By Laura Legge
Kiki was not fun. She had been forced to live faithfully so her identical twin, Bouba, could survive as her shadow. But a shadow stayed beneath you in sunlight; a shadow wasn’t supposed to hover between the sky and the sidewalk, ravening your braids.
Cocaine had stopped Bouba’s heart a few nights before, in Seoul, where she had moved a year before to marry Ray Song. That evening she had been in one of her hyperbolic moods, and on the other end of the line Kiki had said, Shh, shh, baby, heavy your belly with bulgogi, and Bouba had promised, Yes, Kikiner, I will—but of course there was no way to foresee the end of a new and syncopated tune. So now, having survived the restless flight across the Pacific, the hours inside Incheon making mundane arrangements with funeral homes and banks, ordering dreary, unscented bouquets from two-star florists, she was in the front seat of Ray’s convertible, wearing a brown corduroy pinafore and a single, utilitarian barrette in her hair, feeling boring as fuck, invisible despite being incarnate, while her twin’s memory vogued between them in all its young glory.
Ray was a short, shy powerlifter, and perhaps because of his shyness she already had the sense, three hours into knowing him, that he was more thoughtful than most of the people she encountered. He, for instance, turned down the radio in his car once he learned that Kiki had a form of synesthesia that made her believe each song she heard had a physical form, one that physically touched her, whether it caressed her lips with ghost fingers or slapped her brutally on the back of the skull.
Other than this brief exchange, they talked very little. Kiki was used to that, though she fussed in her head about whether this was making Ray dislike her, or worse, whether this was making him think of other bodies he would rather have in his passenger seat.
He drove to a diner in a neighborhood he called Cheongdam, an American-style eatery that catered to people who felt alien here, but who did not want to make an effort to become less so. He held the car and diner doors for her and chose a table before the hostess could seat them. Across from Kiki, his hair slicked so it could no longer make its own decisions, Ray motored on about the impeccable pancakes, manic about buckwheat and blueberry.
Between the two of them, the Formica seemed to swell. She would never be quiet and comfortable with anyone again. The rest of her life would be spent in affected cafés, saying things that did not need to be said about breakfast food, longing for the ridiculous songversations she used to share with Boubear. Kiki, Kikiner, what does a forest cat say when it loses its fur, Kiki when you’re not with me, I says brr brr brr! Though it made her feel archetypical and embarrassed, Kiki started to cry.
“No, no tears,” Ray said. “It’s not as tough a choice as I made it sound. You’ll get the blueberry.”
Kiki knew she was supposed to giggle at that joke. This was what women did in order to be attractive, to crank the confidence of the person they were with. Bouba would have laughed, and she would have found a way not to be demeaned but to be galvanized by that forced music. Yoked as ever to her Kikiness, she said, “I think we should figure out the funeral arrangements.”
The server came and filled their mugs with black coffee from a pot in the shape of a boombox. Kiki lifted hers the way a dumbwaiter might, missing the corner of her mouth and trickling that heat down her cheek. She cringed as the liquid touched her skin, not because it was hot but because she had not readied herself to be touched. “Yes,” Ray said, drinking his coffee without any spillage. “That’s the reason we’re here.”
The only reason he would be here. She cried more intensely. Her eyes had become her enemies. She told Ray she had a wonderful idea for the funeral, a shimmering, glimmering idea that Bouba would have loved. She poured two cream packets into her coffee and then worried—could he divine her private thoughts from those off-white whirls? Was there a secret language in their design, as in the celestial patterns of tea leaves, that would lay bare the fact that she had tried hard, so hard, to come up with a fitting idea for the funeral, and her brain was just too plain to conceive of anything poetic, or even pleasurable? Because if there were, Ray would be the one to notice. It was oppressive to be around someone so observant.
“That’s great,” he said. “Do you want to tell me about it?” Kiki did not answer for a while. She was picturing him having sex with her twin. It disgusted her, but there they were, spinning acid jazz, on a daybed, in sunlight, in torn cotton tunics, in rhythm, in rhythm. Back in the diner, she laid her ear down on the Formica, soothing and cold as an unworn headphone. Kiki did not notice the server’s mass approach them until Ray had ordered, on her behalf, and the girl was on her way back to the kitchen.
