EXILE, part 1: Yearning (Lisa 1971)
If all else perished and he remained, I should still continue to be; and if all else remained and he was annihilated, the universe would turn into a mighty stranger; I should not seem a part of it.
~Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights
For some months now Father has observed with alarm the way that not only Vincent, but other boys have begun to look at her.
Lisa has begun to notice this too, that boys are looking at her, boys Above as well as Tunnel boys. She finds this male attention funny, at first, then somewhat flattering; but it’s mostly just irrelevant, the earthier implications of those guilty gazes that shift away or drop altogether when challenged by her frank stare. In truth, for the most part boys are simply loud, silly, and obnoxious, except for Vincent.
Except for Vincent. A changeling like herself, an oddity, cut from an alien cloth, stronger, stranger, deeper, rare. Vincent is proof that she was meant to survive her unsurvivable early life. His presence keeps the memories at bay. Vincent is her family, her pack, her anchor to this world, her touchstone to the possibilities of another. He is her home, the only one she’s ever had, and has been so from the moment she first saw his face.
She knows it’s the same for Vincent; from the very start, when in one another’s presence they have flowed effortlessly together along the hurting, raggedy edges of their otherness to become one shining new creature, an integrated whole, subject only to itself.
More than that, he is the only person she will ever be able to trust; because people are confusing and so casually cruel; so quick to scold and condemn. Disturbed by her craving for velocity and her impatience with the surfaces of things, their reflex is to punish; to cage her, to starve her of flight, and she knows too well that her life would have been brief and brutal without Vincent, without the way he holds her in his gaze and always has– containing her completely yet pushing her to believe in dimensions to her life that she would never have dreamed of for herself.
She suspects she knows why Father has so strenuously discouraged this connection from her earliest days in the Tunnels: because you believe I am not good enough for Vincent, she thinks. You are certain of it.
But he has not convinced Vincent of this, not yet.
Because Vincent truly sees and loves this wild thing she is. The way he looks at her has made her understand there is a place for her in this world, and in that place she is clean, and whole, and beautiful…
And a dancer, for it is Vincent who gave her the music box.
He bartered his dearest treasures for it shortly after she first came to live in the tunnels, sickly and frail, battered and burned, crawling with lice and unable to speak. It is Vincent who taught her to use music to ease her tortured little body free of its scarred and painful strictures while she slowly healed, supporting her under her arms, gently positioning her tiny blistered feet atop his furred ones then slowly circling the room to the music so she could feel what it was to follow that music freely through space– to dance. When the music box wound down to silence, she would cling to Vincent and issue ear-splitting shrieks until some unfortunate soul rushed to wind it up again, usually cursing Vincent all the while (inwardly, if Father were nearby) for having ever presented her with it.
Ten years later, willowy and lithe, it is she who leads, and Vincent, now in the throes of heartbreakingly self-conscious adolescence, who follows, or tries to. His lack of dancing prowess has over these past several months become frustrating in a new and exciting way. Something about the growing solidity of his frame against hers, and his soulful, silent concentration on her movements even as he hesitates, puts her in a kind of trance in which she finds herself yearning for that awkward bump of the hip; for a jostle or misstep bringing him full-weight against her; for the sweet pressure of his arm— or chest, or back— against her tender new breasts; for fragrant locks of his unbound mane to slide across her face; for the blushing collisions, his increasingly muscled legs tangled up in hers.
Though Vincent seems shyly oblivious to his effect on her, even the anticipation of such touches sends chimes of budding desire ringing through her and she has begun to imagine how it would be to kiss him. Having never done any actual kissing, she dreamily fantasizes about feather-light half-embraces flowing from each improvised pas de deux, sweetly building from cheek kisses to the first soft slow kiss on the mouth. But that’s where things become hazy.
Because the limited amount of actual mouth kissing she has witnessed looks sloppy, and awfully wet; certainly not something she can imagine ever being enjoyable, though it could be possible that, like ballet, perhaps truly inspired kissing is an undertaking that requires exhaustive practice with a variety of partners of differing levels of skill before one can be said to be truly proficient at it. And she very much wants to be proficient at it, preferably stellar, before she risks such an encounter with Vincent.
There are three immediate obstacles to acquiring this proficiency. The first is that although, along with the other Tunnel girls, she had when younger practiced ardent kissing on her pillow and on her arm she knows very well that neither of these are sufficient preparation for something this important.
