IF LOOKS COULD KILL by Lindsay Lerman
I had clearly been up all night. My eyes gave it away.
I should have stayed put the night before—should have stayed at the nice event with other writers, should have made new friends, should have strengthened connections with old ones, should have already moved on with my life.
But there was your name on my phone’s glowing screen and that blue text bubble, so smooth around the edges, and your stupid, ever-suggestive brevity that had always pulled me in: “u in town?”
I bargained with myself hard as I answered you. One word, I told myself. I would respond with one word. Make no effort, make no offers, keep it brief. By the time I typed “yes” I knew I would not be sleeping that night. I knew I would meet you in some location of your choosing, and I knew that once our eyes met, resistance on my part or yours would be futile—more than futile. Sadly hubristic.
I fixed my hair and fixed my dress, and I stepped out of the nice event and into the night. It was warm and balmy—everyone was on the streets. The sun and the heat had been punishing that day, and every cluster of people I walked by seemed to be celebrating the sun’s descent. There is a reason people make mistakes on nights like this.
I walked to meet you, taking my time, taking in the city at night, feeling kind of free, but also hoping a leisurely walk would mean I didn’t sweat too much. A bodega cat snaked between my legs as I waited for the light to change. A group of art students walking in front of me obsessively tucked their hair behind their ears and complained about someone they all knew, someone who just did not seem to get it. A couple sat nervously in the window of the kind of designed-to-death corporate French bistro that contained not one misplaced napkin or vase, not one smudge on the zinc bar. I thought of how you had once lamented the fact that the American French bistro erased the humble, working class and itinerant trader origins of the bistrot—a simple place with room and board, a meal of stew or a piece of meat and a vegetable, a mug of wine and maybe, depending on who was around that night, some conversation.
One block away and I could tell it was you in front of the bar—there was no mistaking your stance for anyone else’s. You had a cigarette in one hand and your phone in the other. One foot was stuck out and angled away from you, almost like a dancer’s turn-out. Your back was aimed in the direction you knew I’d be coming from. You had texted first, after all, and that was a break from your usual strategy. To face my arrival head-on would be to admit to wanting to see me. I knew this about you. I hated this about you. I would have it no other way.
In my dreams, when this moment had arrived, you had rushed up to me on the street, grabbed me by the back of my head, and opened my mouth to yours. But when you turned toward me, I saw a hardness in your eyes. A cold anger. It is imperative that you not be yourself right now, I told myself. Let the romance of it run away with you—anything else will be too heavy, too you.
But there was no point; the moment I looked in your eyes, my stomach dropped. I went back through time, unable to stop myself. Back, back, back to our last summer fling—the messiest of them all.
We had both been in Lisbon for the Nietzsche conference. The emails from the organizers had emphasized the natural beauty of Lisbon and its surroundings, the ample opportunities the conference would provide for eating and drinking well, with ocean views, with fado performances each evening. It would all be part of the conference, they assured us in clipped, flattering tones, but it would not be tourism. Traveling scholars are not to think of themselves as tourists.
I would give a lackluster paper, pulled together at the eleventh hour, gaps filled in awkwardly on the plane on the way over. It would be too didactic, too lacking in dynamism and deep engagement. You would give a paper befitting a rising superstar—a stunning scholarly performance of charming self-assuredness, with a tactical hint of arrogance to ward off any meaningful criticism of your work. There was no doubt the keynote would mention you in his talk, invite you to have a drink in the hotel lobby. I knew all this in advance, and I steeled myself for the sight of you circled by even more and even younger Nietzsche scholars than usual— especially the smart, effortlessly sexy girls with their knowing, dead-eyed stares—hoping to have a moment with you.