Though it was nearly imperceptible, Jamie Principle’s “Your Love” started licking the long route up Kiki’s neck with its tongue of sweat, control, privation. The hopelessness of parting, after glistening in someone’s arms for hours, and walking into the clinic of an empty home. This song had been an anthem of her teen nights out with Bouba, more than a decade ago, when they both used to dance with dreamy, abstemious heads and sometimes, at most, pin a boy or girl with their lips to the bathroom graffiti. A thought arrived—what if Kiki combed through Bouba’s records, and played a tribute set at the club where it happened? She said to Ray, “No, not yet,” and used her hand to shield the coffee and cream in her mug.
Ray started to dance to the Jamie Principle song as if it were ear candy, a banger written to the low standards of most people’s Friday nights. In his easiness he was suddenly distant from her. The server came to set their plates on the table, and as she did so, she patted Kiki’s shoulder in a way Kiki read as consolatory. Her instinct, which as always she managed to ignore, was to shatter the china against the girl’s face. Ray said thank you on her behalf. He decked his pancakes with dark agave and then forced into them with the flank of his fork.
He assumed the superior voice of a food critic. “Perfect mouthfeel,” he said.
Laughter filled her mouth like vomit. She cut her pancakes into two dozen equal squares and fit them between her teeth one at a time, careful not even to graze her lips. She noticed a stream of agave running down Ray’s chin; of course, in order to neaten him, she needed to reach out with her napkin. She did this on instinct, and only considered how prickly the contact made her feel when she saw her reflection in his lightly steamed glasses. But then did it really make her feel prickly, or was she confusing a thought for a sensation? The tail end of “Your Love” was tonguing the inside of her ear—I can’t let go, I can’t let go—and she stroked the sureness of Ray’s chin, its permanence in the shadow of this ephemeral song; but then when the tune ended, abashed, she rushed her hand back to her side of the table. It took time to trust sureness. For now, unlike the singer, she found it easier to let go.
Ray told Kiki to come over, so she agreed to come over. She passed out, full of pancakes, on his convertible seat, and only woke up when he blasted an insistent dancehall track, one that spit gobs of Scotch bonnet in her face. Then they walked up to the walk-up together; he had already filled it with blue balloon flowers, luxuriant strings of catmint and silver thyme, a finery of brilliant color that stressed the dullness of Kiki’s brown pinafore.
Kiki knew, from the photos Bouba had sent in frenzies every few weeks, between long, sore spells of radio silence that demanded of Kiki great and consistent mercy, that her twin had stored her records in a bathtub lined with purple silk. This was one of the many impulses that had illuminated her charm, and she had been able to indulge it because Ray made enough money to rent a place with a separate shower, and because Kiki had spouted encouragement in songversation: You, you, you there, Bou Bou Boubear, all the dance eyes deep in silk, you make them turn and stare.
“Can I interest you in some more coffee?” Ray asked now, ramming her polished leather suitcase beside an industrial-sized foot massager, a wedding gift Kiki had chosen at random from across the Pacific, at sea in their Korean-language registry, and which was still confined to its cardboard.
Kiki already felt drugged by the diner’s caffeine, but she said yes, because the word had perfect mouthfeel. “I’m just going to use the bathroom first,” she added.
Once in the bathroom, Kiki locked the door and knelt before the tub. The bare floor cooled her knees directly through the flaws in her well-worn tights. What kind of a freezing life had her sister lived here, with her devoted husband, without a bathmat, without a felted scrap or flatweave? Had they suffered every time they stepped from the shower and spread water into the grouting, and worse, pressed their soles directly to the bitter tile?
Picturing her sister in this bathroom, shivering, in a wet Seoul winter, remembering her illusion of Bouba and Ray on the daybed—it hit Kiki, pummeled her, that her sister’s absence was not a spiritual fact but a physical one. Bouba was somewhere decomposing. They had never been the kind of siblings to embrace, or brush each other’s hair, or massage the tensions from one another’s traps, although Kiki had watched her sister do these tender things to her infinite friends dozens of times. So what difference did it make to Kiki if Bouba no longer had a body to move around in, when that body had so rarely made contact with hers?
Her hands were shaking. She stabilized them on the records’ spines.
Kiki had forced herself to see Bouba perform several times, and what she had noticed was how little the fizzy, heart-first DJ had asked of her audience. She arranged her sets so the audience knew the exact progression their emotions should follow, and having run fluently through that range, they floated from her parties on pink clouds. Touch your audience as often as you do yourself, Kiki told herself, as she hunted the stacks for obvious nuance. Sueño Latino went in the Sensual pile, Giorgio Moroder in the Dispassionate, Shabba Ranks in the Aggressive. If she added a slow, introspective jam to the sequence, she followed it with a love song of 128 beats per minute.
