The Fence Post, Marissa Harwood
Nineteen years and seventy-seven days after his birth, the young man is shot suddenly in the chest. There is a moment of surprise; he looks down at himself in curiosity and wonder. His hands reach up slowly to finger his clothing, to witness the shreds of skin and the pumping wetness that he has never before experienced. For a handful of ragged breaths there is no pain, just a strange sort of hollowness that he is unable to express in words, even to himself.
Death does not enter his mind. He does not think of a blinding light, or of his own legacy, or even of God.
Then the pain comes, and its force is astounding. He gasps and sinks to the ground.
He forgets the war around him. There are no more gunshots, no more mines sleeping secretly within the earth. There is no more us and no more them, and he drops his gun. He looks around slowly, for the first time noticing the alien trees, the underbrush that is so unlike the plants from home. He sees no birds but he knows that miles away, where the battle is faint, they are calling to one another in the canopy.
He wants to lean against something, to listen to the frail beating of his own heart. They are not in a village, not quite, but there is an abandoned farmhouse in the distance and he can see the rotting fence only a few yards away. He begins to crawl towards it, thinking halfheartedly that all he needs is a little rest, a little space of peace where he can examine the openness in his chest.
When the young man was born, it was nearly two months before the expected date. His mother always smiled as she told the story. It was a sunny afternoon, she would say in a voice smooth and creamy, and I was planting bulbs in the garden. I was thinking about the way the trees were changing, and how it was a pity that you would have to wait nearly a whole year to see them. And then I felt something strange happening in my belly, a sharp twisting feeling, and somehow I knew that you were coming right then. Your Papa had gone to town, you see, so I climbed into our old pickup and drove myself to the hospital. I sang along to the radio and daydreamed about how desperately you wanted to be born in autumn.
The hospital staff got a hold of his father, and he arrived just as the child was blinking for the first time.
Two weeks in the hospital. Two weeks for the baby to grow fingernails, eyebrows, eyelashes. Two weeks for the jaundice to pass, for his weight to increase, for his parents to overcome their clumsy terror. Two weeks for him to transform into a normal baby.
Until, finally, he was allowed to enter the world. His father drove them home from the hospital, a smile like relief hiding in his features. His mother turned every few minutes to check on the baby in the car seat, to marvel at the vast wetness of his eyes.
For some reason the young man could never quite understand, his mother always described that drive when she spoke of his birth. She said it was quiet, that he made no sound, and so the tires sang to them as they curved through the landscape. She described the pavement that twisted knowingly, almost selfishly, and the wind that hummed beside the car. They knew the road well, she explained; they had made the long trek into the city so many times the distance no longer bothered them. But there was a strange weight, she would say, and here she would pause. Yes, a strange weight, like fear. It settled on the dashboard. And here he would question her, but she would gaze at nothing and move on. She never told him what she meant.
The family home was a ranch, left over from the days of new settlements and wild places. It stretched itself in the shadow of the Tetons; acres of trees and grazing fields that could make anyone feel small. His mother loved the property; some days, when she was in a teasing mood, she would say that she married his father so that she could marry the land. His father laughed at such playful comments, but there was always a shadow in his expression as he turned away.
The sun was high in the sky as the little family approached the fence around their land. His father stopped at the gate to unlock the chain and his mother unbuckled the sleeping baby and pulled him from the car. This was the part of the story that his mother cherished. This was the part where she made her voice softer and he had to lean in close so he could hear.
She cradled the baby in her arms as he yawned, one tiny fist waving before him. She walked with him through the trees, pulling at leaves so he could feel the crunchy redness between his brand new fingers, so he could smell the bark and the soil and the stale sunshine of the season in which he had been born. Autumn baby, she called him, as she sat in the drifts of dead leaves and broken needles that had blown against the base of the fence. My little autumn child, as she rested her head against the fence post and watched his father drive the truck through the gate.
This was the story that she told him, countless times throughout his youth. It was the story he thought of every time he walked through the gate. Even five years later, when his sister was born and he was all but forgotten, it was the story that lulled him to sleep. And later, when he told her he was drafted into a war he detested, it was the story that balled in her throat and watered her eyes with unshed tears.
Dirt is thick in the air, and his eyes begin to water. There are insects around him; they buzz beside his head as he crawls to the fence post. He wants to swat them, but he fears that if he does he will collapse and not be able to get back up. He does not want to collapse. Not yet.
