In this section:
A Late-Summer Evening on the MTA by Ann Zhao ’24
HOT SINGLES IN [CITY NAME] by Cheryl Wang ’23
Skinned by Ange Li ’23
A Stubborn Dollar by Alina Edwards ’25
Bone Dry by Sylvia Nica ’25
Reflections by Niamh Bayliss ’22
I Would Recommend You Start with Dorain Gray, but I Actually Found It a Rather Bad Book by Chatarina Quinn Etoll ’23
False Alarm by Lily Wancewicz ’23
In the Studio, Maybe Magic Occurs by Jasper Saco ’22
A Late-Summer Evening on the MTA
There are two boys on this bus.
They’re clearly dating. They lean against each other, eyes half-closed. The one on the left, in a button-up and shorts; the one on the right, wearing a Taylor Swift reputation tour shirt and jeans.
I do this thing, when I’m alone and bored on public transit, where I invent a life story for the people I see. It’s a fun writing exercise, even if I never actually write down any of it.
The old man across from me, in a horrendous denim-on-denim getup, is a Vietnam War veteran who became a hippie and, through his old white people connections, is now best friends with Senator Bernie Sanders. At the front, the harrowed-looking young mother with her baby in a fabric sling is an ex-Mormon who packed her bags and got out of dodge last week, settling with an estranged uncle in Queens, the one person she knows outside of Utah. The bus driver with a gap-toothed smile? He’s getting ready to retire; his son’s first kid was just born, and he’s the proudest grandfather in the world.
I don’t invent a life for these boys. I just stare.
They look comfortable. It’s hard to be comfortable on any form of public transportation, let alone a smelly bus in Manhattan, but somehow, they’re managing. Button-up-guy takes Taylor-Swift-guy’s hand and fiddles around with it. Taylor-Swift-guy giggles.
It’s not that I want that for myself. That quiet-but-sure love that these two clearly show each other. Far from it. I want a thunderous kind of life that’ll let me shine. I want to tell stories that will move the emotions of strangers around the globe that I will never meet. I want to be remembered.
I mean, that’s why I’m in the city for college, and not Poughkeepsie or Utica or Syracuse or, god forbid, Binghamton. To learn from the best.
But on this ugly bus heading down Broadway, I can’t help but think that that life might be kind of nice. Quiet motions. My head against someone’s shoulder. Pure, adoring love.
At the next stop, the boy with the Taylor Swift shirt gets off. The one in the button-up stays on. He takes his phone out of his pocket and swipes up. And finally, my imagination runs wild.
He’s a student at NYU, taking a few summer classes, heading back to his off-campus apartment. He’s an arts major of some sort, but once he graduates, he’ll settle for a boring office job so he can be the breadwinner while his partner pursues his dreams. One day, he’ll be browsing a bookstore when he sees a cover he likes, and he’ll turn it over and see the author photo on the back and wonder where he’s seen that face before.
I will be loved by thousands. Millions, if I’m lucky. But he will return home to the one he loves, and I wonder if that’s luckier than I’ll ever be.
HOT SINGLES IN [CITY NAME]
“That’s a programming error,” Jack, the annoying coworker who once took an online coding bootcamp and now claims that he can quit anytime and work at Google, says, peering over Kim’s shoulder with a familiar look of amused smugness. “See, what they’re trying to do is find your location using your device’s I.P. address, but sometimes the code turns out wonky or something goes wrong and it says the variable name—which is basically the placeholder name of the city before they insert your location—instead. That’s how you know it’s baloney.”
“I don’t think I would have clicked on it anyway,” Kim says, all too conscious that she’s not old or, in fact, a man.
“You should,” Jack says. “It’d be funny.”
“We’re on a work computer,” Kim says. “You’ll get me fired.” But she doesn’t say no.
Later, at home, she finds the same website and ad, with its clandestine display of young women in various stages of prude undress. One would think that hot singles would be unashamed of nudity and the baseness of the services they’re supposedly advertising, but Kim remembers taking a college psychology course that talked about the Madonna-whore complex and suddenly everything clicks into place.
It redirects her to a website url made mostly of xs and ys and the almost never before seen domain name .li. In the middle of the screen, a large chat box with a hot pink border and ostentatious pink lettering: TALK TO RUSSIAN HOTTIE IMMEDIATELY!
hello, Kim types.
As promised, three dots appear almost immediately: the other user is typing.
