I first met Phoebe in a house full of strangers, five weeks into the Edwards fall term. I was new to the Noxhurst school, but a sophomore, a late arrival. I’d transferred in from the Bible college I’d had to leave, and I was often on my own. Then, one night, while I was taking a walk alone, I noticed a loud throng of students turning into a gate. It was left propped open; I followed them in.
Hip-hop pulsed, rolled. Pale limbs shone. I’d learned that the alcohol table was the one place where I could stand without looking too isolated, and I was idling at my usual station, finishing a third drink, when a girl in a striped dress tripped. She spilled cold liquid down my leg.
She shouted apologies, then a name: Phoebe Lin. Will Kendall, I said, also in a shout. We tried talking, but I kept mishearing what she said. Phoebe started tilting her pelvis from side to side. Life as a juvenile born-again hadn’t put me on a lot of dance floors; uncertain, I followed the girl’s lead. She swayed left, right, bare shoulders sliding. Others writhed to the frenzied tempo, but Phoebe’s hips beat out a slowed-down song. Punch-stained red cups split underfoot, opening into plastic petals.
Palms open, she levitated both hands. The room clattered into motion, rising to spin. She dipped, glided along its tilt, and still she moved to the calm rhythm she’d found, dragging the beat until my pulse joined hers.
I watched a drop of sweat trickle from Phoebe’s hairline toward the clavicle niche, where it might pool, I thought, to be lapped up.
She kept dancing, so I did, too. By the time she stopped, she looked flushed, out of breath. She lifted black, long hair into a makeshift ponytail. We shouted again, and I watched a drop of sweat trickle from Phoebe’s hairline toward the clavicle niche, where it might pool, I thought, to be lapped up. Thick bangs, damp at the tips, parted to expose her forehead. I wanted to kiss that spot, its sudden openness: I leaned down. She pulled close.
Since then, three weeks ago, we talked; we kissed, but that was all. I didn’t know what I had the right to ask. I waited, while the rest of Edwards played musical beds. Late at night, if I walked to the bathroom, I crossed paths with still more girls listing tipsily down the hall in oversized, borrowed polo shirts.
They flashed smiles, then swerved back into my suitemates’ rooms. I returned to mine, but I could still hear the squeals, the high-pitched cries. In no time, a pretty girl might zigzag into my bed, and if it hadn’t happened yet, it was excitingly attainable — if I said the right words, reached for the right girl—
Instead, on the nights I couldn’t sleep, I imagined Phoebe’s sidling hips, the fist-sized breasts. She flailed and squirmed. With an arched back, rosebud ass soaring up, she starred in solo fantasies. The fact that I still hadn’t slept with Phoebe, or anyone, didn’t preclude these scenarios. If anything, it helped. Irritation absolved me of the guilt I might have felt about the uses to which I put the spectral mouth and breasts. Each time this ghost Phoebe jumped in my lap, I bit her lips. I licked fingers; I grabbed fistfuls of made-up skin until, sometimes, when I saw the girl in the flesh, she looked as implausible as all the Phoebes I’d dreamed into being.
I pushed through a revolving door into the Colonial: a private club, college-affiliated. She’d invited me to have a drink. One last date, I’d resolved. With Phoebe, I kept spending time I didn’t have. I rushed from classes to Michelangelo’s, an Italian restaurant fifteen miles from Noxhurst’s town limits — distant enough, I hoped, that no fellow students would walk in. I took the bus. I waited tables; I relied on staff meals. I filched apples from the Edwards dining hall. I received scholarship funding, but not enough. I told no one.
She was sitting alone at the bar, back facing out. I touched the girl’s waist, and she slipped down from the stool. Phoebe’s smile, angling up, floated toward me. She asked the bow-tied barkeep, Bix, to bring me a gimlet.
You’ll love it, Will, she said. Bix makes, no joke, the world’s best gimlets. He puts something extra in. I’ve asked, but he won’t tell me what it is.
If it was my recipe to give, I would, he said.
I believed him. It was obvious he liked Phoebe. She asked how I was, and I said I’d passed a man playing the fiddle while I walked here. I’d paused, to listen. I had no small bills, so I’d put quarters in his upside-down hat. Oh, ho, he said. It’s high-rolling time. It’s like jingle bells tonight.
