Devil’s Lake

Spring 2014 Issue

Lisa Locascio: No Names

We recognize each other from across the bar, both of us absolutely not American in a room full of them. She is tall and rangy in a wide-brimmed hat and heeled boots that make her taller. Beneath the hat are sparse curls the color my mother called “liver paste,” a V of freckled chest, and small, polite breasts under a pink dress. I see her in some mirror—apartment, bathroom, pocketbook, rearview—checking her orange-pink lipstick, smudging brown kohl under her lower lashes, affecting a final frightened stare. Her purse is a purple pill on a leather thong.

Women do this almost every night—believe they can change entirely with clothes and grooming, imagine they can imagine themselves into another person. My vision of her is suffused with a frisson of painful sympathy, the emotion beside arousal on my color wheel.

She is alone and the glass in her left hand is drained of liquid, bearing only a twist of spent lime in mashed ice. I guess vodka with soda and come toward her, the new drink breathing wetness into my fingers.

The tourists are thick on the floor, speaking excitedly about the old things they have seen in our city. I curve the glass into my wrist, pressing it into my sternum to protect it from their wide bodies and jutting elbows. A woman in khaki cargo pants and a stiff black vest draws a flourish with her right arm. “Gosh, we saw so many, palaces and palaces, right there, with guards too,” she says to a man in a green visor and a camouflage t-shirt.

“Well, you can do anything with enough tax money,” he answers, and snorts back another mouthful of his government-subsidized beer.

I am briefly seized by the desire to elbow the green bottle into his teeth. Nothing rash, just a quick jab. I will be gone before he sees my face. An accident, he would decide eventually, in his good-natured American way. But instead I go to her.

What does she see when she looks up? A black blazer over a dark blue t-shirt, slim black pants, hair trimmed close to my scalp. She is older than me—old enough that the money that bought her hat and her purse and her dress is her own. Lines that appear at the corners of her mouth when she smiles do not immediately disappear when she stops.

She takes the drink from me with no hesitation, brings it to her mouth. The smile again. “How did you—” she begins, but is interrupted by the birdcall laugh of another American, a tiny woman in the far corner. She shakes her head, rolling the brim of the hat. “I like this bar because tourists never come here,” she says, leaning towards me. I wonder if she smells the cologne my mother sent me.

“But I am a tourist,” I say in my best American English. Her mouth screws up into an apology, the interest in her eyes dimming. She believes me completely. I let it ride until the last possible moment as she scrambles, eyes frantic. Then I say in our language, “In this part of town, anyway.”

It’s enough. We talk through three more of her drinks. She tries to buy me one, but my body is humming already and I don’t need to owe her anything. She is an architect working on the renovation of the palace. She was raised in the northern suburbs and has a twin brother. They like to go to the horse races together. I tell her that the Americans would be thrilled to know she, who has actually been inside the palace, is in their midst. “They would love to talk to you,” I tell her. “To ask you questions.” And I turn, as if to invite the nearest couple, who are wearing matching denim shirts.

She slams her hand on top of mine. “Please,” she says, and I can’t tell if she is laughing or panting with anxiety. “Don’t.”

I tell her it is our secret. She likes this. She touches my arm and orders another drink. She suggests we sit in the far corner. When we rise, the Americans part before us like a school of beneficent sea mammals. Their guide raises a tiny flag and leads them back out onto the quiet streets surrounding the palace, where they will walk past the white facades of the city’s most expensive apartments.

Now we are alone in the bar. She removes her hat and smoothes it across her lap. Beneath it, her hair is perfectly smooth, and freckles dot her temples. She asks me who I am.

I have recently returned to university after a year away. I have decided to study geography. I am living in a new neighborhood close by, alone, in a room I rent from a pair of librarians. When I ask her if she would like to see it, I find she has already gathered her belongings, the little pill dangling from her shoulder like her pass into another world, the hat palmed in her right hand. She replaces it with one smooth movement, stands, and waits for me to offer her my arm.

Underneath her clothes she is older, too. Her breasts are a bit longer, the nipples as well, and her sternum slightly sunken, her thighs loose and full. It does not matter. I like the difference, and besides, everything works the same. In the black and red light of my flat, I put my hand under her sleeve and the entire dress falls off. I lift her hair from her neck and just my breath there removes her underwear. I am no different: with her hand on my thigh my pants are gone, and then the shirt, too. She’s charmed by the tiny room, keeps talking about her “student days,” about simplicity, about “streamlining.” She seems to believe that a lack of things is equal to a lack of worries, that the bareness of my walls reflects the bareness of my heart. I shush her with my mouth and later with my hand held across her lips like a grate, as if she is a prisoner who must fight for every breath.

“Breathe deep,” I tell her. “Deep breaths.”

In the morning she has gone. I am impressed; I am always the one who wakes first. But she has left her hat, and inside, on a piece of toilet paper, a note with the name of a bar, a day, a time. The hat is straw dyed pink, made in India. I wonder if she’s ever been there.

