Leyna walked to work. She couldn’t convince her parents to buy her a car. Despite trying, she couldn’t convince them to pay her tuition either. They insisted on a plan, a study worth pursuing. She couldn’t give them one. So she walked to work in middle-class sneakers and listened to half-sure music.
Every day was, to Leyna, a Kinks song. Not, she thought, the 1964 album – too exciting and certain of its sound – but the rest. Her days were hesitant and cyclical, swallowing themselves before crawling out of their mouths and swallowing again.
Sometimes, while folding shirts at the store, she imagined herself in a studio. Leyna the pianist, Leyna the trombonist, Leyna the music producer with platinum headphones on her head. In the far-back of her mind, she wondered if that could be her answer. Music. But when she was honest with herself, she knew that wasn’t it. There was something else for her.
She just didn’t know what it was.
Leyna had been working at the store for two years when Jack came in. He was fidgety, and he looked around every time he stopped at a pair of shorts or shoes. Leyna watched him for a while before approaching.
“Do you need help finding anything?”
He stared at her, and she waited. A minute passed. Leyna realized it should bother her, staring in silence at a strange, stiff man. But it didn’t.
“What’s your name?”
“Jack,” he said.
“Like the box?”
“Like the Billy Joel song.”
That was it for Leyna. That was her answer.
She never asked what was wrong with Jack. Their relationship happened immediately, with no friendly beginning, and Leyna quickly fell into an everyday routine. She worked, went to Jack’s apartment, and circled back. Many days, Jack wandered the store while she worked. His fidgeting eased but didn’t disappear. Some days, he asked Leyna’s manager to watch the security videos. She refused.
Jack moved Leyna into his apartment after a few months.
Time passed. Leyna got promoted to assistant manager. She bought a beater. She splurged on a tenor saxophone, tuner, and mic.
After a year together, she got pregnant.
She told Jack immediately. Neither of them spoke, the test limp in Leyna’s hand. Leyna felt like a host. No longer human but a shell inside which a crab would grow – and then discard to bleach in the sun and sink into the sand.
The next night, Leyna came home to dinner. Jack had made their favorite salads – for him, caesar; for her, blue cheese walnut. She sat at the table and stopped.
“I can’t eat this.”
Leyna looked at the salad incredulously. “I can’t eat this. It’s mold.”
Leyna went online and ordered a pregnancy book.
For three weeks, she read feverishly. She read about her body during pregnancy, her body during birth, her body after birth, and the baby. She read about development and about nutrition. She read more than she could remember ever reading.
“We can keep it going,” she said one night to Jack. “I’m All for Leyna, you’re Captain Jack, our baby can be Downeaster Alexa! Or Allentown!”
He picked at a spot on the couch.
“Or,” she laughed, “Billy the Kid!”
“Do you like any? Which do you like?”
He couldn’t pick.
Leyna later decided on Anthony for a boy and Rosalinda for a girl. She told Jack this on their way down to the parking garage. She was singing Rosalinda’s Eyes when Jack pushed her down the stairs.
The doctor told Leyna the fall – the sudden, violent loss of her baby – lay waste to her body. She couldn’t have children.
She walked into her apartment feeling hollow. The television was gone, an armchair, all of Jack’s things, and the spices from the cabinet. She opened the cabinet doors and let them gape for weeks, looking into them and trying to imagine the spices once there.
Leyna lay on the couch for those weeks off work and listened to Billie Holiday. She wondered what flower she would wear in her hair. A white orchid, she thought, wilted and dead.
She went back to work on a Tuesday. The store was mostly empty, but her manager was there. She asked about Leyna, how she was, what about Jack, how’s her recovery.
“I can’t have kids.”
Her manager scoffed: “Your doctor said that?”
“Your male doctor?”
“What the hell does he know?”
Leyna blinked. “What?”
“Men know fuck-all about women’s bodies. I’ll bet you can have a baby. I’ll bet you can have ten.”
Leyna bought spices on her way home from work.
She considered it – a baby – a new baby – something that could answer her. She decided, and she signed up for Tinder. And she swiped right on half the men under 35.
That night, Leyna drove to a man’s apartment and slept with him. He asked her how it was, and she said, “I don’t know yet.” He said, “Uh, when will you know?” She said, “10 days at the earliest.”
He didn’t want to see Leyna again after that. So she went to a different man’s house the next night. He was older, almost 35, and she spent the first 20 minutes walking around his craftsman looking at his family pictures. At his siblings, his baby photos, all of which she liked. After her night with him, this became a tradition.
Leyna spent the next five nights with the same man. He had a small nose, which she knew could be pretty on a girl, and his brother had five kids. She pretended – until she couldn’t.
On her eighth night, she went home with a man who wanted to date first. She changed his mind, then left.
On her ninth, she pointed at a man’s family portrait and said, “Where are you?” He pointed at what looked to Leyna like a little girl. She said, “Are you transgender?” He said, “Yeah.” She left and met a different man.
Leyna told them all she was on birth control. She laughed while she pissed on the pregnancy stick. She shut up when it said negative.
Leyna pictured at the bottom of her belly a shoreline, eggs laid in the shallow water, and her filling the lake water with tadpole-fish. Surely, she thought.
By the end of the month, she had seven negative sticks, and her spice bottles were shattered on the floor. Leyna sat on the kitchen counter naked, staring down at the powders as she bled onto the granite. Nina Simone played, and she swayed.
Her tenor saxophone sat, untouched in months, in the corner of the room.
The cutest babies were at the Buchanan and Loch parks. Leyna knew her baby would be enchanting.
She alternated, going to Buchanan on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays; and Loch on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays after work. On Sundays, she went to churches and watched the small gurgling faces peek over their mothers’ shoulders.
But these visits all had one thing in common: parents. Leyna couldn’t stare long at any of the babies. She couldn’t touch them or look at their hair beneath their hats or see how they liked her. They were untouchable; they would never be hers.
Leyna began to slip at work. She’d get caught standing still. Sitting still. Unmoving with a half-folded shirt in her hands. She insisted on the music – only Mama Cass.
Her coworkers covered her for a while. But eventually, Leyna’s manager caught on, warned her, and when nothing changed, fired her.
Jobless and childless, Leyna wondered if she could solve both problems at once. She typed “babies” into a job search.
Two weeks later, she was hired as an infant-and-toddler teacher. The pay was terrible, the benefits nonexistent, and the daycare was desperate. Best of all, Leyna thought: no parents.
At first, she couldn’t get past the diaper-changing, spit-cleaning, and shit-smelling long enough to consider the babies. But once she did, she realized they were horrible options.
There were seven babies in her class. Leyna thought:
Those two are too dark. My baby would never be that black-brown.
That one’s too pale – who wants a baby that white?
Those three are fat. Gross.
And that girl looks like a baby lesbian.
She told her boss the last baby’s mother flirted with her. Leyna had never met the woman, but, she thought, the mother must look like a lesbian too, because it worked. They transferred her to the other infant class.
In the new class, there were eight babies. Immediately, Leyna was relieved: What a better batch.
So each day, Leyna watched them closely. Which one was meant for her? Which was her baby?
Day One: Two babies weren’t the right color.
Day Two: Up close, two babies had blue eyes. Not plausible, Leyna thought – her eyes were brown.
Day Four: One mom talked about drinking a glass of wine. Leyna ruled out her baby, appalled at the thought of FAS.
Day Five: One baby boy wore a pink onesie. Gay.
Day Thirteen: She decided she didn’t want a girl.
Leyna began calling baby Miguel Anthony when ears were turned. She paid him special attention, insisting to the other teachers he only wanted her. When his parents came to drop him off or pick him up, she turned her back.
And after weeks of planning, during her naptime shift, Leyna took Miguel and drove off.
“Anthony works in the grocery store, saving his pennies for someday,” Leyna sang from the driver’s seat. “We’re moving out, Anthony.”
He stared at her from the backseat. She said, “Anthony, we’re finally together.”
He didn’t say anything. She reconsidered the car seat – should it face the back?
“Should your car seat face the back?”
“You’re just like your father. You never talk.”
Leyna drove for 12 minutes before she pulled over. She crawled into the backseat and put her face against his. She kissed his tiny lips. He scrunched his face but otherwise didn’t react.
“You’re not my baby.”
Flattened, Leyna turned back, re-entered her still-napping class, and laid Miguel on the carpet. A few minutes later, her co-teacher walked in for her shift.
Leyna went to her car and experienced, in an instant, decades of erosion. She washed away.
Years later, Leyna walked across town carrying groceries. On her chest in a sling lay her son. She hummed Frankie Valli.
As she passed an alley, a voice called: “All for Leyna?”
Leyna stopped. Partially behind trash cans, a man sat in a shopping cart, looking at her through blue binoculars.
He lowered his binoculars. “Captain Jack.”
He’d grown a beard – like wire – and lost enough weight to fit comfortably in a shopping cart. Leyna knew he wasn’t a threat.
She walked up to him and said, “Jack –”
“Captain Jack, why are you out here?”
Jack leaned forward and whispered, “They have my island. They infiltrated it. They infiltrated it, and they hoarded the food and the animals and poisoned the streams and starved me out until I had to leave and come here.” He lay his hand on her neck. She still didn’t feel threatened. “But I know they’re looking for me. They want this island, too – but they’re not getting it. THEY’RE. NOT. GETTING. IT. You get it?”
“I get it.”
“Have you seen them?”
Leyna considered, then said, “Maybe.”
He moved to the side of his shopping cart, pulling his legs to his chest. Leyna stepped in, swinging her legs over the rail.
A boy walked across town, humming Maneskin’s Beggin’. He passed an alley where a woman sang the words out to him.
He turned. The woman stood in a shopping cart, red-red binoculars around her neck, singing the original version. Beside her, a man watched him through blue binoculars with a dirty baby doll in his lap.
The woman shouted, “Anthony loves this song!"
She started listening at eight. There were always people talking in the hotel – in the hallways or in the lobby or at the pool. If people were loud, she sat outside their rooms and leaned against their doors. If she was stealthy, she could hide near the bar. She was often stealthy.
The men were her favorites. They always said the dirtiest, meanest words, and she loved it. She felt like a confidant, like they were whispering little secrets in her ear, like she was the only girl in a world of men. She was Wendy in Neverland, or Mulan, or Alice.
She took classes in her hotel suite. Her tutors changed as she got older, but they always came to the same place at the same time. They were always brilliant, expensive things. She begged them to hug her, but they were untouchable, trapped behind glass. Eventually, she grew used to hearing her name the same cold way: “No, Lila.”