Alina: Where are you from
Just to mess around, Kim says, I’m from city_name
Alina: Me too
Alina: We should meet up then
Alina: I am so lonely
There’s so many people in this city, Kim writes, fascinated with the response. Why are you lonely?
Alina: Too many people
Alina: I’ll send picture of me
A low quality jpeg of a young woman in workout clothes posing in front of a mirror, pursing her lips and bending down to reveal her ample cleavage. Kim has a sneaking suspicion that if she Google reverse searches this image, at least five or six identical photos will appear.
Kim is still mulling over the too many people remark, and thinks it makes startling sense for something that seems so intrinsically contradictory. But to answer the question, she takes a photo of Jack from his Twitter and passes it through an age filter until the features are unrecognizable.
Alina: Wow 😍😍😍
Alina: You are so handsome
Alina: are you looking for friend?
Are you looking for a friend? Kim asks her instead, repeating her question.
Alina: Yes, I am lonely
Alina: There is no one i know in city_name
Alina: So I hope we can become close
The message is so ludicrous that Kim thinks that the jig must be up, that Alina will stop the conversation now because it’s clear that Kim is leading her on. But when Kim types her next line, where do you want to meet, the three dots appear again.
Alina: Actually, I am not in city_name right now
Alina: I am in Russia visiting my sick mother
Alina: Because of covid virus I cannot afford plane ticket to come back
That’s strange, Kim says. No one escapes city_name
Alina: What do you mean
city_name is just a placeholder, Kim writes, for the life we want to have
Alina: I don’t understand
You can’t leave, Kim types.
The three dots, and then they disappear again. Once more, the pattern repeats itself.
I wanted to live in California, Kim says, thinking back to when she’d been idealistic and thought her degree would actually amount to something. I thought I was going to live on the beach and surf all day
No comment from the other party.
But then I actually visited the beach
And it was too expensive
And there was smoke and trash everywhere
And I knew I couldn’t live there because it wasn’t perfect ofc
But now I live in the middle of nowhere and
I’m not happy but I still think about that
idea of that perfect beach house and life full of laughter and
I think, what have I done with my life
because I really thought I could do so much
I wanted so much when I was young
and if 18 year old me saw me now
they would be so disappointed i think
but that’s not what i’m getting to
because no matter what you do
obviously your dreams won’t come true
So it’s just something you live with:
You can’t escape city_name
Alina doesn’t respond for ten minutes, then twenty, then thirty.
Finally, Kim exits the tab, has a short moment of silence to mourn her quietly buried dreams, and remembers enough of the story to have a laugh with Jack tomorrow.
CW: xenophobia and bodily dysmorphia
When mama landed in America, with my baby sister’s head leaned against her shoulder and my fingers twisted in her iron grasp, her skin had just started to shed and shift.
She had taken up her first job in the kitchen of a Chinese restaurant so cramped that it must have violated safety standards, and the American grease and oil must have seeped into her hair and pores. Her hands had started to develop an oily texture, no matter how chapped they became from her washing, like a second skin had grown over the skin she brought from China.
When she hastily scrubbed our faces at night, her fingers left shimmery trails on our foreheads, a dirty ghostly residue. That was the first sign of her shedding.
Every night that year, my eight-year-old self stayed up to watch mama trudge into the apartment we stayed in above the restaurant. When she took off her shoes and socks to pad across the floor on her way to the dingy shower, her feet left oily footprints that disappeared if I squinted at them. Something about her was falling apart from the outside.
I offered to wash her feet.
Her feet were slippery to hold. I cradled them carefully, refusing to shudder at how bits of translucent skin would fade into the water. She was shedding herself in the basin like a snake, but becoming smaller and more shriveled with each layer of skin she detached. No amount of clean water washed life back into her.
It was only after starting school and having to swallow foreign English syllables around my home-cooked rice that my skin started to change too. After a boy pushed me for not understanding what he said, I had started to grow scales.
My baby sister had started kindergarten then. She never said a word to me in school.
She had still seemed the pouty baby that came to America on mama’s shoulder, but now she knew how to use her cheeks. While I scowled at my classmates, my sister always beamed at her teachers.
My sister did not show any signs of change at all. She looked perfectly normal, oblivious to the way my mother and I shifted one way when we went out and undressed our skins when we came home.
Raised on American sandwiches and orange juice, my sister was the only one who could drink milk straight from the fridge without upsetting her stomach. The only one who could not remember the Chinese names of the vegetables on her plate.
I still struggled with English at school, but I counted change faster than any of my white classmates.
