Sell Out

1. Twins, Age 34
Small One-Bedroom Apartment, East Village, Manhattan

The knocking lasts an hour and forty-seven minutes. As always, the neighbors stay quiet. I lie still, listening. It begins timidly at 1:32 a.m. and ceases at 2:49 a.m., according to my bedroom clock. I keep the clock six minutes fast, so truly the sobbing begins at precisely 2:43 a.m., and it savages my heart. I chew at a nail. I chew two or three more before tiptoeing to the door. I stand and listen to my sister cry. Somehow I can tell that she is sitting, leaning against the door, facing the opposite wall. At 3:00 a.m. by my watch (accurate), I let Lexi in. It is the first time I have seen her in four months. She wears a typically bizarre arrangement of clothing: a huge Russian officer’s jacket, pink floral pants and red spiked heels. Her eyes are red, her mouth red at the corners, her cheeks blotchy. At her worst, she is still beautiful.

“Take off your coat,” I say.

Tears form in her eyes, but she does not let them drop. “I have nowhere to go,” she says softly.
“You made yourself this,” I say, “It must be what you want.”


“My house. Take it off.”

She removes her coat and throws it on my couch. I examine her arms. When I look up she is staring into my eyes. My heart seizes in a pandemonium of love and hope.

“You want money,” I say. It is not what I mean.

“Naturally you assume that,” she says.

I mean to say I am so happy you are alive: life without you would not be life. But I do not.

“Do you want a drink?” I ask.

“Sure. A juice if it’s OK.”

I pour myself a vodka and cranberry and pour the remaining juice into a glass for Lexi. We stand sipping our drinks, avoiding one another’s eyes as though shy. I will be exhausted at work tomorrow. The greasy F train will deposit me in mid-town, and I’ll adjust my collar in the windows of storefronts, rotate my stockings, and forget to change from my scuffed and comfortable shoes. I know: suited men will appear ghoulish; the coffee will taste poisoned; my manager’s condescension will rile me to unwarranted anger. I will despair at how low-status my office job is; how much older I look in the years since I began work here; how unlikely I am to advance. All day I’ll misfile documents and forget the names of clients. It’s too late to worry, though. I’m awake.

I look at the ice cubes melting in my drink. There are two of them, waning. An evil in me incites me to say loudly, too loudly for the room, “Lexi, when did you become so…”

Her head snaps up, “So what? So burdensome? Such a life sentence?”

“No. I mean, no.” I am shocked at how easily she has exposed my most malevolent thought. “So hostile, I guess. I mean, you used to be…”

“The second you turned into such a do-gooder. Such a sell-out.”

She abruptly walks to my stereo, both hands tight around her drink. Once again, I am taken aback by how graceful her hands are, slim, perfectly tapered, the nails not cheapened by lacquer or excessive length. I look down at my own hands, four nails wrecked this very night, the pearl-colored polish peeling off. My hands betray me: the rest of my look reflects my new life, my ordinary job. Lexi is skinny and punk rock. Her weird pink pants – more like pajama bottoms than couture – harmonize strangely with the red pointy-toed shoes. On her boyish chest an obscure band logo clashes pink on a blue shirt. Lines have developed around her mouth and eyes. Her short spiky haircut partially reveals the thumb-sized scar behind her left ear. Each time I see it I get a rusty taste on my tongue, as though my mouth were filling with blood.

She picks out a record at random and stares at the cover, then replaces it. Then she picks out another. It is a New York Dolls LP. The record corner shakes in her hand. There is a graphic of a fat pink baby on the cover. The font looks as though it has been squeezed from a toothpaste tube.

“Didn’t you give me this?” she asks.

“Yes. Sorry. You should take it.”

“I listened to it every day.”

“I remember.”

“I liked everything you liked.”

I have just left work: I am still in my cheap suit. The sleeves are soaking wet, even pulled all the way up. I lift her head from the freezing water for the final time and her wild eyes open.

I don’t say anything.

“I was always singing Bad Girl.” Lexi bites her lip.

“Lexi,” I say helplessly.

“I don’t want money, Cassie,” she says, “I just wanted to stay here with you.”

“You can’t stay here anymore.”

Tears form in her eyes, but she does not let them drop. “I have nowhere to go,” she says softly.

“You made yourself this,” I say, “It must be what you want.”

“No, of course it’s not,” she says carefully, “no, but I’m so lonely, Cass. I’m a stray.”