Lila’s father owned a small string of hotels, and she lived in his favorite. As a baby, she stayed there with her mother while he conducted business. But her mother only stayed a few years, long enough to regain her footing and career. By the time she was six, Lila had learned not to expect her father more than once a month, her mother more than three times a year. But at eight, she still felt like Eloise.
She rode the elevators dressed like a ninja. She swam in the pool with a jade mermaid tail. She stood in the lobby with a towel over her arm and a sharpie-mustache above her lip. None of Lila’s antics, though, gave her the same thrill as listening.
Over the next two years, Lila stopped playing and spent all her free time in the shadows of conversations. They talked only to her – they were her friends, her parents, and her siblings. By 10, Lila knew what to call every race of person if they made her mad. She knew which drinks were frilly and which would knock her on her ass. She knew the word ass. She knew what sex was and how men liked it. She knew how men liked women – how to shave and how to move and what to say.
But she was still only 10.
One day, a young boy and his mother booked the suite beside Lila’s. They stayed for nearly a week, and she would study him at the pool or in the lobby. He was so different from the men she knew… Everything he did and said seemed accidental.
After a couple of days, she caught him from behind and saw a magazine between the pages of his book, with naked women spread across the fold. Lila thought they were beautiful.
The next day, after the boy’s mother left their room, Lila knocked on his door. He looked down at her: “Who are you?”
“I’m Lila,” she said. “I live next door.”
“I saw your magazine.”
“The women were really pretty.”
“Do you think I’m pretty like them?”
“Well,” she harrumphed, “why not?”
He shrugged. “You look like an armpit.”
“You’re an asshole!”
The boy rolled his eyes and shut the door. Lila stomped to her bedroom mirror. She took her clothes off and turned to the side, squinting at herself. She turned back and walked closer to the mirror. Lila thought about the women in the boy’s magazine and the women on TV, and she realized she didn’t look like them at all. She looked… different. Wrongly-spaced or squished.
She wondered if it was why nobody loved her.
Another two years passed. Lila was 12, and boys were looking at her differently. Men, too. They were noticing her. They were catching her in the bar and moving away from her during conversations. She was bigger, taller, more conspicuous. In hitting puberty, she lost the only companionship she ever knew.
Lila stopped going to the pool and lobby when people were there. She shifted to only listening through the walls. She was Ariel, just beneath the surface, waiting.
She was watching TV in her suite one day when she saw construction workers through her windows. Lila lived on the highest floor and couldn’t remember ever seeing anybody through the windows; the roof of the next-door building stopped where her floor started. But there they were, seven men in orange, standing eye-level with her, close enough that she could hit them with a stone. One briefly met eyes with her and waved. She waved back.
They came every weekday from 7:00 to 4:30. Lila drew her curtains the first few days, occasionally looking out, but nobody noticed her. She tried opening the curtains the next couple of days, sometimes standing near the windows. Nothing. She wondered why they wouldn’t look at her – she was right there – she was the only girl they saw all day – and wondered what she was doing wrong.
One afternoon, Lila forgot the men were there, and she walked into her main room wrapped in a towel. When she finally looked up, half the men were watching her. She wanted to be embarrassed or even disgusted, but she couldn’t. Lila felt wanted for the first time in her life, and it was delicious.
The men worked on the roof for two months. Lila started walking around in her towel at first, but after a while, they stopped looking. She upped the ante with matching underwear, stretching in it. They eventually seemed bored with that, too. In their last two weeks, the construction workers watched Lila, at twelve, dance around her suite naked. It felt natural to her, normal, comfortable. She had no interest in boys, let alone men, but the attention – the attention was something altogether else. Lila bathed in it.
At 13, she drilled a peephole between her suite and the suite to her left. The room was almost exclusively booked by businessmen, who Lila knew were always interested in women. They never said anything and neither did she – she knew they enjoyed it more when they felt they were getting away with something. And she knew they watched her.
Later, drunk on her small-world fame, she drilled a hole in the right-suite wall. Lila spent hours each day stark-naked in her suite, stretching or dancing or doing chores. She loved knowing people were watching her through her windows and her walls, from almost every angle. She felt like a model, a celebrity, like somebody people loved.
She didn’t know she was attracting more than voyeurs.
Lila knew every knock she received at her door – it was room service (which she called), turndown (which she scheduled), or one of her parents (which was always, always planned). So when at 14, she heard an unfamiliar knock, Lila was surprised enough to answer it.
It was a man. He was clean-shaven and sharp-looking, like most businessmen who came through her floor. But unlike them, he wasn’t stiff – he was like liquid.
“Sorry to bother you, ma’am. I’m Garrett.”
Ma’am. “Hi, Garrett. Do I know you?”
“No, ma’am. I have the room next door. I don’t know if you know, but there’s a hole between our walls. I can see right in.”
She faked surprise: “Oh! I’ll fix that immediately. Thank you.”
“You’re welcome, …”
“Lila,” he drawled.
“I’ll cover it up right after you leave.”
He didn’t move.
He said, “I can cover it up for you, if you like. I have some duct tape in my room.”
Lila paused. “Sure.”
When he came back, Garrett smiled at her. She didn’t know if she should like it, a smile from an older man, but something about it warmed her stomach.
He propped himself up in front of the hole but didn’t cover it. He kept his eyes on her.
“I should tell you I looked. Just to be sure it was a hole.”
Lila figured. Still, hearing it made her itch.
“I’m sorry if that embarrasses you. You really have nothing to be embarrassed about.”
She loosened her arms around her chest.
Garrett smiled, half-turning back to the hole. “I don’t have to tape it, you know. I mean, we can even the playing field.”
“Even the playing field.”
“You can watch me.”
Despite all her years listening to men and being watched by them, Lila had never seen a naked one. She didn’t know what to say.
Garrett stood, handed her the duct tape, and told her that he’d be there if she wanted to watch. Some minutes later, he must have known she was watching, because he winked while he stripped – it was awkward and twitchy, him catching and tripping on his clothes. It made her feel comfortable. It made her wriggle. When he finished, she taped the hole closed. Lila didn’t know why, but she felt beautiful.
Garrett redressed and walked two rooms over, to the suite on the other side of Lila. He sat in front of the uncovered peephole. All night, he watched her.
The next morning, he knocked on her door: “Are you free for breakfast?”
He came again the following morning. And again that evening, for dinner. Garrett spent four days with Lila, listening to her, talking to her, never looking away. They were the most intimate days of her life.
One night, some hours after their dinner, he knocked on her door. He looked pathetic, desperate. He said, “I want you, Lila. I need you.”
She wondered if she was dreaming.
He spent three nights with her, playing the doting dog. Lila felt like she was in a purple haze. Like she was finally there, in Neverland, in Wonderland, on two feet in the sand.
So when Garrett returned the next week, acting mad for her, saying he missed her, he loved her, to never leave, Lila believed him. She said she loved him too.
It didn’t bother her when he “found” the second peephole or when he removed the first hole’s tape. She didn’t mind when he suggested they make the holes bigger. Nothing would make her let go of that feeling.
Even when he asked her to sleep with another man while he watched.
Even when he asked her again, because he loved it the first time. And again. And again.
Even when he stopped coming but the other men didn’t.
She waited for him to come back to her. To bring back that feeling.
Her 15th birthday came and left with a man’s dust-dry hand around her neck.
Her father visited days later.
He said, “Honey, I’ve never seen the suite look so clean! Good job.”
Another man came. He licked his lips a lot but said nothing.
For Easter, her mother stopped in.
She said, “Look how skinny you are! You’re really growing into your body.”
Lila listened, her eyes glazed. She had never felt more watched. She had never felt more alone.
The day after her mother left, a man knocked on her door. He was new, but he looked like all the rest – greased like Wall Street – and wore a pressed charcoal suit. Resigned, she opened the door to let him in.
He strode into the main room and pulled Lila close to look at her.
He said, “You’re not as pretty as they said you were.”
Lila blinked, her eyes crusty.
He took off her robe, backed up, and looked again. “But God, so young and perky.”
She blinked again.
He sighed. “Say something. For God’s sake, do something.”
Lila wiped the crust from her eyes. She walked over to one of the windows, opened it, and went back to the man. He raised his eyebrow.
“Okay,” she said.
She turned around and sprinted at the window, jumping out of it towards the opposite roof. Her body hit the edge, snapping, and she fell, naked and mangled, onto the street below.
Fire hung from the rafters. It swung there, crackling and spitting on the siding. It leaked from all sides of the windows, dripping, oozing. It bled. He felt it – like his skin was being peeled away – and he could swear the fire spat at him, frenzied, disgusted.
He knew what he’d tell them: It had been a heavy work day, and he hadn’t had the time to come home for lunch. He’d grabbed some snacks from the vending machines and eaten in his car. This wasn’t unusual. He came home, and it was then as it was now.
A flake of ash fell on his arm. He shook it off. It felt like a condemnation.
“It was a candle,” they later told him. “Your wife must have left a candle lit and fallen asleep.”
“A candle.” He repeated this because it was true but mostly because he didn’t want to appear like he’d known. An absent husband doesn’t know what happened in his absence.
They checked on him, to confirm his story, and left it there.
He was lucky: The list of truths was far longer than the list of lies. He had had a heavy work day, and he had eaten vending-food in his car; his wife had lit a cinnamon candle and then fallen asleep on the couch; and he had come home to the house on fire. It just hadn’t been his first visit home that day.
He was an opportunist.
A law-abiding man.
A prideful man.
His wife had a long space between her mouth and nose, and her eyebrows were so blonde he couldn’t see them in low lighting, and she was recently diagnosed with glaucoma. Her body had changed since they married – she cooked all the time – and she wanted to be a stay-at-home mother. He had grown accustomed to the space and the eyebrows, but they seemed to worsen alongside the other changes.
Every day, her nose seemed farther from her mouth that he began to wonder if her mouth would fall off her face by the end of the year; her eyebrows got blonder and blonder in brighter and brighter lighting. She was enormous and wanted to spend her life stumbling around the house, knocking over glasses, bruising her knees.
He was going to be sergeant. Everyone in the department knew it. The officers would joke amongst each other, partly at his expense but partly in good fun. He knew nobody would joke with him. They called him Inspector Javert.
He imagined his wife wanting a seeing-eye dog. Having to lint-roll his uniform every morning out the door. Shedding stray hairs at the station.
He imagined leading her into Christmas parties like a child on a leash. Introducing her as a woman who didn’t work, who didn’t maintain her figure, who couldn’t drive. Parading around a wife who couldn’t live without him. It disgusted him. The thought of divorce was equally horrible.
So standing in front of his cheap first-home, the mortgage just paid off, his desktop and television melted, his clothes dust, his wife dead, he felt no remorse.
All he did, after all, was leave the candle lit.
