Riddle of the Sphinx

We met at a fundraiser, a death-rally by a local non-profit for a domestic violence shelter depending upon the mercurial largess of doddery millionaires by way of a $10,000 check to sustain their 50-bed shelter, and suicide hotline.


I was working part-time for a catering company, Amuse Bouche, not having found better work in the year since receiving my hospitality management degree from the University of Pittsburgh in any other capacity than as a food stylist, carefully folding shaved salmon on pumpernickel rounds, festooning the labia-looking fold with a sprig of dill, then taking twenty drool-inducing shots, playing with lenses, so that the salmon appeared dusty rose, then an enchanted shade of tangerine. I had three clients: a two-star restaurant, a cookbook publisher, and Faye, a stay-at-home mom who was launching her own business making organic baby food.


The pay for food photography killed that of catering retirement luncheons and weddings, though this event was more interesting than most, especially when a miscreant more pissed-off than me started parading the floor, maroon linen napkin draped over his arm, holding a bottle of Veuve Clicquot to top off the guests’ champagne flutes.   He looked like a busboy in a South American hotel:  the scowl of colonial subjectivity was stamped on his face like a Hitler mustache.


“What’s your name,” he asked coldly, materializing at my side.


“Ghosts don’t have names.”  I lifted my arm.  “What you’re seeing here?  This is an acid trail of a phantom limb.”  I laughed.  As was customary when I laughed, once a year, I laughed alone.


“How did you die?”


“Disease, domestic violence, overwork.  And meth!”


“Wow.”  He began scratching a scabbed tattoo on his arm, of a Bald Eagle, mid-screech.  The guests had been served cocktails and champagne and our duties were at low tide.  Bored, we decided to tell riddles.  It required both memory, imagination, and basic performance skills.  I didn’t expect him to pull through.  He began.  “If you know me then I am nothing, but if you don’t, then I am something. What am I?”


“An unborn god giving birth to the world?”


“A riddle.  Ha ha ha!”  His laugh was harsh and rakish.


“Well, that’s cool.  What is god, but a self-reflexive tautology?  Ok my turn.  What goes on four feet in the morning, two feet at noon, and three feet in the evening?”


He shrugged.


“You’re not even going to try to guess?”


He shook his head.


“Man!  It’s a fable for the journey of life, the third foot representing a walking cane.  When Oedipus answered the riddle correctly, the Sphinx was so upset that she killed herself.”


“I am the white space.  I am what is missing yet, when present, you abhor.”


“Conceptual poetry?   Invisible minorities?  No.  Cocaine!”


“Women.  Actually, I don’t know.  I made that one up.”


“Women are invisible minorities, pal. They work OT for free in the care economy.”


A few more rounds, and our mutual recognition and compatible intelligence had been established.  “Fill me up,” I demanded, extending my glass, and testing his willingness to take orders from a female commanding officer standing 5’2, in heels.  He poured me a generous serving, which I tried to quaff discreetly—not an easy feat when bone dry sober and getting paid just over minimum to staff a well-intentioned bacchanalian reverie.


My hair follicles tingled; my eyes widened, doe-like, as if I were stoned.  I could see!  I licked my lips, and gazed at him with my newly-donned champagne goggles, feeling the slow rise, carbonation-fueled, toward glee.


I was actually considering dating this guy.  Therefore, I had to make sure his creds (day job, pop culture knowledge, straight male performativity for the parents) checked out.


Best album covers of all time?  Difference between a spring and imperial roll?  How many vertebra on the spine?  Which species were going extinct, and which breeding exponentially?  Most common affectual symptomatology for men under the sign of capitalism and women?

For the last question, he said anger for men, and self-abuse for women.  “Or the incredible shrinking woman act,” he added.  “Size zero clothes, Chatty Cathy dialogue, baby voice.  Perpetual flight, over fight.  That was my last girlfriend.  Her name was Blanche.  Blanche.  A non-person, or, rather, non-color!  Hey, do you dance?  Lindy hop?  Hip hop?  Shag?”


Within twenty minutes, I had guesstimated his IQ at 145.  Plus, he was funny, or at least charming.  Is there a difference?  My stomach roiled.


All this, while working a crowd of 100+, whispered in passing or talking in random intervals, leaning against a make-shift wall!  We were going to be a killer team.


“May I have a canapé?” asked an apple-cheeked woman in a black maxi dress.


“Of course,” I said, extending the tray, festooned with toothpick-stabbed crabmeat, toward her.


Before long, the organization’s coordinator, Lisa Banks, got on the mike and asked for everyone’s attention.  The loud drone in the room quieted to a hush.


