“Dead Again, Billy” by Ari Lieberman charmingly chronicles an encounter between two dense, almost autistic characters who are somehow predestined to make a connection. Billy and Cynthia are like a pair of shoes that fit only the right foot. The world they inhabit is absurd and even grotesque, and yet it lies not far from that of the readers, who may fluctuate between horror and scorn at the sight of this grotesqueness. This early story is a sort of introduction to the reading experience offered by Lieberman’s novel Out of the Blue (published in early 2014), which established this writer as one of the most interesting and brilliant voices in contemporary Israeli literature.
Billy Comes to Visit
She couldn’t look at him, but why? He had never disgusted her before. There were times, yes, when she wasn’t very attracted to him, because, as she had confessed to her friends from the start, Billy was not a very handsome boy. But now there was something about him that made her almost puke.
He said, “Are you okay?”
She said, “I don’t feel well.”
He made her take Tylenol, and he sat beside her till she said she was better.
“Billy,” she said.
Billy Spits in the Sink
Billy was sick, but really sick, and would be dead the next morning. His nose was red; his cheeks were swollen. He went to the bathroom and discharged a generous amount of phlegm into the sink.
This phlegm was multicolored, and he knew it was bad news, a sign of something, but what? When it first appeared, months earlier, the color was mild and he made nothing of it; he attributed it to candy, too many Lifesavers and Jolly Ranchers. But every day the phlegm grew wilder, thicker, more abundant, more colorful till, three days ago, he ran in a panic to the doctor.
Billy Consults a Doctor
He waited in a tiny sterile creepy examining room for hours, or what seemed like hours. The nurse had made him sit on a tall bunk and Billy’s legs dangled nervously, searching for somewhere to rest. On the walls info-posters describing glaucoma, melanoma, herpes, syphilis, gonorrhea, scurvy, pneumonia, muscular dystrophy, asthma, schizophrenia, leprosy, rabies, heart disease, and gangrene made Billy intolerably aware that the world was not a nice place at all, and his legs didn’t know what to do with themselves. They kicked and jerked and crossed each other.
The nurse had questioned him first, in a different little examining room, and when she asked what color was his phlegm and Billy said multicolored, she went pale. She said, “I don’t like that.”
So when the doctor finally appeared and inserted a light-flashing gadget in his mouth and ears and took his pulse and blood pressure and heard his lungs and his heart beat and smiled and said it was nothing, just a viral infection, Billy couldn’t believe it.
He said, “I’m not going to die?”
The doctor lost her smile, for one second, then regained it. “Don’t be silly,” she said. Her teeth: spotless symmetrical white beautiful teeth.
It was not so much her diagnosis that had pacified him but her smile, so warm, and teeth so immaculate.
She said, “You know, you shouldn’t say things like that. Some people might take you seriously. It’s just a sore throat. Gargle salt water and take some nasal decongestant, and Tylenol to reduce fever.”
Outside the Clinic Billy Broods
However, having stepped out of the clinic, Tylenol in one pocket and nasal decongestant in another, Billy began to doubt the beautiful doctor’s beautiful prognosis, and the reason for this was that among her spotless teeth and miracle smile he had detected, on the right-hand side of her upper lip, three hairs: which were not so dark or thick, but they were there, proof that everything was not all right.
Clara Screams at Billy
Three days later, but hours before he came to visit Cynthia, Clara burst into Billy’s office and demanded an explanation for his incompetent behavior. He had misplaced a Henderson document in the Mendelssohn file and a Mendelssohn document in the Henderson file. Et cetera. The data room was a mess; his office was a wreck; he would stay after work today and tomorrow if need be and put everything back in order.
Billy might have pointed out, had his boss not burst out of the office as soon as she finished growling, that there would be no Billy to put everything back in order because Billy was dying.
Billy Kicks a Pebble all the Way to Cynthia’s
Cynthia lived a hundred and fifty blocks away, in Washington Heights, and Billy had never not taken the train. Today he decided to walk. Outside his office building Billy found a pebble, perfectly round, or ovoid rather; someone must have fished it from the river. He kicked the pebble as he walked, first to see how far it would go, then with a sense of purpose, as if the fate of several planets depended on kicking that pebble all the way to Cynthia’s building on Broadway and 186th Street.
And as he walked and kicked the pebble he spat, blessing the sidewalk with gold, emerald green, violet, azure, vermilion, and so forth.
Billy Admires His Deadly Phlegm in the Sink
In the bathroom at Cynthia’s, Billy now considered that perhaps the doctor had been right, despite her evil lip, and he wasn’t dying after all.
He looked at the phlegm in the sink and thought he had never seen such beautiful colors. Maybe he had swallowed a rainbow. Ha, that was funny.
Billy Turns the Light Off
“Turn off the light, Billy.”
He sat on the bed again, and she heard the phlegm in his mouth, which made her almost puke again.
“Will you stop?” she said.
“What?” he said.
He waited a while; then he kissed her on the forehead and said, “I love you.”