I left an empty table surrounded by empty chairs. Once every month for nearly a decade, the chairs and table would all be filled. I wasn’t much of a host, but I would lay down a navy runner and light my only candle – pine-scented. My two friends and three or four colleagues would trickle in slow and dignified and, admittedly, a little self-aggrandizing; this was our way. We would talk about academia, sometimes sports, and always, always politics. I reveled in it. But after my publication, and eventual dismissal, they stopped calling. Stopped coming by. So really, my chairs have been empty since I capped my pen. I’m just not there anymore to see them.
I chose the city on a limb. Once I was fired, I realized I wasn’t just being critiqued or condemned – I was being exiled. So I scoured the internet and found City of Asylum. They wouldn’t accept me as a resident, but it didn’t matter – I knew in this city, there were writers like me. Writers who were persecuted, shunned, and spat on. I would be among them.
If it were a fake city in a science fiction novel. If it were an invisible city beside Calvino’s Eusapia. If it weren’t real, I would say the city was a post-dystopia. The dystopia would have been a cesspool of pollution and poverty, another victim-city of insurmountable class gaps, the poor burning signs and trash in the streets. Crying out, starving and spitting acid, to the wealthy. Trying to scale their houses’ brick walls to reach into the windows. The wealthy would have retreated to Mount Washington, bombing the bridges, hiding from the animals below. Watching from above as the city turned black from smoke. Perhaps, if it was a story, this would be what it once was. And the city as it is now would be the reconstruction.
The square is simultaneously quiet and loud. Fat pigeons bathe in the sun beside the cluster of tables, tanning grayer, oblivious or indifferent to the food. Men play chess behind me while other men watch. Children scurry around, tripping over each other, running towards and from the fountain. I have never seen so many unsupervised children as here. It’s a lovely picture.
I approach a chess table just as one man hands the other a small fold of cash. The winner looks up at me and smiles, shaking his bills. His teeth are half-missing, his hair the same, and he speaks with a thick accent:
“You wanna play?”
“What’s the buy-in?”
He shrugs at me, hands above his head. “Whatever you have.”
The man opens his mouth to smile, his teeth not touching. “Great!”
I set down the bill and realign my pieces.
“You’re not from here, are you?”
“I’m from [redacted].”
A younger man standing to the side says, “Oh, is that where the sicko wrote about men that like little girls? It’s all over the news.”
I lost the game to the man, but I didn’t mind. There were other things to see.
The city is a mongrel. Forget the web of bridges – the most in the world – and the three rivers who meet here. Forget the greenery. The buildings are the soul. In most places, there’s brick as far as the eye can see, some still soot-gray from the old factories. The brick is all centuries-old, owned by sons of grandsons of men who sold bread there; it sings pub music and drips cheap beer, pierogies, football. Then there are the Romanesque castles – sometimes also brick, but all grandiose and sold to strange buyers: schools, storeowners, churches. And most uncharacteristically stand the tall postmodern revivals that shine like silver. The city is a cross-bred, multi-theme underground diner. It’s the kind of place where everyone feels at home.
I couldn’t tell you where I am now. I’m lost. But not. Where I am, I still smell Primanti Bros. I’m surrounded by brick and stone. It is nothing like my hometown here – my hometown was stiff, Scandinavian-plain, and uptight in too-small upper-class shoes. I felt restrained there, by expectations, by the conveyor belt, by the eyes watching me from the walls. I could never truly be myself. I didn’t even know who “myself” was.
People approach me here. Men hit me on the back, women squeeze my shoulder, children pull on my jacket. It’s a city without strangers. So I reply. I ask about the Sunday game – which I hadn’t been able to watch – and for the best place for gravy fries. I step in the muddy grass and roll up my shirtsleeves and don’t worry about how I come off.
I feel free.
I pass a signless storefront. A fading ice cream stand. A bakery. In the corner of my eye, I see a girl on a bench. Her legs shine in the sun, dangling and swinging. She has a bow in her hair, to the side. I watch her quietly before remembering where I am. Slowly, I approach her and sit on the bench. I am an obelisk next to her. I shade her.
A scream ripped through the street. This wasn’t abnormal. Most of us, unperturbed, kept sloshing through the wet heat. The scream curdled. The tour carriages stopped. The jazz fizzed out. And slowly, like an outward ripple, we began to notice her.
I saw her between two heads – one like a sweaty brown egg, the other like a banana moonpie. The woman, who I instantly recognized as the screamer, was kneeling in the street. Her toes skimmed the curb, her back facing the sidewalk, and she curled over something I couldn’t see. She’d gone silent and still, as if waiting for us to do the same. And we did, but for the whispers and children toddling around. Balcony doors opened, wafting clouds of marijuana along the street; people stepped out dazed by the sudden eeriness of the square. Some of us looked up at them, faces wrinkled and half-closed, to watch their high fade; some of us stayed staring at the woman. The rest of us were gossips and jurors and odious muckrakers. I couldn’t decide which spectator to be – they were all obscene.
From where I stood, the woman’s croak was faint. I turned, and as if her organs had suddenly pickled and fallen in her stomach, she collapsed onto the thing she’d knelt over. Her cries rolled through the crowd. Everything and everyone began to move – in fast motion now, like wind-up toys. The families with young children scattered down the sidewalks, and the young couples sought refuge in the storefronts. They were mostly white tourists, already ready to forget the wretched black woman in the street. This was not their city; she was not their concern.
I stood unmoving as the bartenders and the musicians left their restaurants, the employees their stores, the tour guides their carriages. Composed despite the scene, the strangers approached the woman, surrounding her in a wide horseshoe. They did not hold hands or bow their heads; they did not pray. A man, round and hairy in plaid pajamas, came up beside me carrying two fleece blankets. He watched the woman for a moment before turning to me: Honey, be sure she gets these. I looked at the blankets, baby pink and duck-patterned, and I looked back up at him. He reached out to me and nodded to his hands. I said, What are they for? He dropped his arms slightly and said, For her baby. I looked back at the woman in horror and shame. All I could say, mortified, was Oh. Stammering, I took the blankets from the man, who held his hand on my shoulder briefly before shuffling back into his house.
The three men reappeared with their instruments and triangulated our U-shaped ring.
People stood on every balcony overhead. The man from before – he watched from above with his wife and daughters. The daughters sat with their feet hanging, little eyes peeking through the black metal bars.
We stayed there, in what grew to a larger and larger circle, with the people on their balconies praying in the wings. We stayed there while tourists shopped around us, whispering worsening theories about our display. We stayed there in the soggy air, ringed by jazz music, while the woman blanketed her dead baby girl, lying on the beer- and piss-soaked pavement.
The truck hitched and hawed along the road like a beaten dog limping towards his water dish. A long phallic knob hung from the far-left dash, swinging from two wires – one red, one blue, like a Bond bomb – and was widely ignored by the driver. The passenger had her own phallus, a faded crank near the door’s hinges – a crank, she found, that rolled down her window. But both were too immersed in their own hysterical laughter to recognize the dangers of the beaten-down car and worse, did not notice the man watching from the gas station on the corner. He was tall and dark, barely able to clear the station’s low-threshold door, and had half his original teeth – they’d rotten and fallen in every other tooth pattern, leaving him an eerie checkerboard mouth. But even with his eccentricities, the man blended into the area like a drop in a bucket… which is partially why, when the truck passed the gas station where he stood that day, he did not pull notice.
The driver herself had three teeth missing, all along her bottom row so that they didn’t impede on her smile, but snuck up when she talked animatedly or laughed. She was once beautiful, and arguably still was, but had lost her luster sometime during the raising of her three sons. When she’d gotten pregnant with her first – Rodney – she was only 17, and was still the paragon of charismatic je ne sais quoi. Her second came almost immediately after her first, so quickly that she named him Vitor after the French vite (“fast”) – she, who had taken four years of French, thought this was incredibly clever. It did not even bother her when, two years later, she was pregnant with yet another son; in fact, almost to concretize this point, she chose to name him Carter after her father. None of her sons’ fathers ever came to know about their boys.
She met her husband while working her evening job at the city pharmacy. He huffed in the door, kicking the snow from his shoes, and looked up at her with a sigh. “How can you stand this weather?” She smiled a practiced flirty smile: “Boots.” The man laughed and nodded at her with consideration. At the time, she was 24 and still beautiful, her sons six, five, and two, and he was an increasingly salt-and-pepper 41. Charming and fairly wealthy, he wooed both her and her sons into marriage within the year. They picked up and moved to his country estate immediately, where things shifted from comfortable to miserable.
Sitting in her late husband’s truck with her eldest granddaughter, she felt her luster return and color darken her cheeks – they were 23 and driving their first stick-shift, two young girlfriends in a crumbling brown beater. She half-expected to hear her childhood nickname, Ali, screamed between laughs – she half-yearned for it – so she didn’t hear when her girlfriend said grandma, and she didn’t see when a burly man slunk into the truck bed.
Carla was Vitor’s oldest, the first of five total grandchildren among the sons and the first of two under Vitor. She was 21, mature for her age as a daughter of affluent New York City, and typically felt like a cold and single-minded aspirant. But around her grandmother, she felt like an aristocrat at the outskirts of society, visiting, against her better judgment, exiled nobility who had devolved to do as the Romans. When Carla was asked to spend a week at the estate, she reluctantly accepted – her grandfather had recently passed, after all – but was not optimistic.
The town was, for Carla, like a dream state, unreal and strange to touch. It always felt like a simulation or film she watched from afar, made to feel real but never entirely convincing. It was enshrouded in shades of green, with a wide river that spread the town out from the middle, and was quiet apart from the lapping water and paws that scuttered around the road bends. Every house and barn and building was crumbling, losing its teeth in the sugary green, but smiled all the same. She never could decide if it was peaceful or eerie out there. Her grandmother, she knew, had grown to hate it all.
The morning of their drive, nothing was any different. The water still lapped with the same wind, and the cornstalks still swung too-close to the streets. They were no different either, both just as discontented as they usually were, potentially more, headed in a dilapidated truck to a dilapidated dump. But something intangible crept up when they revved the truck. Something irresistibly light.
Aliyah began to laugh. She looked at Carla, who was startled by the sudden sound, and pushed the knob at her left with a single finger so that it swung back and forth like, she thought, James when he got out of the shower. As if she’d read her mind, Carla quirked a smile, and then Aliyah said it: “Like your grandfather when he got out of the shower.” Carla gaped, “Grandma,” but began to laugh despite herself.
The drive somehow only made them laugh harder, the truck jerking to a halt every time Aliyah changed gears, which she did constantly and without any grace. And when Carla asked to roll down the window, and Aliyah pointed to the crank inside the door, they paused for a beat and broke into laughter once more. They were laughing with this unfettered, enigmatic joy when they passed the gas station.