While my mother’s touches began to become ghost-like, my skin became armor-like. Scales clattered to the floor after a day at school or babysitting, followed by my mother’s shout to clean up after myself while my sister chattered away at an iPad. I swept up my scales into a bin, watching out of the corner of my eye how my sister so easily ignored mama’s silent footsteps.
I came to realize what my mama and I were when my English had caught up to understanding what was taught in science class. Adaptations. Forced bodily change in a foreign environment. A survival instinct.
I wondered how my sister survived so effortlessly.
As kindergarten turned into first grade, then second and third, and my sister had started to make friends with the white kids at our school. I had almost stopped watching her every move. I tried to tell myself that I didn’t care, that I was not waiting for some sign that she was one of us, despite her all-American pronunciation and personality.
By then mama had turned nearly invisible. She became an outline in the shape of a woman who wrung out laundry and made my sister lunch-to-go. It seemed that she had shed one too many skins each night, each iteration turning her closer to a ghost. So I felt her name ghost my tongue each night too. I wanted to call out to her, but come morning, we both had our skins prepared to go.
I never gave up trying to force my sister to change, thinking that if mama hurled one more shout or if I fought her chopstick one more time at dinner, something inside her would break. I refused to speak to her in English; she never responded in our dialect. She was as stubborn as ever.
For myself, I needed a sign that she was as uncomfortable in her skin as mama and I were.
And it finally happened when she thought I wasn’t looking.
She had gone to a playdate with a white family, and must have come back too chipper to keep her guard up. I was scrutinizing her from her reflection in the kitchen window—we had moved to a little old house in the suburbs by then—and she was lapping up the milk in her glass with expert swirls of her tongue.
I turned around. Something darted back into the corner of my sister’s mouth, long and slithering. I didn’t need to see it again. I knew—my two-faced sister had a bifurcated tongue, two-tongued for a two-skinned family.
A Stubborn Dollar
As he was putting a few things away in the bathroom of his new apartment, a man noticed a dollar bill pressed down flat next to the bathroom sink. He bent down and tried to pick it up, but it wouldn’t budge. It was only then that he noticed a few small drops of glue around the corners of the bill. He stood back up and peered down at it, thinking about what a silly and strange thing it was to glue a dollar to the floor. He wondered if someone put it there as a kind of experiment, or to mess with the next tenant. Eventually, he went back to sorting through his medicines and pushed the dollar bill out of his thoughts.
The light outside had long faded by the time he fixed everything up to his liking. Checking his watch, he found that it was nearly nine o’clock. He took the vacuum to the floor as one final measure of progress for the day, then settled on the couch with a book, too lazy to go into the bedroom. Within fifteen minutes he was too exhausted to keep his eyes open and ended up setting the book on his chest, snoring softly.
He awoke in the early hours of the morning, with the floor lamp from his last apartment still on. As soon as the depth of his consciousness returned to him, he found he was thinking of the dollar bill again. He did not want to go back to look at it, and actually began to feel discomforted by its presence there. Again he racked his mind as to why it was there in the first place. It definitely wasn’t a mistake; it was placed perfectly parallel to the tile lines, too neat to be a mistake. Maybe a child, bored, stole it from its mother’s wallet and decided to make mischief with it. Then he wondered why the landlady hadn’t removed it. Either she didn’t notice it, which was unlikely—the woman seemed unusually meticulous—or she didn’t think it was worth the bother. She was probably right about that. Once more he told himself it was just a stupid thing, not worth his time. What did he care about a single dollar? It wasn’t as though he needed it.
When he felt a pressure in his abdomen and realized he had to go to the bathroom, the discomfort returned in the form of a sharp tingling down his body and a sweat under his arms. He threw his book aside and ran a hand over his face, pushing circles around his eyes. Why was this bothering him so much? It didn’t make sense. With every ounce of resolve, he willed the tingling heat under his skin to go away. You’re not wanted. You’re not wanted. Yet the dollar bill proved stronger, heavier, like a giant stone in the center of his mind that would not succumb to any reasoning.
He couldn’t put it off any longer. He went into the bathroom and relieved himself, drawing his eyes away from that spot on the floor. Instead he looked up at the ceiling and noticed, for the first time, an array of yellow spots that, if he stared hard enough, seemed to form a frowny face. Mechanically, he flushed the toilet and washed his hands, his eyes trained all the while on that face looking down on him. And then, although he tried with every ounce of will within him to resist, his eyes cast violently down to the floor, and there it was, the same bill in the same spot, staring up at him. He felt tears begin to sting behind his eyes, a sob mounting in his throat. Suddenly he yanked a towel off the bar next to the sink and dropped it over the bill. Immediately he felt safer, though he couldn’t say why—it was still there, just invisible. If he couldn’t see it, that made it easier to pretend it had never been there at all.
