I’ll be honest. In the beginning, I stared. When you gave a relevant comment in class, when you waited for the elevator, when you first sat down and your perfect hair bounced in just that perfect feminine way that I will never master. I wondered, just as those two slacker dicks did:
“Hey, do you know if she…?”
“I don’t know man. I tried to look for the Adam’s Apple. But…I don’t know. And her figure, too, is kinda…but I dunno know.”
I flinched then. I stopped peeping out of the corners of my eyes, and brought my mind to the forefront; I began to really listen to you. Listened with everything that I had. Your presentation was everything that mine was not. You had a way about you that was effortless, confidant, crystalline and dark. I never said a thing. Not even when I realized how much I had come to esteem you, a perfect stranger.
What I should have said all that time ago, whether classmates were around or not, was:
You are beautiful. Please, I’m not trying to be weird. I just had to say it; you’re absolutely beautiful. You might be the most beautiful person I’ve ever seen. And it’s not just because I can see it in your skin, your hair, the way your lips move—there’s something else. This unnameable thing that radiates from you that I wish I had, that I’ve always looked for and never known it. And I know I’ll probably never see it again, because it is so unique to who you are. That’s okay though, because I’ve seen it now. I know that I will never really know, and I am awed—I am struck. I do not call it love, because I imagine to love you is a completely different phenomenon that would most likely destroy me in the most wonderful way; I will not do you the disservice of assuming that loving you would be easy. You are both wave and particle, sea and sand, and it’s enough to have glimpsed you once. It’s enough.
I would have said it was her plan if Mia had ever made any. To live as she did, without intention but always affect, was the most dangerous, innocent thing. I will never meet another like her, which makes sleep come easier, but the days so much longer. I saw her as Thoreau saw nature, until of course…
She slammed the door of the rusted, gray, Jeep and let her arm hang out the window—all tan and no sunburn. She smiled at me as though I’d come to see her off to a place where all her cares would be swept away with the sun at dusk. I was merely watching in that masochistic way that you do when something awful and inevitable is happening from the inside, out. I wasn’t thinking anything of the kind at the time; I was just incredibly, aware—as if my goal in life was to be a lens, solely made to perceive. Marcel swore at the radio as the sound of static spilled into the air. I knew I had seen that particular smile before.
“Don’t mope,” she said, “You know you’ll hear from me on the road.”
“That’s okay,” I said, “I don’t think I love you anymore.” Such are the ridiculous things we say when the light hurts.
“You wish,” she laughed and winked at me. I wanted to say that, in truth, I’d never wished for anything so badly.
The Jeep lurched forward and slid out of sight. I watched until they became a black pinhole on the horizon and disappeared. All at once, I felt cleaved open as dust, wind, and ruddy light poured into me. I took a breath so deep it stung my eyes. The world was salty, the cracked sidewalk seemed to tell me so. I could taste this highway town through my feet, and the girl with a hundred names was gone. So, I used my last five to buy a chocolate milkshake from the derelict diner that she had tried to hustle before Marcel swaggered in with his wife-beater and Northern accent. I left all my change in the tip jar; the blue eye-shadow the waitress wore was the saddest I’d ever seen.
I hitched a ride home on a produce truck—I don’t recommend it. I got back to my apartment around 3 am, since I had chosen to get out and walk the last four miles. I was relieved that my landlord hadn’t changed the locks while I had been away. Though he had left me eight angry voice messages. The last voice message, number nine, started just as I had thrown myself onto the couch and was beginning to fall asleep:
“Holy Shit! Jess, you won’t believe it! Well, I don’t know, you might, but seriously! I did it! I finally did it! Shit! It’s fucking beautiful. You are an asshole for not being here..”
After some muffled laughter the message cut off. The next morning, the county was a-buzz with news of the most destructive case of arson ever witnessed. Fire departments and response teams were struggling to keep up with the speed and fierceness of the fires. It was currently being blamed on gangs, or was it satanists? They hadn’t found the responsible party and wouldn’t.