The landfill wasn’t far from the gas station – a few minutes, at worst – and the man steeled himself against the inside of the truck bed the short way there. As they pulled in, running over a curb, he lifted the trash bag and threw it from the truck – just enough that it seemed accidental. Neither the grandmother nor the granddaughter were perturbed, and they merely laughed and haphazardly tossed the bag into the dumpster, walking right past the large man lying in their bed. The drive back to the house felt longer than before, but went by quickly all the same.
Walking back through the estate’s picket gate, Aliyah and Carla were breathless, spent but strangely connected. They collapsed through the French doors around the house’s left side, and in an instant, the spell was broken. Carla lazily pointed her thumb in the direction of the guest room, mumbling something that Aliyah couldn’t hear, and headed off. Her grandmother waited until she heard the room’s door click shut, then sighed deeply and shuffled towards the stairs, ready for a nap.
The man waited patiently for enough time to pass before slinking from the truck bed onto the pavement. His mother would often drive past the estate when he was young – dressed in their Sunday best, the two of them would ride around town, discussing the day’s sermon – and standing there, closer than he’d ever been, he remembered what she would say: “These people have been blessed by God. He must know something we don’t, James.” James hadn’t known the house was owned by the same women whose truck he leapt into, but now, he realized it was fate. He was meant to be there, of all places, with the people God blessed, and was meant to find out what it was He knew.
If he was honest with himself, James didn’t care much about God, let alone His blessings – he didn’t even know if he was a believer anymore – but James was hardly honest with himself. At worst, he may have considered himself God’s fair weather friend, but even that level of self-awareness was a bit beyond his capabilities. So walking slowly towards the blue-shuttered house, he chose to chalk it all up to God’s plan, despite everything that pointed to the contrary.
Even after her sons moved out, Aliyah never shut her bedroom door – motherly habits die hard – always afraid she’d miss something. Her husband liked to joke that as they got older, they each lost the sense they most used – she, her hearing, and he, his sight – we used them up, he’d tell her. But even with her cottened ears, Aliyah was convinced nothing could slip past her as long as her door was open.
James walked along the outside walls of the house first, feeling the chipping wood shutters and looking through any open windows at the layout inside. A watcher would’ve confused James for an experienced criminal – they would categorize him as a typical offender, a dark man in the working class who cased the joint with practiced gentility – but they would have been wrong. He couldn’t have known that Carla and Aliyah were already holed away in their bedrooms. He didn’t know that there wasn’t a redneck husband awaiting him in the kitchen window, wasn’t a guard dog defending the house, wasn’t an alarm system or camera setup at the windows and doors. These things never crossed James’ mind. He moved singularly with every prospective moment, each action merely a reaction to the passed second, nothing more. And looking through the windows, he wondered why his mother never coveted the big, beautiful house. Why didn’t she question God, he thought. Why didn’t she ask Him why them.
No matter how old he got, she always counted his candles to match his age. At eleven, his cake wore a prime eleven candles; at 21, 21; and at 40, she managed to shakily cram, with birdlike arthritic hands, 40 candles onto a Texas sheet cake. If he ever wanted her to sing, he never said so, and she never did – his birthdays were quick and plain, candles blown at the end of a silent wish.
~~~ ~~~ ~~~ ~~~ ~~~
“What do you expect me to do? Give him a fucking bottle.”
She pulled the phone from her ear, gritting her teeth. “He’s not whining. He’s hysterical.”
“What the fuck does that mean?”
“Mail me your family history.”
“You’re out of your mind.”
“I could take you to court instead.”
Weeks later, he mailed it. She found nothing. She also never spoke with him again.
~~~ ~~~ ~~~ ~~~ ~~~
She was not a mother who carried. She didn’t offer cushions of compassion or sympathy – she wasn’t built that way – and when her son fell, she’d say, “get up;” and when he cried, she’d shut his bedroom door; and when he screamed, she stared back at him with apathy.
That is not to say she didn’t hug or kiss him, because she did. When he asked for a hug, she usually gave it, and at night when he was young, she would kiss his forehead softly, her dark curls brushing his eyes. They felt, to her, like acts of love. To him, they were cold and meaningless.
~~~ ~~~ ~~~ ~~~ ~~~
“Can I ask what’s wrong with him?”
“You may not.”
~~~ ~~~ ~~~ ~~~ ~~~
He did not say his first word until he was 27 months old. He was, statistically, 15 months late with an unusual word choice: “No.” She didn’t realize at the time how indicative that word would be of their life together. She didn’t predict her son’s resistance, his trepidation, sensitivity, and severe lack of tact. It also didn’t occur to her that no was a reflection of herself, a prudent parroting of her parenting. So she celebrated in her distant, inner way and moved toward bigger words. Eventually, she realized some were beyond him.
~~~ ~~~ ~~~ ~~~ ~~~
“Ma’am, I think your son has a [redacted]. He may be [redacted], [redacted], or even, potentially, [redacted] – he shows early signs of all three – but I cannot diagnose until I properly test him; and for that, I need your consent.”
“You will not get it. I do not like you or your theories and frankly, neither does he. We are plenty fine on our own.”
“I urge you to reconsider. If he, in fact, has any of these [redacted], he will need proper help.”
“I urge you, Doctor, to stay in your lane,” she said, standing and shouldering her purse. “Thank you for your time. Have a lovely day, now.”
~~~ ~~~ ~~~ ~~~ ~~~
One summer day, she fell. He found her and shook her for minutes before calling 9-1-1. She wound up being perfectly fine, but, as she later admitted, decaying. She was 78 and although sharp, was no longer her son’s best option. He was 37 when she sent him to a facility that could better care for him. He cried at first, screamed, did all what his mother called hysteria, and eventually was gone. For the first several years, she visited him three times a week without fail; but as she aged, she had a harder time driving the long way there, so it dwindled to twice a week, or once if her arthritis was particularly bad.
~~~ ~~~ ~~~ ~~~ ~~~
“You don’t love me.”
“You sound ridiculous.”
“You’re being combative.”
“Don’t get defensive. It’s unattractive.”
She made a sound into the speaker – a tsk or huff or sigh. “You’re tired.”
“Why don’t you love me?”
“You need a nap.”
“You don’t love me!”
She made the sound again.
“Well, I don’t love you.”
She set her phone face-down on the table and walked off. When it rang moments later, its noise reverberating off the varnished wood into nothingness, she pretended she could not hear it; so it was not heard, and may never have rang at all.
To arrive at a lecture hall early–to arrive at a lecture hall first–you must beat the crows. You must skip the sunrise shower, leash your smell and pull it along, cut the fringe, diet, drink, and outrun your shadow.
It’s a bed of neutrals. It’s a vibration of chairs moving slightly up with each beat and pauses at each peak. It ripples, but never changes, never varies, and therefore never moves at all.
Silences are not equal. Silence in honor of does not equate silence to honor. Silence after does not contain the same multitudes as silence before. Silence in an empty lecture hall, entered before the crows have woken, equates nothing. It is its own.
If it must be compared, this silence resembles the way one’s eyes slowly blink in the early morning, or late evening, so slowly one eye opens before the other, when the moon is half-hidden and nobody is up, and one shouldn’t be up either, but is, and cannot remember the last time he felt stillness.
Your eyes don’t open again until the crows sing.
You start showering in the evenings.
We don’t need words. We fit in the silence. In the realm of deaf-mutes, we are perfect.
If I spoke, I’d speak of the men in my fantasies, where he never makes an appearance. I’d say that they stop in the shop around noon, order black coffees, and sit at the table by the windows; I’d say that I walk over and they pull me in by the waist. I’d say that I like it.
If he spoke, he’d describe the beautiful women he passes, compared to whom I’m driftwood. He’d say that they’re thin and tailored, hair shiny, legs trim, with clothes perfectly ironed and slitted. He’d say I could look like them, surely, if I lost 20 pounds, deep-conditioned and combed, and shopped at the mall up the city.
We bite into our silence, without declarations or lies, and chew on the cuff of our implicit affair.
(I watch the men in the coffee shop. Their calluses scratch the soft skin on my belly.)
(I see him see the women, the beautiful magazine women, and pose their bodies as mine.)
(We’ll be married in spring.)
He wants only one denouement. He cannot fight for it, and he cannot ask for it, lest his back be beat bent, so he turns to the plot at the end of the yard and watches the soil dry in the sun. He watches the worms crawl from it, gasping for moisture to wet their brittling skin, and he watches them die, curling in shrivels on the concrete. He knows his end will be a watery reflection, similar but inverted; he knows his will be quieter than the worms' brash inverse. He envies them that.
There wasn’t much to be done at the beginning. He refused defense, since as he knew, there was nothing to defend. There were no fair freckles on the black face of his crime– there was only a blinding blackness that filled the pore of interpretation.
He sits in the waiting place, awaiting the train that will take him to the track that will tie him to the soil in the plot on the yard. He is asked if he regrets his crime, if he wishes for absolution. He regrets nothing, wishes for no pardon.
He wants nothing but to live– and perhaps, to do it again.
The Humdrum of the Hampsons
The Hampsons didn’t like living in the country. Of course, had they moved to the city, they would have disliked it just the same. In fact, the Hampsons didn’t like much of anything, least of all each other.
Since they hardly slept, they tracked the days by when they ate, each meal a marker for how much of the day had passed. Breakfast was always something small and sweet, lunch always a sandwich, and dinner something from the bottom of the kitchen freezer. Between breakfast and lunch, they worked outside; between lunch and dinner, she read in her room and he watched TV in his; and after dinner, they griped together, but apart, over the news. They were dull, sad days only sufficient to old couples without meaning.
It’s important to note the set of chimes, made of glass, that hung in their backyard. Among the many crooked trees littered around their property, the tallest and most crooked of all stood at the center of the land, with one big, thick, mangled branch curved low to the ground. It was on that branch the Hampsons hung the single most beautiful thing they owned, a set of clear glass windchimes.
Aside from their shared contempt for most everything, the couple wasn’t very noteworthy. They’d lived long, monotonous lives colored by humble achievements and quiet failures; they had friends at one time, like anyone else, and family who loved them; they were known by some, remembered by few, and missed by none. But then, at their age, there weren’t many people left to miss them. That was the humdrum of the Hampsons. At least, until June 17th.
It was late in the morning, early in the afternoon, and the wind started to pick up. The Hamsons weren’t very observant, so it took them until a heavy gust of wind at the peak of midday to finally notice the silence outside the house. Mrs. Hampson, the sharper of the two, hurried to the branch to be sure she wasn’t mistaken… But sure enough, their glass wind chimes were gone. She shouted to her husband from the spot for some minutes before hustling to him in a huff (since he couldn’t hear her calling). Mr. Hampson was sitting on the living room couch, awaiting the verdict, when his wife came bounding in the room, “the chimes are gone!”
