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Published: Mon Oct 15 2018
Diego Isaias Hernández Méndez, Destrución de los Huricanes en Guatemala / Hurricane Destruction in Guatemala (detail), 2010, oil on canvas. Arte Maya Tz’utujil Collection.
AGNI 88 Gender Mental Health Race
Night Beat

Like the best drugs, watching a surveillance video online for the second or eighth time doesn’t deliver the same rush as the first. Even though you know you’re watching a recording of a past event, the first time feels like real time, when anything can happen.

They are watching it again, the one of the Chinese girl losing her shit in the elevator.

The girl enters the camera frame with a theatrical march; once inside, she bends at the waist to scan the button panel as though deliberating over snacks from a vending machine.

Lily feels Sylvia’s breath on her as they both lean in to the laptop screen.

The girl leaps to the threshold of the elevator. She cranes her head into the corridor like a prisoner angling a pocket mirror through the bars of her cell. She looks right, left, right, before darting back into the safety of the compartment. Pressing herself against the wall, she sucks in her stomach to make herself invisible.

Can you believe this chica? Sylvia says, clutching her Bakelite necklace in a knot against her throat.

It is the dead of August. No rain in months. Walking to get coffee that morning, Lily watched a lumpy man in a green polo shirt and matching baseball cap, a lightweight tank strapped to his back, release a green mist over the lawn of a neighboring duplex. He glanced at her, then turned his body back to the chemical stream following his movement.

Now it is dusk. As the heat of the day dissolves, the Los Angeles sky does, too, into a bleed of pink and orange.

Sylvia is a family friend. This means she lived an entire lifetime with Lily’s mother before Lily was born. They wore matching secondhand leopard-skin coats, raced across bridges on hallucinogens, vowed to renounce men while rolling cigarettes on barstools and park benches, dragged suitcases and lamps across town in the backs of taxis, mourned each other’s cats, flipped through Sunset magazines in the waiting rooms of women’s health clinics, had innumerable conversations looking at each other’s reflections in bathroom mirrors while fixing their makeup. Or at least that’s how Lily imagines it.

At the two-minute mark, the girl in the elevator steps out of the cabin.

Oh the hands, the hands! Sylvia squeals. The girl is clawing the air, her fingers bent at impossible angles, like a person possessed, a person about to crab-walk on the ceiling. Thirty seconds later, the girl is gone. The video keeps running for a few beats, bearing down on the empty cabin until the door, with its dumb sensory intelligence, gloms shut.

To have a family friend, you have to have a family. Lily has one but they live far away. After accomplishing the mission of their daughter’s American education, her parents reverse-migrated to Taiwan. Lily had not stood in their way; the sacrifice of immigrant parents has a way of canceling out childish resistance. Ever since they left, Sylvia has been Lily’s stateside emergency contact, and now, because of an emergency of the existential variety, Lily is living in Sylvia’s garage until she figures out her next step, a delicate way of referring to the rest of her life.

Lily spends a great deal of time watching online videos in the garage. But even if she weren’t in her present state with too much time on her hands, she would have found her way to the video of the girl in the elevator. The creep factor, yes, but also Los Angeles, also Asian-ness—a triumvirate that practically cries out for repeat viewings. There is another factor, which is that Lily isn’t losing her mind exactly, but something has been lost. Mojo is not quite it, too small, but soul feels too comprehensive—better to save that for a future crisis. Whatever it is, she can’t stop watching the girl in the elevator, this tourist from Canada who arrived in a strange urban metropolis, checked herself into a budget hotel downtown, and commenced to disintegrate.

Strangers have watched the girl disintegrate on YouTube more than nine million times.


Lily is in Los Angeles because things did not fall into place in San Francisco, although, to be fair, her decision to move to the Bay Area had not been thought out much beyond the promise of cheap rent, which seems funny now that the city has been overtaken by tech-holes. She’d landed a rent-controlled apartment and temped for people on maternity leave. She entered a great deal of data. She wrote press releases and drafted fundraising appeals for a food-justice nonprofit, overcoming her queasiness toward bold, underlined, and italicized copy. Indeed, soon she was exercising all three in a sentence, in a single word, if that was what it took. She considers the stories she wrote about food deserts—where obese black and brown children suffering from early-onset type 2 diabetes roam blighted landscapes devoid of joy or fresh fruit—some of the best writing she’s ever done, even if it didn’t raise much money, which probably explains why she was let go.

