The Wardrobe’s Best Dressed: Marian Palaia’s “The Given World”

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Take You Back Broken

“I feel like someone’s put a torch to me,” Lu sighs, from
the floor, as if there’s something appealing about that
notion. I lie down on the cool, scarred hardwood next
to her but don’t touch, my toes an inch from her ankle,
stretching into her and away at the same time. I suspect she
really would like to be on fire, that she would be pissed if
I put her out. We are a pair, not a couple, mostly because
I am still (stubbornly, she says) straight, still like boys de-
spite the improbability of surviving them, and she may be
too wild anyway, even for me. We are in Oakland, during
a string of rare ninety-degree days, because we are out on
a pass of sorts and because it is necessary for us to be here,
as opposed to the city across the bay, where in our world
people and their lives simply come apart, and we can’t seem
to do a thing to stop them.
      It’s August and too hot to touch, skin to skin, too hot to
even think about outside. Outside is where you go when
you are being punished, at least until dark; then inside is
punishment, jungly and fierce. Equatorial, like Papua New
Guinea.
      She pronounces it Pa-POO-Ah. Irian Jaya, she tells me,
is its other half. She starts meandering around peninsulas
and archipelagoes—Indonesia, Malaysia—comes creeping
up on Burma and the Irrawaddy.
      I say, “Stay out of Vietnam.” Sixteen degrees north of the
equator but still scorching, from what Mick’s letters said.
      She says, “I know.”
      When she sits up, it will be to smoke a cigarette and
work on a drawing of a forest, in deep green, brown, and
black, with a few white smudges standing in as rabbits. She
will say this forest is in the kingdom of Bengal, though it
no longer exists as a kingdom. When I tell her that, she will
show me one of her maps, of which she has many, some of
them very old. She collects dog-eared . . . things.
      “Oh yes it does, Cookie. It’s right there.” She’ll flick that
map with her index finger, a sharp, snapping sound. “See?”
It is hard to argue when it is in black and white like that.
Black and white, red and blue. She claims, when she is not
drawing or painting, to be a geographer. When she is not
drawing or painting, dope sick or high, or trying to figure
out how to get high. She’s never actually been anywhere, ex-
cept here and southern Indiana, the long black-tar highway
in between. She left when she got old enough to fight off
the inbred uncles, steal a car. I came later, from the north,
and at first she was jealous of my wholesome, perfect fam-
ily. Of how I led my personal Lewis and Clark expedition
to the edge of the continent, obliviously determined to beat
the crappy odds and discover the Pacific on my own.
      There was an intersection of sorts. A convergence. Or
maybe an eclipse. And now it is nighttime. We fall asleep
on the floor under the creaky ceiling fan. Even sheets weigh
too much. The air trying to come through the windows
smells like wild animals. Random gunfire in the distance
wakes us up. Gang wars. Little boys with Uzis. Lu growls,
but softly.
      “You want to bring the outside in, but you can’t,” I say.
      “Not even you.”
      “We could take out a wall.”
      “What about winter?”
      “What about it?” What she means by that, I know, is
that winter is not certain, if nothing is. Besides which, these
walls, not a one of them belongs to us.
      On the subject of fire, she continues to deny ever having
set one in the bar. The burned spot in the faded linoleum,
burned and melted through to the wood underneath, was
someone else’s handiwork. She doesn’t say whose, but I bet
she was there. That happened a long time ago, maybe ten
years, way before me.
      “I hate that Andy keeps telling that story,” she says. I
have not mentioned the fire, but she has reminded herself,
and I know exactly what she’s talking about. It’s a sore
point with her, being falsely accused. Andy is the swamper
at the bar, queer as Liberace but not quite as glamorous, a
long-haul regular and witness to years of bad behavior in
what he calls the Lesbyterian Church. He tracks all of us,
me included now, and although nelly and sweet and gener-
ous, he is a terrible gossip and not above making things up.
I don’t know why the fire story bugs Lu so much; maybe
because she has never lied about all the stupid things she
actually has done, as she generally doesn’t give a rat’s ass
what people say or think.
      When I first saw her, she was loudly berating a blind
girl from her usual location, leant James Dean–style against
the wall by the jukebox, cigarette perched on her lip, smoke
narrowing her possum-brown eyes. She pointed at me
and demanded to know what year it was. I thought maybe
it was some kind of a test, but I didn’t know if there was
a trick to passing it, so I just said. She did a little math,
turned back to the girl. “I’m thirty-four years old,” she
announced, poking a finger into her own chest. “Look at
me.” To a blind girl. I was behind the bar, still new and not
a little nervous, and everyone else who was in there at the
time was appalled, or acting like it. I thought it was funny.
I knew that girl. She was a pain in the ass. Got drunk every
afternoon and tripped over the dog. Poor animal had a
haunted look, bruised fur. I had to draw the line at rustling
a blind girl’s dog, but, boy, was I tempted. Lu would have
done it, I bet, if she’d thought of it and had someplace to
keep it, but she was on the street more often than she was
off. Or camping in someone else’s living room.
      She came back over and over to flirt with me, but could
never get my name right.
      “Rachel.”
      “Not even close.”
      “Bailey.”
      “Bailey is a dog’s name.”
      She demanded a nickname. I had lots of those.
      “My brother used to call me Cupcake,” I said, and she
promptly forgot that too.
      “Cookie,” she said, five minutes later. In a way, she
invented me. I could not have invented her, as I did not
have the experience or the capacity. When I got to know
her, the bit that she let me, sometimes I called her Loopy,
sometimes Sloopy. Sometimes she answered. She and Mick
would have been close to the same age, and something
about the way she leaned on that wall wanted to remind
me of him, but I didn’t let it. I could already see it would be
complicated enough without that, and probably hurt.

This selection comes from Marian Palaia’s novella The Given World, available from Simon & Schuster. Purchase your copy here!

Marian Palaia was born in Riverside, California, and grew up there and in Washington, DC. She lives in San Francisco and has also lived in Montana, Hong Kong, Ho Chi Minh City, and Nepal, where she was a Peace Corps volunteer. Marian has also been a truck driver, a bartender, and a logger. The Given World is her first novel.

Leslie LaChance edits Mixitini Matrix: A Journal of Creative Collaboration, has curated The Wardrobe for Sundress Publications and written poetry reviews for Stirring: A Literary Collection. Her poems have appeared in literary journals, and her chapbook, How She Got That Way, was published in the quartet volume Mend & Hone by Toadlily Press in 2013. She teaches literature and writing at Volunteer State Community College in Tennessee, and if she is not teaching, writing, or editing, she has probably just gone to make some more espresso.

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