< Read >


Formula for Elephants

Kent Kosack


ecause she called and said come to Brooklyn, I was in a warehouse in that hip borough sitting on a metal folding chair with a damaged leg causing it to list sideways as a bodybuilder who went by the stage name “Elephantis” performed naked kendo kata with a stiff neon purple pool noodle and an equally stiff eleven-inch cock. I couldn’t squirm in my chair because, again, the listing, and if I shifted even in the slightest, I would have slid off and landed with a thud in the aisle and for some reason I knew that Elephantis would come to my aid and with his twenty-inch biceps deadlift me into the sky and I didn’t want to ruin, or become part of, his performance.

My friend had told me she was performing and that was all. I recalled her growly “Lean on Me” solo in our sixth-grade choir class and imagined something along those lines. Innocence and harmony with a smidgen of playful grit. Instead, I had Elephantis as the centerpiece to some sort of indie erotica vaudevillian circus. After him, a nude acapella group sang bawdy doowop succeeded by a hypnotist who led a woman from the audience to believe she was being strangled. While hypnotized, mid-strangulation, she orgasmed violently on stage, toes curling like the talons of a raptor seizing its prey. Once the hardworking custodian did his best to sanitize the stage, my friend made her entrance wearing black loafers with large metal buckles catching the light, an odd venue to see shoes that I associated with children wearing while playing Pilgrims in Thanksgiving plays. She wore these loafers and only these loafers.

The audience was quiet enough that we could hear the squeak of her soles across the stage and the creak of the wheels of the cart of sex toys she pushed before her. I wasn’t present. I felt a distance there, in the dark, in the quiet of that dark warehouse in that foreign borough, breathing the breaths of sixty-odd strangers and watching a person I thought I knew—the girl on roller-skates gamboling up my driveway, the teen rolling joints beneath our high school bleachers—now with a look on her face I couldn’t place, half-pain, half-glee, while she electrocuted herself. This woman’s skin reddened and bruised and it wasn’t the pain that surprised me or whatever it was inside her that drew her to it, that sought it out. It was that I didn’t know her. I didn’t know maybe the only person I thought I knew. Who was she? What moved her? What brought her joy? I had no idea what her life was like, all of the little moments that accumulate to constitute a life. I only knew the scraps of information she threw me: one adventure here; a fuck there; a book she enjoyed last year. But did I know her, this woman, naked and in pleasurable pain performing on a stage in a warehouse in Brooklyn?

I left before her finale. But, given her ecstasy and my discretion, I doubt she noticed.


y friend and I had been meeting up quarterly since we’d graduated high school. For a decade I’d trekked out to see her in a dorm in Burlington or a loft in Philly or a cabin in the Berkshires, wherever she was currently holed up. Or, as if to confirm her memories of the place she’d rejected and the life it represented, she’d visit my mother and me. She’d tell us tales, regaling us with stories about interesting people in exotic places and exotic people in interesting places, while quietly disdaining our decision to waste our lives on this dull suburban New Jersey street. Now that my mom had no more life to waste, I took up the mantle of chief dullard when I inherited the house. And I enjoyed my new role as homeowner. I’d spent my twenties cautiously eyeing the ladder of adulthood when my mother’s sudden death and my consequent inheritance—the deed to my childhood home, the home my friend had grown up down the street from—seemed to propel me to the highest wrung. From these lofty heights I watched my footloose friend change careers, cities, and lovers as often as I mowed the lawn. My home fit me. Or perhaps I’d grown to fit it. Either way, I became increasingly attracted to the rootedness the home provided and to the endless list of chores to maintain it that gave structure and meaning to my days.

It was here, in said home, where we next met, two months after her performance. She arrived with her usual knock despite the new doorbell I’d installed. I opened the door and she handed me an origami elephant.

“A souvenir,” she said, pointing at the elephant now standing unsteadily in my left palm.

I inspected the little creature: crinkly paper ears, a sharp, pinched, paper trunk, and feeble-looking paper feet. Not exactly elephantine. Nor Elephantis.

“New landscaping?” she asked, pointing at the mums I planted on either side of the front steps.

“They’re perennials if you tend to them right.”

She pushed past me and my new paper elephant and surveyed the living room. “Rattan? Jesus.”

“What’s wrong with rattan?”

“This isn’t a living room. It’s a mausoleum outfitted with furniture from the 80s.”

It’s not a mausoleum. It’s a Cape Cod with a new roof, a dry basement, and no mortgage.” I followed her into the kitchen where she stood inspecting the framed photo of my mother atop the fridge.

“A shrine with tacky wallpaper.”

“I am thinking of redecorating,” I said, though I wasn’t.

She shook her head at my mother’s image and ran her fingers over the counter, then under it, as if she were trying to lift it. To topple it. I could see the strain in her forearms, like she was trying to overturn not just the counter but the whole house, me, the world.