“That’s exactly the problem, exactly.” Please do not leave me, I think.

“I guess I’ll leave,” says Lexi.

We stare at one another. From the bedroom the clock ticks in the silence. From the building, no sound at all. We stand with our melting drinks, perfectly still.

2. Twins, Age 29
Small Studio Apartment, Lower East Side, Manhattan

Of the scenes I remember most vividly, one is of holding Lexi’s head under cold water in her bathtub, lifting it and lowering it again. Like an inquisitor, torturing a martyr.

“Come on,” I say to myself, and to her, “come on”. I have just left work: I am still in my cheap suit. The sleeves are soaking wet, even pulled all the way up. I lift her head from the freezing water for the final time and her wild eyes open. She is drugged, but awake. Her make-up runs in ghastly circles beneath her eyes.

“Oh?” she says.

I remove my jacket first, then the shirt beneath. I cup cold water in my hands and run it over my hot face. I take a washcloth and wash Lexi’s face.

“Oh,” she says again, “shit.”

“Why now?” I ask. I sound whiny. It is I who supports her drug habit by giving her money whenever she wants it, and refusing the “help” of doctors, clinics and police. I lean back against the tub. I cannot bear my own face in the mirror.

“I’m sorry,” she whispers, not for the first time. “It’s just that I’m all alone. I feel all alone.”

we have walls,” he made us translate, “not so that we might live safely, but so that we might sin secretly.”

Here’s my chance for indignation, which I can exploit or not, and I do. “Bullshit self-indulgence,” I say, “I’m here every time. You’re going to die.” I am too tired for anger suddenly. “I’m the one who’ll be alone.”

“You know what I mean, though. You… disapprove all of the sudden. You’re the one who…” Lexi stands up shakily. She’s trembling and goose-fleshed in her baby tee-shirt and tiny skirt with long underwear on underneath.

“We all need to stop some time,” I say, “we all need to fucking grow up.”

“I know.” She takes my hand. I look into her eyes. Drugged, her eyes are filled with the most unalloyed sympathy.

The emergency room is as always. They admit her, they give her the options, they let her back into my defective custody.

“You’re a lucky young lady,” the doctor says to Lexi in a tone that indicates how little patience he has for us. “You have a sister who cares a lot.” He knows nothing, with his petite figure, thinning hair, his going-to-seed good looks and his other places he needs to be. Be nice, I think: he is not unkind, I think. He has seen this before: he has even seen us before. My fingers tap irregularly against my thigh. Each tap indicts me, a vice-measuring metronome. Our father, the classicist, loved Seneca: “we have walls,” he made us translate, “not so that we might live safely, but so that we might sin secretly.” Lexi and I sin publicly. Is that better? It was our father, the hypocrite, who sinned secretly. Lexi sits shamed, already a little dope sick maybe. Fuck, what am I going to do?

“Does she want treatment?” says the doctor. “Full time is an option. Out-patient is also an option. Methadone: a step-down process.”

“Thank you sir,” I say.

“So, what does she want?”

I look at Lexi. She shakes her head. I say, “We’re OK. Thank you, sir.”

Another Seneca quote almost makes me laugh as we walk unsteadily down 2nd Avenue: it is our bad conscience that stations the doorkeepers, not our pride. I am her doorkeeper, of that I am sure. Of that I am fairly sure.

At 9th Street Lexi insists that we buy a bowl and wet cat food to feed the strays in an alley behind her apartment. Not regular cat food, either, she wants macrobiotic cat food from the open-all-night clinic, the kind with proper human-grade meat in it. The guy in the store will actually eat this brown, viscous substance to prove its suitability for consumption. I can’t watch it again, so I stay outside and scan for dealers, but see nothing amiss. Lexi emerges from the clinic with a bag full of products and five-and-change from the forty dollars I gave her. She looks happy if not healthy.

“You’re a crazy cat-lady,” I say, “twenty-nine and already a crazy cat lady.”

“Think of when I’m older.”

“You’ll be building, like, duplexes for them in the back yard.”

“What makes you think I haven’t already?”

Back home she sits on the bathroom floor and lets me strip off her tee-shirt and skirt, wrap her in a bathrobe. She doesn’t seem sick, just exhausted and shamed. I wipe her make-up remover off and carefully apply moisturizer to her face. I repeat the process on myself. In the mirror on the door, I am momentarily disoriented, unsure which of us is which. Lexi looks at my reflection and I look at hers. The subtle dissimilarities between our faces, so obvious when we are face to face, disappear in the mirror. Lexi is shivering. I pull a sweatshirt over her head and lead her to bed and get in with her.