Why would I not meet her again? I like detective novels, scavenger hunts, trails of crumbs in the forest. But the bar she has chosen is a place I normally avoid, with white and gray everything and no shadows to hide in. She looks almost completely different, in a gray-and-blue pinstripe skirt suit, white blouse, and beige heels. Her hair, which seems to have multiplied, is barely held back from her face by a thin silver band. Only the pill purse is the same, and her smile lines. Her eye makeup is blurry, as if she has been weeping.

She is glad to see me. She alternates between long stretches of silent smiling and complaint—about what, at first I’m not sure, then it slowly comes into focus and divides itself into two categories: her job and her boyfriend. The former is incredibly demanding, the latter so boring she feels like she will die if she spends another moment with him. They own a flat together in this very neighborhood. He is an architect, too. They have lived together for seven years, and everyone’s mother wants to know when there will be children. And she wants children, she thinks so, but also maybe not. When she tries to talk to her boyfriend about this problem he is so equivocal and calm and thoughtful that she wants to punch him.

I’m not sure why she is telling me these things, and I tell her so. Does she feel guilty about what happened between us? Does she want me to swear to secrecy? “No,” she says, and her entire face changes. The light from the setting sun is not kind to her skin, and I think: she feels so happy that she believes she can only be beautiful. Her eyes widen and her eyelids fall. She holds her mouth as if she is about to put something delicious in it.

She wants to know what I have been doing. She says she knows I have other women. “Girls, really,” she corrects herself. “The kind who wear bikini tops under their shirts instead of bras, the ones with lipgloss that tastes like cake frosting and jobs in dress shops. Maybe some of them are still in high school?” She sounds hopeful.

What does she know about my cracked-open purple hours between dusk and dawn? What does she know about the girls I chase, the ones who refuse to be found, or about the ones who throw themselves in my path, forcing my hand? She does not know that I try to be kind and fail, or that I try to be cruel and fail, or that I so want my own company, to be alone and to forget.

So instead I try to ask about her project at the palace. “It’s hopeless,” she says. “They keep wanting more and more, and they have endless money to do it, so it will never be finished.”

“Isn’t that good for you?” I ask. “You will always have work.”

She puts both of her hands around my left, lifting it from its place on my knee. “You are young,” she says, looking into my eyes. “You are young, young, young.”

She wants to go back to my apartment again. But we are not drunk and neither of us wants to simply take off our clothes and get into my narrow bed, so instead we drink a terrible box of red wine and lay down on the floor. We talk about summer camp things, or at least about the things children talk about at summer camp in American movies. Our favorite movies, our best teachers and our worst teachers, our favorite animals, our favorite colors, the sounds we like best, the sounds we like worst, our nightmares. When we come to recurring dreams, she rolls onto her side and takes my face in both of her hands. I have not shaved in two days. I feel my stubble beneath her measuring architect’s fingers.

“I have to tell you something,” she says. I nod. The movement of my face in her hands is oddly pleasurable. She bites her lip. It seems as if we will kiss, as if things will begin, but instead she begins speaking in a strange, low voice.

“I have a recurring dream,” she says, “I’ve had it three times now. In the dream I have a house in the forest, just one room, a cabin really. A cottage. Built of dark wood, rustic, no indoor plumbing. On the wall hangs a large shallow bowl for collecting vegetables from the garden and a small spade for digging roots. There is no television, no electricity. The kitchen is very small. I make simple meals, barely cooked vegetables and mouthfuls of whiskey from a tall ceramic jug. The central focus of the one room, with its high sloping ceilings and polished wooden walls, is a large bed with a steel frame, made up with fresh white linens. It is pushed into a corner so that there is no risk of falling out, no matter what you get up to in there.” She blushes. “And you take me there, to my cabin in the woods, and we make love for days, hardly remembering to eat. No one knows where we are. After a while, they worry. But there’s nothing they can do. We’re not there. We’ve gone to another place.”

She closes her eyes and presses the crown of her head into my chest softly, her arms closing around my waist.

“When I have that dream,” she whispers, “I never want to wake.”

There is nothing for me to do but to put my arms around her, too, to wait for her to lift her face so that I can kiss it. But inside my head a high tone is rising, like the sound that signals an air raid drill, and I must control myself to resist my urge to pull away, to go and sit in the bathroom until the sound goes away.

When we have sex this time I find myself trying to say words, but I don’t know what they are. She sees my open mouth, puts her fingers inside it.

After that night I only see her one more time, but I talk to her three more times before it is finished.

She calls me at five on a Friday, from a room crowded with the boisterous voices of happy men. It has been two weeks since we’ve seen each other. I don’t know where she got my telephone number, but I don’t ask, either.

“Hi!” She whisper-shouts. “It’s me.”

“Oh, hello,” I say smoothly, but it is minutes before I recognize her voice.

“Guess where I am.”

