All Posts in Prose
Evolutionarily, butterflies don’t understand walls. Butterflies don’t understand ceilings. Hell, most bugs are a lot dumber than I am. Moths, for instance. Who in their right mind flies toward a light?
Cockroaches, though. Cockroaches get it. When was the last time you saw a pile of dead cockroaches in the windowsill of an abandoned house? Doesn’t happen. Cockroaches run away from light. They just really get it--they get walls, even. They get walls so intuitively that they get inside them. Not between them, like we do. Inside them.
Now, don’t get me wrong, here: I’m as quick to smile at butterflies and stomp on cockroaches as the next guy. Who am I, Bruce the Entomologist? As if. I don’t hold a boundless respect for insect life. Mostly contempt, actually. Loathing. Some degree of fear, maybe. Wasps, for instance--wasps are fucked up. I punch wasps when they get near me.
And of course Bruce gets upset every single time. Bruce. Come on. Punching a wasp usually doesn’t kill it, and wasps fight with numbers anyway. For every wasp I punch, there’s two more hatching in a little wasp nest with hexagonal walls hanging from a tree or a ceiling somewhere. Who are you to get so twisted out of shape over some bugs?
Damn. Wasps get ceilings better than I get Bruce. But Bruce gets wasps, and I get ceilings. And Bruce and I get walls. Well, so far I haven’t been stung by any of the wasps I punched. Maybe humanity will come out ahead in the end. If so, I’ll miss the butterflies. If not, the roaches won’t have my walls to hide in any more, and they’ll have to go back to the trees we came from.
Quit trying to fly toward the light, Bruce. That’s not the way we go.
FIND ME AT THE EDGE
I am alone in the most beautiful place in the world. I am seventeen and thinking this as I sit at the peak of Yosemite Falls, starring out at the blue panorama of mountains and sky, sobbing uncontrollably. The hike up was only five stupid miles, but every step felt vertical and unrelenting. After the first mile I was already heaving, my face flushed red and dripping with sweat. I passed a woman at least 60 years old who told me I had to take it slower or I’d never make it. She looked at me with a mixture of concern and triumph of having already been to the top. My friends raced ahead, not a drop of sweat between them, blissfully unaware of their effortless agility I so envied.
Fast-forward to three miles later and higher and my body is pissed off. “I’ll wait for her this time,” Jessica says, sitting on a rock 20 feet in front of me with pity and kindness. I reach her, my lungs crying out in pain. I have to stop but I cannot stop. Why is this so difficult for me? I’m shaped like a healthy person. I don’t have even asthma. I’m just weak.
“You guys can go ahead—I’ll catch up. It’s fine, it’s fine,” I say, not wanting to hold them up for any longer or have witnesses to the slow collapse of my being. After much protesting they agree and go on ahead. I watch them disappear up the path. I sit on the rock and drink the warm water from my bottle and convince myself that eating seven almonds will really help me power through. I briefly consider turning back—back down the mountain, back to our hotel, back home across the country, back into my mother’s womb. My hair is in two braids and drenched in sweat. I am a disgusting red-faced monster, and great! Here comes Mr. Marx, the teacher chaperone I tell myself I’m not hardcore crushing on. Hey! Yeah, I’m doing great. We really did get a beautiful day for it. What? Kehan Bomkamp is already at the top, in under an hour? Wow, so cool. Yeah, see you up there. Bye.
The last two miles of the hike are through “death valley,” a straight incline without any trees for shade. I adapt to ignore the salty sweat dripping over my face and off of it, taking one step at a time, repeating in my head the phrase One Step at a Time. I can hike five miles. I can do it without crying, definitely.
There is a constant stream of hikers who pass me on their way down. I try to smile at them to signify my vitality, but even as I do I feel it come across as a pained grimace.
“Are you okay?” a woman who looks like my mom asks.
“Yeah,” I say, “almost there, right?” Her smile turns somehow more sympathetic.
“There’s quite a bit left to go…”
“Okay, thanks,” I say, wishing I didn’t have this information.
