This Kingdom of Beating Hearts

by Raiff Taranday

I’d been living with Lil for half a year when she told me about her twin sister, the one who didn’t have a name because she was never born.  I suppose half a year entitled me to certain privileges.  I could watch her while she painted, I didn’t have to wear a condom when we had sex, and she could explain to me how she entered the world of the living already connected to the world of the dead.   We were in bed in our room at the Fort, our feet capriciously sketching and erasing lines in the sheets, when she told me:

            “It wasn’t even that we were desperately poor.  Mom could’ve kept both of us if she wanted, but she just couldn’t give up that nice condo in the Jersey ‘burbs.  It was a sacrifice on the altar of convenient living.”

            “I didn’t even know you could do that with twins; abort one and keep the other.”

            “Well, it’s not exactly a standard procedure.  I only even found out about it because it made national news.  My folks did a pretty good job of keeping it from me for a while.  But when I was fourteen I had to do a project for school on my family history and there it was.  Turns out I was a headline before I even had time to reject my mom’s left breast.”

            “What was it like when you finally found out?”

            “For a while I kept thinking ‘So this explains everything.  This explains why I’ve never felt like I belong anywhere’, but now I know better.”

            “What do you mean?”

            “That my sister might be one of the things that signify what’s wrong with me, and the circumstance of it puts me in a unique position, but I can’t blame her for the way my life turned out.  I can’t say that she was the cause.  I mean, you don’t have a dead twin, right?”

            “Me?  No way.  My parents were pretty religious.  They’d have never done anything like that.”

            “Did you love them?  Your parents.”

            “I think so.  I knew I wanted to please them.  They were a little strict but they weren’t monsters or anything horrible.  The thing about my parents, the thing is that they both died in a car crash when I was nineteen.  And I remember getting the news and thinking, ‘I should be devastated.  These are the moments when normal people are devastated.’  But I just wasn’t.   I was sorry they were dead and if I could have changed it I would have, but I didn’t fall apart.  I didn’t even come close.  Anyways, why ask about them?”

            “To prove my point.”

            “What point is that, Lil?  You’ve lost me already.”

            “That losing my sister, losing that half of myself, it didn’t make me this way.  Because you don’t have a dead twin.”

            “And I’m the same as you are.”

            “And you’re the same as I am.”


            When I met Lil, I had already been married for eleven months and I was living in Brooklyn.  My wife, Hailee, had led a very disappointing life.  She’d been disappointed by her parents, her boyfriends, her job—all those things you’d expect from someone who told you they’d had a disappointing life.  My great virtue, in her eyes, was my utter inability to generate any expectations large enough to cause her significant disappointment.  We just functioned incredibly well on a day-to-day basis, we were twenty-nine year olds with active professional lives, and we preferred being together to being alone.  I asked her to marry me because she was the first person I’d ever made happy.   That seemed important to me at the time.  I think I did love her, in that same remote way I experienced anything.  It’s not that I don’t have feelings.  It’s just that they seem very far away from me.  I can be angry or sad or even happy, but never in the way other people seem to.  Next to nothing I’ve encountered in this life seemed to justify feeling immediately or passionately.  But I did love my wife.

            I met Lil through my work.  I find art.  It’s what I’m paid to do and I’m uniquely qualified to do it.  It may seem strange, but it really does make sense.  My clients—wealthy collectors and corporate decorators mostly—hire me on commission to locate a piece that will fit a specific space and atmosphere.  Do you need a sculpture for your office lobby to emphasize your imperial command of the industry?  Well, I’ve got a winged tiger pouncing over a globe and it’s made of chrome steel.  Do you need a photo to tastefully demonstrate your social consciousness?  Take a look at this picture of a working class boy-child turning the valve of an enormous techno-industrial apparatus.  When it comes to matters of artistic selection, I am perfectly appointed for the task because I can gage every aesthetic and symbolic value a specific work generates without experiencing a single twinge of personal investment.  The art brings nothing out of me and so I am able to objectively see what it can bring out in anyone else.  No perspective like an outsider’s.

            The point is that I was at a gallery in Chelsea, looking for some abstract piece that would challenge one of my clients without upsetting him, when I saw the painting that told me I wasn’t alone.  Near the back of the room (as if it had all been choreographed), just outside of the light and the crowd, the painting was right there on the wall, though I felt immediately and for the first time that it might as well have come straight out of me.  A simple canvas for a simple design: the delicate interweaving of misty blacks, whites, and grays to suggest the coalescing of a form out of nothingness.  No, not a form, not exactly.  It was like the convergence of nothingness into a different kind of nothingness.  The brushstrokes suggested a figure that might have been the silhouette of a person, or a thousand other things, but despite its inherent possibilities the painting made it clear to me that the potential form would never become anything.  Whatever could emerge from that misty amalgamation would sooner lapse back into nullification than deign to assume a fixed shape.

