Zoe Leonard (b. 1961), detail of Strange Fruit (for David), 1992-97. Image courtesy the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Photograph by Graydon Wood.

Zoe Leonard (b. 1961), detail of Strange Fruit (for David), 1992-97. Image courtesy the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Photograph by Graydon Wood.


Something Like Drowning

by Alexa Brahme

There were ears in every bathroom of the house. Slick, white ears carved out of soap because John was practicing for his surgical specialty interview, a craniofacial surgery fellowship. All the other fellows before him had warned about the ear thing. He’d have to carve one out of soap on the spot.

“It’s not so bad,” one surgeon told him when John confessed to being nervous one night under the fluorescent lights of the cafeteria. “Just don’t squeeze the soap too hard while you’re carving. Could slip out and go flying.” John thought about his sweaty palms and regretted becoming a doctor altogether. He thought of careers that wouldn’t be affected by palm sweat. Taxidermy? Professional ice-luger? Pop star? He imagined his curly blond hair growing wild, and sliding into metallic lamé pants for an ABBA cover band performance. He was too fat for lamé pants now, but maybe a year or two ago he could have pulled it off. But John didn’t know any ABBA songs. He’d have to be a surgeon.

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In the weeks leading up to the interview, John stopped eating. His girlfriend Sevi wanted to shout at him to get it together, to stop being such a nervous wreck and fucking carve an ear already, but she didn’t. Instead she came home with grocery bags full of different brands of soap, saying, “I thought maybe you’d like to practice. I figured I’d do it with you.” Sevi was in the middle of her pediatric oncology residency and had diagnosed herself with temporary, but nearly debilitating, depression. She thought working with her hands might help relieve some of her sadness.

Sevi and John had been going through a rough patch, even before the ears. She’d come home crying for no reason, or for every reason, and John was so wrapped up in figuring out how to be a macho surgeon like all the other jerks he worked with that he barely spoke to Sevi. Like the night she tried to drown herself in the shower. John said virtually nothing when Sevi peeled her backpack from her shoulders and abandoned it on the floor of the entryway. She walked straight into the bathroom, turned on the hot water in the shower, and without closing the door or taking her scrubs off, she stepped in. She raised her face to the showerhead and let the water drench her fully clothed body.

John walked by the bathroom, but stopped in the doorway when he saw Sevi. 

“What are you doing?” He asked Sevi, eyeing her teal scrubs. The sight of them clinging to her body made John’s skin crawl.

“Showering,.” she said. Dying, she thought.

“Okay, well I’m gonna grab a drink with Art and a few other guys.”

“Okay.”

“Try not to drip all over the place when you get out, huh?”

Sevi nodded with her face in her hands—pretending to lather her forehead with cleanser, when in reality she was crying. John didn’t say goodbye. Sevi knew he had left because he shut the bathroom door on his way out. Alone she’d have to save herself from drowning.

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Eventually Sevi and John had stopped talking altogether. Sevi slunk through their house like one of those dead foxes rich women wear around their necks in the winter—deflated and lifeless, but still resembling something that was once alive. She was beautiful even down to the shadows cast by her hollowed cheekbones.

At the end of a long day John would wave his food in Sevi’s direction, a banana or a burrito or a candy bar, as if to say, “Hungry?”

Sevi would shake her head.  

The more Sevi’s body disappeared, the further she orbited away from John. Their house was split down the middle—half for John and half for Sevi. Sevi would lay down on her side of the bed hours before John slipped in beside her. She’d sleep with her arms wrapped around her torso in a solo embrace. Sometimes John would lie facing her and press his hand in the middle of Sevi’s spine, reminding her that he was there.

Sevi would stiffen immediately upon contact. “Your hand is too hot.”

John would retract his hand, tuck it under his face like a sleeping child, and watch Sevi rock herself to sleep.

 
  Installation view of Zoe Leonard (b. 1961), Strange Fruit, 1992-97. Orange, banana, grapefruit, lemon, and avocado peels with thread, zippers, buttons, sinew, needles, plastic, wire, stickers, fabric, and trim wax. Collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Image courtesy the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Photograph by Graydon Wood

Installation view of Zoe Leonard (b. 1961), Strange Fruit, 1992-97. Orange, banana, grapefruit, lemon, and avocado peels with thread, zippers, buttons, sinew, needles, plastic, wire, stickers, fabric, and trim wax. Collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Image courtesy the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Photograph by Graydon Wood

 

It was the Christmas before the ears when Sevi kissed Raj. They had kissed on one of the loveseats in the empty waiting room of the third floor x-ray lab. Raj was clumsy—so young, too much tongue. He snaked his arm through Sevi’s scrubs and pawed at her chest with a soft hand. Sevi kept her eyes open the whole time and thought about how Raj was trying too hard. But he has such nice hands, she thought. Sevi looked down at her own hands and felt sad that they were skeletal.

Raj stopped kissing Sevi’s lips and moved down to her neck. He tried to orchestrate a move down even lower, to her chest, but he couldn’t quite figure out the logistics with Sevi’s shirt. He craned his neck and Sevi stared at his exposed ear. It had so many creases and folds; she wondered how John would ever carve something so complicated. The thought of John made Sevi gently push Raj off of her.

“I think someone just paged me,” Sevi said.

She stood up slowly, not wanting Raj to think she was running from him, and left the waiting room. The lights clicked off as she walked out.

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Sevi was wearing white the night she came home with all the soap. She plopped down on the floor of their living room and poured out the plastic bags of Irish Spring, Dove, Dial, CVS brand, and lavender Mrs. Meyer’s.

“I tried to get everything in case they have different textures,” she said. “I thought it would be good to be prepared.”

Looking down at the soaps, John noticed there were at least two bars, sometimes three, of every kind of soap except for Mrs. Meyer’s.

“Why’s there only one of the purple one?” John asked.

“It’s expensive. I doubt they’ll buy it to waste on an interview.”

She was smarter than he was. It always showed in these little things. John sat across from her, and they both reached for the Irish Spring to start. “Cheapest,” they said in unison, and Sevi smiled and so did John because he had forgotten what she looked like smiling.

They tore open the metallic green packages and started carving. The bar felt heavy in Sevi’s small hands. She took a paring knife and began her labor with an ambitious first slice. She cut the top two edges of the soap to make a triangle that would later become the top of her ear. After the first deep cuts, Irish Spring shed itself in long, curled shavings. Sevi rounded out the triangle she had made to give her ear its arch. Pointy at first, but eventually shaved down to a smooth dome. Irish Spring was a hard soap, not mealy like they’d later find Dove. “Smells like my brother when he was fifteen,” Sevi said. “His hair was really long back then. Black and curly.” She laughed a little. “I guess I was jealous.”

John tried to imagine Sevi’s older brother at fifteen. They had met once at Sevi’s dad’s funeral, but he was in his 30s by then. He was a chubby guy, but he had great hair. John tried to imagine him a little slimmer and in gold lamé pants. John bet he could have been in an ABBA cover band, though he didn’t say so to Sevi.

“Why were you jealous?” He asked instead. “You have nice hair.”

“I don’t know,” she said. “Just seems wasted on a boy.”

“Hm.” John’s sound for, “guess so.” This exchange was more than they had said to each other in over a month.

Sevi had missed the face John made when he was listening, his bushy eyebrows furrowed as if ready to ask a question at any moment. She had missed the sound of their voices mingling, layering over each other in conversation. This is nice, she thought. But then she thought of Raj, and wondered if this moment would have been nicer with him. Sevi could feel her face fall at the thought of her brief infidelity. She began rambling to John in an attempt to push Raj out of her mind.

Sevi made fun of the surgeons John worked with, puffing her cheeks out pretending to be the fat one, making her eyelids heavy when imitating the always-high one.

“And what about me?” John asked her. “Do me.”

Sevi looked at John’s face and saw how sweet his big eyes were. She had forgotten how round and pleading they could be. Did they always look so sad-in-a-nice-way? Without saying anything, she reached out and held his face in her palm. After a beat, she pulled her hand back and picked up one of John’s ears.

“Yours look so real!” She said admiring the CVS soap ear. She held it next to her own ear and marveled at their likeness in the dark reflection of the living room window. “Mine look like weird sausages!” Sevi lifted her green Irish Spring ear to show John. It was too small. She kept carving her ears until they were whittled to nothing, trying to make each one perfect. John said he liked her ears so she wouldn’t feel bad. Sevi could tell he was lying, and she could feel herself soften toward him because of it.

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The day John got the fellowship he proposed to Sevi. He already had the ring—bought it the night after they carved all the ears on their living room floor. When John told that fact to Sevi she wondered if soap fumes could get you high, but she didn’t say so to John. She said yes, and that night she stocked the bathrooms in their house with the ears, not wanting to waste soap. They had a wedding to pay for.

At first, Sevi was creeped out at the sight of the ears all around the house. They were like little fossils that emerged from the bad days that came before the wedding. An ear for the night she kissed Raj. An ear for the time John didn’t come home from a night out. An ear for the fight in which she told John she never loved him. Sevi only got used to the ears by saying, “soap,” in her head every time she saw one. If she called it what it was, it couldn’t become something else.

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They washed through all of Sevi’s ears before John’s. Sevi’s ears were smaller and less structurally sound, so they fell apart easily. Now they were down to three ears, one in the shower, one by the sink, and one in the kitchen. In the shower, Sevi felt a little weird washing her vagina with an ear. It felt like her vagina was a conch shell and the ear was listening to her body. She hoped her body was saying, “I’m doing better.” But it really didn’t say anything. Her body sounded just like the ocean. Loud and crushing and deafening all at once.

 

Published May 27th, 2018


Alexa Brahme was born and raised in San Diego, California. She studied creative writing at Vanderbilt University and NYU. She currently lives in Brooklyn, but dreams of living on a boat in Italy where all she would have to do is write, swim, and eat burrata. 



From The Whitney Museum of American Art, where a survey of her work is on view through June 10, 2018: “New York–based artist Zoe Leonard (b. 1961) is among the most critically acclaimed artists of her generation. Over the past three decades, she has produced work in photography and sculpture that has been celebrated for its lyrical observations of daily life coupled with a rigorous, questioning attention to the politics and conditions of image making and display.”