Once finally at the top, I discover that my friends have come and gone down another trail. I continue to follow hand-drawn signs for the best-of-the-best lookout and climb up a few more rock steps against my body’s protests. And then I see it: a stretch of rock jutting out into the blue. One step at a time I go to it, and quickly—it’s now late afternoon and no one is around that I can see. I maneuver over the boulder formations until I finally come to the edge. The vastness of all that is now visible is unbelievable. It is as if the world was one size smaller or lesser until I sat on the edge of that rock and let this expanse of earth wash over me. Half-dome and other peaks in the distance, the late-afternoon sun in a cloudless sky, my aching legs at rest, I am completely alone against the gigantic stretch of earth. Naturally, this is when I at last break into sobs. I see myself from afar, as almost nothing. A silly, stupid, sweat-drenched human all alone. The beauty might devour me, and I might let it. I take a picture. I leave.
It was sometime in high school that I saw a picture of the white cliffs of Dover and knew I would go to them someday. I didn’t think it would be so soon—I didn’t know I would be only 20 years old and completely on my own in the country. Nonetheless I’ve managed to make it into the photograph, the cool salty breeze on my face reminding me this that is real, I am really here.
It is early morning and the sun is hazy over the English Channel. I say the words out loud just to feel them, “English Channel.” I say them normally and then with a bad British accent, but neither way seems right. I can only think of elementary school and learning about a woman who swam across it—maybe she was the first woman to do it, or person, I can’t remember, but I know that is was something spectacular that happened. I don’t even come close to remembering her name.
From the cliffs I watch as giant ships leave the port one at a time. I can hear the announcements that boom one after another: WELCOME ABOARD! BIENVENUE À BORD! WILLKOMMEN AN BORD! 歡迎登機！ The ships are massive until they float far enough away into the distance, then they are small enough to hold. I image the tourists taking in the same view that is painted on their souvenir coffee mugs and postcards and T-shirts, the chalky white rocks jutting out into the ocean like they’re biting into it.
I’m sure they can’t see me at the top in the long grass, following the muddy paths with my brown school backpack and oversized rain jacket. I planned the trip to last fewer than twenty-four hours, taking the train three hours out of London to stay in somebody’s attic for a night. The day before had been all rain and fog, so these precious morning moments are all I am allowed. The train back leaves in an hour but I want to stay. There’s not enough time.
The long grass sways over my legs with the gentle wind. By now the ships have faded almost completely out of sight. I try hard to imbed the whole scene as a perfect memory while it is happening, while I am still here and a part of it. This will be the place I come back to in my mind to when I want to find calm, I’m sure. I lie on the damp green ground and think maybe this is what it’s like to feel whole.
I am once again alone on the edge of something; this time it is a blue room. I am lying in a bed and the room is blue because the sun is outside but the curtains keep most of it out. I am in a far away country. I am in a house that belongs to someone else. I hang a few photos on the wall but then am told to take them down, so as to not make any marks. Everything I do in this faraway land is wrong; I am made up of mistakes. It makes me want to go home, but that isn’t the plan, that’s quitting, and I must stay.
There is a balcony off the bedroom I am in. Some nights I sit out on it and watch the sun dip slowly behind the mountains. It is beautiful but I am lonely in this faraway place. They speak a different language here, one I do not know well. When I watch the sun it is acceptable to say nothing.
But today I do not want the sun. Today I don’t want anything, maybe ever again. The room is very blue, and I think maybe I am under the water—that would explain why no one can understand me. It would also account for how difficult it is to breathe.
The balcony is hidden behind the drawn curtains but I can picture the four stories to the cement below. Without moving from the bed I imagine the sensation of falling, and then of not-being. Nothing in the blue room moves. For no reason I understand, I take a picture of the blank wall.
This edge is different because here it is difficult for me to feel anything, or even imagine feeling anything. I am only another part of the room. I realize the picture of the blank wall is a self-portrait. I try to back away from this edge very carefully. It is a place I do not want to visit again.
I lean forward and press my forehead against the glass window. Down below, taxis slide past each other honking all the time, the sidewalks are flooded with fast people and slow people, and I feel the tranquility that comes with watching from a height so far removed.