            I had to meet the artist and I was fortunate because Lil happened to be standing right next to me, viewing me as I viewed her work.  She was willowy and tall—a couple of inches taller than me—with her long, platinum blonde hair and her prominent collarbone.  She was prettier than my wife but that’s not what I really noticed.  It was her stare—undirected and so full of emptiness.  Like her painting, it simultaneously suggested and negated; twin corridors to some great, inviting abyss.  I knew immediately, even before I introduced myself, that I would sleep with her.  I think she knew it too.

            There was no strategy, no seduction.  I would come over to her apartment in the East Village and look at her paintings.  They were all done in the same style; mingling blacks, whites, and grays—all evocative in their own way of something just on the cusp of formlessness.  We would drink or get high, we would converse about utterly forgettable subjects (neither of us were great talkers), and then I would leave before midnight, not wanting more.  For four or five visits it went exactly that way, neither of us feeling like we were building up to any kind of dramatic shift.  And then, during the next visit and in lieu of absolutely nothing, we fucked on her studio floor.

            To say it was the best sex of my life would be misleading as it would imply that the experience could be remotely compared to anything that came before it.  It wasn’t like any sex I’d had or been conditioned to think that I wanted.  Sex with Lil is hard to put in words that make sense but I should at least try.  It was like traveling through a long, abstract tunnel.  And at that tunnel’s end is a warehouse.  It stores every empty room in the entire world and I’m free to walk from one room to the other at my leisure, to touch their walls, to scoop up palm-fulls of their dust, to sit squarely in the middle of each and savor their vacancy. 

            Yes, there is physical pleasure when Lil and I have sex.  A peeping Tom wouldn’t see us doing anything abnormal.  I’m inside of her, matching my rhythm to hers until she comes and then I allow myself to.  But all that seems secondary and incidental to what we allow one another to experience.  I’ve asked Lil what it’s like for her but she won’t tell me.  I know that it must be some version of what happens to me but she’d probably use completely different words to describe it, if she’d even use words at all.

            I always knew in the back of my mind that I would cheat on my wife eventually.  Not that I’d be swept up in some passionate affair, obviously, but more that I’d just end up sleeping with someone that wasn’t her.  Still, I didn’t consider what happened between Lil and me to be cheating.  It wasn’t about love or lust—not the standard varieties of them anyway.  I loved Hailee and I didn’t love Lil, but, ultimately, I suppose that I needed what Lil gave me more than I needed love.  But after a few months Lil insisted that I tell Hailee or she’d break the whole thing off.  I was surprised.  I hadn’t expected her to care.  She said that, while she wasn’t jealous, it was important that she have me to herself—important to her work.  I didn’t really understand, not then, but I did believe she would end things if I didn’t do as she asked.

            Of course, all of this was very poorly timed because Hailee was nine weeks pregnant at the time.  It might be selfish, but I couldn’t stand the thought of giving Lil up, of leaving the warehouse and all its empty rooms unattended.  I needed that time, that space in which I could finally just be, without anyone expecting me to react to the world in a particular way, without having to be like a character in a movie that screams the name of their lost love or dissolves into tears of joy or finally deals the villain a well deserved blow.  I’ve never wanted to shout someone’s name or weep in someone’s arms.  It’s never been necessary.  With Lil I was finally able to stand naked in my detachment.  I had to keep that. 

            It wasn’t premeditated when I told Hailee about Lil.  I mean, I’d resolved to tell her, but not at the particular moment I did.  We were sitting on our couch, talking about our respective days at work and then the words just came out of my mouth.  I explained the situation as best as I could and I hoped she would understand.  I tried to make it clear that it wasn’t a question of love and that she had done absolutely nothing wrong.  I tried but I’ve never been good at making other people understand me.

            My wife got up, went to kitchen, poured herself a glass of water, and came back to the couch.  She drank half the glass, set it down, and knocked it over.  I’m not sure if it was an accident.  I asked her if she’d already known, if she’d suspected.

            “No,” she said.  “I didn’t notice.  I barely notice anything you do.”

            I asked about the baby.  She put a hand on her belly like a shield.  For the thousandth time I felt the world pulling me towards some kind of prearranged drama and my own nature pulling me away from it.

            “She’ll be fine.  That’s a conversation for later but she’ll be fine.  Right now you need to pack whatever you want to take.  Then you should go.”

            I nodded and told her that was fine.