The records settled in their separate columns, she removed the silk lining from the tub, inserted the stopper, and turned on the taps. She watched herself in the lightly misted mirror as she undressed, her parts wedded in that haze, no longer riven by veins. When its tideline was high enough, she stepped into the bath and lay down. The water sliced her neck, hands, and feet from her body, and when she rolled and flexed them, it seemed she was doing so through telekinesis. If only she could sink her entire self beneath the surface, maybe she could merge with the water as she had with its mist. She lowered herself far enough to dampen her bottom lip, and then farther, to cast bubbles when she breathed.
Somewhere down the hall, Ray was clanging pans. The sounds were little silver hooks that pierced the back of her neck and lifted her above the steam. She planted her feet on the cold tile, careful not to damage any vinyl.
Bound in a monogrammed towel, B & R, Kiki forced her cold feet to walk to the kitchen. Ray was leaning his hips into its marble island, spacing rosemary around a raw pot roast. He looked up and said, “You must be cold. If you want to get comfortable, Bouba’s dresser is still full.”
To him she was a reptile with an obvious temperature, or worse, a paper doll easily dressed and thus satisfied. Desire and rage entered her bloodstream, and there was no way to anticipate what power they would give her—if only he could see this much, he would understand that she was a living mystery. He would never be able to rheostat her feelings. Kiki moved closer to Ray’s ironed denim, to the animal rump he was hunched over. She seamed her side to his and allowed that sudden voltage to thrill her. Because that was the privilege of being alive. Because she had chosen not to pollute her plasma and dance her life force dry and as a result here she was, choosing to touch this strong man.
Her pleasure took a back seat to her hostility. Maybe a physical fact could be a spiritual one, too, because now she was dragging a phantom limb around, one that was the size of a full woman, one that still had a dresser full of playsuits and pullovers and cold-shoulder tops so she could wake up in the spirit-morning and get beautiful. Kiki worked herself into such a fury that she shoved Ray into the marble. Her towel fell. She stood barefoot on the kitchen floor, her nipples screaming from the cold, and she felt quite sure she would rather be dead than be standing here in a body she didn’t ask for and could only sometimes control, one that wolfed pancakes, one that wept saltwater, one that stood before other bodies and let them read her temperature and sensations and needs without asking, as if her swollen breasts and slight waist and the boned arch of her eyebrows were not hers and hers alone.
Ray rescued the towel from the ground and wrapped her like a paper doll. “You’ll be okay,” he promised, and held her tightly. It was hard to tell, in this confused surge of lust and indignation and above all fear, but she believed she was choosing to stay in his arms because it felt good.
This man ate meat and fat and flour in a precise ratio, daily. He channeled his darkness into a barbell and squatted until his muscles were so shredded they had no choice but to heal. He made himself in his own image every day; she did not question his decision to play god. Still enfolding her from behind, the towel keeping her modest from collar to knee, he asked about her funeral plans. It was as if he knew Kiki—though he had only ever known a physical double—because of course the way to calm her from this kind of frenzy was to lock her thoughts on something specific. She achieved focus. And because she had just been so physically bare, it didn’t seem any more vulnerable to admit, out loud, “I want to play a set at the club where it happened.”
“That’s a beautiful idea,” he said, sincerely. “Everyone wants to be part of something big. The crowd will love it.”
It was embarrassing to have him take her performance seriously, she who wore mock turtlenecks and sensible shoes to clubs, she who danced as incoherently as a pre- sliced magician’s assistant and who, as a consequence, rarely tried. She told him, “Keep your expectations low. I’m pretty hard to love.”
Ray tightened her already tight towel, making a funerary bouquet of her bones. “That’s not true,” he said. “I love you like a sister already.”
And why was it that every condolence he had offered had fallen on her skin soft as breath, but these words whipped her with a violence the silent body could never muster?
It was a nightmare night—a strangler, armed with a cord of braided hair, lay her down on a monogrammed towel and said, It hurts worst if you struggle, only it was Bouba’s lost birdsong, Kikiner, it all feels better as a blur, Kikiner, let the whole world fuzz like fur—and as Kiki kicked and curved she listened to Ray through the wall, rushing through arrangements with the death-club owner, who seemed desperate to accommodate his wishes. Kiki gathered that she was to replace a girl known as La Physique, who had conveniently come down with laryngitis, which had first silenced her and then milked her energy. When she finally slept, genuinely slept, it was after she heard Ray say, “Trust me, she’s just as good.”