This is Manhattan, and I am sometimes a part of it and sometimes not. When I step back and watch, like now, I am purely observer, someone from a different world where the words New York City are still shiny and mythical. Yet I live here, or, more precisely, in Brooklyn, in a shared sublet bedroom with plaster falling from the ceiling. I have a blue and yellow paper card in my wallet that allows me to nervously take the subway to this office each day. While I sit or stand for the thirty-five minute ride I must concentrate on keeping my expression indifferent, which is the opposite of what I feel. This is a place where anything might happen at any moment. A saxophonist might get on at the next stop and croon a song I used to know; a pseudo-preacher might reveal to the car that the end is coming quicker than any of us think; a woman might pretend not to be crying even though she is; someone might just barely make it through the closing doors and someone else might not, his fists pounding on the dirty windows as we pull away.
No matter what happens in those minutes, however, I always emerge from Columbus Circle Station; I always remind myself that this is not an amazing feat even though every day I am amazed. My parents have never been here or any place like it, my grandparents either. In this way it feels as if I have discovered a secret world that just happens to be inhabited by eight million people.
Once at the correct skyscraper, I flash my personalized ID to the security guard. It does not matter if I’m not being paid to work here because they have given me a laminated badge with my face on it and that means I am important. I press the button for the seventeenth floor, standing between two tall women in pastel-colored business suits and a man who I’m sure I’ve seen in an infomercial for a multi-use breakfast griddle. No one says a word.
In the office I have my own cubicle. Madeline, a cool woman with straight dark hair shows me how to photocopy magazine articles and fill in spreadsheets with varying amounts of dollar signs. She is not much older than I am, maybe 25 or 26. One day we walk to Starbucks, the sound of her heels on the concrete lost in the commotion of the humming city to everyone but me. She buys a latte and I buy a latte. When I ask her if she likes her job she says, “I think so.”
I like to watch from the windows of the seventeenth floor whenever I get to the office too early, and on my lunch breaks, and before I go home. Adult people aren’t supposed to hide in their places of work but I figure I don’t count quite yet.
The sun rests low in the wintery sky and its light touches all the other buildings just like this one—tall and dark and cold. I peel my face from the glass and wonder what I want, what a life looks like. A pigeon leaps from the ledge of a nearby building and lets its wings catch in the wind, soaring down towards the busy streets, gray into gray.
Finally, I find a quiet place. Here at the edge of the playground I can think my thoughts in peace, without being bothered by the dumb loud kids. Yeah it’s cool that Leah found a bunny’s nest under the bridge, but everyone’s already seen it so it’s not that cool. I don’t feel like playing freeze tag or going on the tire swing, I feel like sitting, and this is my spot so go away! I like to look out past the train tracks and the corn at the cemetery up on the hill. It’s really far away so the headstones look teeny tiny, like skipping rocks. I don’t know who’s buried there but I decide I want to be buried there when I die so that some kid will sit in this exact spot someday and wonder about me. Yeah, that’s a good idea.
The sun is hot on my neck and I can hear them calling me back to play, but I like this spot so much. I guess it’ll still be here next recess, so I’ll come back then. No one else better sit in it, though, cuz it’s mine. It’s the only place at school I can be alone and think. No one else can come. Sometimes I just have to think.
Today isn’t special but it is good. It’s the kind of spring that’s almost summer; I’m reading a book on a bench that has seen my very first kiss and my very last drink; the warm breeze spreads a calm over everything around—including, miraculously, my mind. There is a mountain in the distance far away enough so that all the trees growing from it blend together to form one smooth summit of green, but close enough to never forget its name.
The book isn’t one I should be reading—that is, it’s not one of the many assigned readings sitting patiently on my desk. I picked this book out from a friend’s bookshelf and she said, “I’ve been meaning to give that to you.”
It’s about a writer who is not writing what she is supposed to be writing. Instead, she is going through the Penny Saver, calling the sellers up and asking if she can come see the item he or she is selling and interview the person about his or her life. The book is half photographs of these people: a 60-year old man in the process of becoming a 60-year old woman selling a leather jacket for $30; a teenage boy selling bullfrog tadpoles from his back yard for $2.50 each; a woman living in a trailer outside the city selling Bengal leopard kittens for varying prices. Each true story is, of course, stranger than fiction; it seems unbelievable that all these lives could exist without me ever knowing until I picked up the book from Katie’s shelf. The title on the front is in all caps: IT CHOOSES YOU.
