Larissa Pham is an artist and writer in Brooklyn.
7:15, my bed, Prospect Lefferts Gardens:
I usually wake up about three times before I manage to get out of bed. This is the first time, a little past seven. No alarm. The light is pouring in strong from the windows that look out onto the street—it gets loud at night on this side of the apartment—and my roommate Santi and I wake up at the same time. We usually sleep in the same bed, even though we have separate rooms, because it’s nice to cuddle with someone. Today I tell him about how he starfished in my bed last night and I had to lift each of his limbs in order to crawl in when I went to bed at 2:30, hours after him.
“I was like, ughh, ughh, panting a little, trying to get you out of the way.” We laugh about it and fall asleep again.
I wake up again (time number two) and check my phone but since I checked it at 7 not much has changed. The Poetry Foundation poem of the day is in my inbox, I’m subscribed to that one and the Poets.org one too. I check on my Neko Atsume cats—I’ve named them after my favorite painters, theorists, and writers—but I forgot to put out new food for them last night, so nothing there either. Lately staring at my phone screen too long has given me headaches, so I want to use it less, but it’s hard; the people in my life I love are all spread out, and my phone is the way that I stay in touch with most of them.
I’m awake for the third and last time now. J. texts me a picture of a stack of books—he’s at his childhood home, clearing out hundreds of books he’s accumulated over the years because his parents are moving—and asks, “In need of any sex books?”
He knows me so well! In the stack is quite a lot of Bataille, some Sade, Pauline Reagé. I ask for The Story of O and then demur, wondering if there’s something else I should ask for. He tells me Bataille is one of his favorites. I tell him I’ve only read Story of the Eye. I ask him if he thinks there’s anything else I’d like.
I’ll pick something, he says. I wander into the living room and send him back a photo of the stack of books on our dining table.
The first time I read story of the eye, I was barely twenty. I’d just gotten into BDSM, by way of my friend S., who I just saw recently, on New Year’s Eve. (Red and green lasers, house party in south Williamsburg. At midnight, I kissed the side of his temple and he kissed me on the forehead; these days, we are still good friends, but operate with a closed familiarity.) In the afterglow of the first time with him—I still remember it mostly as a rush of cold air and a brilliant gold light that I know came from the reading lamp by his bed and not either of us—I was feverish. Given this new kind of power play, this new way of feeling, I wanted to intellectualize it and experience it until I could take no more. Predictably (this is how I learned about sex, too) I went to the library and checked out a handful of filthy books. It was February, or March, of 2013. I sat on the quad reading until my legs felt weak.
Remembering this, remembering the dazzling rush that caused me to seek out such things, it occurs to me that, as I have my own life curled neatly like a tail behind me, so does J. I’m not always good at understanding the richness of other people’s interior worlds. Nor do I always understand that not everyone lives as I do, me who commits so wholly and so thoroughly, for whom everything constantly disappears into the present moment. I realize that I don’t know J. very well at all. It’s only been since May.
Anyhow, I am seeing him tomorrow, for the first time in two months, wherein our languages can swell to include the language of the body, which is the most reliable language I know. Remembering this makes me happy.
Santi tells me he has a secret for me, but I have to figure it out.
What’s the secret? I ask him.
I love you, he says. It’s a bad secret cos I’ve already told you before, he admits.
GAAAAAY, I say to him, and then I tell him I love him too.
Milcah wakes up, squinting into the bright sun that douses our living room in light.
Good morning baby, we say.
12:49, my bathroom, Prospect Lefferts Gardens:
I’m moving slowly today. I don’t mind. I’ve got work this afternoon, closing at the shop, so that’s the evening knocked out. My only plan for the day is to work on my manuscript; there is a section I am trying to rewrite. I take a look at my naked body for a moment before hopping into the shower. I’ve gained weight, a few pounds that I’d lost over the summer, and it makes me happy to see that my breasts move if I shake my shoulders.
Our roommate Erin’s hair is spidered onto the tile wall. We all do it, it’s so that our drain doesn’t clog. It’s disgusting. It makes me miss her so much; I haven’t seen her since I left for the holidays and right now she’s out of town. I swirl my finger in a circle on the tile, collecting her hair into a scraggly ball, and throw it away.
