“Can you give me your phone?”
“What for?” asks Marla. Still, she does what he says, and Ben tucks it into his pocket like it’s his.
“Go ahead and climb ahead of me,” he nods. The ladder is painted white. Marla touches it and wonders how many people have come up here before.
“Can I have a hit first?” she asks. It feels like a sensible request, and not one that Ben would normally turn down. The first time she’d met him, he’d been so high that he couldn’t remember her name. The memory problem has stayed with him. Sometimes, he looks at her as though searching for her name, as though he has to walk miles to find the signpost where it’s splayed on with loose staples, flapping in the street wind.
But this time he shakes his head. “I’m clean. I told you. Go on up.”
Marla puts her hands on the rungs above her head. In her mind, this is simple. This is only a ladder. She has come to this tower with a man who she has never slept with, though she suspects he has done something to her a few times when she has been passed out. Ben’s eyes are purple, then green – then some other colour that Marla fancies as the sweat begins to pool on her forehead, and she asks again for another hit.
Then she is climbing. This is the tallest tower in the world, she is told. He has taken her up it successively by glass elevator, by stairs, by a service elevator, by three sets of narrow stairwells, and now, finally, this white ladder. The sweat is in her eyes, and her hands feel as though they are going to lose their grip. She wants her phone back, any kind of anchor to the ground that would remind her of what the street feels like.
“There’s a hatch,” she says, encountering it first with the top of her head. The metal rings.
Ben is a few feet below. He calls up the combination to the lock, and Marla puts the rings to their correct placement. She drops the lock, and somehow Ben catches it. “You’re fast today,” she tells him, the best compliment she has available. He nods to the hatch, which Marla shoves open to a view of stars and opalescent dreams, to the past and future clouds that muck up the heavens but are presently not available to obscure all the pale, waving light. A gust of air attaches itself to Marla’s clothes, searching her body like a bouncer as she hauls herself up.
“Stay down!” yells Ben. “Hold the railing on the side.”
And then, suddenly, Marla is on a patch of round steel that is about the diameter of her body. Her fingers find the railing – maybe a foot tall – that runs around the perimeter of the circle, and navigate their way to the vertical supports that anchor the thin strip of metal. She shimmies over so that Ben can follow her through the hatch.
“I know you won’t listen,” says Ben, “but don’t stand up. You don’t need to unless you really, well – unless you just really need to.”
Marla feels the need to pee, but there is no facility present to allow her to do that, and she feels stupid asking Ben for a pit stop. “Look, can I have the hit now? This might be the world’s strangest place for that, but I’m game…”
The hatch closes. It rings like a bell.
“Ben?” asks Marla. “Hi Ben. Open the hatch.”
She closes her eyes. She waits, then: “Ben. Open the hatch.”
Marla starts to count. When she was six, she had insomnia, and a family friend suggested that she count numbers out-of-order. So she does. It starts at twelve and involves every number from zero to two hundred, all completely out of order, all imprinted in a sequence that only Marla knows, and that she suspects might be of importance somehow. She is counting. The numbers whip by. She is six years old again, golden and in a dress, and she is in a convertible, riding along the ocean with an ice cream in her hand. But the numbers end. And she has to open her eyes.
She reaches a hand back and tugs on the hatch cover. It doesn’t move.
“Motherfucker,” she mutters. Options absent, alternatives denuded, she pulls herself towards the railing and looks over the edge.
This, she thinks, is only a city. There are hundreds of them in the world. Thousands. They have been here forever. They are going to last until the end of the world. But the difference is that this one is entirely below her: a million streets, lit with lampposts and headlights, storefronts and traffic signals. The blocks stretch everywhere, some so flat they are indistinguishable from the pavement, others reaching up towards her so grandly that had they been just a bit braver, she might have been able to reach out to touch them. Spotlights circle the city, all of them below her. Sounds climb the concrete of her tower, clomping gargling voices and mechanical noises that rise like pyramids, with only the keenest sounds making it to the top, and those so worn out from the trip that she doesn’t have a clue what they are anymore. Before her, to the south as she sees it, there is a great black emptiness of lake, the sporadic lights upon it just flirting, hinting notations that reflect on themselves and make the blackness all the bigger. In the distance beyond the lake – another city, then another one beyond it, and as far as Marla can see, endless reams of space going off in all directions.