I was right. You were the clear star of your panel. I sat in the back, knowing I would need some distance from your body—the fact of it, what it did to me. I watched as you spoke with gentle precision, your argument complex and compelling, you making eye contact with the audience, joking, drawing diagrams on the whiteboard in response to impossible questions. And then, in a final moment of perfectly performative largesse, you answered a question about a tricky translation matter by drawing the audience’s attention to me, to my work as a translator, to how I had once argued that the ‘macht’ of ‘der Wille zu Macht’ should never be translated as ‘power,’ that we should be mindful of the ways Nietzsche’s work has been misused, historically, and that a living translation responds to history, is history. The audience nodded thoughtfully, appreciatively, and turned their attention to me. I wondered if this was another game you were playing. Look what I can give you. Which also means: look what I can take from you.
I avoided you for the rest of the day. I went back to my hotel room early, feeling nervous about the paper I would give the following day. I told myself I would work on the paper, or maybe a postdoc application or two, but instead I paced the room, wondering where you were, who you were with. Had she come with you? I hadn’t seen her, but that didn’t mean anything. I suspected that you hid her a little bit, because she was so young, because she was clearly one of your students. All I knew for sure was that I did not have her youth, and at the time I was certain that made her more beautiful than me. I didn’t want to see her beauty. I didn’t want to stumble across the two of you kissing in the bar or taking in some perfect sunset. I didn’t want to see you tuck her hair behind her ear if it fell across her face. I didn’t want to see her looking at you with reverence.
I found one of those chalky, unsatisfying protein bars in my bag, considered it a good enough lunch, and took a nap. Jet lag kept me asleep longer than it should have, and when I awoke, the sun was no longer high in the sky. Disoriented and concerned about missing so much of the day’s panels, I hustled to the elevator. And there you were. Pressing the DOWN button as I rounded the corner. I could see the agitation in your stance, in the force with which you pressed the button. Had you been looking for me? Hoping to find me?
You turned to face the noise of someone approaching. You tried not to smile as you saw me. I tried not to smile back. We stepped silently into the elevator, bringing all that tension with us, sealing it in with the quiet whoosh of the closing doors.
Just before we reached the lobby, you turned to look at me, not hiding the fact of your looking. Without returning your gaze, I said, “I’ve always liked you best when you’re bold.” You lunged at me, and the night began and ended there.
Somewhere around 3:00am I would stumble out of your room just in time to see her rounding the corner, taking in my dishevelment, knowing exactly what it meant, turning her eyes away. She had been out with an old friend who was doing a semester abroad—that’s why she had come with you to Portugal—and she was returning to whatever version of you existed after hours on the beach and in the bed. With me.
I said nothing, and I did not look back at her. But I also did not quicken my pace—did not scamper off—operating under the delusion that this would mean I had nothing to be ashamed of.
No one can justify their petty cruelty like a philosopher can.
I walked up to you, got closer to you than any sane stranger would and said “Hi.” You looked at me slowly, carefully, a little suspiciously, as though you’d somehow seen my approach and my calculations.
“Hi back,” is all you said, though I could see the anger in you dissolving. You were excited to see me.
The night wore on and we eventually fell into each other. The world disappeared. I told you about how petty and cut-throat the literary world was. You were surprisingly curious about the celebrities I’d come into contact with. You laughed at my brushes with egos so swollen and tender that to even be near them is to damage them. I relished being the focus of your attention—an attention so intense I had long worried I might never flourish without it. You poured more wine. I remembered that your unique skill was seeing right into the heart of people, whether you knew it or not, and treating whatever you found there with curiosity. Despite everything, your curiosity seemed quite intact.
And then there was the darker side, appearing somewhere on my radar even through the thickening wine haze. Your body vibrated with the need to be in contact with other bodies. And once again you saw, whether you knew it or not, that I wasn’t sure if I should like what I liked about you. It began again. You wanted to read to me in bed the next morning, you casually admitted. I should cook you a nice meal like I always do in your dreams, you said. And after four glasses of wine, smoking outside on the sidewalk, you brought your mouth to my ear and whispered that sometimes you wondered if I would like to tie you up—not too hard, but just enough that you can’t get free and so I watch you, cool and detached, as you lie wriggling on the floor. Your trick was to suggest just enough—just enough to reel me in, and no more.