He glanced at her, then turned back to his newspaper, unperturbed: “The chimes can’t just be gone.”
“Get off your ass, then, and look yourself,” she said, taking the newspaper from his hands with one swift swing.
Mr. Hampson stood, snatched the newspaper back, and started towards the door. Meanwhile, his wife was still going: “If you think you’re so much smarter than I am, why didn’t you go check the chimes? You may as well be Forrest Gump, you son of a bitch. I hope you--”
“Shut up, you old cow.”
Eventually, the two made it back to the tree branch and stared at it, fixed between utter astonishment and total outrage. “Well, I’ll be damned,” he said.
Mrs. Hampson didn’t respond, too busy shuffling around the area, looking for the chimes. Her husband soon joined her and they found themselves outside through lunch, screening the scale of the tree for glass shards. They went inside unsuccessful and having skipped their second meal. Their third meal was unfamiliarly early, and everything before and after it was just as alien to them. June 17th was the first day in a series of days the Hampsons were thrown entirely off track.
For reasons unclear, the loss of their wind chimes was disturbing to Mr. and Mrs. Hampson to an almost alarming degree… The first day following the discovery, they gathered their phone books and informed every person whose number they had that they’d been stolen from, when it happened, and what the chimes looked like. As if their high school sweethearts across the country would know where to look. The next day, further upset, the Hampsons walked their property once, twice, three times, checking every fencepost for signs of a jumper and overturning every rock for signs of glass. To no avail.
The third day, they were angrier still and decided they would visit every house within half a mile of theirs. That made 83 houses. Of those 83 homeowners, 30 either weren’t home or ignored the bell, and another 30 were immediately insulted and affronted at the allegation, quickly closing their doors. Of the remaining 23, seven spoke with the couple in their doorway and 16 invited the couple in to talk, and barely half were worth mentioning. The Hampsons returned home no less restless than the evening prior.
The next morning, Mrs. Hampson woke up convinced she’d figured it out. She shuffled from her room to her husband’s, shook him awake, and said, “I’ve figured it out!”
Mr. Hampson groaned in reply, “what?”
“It was that little bastard on Apricot.”
“Yes, and I know it was him because he’s ugly as sin and dumb as my shoe and he just looks like a nasty little shit.”
“Because he is a nasty little shit,” he said, pulling himself out of bed and slipping on his shoes.
“Let’s go already, then.”
“What do you think I’m doing?”
It was the fastest they had moved in nearly a decade. And although nobody could call the Hampsons a tact couple, they abandoned any manners when Nikita answered her door.
Mr. Hampson pushed past her without a word; his wife said, “tramp,” and followed him inside. Nikita was stunned silent for the first minute, amazed by the gall of the elderly couple, but soon caught up and said, “Excuse me.” Then, at no response or sign of stopping: “Excuse me, sir, ma’am, do you need something?”
“Where’s your kid?”
“Yeah, where’s that little shit?”
Again, Nikita didn’t know what to say. “Sammy?”
“No, your other kid.”
Nikita didn’t have another kid.
She figured the Hampsons were senile, so she kept up the game. “Sammy’s in his room upstairs. Do you want me to call him down?”
“No,” Mrs. Hampson snapped.
The couple rerouted, making their way up Nikita’s stairs, and opened every door before Sammy’s. Only those three know what happened then, closed up in the boy’s bedroom, but what came next is known widely. Sammy came half-running out of his room, down the stairs, out the back door, into his mother’s garden, and cried. The Hampsons, meanwhile, were sitting serenely on the boy’s comforter. After they heard the screen door slam, they searched his drawers, closet, and under-bed for their chimes, fruitlessly. Just as they had the day before, they left the house in a huff. And that evening, they decided it was time to alert the authorities. They called the local police station, filed a report over the phone, and insisted an officer come to the house immediately.
The fifth morning after the incident, two police officers came. They had the couple sign the police report, explain what happened, and answer some questions.
“Why’re you questioning me? Do you think I stole my own chimes?”
“Ma’am, we’re just doing our jobs,” the officer said.
“No, you’re right. In the middle of the night, I walked through the dirt in my slippers, managed to unhook the chimes, buried them somewhere on the property, and then went back to sleep.”
“Of course she didn’t, you morons,” Mr. Hampson said.
Eventually, satisfied, the police officers left and with them, the report. They never contacted the Hampsons again and the Hampsons never contacted them. After that day, the couple forgot entirely about their glass chimes. Or maybe they didn’t, but the chimes never again came up. It’s wondered, even now, if either of the Hampsons ever realized where the chimes were, ever found them or knew, wrapped around a higher branch on the tree. But nobody knows. All that’s known is that after the incident, the Hampsons’ lives shifted back to something resembling lives. And they lived, indignantly, happily ever after.
I can’t remember the last time I thought about her.
But now-- I remember that week like it’s happening now.
I was 20, named in the draft, and headed north. I had only been driving six hours, hardly a trip, when I saw a ratted girl standing at the center of the road. And while there weren’t many cars out that day, the ones that were swerved around her and held their horns long after they passed. She never blinked. But then, her eyes were closed.
I might’ve kept driving if it weren’t for a succession of things. One, I had to piss. Badly. Two, my CDs had fallen miles back and I was itching to gather them back up. Three, my car was a clunker and barely drove beyond 45. Four, I’d never seen a girl with that color skin before. Five, she stood with such sureness, her feet rooted in the street and her face held to the sky. So I stopped. I pulled over, off to the side, took my piss, picked up my CDs, and turned off the engine.
I considered walking to the middle of the street where she was, but decided against it. It felt wrong, disturbing her. So instead, I leaned against my car, watching her, and waited for something to happen. Like I’d done all my life.
Her hands dropped and her face followed, falling and turning to me.
I felt caught.
She didn’t say anything, and I certainly didn’t intend to.
We stood there, staring at each other, neither of us moving, not a single word said, when I looked down to clear my throat. By the time I looked up, she was halfway to my car and walking with purpose. I watched her, one eyebrow raised, as she opened the passenger door, stepped in, and sat down. Finally, she said, “are we going?”
I said, “Houston.”
She turned to me: “Not where- are.”
I might’ve found this all funny if it weren’t for a succession of things.
I stepped into my car and laid my hands on the wheel. “Yes.”
The first four hours of our trip weren’t note-worthy, weren’t interesting in any meaningful way, but looking back, I wish I’d had a camera phone. I would’ve taken a picture of her there, sitting sideways across the passenger seat with her head and arms hanging out the open window.
We’d almost cleared Texas when it started to get dark, and without turning her head, the girl said, “that’s enough.”
I was stunned, at first, to hear her voice again, and let myself chew her meaning before saying anything back.
I decided not to say anything, and pulled off. The moment I put the car in park, she nearly leapt out of the car, moving as quickly as she did.
I stretched my legs a minute, watching her walk away, before getting out and watching her more obviously. “We’re on the lip of Texas.”
From far away, she laughed. It nearly made me jump, not only because I didn’t expect it, but because it was so rough, so beaten and bare. She said something low, but I couldn’t hear--
“What was that,” I shouted.
The girl flipped around, her arms out beside her. “Then why won’t it speak to me?”
I didn’t know what to say. So I didn’t.
The next morning, she was waiting for me on the roof of my car. I must’ve made some sound, because I was immediately greeted by “he’s up.”
“He’s up,” I echoed, pushing myself off the ground.
It took a minute before I realized where the voice came from, but once I did, I stopped. And she must’ve noticed the quiet, because she again said, lying coolly on the roof of my car, “are we going?”
I rubbed my eyes in disbelief, then said, “yeah, yes.”
After throwing my blanket back in the trunk, she climbed down and into the car and we left.
We drove for an hour in the quiet of the road before I found myself singing. At first, I was barely above a whisper, but the longer we went, the louder I sang… because when your passenger doesn’t ask to turn down the music, you turn it up. Eventually, she said between songs, “sing that one again.”
I hesitated, but only briefly. I knew the song like I knew the lines of my hand.
When I finished, I left the last word hanging, in a silent echo, until she said, “you sing it differently.”
I didn’t know what to say.
“Sing it again.”
So I did. It came that I sang that song, Patsy Cline’s “You Belong to Me,” for what felt like hours. She never asked me to stop, and oddly, I never felt inclined to. I wonder now if she thought I was a good singer. If she thought anything of my singing at all.
We went on like that for a while, me flipping through the few songs I knew, sometimes letting them hang in the quiet before starting a new one. It was peaceful, like a very dull movie you can’t seem to stop watching… But then, while driving through Denver, she suddenly twisted her body to look right-side-up out the window and said, “take the next exit.”
I don’t think I argued with her once during our trip. I took the exit. It was to the Denver Zoo. It wasn’t a particularly interesting visit, not to me anyway, apart from one moment.
We were at the elephant enclosure and she was looking at the name plate. At every enclosure we’d seen, she insisted on first checking their names. We watched the elephants for a few minutes when she said, “what’s your name?”
I breathed out, considering telling her my real name, but decided against it. If she recognized my name from the draft, I could be in a tight spot. I said, “Dean.” She nodded, neither surprised nor suspicious, and said, “I don’t know my name.” I looked at her, shocked, and she looked back at me: “I do… but I don’t.”
“Now I’m interested.”
She raised an eyebrow as if to say, you weren’t before? I laughed, short and fast, and she cracked a smile.
“My dad named me Tanamara, but my mom named me Marianna. I’ve never known which is my name and which is the imitation.”
“I’ve not met someone with two names before.”
“You haven’t met someone named Peggy Sue or Mary Ann?”
I rubbed the back of my neck then, trapped. “I’ve definitely not met someone with the name Tanamara before.”
She took one last look at the elephants and started walking off. I caught up, stepping in line, all the way back to the car. It wasn’t until I started pulling out, her head and arms leaned out the window, that she said, “It means lonely wind.”
The sun eventually started to set and I heard her again on my right: “that’s enough.”
I pulled off and followed the glimmer that looked like a lake. Once I stopped, she was out and off; I climbed out of the car to watch her. And at the edge of the rocks prefacing the water, she stopped, watching the water below. That night, she wasn’t so far that she had to shout. “This is Wind River.”
I looked around for a sign or landmark, but failed to find one. I certainly didn’t remember passing one on the road. “How d’you know?”
She reached her hands up and rested them on her head. “How do you know the sky is the sky?”
The next morning, I woke up to hear her say, “Dean’s up.”