I looked at the elephant in my hand and thought of the elephants in Africa hunted to near extinction for their ivory tusks to be turned into bangles, piano keys, and Japanese seals and how their children, too young to have valuable tusks, either died alone or were cared for in elephant orphanages where their handlers struggled to find the right formula to feed them. They tried a mix of everything: cream, butter, coconut milk. One version the elephants couldn’t digest. Another wasn’t substantial enough, wasn’t nourishing, so the elephants slowly starved. They lost a lot of them over the years, but eventually they discovered the right recipe. And I thought about my friend’s arsenal of sex toys and me listing in that metal chair. Thought of the mulch I laid over my wintering mums and the dirt laying over my mother.

“Are you staying for dinner?” I was hoping for a simple evening with a friend.

“Yes. I thought we could do a movie night. I brought something.”

“What?” I went into the kitchen to start on dinner, chopping garlic and onions and putting water on to boil. It was Wednesday and Wednesday meant pasta night and leftovers for days. My linchpin, routine, mid-week meal.

“A movie I made.”

“You’re a filmmaker now? What kind of movie?”

“Let’s just watch it,” she said, settling into the rattan armchair in the living room despite her previously voiced aversion.

“You won’t tell me what kind of movie it is?”

She sighed, tapped her fingers on the rattan. “Well, you could call it a pornographic movie.”

I stopped chopping. “Like an arthouse movie with a little nudity?”

“No. As in a movie where I’m fucking.” She cocked her right eyebrow at me. “A lot. Pure, joyful, fucking.”

“A little racy for Wednesday pasta night, no?”

“Afraid you’ll choke on your penne?”

“Can’t we just have a nice dinner and catch-up? Like two old friends.” I returned to the familiar task before me and sliced another onion down the center, removed its papery skin.

“You are my friend, right?”

I nodded, still focused on the butcher block, the onion, the blade of the knife against my knuckle.

“So, aren’t you interested in where I’m at right now? To see who I am?”

“I do. I want, I see.” I did. And I didn’t.

“Well, this is part of me right now and I’m actually really proud of it and want to show you, probably my oldest friend, what I’ve done. Is that not OK?”

I turned around and looked at her over my mother’s linoleum counter. “I guess I don’t want to see you exploited.”

“No one was exploited. I wanted to do it and was paid. Paid well, in fact.”

“Prostitutes are paid but that doesn’t mean they’re not exploited.” I knew I’d said the wrong thing. I returned to my chopping. I was through my second onion at that point. My eyes were tearing up but I kept at it.

“You know, sometimes I don’t know why I bother with you. Why I keep coming back here. You’re so fucking static.” The rattan creaked again as she stood. She brought the movie to the kitchen, a small black DVD case, and left it on the counter. “In case you decide you give a shit.” And she left.

I ate the pasta by myself. It was more slimy onion than sauce but I had my routine and refused to let her latest whim derail it. Yet I watched the movie. The film. Whatever you call it. I watched it through twice. It was good, whatever that means for porn. Well-lit. Well-acted. She looked incredibly self-possessed. Fucking, being fucked, whichever, both. She was savoring it, the camera, her body, the erotic performance of herself, of a self. I imagined myself as the cameraman hovering nearby, zooming in, trying to capture parts of her, then all of her, then parts again. Not a creep or a voyeur but a professional trying and failing to find the right frame.

I didn’t hear from her until the following summer. She called from California where she’d finagled a gig as a farmer. She lived with a quiet family on a small organic farm and did quiet tasks. Hard tasks, but, she said, honest ones. Rejuvenating, rewarding work. Digging trenches and tilling the earth. Planting multi-colored carrots and resilient brassicas. Plus, some mail-order mushroom harvesting venture I couldn’t quite understand. She said the nights were magnificent. She’d lie there, sleeping in a tent more often than not, breathing in the manure and rot giving way to new life, all wrought by her own dirty hands. Her legs grew hairy. Her two eyebrows merged into a single lustrous one.

I spoke with her twice during her bucolic period. She rambled through the first conversation, giddy with back-to-the-land fervor. The second conversation revealed a marked, but not unexpected, decline in her former exuberance. The work now sounded less invigorating than back-breaking.

“What have you been working with recently?” November had come to my patch of suburban New Jersey, cold and crisp. But California was an unknown country.

“Vegetables,” she said flatly. “Rutabagas or some shit. I don’t know.”

“And are you staying on for the winter? Is there stuff to do?”

“There’s always stuff to do. Animals to tend. Crops to harvest or water or plant. Fences to mend. There’s never not stuff to do.”

“Sorry. I have no idea what happens on farm. I’m a suburban creature.”

“You have no idea of anything, really. You’ve never been anywhere or done anything.”