So she went to Truckee, the kind of place one finds when one is figuring out next steps. Truckee is home to many semi-inhabited houses owned by the families of friends. Lily settled into such a place with its heavy oak furniture, vintage Corning Ware, and orangutan-colored afghans that look like set props from a 1970s TV show or objects found at the scene of a Manson-type slaughter. There was one grocery store in the part of Truckee where she was staying. The store sold one brand of jarred spaghetti sauce, one brand of tinned oysters, one brand of orange juice. Lily found the absence of choice therapeutic.

Hikes were also therapeutic. Certainly the people she knew who hiked regularly seemed happy, and less neurotic than joggers and yoga freaks. She decided to follow the trail above the house. She carried bottled water, mixed nuts, a map. The air was cold. The only sound was the sound of her own trampling.

Despite the lateness of the season, the snow had not fully melted. An hour in, the trail began to disappear. She was on the trail and then she wasn’t. The sun wasn’t where it used to be, and that, combined with something sour rising in her gorge—the very word gorge—made her feel keenly the thinness of her windbreaker, the soddenness of her sneakers. She began casting about for large fallen branches, noteworthy stumps, anticipating an immediate future when she would need to retrace her steps. Tree, tree, tree—she doesn’t know the names of any trees! Never had she so longed for the artificial colors of manmade things, like the blue and orange of a plastic jug of Tide.

She knew she could eat and drink the snow if it came to that—she would not have to guzzle her own urine, a lifelong fear. The sky grew dark; the air bit. Her legs dragged. If she did not make it out of here alive, she would become a cautionary tale, like one of her food-desert children.

Then a terrible sight materialized: a tidy pile of her own shit. The same shit she had reluctantly but necessarily shat at least two hours earlier. The hump of it lay barely concealed under a patch of damp
leaves. But before she could sink to her knees in despair, salvation arrived in the form of a happy hiker, a dead ringer for Grace Paley, all gentle melon-colored fleece, wool socks, and Tevas. Lily wanted to throw her arms around Grace Paley’s neck. Instead she smiled a very grateful smile and asked, in the same way she might ask a stranger at a crowded Starbucks if she could share her table, whether she could follow her out of the wilderness.

Once the ordeal was over, it occurred to her that the déjà-shit was a metaphor for how she had, of late, been spinning in circles. When she had given notice on her studio apartment in San Francisco, she’d gathered her dispossessed possessions in Glad bags (clock radio, hair dryer, candlesticks, empty cigar boxes, blankets, coats, at least half her books, a small TV) and dumped them on the street out front. Within hours, she saw these same items, swiped up by an enterprising scavenger, fanned out for sale on a beach towel on Sixteenth Street near the Roxie Theater. She stared for a good few minutes at her peacoat. Seeing her things in this context was like running across an old lover, the objects familiar yet foreign, glowing with a possibility meant for others.


So do they know what happened to her? Sylvia is asking.

Lily explains that the girl in the elevator had been reported missing. Police released the security-camera footage from the last day she was seen.

Two weeks later, a handful of guests at the Cecil Hotel complained of low water pressure, and how the water that did come out of the faucet had a funny taste and smell to it. Maintenance workers investigated, which is when they found the girl decomposing at the bottom of the rooftop water tank.

I know the Cecil! Sylvia says, clapping her hands. That’s that awful place downtown where Richard Ramirez stayed for an entire year while he was killing people. He used to stuff his bloody clothes in the hotel dumpster!


Lily read somewhere that the average Korean woman keeps seventeen different lotions and creams on her nightstand, like a sophisticated irrigation system. Sylvia has at least that many creams and ointments sprawled across her vanity, the bigger bottles for expansive surfaces like legs and arms, the smaller jars for trouble spots—elbows, the balls of the feet—and even smaller bottles for her face and neck.

Put Sammy on, will you? Sylvia calls from the bathroom. Through the door Lily can see her leaning close to the mirror, engrossed in the fine-motor precision needed to apply her glue-on lashes. Lily slides Night Beat out of its paper sleeve, lowers the needle. A pop and hiss before the tom-tom of the bass. The music is like the clinking of bottom-weighted tumblers in a thickly carpeted room.

Is there a word—German, compound and polysyllabic, probably—that describes the sensation of knowing, at the very moment you are listening to a piece of music, that hearing it again years later will instantly transport you back to this precise time and place? That’s the temporal vertigo Lily feels now, squatting in front of the record player in Sylvia’s low-ceilinged bungalow, Cooke’s voice drowning out the ambient sea-roar of freeway traffic in the distance.