The sun is bright. It pours into his tortured eyes and he tries to blink it away. He wishes desperately for the fog that he cursed so heatedly that morning, for the darkness of these foreign nights. He wishes for the coolness of a foxhole, or a densely wooded hillside.
There is blood on his hands. It is warm and sticky and gritty from the dirt. There is sweat on his neck. It is cool and sticky and gritty from the dust. But there are tears on his face, hot, slick, clean, and it is the tears that bother him most.
He can see the fence post more clearly now. The weather has made the wood smooth. It is not rotting, not like the rungs that lie haphazardly beside it. Not like the crumbling house or the sour ferns that carpet the ground. It looks strong, and deeply buried, and he wants very much to rest against it.
His heart hurts and his mind flinches away from the openness that he cannot accept.
When the young man was six, his mother went away for three days with his baby sister. He was left with his father, who worked for long hours and allowed the boy to look after himself.
His father was the kind of man who appreciated an abundance of sky. He smelled always of tanned leather and chewing tobacco, and sang to the cattle when they were restless. The boy liked to watch him as he worked. He liked to run after his father’s footprints, liked to hum along to his father’s wordless songs. He loved his father, surely, but it was a different love than the feeling that he had for his mother. His father was huge to him, like the clouds that build over the mountains. The boy admired him, and was afraid of him.
The second day his mother was gone, the boy built a fort in the woods behind the house. He leaned old timber against a boulder and filled the holes in with moss. He sharpened sticks with his small pocketknife and collected mushrooms for food. He smeared dirt on his face and pretended to live wildly, as he thought a pioneer might have. It was a restless sort of game; there was much to do but a lot of it was waiting. He waited for the squirrels to come so he could hunt, and he waited for it to rain so he could collect water. It crossed his mind briefly that he was too young to do those sorts of things, so he waited for himself to grow up.
His father found him there that afternoon, when the sun was bleeding on the horizon. He seemed impressed with what his son had created. The boy was proud of this and talked about his fort all through dinner.
When they had eaten and the dishes had been washed, the boy and his father climbed into the pick-up and went for a drive. They were going to see something, his father said. Something old and nearly forgotten. The boy sat quietly in his seat as the truck bounced down the dirt path that led to the edge of their property. When his father finally stopped and turned off the headlights, the boy jumped out and ran, excited, into the clearing.
There was no light but for the thumbnail moon, but the boy could make out the ruins of a small homestead. The roof was gone, and three of the walls leaned stubbornly in silhouette. His father pointed out a scar in the earth where a well had been filled in, and the remains of a low, cool building that had once held roots and vegetables. The boy could make out their own fence in the trees behind the clearing, and he was fascinated by how new it looked in comparison to the fragments of another lifetime.
When the boy tired of examining the ruins, his father put him on his shoulders and walked through the glade to the fence in the trees. He swung through the twisted trunks and ducked beneath branches, and the boy shrieked with the thrill of it; with the breeze, with the silence, with the night. His father set him on the top rung of the fence and hung his stained cowboy hat on the post. The boy watched as his father lit a forbidden cigarette, the end burning so brightly that it drowned out the stars.
Years later, at the funeral, the young man tried to remember the way the smoke circled in the air. He tried to remember the laughter that shook the stillness, the way his legs swung back and forth. He tried to remember the fallen homestead, the history buried there, and the way the root cellar smelled in the darkness. He grasped at the tattered memory and would not let it go.
The young man thinks he can hear shouting, and he grasps momentarily at the hope of rescue. But the moment passes, and he is confused by the possible presence of other people. He cannot seem to remember what he was doing or where he is. His mind is consumed by the crater in his chest, and by the constant flow of thickness that spreads and mingles with the dirt. He thinks about the trail of his life that he is leaving behind him.
The fence post is close now; he is almost upon it. He struggles a few more feet, until finally he can reach out and brush his fingertips against the smooth wood. In one painstaking movement, he settles himself so that his back is against it, and his body sags in relief. There is a twisting itch on his chest, and he reaches up to scratch it but nothing is there. Only the startling emptiness, the hole that pulses as if it were breathing.
He looks down at his hands and does not recognize them. He doesn’t like the dark stain of his fingers, or the drying chalkiness on his arms. He doesn’t like the color of his shirt or the thick mud that cakes his knees. He doesn’t like the haze around his eyes.
He touches the shards of his skin that surround the openness, and his head swims.