I didn’t know how to take that. While it was true that I was no globetrotter, I did a lot every day. I woke up. I drank coffee. I ran. Did laundry. Worked. And I went places. To the grocery store. The park. On occasion, even a museum or the movies.

“Listen, I’m just a little tired is all. The rainy season is coming and I’m just tired. But hey, I’ve met someone.”

“Tom Joad?”

“Whose chode?”

“Never mind.”

“He’s from Chile. He’s working on the farm for the fall then bumming around California a bit, you know, San Francisco, Alcatraz, Universal Studios. Then he’s going back to Santiago. It’s spring there now. He’ll get two summers.”

I could tell where she was going but asked anyway. “And you want to go with him?”

“I don’t know. I’m getting a little tired of being isolated here. The monotony, you know? Oh, I suppose you don’t.” She laughed. “But he’s super cute and bright. He’s a poet. Writes a lot about flowers and dictatorships.”

And he did, of course, invite her. I received a package from her just before Christmas. Inside, a folded piece of lined paper with a brief, exclamatory note on the back:

Hey, friend! How’s the homestead? The mums?

I’m going to Chile! Going to learn Spanish and drink wine and climb mountains. Not sure if your green thumb has any experience with fungi but here’s a little something to let you try your hand at it. See you when I see you.

Enclosed with the note was a plastic bag with a large, gray hunk of wood in it. A log for mushroom farming with simple directions. An idiot-proof way to harvest your own fresh mushrooms in your home, it said. I followed the directions, watering the rotting log in a giant enameled canning pot in my basement. It stank like a mildewing sock. After three weeks, instead of dozens of little shitake mushrooms, I proved myself an idiot and got one huge, spongy phallus. I threw the log in the backyard by the shed to see if anything else would grow on it in the spring. Nothing did.


saw her the following summer in my kitchen again, much thinner, but I couldn’t tell if it was the result of healthy living or the opposite. She brought back yerba mate and special cups and straws to drink it, and a bottle of pisco which she opened the moment it came out of the bag, in almost one motion. Here it is, there it goes.

I put the electric kettle on for the mate but she filled two cups with pisco and handed me one after downing half of hers. I figured it was the opposite.

So, Chile?”

“Did I tell you about the sunsets on the farm in California? They were different, I swear. More golden, cleaner, less red. With the smell of the wet earth. The sun feels fatter there. A flower in full bloom.”

“Very poetic. And how were the sunsets in Chile?”

“I don’t remember.”

“You back for a visit or for good?”

“I don’t know.” She looked disappointed. With me or herself, with her story or the world’s, I couldn’t tell. “I’m here, yes, and going, and back. Good, I’m not so sure. But you look good and you’re still here. This house is still here,” she said, tapping the bottom of her glass on the counter. “Yes. I always come back. Sometimes with souvenirs, sometimes not. You like the pisco?”

I nodded, feigned another sip. “But what happened to the farmer poet? Your romantic novio?” I remembered the word from high school Spanish. It sounded both new and negative.

“He was nice too.”

“But you’re here and he’s not.”

“You’re very observant.” She poured herself another pisco and raised her glass to the photo of my mother on the fridge.

“So, what happened?”

“It’s what didn’t happen that happened.”

“Is that a riddle?”

“I had a miscarriage.”

“I’m sorry. I didn’t know you’d been pregnant.” I didn’t know how to respond. I didn’t know a lot of things about her. I knew that much.

“I didn’t plan on it. I thought about coming home for an abortion. My abortion vacation.” She laughed. “But I warmed to the idea. To bringing a life into this world. To have a little someone to share it with.”

“I’m sorry.”

“You could have been her uncle. Uncle Pasta Nights. The uncle with the tacky wallpaper and the mums.”

“I would have liked that.”

“Did I send you any of his poems? My novio. I was mad about his poetry.”

“No, I don’t think so.”

“It doesn’t matter. I didn’t really understand them anyway. My Spanish sucks.”


ix months later I received a postcard from Mt. Marcy in the Adirondacks. She was finishing up a meditation retreat at a Zen monastery in the mountains there. The picture on the postcard was a close-up of green and orange lichen on a pile of gray rocks, life growing on rubble. On the back she’d simply written “Thinking of you” followed by her name. Two weeks later she was on my front porch doing origami. I pulled up and there she was, surrounded by paper animals, sharply-folded rabbits, deer, and elephants. A Saint Francis of origami.

“You have enough for an origami zoo.”

She smiled. We went inside, leaving the paper menagerie on the porch, trembling in the wind.

“Is the tree still falling in the wood?”

“Can I have a beer?”

She maintained eye contact longer than I was comfortable with. I opened two beers and offered her one but she didn’t take it.

“Can you put them down for a second?”