By the time we went back into the bar, we needed some lightness, some humor, or we risked something very rash, something entirely undoable. I could feel it. So the old friends and their exploits entered the evening’s program. We slipped back into our old roles as academic colleagues and recounted the ways our lives as students were once interwoven—all of us—and we fooled ourselves well this time, thinking any of it meant anything. So-and-so is a prominent scholar now, but we both know that once he was just a shy, sexually frustrated know-it-all who lost his mind when he smoked pot, remember him? So-and-so asks about you from time to time, she always thought you were too nice, too much of a pushover. Remember the time when so-and-so and so-and-so got in a screaming match, when the neighbors in the next apartment called the cops? We were stitching ourselves to each other, using all of them as threads.
You watched as I looked up into your eyes, and I watched as you watched, and it was as though we had passed the needle back and forth, stitch stitch stitch. This must have been a record for you, pulling me this deep this quickly.
“And her,” you said, though I know you know you shouldn’t have, “she’s always been jealous of you.” I wondered if she still loved you, after me, after us, after everything I could only imagine you’d put her through. Your coldness once again vanished as you said it, and suddenly you were warm, tender. Was it the thought of her? Or the thought of her jealousy of me?
I saw an elderly man stumble into the bar, knocking over a stack of flyers on a small table near the door. Someone at the bar stood up and said “Steady now” to the old man, as the harried bartender nodded to a young hostess to take care of the mess.
Each time we downed a drink, you inched your barstool closer and closer to mine. I figured we were thousands of drinks deep by the time your hand was on my thigh and you said, “If you killed her, our problems would be over, you know.” My blood stopped circulating as I looked at you.
You laughed. You touched my cheek. “So serious,” you said, making a funny face.
I paused, unsure.
“But seriously,” you said, on the verge of winking at me. “I’m hard just thinking about it.”
If the night up to this point had been you luring me into the trap, you had now shut the door with force. I had followed you into the forest, and I had not thought to mark my path.
You were not right that her death would solve all our problems, but you were not wrong that perhaps we both wanted her dead. And I understood, without knowing that I understood, that it would never be you who did it, if it were to occur. It’s not just that you would never dirty your hands, never be convicted of a crime. Your defects ran deeper, though I had feebly convinced myself time and time again that they didn’t. It’s that you had no courage. Every bit of your manipulative nature made this clear to me. And I knew you would never come to me, never claim me, never make known the depth of your desire for me. But if she were to leave the picture, well, you would simply take up with me. I couldn’t see why not. It could be that simple, I thought. Like an idiot. Like someone whose instincts had suddenly abandoned her.
We left the bar and stumbled to your friend’s studio where you’d been staying for a while, collecting his mail and watering his small collection of plants and leaving dirty clothing everywhere and not bothering to take out the trash. Strange, I noticed even in my dangerously drunk state, that you could water the plants but not get rid of the garbage. I stuck my head under the faucet to drink from the tap, when you pressed your body against mine. I closed my eyes. Here it was. That electric desire, that glow-in-the-dark obsession.
“It would be so simple,” you said as you pulled at my dress. “She goes running every day on the side of a busy highway. Every single day.”
Just like in my dreams, you grabbed me by the back of my head, opened my mouth to yours. “In the summer, she only runs early in the morning. No one’s on the road then.”
I pictured her running in the early morning as the birds sang, wearing little running shorts with openings at the sides so her skin could breathe, her hair pulled back tight, each of her taut muscles moving together in perfect concert. A gazelle of a girl. I closed my eyes and undid your pants.
“There’s a curvy spot—pedestrians get hit there a lot.” You kissed my neck and whispered, “There is no fixed value in this life-”
“Have you planned it all out, then?” I asked, surprised to hear myself speak—annoyed to hear myself speak. As though we were in some Patricia Highsmith story.