The author writes, “All I ever really want to know is how other people are making it through life—where do they put their body, hour by hour, and how do they cope inside of it.” At these words I hold the book to my chest and close my eyes, hoping maybe they will sink from the page and into my body so that they can become part of me even more than they already have. Maybe if I hold it close enough, tight enough, I can merge effortlessly into this writer with a book in the world, a woman with a husband and a baby, a person with a life that she chose ever so purposefully.
Out between the mountain and myself I see two dogs sprinting across the long field, their bodies brown and slender, hurtling through the tall grass. Even though they are flying fast, it seems like they will never make it across such a great distance. But I watch, and their bodies push on minute after minute. My eyes are frozen on the dogs, racing one after another without ever slowing down.
And then it dawns on me: they have already crossed the distance, and now they are running back across it to return home. I look to the house they are headed for and their owner appears, the figure of a man clapping his hands and calling out. He is waiting for them and they will make it there soon; the man knows this, the dogs know this. The distance between them is growing smaller; the dogs are running faster than ever. They have done this one thousand times and will do it one thousand more. They will always go shooting out into the distance. They will always come home.
The House on Fairway Road
I sit in the opening of the garage. My hands burn as I press them into the scalding pavement in front of me. Everything seems to vibrate in the heat of the day. Everything reeks, and I am sullen. I hold them there for as long as I can stand, staring resolutely above at the white-scalloped eaves of the house on Fairway Road. I quickly lift my fingers to my face, shoving them firmly under my nostrils and inhaling the sweet scent of warm concrete. When those few moments of bliss have faded, I wipe them across my bare legs and repeat the process until my palms are red and sore and broiled. A horse fly buzzes slowly around my ankles, landing on my face-down palm. We do not acknowledge each other. We are too fatigued.
The house on Fairway Road rests a half block away from KS 169 on one end of the road, but most of the time we do not notice; we are too preoccupied. Here the trees grow precariously taller than the houses, and the pristine white golf balls from the country club on the other end of the road clump together in the gutters. June is a particularly bad month for lightning storms and humidity, the month where breathing is heavy and sometimes the wind whines through the oak trees so loudly that we do not hear the tornado sirens. There is no respite until July. When we speak to each other, it is as though we are underwater. It is the season of broken tree limbs and broken spirits.
“Excuse me, but has this rug been washed?” a woman in sunny tennis whites calls out from inside the garage. She points at the circular orange and green rag rug on the floor with some distaste and looks over my shoulder. I notice one of the “free water bottles” in her hand, and I am silent.
My father heaves himself out of his chair near the entrance to the house and walks past me with a wink and a smile. His eyes wander from mine to each of my two brothers, taking attendance. I take my leave, wandering through the haphazard knick knacks, the bureau and the matching nightstand, the plastic tubs full of mugs and newly-polished silverware. I wrap my hands around my father’s chilled Diet Coke can, take a handful of sunflower seeds. I plop down on the steps leading into the house and I bask in the brief hint of cool air from within as I listen to the muffled bartering in the corner.
My brothers, having given up on their card game, lounge listlessly in an especially green patch of grass next to the trunk of our tall tree. A woodpecker drones endlessly into our tall oak tree, and I think you are a little late my friend. The two boys are taking turns pretending to sneeze dramatically. Our dog, Dizzy, whips his head in the direction of the noise, flopping from one prone body to the next trying to catch someone in the act. He has overexerted himself, and drool collects on the corners of his mouth as his left ear droops slightly out like an airplane wing. They call me over, but I shake my head no, bringing my palm up to my nose.
“Hey,” they say, “what’s the matter?” they say, “You scared?” They raise their eyebrows. They keep their insults brief. No reason to waste energy, we all think. They call me:
a whiny baby
a whiny bitch (just quiet enough so that my father doesn’t hear)
“Hi, how much for the Mark Haddon?” a man asks as he leafs through my mother’s worn copies.
My mother scrambles. “I could have sworn I put a label on it.” She rushes over to the man at the end of the table and timidly pokes at the label maker in her hand.
My mother sits closest to the partially packed U-Haul. After the customer is gone, she settles back into a chair behind a folding table in the shade of the tree near the road, next to the drooping For Sale sign. Our other dog, Georgia, has retired to the underbelly of the table, her head resting against its plastic leg. On the table is a slew of mystery novels with mysterious names, creased spines and bright white labels that read dollar amounts. Directly in front of my mother is a cleared space and in it sits her label maker. It is also labeled. It reads: NOT FOR SALE. She does not look at my father. She faces the U-Haul and glances occasionally into the far back corner.
