"Monarchs" by Vikki Plitt Excerpt
When I go to the kitchen, Daniel is standing over a sink full of water. His arms submerged and circling, as though he’s cooking soup and his arms are the ladles. He moves in ways that align with the rhythm of the song blaring from the radio installed underneath one of the cabinets. I tap on his shoulder and he does a little jump before looking over to me.
—Oh, hey! Go ahead and drop it in, he says, trying to combat the radio’s volume, his head tilting, directioning to the sink. As I drop my dress in, bobbing it up and down to soak as much as possible, I hear the song fade. —I figured this is better, he says, returning to the sink, the radio a faint buzz.
—What song is that, I say, finding a seat at the table, —it’s kinda cool. I twirl my legs around the chair’s legs as I lean forward to engage in conversation. For some reason, I feel I can relax.
—It’s, uhhh, Jimi Hendrix. . .“She’s so Fine.”
—That’s cool, I say, cracking a smile, —I didn’t know I inspired a song.
—Yeah. . . maybe so, Daniel smiles then tries to hide it.
—Is he a favorite? He grabs the towel he used on his nose and puts it, bunched up, on top of a bigger towel on the granite counter.. The song changes to another that sounds similar. Daniel dabs peroxide to the blood.
—I guess you could say. My father really liked him when I was growing up. I have almost every album of his on vinyl. He grabs the bloodied shirt and begins the same process. —So what about you?
—I like Blondie. Found them by myself, though.
—Yeah? They’re pretty good!
—Funny thing is, I didn’t even know Debbie Harry was in a band. I start twirling my hair, something I do when I’m excited. Daniel finishes with his shirt and does the process on his khakis. —I would just see her pictures around places and wanna be her. You know? She’s hot and blonde and wears blue shadow. I love it all. Then, I was probably 16 or so, I found out she actually did music, too. I went to a local record shop back in Maryland, Stu’s, or something, and a song of theirs was playing: “Always Touched by Your Presence, Dear.” Well, I didn’t instantly know that, obviously. I asked the man behind the counter, probably Stu, and he told me. I bought the album on tape. “Plastic Letters.” I listened to it nonstop.
Daniel folds his wet clothes and places them on the upper corner of the towel. He pulls my dress out of the sink, wrings out some extra water, before dabbing it with peroxide too. He then squeezes excess water from his clothing.
—I can see the Debbie influence.
—Thank you, I say while dramatically flaunting my hair and makeup.
—And I really like that lipstick. It reminds me of one I used to buy for my wife. “Ravishing,” I think it was.
—Oh, . . great minds. I think this is just called “02” or something. I avoid eye contact. I realize that that might make me look suspicious, so I do the opposite. I lean towards Daniel.
—And Maryland, yeah? You’re from there? he asks, making sure he is giving me his full attention. I’m still flustered that he brought up his wife.
—Yeah. . . why?
—And what brought you here? Daniel makes sure to ask while making eye contact before opening a sliding door next to the pantry. He drops the clothes into the washing machine.
—You want the truth? Daniel takes my dress and rinses the soap out. He lays each article out flat on the counter and locates the faint remnants of blood still on the garments. He turns off the radio and looks at me before answering.
—Even if you told me a lie, I’d never know. And then I feel conflicted as to which answer Daniel deserves. Or probably more realistically, which answer I feel comfortable giving him.
—I got kicked out by my mom, I say after what feels like an eternity. Daniel stops what he’s doing and turns to me. I lift my hands to prop up my face. —I wanted to transition and she wouldn’t support me if I did. So I came here. I heard there were people more accepting and I wanted to find them. We sit in silence.
—That’s a really courageous thing to do.
—I never thought of it as courageous. . . just necessary. Daniel nods and I can tell he’s listening. —Now, do I get a fun fact? I say once he starts to wash the dishes.
—What do you mean?
—I told you what brought me to New York. Just tell me one thing about you! He leans on the counter, deep in thought. I figure he’s having the same internal battle as I did. After scrunching and shifting his face for a couple minutes, Daniel finally sighs.