It wasn’t until four weeks later that I heard from Mia—a postcard from Texas, saying she had shacked up with some guy named Miguel, (no word on Marcel or his Jeep—she had a way of forgetting people) who thought her hair was worth all the gold of the Aztecs, and that I should come with them to Mexico next week to visit Miguel’s family. I responded, but I can’t remember what I said. I do know that I drank a lot afterwards. Sometimes, as much as I wish I didn’t, I miss her. Like she told me once, there’s something about the flame that makes you wish you were the moth.
I stood so still in expectancy that I hardly breathed.
Your two small hands pressed against the hair that hung short on either side of my face.
Your soft, urging breath tickled; I bit my lip to keep from giggling.
Then again, you were laughing a little too.
The words came slowly; every vowel and consonant reaching for each other as if from a long distance. Your earnestness carefully stretched each bit out so I wouldn’t misunderstand.
It was so long ago, two bright heads bent towards each other, drawing a part only to look for eavesdroppers and laugh.
Curling affectionately into corners and places we thought we were alone; speaking in confidence,and sharing what we would never dream of mentioning to any other soul.
Like I said, it’s been awhile and neither of us really have anything to whisper about anymore, but I have never forgotten those soul-bearing moments and knowing looks; in my heart, with each surging beat of my pulse, a few of your words murmur quickly of all that once was. They echo through my blood and veins, reveling in my nervous system until my fingertips prickle with the joy of it.
I stand still when this happens, unconsciously smiling in that certain way that hints to the world you have a secret. In my mind’s eye I see us again, looking very much like little monkeys with our sparkling eyes and mischievous looks, grins peaking through the curtain of our fingers due to some wonderful private joke. These are the moments that I may never truly share with anyone else; they are me and you. This is my last secret and my best one yet.
You could have called me Homer, because all I could do was sing out my rage into the cold front that pushed past my front stoop. At him. I am always at him, and sometimes I think it’s because I just once want to be ‘to him’, but I don’t know how. And this is what he said,
“I’m going to tell you something, and it’s personal so listen. My world, my day to day, has great big walls. Big red bricks, 100 foot thick—so old, but they look new. They can look like anything. Men like me can go so easily; these walls can swallow us whole in an instant, so that our already ghost-like existence disappears. Up until now, I’ve steered clear. Played it smart. But there you are, scaring me to death. I see your pride shining out of you like a stoplight. You’re tough and new, but I can tell you know things—like you looked into a long tunnel and got lost. I know this because when I look in your eyes I see myself, terrified, staring back.”
I am staring at my assignment like it’s the end of a dinner party. The leftover food has grown cold, congealed to the serving dishes. Sincere thought retrieved their coat awhile ago. Inquiry drank too much and is asleep on the couch. I am left here in this hypothetical conundrum, looking at what’s left of my partially devoured western literature. What should I scrape onto a plate and cover with plastic wrap for this paper? What isn’t worth hanging onto?
The accessible crusts of Homer have been scraped away and eaten, leaving the cumbersome, heavy filling of vague questions—Unusable. There’s plenty of meat left on the Tao Te Ching, but is it a question of knowledge or desire that I am savoring? Could that be a hint of virtue ethics as well? Ah, Socrates is sharing the same plate. There’s no separating them, but no combining them easily either. Inquiry snores loudly from the couch.
Epicurus is souring quickly—the choice needs to happen now, but there is so much to be done. The only conclusion I can draw is that Thought is an asshole for leaving early, knowing there would be all this work around, and Inquiry is a gluttonous whore who is going to end up choking on her own vomit someday. And I, I will come up with something. It might be bad, but it will be made with the sincerity of the lover who burns you some toast in the morning.
A good story is when you have just settled down for a nice evening, there is a nice chair and plate of cookies waiting for you next to your favorite brand of quiet entertainment, and you walk across the carpet and sit down. As you sigh in contentment, you look over to the cat basket, and there is a grey fox sleeping in it. This startles you, and you find yourself forgetting about cookies, sighing, and the chair you’re sitting in. You then realize you never even had a cat.
The fox, without moving an inch, looks at you. Its ears twitch. You stare at one another in silence. It goes back to sleep, and you eat a cookie. It’s not the same cookie, nor is your chair the same chair, but you find them agreeable.