You pulled away from me, dragging your palm along the length of my left arm—even your dissatisfaction noncommittal. You grabbed your phone from the countertop and began texting quickly, tap tap tap tap tap, until you seemed satisfied. The room began to spin. The wine had caught up with me.
I sat down on the ugly linoleum.
“Uh oh,” you said. “Don’t worry, help is on the way.” You were always such a good drinker. I could never quite keep up.
I must have dozed off, because my attention sharpened some time later with a knock at the door, and I picked my head up to see you welcoming a guy who was clearly a low-level dealer into the apartment. My back against the stove, I could feel your excitement pulsing through the room. You radiated impatience.
Cocaine was never my favorite, but I thought it might help even me out. And I had always loved watching what it did to you, how it awakened so many sleeping parts of you. The parts I liked best.
By the time the dealer left, you had shifted into high gear. We were moving around the apartment, circling each other like dogs before a fight. You were alive with the possibilities implied by all your plans. Your tone shifted to crazed and solipsistic. Your speech was directed at no one, or possibly just yourself—I couldn’t quite tell. The future would be ours, it could all be so simple, I was in fact the woman of your dreams, no denying it anymore. You hadn’t been sure until the unexpected success of my first book, but now there was no mistaking it. “I didn’t think people would be so interested,” you said. “I mean I’m just kind of surprised is all—because when you abandoned scholarship-”
For a half-second you registered the hesitation buried within my silence and you corrected course with skill, as though you were steering us coolly through dense traffic, one hand on the wheel, one hand on my leg. I had always liked the way you played the game.
Your self-containment fell away. Your eyes flashed at me.
“People are really saying you’re a writer now. They finally see what I always saw.”
I had no idea what to say in response. I had no idea what anyone saw in me, let alone you. I wondered if I cared what anyone thought, what anyone saw. Your eyes flashed again, and the mania was back. You paced the apartment for a while, grabbing at me intermittently, kissing me, looking at your phone, looking out the window. I realized I was very hungry. You collapsed onto the couch and let out a loud sigh.
“I just need to close my eyes for a minute,” and then you were out.
I sat on the floor, next to the coffee table, wondering if I should go back to my hotel room. I took in the dirty windows, the trash piled up against the kitchen countertop, the sad collection of plants, the loose cigarettes and your cell phone on the coffee table, the chain dangling on the door. My impulse was to chastise myself, humiliate myself: this was the romance you wanted? This was the bold creation of values outside extant systems of meaning you imagined he might make possible?
Like you, I closed my eyes. I thought of the time I had decided to torture you in retaliation for ignoring me in front of her. It wasn’t fair of me—you had probably needed to ignore me in front of her. My guess is she had finally worked up the nerve to confront you after the hotel corridor incident, and you were probably just doing damage control. But I couldn’t stand the thought of being ignored by you, and I was childish, selfish—lost in the fog of desire. And I didn’t want her to win. Never mind the fact that there is no winning or losing in this game.
I dropped in on your Wednesday afternoon lecture in my shortest skirt, and I sat in the front row, your flock of adoring undergrads behind me, all of them oblivious to the mutual hostage situation developing in the space between my seat and your lectern. She wasn’t there, even though I was pretty sure she was usually in that class. When I saw you catching sight of my legs, over and over again, with increasing frustration and fascination, I realized it didn’t matter whether or not she was there. There was crazed excitement in your eyes as you bounced from lecture notes to me to lecture notes to me. I had only one reason to be there. I knew how to play the game too, and I think that fact excited you more than my physical presence.
Ten minutes after class was finished, we were fucking in the small office I shared with three other graduate students. We hadn’t even bothered to lock the door. On the way up the stairs to the second floor office, you had grabbed my waist and said “what if I just take you here—what if I don’t want to wait,” and I laughed. I would make you wait as long as I could.
“I hate you,” you said to me, moving your body in and out of mine.
“I know,” I said. On top of the plywood slab of a desk, it felt like I was merging with something larger than just you.
And then pleasure washed over you—your entire body convulsed. You grabbed the sides of my face, holding my head steady, and you looked me right in the eyes.