I almost said it back, like the morning before, but stopped when I saw her. She had a way of doing that, always giving me pause. She was sitting on the roof of my car, wet in my clothes, trailing river water down my windows. We stood at a stand-still for some minutes, neither of us saying anything, until I finally kept on with my morning. I folded my blanket, packed it away, stretched my arms, and got in the car. Turned it on, then turned it off. I had to ask: “What should I call you?”
She smiled an almost wicked smile, but at the same time almost thankful, still yet almost sad. She looked out the window, her odd smile fading into her typical one, and said, “Mar.”
It wasn’t until years later I found that “mar” is a word in itself. I’m sure she knew at the time. It means to spoil or disfigure. Her names, all three together, mean a lonely wind, a drop of the sea, that ruins and scars.
I nodded, “Mar.”
We’d barely driven a few hours when Mar jerked from her seat and said, “now.”
“Pull off now.”
The sign said Yellowstone National Park.
We ended up camping there for two nights. We hardly spoke, not unlike before the stop, and we spent most of our time there exploring. She led the way. I followed, more mesmerized than anything (not unlike before). And we must’ve smelled terrible, looked terrible for that matter, but neither of us noticed. At least, I didn’t.
When we finally left, I was starved for unpackaged food. And for a shower. It was late, bordering our third night at Yellowstone, but I was ready to head out. I didn’t press it, but she didn’t protest either, so it was a soft exit. Somehow, we found a shower-donned campsite pretty quickly, and pulled in for the night.
I groaned as I parked and nearly dropped my head on the wheel. Mar was already out of the car. By then, I knew to let her be, so I forced myself up and gathered some clothes, starting towards the showers. Halfway there, I heard her coming up behind me and saw, in the corner of my eye, her walking in step with me, even slightly ahead, carrying some of my clothes just the same. We each stepped into adjacent showers, and I vividly remember stripping as quietly and slowly as I could while straining to hear her take off my clothes on the other side of the wall. I heard nothing. Her shower didn’t even start until minutes after mine, and she was gone before I’d turned off my water.
I found Mar standing far from the car, facing the mountains. I wasn’t the least bit perturbed… But I chose to do something differently that night.
I walked up beside her and mimicked her position, my feet spread in line with my shoulders and my hands entwined on the top of my head. She moved; I moved. She let out a breath; I let out a breath. And then, for reasons unbeknownst to me even now, I started to talk. I told Mar about my childhood in Houston, its humble charm, like a silent European movie, and about me, like a silent European actor, how I spent my life letting things happen to me and never doing the happening, how they called my name in the draft, Kerry Dunham. I told her how, for the first time in my life, I felt strongly enough about something, about myself, to make something happen. I told her how I left, in the dark of the morning, before anyone would hear my engine. Through all this, Mar never looked away from the mountains, and even after I’d finished, she didn’t move; so I kept on. “I’m headed to Houston,” I said, “like I said, but not my Houston- Canada’s Houston. But then, you coulda guessed that.
I don’t know much about it… But I figure it’ll be quieter than Mexico.”
“You think it’ll feel like home.”
“I think it’ll be home.”
She didn’t say anything else, and eventually, I took the hint and left to sleep by the car. Even now, a lifetime later, I don’t know for certain if I heard her say, “you’re wrong,” or if I dreamed it, lying on my blanket on the hard ground.
I scratched at the corners of my eyes, just awake. The sun hadn’t even risen yet. “What?”
“Not what- where.”
There she was, where she always was, waiting on my car. “Not where- why.”
She slipped off the roof and picked up my blanket, wadded it up, and tossed it in the trunk. “I want to touch the sky,” she said, closing herself in the car.
We barely made it in time to visit the newest attraction, but we did, and that was all Mar was interested in seeing anyway. The Space Needle. It was a big deal back then, people coming from all holes of the world to see it… And now, because of her, I can say I was one of the first few million to scale it.
And the view-- the view was like nothing I’d ever seen, or ever will see again. At the top, standing on the rim of that riveting building, I was mesmerized for the umpteenth time that trip. But none of my feelings came a mile within hers. She felt a million feelings there, and I felt like I knew every one. I didn’t.
It was her turn to talk. “I hoped it would speak to me.
My father always said there’s nothing louder than the earth. Nothing louder in its beauty, and nothing louder in its suffering. He said all I had to do was listen and it’d tell me everything there was to say. But I listen, and I listen, and if the earth’s talking, if it’s screaming, if it’s crying, if it’s wailing, it’s falling on deaf ears.
And my mother… She was convinced animals were the key. She said they had more compassion and humanity than people ever had… and that they could keep anyone, and anything, grounded. But they do nothing for me. I’m blind to them.
So I’m deaf, and I’m blind, and I speak, but nothing speaks back. Does that make me mute too?”
I looked up at the sky, but couldn’t find the emptiness she found. “Don’t think about them. What you hear and what you see are yours.”
She looked up. “Nothing’s mine.”
I’ve gone over that line many times over the years, and if I could go back, I would’ve said, which means everything is. But then, I was only 20. I was lost, and lonely, and with a beautiful girl. So I said, “I am.”
Mar closed her eyes and kept quiet, then said, “that’s enough,” and we were gone.
Neither of us was tired, so we drove through the night and into the morning. We crossed the Canadian border. Her hair waved with the wind.
Sometime midday, we pulled over beside a river, knowing we were nearly in Houston. This time, she didn’t get out of the car after I’d stopped.
“You never told me where you’re going.”
“I haven’t decided.”
There was nothing to say. I got out of the car first, sitting along the riverbank. It took nearly an hour for Mar to get out of the car, but once she did, she immediately came to sit with me.
Hours went by, and I can’t remember if we talked during that time or if we simply sat together and watched the sky darken. I only remember feeling full.
Later, I brought out my blanket and laid it out by the river. I positioned myself at the far side of it, hoping she would inch onto the other side. My eyes closed before she did, but I knew she did because I heard her voice soon thereafter, close, low and rough like wet sandpaper, singing “You Belong to Me.” I wanted to ask how she knew the words…
At morning, I barely opened my eyes before grabbing the edge of the blanket and dragging it along behind me to the car. I knew where Mar was.
But she wasn’t. I packed my blanket in the back, then checked the inside of the car.
I walked back down to the riverbank and saw my clothes, strewn around where the blanket had been. I picked them up, one by one, and realized she would be swimming. I folded the shirt and pants and waited right there, watching the surface of the water. But nothing came. It was almost an hour before I waded in the river and started yelling for her. It was another still before I found help, many more before they recovered her body from downstream.
I never made it to Houston. She was right and I knew it: that wasn’t home. I turned around and drove back to Texas. I went to war and I fought. I came back and was treated like dirt. Later, like a hero. Things happened to me there, and things happened to me here, and I didn’t make much happen in return. I bought a house and at some point, a new car, and bagged a steady job.
I’m still in that house, still in that car, and only recently retired from that job. But one thing I lost, the worst thing that’s ever happened to me, the worst thing I’ve ever made happen, was her.
He can’t do this anymore. And since this was disposable, since I was a paper straw from a Miami bar, that was it. There was no discussion, no healthy debate about whether this was worth more than a cheap two years, nothing beyond the five words he gave me.
In retrospect, I could’ve debated in favor of a debate. I could’ve fought harder for this. I could’ve said, very simply, “no.” But none of it would’ve been in earnest; because when I look back at that moment, I’m in his shoes.
She’s across the table from me, in blue, and isn’t bothering to look at the menu.
She gets the same thing every time. Following protocol, I ask how she’s doing;
and similarly, as she does, she lies. There isn’t anything I can say to help,
nor is there anything I can do: I’m an emblem. I sit in the chair opposite hers
and smile and listen and play the rock; and she sees me as everything she wants
if she had the space to want anything at all. So I say what I have to say.
After that, I’m back in myself. I picture him stepping in his car, shutting the door that soft way he does, and letting all the air out of his chest. He would’ve felt guilt, doubt, regret, but most of all, he probably felt relief. In his shoes, I would’ve.
So when I got home that afternoon, I felt dirty. Like he’d grabbed me by the hair and trailed me through mud and manure- mud and manure I’d laid for him after braiding my hair for handling. I took a shower, dried off, then took another, dried with a new towel, and lay on my bed covers naked. Still not clean, I went back to the bathroom and shaved everywhere I could reach. That satisfied me for a few minutes, but wore off quickly. The dirt, I soon realized, wasn’t on the outside, but on the inside. Glad for the empty house, I ran downstairs and pulled a knife from the drawer. It was new, my dad’s birthday gift, the blade that never dulls, and perfect. My dog gave me a funny look (perhaps because I was naked), but no matter- what did I care? I’d found the answer!
Once back in my room, I sat comfortably on a towel and considered my options. The most appealing was also the most obvious: my forearm. And the blood was magnificent. I could feel the ugliness leaving my body; I was getting lighter; I’m okay; this is making me okay. After a few more, I caught a thrill from it- It’s 1552 and I’m a bloodletter! I’m letting my own blood! Ha ha! I’m a genius, a marvel! I’m bringing back history! I’d never felt such a rush, yet it simultaneously calmed me in a way nothing ever had. I felt indisputably, irrevocably, undeniably clean.
Until the following morning, when I passed myself in the mirror. Somehow, overnight, I’d managed to undo everything I’d done the day before: I was again disgusting, weak, worthless, and unlovable, to everyone including, and especially, myself. I found myself stashing the knife in my backpack, taking it with me to the school bathroom at lunch. Relief.
A few weeks passed before I saw him again. It was a big school, and neither of our schedules fell together, so it hadn’t occurred to me that we’d cross. But we did.
I was on one of the lobby benches, finishing last-minute homework with my bag in my lap, when he walked up. He said something nonchalant, his hands in his pockets, and I said something nonchalant back. Somehow, he saw this as an invitation, and took it upon himself to sit on the bench beside me. He asked me questions, answered my own, talked about classes, and I did all the same while fingering my knife like a nervous habit (not that he knew that) (for all he knew, I was fishing pencils from the bottom of my bag). Everything was candy until the bell rang. Disturbed and surprised, I jumped, and the knife jumped with me. It landed on the floor at my feet, but not unnoticed. After all, it was a big school. Quickly, I came up with an explanation. Looking back, I could’ve done much better.
“It makes me feel safe.”
“Why don’t you feel safe?” They were concerned.
“I walk to the school bus alone.”
“Is your house far from the bus stop?”
Their concern faded. They knew I was lying, but didn’t know why. I got expelled.
My parents, who’d never had any tolerance for my “moods,” were far from amused by my expulsion. They enrolled me in online school and punished me to my bedroom.
I got worse.
Then I got better.