It was odd, how well she listened. It made me anxious I’d reveal more than I should.
He threw out the coins, I said, to Phoebe. I forced a smile, but I hadn’t told the story well. I’d tried to help him. Six quarters, which he’d thrown to the ground, like nothing. If I could just tell him as a gag, I’d negate his ridicule. But then, as though she heard the version I intended, Phoebe obliged me, and laughed. She asked what I’d said next. I rattled along. I was pleased; unsettled, too. It was odd, how well she listened. It made me anxious I’d reveal more than I should. When I could, I turned the questions: an old evangelist’s trick. In general, people love talking about themselves. If, at times, with Phoebe, I felt a slight resistance, I pushed through.
It’s my first time in the Colonial, I said. I asked if she came here often. She explained the club’s rituals and traditions, its complicated drinking-cup rules. A ghost-white candle stub guttered between us. I kept asking questions. I liked watching Phoebe talk. She halted, circled the point. Lit up with her own stories, she laughed in big gusts that blew out the candle flame. Bix relit it; before long, she put it out again.
You pass the cup around until it’s finished, she said. The last person to drink upends it on his head. He spins it while people sing—
She fell silent, gaze fixed to my left. I turned, but I noticed nothing unusual. Lilies splayed open on the windowsill, wilting stars. A tall man waited at the stoplight.
I thought I saw him again, she said.
His name’s John Leal — do you know him?
I don’t think so.
No, it’s nothing, she said. I just, I keep thinking I’ve spotted him, but—
Who is this?
Flustered, she tried to explain. Bix lit the candle, and she thanked him. It took a few tries, but, at last, I gathered she’d gone to a club the other night, downtown. She stepped outside, phone in hand, to call a taxi. Someone else was also there, leaning against the wall. When she hung up, he hailed Phoebe by name. She didn’t recognize him, but figured she was to blame. They’d met. She’d forgotten. To be polite, she played along, as if she knew him, but he ignored the act. I’m John Leal, he said. You’re Phoebe. I hoped I’d run into you. I thought of how to set it up, and look, here you are.
Then, he listed small facts about her life. Trivial details, but nothing he should have known. He handed a folded note to Phoebe. I’d love to see you again, he said. It’s up to you, though. Call me when you’re tired of wasting this life.
When you’re tired of — huh, I said.
Isn’t it strange? Phoebe said. Oh, also, he had no shoes on. I thought, at first, that friends might be playing a practical joke on me. But it’s not much of a joke.
She lifted a glass to Bix. From the level above us, male voices united in song, a capella. I asked if she intended to get in touch with this John Leal. No, but she wished she’d asked how he knew what he did. She’d kept the note, she said, pulling a slip from her wallet. It was plain, lined, ripping along the fold. In block letters, he’d printed his name. John Leal. I suggested she give him a call.
It’s bothering you, I said. If you want, I’ll help. I could see him with you.
Just then, a large man popped up behind Phoebe, sliding his hands across her eyes. Guess who, he said. He raised his arms. A full lilac robe spilled out from beneath his peacoat, a priest’s white band at his throat. No, don’t get up, he said. I’ve left Liesl outside in the cold, and I told her I wouldn’t be a minute but hello, Phoebe, don’t you look tip-top. Tell me if you like this outfit. One of Liesl’s friends is hosting a themed night: come as you aren’t.
So, you’re going as the pope, Phoebe said. Or a curtain.
Curtain, he said. No. I’m a bishop, and I have a friend with me, a pocket-sized child. This little, pocket-sized protégé . . .
Lifting his coat to the side, he showed us a rag doll in plaid shorts, its mouth attached to his robe, at his crotch. It’s a little boy, he said. Phoebe, I want to be introduced.
This is Will Kendall. Will, this is Julian Noh. You’ve—
Oh, you’re Will, he said. He whirled toward me, his robe flaring. Of course, you are. I’m delighted. Phoebe’s told me all about you.
Julian, Phoebe said.
The doll, she said.