The tower is swaying. She realizes it when she stares at the lake and the shore, sees how they are seemingly moving. A second later, the kebab that she found in a garbage can on Front Street sails out of her mouth, a rainbow bridge arcing over the city until the wind snatches it up and tosses it back at her. Suddenly, there is kebab in her hair and lettuce in her nose. She throws up again, under the railing, letting her lucky meal descend into the faraway lights.
“Ben…” she calls. Her voice is hoarse with acid. She remembers that he took her phone – seemed like such a strange thing to do at the time. “Ben!” she screams, but it’s a puny sound, not even really a sound at all at the top of the world.
“Ah Ben,” she pleads. “Please Ben. I really have to pee.”
She holds it in, knowing that Ben will come for her soon. Purple eyed/green-eyed Ben, who claims that he’s gone straight, and perhaps he has, and maybe this is just his way of scaring Marla so that she will go straight too. It’s a lesson, she thinks – a detoxification next to the stars. But Ben doesn’t come, and all Marla wants is a big roll of twine to wrap around her bladder, telling it to back off, that she’s in control. Marla is sweating. The wind gusts in her face. She grits her teeth and holds onto the metal uprights, breathing against the swaying of the tower.
When the urine comes, it feels warm at first, but cools fast. She lets it all go, until she feels soaked and horrible. She has not showered in days, and now she is coated in her own vomit and pee.
“Close your eyes,” she says to herself. But the stars don’t give her that luxury. “Don’t listen,” she whispers. But every now and then, something that sounds suspiciously like a car horn floats to her altitude, as though this is all a dream and she is about to wake up on a subway grate. “Don’t believe in this,” she continues. But the wind doesn’t care about Marla’s aptitude for belief, any of her convictions (had she any), or where and when she might pick up any of these human characteristics that are commonly not associated with a mindless yet bright blond-haired junkie who refuses to get tattoos because she might pick up a disease. The wind, unfortunately, just blows.
The tower sways under its heightening strength. Marla tips forward. It’s not hard to lock her arms against the mild pitch, stopping herself from sliding forward, but she is ultimately more concerned about the larger view of the city she suddenly has. She can see straight down, or so she thinks, as she sways further and further until she is sure that her added weight has somehow destabilized the very top of the tower enough that it will now simply snap and fall to the ground. It tips until her arms strain, and hangs in space for a moment before it jerks back. The return journey, of course, is much worse. The tower moves backward as though it is on a spring, picking up speed until Marla’s arms straighten and her feet brush the railing behind her. The tower bucks, until Marla feels like she’s holding on to the top of a sheer wall, with nothing behind her but endless equations made of gravity, all of which are strangely strong but not worth a damn in supporting her dangling feet.
Forwards and backwards the tower sways, every time a little bit further. Marla is praying, but all that’s coming out is memorized numbers, zero to two hundred, a secret order she swore must be the key to unlocking some mystery of the world. But not today. Definitely not today.
The first raindrops feel like fingers. “Ben!” she screeches, thinking this is him touching her, but more mad at him than relieved. But Ben doesn’t have a dozen fingers, let alone fifty, let alone a hundred, let alone an ongoing pattering that never ends. It’s falling in sheets as the tower sways, soaking her hair and her clothes, making her heavier still. There is wetness on her hands, seeping along the crevices of her fingers, threatening to neatly lubricate her grip on the metal studs.
Marla’s body slides over the wet surface of the tower’s tip. She crashes hips and elbows and knees against the railing, picking up a bruise each time. When the wind gusts even higher, she is thrust forward and her elbows simply cannot lock. Her face smashes against the railing, knocking out teeth and filling her mouth with blood. Almost, her body flips over the railing and out into the tremendous space of the wind-blown city beneath her. What remains of her mouth she uses to clench the railing, torn-up gums chomping on the metal as her hands wrap themselves around the railing and anchor themselves there.