The second is that she has no intention of accepting one of the invitations to acquire said proficiency from any of the contingent of Tunnel boys who lurk about, smitten and eternally hopeful.
That leaves only Vincent to practice on, but she understands instinctively that unlike with other boys, for Vincent there can be no such thing as a casual kiss, or a half-joking practice kiss attempted on a dare that she can change her mind about partway into and withdraw, shrieking with laughter, with no harm done.
For Vincent, she senses, the harm endured from what he would inevitably perceive to be rejection— or worse— would be catastrophic and permanent; and this must be why he has never tried to kiss her. It is why she must kiss him. She knows him better than she knows herself so she fully grasps the significance a kiss will hold for him, inexpert though it is sure to be, which is why she must seem confident, ready— committed to the kiss— so he will be able to overcome his self-consciousness and trust not only her, but himself. She knows that once they have been intimate in this way his beating heart will lie forever bare in the palm of her hand, so it is crucial that the moment be perfect.
She has decided tonight must be the night; Vincent has eagerly agreed to spot her in lifts. If she waits any longer she will lose her nerve, because of the third and most formidable obstacle:
* * *
Although it is late the Reverend Mother herself is waiting for Lisa, and attends to her shoulder in the mission’s small infirmary. She wonders about the girl’s mute stoicism as her painful wounds are dressed; though the blood loss is not life-threatening the girl is clearly in shock. She attempts to offer comfort. Father might come around in time, suggests the older woman kindly. You have the most important thing in common– Vincent’s happiness; it is so paramount to you both. Just give it time. No matter how angry he has been tonight, one day Father will see this too.
But on the subject of Vincent, Father sees only what he chooses to see, ever more so since Devin left.
How did it go so disastrously wrong, so fast? She struggles to order her thoughts. The point of no return— when had it happened?
Was it the moment Vincent had exploded at Father, fully prepared to fight him— fight Father!— in order to follow her, to claim her?
Or was it the moment before that, when his deepest most primal fear came true? When he saw the look on her face, smelled the blood streaming from her wounds, and he realized that he— her protector— had become, like predators before him, her abuser?
Or was it even before that, the moment when, tilting her face to Vincent’s for the kiss she knew would change everything, Father’s wrathful face appeared in her peripheral vision as he lunged to stop her and she suddenly understood that he had been standing there watching them all along, ready to intervene? The fury and revulsion she felt at this invasion had caused her to jerk back violently, a fight-or-flight reaction that turned to animal panic when Vincent, shocked and wounded by her sudden recoil, involuntarily tightened his grip on her, unaware of Father’s presence behind him.
More likely it was already too late 10 years earlier, when Vincent and Devin had managed to coax her away from the thin and limping mother dog who had kept her alive, and down into the Tunnels to sanctuary. You have a home now, here with us.
But Father has never been able to bring himself to love her and now there will be no more pretending that away. Regarding her at best as a wild child, chafing at any and all of his efforts at restraint, since Lisa has begun to come of age Father has no longer been able to hide his growing unease and mistrust of her. When Father looks at her he sees not a cherished daughter but a siren, a temptress, and worse. There are many words for what Father sees when he looks at her, and they all mean the same thing:
Cruel images crowd in on her, scrambling her sense of time. Burn the witch! Burn her. Memories of her life before Vincent found her threaten to escape the black hole she keeps them in. With effort she dispels the ghastly images from her mind but the pain remains.
Though she has always known this day was coming, still she is scalded by the certainty of it, and in her mind’s eye she sees herself atop a flaming pyre, Father’s fear and hostility the fuel of her undoing. As if I had bewitched your son with dark arts, she thinks bitterly. As if it were impossible that she could be good for Vincent; as if it were unthinkable that Vincent could ever love someone like her, a rebel and free-spirit too much like Devin— unable to sit still, impatient with books, the passion shared by Father and Vincent– she is no intellect, Vincent; no scholar; said by Father in a low tone of dismay he did not think Lisa could hear… but worst of all, most damning: she is sensual and exuberant, enjoying a dancer’s connection to and comfort with her body, and in daring to love Vincent she encourages the same in him– this may be what Father finds most unforgivable.
A part of her she keeps pressed far down in her mind knows too well that in an earlier time, Father might have gone to Church-sanctioned extremes to protect his son from the imagined threat posed by her kind– whatever word you wish to use for it, Father— and the events of this night would have cost her her life.