His sister was a whirlwind. Her voice was high, her clothing dirty, and her smile wide and lopsided. He loved her from the moment he saw her, full term and healthy, in his mother’s arms. He loved her when she learned how to laugh, how to talk, how to sing. He loved her despite the attention she received, despite the way his mother looked at her, despite the hours he now spent alone.
In late winter of his eleventh year, he was behind the house stacking firewood when he saw her footprints in the snow. She wasn’t supposed to go into the woods by herself, but he could hardly blame her for a crime that he had been guilty of so many times. The day was quiet and bright, warm to those who had known nothing but cold for months. Still, the sun would be setting soon, and he did not want his sister to get caught in the dark.
He followed her footprints through the trees. They passed the site where he had built his fort and zigzagged around nothing at all. In a deep drift beneath a tree, there was a small angel shaped in the snow. At first, the footprints seemed leisurely, but as he walked farther from the house they began to be more sporadic. There were circles in glades, as if she couldn’t tell which way to go. He increased his pace, worry settling into his stomach like an illness. Deeper he wound into the forest, until, quite suddenly, he came upon the fence that surrounded the property. Her footprints populated the space in front of it; the snow had been stamped and pressed flat beneath her terrified feet. On the top rung of the fence, caught on a stray splinter, was a piece of dark blue fabric. He plucked it from the wood and held it tightly in his fist, then climbed the fence and followed the trail that resumed on the other side.
He crested a rise and stopped when he caught sight of his sister. She was wearing black leggings and her favorite summer-dress beneath her coat, the dress their mother had bought for her in town that she insisted on wearing every chance she got. There was a fearful agitation in her movements, a sort of restless desperation that made his heart ache.
“Mommy!” she cried out. Her voice was very small. “Mommy! Oh no. Oh no. Oh no. Mommy!” She was sobbing, her small body shook from the tears, and he called out her name and went to her slowly. She ran to him, her dress flowing blue behind her, and he picked her up and held her close to his body.
She was shaking, from cold or fear he didn’t know, and her hair clung to the tears on her face in wet strings. For a moment he simply hugged her and let the relief of her safety slow their beating hearts. She could not speak for crying, and he told her he was glad she was all right and started walking back the way he had come.
Her body stilled as he walked, and soon she fell into an exhausted sleep. He thought uneasily about what would have happened if he had not noticed her footprints, about what his life would be like if he had not found her. The thought scared him.
The walk back seemed much shorter. The fence was easy to scale, even with his sister cradled in his arms. The trees did not seem so imposing, or crowded. They welcomed him home.
A short while before sunset, when he walked quietly into their house, his frantic mother shouted at him for his stupidity. It was a reaction he hadn’t expected, and it stung him deep. He felt tears fill his eyes as he set his sister softly by the fire and escaped into his room. Even later, when his mother learned the truth and came to apologize, he would not speak. He nursed the sting until she sat on his bed and hugged him to her chest, rocking him back and forth, and he collapsed into her arms.
The year he left for the war was the year his sister started high school. On the day he left, when she hugged him goodbye, he thought about the way her hair stuck to her tears as she stood in the woods. He thought about her six-year-old figure, wringing her hands and saying oh no, oh no as she turned around in anguished circles.
The young man sits quietly, his head resting against the fence post, and gazes at the circle of country around him. He can see the smudges of trees and rock in the distance. He can see great plumes of smoke rise in the air, but he thinks idly that they are towers. He doesn't remember seeing towers here before.
He recognizes the pain. It is not sharp, but it is not a dull ache. It is his body, his mind, his past and future. It is the blood on his hands, and the dirt on his clothes, and the tears on his face.
He inhales and exhales in ragged strips, and somehow it is the poverty of his breath that scares him the most.
And there is the openness, that goddamn openness that threatens to swallow him whole.
When the young man was thirteen, he began to see himself through the eyes of girls. He watched them talk to one another, watched their eyes flutter like insects in a garden. There was something strange about the way they carried their bodies, a sense of belonging to something larger that the young man couldn’t understand. But he wanted to.
One of his closest friends was a girl. She came over for dinner sometimes, when his mother allowed him to invite her. She was taller than he was but significantly thinner, and despite her height he thought secretly that she was very small.