            For a long time I’d been wondering why Lil painted.  Personally, I never found any call towards creative expression.  Did she find something in her emptiness that I couldn’t find in mine?  One day, at some point in those first weeks after we’d left New York, I finally asked her.  She answered:

            “I paint as an exploratory utility.”

            “Lil, I have no idea what that even begins to mean.”

            “This might strike you as a bit of byzantine symbolism, but I think of myself as more of a cartographer than a painter.”

            “A map-maker?”

            “Yeah, that’s what a cartographer is, yutz.  Except what I’m charting is myself.  If I was a map, you’d have all the old, familiar geography you’d expect to see there, except right down the middle there’d be this huge swatch of black.  You’d have mountains, tundra, desert, and then darkness.  Glaciers, cities, fjords—”


            “Fjords and darkness.  There’d just be this big impenetrable expanse smack in the middle of all the normal shit.  I think that when I paint, I’m just trying to trace the boundaries of that darkness.  Each painting makes the margins clearer.  Eventually, I’ll be able to chart the borders of that territory in every dimension.”

            “Then what?”

            “Then I’ll finally know the shape of what I’m missing.”

            “Funny, it reminds me a little of something I once heard about the English coastline.”

            “Alright.  Tell me what you mean while I do this thing to your thing like we were a normal couple.  But I’ll be listening.

            “Woah.  Okay.  Well, basically that the English coastline is immeasurable.  All these nooks and crannies—inlets, whatever, you’re the cartographer—the damn UK’s just too jagged, too evasive.  But more than being immeasurable it’s also fairly inestimable.  It changes too much with the tides and erosion and whatever else it is that changes things where the ocean meets the land.  Faster please.  S-so no one can ever make even an accurate guess that’ll really hold up over time.  I think that’s what it’s like with people and what’s inside of them.  Can’t be measured.  C-can’t be estimated.  Oh.  My.  A-ah.  That’s why it seems like, like you couldn’t ever get the, get, uh …ah… couldn’t ever get the shape.”

            “You know you taste better than most guys.”

            “Like sweeter?  Spicier?”

            “No.  Neither of those.”

            “Figures.  So, you’ve done that to a lot of lucky fellas?”

            “Yeah, a lot of them.  You’re the only guy I could have sex with more than once without everything falling apart.   None of the others seemed to enjoy the near-death experience lay like you do.  But I never stopped liking how men responded to me or their idea of me.  It always confirmed a lot of things.  Does that make you jealous?”

            “No.  That’s not something that ever happens with you.  With my wife, with other girls, I’d feel territorial or upset, even if it was just a little, whenever they talked about their histories with men.  I’d wonder if their sex had been better or if they’d let those other guys do stuff to them that they wouldn’t let me do.  But this, with us, it’s ten-thousand miles away from all that.  No one’s ever had you like I have you.”

            “Mm-hmm.  You’re right about that but you’re very wrong about what you said with your so-cool fucking coastline metaphor.  It doesn’t apply to what I do with my painting.”


            “Because the things that I can know or see clearly inside myself, they do shift all the time, that’s true.  But the thing that I’m missing, whatever it is, it never changes.  The borders of that territory are etched in the Earth’s deepest stone.”

            “I think I understand.  Hey Lil?”


            “You can run and wash out your mouth now.  I don’t know why you haven’t already.”

            “Didn’t want to insult you by dashing off.”

            “How very gracious of you.”


            Lil told me that we had to get out of New York as soon as possible.  She said that she knew exactly where we had to go.  She had leased a room in an actual fortress, a relic of the Civil War, on the Maine coast, and had renovated it into a studio.  She only paid three hundred dollars a month in rent.  She said it was perfect.  It occurred to me that this all seemed too meticulously planned, that there was no real reason to leave the city, but I couldn’t find it in me to resist her.  She wanted me to go with her and I went.  We were there less than a week after I left Hailee (or, more accurately, Hailee made me leave).  I’d taken as little of my savings as I could to see myself through the coming year and left the rest for Hailee and her baby.  I didn’t think I’d need longer than a year, no matter what happened.  Lil and I established ourselves in the fort and in almost complete silence we began going about the business of liberating ourselves from this kingdom of beating hearts.

            She would paint every day with a resolve I’d never found for anything.   She covered the walls and the exposed pipes with her paintings and charcoal sketches.  I remember telling her that this space would have been perfect for a half dozen of my clients.  She just shrugged and asked if I was still thinking about all that.  After a moment’s consideration, I shook my head and sat in contemplation of her paintings.  I’m not sure if I imagined it, but the converging forms which her work had once only gestured at now seemed to take on a solidity they never had before.  Maybe she was right after all.  Maybe she was going to find the shape of what she was missing.  All that was her business.