Torn and bruised, Marla realizes that she never even saw the clouds come in. They just swooped down on her when she wasn’t looking. That makes her laugh. She opens her mouth and drinks the rain, letting the cold water enter her like a waterfall. And still she is laughing, because not three hours ago, she was raiding garbage cans for food, and the single greatest thing that had happened to her in the last month appeared in the form of a quarter-eaten sandwich wrapped in foil – a kebab, one that she has now neatly returned to the hard pavement where it was made.
The tower sways. The rain picks up. And Marla kneels, as though this thing she is on is a boat, and what’s below her is just the ocean. Marla can swim. She knows how. Falling overboard is just a matter of kicking for the surface, she thinks, and emboldened by that thought, she pushes against the railing and stands up.
Perhaps the wind has relented or perhaps Marla has learned the swaying frequency of the tower’s movements, but she doesn’t fall. Instead, she rocks her weight from side to side, following the pitch and heave of the surface. Soon, she is so comfortable with it that she raises her head and drinks more rain – the rain that is making her clean. Hands rip away her clothing and let it flutter into the wind, where it reassembles into a body-shape, a type of Marla that is apparently able to fly. She can see it waving at her, as it slips into the storm and then appears one final time in a flash of lightning.
There are flashes of electricity everywhere, harsh bits of violence that seem anxious to hit her but invariably part into fragments that get lost in the lightning rods below. A bolt slashes so close to her that she could have reached out to touch it – she never realized that lightning was so big, and so cold. Her body tingles as it passes. When the thunder follows, the tower shakes, the rumbles loud enough to make her remaining teeth slam against each other.
“Motherfucker!” she screams, half an inch from being thrown into the wind, where her wingless spirit couldn’t muster a single blessing to save her from the long, downwards drop. Atop the tower, Marla is wild in the storm, arms upraised and screaming as the lightning plunges and the rain plummets and the wind hurtles her back and forth – here, she is the master of all the world even though she has never even been master of her own body.
The storm blows most of the night. It came from no where, and to no where it then recedes. Marla doesn’t see it go. She is lying on the tower top, sleeping, when the clouds break and the wind passes south over the lake. She is dreaming of absolutely nothing, aware of nothing but her own blackness. It is the best sleep she has ever had.
It’s the light that wakes her up. She opens her eyes and inspects her naked body. It is cleaner than she can ever remember, even her hair. The grime is gone. She is shining in the morning.
She stands up. The tower is swaying perhaps an inch from side to side. A siren calls to her from below. A snatch of sun finds its way up from the bottom of the lake, rising like a sunken battleship to the surface, where it spreads with the extent of its own lost treasures, rippling on the waves until the water is alive with light. In the distance, a city. And beyond that, another one.
In between, space and everything that comes with it.
Airplanes are flying overhead now, holding the only people in the world that are higher than Marla. She longs for a hit. Instead, she waves at the great white cruisers as they part left or right over the city.
She breathes the air. It has a hint of spice, maybe gasoline, a measureable quality that is not exactly clean. But it is familiar. She is not sure if it is really possible to smell anything at this altitude. But it doesn’t matter one way or the other, because the city is waking up. She can trace trains along the tracks, planes landing at the island airport in the lake, buses and trucks plodding along the roads. Behind her, in the distance, a mega-highway alive with traffic and mysterious arterial chokings that threaten to stall the morning commute. And while there aren’t other Marlas on other buildings standing in the early sunshine to wave at her, the sun catches these buildings as it ratchets up from its hiding place and makes them all, for moments at a time, golden.
“I’m supposed to jump, aren’t I?” asks Marla. The hatch hasn’t stirred, and she knows somehow that it simply won’t, that Ben isn’t coming for her, or can’t. She walks to the edge of the platform and looks straight down at the long strand of concrete that is holding her up.
Then there is a noise above her, and a large red beast is coming down. Its twin rotors are madness against the blue of the sky, but it is growing larger and appears to know that she is atop the tower. A harness dangles towards the naked girl standing with hands upon her hips, and she takes it gladly. I am still supposed to jump, Marla thinks to herself, as she slips on the harness. But she is sick, so sick, of all the things that he is supposed to do and the spaces that she is supposed to occupy, that she chooses instead – improbably – simply to rise. The morning doesn’t disagree. It’s had its storm, the city below too.
*this video is embedded to encourage you to go out and kick the shit out of whatever it is that ails you. The story, too.