“I love you,” you said to me.
“I know,” I said.
“You’re my Dupin.” You kissed me hard, and I could feel the frustration in it.
I pulled our bodies apart and it felt like death, even though I knew my pleasure was not particularly important to you. For some reason I could not explain, everything in the world was right when your flesh was pressed against mine. In that split-second of active separation, I was already mourning the loss of you. I didn’t think to ask how you could be so certain that you were Chopin.
I had no idea what I was doing.
I came back to now, to the dirty apartment, you asleep on the couch. I opened my eyes. I watched you sleep. I contemplated waiting until you woke up. What the fuck was going on here?
All these years, I had been addicted to the rush and the devastation of seeing beyond the veil, seeing—as you loved to say—that the kiss shared by Jesus and Judas is a mutual recognition of the game being played, beyond good and evil. And all these years, I’ve seen you see this in me and twist it with the smallest of nudges. But the murder plot was flailing desperation, pure and simple. I could see it, even just a little.
You stirred. I wondered if you would wake up. Maybe one final round of attempts to convince me would do it—actually do it. Maybe we could run away to Spain like you’d said that night in Lisbon, knowing it was what I wanted to hear. Maybe we could be Chopin and Dupin in the moldy monastery in Majorca. Beyond good and evil.
But you had no Nocturnes to compose; as far as I could tell, you had nothing to compose anymore. And while I had books to write, I was no George Sand. What had you been up to for the past few years? “I don’t know, just living” is what you probably would have said if I’d woken you up to ask, suddenly needing to know. But with her, your captive, your girlfriend-mother, your sweet, smart sugar daddy, wasting her youth on you. And you were no better than the average 16-year-old boy who finds in his thin reading of Nietzsche all his self-pitying, world-hating impulses gloriously indulged. Poor Nietzsche. You did not deserve him.
And they rotted in that moldy monastery anyhow. Chopin’s tuberculosis worsened—they didn’t know Majorca was cold and wet in the winter. Dupin/Sand looked after her children and her sickly piano genius and had no time to write. Delacroix came to paint them, and in the painting, Dupin looks sadly to her side, while Chopin looks wild and alive—eyes forward, blazing—fingers resting on the ivory keys. It fell apart. The painting was split down the middle and sold as two separate portraits.
Years ago, in that bed in Portugal, you had pulled me back down to your long naked body as I stood up to leave, and with a wicked look in your eyes you’d said, “Stay. Do it for Nietzsche.” I laughed, you laughed—how pathetic, how stupid—to think Nietzsche would want us fucking, that he would care at all.
I glanced at your phone, suddenly alight with texts. 5:14am. Then I looked again. “up for my morning run, miss u. thinking of coming into the city next weeknd” I could picture her vigorously massaging her feet as she thought through what to say, grabbing her phone, texting you, throwing her hair up, sliding those tender feet into sneakers.
And then, one minute later: “love u”
I stared at the screen until my eyes forced a blink. I thought about pocketing your phone, calling her, finding her, telling her everything, exploding your life and probably mine. What kind of crime had we committed, exactly—you and I? I gathered my bag and let the door slam behind me.
The sun was back. It was just me and her on the street that morning. I saw my reflection in a window. With the biggest knuckle of my forefinger, I wiped at the smudged mascara below my eyes.
I knew that later that day, as evening approached and I greeted all the cautiously friendly writers at the glittering event, they’d say “What’d you get up to last night?” and I’d say “Nothing much.” I wondered if any of them would look into my eyes—look closely enough to see the murder in them.
Lindsay Lerman is a writer and translator. Her first book, I’m From Nowhere, was published in 2019. Her second book, What Are You, was published in 2022. Her first translation was published in March 2023. Her essays, poems, short stories, and interviews have been published in the Los Angeles Review of Books, New York Tyrant, The Creative Independent, and elsewhere. She has a Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada. She is currently working on a novel. She lives in Berlin.