            Lil went on long, lonely walks in the little harbor town outside, vigorously avoiding any conversation save the one between the soles of her feet and the ground beneath them.  I’d stay in the apartment, surrounded by the paintings, by all the half-formed possibilities that emerged from the misty void inside of her.  I’d listen to her old records—jazz and classical, mostly.  I slowly became addicted to one specific song, Gustav Mahler’s Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen, and I listened to it over and over.

            We’d eat noodles and vegetables.  We’d drink water.  We slept on a cot with a single blanket and made minimal use of a space-heater.  Mostly, we’d have sex.  Three or four times every day.  During her period, she’d take out her tampon and we’d have sex in the shower down the hall from our room.  It wasn’t that we’d dedicated ourselves to hedonism.  In fact, the physical component of our love-making seemed less and less present.  We had a purpose in all this.  We were following a conduit within Lil, one she had been born with.  Her sister was a deathly pale maiden on a distant shore, singing calmly and steadily, beckoning both of us.  If we held onto one another, if we joined our bodies and refused to let go, we could eventually find her.  For the first ten months, neither of us gave voice to the idea or tried to express what it was we were attempting, because that would have meant admitting insanity even though both of us knew exactly what was happening. It was only a matter of time, of following that steady rhythm as it sang to us: vanish, vanish, vanish.

            I keep this diary, these words written by a nowhere man from a nothing place, signifying just as much.  Part of me imagines that one day Hailee’s baby might find it and read it.  Will they understand me, understand why I could never be there?  I hope not.  Still, it’s the least I owe them.  I’ll keep writing until my capacity fades or my fingers grow too insubstantial to hold a pen.


            Waves shutter against the rocks outside.  I’ve reached the end of the corridor.  I’m in the warehouse.  A seagull cries in the distance.  Something is different about the rooms today.  I feel her fingernails tracing tiny circles on the small of my back.  The rooms are just as empty as ever but instead of exploring them one at a time as I always have, I feel like I’m standing in all of them simultaneously.  She’s warm and wet and stretched against me.  I’ve become a million flickering motes in a million vacant rooms.  She gasps quietly, biting my shoulder as our bodies buck together, completing the ritual.  I have almost diffused completely into the emptiness, but I somehow float back to myself, even in the absence of conscious volition.  We’re not quite there yet.  I roll off of her.  For the first time in the year since we came to the fort, I try to articulate what’s happening to me:

            “I feel less real each time and it’s getting faster.  Soon I’ll just be vapor.”

            “Does that seem so bad?”

            “I really don’t think so.”

            “When all substance is transfigured into spirit, we’ll be able to see how silly all the fears and barriers in this world really were.  Hocus Pocus.  Hoc est corpus.”

            “But there’s no world besides this one, Lil.  No life but the one we have right now.”

            “You know you’re wrong.  There is somewhere else, some place other.  There’s another world and you see it every time we make love.  A world inanimate, free from motion, free from sense.”

            “This is insane.”

            “It is what it is.  It’s what we both want.”

            “You don’t paint anymore.”

            “I don’t need to.  I know the shape of what I’m missing.  I see it whenever I look at you.”

            “That’s crap.  We don’t complete one another.”

            “You’re right.  The same parts of us are empty.  They’re identical, so they don’t fill one another.  They just overlap.  Two negations, negating one another.”

            “I have a daughter I’ll never see.”


            “I hope to Christ that she’s not like us.  I hope that whatever it is that lets someone live freely and totally without feeling like you’re half in the world and half out of it, I hope she has it.  I hope she gets to be more than a fucking ghost.”

            “Oh, she’ll be as incomplete as anybody, but you can hope that she’ll carry it better than we did.”

            “I do.  I really do.”

            “Well, that’s good for you.  But that’ll pass too.  You’ll see.  It won’t be long.”


            The walls are barren.  The pipes are exposed, skeletal.  I don’t ask where all her paintings have gone.  We haven’t left the room in ten days.  There is no smell.  There is no hunger.  We drift into one another, coupling and disengaging without any concern for pleasure or sensation.  I, in whatever capacity that largely meaningless pronoun now signifies anything, find that the warehouse is always present.  We don’t need each other anymore.  We’ve become the walls of an empty room.  The dust on the floor.  The very emptiness itself.  I do not remember where I have been before this room (these rooms) except as a kind of dream-prologue that guided me here.  There is no motion.  There is no sense.  We are a vague haze of flesh colored mist.  Soon we will dim into blacks and whites and grays.  Soon we will not even be that. 

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