My mother’s chair sits in the far back corner of the U-Haul. The leather, once the color of a slightly burned caramel, has warped into a mild and tender brindle, white scratches and dings covering the sides. The ottoman is hiding somewhere in there, too. Maybe under some photo albums, or perhaps under the set of iron stove tools. She looks into the compartment as though she wants nothing more than to wriggle through the littered items to her chair, as it is, underneath the stiff and bulky white and blue furniture pads, placed beside our wooden blanket chest. I think that if she does, I will too. It would be cool in there.
I gather the sunflower seed husks in a makeshift shirt pocket of my white tank top, letting them drop slowly to the ground as I make my way toward her. I glance at her profile, her mouth is tight, her jaw moves slightly back and forth like a metronome. Her hair, the color of dark chocolate, resting firmly at ear level, is tucked behind her ear each time she glances into the compartment.
At the end of the street, the side near the highway, an ambulance, or maybe a police siren blares past. My mother and I cringe. My jaw has not yet started to click the way hers does, but sometimes if I squeeze my eyes shut too forcefully...
A drop of blood lands and marks the collar of my tank top. I think that the ruddy color is somewhat pleasant, kind of like the amber color that marks the sky before a tornado. I tilt my head down, and hear my father’s panicky voice ring from behind the bureau:
“Oh, Jesus,” he groans as he forcefully grabs my chin and points it toward the sky.
He clutches my nose coarsely as the blood begins to run through the spaces in his fingers and onto the pavement. I think I hear it sizzle. The sharp perfume of sunflower seeds and musty sheets from the attic fills my mouth, but then the metallic taste of blood coats my tongue. The sky begins to twist. My father is holding me too tightly and I cannot breathe. I try relentlessly to push his arms away; the more panicked I get, the tighter his grasp is, I can feel bruises forming where the fingers of his left hand are pressing into my upper arm.
A woman with wispy white hair rushes forward with a blue and white gingham tea towel.
“You have to hold it,” my father nervously instructs me, in a loud voice that rings in my ears, “I can’t help you if you keep fighting me like this.”
With my left hand I clutch the tea towel against my chin as I dig my nails into his arm in silent protest. I glance past my father’s large frame and scowl at the woman with my teeth bared. In my head, I hear growling noises gurgling up my throat, uncontrolled. But in reality I am silent, and she watches on concerned.
“No!” I yelp as I try to wrench my face out of my father’s hold. Georgia ambles over to me and laps at the drops of blood on my ankles. My screaming turns to laughing as tears trickle into my open mouth. Her tongue transitions to teeth as she nips at the backs of my heels, pushing me, and consequently my father, further down the driveway.
My mother stands patiently beside the folding table. When we have been herded into her territory, she silently takes the towel from me, removes my father’s blood stained hands, and places her slender fingers firmly at the bridge of my nose.
“If this doesn’t stop in 20 minutes, I’m taking her to the emergency room,” he announces.
She turns me toward the road.
“Take deep breaths,” she whispers into my ear, as my father hovers above, trying to fan us with a small book. She places her other hand on the small of my back and we stumble onto Fairway Road and sort of effortlessly up the ramp of the U-Haul. She leads me into the compartment. It is dark and cool, and I feel the condensation drip from the corrugated metal of the ceiling onto my forehead. We make our way slowly to the far back corner, through the littered boxes. She pulls the furniture pad slightly off her chair and we collapse into it with sighs of relief. In the dark, the she brushes her fingers lightly over my bare arms as she paints deserts onto the blank metal canvases of the compartment.
“In the Painted Deserts,” she tells me, “the air is hot and dry and the limestone smells like clay.”
We stay in her chair longer than it takes for the caked blood to dry on our skin like red dirt. We stay in the U-Haul on Fairway road until the veins of the sky glow like the neon orange hue of an old, canvas umbrella tent.
When we retire to the ice cold house, her smile fades slowly, almost imperceptibly, as she crosses the threshold. She glances into the living room, but her chair is not there and so she does not linger, but climbs the stairs slowly, and silently. In the kitchenette, there is a large air mattress that smells like the attic. My brothers are spread across the surface with their boxy gameboys held close to their faces. When I step into the room, they look warily at me, but they do not make space. I am too late, I think as I squeeze myself onto a sliver of mattress and ruminate on the white walls of the house on Fairway Road.
I remember a character from this old movie about sailing, say that men were not meant to be in the water, it just wasn’t natural. I feel that they are not meant to be underground either. The city can be a jungle of wheels. Sometimes I feel that cars could be staked on top of each other in streets and there still wouldn’t be enough space for all of them. But even during the peak of rush hour, when a five-minute walk could become a twenty-minute drive, I avoid descending into the subway. Sometimes though, it’s unavoidable.
It’s evening and the subway car is underpacked. I’m going back home, to the center of the city from the outskirts of it. There seems to be an air of tiredness connecting all the people. People heading home from work, or school or practice. Most Georgians like to stare, to observe. On a bus, they’ll turn their heads to look at the people who get on and then go back to staring out the window. Everyone has their own seat, facing someone’s back. Observing requires a conscious effort. But in the subway, we face each other. The windows show blackness with fleeting hints of shades that zoom by. So we stare at the people instead. It’s rare to see someone reading, and almost impossible to find someone on their laptop. Some people play on their phones sometimes, some listen to music. The others stare.
I’m sitting by the door. An easy exit. A couple in their late fifties, with greying hair sits opposite me to the right. The woman looks at me once, then focuses on the floor for the rest of the trip as the man talks to her, but he keeps glancing over. She’s dressed in all black, her skirt touching the dirty floor. I can see traces of shiny white nail polish, which used to be popular in the nineties. She clutches a black fake leather purse with faded straps and edges. The man is wearing a dark blue shirt, with three buttons down the chest. They’re all open. He focuses on my clothes before getting to my face. From time to time his brows furrow and he loses his train of thought, but quickly regains composure. I’m wearing severely torn jeans and an oversized, brown fur coat. My knit hat has two Mickey Mouse-like pom-poms on either side. It’s February.
There are four boys on the edge of manhood sitting opposite me to the right. They’re talking loudly, laughing about obscenities, making fun of each other. They glance around shamelessly, without hesitation. Their clothes are a variety of black, dark grey and blues. One of them take out a cigarette and lights it. Everyone glances over, but says nothing. He takes a couple of drags and puts it out on the seat. The girl sitting directly opposite me, is wearing simple clothes, no jewelry, no makeup. Her skin is pale. Her eyes are brown. You can tell she’s not from the center of town, maybe not even from the city originally. Her brown hair is tied back into a ponytail. She keeps her legs tightly together. Concentrates on the blackness outside the window, makes sure not to look over at the boys. They start talking about her, knowing she can hear, making comments like: “Hey didn’t you say you were into brunettes earlier man ?” They glance over at me as well. I stare back so they lose interest.
We stop at a station and two kids walk in by themselves wearing oversized flip-flops. A girl and a boy, no older than seven. They both turn serious when they enter. They have dark skin and hold dirty white plastic cups. The boy stands in front of the door leading into the other car and starts shouting for us to help them while the girl walks around with her cup.
“Please help us, may God bless you!!!” The boy is hysterical; we’ve all heard a similar pitch before. We hang our heads and stare at the floor, ashamed for our lack of sympathy, but also annoyed at the noise they’re causing. Only one person puts money in her cup. When the girl finishes her round, the boy makes his. After they decide they won’t make any more money, they start laughing and spinning. They go over to passengers and make fun of them. The girl comes over to me and laughs at my hat. I smile at her. She asks to have one of my rings, but I say no. I say it was a present and smile again. The little boy goes over to the four boys sitting opposite me. They start talking to him and instantly seem to discover a common tongue.
The children exit on the following stop and stick their small tongues out at us before heading into the next subway car. An old woman enters dressed in all black with a black veil hiding her face. She holds a plastic cup in one hand and an icon of the Virgin Mary in the other. She starts praying and asking for help. We hang our heads and stare at the floor.
Beatitude No. 4
Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.
Observe the writer, yes, the writer is in your midst, working in your café, diligently making it through page upon page. With his hand cocked against his shoulder, he rests his chin in concentration. He breathes through his nose. Facing the door, and with his back to the restrooms, he can see everyone as they come in, but he pays them little attention; they are not important to him beyond their capacity to offer the writer a backdrop to concentrate against. As he reads and sporadically types on his keyboard, he falls through his eyes into the pages before him; he plummets down and away from the back of his chair, discovering. If, by some thwarting of his practice he happens to look up, his is surprised, not at whatever is was that brought him back to the world, but by the fact that somehow, incomprehensibly, there is a world to come back to at all. His mouth will open slightly. His eyebrows might rise. He is shocked by the realness of the world before him; he blinks, fondly, with delayed recognition. Today, bright lights of creation are too much for him.
We agreed to write letters. Original, I know. But the point was tangible. Tangibility. The point of letters was proof that we could quantify our love, like the point of the Atlantic was to separate us. We sent the crossword from the AM New York back and forth, each time with a new piece of the puzzle filled in. We stuck to Mondays and Tuesdays, because Wednesday was when it started to get difficult. We shared a stamp card for a corporate coffee chain. I saved and shipped every scone receipt I accumulated in the month of August. He sent back movie stubs. Grocery lists. A check-up report from a routine visit to the doctor’s saying that everything was A-OK. A palm tree leaf with the words “I’m quite frond of you” Sharpied on. A jumbo-size bag of Tootsie rolls, and then the wrappers in return. Little pieces of colored construction paper that people pass out on the subway, with things like JESUS LOVES YOU and the alphabet in sign language written out and you can pay what you want for them, anything helps. I inserted them into my books, to help me keep my place. When one of us got a speeding ticket (which one of us did far more frequently than the other), it got shipped off too. They felt like secrets, like look here I am being vulnerable and I am not ashamed of my faults, here they are. Then when the pay date came around, the receipt stubs were sent, acts of caring, acts of heroism, like look at how much I love you, I will take care of everything. I sent him a scratch-off lottery ticket that was good for $1, so he’d know he was some kind of winner. To spice things up, I Fed-exed a pair of my underwear, lacy and unwashed. He sent it back, dry-cleaned. For my birthday, a little set of nail polish and fresh flowers. Red roses. How original. I painted my nails, let them dry, and chipped the paint off into an envelope. I waited till the flowers died and sent the dried petals over, too. Colored kisses on envelopes sealed around the dead skin peeled from lips in the drying dead of winter. Strands of hair that smelled faintly of coconut shampoo, collected from the shower drain and dried and stamped, sealed, delivered. In response to a sweater he wore to bed every night for a week before shipping, that smelled strongly of his sleep sweat, a thin layer of my sunburnt skin, cracked and peeling. A molar with a growing cavity, because of all the parts of the body, including the bones, the teeth should last the longest.
Mike11 is in my bedroom. Mike11 is in my bedroom because I invited him here, because he came recommended by 4/5 friends. Mike11 is called Mike11 because his real name is Michael Evan, and in middle school, he used to sign his name like that because he thinks he’s clever.
Mike11 has a reputation in my school for being able to give girls their first orgasm. I think this is because he is a senior, and so has had a lot of practice. I’m 16 now, a sophomore, which is the age people generally think is appropriate to stop being a prude. Which is the age people kind of expect you to make mistakes, so your PE teacher has to bring out diagrams of diseased vaginas and your pediatrician who you have been seeing since you were 2 suddenly has to ask you if you drink or do drugs or are sexually active.
At the time of my last doctor’s visit, I was not sexually active, not even close, but sometimes Mary Eliot will bring travel shampoo bottles full of her parents’ rum for us to pour into our Cokes during lunch, and I think maybe I am making two mistakes here: drinking and not asking my friend Mary Eliot if she is okay.
Mary Eliot is involved in a lot of my mistakes, like when we were walking around St. Mark’s two days ago, on a Tuesday, and I got my nose pierced just for the helluvit. At this piercing place in St. Mark’s, everyone who works there was sitting in a lounged back chair watching a reality TV show called Dating Naked when we walked in. People get set up on blind dates and when they meet for the first time, they are absolutely naked. Those parts are blurred out because they are not suitable for America. I did remember hearing, though, that whoever’s job it is to blur out those bits was distracted once and so did a bad job at blurring. Apparently America saw a lot more than it should have, and the girl with the unblurred bits was suing the network.