—Lillith wanted a divorce. I didn’t.
—Oh. . . I’m really sorry. I try to limit my speech; distance feels more appropriate.
—And we fought about it. So she took Bella and left to go to her Mother’s. Middle of the night, I get a call. They were hit head on by a tractor trailer. It seems like he’s holding back tears. I lower my guard a little. This feels more like a confession, the weight making it seem like I’m the first to know.
—It’s not your fault, is all I can say. After a few moments of silence, Daniel throws the load into the dryer. We don’t say much. Daniel tells a joke here and there. The effort is what I appreciate, so I laugh at every joke. Once the dress is finished, I get changed in the bathroom and get ready to leave. I meet Daniel back in the living room. He is standing by the door, and holding onto my purse. His face is tense and his brow is furrowed. I go to grab my purse from him.
—Everything alright? I say, Daniel reaching into his pocket.
—What’s this? he asks, holding up the tube of lipstick.
—That is a tube of lipstick, Daniel, I say, trying to quickly sneak out but he’s blocking the door with his foot.
—Can you tell me what it says? Daniel flips the tube to its bottom and puts it up to my eye; too close to even read it clearly.
—Ravishing. . .
—Is this what’s on your lips?
—Uh. . . ? I can’t formulate a single word.
—It just looks really familiar. Meaning, the one that stays in the bathroom.
—Okay, yes, I took it! Sorry, I was gonna give it back.
—Oh yeah? Like that locket right? Like how you gave that back? I’m already fed up. He makes his living by sympathizing with criminals; don’t I get any? I stomp my way to the mantle and hold up the necklace.
—Dude, it’s right here! I fling it back down, almost feeling bad about it.
—When was I gonna get that back?
—Does it matter? I could’ve pawned it but I didn’t!
—It wasn’t yours to pawn!
—And guess what, I’ve sold a bunch of shit that wasn’t mine. I’m a fucking sex worker living at a pier, god forbid I take some well-off rich man’s shit! You see all of this? I flail my arms in an explosion of passion, motioning to Daniel’s entire apartment. —It will never matter how much shit I steal and sell. I will never have this. You already won! I grab my purse from Daniel, forgetting to check if all my things were there. I storm out of his apartment and to the elevator.
Once I make it there, I slide a cigarette in between my teeth and light it. I take in a couple slow and deep drags before pressing the down button. The elevator is taking its time and as I wait, I’m forced to sit with my own stream of thoughts. It feels like my head is filling up and I wish I could drill a hole in my skull to let the juices empty. I feel bad for stealing from Daniel, even though it’s only because I ran into him again. If I hadn’t been stopped by him, I could’ve just moved on and pawned the necklace. The floor designator above the elevator doors keeps ticking back and forth through the first 10 floors. I’m stuck up here. Lord only knows how long it takes to get up to 23. I pace back and forth, humming “Heart of Glass,” trying to calm myself.
In almost perfect timing I hear THUD on the final note of the chorus. I turn and look behind me. I see a massive gold picture frame leaning against the wall. Looking closer, it seems like a Victorian Era frame with elevated, carved gold flowers and dainty filigree around the perimeter. Painted across the canvas is a field of hydrangeas and mushrooms. A few little girls with butterfly wings are hopping from one mushroom to the next, naivety and glee in their smiles. When was the last time I smiled like that? Could I even do it again? I pick-up the frame with both hands and realize just how heavy it is. My legs tingle and wobble as I try balancing the frame on my hip, catching a final breather before attempting to re-hang it. I heave the painting back up to its hook so it can hang from its wire. I straighten it as best I can before walking back to the elevator.
In a mirror hanging next to the elevator, in a similar gold frame, I check my reflection. I do it standing from a distance: I’m trying to kill time, not see actual flaws. I compose myself in the frame in the way I fantasize a royal portrait. I know that a part of my beauty, at least for tonight, comes from looking at a distance. Like Olympia or Mona Lisa, I’m a work of art, meant to be admired from afar. Up close is where one sees the inner workings, the mistakes, and once the truth is given, the beauty vanishes. I think of Daniel and the way he might’ve thought I was beautiful. And how I’m glad he got too close, because now I can stay away.