The funny thing is, looking back now, I annoy myself. I recoil. We don’t like to talk about it, Jamie and I- the years following our breakup were our worst years, more so mine but his too, and nothing in them worth any thought. But I still think about it on occasion, the names I’d call myself in the dark and the relief I’d feel, and the blood. Mostly, it makes me feel sick, nauseated by myself, but sometimes… sometimes, I feel nostalgic and I miss the calm. On those days, Jamie knows not to ask how I’m doing.
Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow
Nobody noticed when Jonathan first started at the paper. In fact, it took weeks for his coworkers to learn his name; there was nothing outstanding about him, nothing that warranted description. Wives later told their husbands about the new guy at work, and said little beyond brown hair, keeps to himself. Husbands told their wives even less: he’s just a guy. But still, the longer Jonathan worked with them, the more they gravitated towards him.
I was emptied out. The doctors said everything to the contrary: if anything, I was more full than I’d ever been; I was occupied; I was Thanksgiving. But it didn’t change how I felt. I was 18 and already a shell, left without lungs and kidneys and air. What the fuck was I going to do without air? I left the office and drove home. Went straight for my room. Except there, I felt even emptier.
Over time, Jonathan’s office became a dumping ground. He wasn’t a talker, nor was he very expressive, so people found him comforting. Calming. Therapeutic, even. They’d appear at his desk halfway through the workday and say, “can I sit?” Jonathan would gesture to the empty chair and lean back in his. My mom’s starting to forget things. My wife and I haven’t had sex in weeks. I’m miserable. I’m lonely. I’m scared. He’d look in their eyes, he’d nod, he’d listen, he’d say hardly anything at all, and they’d leave feeling lighter on their feet than before.
There were never any options. I pretended there were, made pros and cons lists and dialed radio stations, but in my gut, I never wavered. Whatever it was, it was mine.
He hated them all. They were fat, sniveling, weak and pathetic shits.
Maybe I should’ve accepted help. Maybe it would’ve relieved some of the stress I was accumulating. Maybe I could’ve slept easier and had more time to shower, enough time to shampoo, then rinse, then condition, then rinse again, and blow dry, my hair. But I didn’t. If anyone asked, I was Superwoman. I might’ve lifted a car, had the situation presented itself. (Thank God it didn’t.)
I found a job, an even better apartment, a second job, and furniture people were just giving away. After only four months, I’d gathered everything I needed and would need for the foreseeable future. And in some ways, it did make me feel like Superwoman. In some ways, I was the ultimate protagonist. But in others, I felt like the faux-hero, the one who sacrifices their life only to be mourned by no one.
It didn’t take long for the editor to recognize Jonathan’s best journalistic talent--neutrality--and so, it wasn’t long before he was promoted to second-page news. This, unsurprisingly, only made him more popular around the office- Jonathan’s coworkers accredited his objectivity with a sympathy and understanding of all positions… which made him all the more appealing. They accredited wrongly.
Jonathan cared about very few things. He cared about his success, his money, and his things, but most of all, perhaps the king of all, he cared about himself. Everything, and everyone, else was a fly in his chardonnay.
It’s a boy. I should’ve known it’d be a boy. I knew nothing about boys. What games do they like? Do they piss in your face? I’d have to teach him how to play football. How to talk to girls. How to shave. What did I know about those things? What if he wanted to play guns? Or war? Should I have stopped him? Did I dare?
I bet he’ll be handsome, my boy.
As the months wore on, Jonathan’s coworkers grew less and less tolerable to him. What at first was a mere pest had become infernal and insufferable. Everyone provoked him; everything plagued him. He’d held himself back for some time, and was rather proud of himself for doing so, but he knew that time was closing quickly.
It took twenty hours, but he’s here. It’s the dead of night, but he’s here. I passed exhaustion five hours ago, but he’s here.
I was sick, holding him. I loved him more than there was space for. And he was beautiful. Beyond beautiful.
Jonathan sat at his desk and looked out the glass walls at his peers. He pulled his hand to his face, all fingers tucked in his palm except his thumb and index finger, and pointed at one of the women. He pressed down his thumb. Bang, he whispered. He moved his hand to a man. Pressed down his thumb. Bang. He flipped from person to person, hitting everyone in the office and laughing under his breath. Tomorrow.
“Today. Today is the first day of the rest of my life… because now I have you.
I love you, Jonathan.”
Pick Your Color
She grew up in a white room. At further inspection, it may not even have qualified as a room. It was a world encased in white, occupied by one.
Neither of her parents ever knew life outside the experiment: her father, born one year before it began, died long before it ended; and her mother lived and died just within the span of it. It had never occurred to them that their daughter would live to see their world end.
There weren’t a great many things Ell remembered, in detail, about her life before nine. She remembered learning to walk in the white room, pushing her weight off her hands and shaking down her legs. Historians later interviewed her and wrote, What’s a more effective way to get a child to walk… than to have it look for its mom? And at nearly two years old, Ell took her first steps alone, stumbling and falling and crying for her mother.
Ell found her mother in their refrigerator countless times, more than she could recall, but the first time stood out among the rest. She was four and, after spending most of the day in her white room, was starving. There wouldn’t be much food in the cabinets, nor would anything be prepared, so Ell knew to head for the fridge; but nearly there, she began hearing her mom’s voice, low and hurried.
When nobody replied, Ell knocked on the refrigerator and said again, “Mommy?”
After a beat and a series of shushing from the other side, the fridge door opened. Ell remembered her mother looking frantic in that moment, curled around the shelves in her underwear, and she remembered wondering if it was a game.
“Ell, I’m very busy right now. What do you want?”
“Can I come in the fridge too?”
“No, you can’t. What do you want?”
Sylvie handed her daughter a pudding cup. “Mix in some green powder before you eat it. Then go to your room.”
She woke up in the white room, hungry and alone.
The third memory was hazier than the others, and Ell never knew for certain if she’d imagined it. It was the day after her seventh birthday, or maybe a few days before her eighth, and Ell had headed to her bedroom, back from somewhere. She wasn’t bothered, nor was she surprised, to find her mother lying in her bed… if anything, she found it comforting.
“What’s it like?”
Ell crawled in the bed beside Sylvie. “What’s what like, Mommy?”
“The white place. What’s it like?”
“I don’t know! It’s white, and quiet, and… that's it.”
“Do you hate it?”
“I don’t know, Mommy. I wish you were there with me.”
Sylvie reached for Ell’s hand. I know.
Decades later, when asked why she lost those years, doctor after doctor told Ell the same thing: Trauma, they said in a very calculated way, particularly trauma before the age of eight, can cause a distortion or loss of memory.
Ell and Sylvie didn’t celebrate birthdays, Ell’s especially, but it wasn’t until her ninth she realized how abnormal that was.
Ell had recently started asking about her father, what he was like and liked to do. And although her mother wanted desperately to answer them, she couldn’t bring herself to say anything worth saying. So instead, Ell learned about him through photos. There were his baby photos, which meant nothing to her; the photos from his and her mother’s childhood together; the ones of their wedding; of the three after Ell was born; and the slew of birthday photos: from the moment her parents met, there was a picture of them together on each of their birthdays from every year. The last photo she found was of her mom and dad holding her at her first birthday party.
Finished, Ell went to the kitchen, where Sylvie sat on the countertop, leaning against the fridge.
“Why don’t we do birthday stuff anymore?”
“Your father isn’t here anymore.”
“I know, but why don’t we do birthday stuff?”
“Your father isn’t here anymore, Ell.”
“But what about birthdays?”
“He isn’t here.”
The conversation had ended as soon as it started, and Ell knew it. She spent the rest of her birthday looking at old photos, wondering if her dad liked birthday cake. Her mom spent it on the countertop.
The following years weren’t unlike those prior: there were the times she was in the white room and the times she wasn’t; but no matter where she was, Ell was moving. Accustomed to life in white, with nothing to do and nobody to talk to, she would find herself running. Dancing. Exercising. Rolling on the floor that wasn’t really a floor and loving it. In place of school, she ran. In the white room, she ran. And back at home, she ran. By her thirteenth birthday, Ell would’ve blown away with a stiff wind… but not known how to spell it.
After Ell’s and her parents’ stories were documented, they were translated into nearly 70 languages. Historians still argue whether the original English or the Welsh translation best tells Sylvie’s story. The argument hinders on one word in the Welsh translation--hiraeth--and how no word better describes the beginning and end of Sylvie’s life. As a child, she never felt at home at home- she yearned for a place where the voices inside her went quiet; or at least quieter, she’d think. And after Max died, she felt that again, the “longing for a home that no longer exists.”
Although Ell had the reading level of someone half her age, she nevertheless spent her teenage years the way most did: both scaring and infuriating her mother. What Ell didn’t realize, arguably didn’t have the capacity to realize, was that Sylvie had all the power. In an instant, she could send her daughter away without her daughter having a moment to resist. And Sylvie did. Constantly, guiltlessly, often with all the forethought of a shoe.
More than once, Ell woke up from a bout in the white room and stormed into the kitchen, yelling: “What did I do this time?”
When Sylvie was having a quiet day, she’d say, “you needed some time to yourself.” To which Ell would reply, “you mean you needed time to yourself!”
On the days the voices were particularly noisy, though, Sylvie would say, in the calmest voice she could muster, “you got on my fucking nerves.” And to that, Ell would yank the ends of her hair: “I hate you. You have no idea what it’s like in there!”
The truth was, Ell sometimes enjoyed being sent away. The white room was peace, quiet, endless space to run; it meant safety from her mother’s fits. But at the same time, it meant complete seclusion, immeasurable loneliness, and silence so loud it made your ears ring.
And the truth was, her mother didn’t know what the white room was like- she’d never been there herself, nor had her late husband or anyone she ever knew. It was engineered as a place for criminals and on very special occasions, people too unruly and explosive to endure reality. But Sylvie didn’t view it that way: to her, it was simply a time-out.
Strained as it was, Ell’s and Sylvie’s relationship didn’t truly begin to escalate until Ell’s last year before adulthood. The voices during that year were the loudest they’d ever been, and Ell was growing more resentful of her mother with each day.
At 17, Ell had experienced little more than that of a Doberman.
She was allowed to run as fast and as far as she liked,
but couldn’t pass the property.
She could eat whatever, whenever,
but what kind of freedom was that,
when there was hardly any food to choose from?
The television was free reign,
but only between one o’clock and three,
and it only had one channel: the news.
She had no books, no toys, no technology,
and only left the house on emergency runs,
always with her mother.
Ell would ask Sylvie what college was, why wasn’t she going, what had she done wrong.
“Why can’t I leave the property?”
“Why don’t you let me drive?”
“Why don’t I have friends?”
“Will I ever get married?”
