggressively panhandling, manicuring their dreadlocks, and letting their dogs shit wherever.
After watching a vampire double-feature at the Castro Theatre, and begging day-olds off Hot Cookie as they were closing, Valentine and I found ourselves sitting on the stoop of a random, rainbow-painted Victorian.
“Thanks for showing me this side of the city,” I said, meaning it. “I can’t believe I was so ready to leave before I met you.”
“Sometimes we have to let go of old ideas in order to gain new perspectives.” She sounded like a presumptuous self-help book; I was annoyed.
“I’ve been practicing letting go for years. I’ve buried both my parents, burned letters, given away everything. I’ve moved from city to city, I have said goodbye over and over again.”
“When you don’t let yourself connect, it’s easy to say goodbye.” She was in guru-mode.
“You don’t know me. I have totally connected.” I was feeling defensive.
Later that night, we took BART to the East Bay for hand-churned ice cream sundaes. She was especially nervous as we tunneled under the ocean; in fact, I was sure that she stopped breathing for at least 2 minutes. We roamed the streets of Berkeley looking for stray neighborhood cats and tried to jump fences to pet kitchen-chickens, but they squawked at our hands, making us run away giggling. We tagged dumpsters—giving ourselves tragic and romantic monikers—those of heroines and mistresses too loving to last in our cold world: Cleopatra, Daisy, Lucinda, Francesca.
“Sorry about earlier.” V conceded. “I didn’t mean to assume anything.”
“No, you’re right. I’ve been running for a long time. Only making acquaintances and nothing more. It hurts to lose people you love.”
“I think I might know something about that.” She grabbed my hand and held it the whole way back to her place. Her hands were sandpapery.
Valentine made breakfast on her hot plate. “The whole yolk, sac of nutrient, sac of gold,” she hummed as she scrambled. I had learned that every comment didn’t require a response. Right before she set the plates on the table, she spooned a clump of something black and quivering right onto our eggs.
“What’s that?” I whimpered, suddenly not hungry.
“Only the delicacy of dynasties: caviar, fishberry jam. It’s like french-kissing a lumpfish. Go on, have a swallow. This is a highly fertile breakfast,” she winked, gobbling up her eggy eggs.
“Okay. . .” I couldn’t taste much beyond salt. My palate wasn’t quite refined enough for such extravagancies. I pretended I was eating grown-up Pop Rocks.
We sipped instant coffee out of mugs so old they felt as if they might crumble in our fists, and did yesterday’s crossword together. Valentine knew so many words that she never knew the right words.
“But clandestine is such a better word than sneaky! Let’s just add more boxes here. Clandestine is a word for special secret affairs—like Emily and Susan, quietly writing love letters to each other, while Emily was trapped in that god-awful attic, scribbling away.” She pantomimed passionately.
“Some poems are carnivorous, with sharp incising teeth,” I growled, thinking of Emily Dickinson’s verse. Being around Valentine had connected me to my own inner poet.
“Others are more herbivorous, some have dentures, others just gummed,” she poked at the remnants of egg and egg on her plate. “What do you want to do today, Bee-spit?”
“I was thinking of exploring the Sutro Bath House ruins, they seem neat.” I was excited to be making a plan, instead of following Valentine around like she was the leader of our tiny cult.
“You know I can’t handle all that sand in my boots,” she muttered lugubriously.
“I don’t think it’s that sandy at the ruins themselves. It’s not like being on the beach. There are little walk-ways and a tunnel and that scene from ‘Harold and Maude’ was filmed there.” I was working hard to defend my idea.
“Why don’t you go this one alone? We can meet up later tonight. If I inhale any of those salty ocean drops, I might simply cease to exist.” She was always hyperbolic.
It was the first time since I had met Valentine—five days prior—that we parted ways. The whole time we were hanging out, I kept wondering when she would get sick of me, or need to go to work, be tired of sharing her nest, or just want to do something alone. My longest relationship had been a stormy online love affair when I was thirteen, before my parents died, before I started running.
