You Are the Roots that Sleep Beneath My Feet and Hold the Earth in Place
by Eli Levén, translation by Rachel Willson-Broyles
Sebastian dances like a butterfly through his mother’s living room, dressed in one of her dresses. The choral music from the radio trickles out of the speakers like razorblades against his skin; he splits open. The dress shines just like the summer flowers that will soon bloom pink, orange, and red; it smells of her, lipstick and flowery perfume, something else, fleshy, rotting, something from within.
Sebastian’s mother has dressed her apartment in him. School pictures from first, second, third grade cover the walls; fourth, fifth, sixth too. His eyes look less and less delirious and bottomless the closer the pictures get to high school; ironically enough he looked more blitzed as a nine-year-old than as a sixteen-year-old, when his eyes aren’t visible at all but are hidden behind long red bangs.
He breathes in his mother’s Glade air freshener, Refreshing Spa scent, from an old bread bag. His field of vision flutters and becomes neon green. His head and arms are pulled backward, his chest moves forward like in one of those simulated car crashes. He is filled with images he can’t defend himself against. A deserted house next to the train tracks where he lived when he was little, his classmates naked there, a woman being torn to pieces under a subway train before his eyes. The snapping sound of her ribcage being crushed. White flashes bloom like lilies, again and again. He falls backward into a warm, dark coffin and grabs in vain for the edges to pull himself up.
He thinks of his youth, which, just like the air freshener, will soon be gone. He inhales again; a green cloud floats into the room. He sees himself sitting there with a pale and sallow face; under his skin something dark hovers that threatens to break through, become stretch marks, wrinkles, varicose veins, beard, and furrows. The skin of his face is still taut and proud, conceited; but soon the days in which his worth can be measured in BMI and he can allow the androgynous contours of his body to be his only merit will be numbered. He can still swallow sedatives with sparkling wine to tame his exaggerated, spastic movements; he can put on a little makeup, go out somewhere and find success in a corner. He is still offered drinks, he still has unknown tongues whispering in his ears. The blackouts happen a few hours a week; he hears that he was unusually nice and fun, wakes up in the morning in unknown parts of the city, takes pictures of his companion from the night before. Then goes home to crash listlessly in spews of accessories spread out on the floor.
Because Sebastian would like to assert that there are many advantages to having a floor for a closet; never can one match clothes as successfully as then: turquoise skirt and tights, necklace and top the same color but lighter, and the same thing with burgundy, black, or neon pink.
The curtains in the room hang like white trains, blowing in the wind like tunics or loincloths without hips, hardly any hips at all, or any bust. He gets up on his mother’s floor on shaky legs, like Bambi on ice, before he sits down on the sofa, changes his clothes, and goes into town.
Blue tits are sitting in the tree in front of Sebastian in the bright park; they sing the way you scream. Everything is wide open. “Oh yes, oh yes,” says the man below him, jerking off his cock with frenetic tugs; and now and then he wets it with his mouth. There’s a vague tingle in Sebastian’s crotch, under his tulle skirt. He is leaning against a tree in the park of Vitabergen; it’s Walpurgis Night. He thinks of his grandfather, who died a few months ago. Sebastian used to go to Sundsvall where he lived and they would go to the overstock store. They never became very close, but once his grandfather had sung an old 1950s pop song for Sebastian in the car, something he had never done for his dad.
The blue tits sing a melody that makes Sebastian dream. Everything seems to stop for a while; the park and the group of people revolve around an axis that is these strangely beautiful birds. His fake eyelashes want to grow and become a branch for the birds to sit on. They’re a rip in reality, a portal that extends far beyond the hell that this sexless maiden has ended up in. He is the smell of bubblegum, sloppily painted fingernails, and armpits like open graves. He hears a voice inside himself, which must belong to God or something, talking to him:
“Because you are not lovable, Sebastian, no one loves your awkwardly swinging hips, your greasy hair and short skirts, you look like a whore.
You must be cut back like a tree that has run too wild, you are entirely too much, you don’t have room in your starving body, your lungs can’t breathe properly, you can’t get air into them no matter how much you breathe and suck cock as if there were oxygen in their balls. You must cut yourself back and rise again.
Then you will finally realize that you are a!
Then you will finally understand that you are a…seal woman, a seal girl, a seal chick born in the winter, you must jump up out of yourself dressed in full armor, always close to the knives, your never-ending schizo-laugh; you are a black shining sun.”
He feels a hand slip into his underwear, up into his ass; it is the cock-sucking man’s boyfriend. A bottle of poppers runs down into Sebastian’s nose and burns holes in his mucus membranes; he is thrown forward onto the cold grass. Mascara runs down his cheeks; he’s crying like he’s puking, with a wish for mercy.
The boyfriend apologizes and licks his butt like a dog before he stuffs his cock in him. It hurts but he has to stay on the stage, like a fuckmachine, rock his backside in a feverish cold sweat on last year’s grass on this sunny April morning.