Sylvie never knew whether to answer. More often than not, she sent her daughter to the white room to avoid confrontation. But eventually, she had to give something. So one day, she said, very cryptically, “It’s not safe.” “You aren’t ready.” “You don’t need them.” “I don’t know.” Which led to, “Why not?” “Why not?” “Why not?” “Why not?”
As the year went on, Ell’s tone shifted, and with the tone, her questions.
“What did I ever do to you?”
“Why do you treat me like a dog?”
“Would Dad have treated me like this?”
“Do you even love me?”
“Because I don’t love you.”
There was no longer a dance. Sylvie couldn’t skirt around subjects or play keep away. It had become a game, and a nasty one at that. She started to slip.
One morning, she heard someone knocking on her bedroom window. It was slow at first, each knock spaced out and soft, but as it kept on, they grew closer together and louder, until they sounded like jackhammers against her window. Sylvie finally got out of bed and threw back the curtains. Immediately, the knocks stopped, and whoever had been there was gone.
On Thanksgiving, Sylvie spent the day with her most reliable company, the voices. She was sitting in the refrigerator, having very lively (but not very pleasant) conversation when the fridge started shaking. As hard as Sylvie tried to stay calm, the voices didn’t express the same intent: they screeched and screamed and scratched at her ears and eyes, they’re coming. But eventually, the fridge stilled. The voices calmed. Sylvie opened the door and fell out.
You killed him. She jolted awake. He died because of you. You’re the reason. You did it. Like snakes, they hissed, you. Sylvie ran to the shower and turned it on, hot and loud. You’re a murderer. You’re a monster. You’re mad. She stepped in, still wearing her pajamas. You never deserved him. You disgusted him. He would’ve left you. She plugged the drain and laid her face beneath the showerhead. You should be dead, not him. She knew it was true. After all, the voices told her so.
It was a rainy day and Ell had been in the white room since before noon. She ran around the world until her knees gave out, and there, lying on the floor that wasn’t a floor, she thought about her life. Whether it could even be considered one. And in it, she realized, were only two people: she and her mother. There were no animals there, no garden, no hobbies, no worldly knowledge or experience. Her mother bought her clothes, gave her her nickname, taught her everything she knew, shared everything she could, and was her best friend. Her only friend. Ell realized she hated the only person she loved, and the only person who loved her.
Sylvie, meanwhile, was opening the top kitchen cabinet to hear what it had to say.
You’ll kill her too.
Another voice came from the microwave: but would that be so bad?
I think it’s a grand idea.
She’ll leave you if you don’t.
She’ll kill you if you don’t.
At this, the rest joined in, egging her on. Voices came from all ends of the kitchen, doing all but chanting kill her to spoon music.
Do it now, while she’s away.
Do it now.
Get the knife.
It’s your only option.
You HAVE TO.
Ell suddenly heard screaming. It was hers.
She woke up in a hospital bed, strapped to the headboard and base. Eventually, the doctors heard Ell pulling from the bed, and rushed to see her. They put their hands on her shoulders, explained where she was, what happened, what came next. At the time, it made no sense to Ell: the last she remembered, she was in the white room. How could I slit my wrists in the white room? Why would I slit my wrists in the white room? But after days of in-and-out consciousness, and four patient nurses, she began to understand. So, when her mother never visited, and the doctors signed her to a clinic, and they took her shoelaces, Ell understood.
What she didn’t understand, however, was the clinic. On her first day, she spoke to more people in one sitting than she had over the entire course of her life. They were all much older than she, and all so different-looking, and with backgrounds no more alike than turtles and cars, but every one of them felt the same way Ell did. She could’ve been tipped over with a spoon. On top of that, there were movies, books far beyond her comprehension, music, colored pencils, and a room altogether new. Ell had known when she was going to the white room--she felt in her bones as she fell into it--so when that same feeling came, she expected to wake up there. But she didn’t. Although the room (which can’t really be called a room) was otherwise the same, it was neither white, nor quiet, and came from orange powder, not green. Everything was the perfect light shade of blue, like a little boy painted it with crayon; and there was a song playing. Ell soon realized the song played on repeat, leaving no time for silence, and realized also that she didn’t at all like it. She didn’t like anything about the room, in fact, so it severely disturbed her to find herself there hours each day. The setup, in reality, wasn’t unlike her life before: there was a limitless room she was sent to for half her day, she was surrounded by madness, and she felt, at all times, with no exceptions, no matter where she was, or with whom, horribly and perpetually alone.
By the time her mother came to visit, nearly a year later, Ell had lost everything that made her her. Once lively and fit, she was now a slug, in all manners of the word, who moved through her own slime. Seeing her daughter then, Sylvie wished she’d called. She knew she belonged on the other side instead, but couldn’t bring herself to change anything. So she sat on the visitor’s chair and listened.
A beat passed.
“And there’s this song…”
“Over… and over again…”
Sylvie wondered if she could shatter, would she?
She didn’t know.
“Do you hate it?”
“I hate it… so much.”
“Can I come home?”
She closed her eyes and took a breath.
When she opened them again, they were made of glass. “Did I ever tell you why your father and I named you Yellow?”
“Well, you know what it means when someone gets the purple sentence, right?”
“That’s right. And the opposite of purple is…”
“And the opposite of death is…”
Sylvie stepped around the table and placed her hands on Ell’s cheeks. “You, Ell, were our life.”
It was the last thing she ever heard her mother say. A week later, a nurse told Ell her mother had killed herself. She stared at the nurse, barely there, and said, “okay.”
Two years later, the experiment ended. The government admitted it had failed and collected all the green, orange, and purple powders that had been distributed. They pardoned every person who fell victim to the powders, to the rooms, and financially supported them for the remainder of their lives.
Ell was released on a Sunday, driven to her issued apartment, and left with everything she needed. She attended her first interview, of many, the following Tuesday. The world named her the hardest-hit survivor of the experiment, and she was recognized wherever she went.
But in truth, Ell hardly left her flat. And many decades later, she died there, with everything painted white.
He was burning. She couldn’t remember how he came to be that way, and she couldn’t remember why he hadn’t cried, but she remembered the flames on his little clothes, and the spoilt smell of his skin.
When asked what came next, she said, “I did the only thing I could do: I put him out.”
It started with the fire alarm. Oddly, it didn’t sound like it should’ve--it sounded like six kettles whistling--but all the same, she ran straight for his nursery. There was a brief moment of shock, a moment she later came to envy, before she picked up her son and put him out.
“I took him to the bathroom,” she explained, “where all the water is, and I doused him in the toilet.
But the flames-- Even under the water, he was still on fire. I could see it.
So I held him there, waiting for the fire to go out.”
“And did it?”
“Eventually. Eventually it did.”
They later told her that her son hadn’t, in fact, been on fire. The fire alarm hadn’t gone off. There was no smell.
“Ma’am, you had a schizophrenic episode.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means I killed my son.”
She left then. She put her house on the market and stayed, in the meantime, with a friend. It wasn’t long before she began hearing kettles at night, and so, it wasn’t long before her friend asked her, very kindly, to leave.
There were months in her car. Then months under a patio. Her favorite time, though, was spent on park benches by the schools.
And one day, she ran into a burning building. It was really burning.
It was foul inside the horse. Epipole first thought it fitting, even funny, that the smell was reminiscent of Greek stables; but as time wore on and foul grew fouler, she forgot her humor. There weren’t a great many things appealing about war--Epipole, being a woman, knew this better than anyone--but nothing, not even the stink of 39 unwashed men, could deter her from defending her people.
Her people, had they known her facade, would not have felt the same loyalty. Women in ancient Greece were bred for one shared purpose: to meet the needs and desires of men. And like all dystopias, those who resisted were met with nothing less than an avalanche of ruin. Epipole, in the end, was no exception.
All the same, the day began beautifully: the soldiers were handsome, the air was crisp, and opportunity was fresh. By noon, they’d arrived outside Troy’s gates, warm but stirred; in late afternoon, the men shared stories through anxious, gritted teeth; but the only air left by evening was damp and heavy. Epipole, like her company, felt worn down by the weight of it all: the plan they’d drawn, the last Greek effort to win the war, was in the smelly, weary hands of 39 men and one woman.
In the beginning, Epipole was scared even to close her eyes- when showering, the curtain was ripped back behind her; when asked a question, her underwear tightened and turned to lead; and when the lights went out, the men surrounded her bed and grabbed her from all ends. She was convinced they knew, or would know very soon. It took years for Epipole’s fears to fade and eventually pass, years more until she forgot what it was to be a woman. By her twenty-fifth birthday, she hadn’t heard her own name in six years.
That night surpassed even their deadliest battles in the contest of misery. While Trojans celebrated outside, the soldiers inside the horse wore their tired rage like muzzles, snarling and scoffing at the festivities. Epipole felt no differently from her comrades, every soldier unified under aggravation, until the comedy began. The Greeks didn’t know Helen of Troy for her humor, nor did the Trojans, but that evening, she unknowingly performed a whirlwind showcase for both. The key difference was: the Greek men, on the receiving end of her show, were not amused. Unfortunately for Epipole, she very much was.
Odysseus was an astute man. As Greece’s honorary general, he had to be. So when soldiers leapt from their seats in outrage and raved over Helen’s brazen lies, he noticed one man’s stillness. A concentrated stillness. Little did he know, another soldier caught the same thought and unlike Odysseus, he had no intention of turning his eye.
Palamedes watched Epipole for the remainder of the night, noting every look and movement she made. It wasn’t until after midnight, when Odysseus announced their attack, that she recognized the careful gaze of an uncareful man. For the first time in years, she felt like a woman again- not strong and unhampered, but weak and small. Those weren’t, however, emotions she could afford to feel before a battle, so Epipole put Palamedes with everything she knew before the war: away.
It wasn’t long before Troy was destroyed, its men murdered, its women taken for pleasure, and its war lost. But with Troy went Epipole: under the scornful eye of Palamedes, her otherwise easy obscurity became impossible to maintain, even in battle. No matter how fiercely she put him aside, how crudely she pillaged, how viscously she acted, he knew by the end that she was no more a man than Helen herself.
The men were appalled. They left her to ride with the Trojan women, who felt no differently than the men. Epipole, by all manners of speaking, was a pariah. Worse yet, she was a pariah with an execution date.
As abysmal as her situation was, Epipole couldn’t help but see the irony in it. Thrown from men she’d fought alongside for years, men she shared quips with, Epipole was placed beside women whose families she’d killed, whose homes she brought to rubble, who lived the lives she’d always opposed. And soon, she’d be executed for participating in a war that had now ended.
Epipole thought back to the last time she’d heard her name, but she couldn’t remember. She later found that the soldiers never learned her real name. And when Epipole stood at the center of town, surrounded by people she’d known throughout her life, she realized: the only person left who knew her name was herself.