In late spring of that year, as the school semester was drawing to a merciful close, he went with her to a far corner of his parents’ property. It was a lighthearted section of forest, a good distance from the abandoned homestead, where the trees were sparse and the lonely boulders were always warm in the sun. They wandered lazily, climbing up trees and poking sticks into animal holes. The conversation was constant, a steady trickle of light words and laughter that did nothing to disturb the peace of the forest. It seemed, rather, that the two children were a part of it. There was a certain wildness to their play that only those who grow up in the woods can possess.
Eventually they came to the fence and sat before it, staring out into the trees on the other side with a sort of subdued curiosity. The sun was hot on their backs and they talked for a while about how similar the familiar forest was to the unfamiliar forest, how it would be easy to confuse the two and lose your way. The boy took out his pocket knife and whittled his way through a branch. His friend was jealous. She wasn’t allowed to have a knife. He let her have a turn.
The afternoon wore on. They told stories to one another, true and imaginary, and shared things that they had learned in school. His friend told him that a long time ago, when most people couldn’t read, they would sign their names “X.” She spoke of this and laughed and laughed, because every X looks the same, because sometimes even people look the same. Then she took his knife and scoured a deep X into the wood of the fence post, an X that stood for her name, for the sameness that made her similar to the rest of the world.
He watched her do this and laughed with her, thinking that she was more different than same. Then she rolled onto her stomach and swung her legs in the air, the hem of her dress falling from her ankles and exposing the soft pale skin of her calves. She plucked a long weed and put the end in her mouth, not quite over her laughter, and her body shook with mirth. The young man stared at her. He stared at the X in the fence post, the weed in her mouth, the pocketknife in her fingers. He stared at the perfect white skin of her legs and was overcome by a sudden desire to kiss her.
He had never kissed anyone before, and he wanted it to be right. It had to be soft and serious and short. He moved closer to her, his heart beating fast. She looked at him and gave a brilliant smile, then sprang to her feet and kicked over a fallen log.
The kiss was there, on his lips and in his mind, but he felt too shy to give it now. It wouldn’t be right without the paleness of her legs or her name spelled X in his peripheral vision. He swallowed the desire and pretended that his disappointment was due to something else.
Four years later, as he watched his first and last long-term girlfriend drive away, his mind strayed with regret to that afternoon. His friend had moved away the following winter, and he could no longer remember her name. He could remember only the way the sunlight played around her form in the dirt, and the kiss that should have been hers. And he could remember the X in the fence post, the mark that anchored her in his memory, a representation of how she would be forever the same. He turned his back on the vanishing car and gasped for air as if he were sinking through deep water.
He sinks into the pain. The fence post is digging into his back, and he falls away from it. He rolls in the dirt, bits of leaves and twigs clinging to his matted hair.
He is alone. He knows it and is gripped by an unquenchable need to be held. It is not the need of a child, nor the need of a lover. It is the pain that comes with deep loneliness, a forlorn isolation that welcomes company even as it shuts it out.
Still, the young man does not think of death. He thinks only of the solitary state of his being, the sorrow that he cannot even express in tears. He curls around the fence post and lets out one small, unheard whimper.
He forgets his place in his own mind, forgets even the purging openness of his chest. He does not think of the hem of a dark blue summer dress caught on a splinter, or the faded brim of a cowboy hat. He does not ponder the X carved into the wood, or his mother cradling him in the needles, or his own little feet swinging softly in the night. He remembers none of these things, but he calls to them unknowingly from the depths of his desolation. And for one short second, which no one but the echoing woods is there to witness, he possesses them utterly.
Punch Line, Mickey Bakas
I had seen the pirates when I was younger. We took a trip to Disneyland. Or world? I think it was land. We went to see the mechanical things they wanted us to see. We went to feel the mechanical things they wanted us to feel. But we wanted them too, I guess. But they weren't real. I wonder sometimes if they're even real. Not the pirates, but the other they.
My dad drove us there, I remember that too. He always drove. I remember the asphalt. I think that was real. Pretty sure. It was hot; I think it’s always hot there. Where the oranges were supposed to grow. We walked about for hours and hours really just looking for Steve Martin, or a six-dollar lemonade, or the real pirates. Maybe there were real pirates. I don't know. Maybe we were the real pirates. Maybe they were.
I remember the band. They play every day when everyone walks in looking for Steve Martin. You know, they say he took the punch line out of comedy. At least I think they say that. I don't know if he really did. Maybe he was the real pirate. But the band, they play every day as everyone and their fat bodies rush into the place, on the asphalt. I think you can go for free if it's your birthday. They just let you in for free because they know you'll bring your whole fat bodied family along, at full price. I don't remember what we paid. I was just a kid. I’m pretty sure. I don't remember if we were fat, but they were.