I know, it’s brilliant. I mean, he is. He’s a brilliant little child, so gifted. Oh, please. It’s an homage. I’m paying tribute to the Church, with its, hm, sacerdotal— I think Liesl’s waving at me. I’m going. If you want to find us, we’ll be at 161 Lowell all night. You, too, Will. Let’s be friends.
He thumbed a cross on top of Phoebe’s head, and left. So, that’s Julian, I said. She’d talked about him: a close friend, the first person she’d met at Edwards. I asked what he’d said about an homage, and she explained he was raised Catholic. But he’s since quit the faith, she said.
Child evangelical that I’d been, I knew as little about pop culture as I did about East Coast shibboleths.
I had more questions, but singing burst out again. Three additional men, friends of Phoebe, tumbled toward us. They sported loose ties, silk leashes they’d pulled free. She introduced everyone, using full names. They asked if they’d see us at Phil Buxton’s tonight. She’d told me she had to go home in a little while: to fit in a bit of studying, for once, she’d said. But they teased Phoebe; they cajoled, like puppies. I smiled at jokes I didn’t understand. I’d attended Jubilee, the Bible college in California, until I lost my faith, at which point I’d had to give up a long-held plan to assign my life to God. I then applied to new schools, including Edwards, as distant from California as I could get. Child evangelical that I’d been, I knew as little about pop culture as I did about East Coast shibboleths. Why did Edwards men wear so much pink, and what, exactly, was a — cocksin? No, a coxswain.
But Phoebe, think of Buxton! the three men cried. It’s his birthday, no less. While they begged, I kept smiling. She showed a wide slice of throat each time she laughed. Blood surged up the sharp, pale incline of her face. The tips of her ears burned red. I imagined Phoebe sprawled in bed, a thin dress pulled up like a blown magnolia. The halfwit lout on top, his pants down. I thought about what I’d offered Phoebe. I figured it would be a joke, this John Leal riddle. Phoebe’s friends loved plotting intricate pranks; they hosted lavish parties, springing naked through college lawns. Oh, fine, I’ll go, she said. The silk-tied trio high-fived. But joke or not, I still couldn’t tell Phoebe I’d help, then claim I had no time to date, and I felt as relieved about what I’d promised as though I hadn’t also been the fool trying to split us apart.
I asked Bix if I could settle the tab. Phoebe offered to pay, but I said no, I had it. She waited with me for the bill. You have a lot of friends, I said.
Well, even while we’ve been sitting here, I said. If you tallied up all the people who stopped to say hello.
She glanced around, looking a little absent, as though she’d already started leaving. If anything, I think I know all the alcoholics, she said.
But I’m wondering if that can be right, if I met Julian in his lilac bishop’s garb when I also first heard about John Leal, or if I’ve combined multiple Colonial visits, all of them with bow-tied Bix mixing his gimlets, the nights melting like ice slivers into one God-struck evening. I think I’m sure, though, about this sequence. It’s possible these are just the details I’ve saved. It could be grief’s narrowed vision: I’ve noticed what I’ve lacked.
I am certain that, after my first night at the Colonial, I woke up early the next morning. I had to study for an upcoming exam. Head aching, I was still puzzling through a problem set when I heard the dull roars of a crowd. I didn’t want to lose time; I resisted curiosity as long as I could, then I dropped the pen. I unlatched the casement window, pushing it open. Down on the street, crowns of heads bobbed, marching.
No! More! Kills! No! More! Kills!
Who was killing whom? Still in my boxers, naked from the waist up, I leaned across the sill into the cold, trying to make out the words on a sign. Instead, I saw, or I thought I saw, a pink hallucination, a large infant floating against light-blue skies. I blinked, then it was a puppet, held up with barbershop-striped poles. It lolled on its back, the fat strung limbs shining.
I made it a personal mission to save my parents, as well: I didn’t want paradise unless I could bring them along.