“Good evening everyone!  A portion of tonight’s proceeds go to Karma Nirvana, a non-profit that brings awareness to the human rights crime of honor killings.  I’d like to request a moment of silence for Shafilea Ahmed, suffocated by her parents in 2014 with a plastic bag in front of her siblings, for refusing an arranged marriage wherein she’d take on the role of kept woman and baby-making machine, to a man several decades her senior, destroying her dreams of obtaining an education and becoming a lawyer.  In 2015, in many cultures around the world, women are still seen as chattel, refused the right of self-determination and choice, and their intelligence, dreams, and ambition are seen as a liability to a patriarchal order, punishable, in the case of Shafilea, by death.  Thank you for your attendance and support!  Enjoy your evening!”

I stole a glance at X.  He showed no expression.  I let my eyes rest on his face.  Hollowed cheeks, dimpled chin, moussed faux-hawk.  All style; no detectable moral fiber.  If movement is life, what is motionlessness?  Death?  “Are you a feminist?” I asked.


“Yeah.  But only hot women really get ahead in this world.  So women should work hard to be skinny, and hot, because that’s the prerequisite for a good job or husband.”


Unable to gauge the complicit irony in his rejoinder, I tried to quell my nausea.


“Heiresses aside, why should other women bother to spend half their discretionary income on gym memberships and Lancôme cosmetics, when the only other gender is a single-celled organism trolling the web, sorry, world, in search of teenage victims and easy fun?”


“Are you asking if I find rape and murder, genital mutilation and honor killings, objectionable?  Yes, I do.  I wish I had cash to donate to that Karma organization.   Because someone has to change the penal code.  Actually, Muslim countries don’t even have a code of justice, penal or Napoleonic or otherwise.  In strict Muslim households, a woman’s husband is her master.”


“Shafilea Ahmed was a Pakistani living in the U.K. Just to point that out.”


Glum, we watched the crowd weave around in complicated patterns, hobnobbing, networking, sharing fundraising and outreach strategies to help those persons in the world for whom each day is a living hell.  Nepotism is just a metaphor for stigmergy and hive mind, I realized.  The world is an incestuous ant colony!  Am I outside the fish tank looking in or inside the tank, circling the outermost perimeter? When are we going to collectively decide to evolve?


“Hey, do you like sushi?” X asked suddenly.


“Just dragon rolls with extra wasabi,” I said, still gazing ahead.


“Want to get sushi and see Zola Jesus at The Loft Friday?”

“Yes,” I said, without hesitation.


The event ended at 11pm, and we stuck around cleaning until 12.


The following Friday, we met at Sushi Star at 7pm, as planned.


“There’s only a few places for good sushi in Dallas,” he said, as we brazenly checked our order forms, like amateur golfers on hole 14.  “I tried Yutaka last week.  The makis—I tasted five—tasted like rubber sea urchins.”  He glanced up at me.  “Want to split some edamame?”




We walked to the show in the rain.  He offered to shelter me with his jacket and I wasn’t even tempted to make a joke about chivalry.   I let him, grateful for the opportunity to preserve my one-hour hair and makeup job.  “I feel like we’re in a Stetson commercial, dashing through the sleety streets, your musky scent hypnotizing me,” I said.


“I’m not wearing cologne,” he said.


“That doesn’t matter,” I said.  “It’s the visual, not the sensory reality.  No, it’s metamodernism.  This is not a pipe.  This is not an actual smell, because you don’t actually have a body, or olfactory organs.  You don’t exist except as a sustained hallucination in the desert of the real!”


“I prefer sustained illusions, which is to say, dreams,” he said.  “Look!  Already here.”


We checked our coats, bought two beers (“Black Ipa, please,” I said, and he looked at me askance before ordering the same), and prepared for our immersion experience.

Standing in a room with 100 other swaying bodies, we danced discreetly to her laconic, tortured songs:  Nail, Hunger, Dangerous Days, Hollow, Dust.  “God,” I said, after her first set.  “This is bleak.”  We sang together to what we’d already established as our favorite song, Lawless.


this land is nobodies

when you fall apart

and i’ll be there

waiting to claim it up

in these lawless times

i’ve got nothing left of what’s mine

give it up for good


On the cab ride home, we got to the bottom of it—why lifetime underachievers?—en route.

“I’m too proud for pride,” I said. “I’m Celine Dion, in her maternity bra and underwear, singing lullabies to her twin sons.  I’m a philosopher, more concerned with how I live, and how I die, than at which random multinational corporation I toil, Burger King or Columbia Pictures.”