They didn't let dogs in, I remember that too. Not that we had one, but it doesn't matter because they wouldn't have let us take it in even if we did. I wonder if he really did take the punch line out of comedy. I think maybe he just changed it to mean something else. But I don't remember any of that.
I remember bathrooms. Lots of bathrooms. All different but all the same. Drinking fountains too. But to add the lemon was at least six dollars. I wonder how much they charge now. I remember water though, the rides too. Mechanical lakes that made room for mechanical boats that took us all through the mechanical place. That’s where I saw them, the pirates that weren't really pirates I mean.
I remember waiting in line to go on the rides. I don't really remember the rides though. Just the waiting. The rides weren’t important. Maybe we went there just to wait. To wait for something else to happen. I don't really know. I remember we waited in line all day behind fat bodies, who waited in line behind more fat bodies.
The best part was the parking lot. All the cars. It took hours and hours for the bodies in the cars to get into the parking lot. Then it took even more time for the bodies to get from their cars to the park. It was the best part. Space Mountain was cool I guess, but I think that was real. My dad said it was real. It was fast, I remember that. But we waited and waited to get to the fast part. I think it was too fast, maybe. After all that waiting I mean.
There were so many people there. But some of the people weren't people, they were wearing big suits. You know, like Mickey and Minnie and stuff. Or some were wearing makeup to look like a princess or something. And the pirates. But I knew they were just people trying not to be people. Or trying to be other people, I guess. But I don’t think they were real. And everyone was taking pictures. Like everyone. What’s the use of a picture if everyone else has the same one, just with a different face in it? Like those cardboard attractions where the face of someone famous has been cut out, and you can stick your fat head in the hole and pretend your face means something. I think they had those at the park too. But not with Disney's face cut out. I remember they said he was anti-Semitic. But the castle in the background looked mechanically magical in everyone’s pictures, so that’s alright. I remember they said he was frozen or something somewhere. Like orange concentrate. Mix with three cans of water and stir.
My dad just wanted to see the parade of lights. We didn't let him go.
Later in the day it started to rain. Everyone grabbed their fat bodied children and ran inside the gift shops and restaurants, lest they get wet. I remember wondering where the fake people got off too. The ones wearing the suits. Did their fake bodies keep the world out? Even the rain? Probably not. They were just fake people. I remember seeing fake people outside the park too, pretty much everywhere. But that’s not what this is about.
I wonder if anyone ever really found Steve Martin. I think he worked in the magic shop, but not when I was there. Why didn't the band play when everyone was leaving? Maybe they couldn't afford to keep them on the whole day. After all, it was probably someone’s birthday. Not mine though. I don't really remember my birthdays. But they weren't in the park. They were somewhere else. But it wasn't raining. Everyone ran inside and bought six-dollar lemonades and foot long hot dogs. And popcorn. Maybe the rain wasn't real; they just used it to drive the fat bodies inside for a drink. It used to be a farm I think, or an orange grove. But where did all the workers go? They didn't look like Mickey or Minnie, but they could just wear the suits I guess.
We didn't run inside when it rained, my dad and I. We stayed out watching the parade of people rushing to buy their six-dollar lemonade. It wasn't so hot anymore. My dad was wearing one of those hats, the ones with the goofy ears that hang down. They drooped down by the side of his baby cheeks, and he leaned over the railing watching the mechanical rain disturb the water in the mechanical river. I remember standing there, on the wet asphalt, and I remember wondering what he was thinking about. I think he just wanted the rain to stop. I told him I had to go to the bathroom. He didn't say anything. But my pants were already wet, so it didn't really matter.
When the rain stopped everyone herded their bodies back out onto the asphalt, and everyone hurried to wait in lines again. This was a parade too. We walked around for hours again. Most of the people just threw their empty six-dollar cups onto the ground. But it was alright; there were fake people in suits who walked around to clean up after everyone. Maybe that’s where the orange grove workers went. Or was it a farm? I don't remember that part. Maybe they were all mechanical like the pirates. Or maybe they were real. I didn't ask my dad about that.
We left, even though the band didn't play. I don't think anyone found Steve Martin. And I don't think he really took the punch line out of comedy. But maybe he tried. I go back to the park all the time, but not really. Not with my dad anyway.