The elevator arrives with a ding! As I’m walking to leave, I hear a similar THUD, freezing me in my tracks. I look back over and see that the same painting has fallen off the wall. I turn back to the doors just as they smash into each other, pushing a gust of chilling wind into my face. I inch my way back to the painting. I investigate the wall to see if the screw came loose. It hasn’t. I knock on the wall and am surprised to find it’s solid underneath, probably brick. If the screw has been fastened in brick, how is the painting not staying? It couldn’t fall unless it was
Once I re-hang it, I take in the painting. Nestled in a corner is an upset looking fairy, her arms crossed and tears welling in her eyes. Her blonde bangs are long and mask some of her emotions. Her wings are significantly smaller than her peers’, however, they are the only ones that are a deep purple. Her counterparts’ are all different tones of yellow. I bite my bottom lip, and intensify my stare at the sad pixie. I can’t stop looking. It feels like the only thing I can do right now.
For most of the Halloweens throughout elementary and middle school, my mother
insisted I dress as a ghost—“it’s a kind of costume you can’t outgrow.” In first grade, she took an old bed sheet, one that she found balled in the corner of the linen closet for who knows how long, and stuck it over my head: it smelt musty and I could feel residue slick across my skin from years of its marinating. She took a black marker and ruler and measured out two eye holes. She laid the sheet flat on the kitchen table and cut circles. She slinked on the sheet another time, eyeing her work. The cut-outs weren’t quite even, one was significantly higher and the other wider.
—That’s pretty good, ain’t it? She had an air of delusion, always underperforming yet rewarding herself with praise. She’d forget to pick me up from after school book club, “but at least it was on my calendar.” In seventh grade, I had a solo in chorus and she slept through it, “but I made it in time to sit in the third row.” It felt like anytime she did something for me, even something subpar, it was to validate to herself that she was a good mother.
In fifth grade, the start of October, I checked out an illustrated copy of Peter and Wendy from my school’s library. I found something reassuring about a group of kids being able to escape from home, even if just for a little. When reading, I spent as much time as I could with each sentence, letting each word speak. I spent even longer soaking in every detail; I thought there was a hidden message on how to find Neverland. I stared at one picture of Tinker Bell, her small frame sitting delicately on a mushroom near the mermaid lagoon, a long blonde ponytail flowing from the top of her head. Her wings were huge, bigger than her body, and sparkling white—the same shade of white as the teeth in her mischievous smile. That’s how I saw myself.
A week and a half before Halloween, I mustered up enough courage to ask my mother if we could deviate from the traditional ghost costume. She was sitting on the couch, probably watching “Match Game ‘76,” and coughing on a cigarette. I scuttled into the living room, maintaining as much distance as I could, all while trying to appear as firm and confident as a terrified fifth grader could. She was in her favorite hot pink basketball shorts, exposing her unshaven legs. Her straw-like hair was an un-brushed mess tied into a ponytail with a scrunchie.
—Mom, I said once her hacking died down, —I was maybe wondering if I could. . . um, be something new for Halloween? I kept my head as low as possible.
—Like what? You already have a costume, she said, her voice fucked from years of
—I know. . . but, I’ve been reading this book and I like a character in it.
—What character? Her lazy eyes turned hawk-like and her gaze jolted deep into my soul.
—Um. . . I couldn’t bring myself to say the name. I knew I made a bad choice and I knew I was too deep in. —Uhh, Tinkerbell. . . I said as quietly as I could without it becoming a whisper. Her stare grew even more pointed.
—You mean. . . the fairy? I couldn’t move—her icy stare froze me in place, I swore I could’ve felt a glacier forming around me.
—Yes. . . I replied, this time with an inadvertent whisper. I felt the weight of my head grow dense. I couldn’t help but lower it. I started feeling her shame choke me. She grabbed the remote from the side-pocket of her tan corduroy recliner and turned down Gene Rayburn. She laid the remote on the side table next to her before slowly turning back towards me.