“You’d be better off without me,” she sniffles, “you’d be fine.”

When she is asleep I say aloud, “I wouldn’t be fine.”

3. Twins, age 25
Small One-Bedroom Apartment, Fort Green, Brooklyn

Lexi and I us are playing blackjack in Fort Green with our respective boyfriends, Tim and a guy who calls himself – ridiculously, embarrassingly – Mr. Bix.

We are using pills instead of money: Valiums are worth one unit, Codeine capsules are worth two, Vicodens are five and the thirteen remaining Percocets, large, oblong and white, are worth ten. There is a single tablet of morphine, Lexi’s contribution, whose value we all deem at twenty units. I have my eye on it. The four of us are languid, opiated. In the background an endless Tarkovsky film is playing, sometimes in color, sometimes in black and white.

“It’s a masterpiece,” explains Tim, the graduate student. “Tarkovsky made this movie with any film stock the Soviets made available to him. The black and white isn’t even intentional.”

In our state, the slow, eloquent shots and incrementally-unfolding plotline border on the mystical. Were I not so high, I might follow what appear to be a slow series of cynical but valuable epiphanies. I redouble my efforts to watch the film, until Lexi pops a Vicoden from her own stash into Tim’s mouth.

“You can’t keep distributing the proceeds, Lexi,” I say, “you’re fucking up the integrity of the game.”

“Don’t take sportsmanship lessons from her, Lex” says Tim. He smiles and rests his chin on his arms. His cigarette ash drops onto the floor. He is a big man who possesses, I must admit to myself, a certain craggy handsomeness. His pompadour is thinning at the temples: he’ll only be able to pull it off for a couple more years at most. He is nice to Lexi. This relieves me, but also makes me jealous. I am afraid that I am losing her.

My curtains are beginning to glow in the pre-dawn: the color of a marginally healed bruise. The thought of dawn, the inception of a long, Lexi-less day, horrifies me.

The four of us are sitting on the floor around my coffee table. Lexi and I used to share it. It was her idea to move in with Tim, and though she lives mere blocks from me, and we work at the same vintage clothing shop, the separation causes an anxiety I can’t explain: I bite my fingernails bloody and take too many drugs. To show her loyalty, she matches me drug for drug. She always does everything I do, only more: she is a true believer in the wrong demiurge. The two of us are six or seven months away from alleys, needles, evictions. We have never looked more alike: skinny as hell, wearing one another’s clothes, cutting one another’s hair, doing our laundry haphazardly together, not really caring who ends up with what. These are the unspoken parameters of our new arrangement: drugs, laundry, similitude.

My curtains are beginning to glow in the pre-dawn: the color of a marginally healed bruise. The thought of dawn, the inception of a long, Lexi-less day, horrifies me. Mr. Bix, with his stupid name, has passed out against the couch, cards still held against his chest. He is a dark, brooding man: when he is awake, his intellect sparkles dangerously, pitilessly. I don’t want him to wake after Lexi leaves.

“Tim,” I say, my voice a little desperate, “As a career student, how are you going to support my sister in the lifestyle to which she is accustomed?”

“Oh, she’ll support me. She makes more than I will with a film degree,” he laughs, throwing an arm around her shoulder. “Hey,” he says, “you should come to school and make no money with me. Your looks and smarts: you’d clean up.”

“Going to school is working for the man,” I say.

“Yeah,” says Lexi, “that’s selling out. That’s what we were supposed to do.”

“Ah: academic parents. Say no more,” says Tim.

Lexi smiles at me. “Inter execrationes parentum crevimus,” she says. She rarely uses the Latin our father forced on us. I am touched almost beyond words, and find myself unable to speak to her directly.

“It has a double meaning,” I say to Tim, controlling my tears. “Execretiones means both ‘prayers’ and ‘curses’. Our parent’s prayers curse us.”

We sit in silence for a few minutes, until they excuse themselves.

I stand at the window watching Lexi and Tim walk through the morning toward the train. He hasn’t even left the Tarkovsky, in which there seems to be some kind of redemption to lend me meaning, if only for the night. The sky, a dazed-looking ochre, makes everything ache. Lexi walking away feels like flesh severing from bone. I take another pill and fall asleep on the couch next to Mr. Bix.