Theories on Pressure, Devon Boen
I would wake up in the cold mornings, always white, always windows open, up and at ‘em. Folding stark sheets, unfolding, folding again. She was obsessed. Frost cracked on the window. She would knock on my bedroom door, come in, rip the pillow out from under my head. Glasses clinked in the kitchen before I came down. Early morning coffee, toast only, everything else had too many calories. If you didn’t want toast and coffee you could have water and fresh fruit. Whatever it was that week. Papayas, mangos, grapefruits. Never strawberries or bananas. Those were meant for people in the country. I drank sparkling water and smoked a cigarette out my window just to send her into orbit. She once threw her favorite glass vase at my head when she smelled the smoke. She sat down in the broken glass and cried and blood slipped out of small slits on her fingers and knees. She didn’t seem to notice. She slept on my floor that night and I didn’t ask her not too.
Opera would play at seven a.m. sharp and if you didn’t like it, you could get out of bed and start a productive day like every other person in this city, in this country, in this world. She once played it at 6 a.m. because she had an early meeting. I drank a glass of plain water and left a note on the Swarovski crystal table telling her to fuck off. The building we lived in on the Upper West Side didn’t match her taste in decor. It was opulent, gold, obtrusive. We liked glass, crystal, see-through, bright black and the occasional splash of deep red. Never rose or pink.
I have this memory of her that’s like a flame going out. No wind, at least not that you could detect. Inexplicable and gone in a second. The smoke lingers there, reminding you of the light and its sinister exit. I would think about this at night when I would hear her cry. She would muffle her face with her pillow, but I could still hear. Walls in brand-new high rises are paper-mache thin. The cold tiles struck my feet like a warning. She was sitting on the floor surrounded. At first, it almost looked like a dress. A long, flowing red skirt wrapping around her body, contrasting her bright ivory skin. Her face was distorted. Like a monster. Her eyes were smaller, beadier. Her cheeks covered with moisture and her hair. It was always perfect. Straight, ice-blonde, not a strand out of place, like she had beaten it into submission. Not now. It had been mangled. I ran and pretended to sleep on the back porch. I heard sirens getting louder like a symphony. We never spoke about it, snuffed out, finished, dead.
I would go to his place when I felt like it, despite what the courts said. I didn’t give a damn and neither did he. I’d go mostly when I cut class. A private all-boys Catholic school leaves a lot to be desired. I’d take the subway to lower Manhattan. Smoke a cigarette as the bell rang. Drift in and out through first and second period and walk out in the drowning sea of boys to catch the subway to his place on the Upper East Side. Sometimes he was there during the day and sometimes he wasn’t. He did something with money and a lot of it. He had a hundred Armani ties. I got to his place one morning. It was fall. Cold and orange outside with a sick green sky that threatened a tornado we all knew wasn’t coming. It was reflective of my nauseated stomach that day or maybe the cause. I used my own key to get in. His place was different than hers. Dark mahogany wood, gold accents, romantic era furniture, authentic no doubt. They were doomed from the start. I never bothered to call his name. This was just a crash pad for my midday ditch. I lit a cigarette and poured a drink. Scotch and soda at his place. Vodka soda at hers. I heard someone in his bedroom. The steps were light, not his. If you know a person, you know their walk, like a scent.
“You must be the boy.” She was young, thin and wispy as a cob web. Blonde, of course, and her face was aristocratic. Her white dress slung over her like a perfect accident.
“Glad that’s how he refers to me. He was always quite the affectionate old man.” She laughed, quietly though, and with a dryness to it. Nothing was ever too funny to these women. Humor was some airy, coincidental inconvenience. She stepped closer and poured a drink. Vodka soda. I’d like to say she propositioned me, that these spectacularly disappointing women were the reason I hated him. She didn’t. She shifted elegantly back to his room, like a doll on stilts.
She turned before she disappeared. “If I knew your name, I’d say it was nice to meet you.”
I threw back my drink and left.
The sun had gone down and for some reason I remembered this fragmented day from when I was young. I was screaming in ecstasy the way only a child can. He threw me up on his shoulders and I was suddenly a hundred feet tall. I turned to look at her. Her bright hair was on fire, her face an electric photograph, ignited with some ethereal, carnal energy that only comes from joy. It grows in some small place in the core of your body and can’t help but burst at the seams like a blank page exploding with paint, not knowing who the artist was or what it meant. She pointed to a magnificently tall, rickety wooden roller coaster. I was terrified but she leaned up as far as she could and whispered that it would be fun and that they would hold onto me really tight. My face suddenly shifted from terror to magnetic joy that mirrored hers. A child has a way of quickly adapting. I sat in the middle of them and as we whirred upside down they looked at each other in a way I couldn’t understand.