As my shaking hands struggled with the simple textile contraptions of a t-shirt and jeans, my phone buzzed on my bedside table. The text was invariably from Emily, not to mention irritated: “Impatient and hungry.” In my hysteria, I had forgotten about her geis (one of many) that required her to wait to eat, as those less punctual—me— straggled along.
My feet lead me out the door, in a wobbling sort of half-run. I managed to scrape seven dollars and change off my nightstand as I went—an old habit from meaner times—and hit my shin on the door frame. It would be nice to get out of the apartment for awhile. I was out of breath at Panera before I realized I had run the whole way. I immediately spotted Emily in a far booth against the wall.
“Well, look who decided to put on pants today.” Emily arched an eyebrow at me above her coffee. That unmistakable, amused wrinkle in her brow still made my heart flutter in it’s stupid little bone-cage. “Still rocking the X-Men shirt I see. How long ago was high school?”
“Don’t hate me because I have amazing mutant powers.” I sat down across from her with a half sandwich and a bold roast that was still too hot to drink. Her impeccable manners allowed me to settle into my seat before proffering her news. I took the time to survey the crowded dining area instead of experiencing, yet again, Emily’s direct, earnest gaze. A bespectacled man glared at his Apple laptop in an easy chair; two middle-aged women in track suits talked too loudly about some hussy named Patricia; a couple ogled each other in a strawberry cream cheese kind of way. I took a silent breath and turned to Emily and her plain cream cheese. I wished for a moment, that I was having brunch with anyone else.
“I’ve been worried about you,” she said.
“That’s valid.” I sipped my coffee.
“How’s the therapy?” She said. I chewed a bite of my Cuban sandwich twenty-seven times before I responded.
“Loving it. I’m a new woman—should have done this years ago.”
“That’s good. So, do you think you’ll be going back to Penmore soon?”
There was the rub; my skin prickled, and I casually eased my arm off the table, out of sight.
“If I’m ready, the Head said I could return in the fall. We’ll see.”
“Sarah,” she said. The look was potent, an invitation to pour myself all over the table, but I resisted.
“What?” I said, through a mouthful of ham and cheese for spite.
“You are planning on going back?”
“I don’t know,” I said. I leaned back in my chair, “maybe it’s time for me to move on. There’s a lot of schools out there, good schools—a whole world of students. I’m thinking of learning Mandarin, maybe teach English in China or something.”
“Sarah.” This time she leaned forward and squeezed my hand. My mouth went dry; I hadn’t been expecting that. “You don’t need to punish yourself anymore.” I simultaneously wanted to slap her and weep inconsolably into her perfect pink hand.
“Don’t,” I said. My hand tore itself from hers. “Don’t pretend to understand.”
“You know I’m right.” She withdrew herself with poise; I had hoped to hurt her, but her defenses were too good. I felt my face crawl with shame. “How does that poem go? ‘You don’t have to walk on your knees through the desert repenting?’”
“I have to do something.” I had lost my appetite, but at least I could look her in the eye.
I had overslept that Tuesday morning because that is what you do when you have lost the ways and weight of matter; when an airy blanket of complacency has brushed away the heavy passions that drive you from your sheets. Also, there was nothing in the kitchen for breakfast, so might as well skip it.
Emily—in every sense of the name—called me at 11:45, just as the foggy dew was evaporating off my window. I let it ring a few times as I pondered the little water electrons escaping into the atmosphere. When at last I answered, I pretended that I had been sleeping instead of lying awake for the past eleven minutes in the stale egg-yolk light of my bedroom.
“Let’s go to brunch, I haven’t seen you all week,” she said.
“But it’s only Tuesday.”
“I have news. Panera in an hour?”
I agreed. I didn’t want to go to Panera, just like I didn’t want to go bike riding, job hunting, or free-falling from a fifty story building. I didn’t want to sit in a mock-wrought-iron chair and deal with the way Emily scraped smear across her whole-wheat bagel. So I lay in bed for another fifteen minutes, determined to stand her up and make excuses later.
A car alarm went off in the street below. A breeze adjusted my blinds. My skin began to feel sticky, so I got up. Emily, goddammit, Emily.