The bath house was only mildly interesting without Valentine, so I found a cozy spot to read and watch the sunset. The sky looked like strawberry shortcake with a buttercream sun. The waves splashed against the shore, lulling me into serenity. I was reading a book I had borrowed from V, about two sisters trapped in a decaying mansion, on the outskirts of a judgmental, small town. I wanted her to be reading it to me.
When we met up that night, Valentine’s skin looked darker, like there was thunder in her bloodstream.
“Are you feeling okay?” I worried.
“Never better.” She pulled me into a stiff embrace and strapped a shiny pleather corset around my waist. She pulled on fishnets and high-heels and applied too much-eyeliner to both of our eyes.
“I thought of the coarse white flesh/ packed in like feathers,/ the big bones and the little bones,/ the dramatic reds and blacks/ of his shiny entrails,/ and the pink swim-bladder/ like a big peony,” she recited as she meticulously dabbed lipstick on our lips. We looked like we had recently crawled out of the underworld.
We spent that night dancing our troubles away to industrial synth-pop in a too-dark goth club. Her sweat was thick and salty, like she was leaking an entire ocean onto the floor. Her skin looked almost phosphorescent, flaked with rainbow.
“I am whole inside this poem,” I breathed into Valentine’s seashell-shaped ear.
“Every finger and toe intact,” she winked, examining her hands. We kept dancing and dancing until we were nothing but body parts and movement and sweat. Though the club was packed, I couldn’t see or feel anyone except Valentine.
“Your cheeks are daffodils” she said, smiling and grabbing my hand, as we left the club at 4:00 a.m. The nighttime air turned to steam on my skin.
“You are Moonshine!” I blurted, focusing my eyes, and remembering how she had initially introduced herself to my confused, pretend-librarian self. A self that felt like it had lived a million years prior. “It totally makes sense now, you’re glowing! But not like looking directly at the moon exactly, more like what it looks like bouncing off the water: reflective and glittering…almost holy.” I shied away, embarrassed by my outburst, my affection.
I only meant to compliment her, but Valentine/Moonshine frowned and pulled her hand from mine. “Into the red eye, the cauldron of morning,” she whispered, looking wearily into the sky. I had never seen her look further away.
The sun was just beginning to come up, fuzzing the brightness of the Full Sturgeon Moon. Seeing the sun and the moon in the sky at the same time is always slightly surreal—like being caught in the weird liminal space between yesterday and tomorrow. I wanted to be closer to Moonshine, but I was suddenly scared. We crept home quietly, not touching.
The next morning, I woke up alone. There was a note on the stack of books that acted as a bedside table:
Queen of the Bees,
You are of air, I am of water. My labyrinthine organs only work one month a year, when our two elements collide and we are allowed to shipwreck on this sloppy shore. Thank you for what you have given me. When the moon goes red, I will return. This year is a poem, and I am whole inside of it. Re-created and necessary; ripe.
I nuzzled my face into her empty spot. I thought I could still feel tendrils of warmth that she had left behind on her pillow. I knew that I had finally found a home: this nest, these books, the candles, writing utensils, garbage, strands of looming lights—it was all mine. Moonshine had made it for me. I easily fell back asleep, breathing in her slightly-sour scent, and dreamed that I was floating on a make-shift raft atop choppy, choppy waters. But, I wasn’t scared. There was something massive anchoring me to the ocean floor, and the fury of the water was nothing compared to the fury of my heart.
Tiffany Promise received her MFA from CalArts, where she completed a novel-length manuscript filled with creepily beautiful poetic fiction. Her short stories have appeared in Black Clock, SOL, and the now-defunct Salt River Review. One of her slinky, hybrid poem-stories will be published in In Like Company: The Salt River Review & Porch Anthology in April. She likes Disneyland, cats, and Halloween. Her cauldron is always bubbling at www.tiffanypromise.com.
Artwork: Katelizabeth, excerpt from “Ursula” series