You were the only father I have ever known but I was never your daughter, she thinks, gritting her teeth against the hot sting of tears. You never wanted me and now you’re rid of me. You waited and you watched us until at last we gave you your excuse.
It doesn’t matter now. The night’s events have certainly sealed her fate, and Vincent’s.
The implications of this too awful to accept, she takes refuge from the grief that threatens to consume her by embracing the forbidden, icy clarity of her rage, the survival mechanism she has tried so hard for so long to bury, and failed.
Her life has changed unrecognizably from her dark beginnings… or has it?
What does survival look like, now?
Without Vincent she cannot picture it.
She tries again to focus her thoughts, only dimly aware that the Reverend Mother’s lips are moving, that she is looking kindly at Lisa, that she has put an arm around the silent girl and is attempting to draw her from the room and coax her to rest. It is night, it is late; it is understood that Lisa will spend the night here and begin her journey in the morning. Numbly, she submits to being led away and put to bed, like a child.
The Reverend Mother, however, will not sleep tonight. What is to happen next for the girl is in God’s hands, but here on earth there are a flurry of international phone calls to be made.
She checks the fob at her waist and quickly calculates. It is still an hour til sunrise in Milan.
She cannot sleep.
Gone. All gone.
She is exiled. As if she were a demon, a succubus, expelled. Cast out.
No. What Father has done tonight is a new and worse cruelty, far worse. She has been disowned. The shock and the hurt of it resurrect an old and unendurable pain.
She sees it now: their dream is not just over. It was never going to be more than just a dream, not for Vincent. Father has seen to it in every detail.
Gone, their private vision for themselves, the secret tapestry, woven over many years, that was to have been their lives together. Gone, their conviction that it was possible for them to claim their happiness in both worlds. Gone, the rich and extraordinary twinned life they had staked their future on. The thrilling and celebrated career Vincent had convinced her was her destiny, the career that was to have whirled her out into the world to grab up great armfuls of life’s treasure and bring it back again and again to share with him, to say to him in ways words never could, you have given me everything. Wait for me and I will bring you the whole world and more—
—Father had taken steps to set that career in motion in a way that ensured it would seem she had deliberately chosen it over Vincent.
Pulses of heat-lightning rage illuminate the old ghosts inside her; all around her, the close darkness of the narrow bed and small room threaten to suffocate her. It’s more than just the strangeness of the unfamiliar. It’s more than the desolate silence where nattering pipes should be. She cannot stop the pictures in her head.
Father could not have planned this all in one night, she realizes now. Where Vincent is concerned, Father is playing the long game. It is brilliant, it is diabolical, and when the finality, the ruthless inevitability of it hits her, something deep inside her breaks, very quietly, a forewarning of all the breaking that is to come. She knows she doesn’t have much time before this blessing, this gift of numb shock wears off and she is returned to the grip of the dark horrors that own her, that lay claim to her long ago and from which, after tonight, Vincent will never again be able to protect her simply with his presence.
Vincent. Vincent. She has to go back, she must see him one last time. She cannot let Father take that away.
—but what if afterward, Vincent were to say no? no don’t go? As if the choice were hers to make?
For he does not know what she knows: that the choice has never been in their hands, that every moment they have had together has been borrowed against this day. Vincent does not see the invisible trapdoors Father has built into the world he has with such devotion constructed for and around his miraculous foundling child.
Father knows his son; he knows, as does Lisa, that Vincent would never beg her to stay. Father’s plan for her depends upon the certainty that Vincent, her passionately unselfish champion, would never ask her to give up the dreams he himself has instilled in her, because he is the reason for all of them.
My only love, she thinks; my secret beauty, you must know that as long as I live I will have no other Muse.
But what if it’s too late already? What if Father has convinced him that leaving is her idea— that she wants to leave— that she is angry, or frightened, or— worse— revolted, after what happened?
What if Vincent believes it?
White hot fear grips her now, and she throws back the covers, feeling around in the dark for her boots and her clothes, her movements quick and sure with purpose. There isn’t much time. She must fly to him now, this minute.
She is out the window in a flash, slipping nimbly as a cat through the lacy shadow-play of the ornate balustrade and down the fire escape and lightly to the ground, running back to him,
back to Vincent,
one last time,
end part 1
to read Exile, part 2: Love and Fate (Lisa 1971) click here: