Rachael Warecki: “Confounding Variables” and “The Fluid in Our Veins”

Confounding Variables

I felt Natalie Hosay moving beneath me as I straddled her, her hips jerking against the seat of my jeans, and I wondered if this was how she had moved beneath my brother. Of course, I would never be able to know that—intercourse, as a scientific method, fails all three requirements of a reliable, valid, reproducible experiment, and Natalie and I were not having intercourse—but when I closed my eyes, I could almost imagine that it was not her between my legs, struggling to escape, but the nameless boy with whom I had once had sex, thrusting insistently and jaggedly upward in his dull quest for satisfaction. With my eyes closed, Natalie’s grunting and panting sounded eager, although I knew that when I looked at her again, I would see her face twisted in anger and tinted with fear, because she had not expected this situation, she had not calculated for it, she had not practiced the addition of Rylan Stewart + Mackenzie Stewart + Natalie Hosay and arrived at the equation of Mackenzie + Natalie – Rylan = Rockefeller Park at eight-thirty in the morning on a Tuesday in September.

I had done the math.

Had my brother closed his eyes?

I opened mine to find Natalie struggling to sit up, although I had pinned her securely: my knees squeezed against her ribs, my gluteus crushed her pelvis, and my hands bore down on her shoulders. The white blouse she had planned to wear to school that day was grass-stained and I had torn the collar half-off, so that it hung limply against the redness of her hair, which remained in perfect golden-ratio spirals even though I had brought her to the ground by wrapping my fingers through her curls and pulling hard. My own blouse was just as stained—mud streaked one of my sleeves from wrist to elbow—but my hair was untouched and untouchable, pulled into a bun from which no strands escaped. Hairstyles, unlike intercourse, are reliable, valid, and reproducible, as I had found when I had practiced for this moment last night, and, after I had done and re-done my hair in a multitude of buns, discovered the style that proved unassailable 95.8 percent of the time. Although it is impossible to account for confounding variables, such as the actions of other human beings, I had put my hair up this morning with the assurance that it would not come down again until I brushed it out that night. Natalie Hosay was not the type of girl who caused statistically significant deviations.

Except for that she had. Either my brother had engaged in an activity that had, statistically, a one hundred percent chance of ruining his life, or she was lying about it, which would have the same absolute result if brought to the administration. Natalie Hosay, a compounding variable, had the potential to create a significant deviation in my brother’s future—and as any intelligent scientist knows, for a test to be valid, all confounding variables must be accounted for and eliminated before the experiment can be replicated.

Natalie started to shout, but I grabbed her chin in my left hand and twisted her face to the left and then to the right, so she could see that her shouting would be useless. My father has always stood by that tired saying, that New York is the city that never sleeps, and I suppose, given the sample size, that it is mathematically and biologically possible for at least one person in New York City to be awake at any time of the day or night: for every NYU theater student who sleeps until noon, there is a Wall Street executive who wakes up at five in the morning; for every doorman who dozes during his night shift, there is an infant who shrieks from dusk until dawn. Yet I had repeated the experiment of Rockefeller Park, northeast corner, every school day for the past two years, treasuring the right angles of Warren Street and North End Avenue as they dead-ended into River Terrace. And so I had reassured myself last night that Natalie would have no one to turn to for help except for the murky, smooth-edged statues in the sculpture garden, the bird, the fist, the monkey, the panther, which now stood like sentinels, as if they would pounce on Natalie if she tried to break free. Don’t worry, I wanted to say to them, she’s not getting away.

“Think about it in terms of physics or biology, Natalie,” I said. I put more of my weight into my upper body, forcing her shoulders to the ground, although I could already feel the burden in the soreness of my wrist sockets. “My gluteus is crushing your diaphragm and putting pressure on your lungs. And that’s not even accounting for the force of gravity, which is negative-9.8 meters per second squared. There is no way you’re going to get up unless I let you get up, and I’m not going to do that until you take it back. So take it back.”

“You’re fucking crazy if you think I’m going to do that, Mackenzie,” Natalie said. “Hell no! Now I get to tell Stuy that they’ve got two Stewart kids to expel. You’re a bully and your brother’s a ra—”

There are some moments in life that I wish I could accurately reproduce, because my memory conjures only the anathema of inconclusive results. For example: when I split my knuckles on Natalie Hosay’s teeth, I could not tell whether the spatters of blood came from her mouth or from my fingers.

*        *        *

Natalie Hosay smelled wrong. That was the first thing I had noticed about her, back when Rylan had brought her home to meet our parents. She smelled too strongly of the city, as if she spent too much time on the subway, making the long commute from wherever-her-neighborhood-was to Manhattan, and the stench of the underground had worked its way into her pores. Her smell even overpowered the aroma of dinner, for which my parents had asked her to stay, but I was the only one who seemed to notice. So often after disaster strikes, people wish for perfect hindsight, but I—I had known. Not what form the disaster would take, perhaps, but I had known that Natalie Hosay would be its catalyst.

“Does anyone else smell something odd?” I had asked, between bites of steak and asparagus.

“Maybe it’s Natalie’s perfume,” my mother said. And then, to Natalie: “Mackenzie’s slightly allergic to perfume, dear.”

That was a lie, an attempt to make me understandable. I am not allergic to perfume, but allergies are, if not replicable, similar enough from person to person that they elicit sympathy, which is the successful result of any reliable experiment involving humans: any inciting factor that produces a similar outcome, over and over, becomes recognizable, and so it elicits a feeling of shared suffering.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” Natalie said, clapping a hand to her mouth, as if it was only her breath that stunk. “I can go—I can wash it off now—”

“It can wait until after dinner, can’t it?” Rylan asked. “It’s not bothering you too much, is it, Kenzie?”

I could not explain that Natalie’s smell was not so easily disposed of, and so I pretended to ignore it all through the rest of the meal. I was relieved when she wandered into the bathroom afterwards. After dinner was my time with Rylan, always, day after day, like an experiment that always went exactly as I planned and that had an error margin of zero. Rylan walked into his bedroom and I followed.

“Get out,” he said, settling himself onto his bed.

“No.”

“C’mon, get out.”

I sat down at his desk and stared at the panoramic picture of Boston that sprawled the length of one wall. Rylan had tried to redecorate his room when he started high school, although I had warned him that there was an 87 percent chance that our mother would make him put it back the way it was, and of all the posters he had put up—supermodels with physiologically impossible breasts, bands whose names suggested that their members, although they appeared to be in their twenties, were intellectually far behind Rylan and I—the Boston photo was the only one our parents had allowed him to keep.

“You’re being creepy again,” he said.

“But I come in here every night.”

“Tonight’s different. Natalie’s here.”

“I guess she can come in, too.”

“What do you mean, you guess? This is my room. Your room is there.” He pointed next door. “I’m sure you can think of something else to do tonight, right? Build a robotic arm? Read the dictionary again?”

“We always talk after dinner,” I said.

“Tonight I’m going to talk to Natalie, okay?” He said it as if I was stupid, as if I had not received perfect scores on my PSATs, as if the one-year difference in our ages suddenly meant that I was too young to understand his dreams of college and medicine and a wide-open future.

I took a pen from the holder on his desk and scrawled an equation on a piece of scrap paper. Rylan + Natalie = x. Solve for x. I handed it to Rylan.

“No, seriously,” he said, crumpling it up and pitching it toward his trash can—he got the physics of the throw all wrong, and the paper landed a half-meter to the left. I picked it up. “That type of shit weirds people out, Kenzie, and if I’m getting creeped, then Natalie’s definitely going to get nervous, and I don’t want her to think that she can’t come over because my bizarre-o sister’s always going to be lurking around. Now get out.”

“Who, me?” Natalie said. She stopped on Rylan’s threshold, still drying her hands on one of our bathroom towels.

“No—Mackenzie. She’s just leaving now, aren’t you, Kenzie?”

But Natalie didn’t look at me. “Your bathroom is intense,” she said, and then glanced around my brother’s room. “Geez, your bedroom is intense, too. Is your whole house decorated like this?”

She held up the hand towel she’d been twisting, white with the crimson Harvard insignia. It matched the insignia that marched across the walls of Rylan’s room, through the bathroom that Rylan and I shared, and down the hall, where the insignia gave way to white and crimson stripes that predominated our living room, dining room, and kitchen. There were red H’s painted on our light switches, embroidered on Rylan’s bathrobe, worked mutedly into some of the furniture. Once my uncle, who had studied there, had visited New York and stayed at the Harvard Club Hotel; when we had gone to meet him, I had felt no different than if I had been at home.

“Basically,” Rylan said. “My parents really want me to go to Harvard. They’ve been doing this subliminal thing for as long as I can remember.” He smiled, although he seemed slightly ashamed. “I guess I really want to go there, too.”

“Well…” Natalie said. “Well, I hope you get in. You know, when you apply and everything.”

If it had been just Rylan and I, I would have done the math for him, factored in his SAT scores and his grades and his extracurricular activities and our uncle’s legacy, and I would have been able to put a number to his hope, a statistical percentage more scientifically solid than the dubious power of Natalie’s positive thinking. But Rylan smiled.

“My room’s decorated differently,” I said.

“Yeah?” Natalie said. “Can I see it?”

I wondered, briefly, about the probability of her stench seeping into the woodwork of my bedroom, but I did not want to leave her and Rylan alone in his room. “Yes,” I said.

Had I been a stranger entering my bedroom for the first time, I would have been impressed with its tidiness and symmetry, with the engineering textbooks that populated an entire bookshelf, with the circuitboards and chemical bottles that peppered my desk, and with the science fair blue ribbons that outlined a campus brochure—mementos from my childhood, five consecutive elementary school championships.

Natalie, however, only had eyes for the maroon initials that papered my walls, as precise and relentless as the Crimson logo in Rylan’s room. “Oh,” she said. “MIT.”

*         *         *

Natalie pursed her lips and made a pfft sound; a series of bloody bubbles rose from her lips and dribbled down her chin. “Let me go, Mackenzie,” she said. “Get off me.”

I moved my grip from her shoulders to her upper arms, which were so thin that my hands nearly encircled them. The blood from my knuckles traced river-paths to her blouse. I felt the park grass sweating into the knees of my jeans, and I knew that I was sweating back; I watched beads of my perspiration drip from my forehead onto Natalie’s face. I shifted so that my sweat would fall close to her eyes and mouth—an exchange of bodily fluids, which, considering the reason that I had cornered Natalie in the first place, was both ironic and perfectly fitting. “Go ahead,” I said. “I want to see if you can make me. All things taken into account, I don’t think you’ll be able to.”

Again, I felt her writhe beneath me, and her fists beat against my thighs, then pushed against the insides of my legs. I inched my hands down her arms, twisting my palms against her skin so that she felt the pain as if from a rug burn, until my fingers gripped her wrists. I removed her fists from my thighs, pressed them into the ground, and adjusted my straddle so that my knees pinned her hands to the grass. When she gasped, it sounded like an orgasm, and I remembered the time last spring that I had found Natalie and Rylan in this same park after school, his fingers reaching up her field hockey skirt and sliding stickily down her thighs after she had made that same sound.

“Did you say no?” I asked.

“Wha?” I felt her chest rising and falling, working against the weight of my body, so that her words only came in exhales, devoid of the letters that required her to bring her tongue to her teeth.

“Did you say no?” I settled my gluteus more firmly against her diaphragm. “Did you tell him to stop? Did you ask him not to do it?”

“Yes, I said no.” A breath so short that it might have been the catch before a sob. “I told him to stop, I—I told him no.”

I bent at the waist, so that my face hovered three centimeters above hers. “Just so that everything is clear: you said ‘no’ and ‘stop’?”

“Tha’s wha I said.”

“Interesting.” I felt the heat of her exhalations hit my cheek in bursts, moist with blood and fear. “In terms of reproducing an experience, this is probably as close to your alleged previous assault as we can get. Some of the variables may be slightly different, but generally, when exposed to the same set of circumstances multiple times, subjects will more or less repeat the behavior they exhibited in the first place. So even though this is the second time, according to you, that you’ve had a Stewart on top of you and causing you pain, you haven’t said ‘no’ or ‘stop’ to me once.”

Natalie stared at me. “The kids a’ school are righ’,” she said. “You’re fucking insane.”

But that was an incorrect hypothesis. Insane was how Rylan’s eyes had looked as they’d watched my mother hang up the phone last night, the receiver tracing a sine curve through the air. Insane was how Natalie’s accusation had sounded, bouncing back and forth between my mother and brother in discordant sound waves. Rylan had said something about a party, and drinking, and first times, concepts that I had not been able to fit into the logical, cause-and-effect order of the scientific method. “She never told me to stop, Mom,” he’d said. “She never said no.” His mouth had formed a perfect ellipse on the last word, the shape of a null sign, and I had known, then, that there was a zero percent chance that Natalie was telling the truth.

I pinched Natalie’s right earlobe between my thumb and index finger and twisted until she squealed. “He. Is. Innocent,” I said.

“What, were you there? Were you watching?” She smiled; one of her front teeth hung crooked in her gums. “’Cause I know you were watching before, that one time. You sick bitch, I bet you liked it. I bet you—”

I backhanded her, the flat of my right-hand knuckles against the flesh of her cheek. My bloody hand left a smear across her face. “You’re going to ruin his future,” I said.

“I’m gonna ruin both your futures, psycho.” Natalie blew more blood bubbles. “You know wha’s gonna happen? People will show up, or you’ll get tired, and then you’ll have to let me go. And when you do? I’m going straight to the administration and I’m going to tell them to kick you out on your ass. Bet MIT won’t want you so badly then, huh?”

“The statistical likelihood of that would be slim,” I said, and slapped her again.

“So wha are you gonna do?” she asked. “Kill me?”

I paused, straightening my back to examine her from a greater distance, as if her blood and freckles had turned her face into a pointillist image that could be properly seen only from afar. Beyond her, skyscrapers formed understandable x lines and intersecting y-axes, and when she smiled, I knew that she had done her own math. It was the simplest equation possible, simpler, perhaps, then addition. She had guessed that I would not kill her, that if there was a limit to how far I would go for my brother, it would be murder. She thought that she had found my asymptote.

I leaned back and let my hip bones and gluteus muscles absorb my full weight; my body pressed down against Natalie’s ribs. I turned my attention back to her face, which had now begun to take on the skewed characteristics of a Picasso painting, angles and lines that infuriated me with their illogical perspectives. Her golden-ratio curls had finally come unspiraled. Her limbs, flailing, were not the soothing axes of the skyline. Her mouth, broken and bloody, was not the perfect oval of my brother’s lips.

“Maybe,” I said.

             END.

The Fluid in Our Veins

Eva’s corpse is winking at me from behind the glass in her display case. I try to ignore her. Tonight, I love my husband, Juan; tonight, he has resumed his rightful position as the most powerful man in Argentina. And because I’ve never before felt this kind of love—or is it pride?—I focus on the puchero in the bowl in front of me and look away from the dead woman on the other side of the dining room table.

She winks again. It’s the sly gesture of a co-conspirator. She’s always been persistent—in life, she got what she wanted through force of will and a talent for exploiting her rivals’ weaknesses—and she knows I’m exhausted. She can feel it in my bones. She will not leave me be.

I’m raising my spoon to my lips when I hear her voice inside my head: Poison his wine.

I shake my head.

“Is something wrong?” Juan asks. He’s perceptive, my husband, and that is one of the reasons why he is president again.

“No,” I say. In this moment, it’s an honest answer. Right now, it does not matter that Juan is seventy-seven to my forty-two, that he has an old man’s face and equipment, that he slurps his puchero and then allows it to dribble down his chin. This evening, at least, I can bask in the finery of the Quinta de Olivos. This dining room—because there are multiple dining rooms here, and a pool and a greenhouse and polo stables, which is part of the reason my husband was first overthrown—has a long table, so it’s easier to ignore Eva’s glass coffin, which is tilted slightly upward in a way that suggests she would like to join our meal. Tomorrow she’ll be moved to the Casa Rosada to lie in state, but tonight she remains our dinner guest, as she was when we lived in Madrid.

Juan returns to his stew, and for a moment, our meal continues as usual. Then her voice again: Why not?

Because I say no, and I am the First Lady of Argentina.

As was I. Eva’s lips force themselves into a brief smile. She’s not as beautiful as she was in life, and of course movement, for her, is not as easy as it is for me; a youth spent dancing in nightclubs has kept me limber, and even though my skin and breasts have begun to sag, I am still lovelier than Eva. Although her embalmer took great care with his work, her seventeen-year disappearance was unkind to her corpse: her nose is broken and her feet bear gashes that evoke the stigmata.

We are alike, hija, she continues. You and I know what it is to strive for greatness. We are of the same blood.

It’s true. I recognize it, Eva recognizes it, even Juan recognizes it: it’s why he asks me, every so often, to open Eva’s case and lie next to her, so that her magic can pass from his dead wife to his live one. If it was a shock, that first time, to lie next to a corpse—the backs of those cold, waxy hands against mine—it was even more surprising to hear her voice. But I knew instantly that she’d chosen me because we were kindred souls. My life had followed her path: it was natural that the Spirit of Argentina would find a confidante in me. It was the humblest of beginnings, that first conversation, as simple and spare as our childhoods. From then on, whenever we spoke, I remembered the mountains of La Rioja, the stench of cattle, the dark corners of the dancers’ clubs, the dreams of Buenos Aires.

But her running commentary has become less benign as time has worn on, and her little movements are a recent development, ever since Juan decided we’d be returning to Argentina. Sometimes, when I pass by her display case, I notice a fog against the glass near her mouth, the cloudiness a child might leave behind after he’s pressed too closely against a window. I tell myself it’s a trick of the light.

I know poisons that would make it look natural, Eva says. He is old enough. Her nose wrinkles slowly, her muscles fighting the rigor mortis. I wonder if she can smell herself inside her case, if she knows she stinks of slow, inevitable decay. You could take his place, hija. You could be the most powerful woman in Argentina.

There’s a nice ring to that phrase, as if Eva has sounded a church bell blessing over my future, and I know she senses what I’m admitting to myself. I look at Juan. He’s losing his battle with the puchero; brown broth is tracing patterns down his wrinkled chin, like the liquid that leaks from a newly dead body. The president of the most glorious nation in the world cannot eat like this. Better to let a woman take the reins of power; let a woman handle the diplomacy, the state dinners, the descamisados. Eva did all this and she was beloved. I could be, too: the same blood runs in my veins.

It would be easy, Eva says. No one would know.

I put one hand on the table to help push myself out of my chair, but then I pause. Eva’s watching me. She must have lifted herself out of this chair many times during that long, agonizing struggle against the end of her life.

Juan lifts his head. “You’re sure there is nothing wrong?”

I nod. “I’m sure.”

He wipes the stew from his chin and reaches for my hand. The table and the bedroom are the only places where his actions betray his age, and now that he’s cleaned his face, his movements are sure and decisive, those of a powerful, younger man. His fingers are warm, alive. This is how he took my hand on our wedding day. He’d married me because the Church had demanded it, but in the twelve years since then, he’s given me so much more than flowers and expensive jewelry and couture gowns. He’s given me a kingdom.

To Juan’s left, out of his line of sight, Eva will not be ignored. A sound like a sigh drifts through my consciousness and settles into the recesses of my mind. It’s the echo of loneliness, a yearning that’s worn away its sharp edges through the passage of time, through the coup, the exile, and the return.

And I understand.

This is not about power, I say. You miss him.

Her voice, when it comes, sounds distant, as if it’s reaching across the long deserted space of Purgatory. It has been more than twenty years.

It must be hard for you. I realize I cannot picture my life without my husband, without his love and charisma. We have been all over the world together: I can’t imagine stepping into the Casa Rosada alone. Argentina has spent twenty years reflecting that Juan is nothing without Eva, but has forgotten, in its adoration, that Eva was—is—nothing without Juan. So I try to weigh my response with tenderness, with the knowledge that, perhaps sooner than later, I, too, will be nothing, because Juan is seventy-seven and I am forty-two, and while that does not matter tonight, it is not something I can forget. Eva, I will not kill him.

Juan traces a pattern on my palm. “My wife,” he says, “First Lady of Argentina,” and I feel that surge of pride again, although this time it’s a pride in myself, too.

I return his smile. I say: “My love.”

At the edge of my vision, Eva’s chest rises and falls. The rigor mortis fights her inhalation, and so when her chest contracts—suddenly, painfully—it looks like a sob.

          END.

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