While I’m in the shower, Santi comes in to shave. I squirt a dollop of purple shampoo into my palm and lather up my hair and he asks me about Enormous Eye. I explain the project to him and he talks about his relationship with his mother, who is flying home from Colombia today. I rinse out the shampoo and scrub myself with Dr. Bronner’s. I use the lavender, I like how salty it smells. He reaches past the plastic curtain and shoots me with shaving cream and I holler at him.
Shaving my legs, the smell of the Aveeno shaving cream reminds me of my friend Annabel. I think she used to use Aveeno lotion, or something that smelled just like it, and the memory is so visceral that I miss her profoundly. She is the reason I drink bourbon. When we first met, she whisked me away from an exam and kidnapped me to Dia Beacon, where she spent half an hour standing in front of the Agnes Martins. I should call her; she’s my mama bird. She has always been indefatigable about hair removal; it would amuse her to know that I always think of her when I’m shaving my legs. She would probably ask why I don’t epilate.
Out of the shower and Santi is leaving to see a boy, so I kiss him on the cheek. In my room I moisturize, Cetaphil on my body and a few drops of Nuxe Huile Prodigieuse on my face—another thing I borrowed from Annabel. I used to use body oil everywhere, I had a bottle of it from Neutrogena, but it got lost in the move from Crown Heights. I put on the leggings and t-shirt I slept in; there seems to be no reason for me to get gussied up until I have to go to work.
12:59, my living room, PLG:
J. is telling me about the things he’s been finding in his books. This time, it’s a Russian icon on a laminated card. He tries to translate it for me in a string of texts:
It says ‘For the love of one another’
‘A true mind’
Something like that
An auspicious bookmark, I write back to him. I tell him I used to press leaves in my books.
On my birthday, just a month ago, I was up in Morningside Heights. I went to the park to idle away some time and plucked three little red heart-shaped leaves from an ivy relative that was creeping along a stone wall. J. called me then, we talked, and I put the leaves in the crease of the book I was reading at the time, Flesh and Blood. I’d wanted to dry them out, mail them to him. Santi is reading the book now, it sits on our coffee table. The leaves are still inside.
Milcah and I putter around the apartment. I boil water for tea. The sink smells rank, and we’re out of mugs, so I do the dishes. While I’m washing up, Milcah and I talk about the practice of creative nonfiction. None of it is true, we agree; when you tell a story, when you make it story shaped, you do something to it. It’s not bad. It’s just not how it was.
My mom calls me. Her voice seems especially small and childish today. She asks how I’m doing, if I’m okay, if I’m taking all my medications. Yes, I am. I ask her if she just woke up, she says yes. She giggles and tells me she’s started watching Downton Abbey. Over the holidays, we watched Sherlock together. It makes me happy to see she’s occupying herself with something other than work; since I left home six years ago and my brother three years after she hasn’t quite recovered from our absence, from the vacancy of our constant dependence on her.
I text J., “In the shower today I was thinking about how it’s so inconvenient that my thoughts must be bordered by language.”
A great block of time has gone by, unaccountable. Milcah made us lunch, red beans and rice and leftovers, and after eating I drowsed on the couch, where there is already a blanket, and a pillow. I have quick, hectic dreams, I imagine they must flutter just beneath the surface of my eyelids. I wake up because it’s cold—the window is open—and I have to pee.
I lug the space heater into my room and top off my cup of tea and then strip to whatever’s on my Soundcloud: Melanie Martinez, “Soap,” a remix. Next is Justin Bieber, another remix. I pull on leather leggings, a black silk camisole interchangeable with the three I already own, and twist my hair up into a topknot. I like getting dressed up for work; it’s just boutique retail, at a sex shop in Park Slope, but the late hours and the nature of the job make it feel titillating and exciting; I feel sex-adjacent, selling something so closely aligned with pleasure, my own demeanor part of the sale. I consider putting on my bondage collar—I haven’t worn it lately, not since J. left town.
The trouble with getting dressed to music is that it’s hard to stop when it’s time to head out; I close my laptop and put my earbuds in. Big plaid blanket-scarf. Army-green parka. I blow Milcah a kiss good-bye and head down the stairs; in the entryway I press play. It’s Grimes, “Easily.” It seems a good sign. It takes me two songs to walk to the subway stop.