“Yeah,” he said. He closed his eyes.  “I am the janitor brushing dust off the bronze statue of Rodin’s Le Penseur at the Rodin Museum in Philadelphia.  I am Sade mocking the French revolutionary values.  I am early man, in a Lascaux Cave Painting.”  He opened his eyes.  “Go.”


“I am the X factor solving for the Pythagorean Theorem, Ockham’s Razor and other paradoxes from Murphy’s Law to the Bermuda Triangle. Wait, no, that’s you!”


“Here’s the first address,” said the cabbie.  He turned to face me.  “Miss?”


“Yep,” I said, reaching for the door.  Suddenly, X began to mumble.


“Go from me.  Yet I feel that I shall stand

Henceforward in thy shadow.  Nevermore

Alone upon the threshold of my door

Of individual life, I shall command

The uses of my soul.”


“For real?”

“Yes, but those aren’t my words.  It’s Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnet V.”


I reached out for his hand and, bowing slightly, kissed it haughtily.  “‘Your pallid hand will recompense me for the whole day of utter pain.’ Pushkin’s “Confession to Alina Osipova.”   I laughed and dropped it.  He frowned. Shit! I had broken the spell.


“Somebody getting out?” asked the cabbie.  “Lady?  Anyone?”


“Yes, me,” I said.  “See you later, Justin.”


“You said my name!”  I kissed his cheek and scrambled out, watching him turn around to wave at me through the glass, as the cab ferried him down the street, a jaunty Hades, into the night.


I had to work doubles for the next week, but we made plans to skype in the interim and see a movie the following weekend.  Once we began, I adjusted the camera to a more flattering image than a close-up of my nostrils, and explained my vocational depression to him, because he asked. “I have a BS, and am eight credits shy of receiving my master’s in social work, yet I spend my days photographing Japanese eggplant and trawling among the wealthy at corporate luncheons.”


“How long have you been on the job market?”


“Long enough to know I should go back to school and finish my degree, even if the burn-out rate for my chosen profession is, after two years, 90%.”


“Stop while you’re ahead then.  You should be a car model.  Or buy a KFC franchise.”

“Thanks for the pep talk!  You should be a motivational speaker.  No, a product tester, for microdermabrasion facial exfoliants. Lean closer? Damn. Your skin is smooth.”


“Why don’t you feel empowered in your life?” he asked.


“I’ve either not had a choice, or my only choice was a false choice—Chomsky’s manufactured consent.  What am I waiting for?  The chance to say yes.  Either that or take the initiative. Beyond the stock-piling of neoliberal ammunition: college degrees.”


“Just be careful what you wish for.  You want everything?  You’ll get it, and then not be able to handle it, like a vessel inadequately constructed to withstand pressure.”


“But if I’m reduced to a medium or art object, aren’t I already nothing?  I don’t want to be anybody’s fool, and that’s what women who serve men are reduced to.  What about my own art?”  I held up a 8×10 photograph of my latest creation to the screen:  a glossy close-up of a piece of seared black cod, nestled on a bed of wild rice and escarole.  He didn’t know about my two novel drafts, throat singing, and charcoal drawings of sewer rats, washed away, Taxi Driver style, in the cityscapes of the future, a Monopoly-turned-Candyland utopia.


“Hey, catering is a better gig than most.  Especially if it comes with lunch.”


I started humming the opening bars to The Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun.”

“Doot-in-doo-doo,” he chimed in, encouragingly.


Verse, chorus, verse, bridge, I thought.  And thus the circle of life—a re-run—is complete.  If life was a video game, my hand was frozen on the control that signaled next match, next score. Justin? I felt I already knew him for 1,000 years.  I could close my own eyes, and speed through the next four years of courtship, twenty-five years of marriage, his contorted passion, our mutual artistic strivings, his daily emails and texts, and his efforts, heroic, and ultimately successful, to love.  After we died, our dead souls would co-mingle in the ether, defending their post-human, protoplasmic forms with ju-jo jutsu, tanjo-jutsu, baton-jutsu, and judo katas.


Just covering my bases, in case we never had a second date.



Virginia Konchan is the author of a poetry chapbook, Vox Populi (Finishing Line
Press), and a collection of short stories, Anatomical Gift (forthcoming, Noctuary
Press).  Her creative work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Believer,
Boston Review, The New Republic, and StoryQuarterly.  Co-founder of Matter,
a journal of poetry and political commentary, she lives in Montreal.  More work can
be found on her website.


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