4. Twins, age 19
Studio Apartment, Williamsburg, Brooklyn

When we are nineteen, Lexi is mine. Lexi, wearing a little go-go dress from the Salvation Army: myself dressed in a very mod pants-suit and big bangly earrings. We have escaped home: we are on our own in the city. I have taken a Percocet just to get me through the day at the art bookstore, where my duties are so slim as to make the workday nearly unbearable. Lexi is getting ready for her waitressing job. She is smoking a joint with short, rapid drags.

“Do you want some?” She asks, holding it in front of me.

“The gateway drug? No way.”

We both giggle. She has an amazing smile, stretched over front teeth that overlap slightly.

She is suddenly serious. “The soup kitchen after work,” she says.

“Ah yes,” I say, “our noblesse oblige.”

“You make it sound stupid.”

“It’s not. Sorry.”

On the L train we sit next to one another.

Well I knew a bad girl, lived on my block,” sings Lexi.

I gave her my keys, I said you don’t have to knock,” I finish. “Stop singing this. I’m serious.”

“Never! All dolled up, got a waitress’ skirt,”

Why don’t you come over, don’t you make my heart hurt.” My fingers tap out the rhythm against my thigh. I have a sudden memory of our father, grading papers in some hazily happy past, Lexi and I side by side on the carpet beneath his chair. Bach’s “Well-Tempered Clavier” plays in the background. He approximates the left hand of the keyboard alternately on the tops of our heads. We both nestle close, savoring his touch.

First I walk Lexi to her job, which is east of Tompkins Square Park. It is a dirty hole-in-the-wall diner with cheap food and mismatched chairs, tables and couches. I sit drinking coffee, watching the chubby owner yell over the phone. He claims to be French, but he speaks in what sounds like Arabic. After screaming he sits and quietly plays backgammon with his blonde jailbait girlfriend from Long Island who, though she can’t be more than 17, already has the posture of someone who is used to ducking hurled objects. I trust them. I like the owner’s incongruous tenderness toward her. I know he is not the one who has damaged her.

Lexi negotiates the tables with ease. She is adept at deflecting passes, conversing with heaped dishes on one arm, procuring free cups of coffee for broke customers when the boss isn’t looking. She flicks cockroaches off of tables unnoticed, using a greasy menu. Her hair is cut in a flattering A-line around her face, a style that hides her scar. She is thin and statuesque, her fingers long with round, unpainted nails. Her cheekbones are high and somehow tragic. Her posture, unlike mine, is flawless. I think she looks like a lesser character in a Greek myth, about to be ruined by the capriciousness of an angered and unjust god.

“Lexi,” I say. The owner looks up from his game, grins. His girlfriend gives a haggard little smile. The three of them will smoke pot during the dead periods, in the kitchen of the restaurant. Lexi comes over to my table. “I’ll pick you up when I get off,” I say.

The air smells sweet and white subtropical flowers bob in front of us. They look like severed mouths, shrieking. I think of our father’s garden as a place where people stagger in various phases of calamity.

“O.K.,” she says, “but remember the hats.”

“Yes, the hats. I’ll pick them up. Tonight?”

“Tomorrow. Tonight is the soup kitchen.”

Every year around Christmas she buys 100 wool hats on Delancey Street and hands them out to homeless people around the Bowery. They are not always grateful, so I always come with her, though altruism is not as hard-wired into me as it is into her.

“Lexi,” I say, “you’re like the patron saint of… something. The Bowery, maybe.”

She briefly takes my hand and gives me a smile that is shy and venerable.

5. Twins, age 13
Suburban Home, East Northport, New York

I drag Lexi through our father’s garden, one hand flailing in front of me. We are running away from home. Lexi is sobbing. In the dark, I stop, sit down right on the path, and rock Lexi back and forth. After the garden, there is a quarter mile of trees descending sharply down a hillside. Then there is the road.

“We’re going to leave. We’re going to get the fuck out of here,” I say to her, “does it hurt?”

The air smells sweet and white subtropical flowers bob in front of us. They look like severed mouths, shrieking. I think of our father’s garden as a place where people stagger in various phases of calamity. Each year it blooms with the violence of a rut. Like many of my father’s beautiful things, it has become a lie.