Three weeks into her residency in the garage, Sylvia proposed a Girls’ Night Out. Lily tried to control the twitch in her eyelid. In her experience, Girls’ Night Out is often a fizzless affair unless men pay attention to how much revelry the girls are having and how smashing they look having it, which makes the whole you-go-girl premise kind of perverse. Although it’s true that her most recent Girls’ Night Outs had been get-togethers centered on eating expensive pastries at Paris Baguette with no men in sight.

Lily watches as Sylvia clamps the ends of her hair in a curling iron and takes a drag from her Newport Smooth Select 100, waiting for the heat to take hold. She rubs the bridge of her nose with a fingertip. She raises her chin and turns her head from side to side, never releasing her gaze from the mirror, the cigarette smoke rising from the volcano of her lips.

I’m lost and I’m lookin’ for my baby
Wonder why my baby can’t be found
I’m lost and I’m lookin’ for my baby
Lord knows my baby ain’t around

Sylvia is not disintegrating but she is decaying, which Lily recognizes as an unkind characterization. Nonetheless, this is her opportunity to witness, up close, a possible variation of her own fate. Lily has her own mother for this, of course. But unlike her mother, Sylvia is single, childless, an altogether different creature. Sylvia, who was always more fabulous than the Mothers, who wore three-inch heels to cookouts, her fake eyelashes shimmering like the sable fringe on a Spanish shawl. Children liked her because she made funny, private faces at them and bent readily to meet their eyes. But she could also look straight through you as though you were a chair.

Dinner at Sylvia’s: pale slices of honeydew wrapped in scarves of prosciutto; white-asparagus tips; fruit or meat suspended in gelatin. It should be said that Sylvia is not technically single. In her twenties she married a free-jazz horn player with a serious coke problem. One day he said, Good news, I got a gig with a buddy who’s touring Europe—Paris, Berlin, maybe even Rome! They celebrated with rib eyes and champagne and by the end of the week he was gone—gone gone. Sylvia calls out again: Do you want to smoke some grass? Because she still calls it grass, just like she says solid whenever something meets her approval.

Lily does not want to smoke grass, thanks for asking.


Lily drives Sylvia’s butterscotch Peugeot into the night along surface streets. Dogs bark, racing the lengths of chain-link fences; men lean into the windows of cars that sit with engines idling.

Sylvia insists on these back channels to avoid the freeways, crying out Left, left! seconds before the intended turn. Fine by Lily—she’s no fan of freeways and interstates either. If you make a mistake on one, you have to endure it for miles until the next exit. She doesn’t even mind Sylvia’s manic navigation. She likes to execute. Executing is therapeutic. Is that her issue, her fatal flaw? No one would ever say they like to execute in a job interview.

Sylvia’s favorite bars are in Century City and Venice Beach. Not the kind with deafening bass and cavernous dance floors, but the kind that might have been classified as martini clubs back in the day. Lily isn’t opposed to meeting someone, but she hasn’t done very much to make a meeting happen. Every morning when she logs in to her Yahoo account, she is greeted by an ad for the online dating service she signed up for years ago but never used: Single Men Within Five Miles Are Looking For You! A sampler of white men—she hadn’t specified race, yet there they all are—smiling broadly in front of palm trees, foreign skyscrapers, and bodies of water.

For years, one particular man—tanned, tousled, chest hair a roguish V down the front of his Hawaiian shirt—has been a reliable presence on the far right-hand side of her home page. Could it be that, after all this time, this man, call him Chest Hair, is still searching for love? Or has the company simply neglected to rotate this stock photo? Is there an algorithmic correlation between her lack of activity on the site and her stagnating prospects? Why, after all this time, does she still have a Yahoo account?

Just as Lily does not mind playing the role of chauffeur, she does not mind playing the wing woman, or playing the woman pretending she is not the wing woman. Being on the thick side with a rather broad, plain face—the face of a guard in a communist reeducation camp, so she thinks whenever a dark mood hovers—has accustomed her to playing backup. When people feel the need to offer her a compliment, they tell her she has beautiful skin.


Night Beat was recorded over a single weekend in February 1963, the same year Cooke’s infant son drowned in the family pool in the front yard. Cooke was away, and the boy’s mother hadn’t been watching. Their marriage was already crumbling; both were having affairs. Cooke fiercely forbade anyone from wearing black to the boy’s funeral.

Less than two years later, the singer was dead too, killed on a mild winter night that began with a meeting with his record producer at Martoni’s, an Italian restaurant off Sunset Boulevard. There, he was seen with a woman, Elisa Boyer, a half-white, half-Asian roll artist. After several drinks, they left together in Cooke’s cherry-red Ferrari and drove west on Sunset, then south a few blocks to P.J.’s, a well-known Rat Pack hangout on Santa Monica Boulevard.