I walked past the subway entrance and headed to a cheap dive bar that didn’t I.D. It also didn’t hurt that I looked like money. I experimented with different liquors, beers, bourbons, wines. Whatever they’d give me. I walked into her place late, my steps wavering like a new-born giraffe. Beethoven’s 4th symphony flooded the space and the fireplace was on, just for show. She sat staunchly on the couch with a glass of red, making a point not to look at me. She told me to take a shower and go to bed and we’d talk in the morning.
I woke to her playing the piano. Something sharp, biting almost, something I didn’t recognize. She played to her mood, and I was scared. She stopped when she saw me and the keys clanked back into place quivering for a moment before they went completely silent.
I thought our early morning talk would be some run of the mill reprimanding for my drunken behavior, some bizarre punishment. I looked at her. She felt unfamiliar. Exactly the same, but a complete stranger somehow. I didn’t say a word or protest.
I went outside. I took the subway to Manhattan and started walking toward the brightest lights. Two kids were on a street corner. They had matches and sparklers. One was blonde, the other had dark, shiny hair. They struck the matches on the ground and squealed as the chaotic sparks shot around for a few seconds before fizzling out. I must have looked like the strangers they were told not to talk to because they looked at me sideways with suspicion. I ducked around the next corner and I could see the giant shadow of the fireworks on a brick wall when I looked back. I walked straight into Times Square. I hardly ever went there. Swarming with tourists and traffic. I crossed the street erratically. Eyes half-closed. Listening to horns and screeching breaks and screams from angered citizens. I walked slowly. Foot one, foot two, foot one, foot two, as if I was on a pavement tightrope. Billboards flashed with naked women and expensive vodka, something about fashion week and perfume. I held my hands out for balance. Slow, methodical steps and I would be there. Off the rope, safe on dry land, narrowly escaping plummeting to my death, seeing my jagged life flash before my eyes. I was almost there. I wish I could say I was hit by an irate cab, going too fast, slipping on the ice, pumping the breaks to no avail.
I stepped on the sidewalk and it felt new. I walked to the nearest subway station. I was exhausted. My head was heavy and pounding with a migraine. It was strangely desolate. A woman who I would normally categorize as homeless or crazy had a large paintbrush and a bucket of red paint. She was marking the wall with fast and sporadic strokes. I tried to make out what it was. She was almost dancing. The way she moved. She had long, thin limbs. She wore a tank top that showed her defined back, her sharp shoulder blades that looked like wings. The paint and her movements looked choreographed. Intentionally chaotic and unsettling.
“What’s it supposed to be?”
She didn’t stop or turn to look at me. “I don’t know. Sometimes I just need to get it out, even if it isn’t pretty.” I got on the subway and rode until things were familiar.
I went to his place because it was closer. He was sitting in the living room, smoking some expensive cigar, but I avoided his disinterested gaze and hoped he wouldn’t start a conversation because my eyes were puffed and red. He would think I was on drugs. If I told him the real reason he either wouldn’t believe me or would tell me to “be a man.” That his father never cried, he never cried and neither should I. But that would be a lie. I heard him crying for months after I found her in the bathroom, after the sirens got progressively louder, after they stopped sleeping in the same bed and stopped talking altogether. But he didn’t say a word. I walked past him and turned back slightly to see if he could feel my stare on the back of his head. To see if he would say something, but he didn’t say a word.
I went out to the balcony and lit a cigarette. I looked down and all of the ants were milling and moving. Shopping and fucking people and fucking people over and naming children after fruits and cutting ties and buying diamonds and eating alone and getting inebriated at last calls, hotels and bedrooms. I let my chest sink over the edge, forcing my legs to keep me grounded. I breathed in, but my smoke-filled lungs forced out a cough instead. I lifted my shoes so I danced on my toes, something I didn’t know I could do.
I heard someone. Her steps light, not his.
“David, your mom called. She wanted to see if you’re coming home tonight or staying here. And Jack and I are having dinner in five minutes if you decide you want to come in out of the cold.”