“I don’t know. At work? At the palace?”

“No.” She sounds like she is pouting. “Try again.”

“I’m really not sure.”

Her voice takes on the edge of a taunt. “Well, where would I be?”

“At home?”

“Yes,” she says, a wave of jubilation rushing from her with the word. “Yes, I’m at home.”

“All right,” I say, and turn the page of the book in my lap, which is about the mapping of the Arctic Sea.

“Can you believe it?” she says.

“I’m sorry?”

“I’m calling you from my home. My flat. Where I live with my boyfriend.”

“Oh. Right.”

She giggles breathily. Or is it a pant?

“Is he out?”

“No. He’s here. In this room. With all of his friends.”

“Well, then it’s probably not wise of you to call me.”

She pouts again. “If you say so.”

“Although I am happy to hear your voice,” I try. “Are you well?”

“Now I am,” she says. “Now I am that I have called you.”


“I think you are a very special person.”

“I think you’re special too. Of course.” I grimace as soon as I say it, but there is no other possible answer.

“You’re like this other door I can open,” she says. “A tiny door into a private place.”

“A good place, I hope.”

“A better place,” she says.


“Meet me next Saturday at the geography department bar,” she whispers quickly. “At seven-thirty.” Then she hangs up.

I have been staring at my own blank wall. I look down at the book. The new page is a photograph of a fata morgana. I try to make it a real mountain with my eyes.

At the university bar, she is painfully conspicuous, her hair pulled into a knot on top of her head, her long body in an elegant black dress, a gold pin just above her left breast. All of the student girls wear tight jeans and colorful sneakers. She doesn’t look like a professor; she looks like a headmistress.

When I come closer, I see that her pin is a mermaid holding a small mirror in one hand, swimming to her right breast. I want to take her out of the bar immediately, to repatriate her to a more suitable place, but she has already ordered two beers. We sip quietly, talking about our days. I notice she has other lines, in addition to the ones around her mouth, little rays emanating from the corners of her eyes. I think they are beautiful and wish I could ask her how old she is, but she is watching me see her. I don’t want to hurt her.

“So,” she says when the beer is finished. “Would you like to take me somewhere?”

She wants to go back to her flat, says her boyfriend isn’t due back for hours, but I convince her to come with me to my apartment instead.

“I understand,” she says, smiling. “You have to be the man.”

“Sure,” I say, and then we go out into the streets. They wind around us like paths on an archaic map, weaving into each other, spewing monsters and winds, every one dead-ending at my doorstep.

She wants me to put on music. She wants me to kiss the parts of her body as she calls out their names, but I only allow her an ear, an elbow, and the back of her left knee before I put a stop to the game.

This time I’m behind her, and it takes forever. I stare and stare at her hair, her nubby spine, the black crescent on her coccyx that might be a tattoo or a birthmark. “Are you ready?” she keeps asking, and when I don’t answer for the fifth time, she whips around and finishes me in her mouth. Her exasperated expression reminds me of my mother.

This time she leaves quickly, and I look at her pin, not her face, as I say goodbye: the mermaid swimming in black, intoxicated by her own reflection.

She calls me for the last time at two o’clock in the morning, on a night when I am sitting in my room listening to records. When I answer and hear her voice, I feel anger, then something that might be tenderness.

“Do you remember,” she wants to know, “the night we met?”

“Yes, of course. It was only a month ago.”

“The bar,” she says, as if I haven’t spoken. “The bar with all the Americans who had been to the palace.”

“That’s right.”

“You knew what my drink was, and you brought it to me, no problem. Like it was your second nature.”

“I saw that you were empty.”


We are quiet, so absolutely silent that I feel I can hear the city breathing. I feel like an insect floating in the rosy darkness of a massive lung.

“How strange,” I say with panic. “I don’t even know your name, I’m sorry.”

I can hear her smiling. “Of course you don’t,” she says. “That was how I wanted it. No names. To give you something to remember, after.”

“After what?”

Quiet again. It grows inside my ear until it holds the entirety of my head, until the room is overwhelmed by quiet. Has the phone gone dead? There is no dial tone, only quiet eating my room, the record long over, the sun hours away, quiet and quiet until I put the phone down and walk around my apartment rattling things. I move my furniture and clean my plates until four o’clock, the last hour of the night, and then I go to sleep with a record playing at full volume.

LISA LOCASCIO’s writing has appeared in n+1, Santa Monica Review, The Nervous Breakdown, Salon, Sou’wester, Joyland, Wigleaf, The Los Angeles Review of Books, the Scottish journal Product, and the anthology California Prose Directory, among others. Her research on the life of Roberto Bolaño has received mention in The New Yorker, Bookforum, Arts and Letters Daily, and The Los Angeles Times. She is the first Anglophone writer to be granted an interview by Bolaño’s widow, Carolina López, which will appear in The Believer this year. Lisa lives in Los Angeles. More from this issue >