4:40, various underground subway stations, Brooklyn:
Despite my best efforts I’m always late to everything. It’s commuting that makes me remember I love New York, the bristle of cold air at the subway entrance, the roiling mess of people at Atlantic Avenue, how we all walk with purpose to make our transfers. It still astonishes me that all you need is a Metrocard to go wherever you might possibly need to be. On my first train, a woman stood next to the doors and sang until Franklin Avenue. On my second train two kids are reciting the names of the stations. I dart out at Prospect Avenue, jaywalk across 4th, stride past the rumbling traffic onto 5th, where the shop is two blocks away. I have a lot of thoughts on the train, but they always dissipate when I emerge. I’m still listening to Grimes.
5:08, Please, the shop where I work, Park Slope:
I haven’t been at the shop in ages so my coworker Jess fills me in before she clocks out. I walk around touching things: the velvet harnesses we have in; the new dildos—I squish their silicone heads affectionately. We do the little dance of coworkers-not-quite-friends when she leaves; we decide to get tea sometime later and catch up. Somewhere warm. Then she disappears into the night.
I change the music and settle in for a Saturday night at the sex store.
I text Max asking what I should do with my evening.
Lol I don’t know I’m so lame
im writing an enormous eye and my life is so boring
[three drooling snoring emojis]
The best enormous eyes are always the boring ones, he assures me.
mine has been very introspective so far, I write back.
First customer of note. He comes in like he has a purpose, so I know he’s been here before. He says he’s looking for a clit vibrator for his girlfriend. I show him the basic ones we have, as he wants to stay under three digits, but I also point him to the nicer stuff we carry. It’s obviously better quality, and I can tell he’s intrigued. What is a budget but a rule to be broken? I leave him to browse the art books because I know it doesn’t do to hover.
He tells me he’s a photographer and we make idle conversation. He’s very friendly—the men always are; the women are more conspiratorial. I’m equal-opportunity, only looking to upsell. Sometimes I wonder how I must appear to the clientele. Men often assume I’m fair game, which is the furthest thing from the truth.
By the time he leaves the store, he’s spent almost $250, and I silently congratulate myself on my finessing. Anyway, now his girlfriend is going to have a lot more fun.
I forward Dzana today’s Poetry Foundation poem. It’s To the New Year, by W.S. Merwin, who I know is her favorite.
A cute straight couple comes in and I say hi to them and wish them a happy new year. They’ve just come to get some condoms. They confer and come to the counter with a 24-pack of Trojan Bareskins, a purchase that bodes well for their sex life. I ring them up and joke with them while running the transaction. Sometimes it’s weird when couples come in, especially when they act like they have something to prove, but these two are so obviously fond of each other that it’s adorable.
Benny comes by from the sausage shop next door with my dinner. He’s grumbling about how I’ve got him doing deliveries now when I notice that he’s limping. I come out from behind the cashwrap and see he’s got a brace on his ankle. “What happened?” I ask him. It’s a bad sprain; he was out for three weeks. Today is his first day back. I pay him and when he gives me change I fold up a few bills and he pulls down his shirt like I’m going to stick them in his decolletage.
I like working at a small local business because I get to have interactions like these. Low-key, client facing work suits me. I feel so uprooted most days that it’s nice to feel like part of a neighborhood, to be a fixture in some people’s eyes even if my own life seems tenuous and uncharted.
Dzana emails me back. “i just started crying a bit because this is one of my favorites of his and also because you love me and i love you.”
While I’m scarfing down the rest of my sausage, a lesbian couple walks in. I straighten up and try to look like I haven’t just deep-throated a bratwurst but they’re not really the talkative sort. They browse. It’s really cold in the shop, so I spoon the space heater and wait for them to make questioning noises. When they do, it’s inevitably about lube. I hop over and walk them through our options. They like each other, too. I wonder if it’s been some people’s New Year’s Resolution to have sex more enthusiastically.
God it’s so fucking cold in here. I’m pretty sure I’m melting my leggings and/or giving myself a first degree burn snuggled up to the space heater. My phone buzzes, it’s B., we used to sleep together in undergrad. We’re still friends.
Where you at !?
It’s slightly embarrassing that he texts me like this.
ayyyy, I write back.
When I drove across the country with my friend Cam we stayed at B’s dad’s house in Cleveland. His stepmom set up beds for us and made us breakfast. When B. got his master’s the year I finished school he insisted that I meet his other set of parents. I came downstairs from my apartment, my hair still wet.