Half past two in the morning, the pair checked into the three-dollar-a-night Hacienda Motel. Questioned later by police, Boyer claimed that Cooke had attacked her. In her rush to escape (he had stepped into the bathroom), she accidentally grabbed his clothes and wallet along with hers—which was why Cooke then stormed into the motel office, drunk and half naked, and why the terrified night manager claimed she shot him through the heart with a .22 pistol.

That’s one version. The other version has the two women working together; Cooke was just another mark.

Among Boyer’s known aliases: Lisa Boyer. Lisa Lee. Crystal Chan Young. Elsie Nakama. Moon-shaped face, high cheekbones, curvy legs in a short skirt.

Lily tries to imagine herself as a modern-day Elisa Boyer, scoping the scene for potential stooges. The music is just loud enough that you have to lean in to hear anyone. The women are wearing shirts without backs, the men hundred-dollar jeans. Maybe role-playing a bad girl would make this whole experience more bearable, more out-of-body. She would have a job to do. They swivel on their stools at the counter, Sylvia with her vodka-cranberry, Lily shepherding the maraschino in her gin cocktail with her straw.

Well, hello, Gary, Mike, Todd.


Lily presses her lips against the straw in her drink, her second. Sylvia, who has had more, is in the loo, as she puts it. A man approaches Lily’s left flank.

Mind if I?

She shakes her head, lips still attached to straw. Scoots her body slightly as a gesture of making more room. The man is in the sagging middle cushion of his forties, but holding it together with a mint-green guayabera shirt and scrupulous grooming. The smell of expensive moisturizers and spritzes is ambient.

He asks her name. She gives it, her real one, before catching herself. Shit, game’s up already. He tells her she has beautiful hair. He loves Asian hair. He used to go out with a girl, Vietnamese, who had hair down to here. He reaches behind her and rests the side of his hand on her back to indicate where this other woman’s hair stopped.

What happened to her? Lily asks.

She cut off all her hair, he says, and smiles with an old rage.

His eyelids are a little droopy; possibly he’s had too much to drink. This should make him an ideal mark. She will banter with him, a coy look here, a sexual innuendo there, until he has all the signals he needs to suggest that they get a nightcap somewhere more private. That’s when she’ll roll him. What that might look like she isn’t sure—maybe she’ll use his credit card to buy expensive cheese, shoes. She is curious to see his game, which, granted, has not gotten off with a promising start.

Sylvia reappears, her lipstick as bright as cherry Jell-O. She raises her eyebrows at the two of them.

Have you been naughty while I was away? Don’t you two have all the fun.

Lily has always thought an excellent name for a bar would be Strangers with Alcohol. If you are bored, restless, trying not to slip into certain unproductive behaviors, a bar is where you go with the hope that someone dressed alluringly and made loose with drink will send screaming, illegal fireworks across the bow of your life.

The conversation turns to cleanses. The clichéd regionalism of this pains Lily. But Sylvia is off and running: the buildup of toxins, unleashing the natural healing power of the body, colon flow, banishing impurities from the liver and bloodstream. It all sounds like performing an exorcism to expel some kind of glowering, gas-bag demon from your intestines. A speck of spit flies out of Sylvia’s mouth and lands on Lily’s cheek; she struggles not to wipe it. She cops a glance at the man, who is standing, block-like, as though hexed. Some inner code of politesse is preventing him from walking away. For certain he has stopped listening. The look on his face grows more and more distant until he is somewhere else entirely, leaving something like a handbag turned inside out atop his neck.

Lily can empathize. She’s been on this date before. Only hers was with a man who monologued about his exercise regimen and the features on his fitness tracker, or the one who said he had learned, thanks to Landmark, to surround himself with only “quality people,” or the guy whose knowledge of bourbon, seventies prog rock, and whatever other category of connoisseurship was meant to be impressive but just made Lily feel very, very old.

Sylvia is oblivious, as most talkers are. The man’s eyes are starting to dart for an exit like someone searching for a tear in the firmament. Sylvia pauses to drink. There. He’s found it.

Well, you ladies have a good night now, he says with the cordiality of an airline pilot, and backs away from the bar.

Well, fuck you, too, Sylvia says. She turns her attention to the bartender and holds her glass up for another.