The next day was so unclouded Kiki had to wear Bouba’s sunglasses. Ray insisted on handling the mundane preparations, following up with the florists Kiki had phoned, canceling her tentative plans with funeral homes, lodging the records in laundry bags—she wrote him an itemized list—and while he did so, he threw the car keys at her, and she thought no, but hated the mouthfeel of that word, and she said yes, and imagined Boubear singing something she never had, Yes, I’ll confess, fess, to get it off my chest, chest, Kiki, you’re the best, best.
So she tornadoed through her suitcase and found a romper she had intended only to wear overnight, under covers, and she put it on instead of her pinafore. She left her legs nude and played the crunchiest, hair-pulling-est R&B she could find on Ray’s satellite radio, and she silenced the automaton who was telling her where to drive and flew the convertible through a series of potential wrong turns. Here she was, wind-blown, sensational, in the opening credits of a film that had her name listed first.
Kiki came to earth again in Myeongdong, where she ordered too many pork cutlets and downed them anyway, and, fortified by all that iron, bought compacts of crystal prisms that she layered on her high cheeks. Here, though bodied, she was invisible. So when she felt the urge to that afternoon, she danced, she ran, she bought a dress of blue velvet, she broke in a pair of men’s brogues, she slopped coffee into her mouth until her heart beat beyond her control, she whistled, she rested her palms in her armpits, on her breasts, she chose for a few hours not to struggle against what she wanted to do.
Then, in the gloaming, she drove to Ray’s walk-up. She idled outside and honked for him; her legs were comfortable on the car seat, so she didn’t force them to move. She had changed into the velvet dress and the brogues, and as she glanced down she thought, I have hips. When Ray came out in an oversized tuxedo, struggling with the awkward weight of the two record-filled laundry bags, she did not crave a compliment from him. Still, he said, “Kiki, you’re champagne.”
She found the club without Ray or the robot; when she opened the double glass doors, while Ray balanced both laundry bags on his muscular thigh, she revealed a world of few details. Everything inside the club was made of teal-tinted glass, the bar, the booth, the dance floor, the ceiling, the cages in which paid women were showing their power to bend. Plain and blue, the room was a body of water. Kiki stood in the middle and posed like a memorial statue in a public fountain, her velvet shining, her figure patently suited to its surroundings.
Satisfied that enough early-comers had seen her statue-self, she moved to the booth. She hummed as she slipped each record from its sleeve and into a cenotaph for Bouba; as she did, Cherelle licked the alcove behind her ear, Ornette Coleman traced a finger down the front of her velvet. After half an hour the monument reached eye level, and when Kiki could no longer see the crowd that was forming, she stopped building. She would spin each record from top to bottom, the structure gradually depressing, until finally she would be standing behind its foundation, unprotected, and that is when she would lift the microphone reserved only for abrasive soca horns and Get your hands up, put that ass up, and say, in front of all these night creatures with their monstrous pupils, “Sleep sound, Boubear.”
Enough people had arrived; she cut the canned music in favor of her first single of the night, Frankie Knuckles x Chaka Khan, “Ain’t Nobody.” Over the cenotaph, she glimpsed Ray facing the bar. She had been so mighty an hour earlier, repelled by his overlong sleeves, inflated by an afternoon of sun and whim and performance, and now that he had removed his absurd jacket and turned his back, she felt a sudden, imperious need for him to notice her.
Then came Chaka’s voice, a phantom in the house of glass. Ain’t nobody/loves me better. A question scratched at Kiki’s chest—what had Ray and Bouba done and what sensations had they felt while listening to this propulsive bassline? She was about to dip, drop, catwalk, catch the club’s attention with her hasty angles, when a column of curls and lipstick came to request a song from her. Each woman in the club was an analogy, an echo of another body in rouge and leather several feet away. In this brine, she lost sight of Ray. Infuriating, having her talent questioned this early in the night, and by someone so replaceable. Kiki pretended to listen to the request, and then she spun Vangelis, “Blush Response.”
This song was a plastic mallet, hitting her vertebrae individually, turning each one a different shade of ice, from Alice blue to tea rose. The ice calmed her from this contact, until she spotted Ray again, a drink now in his hand, dancing close to a girl with durian hair. Suddenly the quality of the song changed; it was lighting Kiki’s vertebrae in saturated, vicious colors. From above, the club’s lasers drilled into her, and the crystal powder on her face, which had for a moment felt no different than her own skin, started to melt, filling her mouth with the sting of ammonia.