Anyway, the TV in the piercing place is positioned like in a hospital room, way up, so everyone was lying down and tilting their heads way back and their chins way up to see the screen. They looked kind of funny, all slouched there, and at first we weren’t sure if they were closed. Then a girl with blonde hair and eyeliner that raccooned around her eyes noticed us and said, “How can I help you ladies?” I was glad it was her who talked to us first because I think if I were walking down the street late at night and felt lost or in trouble, she would be the one of all the ones there who I would talk to. She put me in the chair right in the glass display window. People walking by probably thought I was a mannequin for a split second. “Wait right here, okay, sweetie?” she said and disappeared into the back. I heard rock-paper-scissors, and then a man with more metal on his face than flesh came out. He did not introduce himself, but I theorized that someone could learn his whole life story by reading all the faded ink on his body, if he’d let them.
I felt okay getting my nose pierced like this because it was a mistake a lot of other people have made. I feel this way about a lot of things I am vaguely afraid of, like skipping class and standing around Mary Eliot with her cigarettes, like lying to people older than me who I respect, like lying to people who are younger than me in case they are impressionable, like pregnancy and childbirth and death. I figure it’s going to be okay because enough people before me have gone through it, or have gone through with it. There’s a difference, I think; the with implies with choice.
I feel that I have a lot of choice, I am very lucky that way, and that’s why Mike11 came to my front door when I knew my parents weren’t going to be home, in the middle of the day on a weekday. He did that thing that adults do where you go to hug someone and then kind-of-kiss that someone on the cheek. I’m never sure how to respond to a thing like that. Do you in turn go to kiss that person’s cheek? Unless it’s one of the ones where they just touch their cheek to your cheek and make a sound like a kiss, and in that case, do you make the kiss sound back? I thought it was an especially weird thing for Mike11 to do, because I don’t think we’re at that age yet. But Mike11 is a senior and so maybe knows better.
Mike11 is in my bedroom now, futzing with my geometry textbook, because a few days ago I told him I needed help with math. We sit on my bed and stare at the textbook, even though we both know what I meant then. The textbook’s flipped open to a random page, a chapter we haven’t even covered yet in class. There are cut-and-dry formulas and questions about measuring angles and cutting things in half and how much of a thing another thing can contain. There are complicated shapes that are shaded in different ways, with dotted lines for dimension. And I do that thing where I look at it like an optical illusion, and I see the cube either jutting out and up on the left or down and to the right. Out up left down right out up left down right out up, and then my brain has a hard time making it switch back, so I look at Mike11 instead. He has thick, curly brown hair and deep-set eyes that are brown also but still pretty. He’s looking at me in a waiting-way, but not in a way that makes me feel rushed like when you go into a boutique store and it’s very small and the employees are very friendly and just so very there.
Mike11 is so very here in a good way. He’s sitting on the bed, but on the very edge but not in a way that makes him look uncomfortable. Mike11 looks very natural sitting there at the edge of my bed. No part of him is touching any part of me. He doesn’t say anything, and that’s how I know he’ll be a real gentleman about it.
“Hi,” I say, and it sounds lame. The “hi” just kind of hangs there in air for a second, doesn’t know where to go, isn’t sure if it should ask for directions. It cut through the silence awkwardly, like a plastic knife trying to slice through steak. That’s what it sounds like.
Still, Mike11 takes this as his cue. He wriggles a little closer up the bed and puts his face this close to mine. His nose touches my nose. His nose touches my new nose piercing, which still hurts a little but I don’t tell him that. He’s touching my common mistake. It makes me feel more normal.
Mike11’s mouth is on my mouth and his tongue is in my mouth and oh god what do I even do with this? It doesn’t really matter what I do with this, though, because it doesn’t stay for long, and then Mike11 is kissing my neck, my collarbone, my breasts. The song head, shoulders, knees, and toes. The 4/5 friends that went through this, that went through with this, and would recommend it to a friend. All our lines are touching now, and the geometry textbook has slid into our indent of the bed and is gently stabbing my side. I try to ignore it because I think trying to slide it off the bed would be weird. It would make a thud that is like cutting steak with a chainsaw.