I tell him I’m closing but does he want to get a drink? He says yes and to text him when I’m off. I don’t know if he misses me or if he wants attention; it’s probably both.
I’m starting to feel a little loopy from being in one spot for so long. Two girls come in, giggling at the vibrators and anal beads. I sell one of them a vibrator—the most basic one we carry—and then close up shop.
Listening to a Mona-Lhxsa mix and counting the till. It’s a new roll of pennies in the register, minted in 2015. They’re so shiny they look fake, like play money. I want to take them and hold them between my teeth, taste their coppery tang on my tongue, on my lips. They look like harvest moons. They look positively gibbous. I’m reminded of how Greek statues were originally displayed, how the marble was painted livid primary colors.
10:23, Excelsior, a gay bar in Park Slope:
B. is still somewhere in Williamsburg, and Zack, who I also had tentative plans with, is M.I.A., so after closing I hop two doors down to Excelsior. I order a Bulleit bourbon, on the rocks; the bartender, who saw me in the shop window earlier today, gives me the friends-and-family discount. I smile up at him. He’s a big, jovial guy who I haven’t met before.
I’m reading a book at the bar—Men We Reaped, by Jesmyn Ward. I read an essay of hers in A Public Space (or was it Guernica? Or both?) and just got around to reading her memoir. It’s crushing. It’s making me think about my place in the world, about the homes we’ve built and chosen. How far do you live from home? How did you get here? Do you know how lucky you are to be where you are, reading this, like me?
I had dinner but I’m suddenly very drunk. The text swims under a brackish pool of whiskey and, because there’s a card minimum, I order another, neat. Someone tries to make conversation with me—I forgot it was Saturday night. It’s not the kind of night to be reading a book at a bar. I close out.
11:37, on the sidewalk, between 15th and 14th streets:
Outside, I am on the phone with B. His voice wakes up the dog inside of me. I don’t like how yielding I am to him, but some people you miss. He’s staying in Wiliamsburg. Another night? he asks. Sure, I say. I don’t mind if we don’t hang out. Some relationships—they’re like plucking at a violin to hear a single note, to test the integrity of the string.
I go back into the bar to pee and on my way out I see a guy smoking a cigarette and I realize I want one so bad my mouth hurts. I ask if I can have one and he says yes and I walk down to Prospect Avenue smoking my first cigarette in months.
12:07, Prospect Avenue subway stop:
At the subway stop, I get onto the train and realize I can’t feel my keys in my pocket. What ensues is a shambling mess of me riding trains back and forth, eventually realizing that my keys have fallen through a hole in the bottom of my pocket, into the lining of my coat. At a bodega, to buy myself some respite, I get a bag of Cheetos and a sleeve of Oreos.
12:59, my apartment, Prospect Lefferts Gardens:
Home, finally. I run into Erin in the hallway and give her a hug and a kiss on the cheek. I sit on Milcah’s bed and we talk about our evenings for a little bit. On the couch, I eat my junk food and text Max:
sitting in the dark, eating snacks
His response is immediate:
what are your snacks
His are chocolate chip cookies. I feel a little sick, but I don’t want to sleep yet. (I will throw up later this night, but by then it’s so late as to be morning.)
1:11, my kitchen, Prospect Lefferts Gardens:
I’m sitting on the windowsill talking on the phone with J. He’s watching a movie and I hear the ambient noise of it through the phone like the sounds of a city or forest. He turns it off and I tell him about my day, about work. I wonder about the purpose of conversations like these, conversations that stretch for almost an hour. I don’t always remember what’s said—I especially won’t tonight, after drinking alone; in the morning our conversation will be a burnished blur in my memory—but it seems to me that to place your soul on the continuum of someone else’s life might be enough. A lot of being alive seems to be about managing whether you’re alone or not.
2:05, my bedroom, Prospect Lefferts Gardens:
J’s falling asleep on the phone, so we hang up. In my darkened apartment I brush my teeth, undress, and crawl into bed next to Santi. I have to lift his heavy limbs up again to fit in beside him. I feel his soft, babyish warmth ebbing out into the cold air between us, so I close that gap, pressing my forehead against his shoulder, and quickly fall asleep.