—Come on, *****, she said, —you know boys can’t be fairies. And even if they could, mine would never.
She didn’t wait for a single word from me—she was already back to Gene. I sped away to my room, skipping up the steps in twos, trying to make it to my room before my mother saw even but a quiver of my upper lip. I slipped in through the crack of the opened door and locked it. I didn’t bother turning on a light. I buried myself deep in my covers and cried until I couldn’t.
When Halloween rolled around, I didn’t want to trick or treat. I walked around the neighborhood silently, using the ghost costume to wipe my eyes and nose. I went up to doors with groups of other neighborhood kids so I wouldn’t have to say “trick or treat.” That night was the nicest I had ever been treated by them.
When I snap myself out of memory, I realize I’ve let the cigarette burn into a crooked finger. I let the limb fall to the carpet, then put out my cigarette in the pile of ash—I couldn’t care less. A piercing laugh reverberates down the hallway and over to me. I check in that direction. All I see is myself reflected in the mirror that takes up the entirety of the opposite wall—another gold frame. I maintain my stare, my body frozen with alertness. Then there’s another laugh, more resonant than the one before, crisper, closer, and hitting higher pitches. I walk towards the mirror, my reflection becoming clearer. I can feel myself sweating in fear, but there is an uncomfortable chill. All at once, I feel empty, like every part I know of myself is drained. The laughing intensifies as the mirror starts warping my reflection, I can’t tell if I’m imagining this or actually seeing it. Tears well in my eyes and my heart thumps harder and faster than before and I’m still silent. I can’t open my mouth. In a flash, a little girl in braids and a woman with fiery red hair, appear behind me in the reflection and they’re covered with lacerations and bruises and blood. My eyes widen and lock with the woman’s. I still can’t make a sound. My throat feels raspy and dry, I can’t even swallow. The walls of the building seem to
start closing in on me and I’m feeling more suffocated than before. I can’t unlock eyes with the woman. My body is rattling and I can barely keep myself up. I fall forward to the mirror, smashing my elbow through it. I stumble backwards, a few shards stuck in my flesh. The woman and child are still there, glaring at me, as I drag my body away. I make it back to my feet and run back through the halls as quickly as I can, but everything is spinning around me, dimming and fading.
I fall to my knees and drag my body back to the elevator. I pull myself halfway up the wall and manage to press the already lit down button a couple times. I lift my weight and bring myself to standing, though still needing the crutch of the wall. I begin to regain my vision, the pitch black clouds fading. The violent circles I felt trapped in start slowing down. I lean back and rest myself against the wall, my sweaty flesh adhering to the wallpaper. Just as I regain enough vision to see in front of me again, I’m met with the woman’s face—pale, hollow, eyes blood red. They have a similar pooling as the time I busted a capillary in my eye, but it seems like she busted all of hers.
My breath quickly deflates from my body as I realize she’s locked her hands around my throat. Her grip grows more solid as my feet start lifting from the floor. I try to scream, but I can only produce a struggling wind followed by gagging. I throw a few punches—she’s not affected. I kick my legs, but they’re stuck to the wall by some force. Just as I feel the world fading around me again, I hear a ding followed by a whoosh. I crash to the floor front-first, turning my face to the side to prevent any head-on damage. I’m able to slide a leg into the car so the doors will stay open. I check all around me. The two are gone. I lift myself up and everything is the same—apart from a damaged mirror and some carpet. The elevator’s mirror reveals ligature marks around my neck and a fresh black eye. I don’t move. I can’t see the other damage. Once the doors are shut, I sit with my eyes closed, waiting until I’m taken back down to the lobby.
—Ma’am, are you alright, the doorman asks me. I don’t respond. He chases after me, grabbing for my shoulder, —Missy. . . can you please stay for a moment? We can call help, he bolts back to his desk to make a phone call and I leave.
I don’t say a word the whole way home and everyone that was on the subway politely ignores me after a couple stares. I imagine they’ve seen worse.