Hello, says the young woman with a taxi. She stares at the person standing at the sidewalk, the brown kid with a baggy pale blue t-shirt and a bright teal support cane and two duffel bags.
Hello, mixter, she says again, and Kas blinks and gets into the car.
At the station ey scans eir ticket from eir phone at the turnstile — a security guard squints at em but lets em pass — and takes a seat at Station No. 6, leaning eir cane against the bench. Ey rotates eir shoulder and winces; eir bags are too heavy and it feels funny. Hypermobile Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome is very fun.
Next to em is some kid slumped over their backpack, asleep, earbuds in. Ey fingers the edge of eir wrist brace. Eir entire body is buzzing. Ey took eir meds before ey left but ey’s still anxious.
Kas waits for the ship.
When Jenna was fourteen and Kas was fifteen they were in that coffee shop in the middle of the desert, stirring her drink, a few months after the astronauts landed on Mars. “The scientists say they’re going to build an outpost.” She sighed. “Can you imagine? Not in our lifetime, I don’t think, but what I would give to go up there.”
Astronomy wasn’t something they could sustain themselves on. She moved to the Bay Area and got into computer software. Kas moved to Seattle and works part time as a barista in an indie café that pays decently well, and every time else as a freelance writer.
But it doesn’t keep them from dreaming of the stars.
Tech advanced faster than they thought it would. Now there are spaceships that take two hours to get to the Moon and soon, they’re going to start populating Mars, only a day trip away. All this time they’ve somehow managed to keep in touch.
Jenna’s moved to Luna with her girlfriend already, a few months after the one Habitat on its surface opened. She runs checks on the tech that keeps the city online.
Two weeks later, she texts.
She says things are stable. She’s got a week that she’s managed to clear out, wouldn’t ey like to come by for a few days?
Kas looks at eir life — thirty years old and ey’s accomplished approximately nothing except a farily impressive amount of slam poetry events and medical trauma.
Ey takes a few vacation days. It turns out indie cafés, the ones run by two trans women (who are married and adorable), are pretty good about that, even if they’re white. Ey packs a few changes of clothes in a duffel bag and fills the other with meds and braces and a spare cane. Jenna uses her engineer privilege and a few favors to get em a free round trip.
So here ey is.
The ship stops and the doors slide open with a hiss. Kas finds eir seat. Hefts a duffel bag on the overhead compartment. Pain shoots through eir wrists and back and shoulders but that’s how it is for most things. Connective tissue disorder means eir joints suck and about ten billion other symptoms besides.
Ey sticks the other one below the seat in front of em and sits down with a sigh. Window seat. Ey takes a breath. Can feel eir heart rate going up. Eir skin is hot and itchy and sweaty under the wrist braces so ey takes them off.
The engine hums to life.
Jenna smiles in this café like she did so many years ago, fifteen years older, dream come true. She stirs her coffee and talks about her job, the code she’s running, the stuff she’s seen up here.
They’ve both grown up, and changed, but some things stay the same.
Kas laughs with her. Tells her about eir writing, the customers ey has to deal with. Ey gets some weird looks — ey doesn’t look disabled, and ey and Jenna are brown, and there are only rich white folk living here right now — but ignores them.
This isn’t a long vacation. They might not see each other for a long time. She’s needed up here. And Kas isn’t rich enough to live here, and ey needs a place to pick up meds and a hospital nearby. It’s one thing to build a city and quite another to get people to stay.
But for now they’re together, and ey can forget the things ey has to do. And their faces glow with all the smugness of kids to whom grown-ups once said that’s impossible, and who proved them wrong.
They both got here in the end.
When we were 16 you let our friend Rodney tattoo you in his basement. He had rigged a makeshift tattoo gun from an electric toothbrush and guitar strings. The hum began and your gaze locked with mine. I wondered if you could see my heart in the glaze of my eyes.
More and more lately we had been hanging out alone. You’d gotten your driver’s permit and your parents didn’t give a shit about teaching you, so I would ride shotgun as we cruised around the neighborhood after school in an ancient Toyota Camry. I was younger by a few months so I didn’t know how to drive either. Nothing seemed as important as the rhythm between us when we exited the car, our heads bobbing up, the chorus of doors slamming, the beat of our Converse hitting the pavement as we walked in step to wherever we were headed. The last few months, you had become the world in which I existed. Sometimes you called me your moon.
Rodney tattooed the word “punk” on you while you were wearing a denim vest that you’d dedicated time to, sewing patches on all over. It smelled like booze and cigs and sweat and it made you a punk kid. You explained to me that girls have to try harder to be punks. You said we were always seen as weak, that we had to prove ourselves. Once, I saw you kiss another girl at one of Mack McKenna’s basement parties. It made me feel like seaweed, like the gravity had been pulled out of the room. I thought about you kissing other girls a lot, even though I liked boys. I was kind of seeing Mack’s friend, Dylan. I saw him on the days that you worked right after school, or if you had a family thing. You said you didn’t like him. He reminded you of Dr. Frankenstein’s sidekick, Igor and you hated how he shuffled when he walked. But Dylan was my denim vest, my signifier that I deserved to be a punk too.
I guess it struck me how ironic it was that you had to brand yourself with the word “punk” to make you feel punk. To be fair to you, Rodney wasn’t exactly a certified tattoo artist. He had been after us for the past few weeks, begging us to be his first victims. You weren’t afraid of being the first piece of human flesh he was injecting ink into but I had to come with you. His previous experiments with orange peels sat shriveling on the concrete floor. He pulled out a metal folding chair for me, and you sat on a couch, Rodney perched next to you. The basement was the kind of cold that made you quiet and sank into your joints even though it was the summer. You reached over and grabbed my fingers as Rodney prepped your skin with rubbing alcohol. You’d worn shorts for the event and your tooth white skin glared under the fluorescent lights. I gave your hand a squeeze. Rodney looked over, catching our secret message. He grunted, pulling your leg closer to him, so that his own knees pinned it into place. I smiled but it felt like I was baring my teeth. “Is this safe?” I asked Rodney and he looked up; grinning big and holding the buzzing rig close to your skin. “Of course, babe.” He called me babe a lot, like it was my name. It made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. Once, I told you that I hated that he called me that and you said he didn’t mean anything by it. He called you babe too and yeah, you didn’t like it but that was just how it was. After all, he knew you were a girl who dated girls so he couldn’t mean anything by it, right? You told me punks aren’t so sensitive. Why didn’t I ever ask you who had given you these lessons? Why didn’t I think it through? Your words were tarnished silver to me and I held onto them tightly, hoping that with enough attention I would be able to uncover what was underneath.
You winced when he started. I imagined it felt like bee stings. Rodney’s legs clamped around your own and it looked like the two of you were overlapping. Rodney’s greasy hair strands kept slipping from behind his ear and nearly brushed your skin. You kept your eyes on me and kept your hand clasped firmly in mine. I thought about the time I found poetry in the margins of your math notebook. You told me they were songs. I asked if they were about me because when you are 16 everything is about you and you are about everything and you blushed and said no, that’s stupid. In the basement with fluorescent lights shining on your skin being carved up I summoned words you wrote and knew they were about me. A thrill of fear plummeted through me. If your poetry was about me, if you thought about me as much as I thought about you, maybe things would be different. Maybe love would look different than I thought it could. My eyes stayed on the makeshift rig, dipped into india ink every few seconds. The color beat it's way into your skin. I wondered how this change would feel tomorrow. If you would ever think about this night in Rodney’s basement and what you would remember. If it would just be about the letters sinking into your thigh, or if you would remember me holding your hand.
I wondered if you would grow up to become a lawyer, or some straight laced office chick and you would have to explain this when you wore short skirts or a bathing suit. My heart jumped again, this time so hard that I could feel it, electric between my teeth. I wanted to kiss you, but punks don’t kiss and punks don’t have hearts and punks get basement tattoos that are crooked right atop their knee caps. And I wonder if maybe I’m not a punk after all. Maybe the need to kiss you was something else because I’d never felt it like that before. The feeling radiating from my lips down to my kneecaps. I never felt it for Dylan, or the guy I kissed before him, or any boy I’d ever batted my eyelashes at. I almost jumped up. You smirked at me, all knowing, keeping me glued to the folding chair.
After Rodney wiped your new tattoo down, he took a picture “for the portfolio.” He gave us a shot of Jameson and we left. The liquor settled bitter and thick on the back of my tongue. We walked side by side. You in your denim vest and Op Ivy shirt, me in my cutoff Nirvana tank top and jeans.
“What do you want to do now?” You asked. It was almost midnight. When you are 16, summer is the thing of miracles. The world is warm enough to hold you and you have enough agency to weave situations, twirl circumstance and the need for excitement together and see what happens.
“We could go to yours and watch TV?” I offered. My body still felt warm and melted, strange and empty. Even with all of the possibility in front of us, sometimes it seems best to stay safe. Huddle inside and feed our impulses to quippy television shows that we can quote to one another in the months ahead.
“Do you think that people will like my tattoo?” You looked at me, eyes shining like a Christmas tree.
“Duh, none of us have tattoos yet, Rae. You’ll be the coolest of them all.”
“You’re next,” you laughed. “You are my moon, you always follow me.”
I wasn’t sure if I should be offended or not. Were my choices not valid? Did I only follow you and ask for your permission?
I asked you again about that poetry and I really don’t know why. I think it was the line “I just thought about how you sit on couches next to me,” that began the elegy that really caught me. You turned to me and there were street lamps lit all around you, that dead quiet near midnight where things start to feel wilty. You jammed your mouth against my own fast, like a lightning strike. I heard heavy guitar crashes and the air smelled like lilacs and you tasted like fresh cigarettes spiced with irish whiskey and my heart was there. I wondered if you could taste it as your tongue slid against my own. I wondered if you were thinking of the way I sit on couches next to you, facing you, back to the room, staring into your brimstone eyes as if that’s what keeps me upright. You broke away first and I was left kissing the summer air. You said, “I knew it,” as you looped your fingers in between my own and we started walking down the cul de sac to my house, hips bumping, hearts jangling, skin shaking with the aftermath.
You knew it. You said it and the words burrowed into my brow like shrapnel. You knew it, knew me better than I knew myself. I was jealous of the knowledge you had apparently known all along, and had never thought to make me privy to. Still, your lips brushing against my own at the end of the night were enough for now.
The next day you wore jeans with big holes in the knees so that everyone who saw you could see your new tattoo on display. You greased it up with aquaphor every few minutes and your car smelled like band-aids and cigarettes. It turned my stomach in the crushing heat.
There was a show in Mack McKenna’s basement that night. His parents had a two car garage but since his mom took off his dad had just let him have the run of the thing. You were excited. You said we didn’t have to tell anyone about us yet, if I wasn’t ready. You knew I had never been in a real relationship before and you understood if I was having trouble with the whole coming out thing. I smiled and it felt like concrete on my face. I wanted to tell you that I was having trouble with it. That it seemed like a spin on my life that I had lived so long without, and even though kissing you felt as natural as breathing I still hadn’t gotten used to the frame of what things looked like now.
“Was this easy for you?” I asked, my face turned to my legs. I could see the tributaries of shiny white stretch marks from where I grew my tree trunk thighs too fast. I picked at the frayed edges of my shorts, pulling strings free and dropping them onto the floor of the car.
You were driving, one arm hanging out of the window. You glanced over at me. Your eyes reminded me of dark beer bottles, gleaming and full. “It’s never like, easy. But I guess I just wasn’t patient and I knew what I wanted and I never really thought it was wrong or anything like that. You know my parents are hippies.” Read: your parents rarely showed up or gave a shit.
“Is it weird that I’m scared?” I was ashamed of how small and metallic my voice sounded. When I looked back to you… Well, it all happened so fast.
I screamed. They weren’t words, just some guttural noise that only made your warm, dark eyes widen with surprise.
When you woke up in the hospital I was sitting next to you. Your moon. The Explorer cracked into the side of your Camry, pinning your left arm between two behemoth metal monsters. I was safe, a little bruised and shaken but otherwise untouched. Your arm was broken in three places, your wrist fractured, each finger sporting it’s own silver splint. Your head was done up in a white bandage. It matched my own.
“What happened?” You asked into the crisp, medicinal air. Your voice was sandy with confusion and pain.
“I was just thinking of the way you look at me when you drive,” I said. My words were overpowered by the rush of your parents to your side. The coo and glow of their relief that you were awake, you were alive, you were battered but otherwise the same girl you’d always been. And after you took in their faces, felt their tears on your skin you looked to me over their shoulders and the look in your eyes told me you heard me. You were scared too but I was there and somewhere inside of you maybe you doubted that. Maybe you thought the fear would have kept me from you, hurled me back into my room for you to come and uncover later. And that was the day I learned that punks do have hearts and punks do kiss and sometimes punks get scared and hurt because at the end of the day we are all just people.
I don’t know you anymore, and I will never know your last name. I don’t know where you are, you don’t work at Paint It! anymore. So I am going to write this, and print it out a few times. Maybe staple some together and put them on park benches and under windshield wipers so at least other people can know how you factored into my life. They will read it, but it’s not for them. You won’t read it, but it’s for you.
Sometimes that summer when you and I knew one another, I sat in my room for hours and refused to think. Sometimes I felt pathetic sadness incapacitate me. Once it was triggered by an offer on a Popsicle box that said you could get a “free mp3 download” if you went online and entered a code. This offer was presented in a neon green starburst. Another time was when my mom got my brother Angry Birds pencil toppers for his birthday and he screamed. Screaming happened every time my brother experienced a gift-giving holiday.
“I don’t like Angry Birds!” was what he yelled this time.
“I thought everyone liked Angry Birds,” said my mom.
“It’s only for iPhones. I might play it if you gave me an iPhone.” My mom tried to hide her sadness and frustration. The rubber pencil toppers are in the one drawer in my kitchen that nobody opens. I might throw them away sometime.
I’d like to think you’d understand if I ever told you these kinds of things.
Mitsuko had been my best friend since 9th grade. You might have seen her paint mugs with me at Paint It! a few times. She wore cat eye makeup and bought the shortest tank tops with the thinnest fabric she could find. She was intensely jealous of her twin Haruko and her boyfriend Mikey, since the two were super in love. Haruko was the one who looked like Mitsuko but wore more neon rave gear. Mikey was the tall one with a flowing head of red hair and a lot of moles. The two were always graphically making out in public. Once he shot an off-duty police officer with a BB gun in a park, then sped off on a bicycle. Whether the bike was stolen or not, the details are lost to time. He got convicted of a felony and spent a few months in juvie where phone calls were $15 a minute. Haruko spent the money and waited patiently, then reunited with Mikey despite the restraining order that the mom filed. Now he’s somehow on this reality show about people in 12-step programs. I watched it once. They bleep out half the things anyone says while royalty free g-funk backing tracks play in the background.
Mitsuko, Haruko, and Mikey always came out of a store carrying something they had stolen. Mitsuko would fish out a candy bar from her pocket as we walked down Cross Avenue, nibbling the chocolate inside. I tried to let it go. I even tried to support them to cool down my built-in hatred of shoplifting. I would say “It’s a dog eat dog world” or some other halfhearted cliché.
Fun fact: I am one of the only people in the world who can tell Mitsuko and Haruko apart. They’re fraternal twins, but that doesn’t seem to matter to the rest of the world.
I was working at Pier 1 Imports around that time, often mopping the floor after closing. Mitsuko never visited me there, despite my reminders. One song that played on the system had a bumpin’ swing beat and the synths sounded purple. It stopped in the middle so I could take a deep breath and hear nothing but the wet mop dragging across the floor.
Googling the lyrics and Shazam proved useless in finding this song. Theory: it was made by a guy who wanted to get his song out in the world and he knew someone who worked for Pier 1. And that’s the only place it was ever played.
“A part of me I never knew/until the day that I met you.”
Sue me. Someone sue me so I can find out what song that is.
Deborah, another sales associate, said that I couldn’t put my own CDs into the Pier 1 sound system. She had tried one morning before opening with a Linda Ronstadt. Didn’t play. One quarter when a new Pier 1 CD arrived, she tried to put last quarter’s disc in her car player. It didn’t work. Pier 1 Imports has its own exclusive CD-stereo family, just like North Korea has its own internet.
“Pier 1!” you said when I told you I worked there. “My mom always used to take me there. They had these beautiful handmade wooden toys.” You loved toys. You said all your old photography projects featured toys. And that sometimes you sold the toys for money, biking to weird places in San Diego with a garbage bag full of dinosaur action figures.
The person who brought me to Paint It! in the first place was someone named Julian. I prayed you wouldn’t remember him.
You told me you were 29, and only getting older.
Haruko’s favorite place to shoplift was the H&M jewelry section. The easiest place to steal from, she said, was Abercrombie and Fitch. She could run out of the store and the buzzer would sound, but the dance music would be so loud that the buzzer couldn’t drown it. I imagined a book called “A Smart Girl’s Guide to Shoplifting,” designed with all the pink-bordered fervor of an American Girl book. It would ride on the simple excuse that “this economy doesn’t always let you get what you want these days. Take the frugal route! You go gal!” I figured it could be sold in Urban Outfitters.
I had it bad for someone named Kourosh ever since my senior year of high school. He never talked but always hung around my group in ROP Animation, saying something wildly funny in his monotone every 30-70 minutes. I became a little fascinated when I found his Tumblr dedicated to stupid bumper stickers. I grabbed his iPod once and he had bands I had never heard of that he said were a genre of music called “C86.”
I forget what ROP stands for.
For about six months, the only things I consistently looked forward to were sleeping and seeing Kourosh every day. I went to two weddings in other states, and I yelled his name off several different balconies. A few days after graduating, I was in the shower when I realized I could just message him on Facebook and try to be friends. There was nothing stopping me. NOTHING. So I messaged him and he was receptive. So we typed long messages for a year and never hung out. We were those kinds of friends. After Julian and I broke up, I asked him to hang out for real since I was in a post-breakup life change phase. I took photos of him because that’s the ultimate social lubricant. And when I sent them his way, the colorful shots where he laid on a bed of pine needles with a red zip-up jacket, he thanked me. He loved them and he thanked me warmly. And he asked me to spend time with him.
So I was working the typical social air hockey game: I asked him. Then he asked me. Then I was planning to ask him again. And then he surprised me, threw off my whole course of action. He wanted to kick it, and with Mitsuko too. (He knew Mitsuko not because of me, but because Mikey had sold cocaine to him. You know, the usual.)
Maybe the three of us could be special friends, I thought. Maybe this was “the good summer.”
We went to Mira Mesa because they wanted to loiter. Mira Mesa is this inland neighborhood where San Diego stops pretending to be California Dreamin’. We hung out at this big shopping center with everything you could ever want and the mountains. Barnes and Noble, IMAX, Petco, Target. A place where you could hide in the big safe wonders of commercialism.
We ate at Panda Express. Or was it Pick Up Stix? Both are amazing. Salty, gooey orange chicken and noodles. That word still makes me fall over. Noodles. Ditto with “orange sauce.” Then we traversed the oceanic parking lot to Barnes and Noble, the most comforting place I can think of. I know everyone likes tiny “charming” used bookstores, but there’s nothing like a two story Barnes and Noble, escalators and all.
Mitsuko: The Nook is just everywhere here.
Me: They NEED you to have a Nook.
Mitsuko: What if a robot arm like, secretly snuck a Nook into your shopping pile before you were about to check out?
Me: Shopping carts would have a secret Nook hidden in them that would release itself into the pile once other books were put on top of it.
Mitsuko: But how good is that, really? Look, we don’t even have any carts. We’ll never get Nooks now.
Me: Yeah, how are we supposed to have Nooks? This is something the marketing team needs to consider.
Kourosh: That guy from the cardboard cutout would probably “approach” you in the bathroom.
Me: Then you’d say no. You’d go out to your car and fumble for your keys and you couldn’t find them.
Kourosh: The guy would pop up from behind the other side of your car dangling your keys. He would be like, “Looking for these?”
We stood in my bathroom and poured vodka into empty plastic water bottles. It was my first real drink and I sucked it straight to impress them. They were impressed. We went in my living room and put on Kiki’s Delivery Service which was just a prop so we could drink more. We all huddled together on my couch in front of the big plasma TV and in our three-way body tangle, Kourosh’s head found his way to mine and his lips sought mine. I pushed him off, whispering we could kiss when we were alone. But I felt as if I were in an ethereal heaven. It was finally happening. I wasn’t thinking about the future in that moment. There was no future. Just a dream where I would feel the love of Kourosh, it would fulfill me in every corner of my being, and then I would die.
Mitsuko disappeared down the hall to the bathroom, Kourosh finally pounced on me in the dark and we kissed, his mouth tasted like vodka. We heard her coming back, Kourosh and I peeled ourselves apart, and we all watched Kiki as if nothing had happened. My dream was coming true, I could deal with pretending everything was normal for a little bit. I went upstairs to get my laptop so we could all look at /r/cringepics (I don’t read that anymore, I promise). I came down to find his mouth on hers. Plain as day, like a big joke. It made too much sense for me to be angry. I picked up the remote and shut off the TV. “Get out,” I said. “GET OUT.”
I sat on the guest bed in the dark and wrote an email draft with the subject line “I’m drunk.” I blamed myself for feeling bad, it was my fault for expecting him to kiss only me. What a dumb expectation, huh?
I sent the email to nobody. The next morning I was hung over. My first hangover. I always thought they would make my head hurt, but this one just made me feel feverish. I threw up in the shower.
It’s a known rule of society, maybe the universe: bookstores are supposed to be safe. Books are established symbols of comfort and solitude, and when thousands of them are around you, there’s no way you’re not in a sacred place. Kourosh could have kissed Mitsuko any other day. He could have even just waited until after midnight. You don’t two-time someone just after being in a bookstore.
YOU JUST DON’T.
For a while I wanted to steal Kourosh back, or at least get a few more kisses. This was until Mitsuko and I sat in the iron chairs in her small, weedy backyard. Nearby was an unused grill covered by a cobwebby blue tarp. I realized that she wanted him too, and I didn’t want to put up a fight. So I suggested we both avoid him, that kisses would only cause drama.
Mitsuko’s lips froze up, and then she dated him anyway. She whined about his clinginess and how he consistently took an hour to jizz. I still ached for these things. I thought I would love and care for Kourosh just the way he was.
But as the summer dragged on, I slowly realized that I didn’t love the way he was. Anyone I loved who could love Mitsuko was not who I thought they were.
I couldn’t help but returning to a couch. A couch in a corner of the Taos Room, floors black and linoleum with scuff marks everywhere. Julian and I stumbled around and then I noticed its holy grail as other disenchanted people with nonconformist hairstyles rolled off. The couch was three cushions across and suede and purple, the color and texture matted out by grease and spotted by dark stains that could have been gum, cigarette burns, spilled drinks. But the purpleness of the couch was unfettered in the end, shining through all the wear. Purple has a way of staying purple in its essence.
The couch was floppy from thousands of people sprawling their weight on it. We sat down and pet each other’s chests and he guided me down until we were lying. I felt the excitement of a totally new body that tremored in different ways and emitted different temperatures than all the other ones I had touched. We kissed and these new feelings made me shake. They mixed like bleeding colors, potent as the music blared through the fuzzy big speakers, lacking all the precision of headphones. Someone threw a rolled up ball of paper at us, maybe a McDonald’s wrapper. Felt judged but focused on his face to get them away. Same when someone said “get a room.” Soon the onlookers meant nothing to me, the affection and the criticism surrounding it were just two facets of this mecca of counterculture that concerts welcome. I kissed his face in this loud darkness, and the liquor in my blood that he bought me (I wore my fingerless gloves so nobody saw my Xs) gave me a warm and stupid feeling.
He and I used to play games where we pretended to be a cute old couple. He lost his marbles one day and I ran down the stairs of his apartment complex crying, leaving all our playtimes choking to death in the sunlight. A carefully built fantasy world vaporized in less than the time it would take you to say “Fuck my stupid fucking life.”
What was that year-long relationship for anyway? I wanted to give it a shot. I thought it would be a logical growth, from tonguing around to a deep adult connection. It ended up being for nothing. I might have learned some lessons about what kind of people to avoid, but afterward I spent all my free time feeling shitty. Sometimes I made myself leave my house so I could feel like I’d done something. Anything. Sometimes I went and did a tile at Paint It! just to chat you up, and sometimes I ended up people watching for hours, in the bars I wandered with my fake ID. I wanted to run up to those masculine beer-stenched idiots with pool cues and scream,
“Don’t you know that all your woman-searching is all for making embryos? That you are all FROM embryos, and soon you will be worm food?”
Here is a list of other things I did that summer:
- Joined MeetUp under a fake name, then never did anything on it.
- Spent hours choosing specials to record on the DVR. Topics like gazelles, the history of bread, Alcatraz. Didn’t get more than ten minutes into any of them. My hobbies include planning to watch TV, I should put on my OKCupid profile.
- Tried to get the contact info of a barista at a Peet’s at Heritage Mall. I was stalking him because once he wrote some names of classical musicians for me on a napkin. Now that Julian was out of the picture, I rushed back, buying a lot of iced tea and taking notes on what days of the week he worked. Paulo. He gave me his name on a coffee cup and told me to add him on Facebook. I tried to show him to Mitsuko on her laptop and he didn’t come up. I became fearful that he had dead-ended me, and she gave me a worried look, agreeing with her eyes. After watching Waking Life with her for the five thousandth time while secretly thinking of Paulo, I ripped off the metaphorical band-aid and walked home. My stomach was in knots the whole way. I helped a guy climb over the Jehovah’s Witness church parking lot fence and he told me about how he loved God. I found an olive green beanie on the ground that I later washed and wore repeatedly. At home, as the sun set, I searched so hard and desperately online that I began to feel like an idiot. No dice. So I formulated detailed plans to go to the cafe at irregular intervals. I started to learn the appearances and work times of other people who worked in the café and I gave them nicknames. Gondola. Hammer. Uranium. They weren’t supposed to make sense. One day after giving up, I went to the coffee shop after buying a new septum ring at Claire’s (I know that store is gross, but I didn’t want to give Hot Topic my money). I really, genuinely needed an iced tea that evening. Paulo was there, alone, with food machines quietly whirring behind him. I told him I couldn’t find him on Facebook and he gave me his email. I sent him a friendly hello, knowing nothing would come of it. So I deleted the email from my sent box, and then from my email trash. Can you guess what happened next? You’re right. Nothing. If he had just given me a clearer answer the first time, I wouldn’t have had to go back in the first place. Thanks a lot, Paulo.
- Found a hike on Yelp that was 35 miles away. I hiked it and talked to some rock climbers. It was okay. I drove back.
- Followed Mitsuko and Kourosh on their regular trips to Letourneau Street. Mitsuko had no working air conditioner in her car because Mikey crashed it once. I could never see the stars on that street, Letourneau. I could see the street lamps but I kept my gaze on the neon and the smoke. There were so many restaurants—three sushi bars, Indian, Thai, Peruvian. Multiple places that definitely had Taco Tuesday, along with heat lamp decks and liter margaritas. One night Mitsuko, Haruko, and their boyfriends went for Chipotle despite the world of cuisine in front of them and I obliged, again. Mitsuko and Haruko were passionate about Chipotle. They drew from their go-to combinations while ordering. Haruko had hers memorized, and Mitsuko had hers written down in her phone. After all the rice and beans we resumed the walk along Letourneau again. The most sacred rite of our teen and young adult years, second to burning through bowls in rooms filled with candles. Mikey went in a tattoo shop titled “Tattoo” in easily recognizable “tattoo” font. The lobby had red vinyl booths and pine floors. He looked at the sample book (which revealed the shop had a name longer than “Tattoo”), considered a Hindu symbol design, said thank you, and left. We wandered in a sex shop and how in the world could a sex shop be so dull, I wondered. There was lights-out spa with tubes in the windows filled with water, flowers floating inside like babies in a womb. There was a shuttered-up florist stand on the corner, closed for the night. We went in a bong shop. “These are gorgeous bongs,” I mumbled to myself. The bearded clerk in a black collared shirt said, “No, they’re called WATER PIPES.” I took a photo of them and the clerk told me to delete it. I flipped my camera over and showed him that blackness, the absence of a screen. I remembered when my uncle first gave me that film camera and I marveled at the nothingness on the back. That mere wrist flip, that showing the clerk the back of my camera was as good as spitting in his face.
- Occupied my mom’s room with my fat ass and watched Breaking Bad on her huge TV, lying on the bed and eating bags of “healthy” unbuttered popcorn. When I finished the series, I just watched it again. The episode “Fly” is so wonderfully better the second time.
- Told Mitsuko and Kourosh to drive to me while they were on LSD. I was hoping they would crash. I’m an attempted murderer. I confess.
They threw a party called Ushibafest. That was their last name, Ushiba. The dad was white, the mom Japanese, and the dad had taken off before his last name could be etched on the birth certificates. The mom was working the ER that night. She was a nurse. I went to the party early because I had nothing else to do. Mikey had a bar set up at the counter with a whiteboard hanging overhead, detailing all the liquor stashed under the sink. Kind of appropriate because I always thought liquor tasted like drain cleaner. The whiteboard read:
Vodka! Pinnacle (cotton candy). Skyy (dragonfruit). Smirnoff (green apple). Smirnoff (raspberry). Smirnoff (marshmallow). UV (blue!!!).
Rum! Malibu. Malibu (mango). King’s Bay. Caliche.
Other! Jagermeister. Baileys. MD (20/20).
Beer… Great White. Julian (Hard cider).
Other drinks ---> Coffee. Water. Lemonade. Juice.
Gabbiano is one of the most annoying words/names I have ever heard. Plus I think their bottles are about $6, anyway.
Smirnoff was the kind of vodka we drank when Kourosh two-timed me. Now Mikey poured it for the early evening crowd and worked them like nobody’s business. He even poured the liquor into solo cups balancing on his head.
Mitsuko, Kourosh, Haruko and Mikey sat on the floor in a diamond formation and did helium balloons. They inhaled and talked like chipmunks for one breath. This was real, I learned for the first time that day. I always thought it was some kind of cartoon thing. I retreated to Mitsuko’s room to check my email, and then Mitsuko came in and sat on the starry pink bedsheets with me.
“I think you should leave.”
“Why?” I said. Here it was. I was doomed. I’ve always been doomed to hinge onto shit people instead of blocking their phone numbers and fizzling into the darkness. Now the consequences were descending upon me.
“Kourosh took Molly. It’s his first time and he doesn’t want you here ruining it for him.”
“But why would I ruin it for him? Doesn’t ecstasy just make you in love with everything?”
“You’ve been giving him bad vibes.”
“Since we got together.” She was having a hard time saying this. Her presence was thin. But it was her party, she could turn around and shove it on me any second.
“What? Are you kidding me?” I was trying not to cry now.
“Look, I think it’s best if you just leave.”
I told her I was mortified, and that I couldn’t get out of bed. I kept saying I wouldn’t. I sounded like I was a cinderblock. Human cinderblock. She went out and came back in.
“Please leave,” she said.
The hatred formed a lump in my throat, and I said this through clenched teeth: “I’ve never wanted to punch someone so much in my entire life.” She left.
Sometimes I wonder about what your last name is. It could be literally anything European. Long and Russian, French and hard to pronounce, maybe even some Spanish name with heritage diluted through a few generations of whitewashing. Maybe your parents are Chinese, you’re adopted, and your last name is Yang. It could even be Smith. Statistically, it’s most likely “Smith.”
You are a corrupted file in my mind. A glaring and bright memory, but I don’t know your middle and last name, birthday, contact info, what city you live in. Nothing. I forget your eye color, too. These things don’t keep me up at night anymore, but here I am, wondering them on paper, maybe for the last time.
After I threatened to punch Mitsuko, which I admit was a total dick thing to do that I never actually would have done, random other girls came in her room for some reason. They asked me why I was curling on the bed and tearing up. “It’s nothing,” I said.
“Didn’t you tell Mitsuko you wanted to give her a black eye or something?” said one. I thought that this would be such a wonderful chance to stop time. I’ve had a fantasy since I was a kid that I could stop time for two collective hours per month. If this were real, I would have used it then. I would have run out the door past all the unmoving people. But there I stayed and I fantasized about running out the door in Ms. Ushiba’s bedroom. I knew that door wouldn’t work since it had been stuck on its track going on three years. The only way out of the house was through the front door, through the storm of people.
“Come on,” said Selina. She was fat with long pink hair and bangs. She had perfectly applied cat eyeliner and matte wine lips. “They told me to get you out of here.” She didn’t mean like a guardian angel. Her hands were on her hips, after all.
“Leave me alone,” I said. I wanted to disappear and avoid the pain of logistics. I imagined hiding behind the bed and sleeping until I could sneak out, everyone too drunk to notice me. I imagined crawling through ceiling vents. I glanced at the window but there was a screen on it.
“What’s going on?” said someone else in the room.
“She’s threatening to beat Mitsuko up,” said Selina.
Someone else, who was blonde and the younger sister of a heroin addict in my high school graduating class looked at me and said, “Leave the party, you fucking bitch. It’s not your party. Stop acting like it’s your party.”
“Come on,” said Selina, on the opposite side of the doorframe now.
“Shut the fuck up, Paul Blart,” I said.
The blonde heroin relative girl spoke to me from behind as she sat on the bed. “Don’t criticize someone for being overweight when you’re overweight yourself.”
I couldn’t say anything back. She could tell I was hurt. But I still held onto a tiny stone in the back of my mind that kept me feeling justified. Mitsuko and Kourosh had been awful to me. People had wronged me enough so that I had some transcendent righteous status. I could never have been wrong. Maybe some other time, in a different situation, but definitely not now.
I followed Selina out the door, and then she waited for me to pass her so she could walk behind me and act more like a guard than a tour guide. And then it came. I walked out of the hallway into the living room. I saw people in my peripheral vision, but I walked right ahead with a strange newfound confidence that rode off of discomfort. I bet they could tell I didn’t belong, that I was being kicked out with Selina pushing me forward. I tried not to look at them. Realistically, there was no opportunity to be graceful here. I went for a glimpse of Kourosh, wanting to see him in the rapture of ecstasy. Didn’t see him. Selina slammed the door behind me and I heard a lock barrel into place as fast as it could go. I was on the patio in front of the house by the dusty potted plant and it was all over.
I crossed the street to my car, hoping I wouldn’t see anyone I knew. I was so out in the open, anyone could have seen my stiff walk, me trying to hold it together. I got in my car, I pulled the door shut, I was safe now. Now to drive off to where nobody could see me. I drove a few blocks away to a place close but good as secluded: the Jehovah’s Witness church parking lot nestled into a hill. I parked, and only then did I burst into tears.
I scrolled through my contacts, needing someone to sink my teeth into. I considered my therapist. But I knew it would just be the same old, same old, she would numb me and tell me to keep my head up, but she wouldn’t revitalize me. My friends were gone, all of them, and right now I could feel the hatred tear through my body at full force. Nobody could ever care if I was kicked out of a party, or if some older guy preyed on me at a concert and funneled me into a long terrible relationship.
At some point it occurred to me that Paint It! was there. I liked to go there and ask you nosy questions. Now I really needed it. I drove for 45 minutes, but I knew you were there. Did you know I always drove 45 minutes to chat you up? I always tried to conceal my location. But once when I said I was a short trip to Legoland, I knew I had given myself away.
You know what they say about Letourneau. Five points for every street toward the ocean you park, starting from Sweetwater, that is. Parking in the beach lot is a bonus ten, plus immortality. I scored fifteen that night. I walked past the neon shops that sold tie-dyed shirts, bongs, and hemp necklaces with knitted trees on the end. A crowd of homeless people next to Addie’s Diner blew smoke on me, guys with shopping carts and grey beards. The hostel with a big mosaic peace sign on the roof towered over me, and the boarded up stores gave me a melancholy in the pit of my stomach. The air was sweet like candy with the taste of a vape pen, the ocean on my tongue. The nightlife. I walked past it all, breezing along, headed for you. Then it came—the vertical wooden sign leaning up next to the door—Paint It!. The studio was narrow and long; iron chairs and a few women with wine glasses painting big plates in the corner. I conducted that motion I knew so well, walking under the doorframe painted with little flowers and looking to my right to see if you were there. You always were, because I had memorized your schedule. You came into my vision each time I went in there, becoming a mantra, your face becoming synonymous with everything behind you. You said my name tiredly, like you were waking up from a coma, but sweetly. “Hannah.” That’s my name. Always hated it, but you made me want to own it.
“I have your latest masterpiece ready,” you said. You ran to the back, behind the curtain, and came walking out with a wrapped tile. I took the time undoing the paper with a smile on my face and there it was, another little piece of art. One of billions upon billions of art attempts on this planet, forever doomed to be unrecognized. With this one I had tried to paint a forest landscape, inspired by photos I had seen of Washington. Now it was all glazed with a reflective pool of darkness.
I said nothing about Ushibafest. I walked away from you and picked another tile from the unfired ceramics display. My box at home was filled with dozens of fired tiles. Mitsuko always painted mugs and little dog sculptures, and they were slowly crowding her room. I got my colors and sponges and waited patiently at the table, because I knew what was coming. I heard an iron chair pull out next to me along the concrete floor, I looked to my left, and there you were. The music on the speakers was not the usual faux indie pop radio, because for the past few months you had been plugging your laptop into the AUX instead. Only while we were there alone. Highly illegal according to the Paint It! manager. It made me feel special, like you were creating a little audio shield for us. We had been talking a lot about ‘70s German electronic. A couple of people have given me weird looks like, why are you listening to something from so far away, from so long ago? But they just don’t get it. It’s a love of hide and seek. You search and search through countless forgotten things, until you find something so potent that it depresses you that people have forgotten this. And it’s all yours. I remember that night B. Aldrian by Harald Grosskopf came on. We talked about how that song is some kind of special club for people who can feel emotions deeper than anyone else. Then I painted, and you sat in silence until the song was over.
You and I talked for a couple of hours as I painted the little tile with sponge dabs and careful swirls. I was feeling abstract that night, inspired by coral reefs. Occasionally you handed me a detail of your life. You only photographed with film. You used to skate as a teenager. You frequented a cheesy Hawaii-themed restaurant called Bali Hai. But you never gave me the whole picture. I knew a lot about you, but I didn’t know you.
I gave you the finished product and we said goodbye with big quivering smiles. I walked to my car as you closed up. Hot and tropical air coated my skin. Gum dotted all along the sidewalk, graffiti was my backdrop, couples walked by me with tattoos coating their arms. I could smell the ocean so well, salt going up my nose. And I felt calmness simmering in every part of my consciousness. I don’t know your last name and I probably never will, but I think you saved my life on August 29th, 2013.
It’s been five years (well, four and a half) and I think about you too often. There are at least six other letters like this one. The first one’s in a journal, one I burned in a frying pan, another I threw away in a public bathroom. I think there are some others in desks and drawers, maybe sock drawers of people that I’ve roomed with.
I know you didn’t really save my life. I probably could have gone home and screamed into my pillow instead of going to Paint It!, and I’d be just as alive as I am today. But I adored you. I adored you so much that I wanted to assign sainthood to you. And for what it’s worth, you must have changed something, anything. You might have prevented me from smashing a bottle against a stranger’s car window or maybe actually giving someone a black eye. And that’s enough that you’re the only person who gets my parting thought. I’m not dying. I’m moving to Virginia. I’m not some idiot who’s going to get on a bus and see where it goes, I have a job and an apartment set up and the whole nine yards. And I want the clean feeling of saying goodbye to no one. Not my family, not Mitsuko, and not my succession of friends that fill her shoes and do it no better. You’re the only one who I’m telling, and you won’t even get to know.
Every year on the day Mina’s victim perished, Luke drove to the boy’s house and waited outside in his car until both parents left for work. Then he would go and slip an envelope of money under their front door.
Sometimes he wondered what the boy would have grown up to be. Who he would have become if Mina hadn’t snuffed out his flame before he’d had a chance for it to catch fire and really dance. It had only flickered before Mina whispered and extinguished it, like the small waxy candles on her birthday cakes each year.
At times, Luke’s wonderings got confused. His imagination wandered down paths that didn’t exist, twisting and bending reality, until the boy was his and Mina’s son that they’d lost. And then he grieved even harder than he’d ever grieved for him when he was just a helpless stranger who crossed their path by unforgiving coincidence. It became easier to forget this way that he and Mina had never actually had any children of their own or even gotten married, leaving them with no tangible links to tie them together after they parted ways. Only the invisible bonds of memories and disappointments.
“We don't deserve to have any children,” she said when their efforts at getting pregnant failed yet again. “Not after what we did.”
Then they thought of the boy’s parents together in agonizing silence, so thick they couldn't find each other through it. His hurt made no dent in her resolve. She just stared out the window, though with the curtains closed, she couldn't see outside.
Luke had held Mina close, eight years earlier, as they danced cheek to cheek on cobblestones under the streetlights on Montmartre. With him humming la vie en rose into her ear.
“You can hardly claim to be drunk on only one glass of wine,” he said as she swayed away from him afterward, her movements unsteady and hypnotic. He said the same thing three years later, the night they left their favorite restaurant, as they argued over who was sober enough to drive.
The sky was a rigid obsidian and the street winding through the woods that Mina preferred to the busy highway was quiet with no lights anywhere. When their car thudded, rough and violent, they both breathed, "deer", before continuing home, shaken.
It wasn't until they saw the boy on the news in daylight-- he'd been getting high with his friends in the woods and ambled over to the road to get better service on his cell-- that the fear of possibilities gripped them and wouldn't let go.
The boy glided through each room of their small yellow and white house, caressing their skin with shivers on the off chance they'd forgotten him. He speckled Luke’s strawberry blonde hair with silver. He drew lines and pressed creases into Mina’s face, one for each year he'd been dead. The boy watched as the silence between Luke and Mina billowed and rippled like strong trees with weak branches in merciless winds, littering the ground with leaves too tired and dry to fight anymore.
The day finally came when Mina said she was going to turn herself in. “Just sleep on it,” Luke pleaded with her. So she did. And in the morning, they didn't go to the police station together. He went through his usual getting ready routine and drove to work. She, on the other hand, packed her clothes and books into a suitcase, and left forever.
Haunted as they’d been, the world had still managed to drizzle rose petals every so often. Thick as satin, airy as silk. Luke never sang to Mina again, but the tune lingered in their heads anyway. But after she left him and the obligation to protect her and her guilt had long since atrophied, the sky was flowerless.
One morning, as Luke sat in his Chevy outside the boy’s home, quite unsure if his parents still even lived there or if he’d been financing another set of strangers all these years, he thought he saw Mina’s head of wild curls across the street and her brown eyes staring straight ahead. He didn’t go check to be certain. He preferred to imagine her there, sitting in a car like his, nursing a debt that could never be repaid.
so my soul says i’m my own god and nobody can hold me back and leaves my body on the bed my body doesn’t even sigh because she is used to this, being left, and has learned to live with it. once my body fell very deeply in love with someone and thought she could never live without someone but someone said you are too desperate to be loved to be loved and left so my body figures she can find a way to live without a soul, too.
my body lies on the bed for a while but she really cannot spend the rest of her life there, soul or no soul, so she gets out and makes some oatmeal thinking about how badly my soul loved oatmeal, but this does not make my body cry. for a second she thinks, this should make me cry. i am not doing this splitting up business the right way, i am supposed to be very sad and cry a lot into my oatmeal so it tastes like water and salt and wet cardboard. hmm.
my soul is everything my body dreams of which is mostly to say, bodiless. without a body she can fly into the world to Find Herself. she visits many countries and talks with many people even though she is scared of talking and many and people. she finds no substance or self, but it will probably be around the next corner so she must go on.
many years pass with my soul backpacking around europe and my body doing dishes and laundry and homework. my body sometimes think about my soul’s return and how strong she is going to stand, unflinching and proud and better off now. she imagines my soul’s beautiful heart and angry eyes, smirking oh, baby and how she will only roll her eyes in response. she will not take my soul back, which means absolutely nothing when my soul does not want to be taken back in the first place.
one day my body receives a postcard in her mailbox, which she checks every day without ever missing a beat. it’s stamped in a language my body does not recognise and for a moment she thinks of the words lost like that. maybe my body is an untranslatable wound. there’s a firetruck on it which looks like hope surrounded by flames the same colour that look like hell. my body knows in her gut it’s from my soul, even though it does not read anything. no wish you were here . my soul might be many things but at least she is not cruel, my body thinks.
Backpack borrowed from your aunt Patricia. Bar of Sunlight soap for handwashing underwear in hostel bathrooms. Box of granola bars, flattened, still good. Heartbreak not so fresh as to be debilitating.
Consume and walk a lot and misbehave a little. Dance in a Parisian nightclub with a man named Francois. Daydream on a train as it switchbacks through the Alps. Wonder, in Amsterdam, whether hash can make you hallucinate, or are there actually tiny men in bubbles on the ceiling? Eat everything: cheese, gelato, Swiss chocolate, large salty pretzels, cheap egg sandwiches from Tesco.
On the terrace of your homestay on the Italian Riveria, drink with a pack of American men—no, boys—and notice the cutest one, who isn’t even that cute. Hear him point out how drunk you are to your best friend. When everyone else goes to bed and a cot appears indiscreetly on the terrace, realize you are making a choice, and you won’t even remember his name tomorrow. See the leaning tower of Pisa with the worst hangover of your life.
Don’t feel guilty about burning through nearly $5,000 in two months because you have bigger problems, like where, exactly, is your period?
Cry on the streets of Copenhagen. Fail to notice the city’s romantic splendor. Take a pregnancy test in your best friend’s Danish grandmother’s bathroom, wrap the box in the pharmacy bag before throwing it out. Learn that the body can be confused by naiveté, by hunger.
Go alone, because you can. Surprise yourself by blending in with your long dark hair and intentional stride. When people ask for directions, say “Lo siento, no se,” and feel a small sense of accomplishment. When people give you directions, say “gracias” and wander in the general direction they point, because your Spanish comprehension is limited, and Havana is not that big.
Stay in a cheap hotel frequented by hookers and gigolos because you booked online and didn’t know. Meet a Cuban poet on the steps of the El Capitolio building and walk with him past fading colonial beauties, a sculpture of a flamenco dancer, a hotel bar haunted by Hemingway. Listen to the poet’s stories of international Facebook friends and a growing blog readership and know that he is lying, because Internet access is shoddy and prohibitively expensive; you haven’t even checked your email. Understand his claustrophobia, that he is lost along a spectrum of love and hate for Fidel Castro, and that talking to you is as close as he’ll ever get to seeing the world. Wince when he asks you to buy him a blue striped tunic from the market. Realize he’s a gigolo. Switch hotels.
Feel lonely. Feel lonelier than you have ever felt before. Wonder what you are trying to prove, out here in the world. Wonder about the value of a beautiful photograph. Decide to stop traveling alone, without purpose.
Don’t use your left hand or wear flip-flops in public or show the bottom of your feet to a village elder. Remember the iceberg diagram from training, designed to help you navigate cultural shock? It can’t help you now, you live in a slum.
Also, don’t sleep. The bass of the neighbourhood speaker stacks won’t let you. Go to work anyway, where the students are wary, then cautiously engaged, and then everything. Ishmael wants to be a writer and Joy wants to be the first female president of a student club and Samuel wants to be famous on the radio. Believe these things are possible, because they do.
Realize education is the only useful thing, and even it is not pure: despite his megawatt smile, the Nigerian professor hates you and your white skin and your “curriculum,” and you understand. You’ve been to the slave forts in Cape Coast, you know your ancestors were assholes.
Let the world stop when Samuel tells you, I’m going back to my village for a week because I’m hungry. Notice how thin he has become behind his carefully press collared shirts and professional swagger; hate yourself for not noticing earlier.
The night you’re scheduled to fly back to Canada, accept gifts the students bring to your home: a wooden necklace and a cut-out of a Ghanaian woman with a sign that says “Akwaaba,” or welcome. Ali Baba will be distant, one earbud in his ear, the other dangling around his neck. Laetitia will cry. When Samuel asks you to quickly record an intro for his new radio show, say okay, though you wish your voice didn’t sound like money.
Sob in the taxi on the way to the airport. You’re unlikely to see them again. They’ll scatter like seeds in the wind, back to the north of Ghana, back to Chad and Burkina Faso and Cameroon. Almost miss your flight, because you’re on Africa time now, for one more moment.
Eat with your hands. Swim on a Goan beach. Wear a sari. Wear an air pollution mask. Get food poisoning. Keep going. Make new friends. Watch your ass expand so it more closely resembles an Indian auntie’s. Learn the names of new trees. Gulmohar, amaltas, silk cotton. Learn the quintessential Indian head wobble. Teach English words to teenagers in a slum. Administration, shelter, certainly. Live in a palace. Try every mango. Langra, safeda, alphonso. Lean over the sink and let the juice run down your arms.
Climb into bed beside your guy. Ask, childlike: Are we having a sleepover? A line you have been using with each other for years. Insert earplugs, as he will, because your room is a humming symphony: an air purifier, an ancient air conditioner, a fan. Laugh in the dark when he speaks, and you speak, and you can’t hear each other. What?
Trust that fifty years from now your life will be like this, and where you are won’t matter at all.
That’s not where your blood is supposed to go. You don't know much, you’re only four years old, but you know the blood is supposed to be on the inside of your body, cradling your organs and making your cheeks glow, not welling up in your mouth and definitely not being spat out on the bathroom floor. You wanted to see what would happen when you put the metal hanger clasp on your bottom lip and you found out the answer. Blood. Lots of it, everywhere. It runs down your chin and makes ugly patterns on your yellow tweety bird shirt. You look in the mirror, terrified but also impressed. You didn’t know your pint sized body could hold all that blood. You decide your mom needs to see this. You scamper out of the bathroom, your mouth still gushing blood at an alarming rate. It drips onto the hardwood floors your mother loves so much and your uncoordinated bare feet slip in the newly formed puddle of yourself. Your mom comes out of the kitchen to see you trying and failing to stand up in the pool of your own blood. She screams and drops the plate of tater tots that she was bringing to you. “Mom,” you say, “I need a band aid.”
Fuck, it’s hot. Sweat drips down your forehead and stings your eyes. You press the button to roll the window down with your grubby five year old fingers but the car is turned off and the window remains rolled firmly up. You try to open the car door but for your own safety, the child lock is in effect. You undo your seatbelt, which thankfully works, and forcefully separate your sweaty thighs from the vinyl car seat that they’re currently stuck to with superglue strength. Stupid rental car with its stupid fake leather interior. You position your knobbly knees on the seat and hoist yourself up so you can see above the window sill. Thirty feet away, you spy your oblivious parents chatting it up with your aunt and cousins. “MOM!!!!!! DAAAAAAD!!!” you scream with all the fury your kindergarten lungs contain but the car that your parents rented for the weekend might as well been a recording studio because that deathbox is basically soundproof. Your mom stands with her arms folded, car keys in hand, paying rapt attention to some dumb shit your cousin is saying. Your dad tries to discreetly pick his nose. Those dicks. Don’t they know their child is dying? You ball up your fists, the same ones that got you suspended from school for two days, and pound the window like your tiny useless life depends on it. “MOM! DAD! DID! YOU! FORGET! ABOUT! ME!!!!!!!” you yell until your voice goes hoarse. They don’t even turn around. You slouch down, defeated. It’s time to give up. So this is where you die. Inside of a 1999 volkswagon bug in a Motel 6 parking lot in Napa, California. Who cares, it wasn’t that great of a life anyway. School’s boring and your mom keeps making you go to soccer no matter how many times you get hit in the head with the ball. Oh well, better luck next life. You close your eyes and wait for the sweet embrace of the grim reaper or whatever reaper apprentice they send for little five year old shits like you. Two minutes later, your mom opens the door and shakes you awake. “Get up, we’re going to Applebee’s.”
Communion is just grown up snack time. Your mom scolds you for saying this, but as far as you can tell, it’s just an excuse for adults to have a bread and juice treat in the middle of boring church. And you want in. Normally, a pinch of gross bread that everyone’s been touching would be totally unappealing, but the mere fact that you can’t have it makes it attractive in your six year old eyes. Your mom says you can’t participate in it until you understand what it means. She tells you it’s symbolic of consuming the blood and body of Christ which sounds goth as hell to you and makes you want it even more. She asks you if you comprehend the gravity of the ritual and you nod your head as solemnly as you can. She deems you ready and on the day of your first communion, she mentions, oh by the way, the goblet on the right is wine and the grape juice is on the left. Make sure you take the one on the left. You line up for communion and nervously try to recall which goblet is which. Wine right, grape juice left, grape juice left, wine right, wine right, grape juice left, wine left, grape juice right, grape juice right, wine left, okay, got it. You approach the old round lady in your congregation with the tiny coke bottle glasses and she says to you, “Blood of Christ, spilt for you,” and you reach for the closest goblet and take a sip. This is some real shitty grape juice. You contort your face in reaction to the tart venom you tasted and the old round lady laughs at you. You realize you drank the wine instead and start crying because you think you’re going to die. Your mom told you once that all alcohol is poison and here you just took a big gulp of it. Your mom walks you outside until you calm down. You don’t die but you sit out communion for another year just to be safe.
You’re watching Harry Potter in the theater and something weird is happening in your eight year old pants. Everytime Daniel Radcliffe is onscreen, you can feel your heartbeat in your private parts. You don’t know what kind of dark magic is happening but you do know that for some ungodly reason, everytime you see that skinny British runt, you want to put your mouth on his mouth even though you are on the record numerous times stating that kissing is gross and you personally will never do it. A few days later, your parents leave you alone in the family office, where the monster PC computer lives. Your mom taught you how to use Google recently for a class project and your mind starts wondering about the true depths of internet. You close the door and hunt and peck out “HARRY POTTER SHIRTLESS” into Google image search. Fortunately, your parents had the forethought to put a safety search on and your pervy endeavors were fruitless. After trying a few more variations, (HARRY POTTER NAKED, DANIEL RADCLIFFE SHIRTLESS, DRACO MALFOY SHIRTLESS, etc) you give up and out of frustration and fear of getting caught and exit out of the browser. A few days later, your mom confronts you about a few questionable search terms she found in the internet search history. You cry big ugly hot tears of humiliation and vow never to think sinful thoughts about boys again. That night, you dream of Hermione instead.
You’re not asleep but you might as well be. The closing credits to The Princess Bride plays in the background as you curl up on your huge ass sofa, trying to make yourself as small as possible. Your sleepy body sinks into faded maroon couch cushions like quicksand and you never felt like you belonged anywhere more. You open your nine year old eyes just the narrowest sliver, and through your eyelashes, you see your mom turning off the blue television screen. You shut your eyes again so she won’t see that you’re actually awake. She walks over to you places her hand on your back and makes deliberate circular motions while humming. She stops humming and whispers softly as a prayer, “Baby, you gotta go to sleep in your own bed.” You pretend not to hear and concentrate on lying completely still. Make like you’re dead. If she thinks you’re really asleep, maybe she’ll carry you to bed. Or let you sleep on the couch. Either option would be preferred to the long laborious walk down the hall to your bedroom. It was only twenty feet or so but it might as well have been a forty year pilgrimage through an old testament desert. Sure enough a moment later, you feel your mom’s skinny but strong arms slide beneath your knees and your shoulders and lift you up human sacrifice style. You’re four foot ten in your stocking feet and your mom is barely five feet on tip toes and you definitely weigh the same by now, but judging by the steady sure way she picks you up without so much as a quiver, you might as well be a featherdown pillow. She carries you down the carpeted hallway, walking sideways so as not to hit your head on the wall. The humming resumes. She places you down in your bed that is the perfect size for you and tucks you in with the nimble skill and precision of a hospital nurse. When she’s finished, she kneels down, clasps her tired hands together, and starts murmuring the Lord’s prayer. “Our father who art in heaven, hallowed by thy name.” You stop pretending to be asleep and start genuinely drifting off. “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” You stretch your legs out and your feet touch the footboard at the end of your bed. Soon you will outgrow this bed. Shortly after that, this room. “Give us this day our daily bread.” This will be one of the last times your mother is able to carry you to bed. Both of you realize this. “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” This will be one of the last times you pray together. Neither of you realize this. “Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.” Her voice gets softer as you start fading off into sleep. “For thine is the kingdom, the power, and the glory. Forever and ever.” You will miss this love when it is no longer within reach. Right now it is all you know. “Amen.”
The sourness of death had barely filled the room when the dogs began to whine. The expression of dying is always the same drawn, blank stare, no matter the person. The mouth is the worst part. The fading brain instinctively slams neurons together, demanding the pull of breath, resulting in mouths that gape and gasp, exhausted by stiff lungs that have already forgotten the sweetness of air.
Luke had been in the room with his aunt, forced himself to feign comfort to her by touching her bare, withered arms, the veins strained under the paper thinness of her skin. Shifting into the final phases of life, the body seems to pull the blood from the face and extremities to supply the heart with a few last pulses. The skin stretches across the sockets and lips, smoothing the face into an unrecognizable mask. But she was still in there. A once healthy 50-year-old woman, as optimistic as she was broken. The slivers of two failed marriages and abuse calked the pieces of her heart together as it pumped, cheery as a caged lovebird, the promise of one day finding her grand love.
Luke had camped out in her living room for five days along with his cousins, and her first ex-husband. Choosing to die at home meant confronting the realities of the eroding body without the sterile calmness of a hospital. IV bags had a particular, measured smell in her bedroom with no air filter, plastic mixing with blood and sweat and fear.
Keeping her comfortable became the main focus of the group. They would roll her on her side until the red marks would soften from the sores on her back. They would change her clothes, wipe her mouth, and rub cucumber melon lotion into her skin. When her pain became too much, they medicated her with morphine, themselves with whiskey.
Her ex-husband had killed a man once during a bar fight two decades ago. He threw the man through a window, where he landed skull first on the curb, dying instantly from head trauma. From that day on he never touched another drink, until now. As he twisted the cork off the bottle, Luke didn’t feel the need to lecture, as they were all attempting to function in this vicious world of death and decay.
As a young woman, his aunt was breathtakingly beautiful. That was the curse of the women in his family; they were born with beautiful faces and bodies, but died before they could grow old. They were forever immortalized not as cancer victims, but as the sirens that could pick locks and sneak into garages, flanked by the men who surrendered their hearts to them. Luke remembered these women as the ones who showed him how to dance, to match his socks to his tie, and how to compliment a woman without sounding trite. As he watched his aunt breathe slowly under the bed sheet, he remembered her kindness and her affinity for gift giving.
Unable to find peace in love, she had settled for the man who sat beside her now, polishing off a bottle of rye like water. He gave her a son when she was just 17, another at 19, then ran off when they were small. Lee, her second husband, had married, divorced, and remarried her several times over ten years. She was a good candidate to manipulate; desperate for attention and willing to cleave red flags into halves like Moses. His only constant was his deceit. He slithered through their days together, slowly suffocating her love with all the strength he could muster. Once he had gorged himself on her adoration, he would slink away into the shadows, not to be seen until he was hungry again.
After her family took over her care, Lee disappeared. He never once came to see her in the hospital, nor did he stop by the house or call to check in. Whether it was despair over losing her, or the inability to process dying, no one knew. In turn, he was not there on the day she pulled her last breath, when the room seemed to close on itself. The air seemed to whip through the house, raising goose bumps on the family and lifting the ears of the dogs. As her heart stopped, so did the shift in pressure. For a moment, no one moved. The rush of finality had deafened everyone.
Three days later, Lee blew his brains out in his living room.
They were closer, now. Marie turned over on her bed and listened for them. She pulled her sheets up over her body and then threw them off again, letting them fall to a heap on the floor.
She got off her bed and walked over to the mirror. She stared at it for a while, looked down at her own body and decided it wouldn’t do to be naked. She opened her wardrobe and thumbed through her dresses, running her fingers – greasy and unwashed - over the soft fabrics.
She took a few out and laid them on the floor. They were soft to the touch, and all brightly coloured. They had not been Marie’s favourite, in life when she preferred simpler colours, bold statements in black and white, but now these floral dresses seemed appropriate.
Marie could hear the Coyotes now. She didn’t like the way their whines were overcome by the softer, sweeter cries that hung in the air. She wished their approach was somehow more measurable, and felt a strange nostalgia for the coming of a storm, where she could count the seconds between the thunder and the lightening, and guess at the distance. She couldn’t quite imagine coyotes mixed with lightening. Marie turned to the dresses on the floor and sorted through them.
The blue one, she decided, was too simple and too sad. The pink-and-green one was too childish – it reminded her of a children’s birthday party. The red one felt the sweetest, but Marie worried it might be too bright. She didn’t want to wear anything that might distract from her own features, which she had often been told were distinctive.
Marie eventually settled for the lilac dress she had bought two years earlier for a fairy themed fancy dress party. She had changed her mind about wearing it on the day, she remembered, and instead had gone for something tighter and simpler. She had been complimented on that.
Marie turned back to the mirror and squinted until she saw something. She put on a light peach lipstick that matched the lining of her dress, and a thin layer of foundation. She kept the eye makeup light and didn’t bother at all with her contact lenses. The Coyotes would come close enough to see.
Marie made her bed and lay down on top of the sheets. It was a warm still night – she was not cold. She tried to cross her arms over her chest as she had seen at Catholic funerals, but it felt uncomfortable. She put her arms by her sides, and set her mind to listening.
The Coyotes were certainly close now, within a few streets of Marie’s home, and at such close distance Marie thought the human crying was a little more piercing than the animal’s calls. This frustrated her. She didn’t want to be thinking about people when she died.
After around fifteen minutes Marie thought she could recognise the sounds of a family. The Callaghans, three doors across from her, were beautiful and polite, Mr Callaghan always sweeping away to office meetings and late night partied in his slick designer car, Mrs Callaghan always laughing and gasping, and styling her hair like some sort of movie star. Perhaps she had almost been one, at some point.
Marie did not think her neighbours’ screams belonged on the big screen, however. The woman’s were too low, and the man’s too high. Even the little boy – now school age – sounded wrong. He was too babyish, thought Marie a little sadly, he didn’t sound right for his age at all.
Marie sighed and comforted herself in the Coyotes’ proximity. She was sure she had only minutes left, and then they would come, then they would take her and it would all be done with.
She took several deep breaths, in and out, and tried to keep calm, tried to keep still. She sucked in her stomach and pushed out her breasts. She wanted to look appetising, somehow. She wasn’t quite sure what a Coyote saw as appetising.
She licked her lips, and waited. But nobody came.
The pack had moved on, scouring the streets for families to stake out, for game to hunt. An individual waiting patiently wasn’t worth the bother of coming indoors.
Marie was close to tears. She was sure their calls were growing further, as they grew deeper, once more taking dominance over the human weeping.
Marie sat up in her bed, readjusted her hair. She sighed and looked around, considered going to the window to see the carnage, or heading to the streets to track down a Coyote herself. But then –
Footsteps were padding their way up her staircase, heavy, and uncomfortable, unused to such narrow passages. Marie heard a yawn, and then she heard a growl, and then she heard a gentle, rasping sniff.
Coyote pushed at her door and it opened. He stared at her, smiling, his long tongue running over his teeth, hanging out the side of his mouth. Spit dribbled from his chin and fell into dark, grey droplets on Marie’s floor.
‘That’s going to stain the carpet,’ she thought.
Coyote pounced on her, ripping her dress and flesh in two. His golden jaws tore off her peach tinted lips, and he grabbed at her chin with his paw, lapping up the blood.
He liked the lilac colour – she had been right about that – and ripped away at it to get into Marie’s stomach. Coyote discarded the skin, and sucked up the fat, the meat, the muscle.
His head bobbed up and down against her, and his teeth flashed and gleamed. He sucked up her waters and swallowed her intestine whole. She was a good meal, and, caught behind the pack, he had been left hungry.
Coyote smiled again, and stared ahead, glanced at the heap of wrinkled dresses on the floor. He picked up Marie, and tossed her over his shoulder, her perfumed skin making him a pretty little coat, protection against the hot, hot sun.
Wearing his conquest, Coyote marched outside. He bent his knees and raced out after his pack, Marie’s unpainted fingernails clicking gently against his teeth.
It snowed when Amelia was younger. Once, just once. It wasn’t the snow she heard about from the legends. Like powdered sugar, they told her. Like shredded coconut. It was greasy and smelled wrong, left stains where it landed. Came down in oily clumps. It could not be made into snowballs or snowmen, like the kind she saw in old pictures. It didn’t stay long, either. Couldn’t. Not under their sun, blue and blistering and belligerent. But for the time that it was there—hours, she thinks, or maybe just thirty minutes—she and the other children took advantage of it, thousands of footprints circling the streets, five-year-olds who forgot what “cooties” meant, who held each others’ hands as they skipped and sang and drew pictures in the snow.
Mothers were crying, taking pictures, recording the moment (as if any footage would outsurvive them) but the dream was there, alive for the first time in years. “—Just so glad they’re alive to have this,” Amelia heard a mom say. And later, “You know this is the last one we’ll ever see.”
Now, seven-year-old Amelia is reminded on a regular basis that they are fortunate enough to be alive. “I didn’t think we’d last this long,” a mom tells her. And a chorus of them, all asking, “Isn’t it beautiful, baby?”
She assumes they mean their survival, their breathing in sacks of heat, their lungs blackened and charred like the burnt ends of some long ago beast. She doesn’t feel beautiful though. She feels tired. And hot. And exactly like everyone else. All of them wearing white, always. Cotton so thin you can see each other’s bellies, sweaty and slick from the sun.
You will all likely die in the next five years, maybe sooner. We don’t tell you this to scare you, we tell you this because we don’t want to give you false hope. This is the world you were born into, before we knew what was happening. We’re sorry. But if it helps, you won’t die alone. We’re all going to die with you, right by your sides.
Their version of school. That and storytelling. Lots and lots of storytelling. Stories from old planets, breeds that had died from extinction long before Amelia was even conceived. Stories from the older generations, stories that they promised were true but sounded like fairytales.
Until the snow. Amelia would have sworn it was a myth until it happened. It was like nothing the adults described, but real all the same. Snow. Her favorite memory.
And then, just like that, on the cusp of her eighth birthday, the sun gave out a great yawn, as if he, too, was tired of waiting. The constant lookout for that inevitable great burst of fire.
But it wasn’t great. It wasn’t all at once. It started with the trees, the slow becoming of ash. Small sporadic bursts of fire, flames that licked the dust beneath their feet until they had no choice but to run and hide . . . where? Nowhere, nowhere to go. Lakes were evaporating. Oceans were a myth. Trees were burning torches, impossible to climb. So to the houses they went, to the tops of roofs, the “nonflammable” constructions.
But nothing was immune to their sun, not really. Their homes were built to give them time, if only a minute or two. Just long enough for a few last words, some tearful embraces. Just long enough to pay witness.
From her perch on the roof, Amelia watched. Waited. Moms cried in the background, a collective. There were children by their sides, curled up like tortoise shells. Some took pills, a softer death. Some sang. But Amelia stood at the edge until her face got hot, until everything turned to ash, and as the sun got bigger and closer and the world flared up and out, Amelia watched the white hot specks of burnt things fall around her. Like snow, she thought. Like the snow they first told us about. She could feel it, the tips of her fingers turning, and suddenly she was ready. Ready for the fire, for the white-hot act of a final breath. Ready to become her favorite memory.