Short story: “The Joke” by Gabby Bess

Misquoting Sylvia Plath from beyond the grave with the author behind Illuminati Girl Gang

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Taken from the January issue of Dazed & Confused:

“War between states is governed by the same principles as war between bodies” – Sylvia Plath

Sylvia Plath walked to the train from her job and a feeling in her brain shifted. It was that feeling again - when the illusion of reality starts to peel up at the edges, like transparent tape that’s lost its hold. The whole of existence outside of her body felt like a surrealist painting. In that moment, Sylvia Plath’s emotions were heightened and she could feel sad for herself or anything at all. Sylvia Plath got on the L toward Brooklyn and placed her backpack on her lap. In her backpack she carried her laptop (in case she wanted to write), her sweater (in case she got cold), and some food from work (for her boyfriend). The doors to the train closed and the warning lights and sounds went off. Sylvia Plath liked trains, she would always say, because they could only move in one direction at a time. Once they are set on their designated path they can’t be altered, only delayed, but, eventually, they will continue on their route. The beauty of a singular path, Sylvia Plath thought, is that the destination may seem impossibly distant but you know that you will arrive. The train stalled and more warning lights and sounds flashed. Sylvia Plath looked at the overhead LED display and it flashed three times:

WE ARE BEING

WE ARE BEING 

WE ARE BEING

Sylvia Plath wanted her body to be this sign. She wanted her body to be a sign that announced itself violently and unrelentingly. Sylvia Plath thought, my body is a sign that says: 

FEELINGS OF ALIENATION ARE COMMON SYMPTOMS OF EXPERIENCE 

FEELINGS OF ALIENATION ARE COMMON SYMPTOMS OF EXPERIENCE 

FEELINGS OF ALIENATION ARE COMMON SYMPTOMS OF EXPERIENCE 

My body is a sign that says: 

WHAT IS THIS BULLSHIT 

WHAT IS THIS BULLSHIT 

WHAT IS THIS BULLSHIT 

My body is a sign that says: 

HOW CAN I GET A MACARTHUR GRANT FOR MY LATENT GENIUS 

HOW CAN I GET A MACARTHUR GRANT FOR MY LATENT GENIUS 

HOW CAN I GET A MACARTHUR GRANT FOR MY LATENT GENIUS 

The LED sign finished displaying its message: 

TEMPORARILY HELD 

TEMPORARILY HELD 

TEMPORARILY HELD 

We are being temporarily held. Impermanence, this she knew. The sign came to a stasis, displaying the next stop, and the train moved forward. A homeless man walked through the doors from the other train car. He was wearing a faded hat with an American flag motif and carrying a stack of books in his hand with a backpack over one of his shoulders. He shouted out loudly at the mostly quiet car of people. “I’M AN AMERICAN VETERAN. I SERVED IN THE VIETNAM WAR. I’M LUCKY I’M STILL ALIVE BUT I CAN’T GET A JOB, I’M HOMELESS... IF YOU COULD PLEASE BUY ONE OF THESE BOOKS SO I COULD HAVE A HOT MEAL TO EAT -” Sylvia Plath cut him off and handed him some of the food she had out of her backpack. He called her sweetie (or maybe it was honey), which would normally offend her, but this time she didn’t mind. Sylvia Plath felt so emotionally affected by the books in his hand and how he came to the idea of selling used books with broken spines and ripped pages that were probably found in a box on the street. Sylvia Plath could’ve cried thinking of a box marked FREE with this currency inside. So that is where books end up, she thought, as subway currency. And that is where people end up, she thought, when they can no longer be held.

“Sylvia Plath felt so emotionally affected by the books in his hand and how he came to the idea of selling used books with broken spines and ripped pages that were probably found in a box on the street. Sylvia Plath could’ve cried thinking of a box marked FREE with this currency inside”

The train stopped at 6th Avenue and let out then filled up again. Sylvia Plath noticed two things then: there are so many girls on the train that she could fall in love with and there are so many girls on the train that aren’t her. She didn’t know what the feeling was, lust or envy? She noticed their knees in their skirts and what they would look like kneeling against her bed. She had become fixated on the image of a girl squeezing a grapefruit over her thigh and she didn’t understand it. It was a nonsensical fantasy. She was pleased more with the aesthetics of it than the act. After work, her roommate would always tell her about the girls he fell in love with on the train and she would laugh at him. Though she couldn’t stop thinking of it again and again, the girl squeezing a grapefruit over her thigh. Any girl, a pink grapefruit. She thought she should laugh at herself if she wasn’t so concerned. Men could fall in love with a girl so easily, just as Sylvia Plath had fallen in love with this image, their fantasies projected for them on screen. Sylvia Plath knew this and she played at the subway as if it were her theatre. Sometimes, she would try to sit a certain way or hold her neck at just the right angle so that some man would fall in love with her for a few stops. She would kern the stripes on her body. Sylvia Plath sat on the train and tried to figure out who was in love with her. At the next stop she watched some pretty girls get off. She looked at them like a man. Sylvia Plath counted each of their fingers, skimming past their thighs, and it all just added up to a mass of large longing. Sylvia Plath imagined what it would be living alone, high up in a fire watch tower where she could be The Prettiest. Is it lust or envy? She could feel herself looking at these girls the way men have looked at her before and she felt ashamed. Sylvia Plath knew there was some noise she needed to make, something guttural and alien, an elaboration of noise itself, a divine racket or maybe just these words, written out, that serve only to explain themselves. There was some terrible noise that needed to come out of her but the closest thing her body allowed her to do was laugh. I’ll explain: two types of light walk into a bar, one blue and one white. The joke is that a woman’s body is an intrusion. She appears as the most violent type of light in the room, some terrible screaming light that can’t be described as beautiful, at least not here. Sylvia Plath got off the train, walking out on to the street, and hoped to get arrested.

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