For $34.99, Bed Bath & Beyond will sell you a table lamp with a faux-silver base and a wraparound lampshade of the Los Angeles skyline at night, all pitch and glitter, as dreamlike as the air quality in Beijing during the 2008 Summer Olympics. The real Los Angeles night sky is more the color of yellowing, rusty water, a tonic of particulate matter and electricity that swallows darkness. When Lily first saw it, she was standing at the top of the Griffith Observatory surrounded by Mexican and Vietnamese families, stoned teenagers, and transplants like herself. She was staggered by the swell of lights. You could get lost in the hive of all that living.

As she steers them homeward, Lily imagines the headlamps of Sylvia’s car as bright specks in a churning river of lights seen from a great height. The Peugeot is decades old, and makes clicking sounds when she cuts the ignition in front of the house. Sylvia fell asleep miles ago. Lily crosses over to the passenger side, slings Sylvia’s arm across her shoulder, and heaves the rest of her out of the bucket seat. The two women make progress toward the bungalow, except now Sylvia is crying quietly. She loses one of her high-heeled sandals when she gains the curb.

Almost there, almost there, Lily murmurs. The feel of the stepping-stone path underfoot seems to trigger in Sylvia a fastidiousness that sometimes inhabits the minds of the very drunk. She starts to lift each foot as though fording a stream.

Am I still alive? Sylvia asks, a joke, and Lily, taken off guard, snort-laughs. Inside, the house is glowing, lit by a lamp they left burning to fool intruders.

Once Sylvia is snoring in bed, Lily pops open a can of diet Sprite and, because there is nothing left to do, powers up her laptop and reopens “Ether Fields,” the personal blog kept by the girl in the elevator.

The girl was a fan of fashion and fashion photography—that much is clear. Many photos of winsome, fawn-like models balancing hats on their tiny heads. Elsewhere the girl obsesses over the thickness of her own legs (No matter how much I exercised, they never became any leaner. If I am not too careful, I fall into the trap of cankles). She blesses and rues the Internet as refuge, lifeline, platform, addiction (On one hand this helps me deal with the sadness but on the other hand I basically become a potato).

Lily has read the news reports that say the girl was most likely bipolar, and on at least three different types of medication (an antidepressant, an anticonvulsant, a mood stabilizer). On the day she was caught on surveillance video, it’s possible she was having a reaction to one of these drugs. It’s also possible she was off her meds. In any case, she wasn’t playing hide-and-seek with an unseen stranger or a malevolent hotel spirit, as the online conspirators rushed to speculate.

I spent about two days in bed hating myself.

So far all I’ve done is lay on my bed and watch episodes of Chopped.

Lily finds herself doing that thing she knows is weird but can’t stop doing. She talks to Chest Hair. Not out loud, of course. It started as a private joke. She pretends they’re on a date—not the first but the third or fourth date, after all the big data files have been downloaded about family, work, schooling, unhappy loves of the past. They are having an afternoon coffee at a café with big picture windows, or maybe he has a dog that needs walking. They’ve settled into a certain comfort level together; this allows her to talk freely about things that cross her mind.

Chest Hair is wearing the Hawaiian shirt. When they know each other better, she might tease him about how low he unbuttons it, and they will have a little laugh. But for now she wants to talk about the girl in the elevator and how people vanish into thin air. She wants to talk about dead children and why they so often figure into the backstories of heroes in films. It’s not enough that Sandra Bullock be an astronaut adrift in outer space—must she also be mourning a daughter?

They use dead kids to raise the emotional stakes, he says. He steals a sip of her overly sweetened iced coffee with soy; she is both charmed and a little annoyed that he no longer bothers to ask permission first.

Also, what about Sam Cooke? His kid actually did die, he says, leaning back in his chair.

But in real life people don’t go missing so much as they are simply missed, she insists. It’s not that they can’t be found—they simply elude us.

She is aware that her voice is rising. Her hand goes to her throat. Chest Hair sneaks a look around the café to see if anyone has noticed. She tries not to register his embarrassment. She wants to tell him about the girl in the elevator but it will take too long to explain everything. But he’s not really there anyway, so can’t she skip ahead? Lily is surprised to hear her own laughter bubbling out loud. Okay then. The girl in the elevator: how to explain she was both the person hiding and the person searching?

See what's inside AGNI 88

Lisa Chen, the author of Mouth (Kaya Press, 2007), received a 2018 Rona Jaffe Foundation Writer’s Award. Her work has recently appeared or is forthcoming in The Threepenny Review, The Common, AGNIBrick, and Guernica. Born in Taipei, she now lives in Brooklyn. (updated 10/2018)

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