Reality, when tears are added, looks like a horrid painting by Monet. After a while the cock-sucking man comes on Sebastian’s back and on his boyfriend in the grass. They help him on with his clothes, give him a cigarette and what’s left of a diet cola. They hug and the men leave, but they will soon meet again, because the world, it is so small!
He walks across the grass, returns to his friends’ blanket, throws up and drinks some more, finds a pair of sunglasses, and makes out with a girl who thinks he’s cute.
Around him the sun is shining and there his friends are sitting, it’s a park in the spring. The ground is still cold but they don’t feel it. They get burned out by the relentless sun and only their teeth are left, congealed in a smile. The material in their clothes is polyester; they have plastic necklaces, jelly bracelets from some cheap store in a suburb somewhere. The rouge on their cheeks is pink, red, and orange. The bracelets are black; the clothes are black. Their hair is black and red. The sun is white. And there he sits. He is sliding away and he remains; he is a memory.
They’re listening to a fantastic 80’s mix when the eternal one reveals himself in the form of a teenaged Goth guy with scabs on his elbows. Andreas. He’s standing with one leg in front of the other and his eyes are looking farther off. He looks like an old black and white film, standing there outlined against the sky. His dark green oval eyes shine coldly, too strongly; out of his mouth rises grayish-purple smoke. He swallows now and then, and his Adam’s apple bobs. He is neither particularly tall nor remarkable, but he makes all motion turn toward himself. Sebastian sees his reflection in him, his thighs, his stomach, chin, shoulders. Andreas’ face turns toward him as the park empties; sunlight becomes moonlight, and the air outside becomes raw and cold.
Andreas turns around and starts to walk away; Sebastian follows him at a distance. Stops when he stops to pick something up off the ground, kicks beer cans. He walks in labyrinths around bushes, stops at a large spruce, looks at his hands. The park is deserted.
Sebastian hasn’t spoken for so long that his voice rasps:
Andreas stiffens. “What did you say?” he wonders, and looks at him intensely.
“I just said hi, are you going to an afterparty or something?”
A little later they’re sitting on Andreas’ bed; he is quiet, not bothering to push his bangs out of his face and eyes anymore. He tries to open a bottle with his teeth; he smells like sweat and leather. Sebastian is sliding around on his plastic floor in his tights. It looks like a gray river; small islands and rocks here and there, spots that won’t go away, not even if you get down on your knees and scrub with a scrubbing brush.
The boys or whatever they are have met before; it was two years ago now. Also in a park. They drank beer out of small glass bottles. Sebastian was sitting with a friend on his left.
Andreas said to her: “Why does your face look like a fucking cunt?” She got mad and screamed something back. Sebastian said to him: “Look who’s talking, you fucking retard.” Andreas aimed a bottle at him in the air.
Now Andreas is telling him that he thought he saw Sebastian a year ago, someone else with curly red hair; he had gotten scared. Now he’s smiling, whiter than his soft stubble, it looks like fishing line.
“Sebastian, check this out,” he says and changes the subject. Sticks the bottle in his navel and pulls in his stomach so the cap gets stuck. Sebastian cracks up, grabs Andreas’ belt, and pulls him toward himself, rubs himself against his smooth stomach, the cap scrapes against his cheek and falls on the floor. He feels Andreas’ sex behind his fly; it’s soft against his collar bone.
Andreas puts a record on the turntable; it crackles like a fire. Then they talk all night in the fire. A door slams behind Sebastian.
They sleep until it’s evening again. The air is clear, the stores are closed, and some bars and pizzerias too. When they walk out into the air, Andreas gets jumpy and has to jump in flowerbeds and jump up and down from bike racks; he has to run on the wall in the tunnel on the way down to the subway. Sebastian laughs at him.
They climb up some scaffolding to the roof of an unfinished building; it’s so windy that the turquoise plastic sheeting whirls around them like a veil of tulle.
The highway seems endless, and it roars; beyond it there’s a forest of spruce that ends before the horizon.
“Can you tango?” Sebastian asks when they’ve made it onto the roof. He takes Andreas around the waist and puts Andreas’ hand on his shoulder. Andreas closes his eyes, is told to let his knees bend.
Sebastian leads Andreas backward; they float. Stop. Sebastian pushes his right leg between Andreas’ legs and throws him backward. Andreas looks at the world upside down; his leather jacket slides up. Sebastian can’t avoid the big white area of skin that opens below him, an abyss, Andreas’ stomach.
They get down from the roof and race each other to a floodlight tower in the parking lot outside the hardware outlet store; Sebastian gets there first and starts to climb up. Andreas follows and climbs frantically but stops when the tower starts to narrow. Sebastian keeps going and slides on the frame in his ballet slippers.
“Okay, you won,” Andreas yells, carefully starting to climb down.
Sebastian pretends not to hear, keeps climbing, and he slips but hangs on. Chills run inside him, but he keeps going; Ellie always climbs highest, he thinks. She is never scared.
“Come down, Sebastian, you’re fucking scaring me” Andreas yells to the sky, and his voice cracks.
Sebastian reaches the top of the floodlight tower.
He can’t climb any higher than that.
He looks out over the forest and the city and takes a giddy breath.