I took my time in the shower, watching the suds trail off into the drain. As I toweled off I could still feel the hot water pouring down my face, and I sat, and I sank and sank and sank my head into my hands. I could hear the growling darkness pushing itself up from my floor. My breath became shallow as I remembered the terrible texture of worn loose leaf crumbling in my hand, and the image of Max crawling up from the shadows, pulling at the chains of Erebus. I watched his limbs twist and contort themselves toward me; his thin frame even more awkward without the control and confines of a physical body. Max was light and shadow, impossible, but he kept trying to speak to me slowly, screaming as apparitions tend to do in dreams. I was awake shaking against the edge of my bed, trying to ignore the smell and taste of blood. As I curled into myself, feeling my consciousness slip, there was a great howling that came up from the floor where Max had appeared and pulled him down again with a great quake that came from another world. My lamp rattled, though I knew it couldn’t have. I dressed and brushed my teeth, trying to dispel the white, trembling fear from my face.
I went to my notebook, as always, turned a page, and continued my mantra from the night before:
Maxwell Brik is not a monster.Maxwell Brik was my student. Maxwell Brik is dead. He does not desire to harm or speak to me, because he is not alive.
I chewed my pen. I made a note of the howling. That was new.
Elijay’s mother had wings. They managed to peak out of any blouse or dress she owned between the nape of her neck and the soft curve of her broad shoulders. The feathers were so fine, they were almost translucent, like corn silk. She didn’t like for people to touch them, and she kept them tucked away in public. She had the grace of a mare’s tail cloud in summer, and she smelled like cinnamon and wood smoke. As far as anyone knew, she walked everywhere she went.
She was afraid of cars because she had seen her brother get run over when they were children. She would wake Elijay up early ever day to walk him to school. Her legs could slit a giants throat.
She hated thunderstorms and didn’t like to be wet. She said it made her feel heavy. She rarely spoke, but she gave good hugs. Elijay supposed that words were heavy too.
She liked to wear overalls and eat her lunch on the roof of the two-bedroom they rented from Mr. Connelly across the street. She could fix anything: scabbed knees, bicycle chains, flooded gutters, leaky faucets, potatoes au gratin. She earned a living assisting the septuagenarians who refused to leave their homes. The seniors liked her because she had a face that listened, and a few of the more traditionalists saw her as an angel, though she firmly refused the title.
She was serious, and only Elijay could make her laugh outright, her lips pulled back like a scarlet curtain to show the curious little gap between her front teeth. As a joke, she would stick pennies or dimes between her teeth at the dinner table and pretend not to notice them.
She combed her son’s dark, curly hair every night. Though he tried, Elijay couldn’t outrun, out-hide, or out-climb her.
She could kill a fly with a single swat of her hand. Dirty feet inside made her angry, and on a rare, hot day, she cussed out Mr. Connelly for not sending someone to fix the AC—the one appliance that mystified her.
They lived alright, and they were happy until a late-August thunderstorm took her away.
Usually, when it was fixing to storm, Elijay’s mother would shut herself away in her room with the blinds drawn, but that day she had been out on the roof when a black cloud smothered the sun. A gall, the likes of which the town had never seen, pounced on the little two bedroom house. Mr. Connelly watched in horror from his front-room window while his South Paw sweated in his hand. He watched her fight the wind in terror and rage against the invisible bonds that pulled her. Her long hair was jerked half-way over her face like a taught sheet. The wind lifted her upwards off the roof as the rain came down in slanted spikes. She stretched her opulent wings in vain, trying to counter her ascent. For a moment, she was hovering like an honest to god spirit in the sky, but then she faltered. Her right wing twisted back on itself from the strain, and her mouth opened in a scream that couldn’t be heard above the roar of the wind and thunder. The cloud sucked her away and rolled back towards the west—vanished. A few sickly gray clouds stayed behind and kept up the steady rain that soaked through Elijay’s shirt as he ran home.
He was grinning and his breath came in gasps. They were learning about the rudiments of genetics in his class, and as evidenced by the way his shirt clung to his back, he had something marvelous to show his mother.