She snatched the needle from the record. The room went silent, forcing Ray and the tropical fruit to stop dancing. This power made her feel cohesive again, as she had in the steam, or in the statue pose, and she knew such a cohesive being did not live for anyone’s approval. That was when she noticed all the eyes splitting her down her fault lines. Why had Kiki chosen this velvet dress? It cut into her shoulders so deeply it made her arms look plastic. Boiling, bared, she fingered its low bust and forgot to play the next record.
Words came rushing at her, ones she heard most often in Sensual songs, only this crowd had exorcised from them the spirit of love. Each person had decided what song they wanted to hear, and when, and how loudly, and they conceived of these not as preferences but as needs. Worse, they believed Kiki was there to serve them a good time, the way a waitress serves pancakes, and that if they went home to their narcissus pool and cast into it a murky look, or disturbed its surface with tears, that was a failure on Kiki’s part.
She was an emptied-out club, so hollow her thoughts echoed inside of her. She understood suddenly why everyone around her was indiscriminate with how they chose to be filled.
Swayed by their demands, Kiki put on Janet Jackson, “Control.” When the durian-headed girl started dancing again, grinding a model with silver hair and country teeth, Kiki realized she had at no point been with Ray. She spotted him at the far end of the bar, tapping his too-big dress shoe as the song oscillated from pissed to poised. The figures in the room had loosened, had relearned their limbs, had started to lunge at one another in the animal skin of aggression.
Next Kiki spun “Iceblink,” a cheek-peck of techno from Ken Ishii. This song seized Ray. It must have scored a particular episode between him and Bouba, because he did something bizarre and hush-hush, leaned against a high pillar with generous give in his knees and knocked his powerlifter bubble against the glass. It was a strange move. And yet she recognized in it her afternoon in Myeongdong, how right it felt to run sometimes, and stretch, and wedge your hands in your warm armpits, how that polychrome of motion could pull the darkness from you.
For the next few hours, time followed Kiki’s metronome. Ray drifted in and out of her sightline, but she only noticed his absence between songs, and even then, she did not assign any emotion to this simple act of noticing. All that mattered was her set had started to win the crowd. They were dancing to what she was spinning, with joy and abandon, and together, Kiki and Kikrowd were creating a world of their choosing. Inside her chest was a disco ball, and a strobe light, and random bursts of confetti—she was no longer an emptied-out club, but a full one, so very full, the kind she imagined Bouba had always chased.
The last oil-brick in her monument was Prince, “The Beautiful Ones.” And for once, Kiki’s timing was perfect, not too early, as to every party, or too late, as to her sister’s rescue. Because right then, someone flipped on the big, fear-of-god lights, and she was left standing in that honest light. The club was half empty already, and those who had stayed scattered to the room’s opposite shores. Kiki lifted the microphone from its cradle, just as she had intended to do, and when the microphone was near her lips and she had the power to say Sleep sound, Boubear, she heard herself singing along instead. She had once burned through this track at karaoke, but in a mock voice, armored by irony. And now her voice was pretty and cracking, and most of all, hers. The song had grown two arms and was wrapping her from behind, as Ray had with the towel, only these arms were immortal, made of pure light. In the spoken word part she walked off the stage and to the pillar, where Ray was still leaning. By now she was in tears. Her eyes were not her enemies; she could not control the saltwater, but it had reason to fall.
She used Ray’s hands to dry her face. Not because she was unable to use her own, but because she didn’t have to. He was warm, and now she was, too. Even after the song finished, and she was left standing under harsh lights, having sung her lungs to the point of inflammation, she did not push him away.
Bouba had taken Kiki to see Prince when they were teenagers, virginal, in retainers and rain jackets. In that room, minimal as this one, Bouba first experienced that strange sensation of sound-touch. Prince played a dark chord on the synth and it vibrated until Kiki felt a set of arms cloak her, long and silky, and tighten until she was completely held. At first she convinced herself they belonged to Bouba. But when the song finished and the arms dissolved, her body felt immaculate, and it mattered less where that feeling came from than where it would carry her next.
Laura Legge lives and writes in Toronto. She received her MFA from New York University this year. Her writing has most recently appeared in Mid-American Review, Witness, Newfound Journal, The Walrus, and Meridian, and is upcoming in North American Review, Chicago Quarterly Review, and The Capilano Review. She volunteers in a women’s prison and is passionate about criminal justice reform.