Billy Makes Love with Buddha
Five minutes later, despite his illness, he was slipping off her clothes and sliding into her. To keep from puking, because she could hear the revolting phlegm in his throat, Cynthia pretended she was as far away as Burma or Mozambique and focused on the plastic Buddha on the bookshelf, till he finished his thing and she ran to the bathroom.
Cynthia Takes a Shower
Her womb felt polluted, full of his phlegm, his goop. She shut tight her eyes and rinsed her lower self, and out came such motley, such magnificently colorful semen, you would have sworn she was giving birth to a school of tropical fish.
Billy and Cynthia Fall in Love
This was over a year before. She was fresh out of college and had just moved to the city. She walked into a toy store to buy a present for her five-year-old cousin. She bumped into a guy and said, “Excuse me.” He was studying the toy trains so absorbedly that she became interested.
She said, “I’m looking for a train.”
“For yourself?” said Billy. He couldn’t believe it. A girl? A train lover?
“For my cousin. He’s five.”
Billy suggested Thomas the Tank Engine.
She said, “Do you work here?”
He said, “No.”
She said, “Oh.”
Billy explained his passion for toy trains. He said he built toy trains himself, wooden trains because wood was the best thing in the world, and wanted to start a toy train factory, only he didn’t have the money.
She got Thomas the Tank Engine and wrote down her phone number on Billy’s palm.
It was Like Dying
On their first date Billy told Cynthia about his awful breakup, how he was still hurting. Her name? Rashida. She was half Egyptian.
“It was like…” He didn’t know how to describe it, how awful he felt, how empty and lost. “It was like…”
Billy Builds a Toy Train
He carved this one out of cherry wood, for Cynthia. It was an N-scale model of the Komet Locomotive with six boxcars, the train that Bismarck took to Versailles in 1871 to meet and vanquish Napoleon III following the Franco-Prussian War. The toy comprised fifty-seven different parts: chimney, boiler, smokebox, wheels, connecting rods, pipes, buffers, valves, pegs, cogs, pistons, and a little engineer at the front.
Melissa and Clarissa Fall in Love with Billy
Melissa and Clarissa were in Mozambique, teaching English and sexual hygiene, when they got a long e-mail from Cynthia describing Billy’s toy train fascination in such vivid, delicate detail that they both fell instantly in love with him.
Cynthia and Billy Play Ping Pong
In Cynthia’s sparsely furnished flat there was a ping pong table. In the beginning all they did was play ping pong, and Billy talked about locomotives and the moon and Cynthia thought this was the most beautiful boy anyone had ever fished out of a toy store.
Cynthia Writes to Her Mother
The two were very close. Cynthia wrote to her mother and described Billy in wonderful colors. Billy was an excellent boy. Billy didn’t mind (the first of her boyfriends not to mind) that she was not skinny. On the contrary, he exalted her plump beauty and said he would not trade that baby flesh, as he called it, for the likes of Audrey Hepburn or Cameron Diaz.
Cynthia’s Parents Desire to Meet Her New Boyfriend
Cynthia’s parents lived in Boston. They were eager to meet this exotic, locomotive-loving catch. But their daughter would not share him with anyone just yet.
Billy Writes to His Friend Gustavo in New Orleans
Gustavo, Billy’s last remaining friend from college, was living in New Orleans around this time. He received a letter from Billy, who described Cynthia in such warm and pleasant lines that Gustavo called off the date he had for that evening and soon afterward broke up with the girl he was seeing because she was too skinny.
Billy Meets Melissa and Clarissa
When Clarissa and Melissa returned from Mozambique they went straight to Cynthia’s, to meet her delicious boyfriend and play with his toy trains.
But when they met Billy, though he showed them dozens of toy trains he had made, including one that ran on vegetable oil, they were not impressed. Melissa thought that he was not very nice. Clarissa thought he had a stupid smile.
Billy Meets Cynthia’s Parents
A week after introducing her boyfriend to her friends, Cynthia brought Billy to Boston to meet her parents.
Her parents, both professors of economics (he at Boston University, she at Emerson College), were not impressed with Billy and his passion for toy trains, and each provided Cynthia with an original metaphor to illustrate their position.
“Your future,” said her father, “is a firmament blessed with brilliant celestial bodies, among which Billy does not twinkle.”
Her mother said, “Cynthia, I can tell you because I have a very keen sense of smell that, like all things organic, relationships are transitory, some more than others, and this particular one has quite frankly breathed its last. The sooner you get rid of the corpse, the lesser the stench of decay.”
Cynthia Takes a Good Look at Billy
Cynthia took a good look at Billy after that and decided she did not love him. However, to prove to herself that the corpse, as her mother had put it, was not yet a corpse, she bought Billy a CD of João Gilberto and inscribed on the cover: For Billy, the love of my life.
Cynthia Says She Loves Him
“I love you, Billy.”
Cynthia Says She Loves Him
“I love you, Billy.” And she hugged him tight. And she said he was the best Billy (for there had been others: William Gorlitsky in the eleventh grade and William Levi in college).