I examine Lexi’s head in the fading light. The skin above her left ear is broken, filled with blood and fragments of plaster. I am afraid there is a crack in her skull. I am afraid there will be brain damage. Moments before, our father was wielding a high-quality replica of Virgil’s bust – that poor, benign, plaster poet with his round, dead eyes – and the blow was destined for my head. I am the customary, mutinous target of our father’s rage, and I know how to duck: I know how to run. But this time Lexi, her blonde hair aglow about her face, stepped in front of me and took the crack to the skull. The sound was thick and wet. I grabbed Lexi and dragged her from the house. In this garden of heartbreaking beauty, all I hear is the echo of Virgil connecting with Lexi’s bone.

I must think clearly. Where should we go? Before our parents divorced, our father was a man with an easy laugh. But our mother’s departure exposed vast reservoirs of anger. He grew bitter, then violent. A week of flowering bruises left us in foster care for four months, and we hated it. The anxiety of separation plagued us. And the reunion: the cool blue hours of reconciliation, our father contrite, brimming with love, Bach and Latin. He meant neither word nor blow. He meant, in his heart, the same well-balanced perfection we all mean.

I scan the garden. Terminus defunctus, in both directions.

“You shouldn’t have done that, Cassie. Someday he’ll kill you.”

Non habemus illos hostes sed facimus,” I say.

“Don’t quote him.”

“We can leave. They won’t find us.” But I know this isn’t true and it’s obvious in my voice.

She stops crying suddenly. She says firmly, “now we have to go back.”

I look down. There is a quarter mile of trees to go before the road. “O.K., we’ll go back.” But I sit still a moment, holding Lexi’s small body in the faltering light. This failure is irredeemable. This failure, I know even then, will poison our lives like a virus, like a drug spreading in the body.

6. Twins, Age 34
Small One-Bedroom Apartment, East Village, Manhattan

Lexi looks at me, holding the New York Dolls LP. “I don’t need money,” she says, “I don’t need anything. I just wanted to stay here.” She still does not let her tears spill, but the lines around her mouth deepen. She sits on the couch, clutching the record. She smiles tremulously: “I could sleep on the couch?”

It is 4:10 by my watch. I need to be up soon. Lexi stretches on the couch, leaning on her arm, continuing to smile hopefully.

Here is another chance for indignation. Instead I say, “Lexi, you look like an Odalisque. Not Manet’s; she’s too slutty. Maybe Ingres. The record is a peacock fan.”

“I look like a prostitute?”

“No! Just… you look very coy.” My face flushes, but I continue, “It’s that position you’re lying in. You look like an innocent. About to be corrupted.”

About to be?” And a real smile brightens her face. I feel an inexplicable rush of relief. She says, “I guess dad’s erudite ways afforded us something. We’re art-fluent.”

I walk over to the couch and sit down. She makes room for me.

“I did everything wrong,” I say, tapping my fingers against my leg, “I trusted you when I shouldn’t and I didn’t trust you when I should. I’m sorry.”

“Cass, enough. Enough, Cass.” Her voice is hoarse.

I touch the scar above her ear. She recoils, then relaxes and lets me explore it.

Lexi says, “Do you think we should have run away? Do you think things would be better?”

“No.” I am silent a moment. Then I say, “Shit. Will you stay here tonight?”

I suddenly feel overwhelmed, and I rest my head against her stomach. She lifts her hand to my head and begins timidly to stroke my hair, catching it behind my ears. “Thanks,” she whispers.

“I want to lie down,” I say, “I feel so tired.”

“Lie down. I’ll take care of you for awhile.”

She gets up and gathers our glasses. I lie down on the couch, staring up at the ceiling. Presently I hear the teapot boiling. I pick up the record and hold it in front of my face. The edges are worn out and tattered. Lexi walks in with mugs of tea.

“I can’t believe how long you’ve had that,” she says.

“I know. Like twenty years.”

“You know, I was thinking. I was thinking maybe this year we should do the hats.”

“Let’s do.”

I turn my head and look at her. She sits beside me on the couch, takes the record and hands me my tea. The apartment is so quiet, the dawn for once a mystery I look forward to. I know I will fall asleep soon, but before I do, I want to make sure to commit this scene to memory; for a moment I want everything to be exactly as it is.

Saramanda Swigart recently received her B.A. in English from Columbia University after a 15-year hiatus, during which she worked in a kitchen in Italy, for a New York fashion designer, as a copywriter for a San Francisco advertising agency, and for a consulting firm in Dubai. She has published in Thin Air magazine.