In the news, I would read that the baby was ten feet tall, assembled from cloth and foam by protest organizers, and that the crowd was rallying against an abortion clinic that had opened in downtown Noxhurst; for now, as I strained, I could make out overtly Christian placards. Depictions of the cross, mentions of God. I watched the protest pass, sick with longing. Such a lot of people who still believed they were picked to be God’s children. The unreal baby jiggled its fists, as in the divine visions I once hoped to have, the marvels I’d thought possible. The nephilim at hand, radiant galaxies pirouetting at God’s command. Faith-lifted mountains. Miracles. Healings. I turned Christian in junior high, the first time my mother fell ill. It’s a crack across the brain, she explained. It let sadness in. Pills helped, like a patch, but the usual medicine had stopped working. Lying in bed, she gazed at the ceiling fan. She didn’t wash. Each morning, I left a glass of milk on the bedside table. She ignored it, and the milk curdled. My father came home late, stumbling. He broke lamps; he slept in the living room.
So, I prayed. I was devoted. A kid evangelist, and a pain in the ass. I traipsed through town in ironed khakis, pocket Bible in hand, testifying. I made it a personal mission to save my parents, as well: I didn’t want paradise unless I could bring them along. Though my father laughed at my improvised lectures, my mother let me talk. In bed, pallid, she listened. I proselytized until the June afternoon, five months into my campaign, when I stood witness at her baptism. She waded into the lake in a yellow poplin dress, and I shook with pride. The pastor put his hands on her shoulders. She plunged in, submerged so long I panicked, thinking she’d drown, but then he let go. She came up flailing, smiling to break her mouth. The lake healed itself around her hips. In a dress like the sun, she splashed out. She picked me up, spattering lake silt. I touched my mother’s head, the hair wet, sanctified. I, I, I— I thought I’d saved her life.
Close to noon, as I left my suite, Phoebe called to tell me she’d talked to John Leal. He’d invited us both to dinner, Monday at 8:00. Litton Street. Did I have plans then? I didn’t. Would I still be willing to go, in that case? I would, I said. I asked if she’d enjoyed the night. She had. It had gone late. The birthday boy had rented lions.
Well, they were caged, she explained.
Phoebe’s words lagged, catching in her throat. I asked if she’d just gotten up. Oh, she said, up would be a lie. I’m still in bed.
I said I was going to Wyeth Hall for lunch. Did she want to meet me there? Yes, she said. She’d leave in ten minutes. I walked through the quadrangle. It was quiet here, the lawn isolated from the town’s noise. I’d first come upon Edwards after days of bus travel from California to upstate New York. I planned to walk the final mile to my hall, but when I left the Noxhurst station and saw the line of taxis, clean with sunlight, I lost all resolve. Minutes later, I paid for the ride. I pulled both suitcases to the curb—
Then, I looked up. I forgot the wasted dollars. The tall, pronged gates stood wide. I rolled my bags through the entryway, a tunnel cored out of a thick wall, and the darkness opened into light. I was in the main quadrangle. Spires and belfries spun up from stone citadels. Frisbees soared. Bronze statues gazed forward, frozen in heroes’ poses. Sunlit paths crossed the green, lines in a giant palm, holding students who lazed on the grass. It was a lost garden, but I’d been allowed in. I still hadn’t known, though I soon would, how little I’d belong.
I approached the dining hall. I’d been up since six, while she was in bed, idling. Lions in a cage. Had she petted them, and did she wake to find the tawny fur glinting on her skin? She might have rubbed the fur around as she slept. The coarse hairs strewn in Phoebe’s sheets, bijou rays of gold. But my step felt light. If I could be anyone, I’d ask to be the Will rushing to see more, again, of Phoebe. In the distance, an advertisement painted on the side of a brick building showed a young girl, lips pursed as if to send a wish. The suck and howl of a siren pierced the cold, and the fall wind smelled of reasons to live. ●
Illustrations by Glenn Harvey for BuzzFeed News. Text from THE INCENDIARIES by R. O. Kwon. Published by arrangement with Riverhead Books, a member of Penguin Group LLC. Copyright © 2018 by R. O. Kwon.
R. O. Kwon is a National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellow. Her writing is published or forthcoming in The Guardian, Vice, BuzzFeed, Time, Noon, Electric Literature, Playboy, and elsewhere. She has received awards from Yaddo, MacDowell, the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference, the Sewanee Writers' Conference, Omi International, the Steinbeck Center, andthe Norman Mailer Writers' Colony. Born in South Korea, she has lived most of her life in the United States.
The Incendiaries is out July 31.