Cynthia Says She Loves Him
“I love you, Billy,” louder, louder, and with every “I love you” she loved him a little less, till the very last “I LOVE YOU” burst in her face like an overblown bubblegum.
Cynthia Says She Isn’t Sure
Yes, she had to admit it. After visiting her parents in Boston something had been lost, or stolen, or forgotten. Cynthia looked at her future, and Billy simply wasn’t there. She had to tell him, but she wasn’t cruel and she wasn’t blunt.
She said, “Billy, I think I may join the Peace Corps, like Melissa and Clarissa, and go to Mozambique for a year or two.”
She also said, “Maybe I’ll go to law school at Berkeley.”
But Billy promised to follow her.
“Look, Billy,” she said, “I don’t think this is it.”
“It?” said Billy.
“I’m not sure this is it,” said Cynthia.
“I don’t get it,” he said.
And Billy walked home, dejected.
But before he arrived, Cynthia had called and left a message on his answering machine: “Billy, I love you. I take it back.”
Billy burst into tears.
Cynthia’s Mother Intrudes
“Be sensible, Billy,” Cynthia’s mother said to herself, in her office at Emerson College. “The corpse has been rotting before your eyes for months. Now it’s time to smell it. Your relationship, such as it is, with my daughter is strictly situational, locational, and cannot sustain the larger realities of life, such as future education, geographical separation, professional advancement, marriage, and so forth. She is twenty-three, fresh out of college; you are thirty-three, professionless, futureless; you play with toy trains.”
There had to be, thought Cynthia, a gentler way to get rid of him.
Cynthia’s Mother Thinks
In her office at Emerson College Cynthia’s mother had begun to daydream and there he was: Billy, a burglar, breaking into her head. Ah, but she had caught him. Stop! He was smiling at her timidly, but also devilishly, priapically, and when one of her students knocked on her door and pricked this reverie-bubble the professor was all wet.
Cynthia Writes a Book in her Head Called Happiness
In the future Billy and I will be best friends. I will be extra nice to him. He will be my big brother. We will go dancing at The Cocoanut. We will hang out in coffee shops. We will talk. We will say, “Our breakup, so long ago, was a lyrical rather than dramatic breakup, and left behind not a trace of bitterness.”
Billy Begins to Wonder
But back in Cynthia’s apartment, while she was in the shower, Billy began to wonder. Why was she being cold to him? He felt a touch of it inside her, an ice cube at the end of the tunnel.
Cynthia opened her eyes and got out of the shower. She sat on the bed, but wouldn’t look at him.
“Cynthia?” Billy said.
“What.” She was looking out the window.
“What is it, Billy.”
“What’s going on?”
Cynthia Pukes on Billy
She couldn’t even look at him. His face was bloated, repulsive.
But why? She didn’t know; she didn’t care. He was repulsive; he was repulsive. He just was.
“What is it, Billy?” She stared at her knees. “What do you want?”
“Why won’t you look at me?”
She wouldn’t answer.
“Are you angry?”
She stared at her knees.
“Look at me,” he said.
So she forced herself. She turned around and there was his face, six inches from her own, smiling stupidly with his red nose and the phlegm in his throat making repulsive noises. She puked on him.
He went to the bathroom to rinse himself off, and then she went in, and when they were both back in her room she said, “I’m nauseous. It’s the fish I ate tonight.”
Cynthia Goes to Bed
“Please, Billy. I’m tired. I want to go to sleep.”
He wanted to say something, like he loved her despite her bad mood.
All that phlegm in his throat. Something was wrong, but what? It felt like an ocean in his head; when he closed his eyes he saw billows crashing into crags.
Vermeer Bursts into Tears
In the bathroom again Billy spat prodigious amounts of phlegm into the sink, prolific amounts: such honest greens, such sad yellows, such golden browns, such wounded reds, such prudent purples, such tasty oranges, such extraterrestrial blues that Vermeer, had he seen this phlegm, would have burst into tears.
Billy Takes a Bath
A bath and to bed, Billy.
Billy filled up the tub and got in. Billy took a big breath and submerged, and held it there for as long as he could, and again, and again. How soothing, how warm, how like a fish he felt, forgetting all about lice and frogs and blood and pestilence and Pharaoh and Clara and his almost beautiful doctor and the death warrant on her lip and Cynthia’s ice cubes, letting everything that wasn’t Billy melt away, melt away. Later he floated face up, dipping his hands in the water, and he focused on the tickly film dividing the airy world from the aquatic, and he blessed it, and he licked it, and he drank it, and he focused on the glug glug glug of the water that kissed the tub.
Billy Goes to Bed
Cynthia was sound asleep as Billy as he laid himself beside her and drifted off.
She woke up at ten o’clock. It was Sunday and she wished she had slept a little longer, but there was Billy and she couldn’t. She brushed her teeth and had a big bowl of Honey Nut Cheerios and went to the corner store to buy cigarettes and when, by eleven-thirty, Billy hadn’t moved she poked him in the back and found, after three or four pokes, that he was dead.
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