“Sure.” I put them on the counter, one on each side of the sink.

“Can I hug you?”

I nodded. She came over and hugged me, held is more accurate, for several minutes. It felt awkward at first, or at least I did. But once I stopped thinking it became nice.

“Thanks,” she said, releasing me and stepping back slightly though still firmly in my personal space. “I’m sorry about how I’ve treated you. Dumping my shit in your lap. The show in Brooklyn. My movie. The baggage from Chile. It’s not fair.”

“No problem. We’re friends, right?’

She held my gaze for a moment more, then nodded. “Let me have that beer.”

We took our beers to the porch. She talked about the monastery and meditation and silence and the cold morning mountain air and how up high it felt like another season and the muffled sounds of the monks’ feet thudding along the wooden floors during walking meditation and the spindly, windswept pines growing out of cracks in the rockface at tortured angles trying to reach the sun and the quiet of the place pouring into her. How porous she felt. How calm. And I told her about using my mother’s key to enter my home for the first time as her body lay cooling in the morgue. My shock at how a home so full of memories could feel so empty.

Our conversation felt, finally, comfortable. Felt real. None of her disdain, none of my distrust.

Later on, once our fingers were numb from the cold, we warmed up by walking around the old neighborhood, past the ranches and vinyl-sided split-levels and brick colonials, the blue light of television screens flashing out of the windows and briefly casting silhouettes of ornamental shrubs—leafless Japanese maples and deadheaded hydrangeas—across empty lawns. We returned to my porch and she tried to teach me how to meditate. But I’d had too many beers. I fell over a dozen times and couldn’t uncross my legs to get up. We laughed about how inflexible I was.

“I like it here,” she said, running her hands along the wooden floor of the porch as we listened to the sporadic sounds of the suburbs. A child shrieking in fear or delight. A car starting. Garages doors opening, closing. The slap of a skateboard hitting pavement.

“Me too.”

“I can see why you never left.”

“I didn’t really have a choice. It was left to me.”

“Everyone has a choice. But you chose to tend your own garden. Live in your place, in your way. I admire that. Though I never said so.”

“And I admire how adventurous you are. How you’re open to new experiences, how you seek them out. Your courage. Though I never said so.”

“It’s not courage,” she said.

“Trying new things is courageous.”

“It’s not courage,” she repeated.

“What is it, then?”

She took a deep breath and looked around. “Can I stay here tonight?”

“Sure. You don’t have to ask.”


We went inside. I made up the couch for her and, since she had no extra clothes, I lent her my mother’s flannel nightgown. She smiled and we said goodnight.

Twenty minutes later, she knocked on my door. “Can I sleep in here?”

“Is the couch uncomfortable?” I had a guestroom but she always preferred the couch. I didn’t know what else to say or offer.

“No. It’s just, I don’t know. I think I want to sleep in here tonight. If it’s OK.”

“Sure.” But I didn’t sound sure. My throat was dry. I became very conscious of my bed, how small it seemed—my mother’s queen, but suddenly it shrank to the size of the single I’d grown up with.

I scooched over to cede her some space. She sat on the edge of the bed, undid my mother’s nightgown, folded it, and placed it on the armchair beside the bed. Out of the corner of my eye I looked at her shoulder blades, at the knobs of her spine, at the tightness of her skin. I had seen her naked before—on stage and on screen—but never like this. She wasn’t sexy or sexual or sexualized. She wasn’t performing. She was vulnerable. Present and real, of the world and in it. One frail body in a big, fraught world. Two, if you counted me beside her. Though at that moment the world didn’t seem so big.

She slid under the covers and spooned me. I felt her breasts through the back of my tank top and her breath on my neck. Her hands were cold but I felt hot, feverish. I started to remember her video, the creak of that cart she pushed on stage, my mother, the strange antiseptic smell of her hospice, the way her doctor’s explanations sounded more like condescension than compassion. The lusterless hospital lights. The emptiness of my old home newly mine. I started to cry even though I hadn’t shed a tear at the funeral. To cry and then sob. And I kept sobbing while my friend held me and breathed on my neck until I fell asleep.

I woke up alone. I put on my usual sweatpants and robe and went to the kitchen to start my day. I looked outside at my neighbor’s fence and thought of the grass in the summer when it grows too long and how some mornings I’d see flattened patches from where deer had lain. If I was up early enough, I’d see the deer, quick and light, slipping through the woods to take their chances crossing New Jersey’s congested and manic maze of parkways and turnpikes. On such days I often envied the deer their swiftness, their ability to make any grass their home. Later, I’d wonder if I’d see a fresh carcass on the highway on the way to work.

On the kitchen counter I found a pile of origami paper. The same paper she’d used, but unfolded. The animals were gone, reverted back to blank pages. All that remained were the creases she’d made.


Kent Kosack