He left the bathroom with a weight lifted off his shoulders. It was nearly six o’clock now, the perfect time for a quiet walk, so he decided to spend a few hours wandering around the neighborhood before the rest of the city woke up. He hadn’t had the time to explore yesterday and was looking forward to it.
The fresh air cleared his head of the strangeness of the last several hours, leading him to march confidently back into his apartment, stopping just outside the bathroom door. In those few seconds, it all flooded back to him. He stood there, unable to breathe, realizing that the tingling discomfort he’d felt last night had morphed into a screaming in his chest that could only be called terror. Now he was beyond trying to understand it. He went into the kitchen and leaned against the counter, dropping his head between his arms. It was impossible to avoid the bathroom and maintain any sense of dignity from the situation. Looking out the window, he seriously considered going out to find a public bathroom to freshen up in, but the idea evaporated as soon as it came to him; the bill would still be there when he got back, and he couldn’t change anything by ignoring it. He couldn’t switch apartments. He did not want to call the landlady. He was stuck.
Frustration ebbed up in him and sent a burst of energy all the way down his body. Without thinking, he pushed open the bathroom door, yanked off the towel he’d dropped there before, and stared at the dollar bill for only a moment before clawing at it, frantically, until his fingers went numb. He was using all the strength he had. He didn’t care if it ripped, it was only a dollar, for God’s sake, but it remained completely unharmed. George Washington’s judgment only grew louder.
On the verge of tears, all he could think to do was run, frenzied and heaving, out the door to grab the fire extinguisher from the hallway. When the alarm sounded, the tears fell freely. He barely registered it as he raced back into the bathroom. Feeling the weight of the extinguisher in his hands, he slammed it onto the floor where the dollar bill was stuck, with a power he did not know he had. In that moment he would have killed anyone who came in between him and the bill. He kept at it, slam and repeat, slam and repeat, for almost five minutes, until the tile and the extinguisher were both severely dented. His gaze was misty around the edges; the bill was the only thing he could see clearly.
He did not know how much time had passed when he felt a hand grabbing him from behind. In those moments, he knew nothing at all. The tile was now badly damaged and bits of aging ceramic flew up around him with every strike. Yet, he could see that the bill was still undamaged, still crisp. He only wanted to see a dent, a crease, and then he would stop. He felt two strong arms pull him back, but he continued his crusade, struggling out of their grip. It was only when the arms latched around his torso that he began to scream.
Shafts of sunlight hit the clay pots in the windows and bounced through the dim room. The sign outside, suffused in desert dust, had once suggested an auto mechanic’s office, or maybe a post office, but now the brick shell gave no hint to its previous occupants. When it was hot, the silhouette from the cliffs ringing the brick provided respite.
The woman who sat watering the scraggly succulents crowding the windows was called Rose. When the days all looked the same, Rose became confused. There was no air conditioning. In the sauna-like conditions, Rose’s hair plastered to her face and her skin shone with a thick sheen. In the blistering heat, Rose and the succulents were the only living organisms. Or so she thought. Sometimes she thought she saw clouds of ash rise from the Arizona border, but no one ever appeared.
Waving in the sterile heat were red gorges in the direction the helicopter appeared. Rose had visited these smaller canyons for vacation once when she was ten, back when pools and people sprawled the desert. The only thing she remembered was circling the hoodoos. She thought fairies lived in them. Otherwise, an enormous platform with a red cross stretched across the rock. On Thursdays, the rickety federal helicopter would drop off a packet of food and her weekly ration of water—EPA APPROVED it read. The helicopter had a chipped American flag. It never brought new clothes. Rose was supposed to get ballots, and vote, too, but that never happened either.
Rose stood outside on helicopter days and held up her hand to keep the sand from blowing into her eyes. She would squint up at the glowing halo. She imagined the pilot was a handsome stranger with black hair. He had a chipped smile and long, rough fingers. Rose dreamed that he would land the helicopter. As the hours dripped by, they would embrace—breathlessly. Rose would close her eyes and feel the grit of emotion. Other than the ghost of the man, Rose took care of her plants and let the hours stumble by. The anxiety of survival had faded long ago. She’d burned her last book on a cold night two years ago, making the mistake of thinking survival was better than tepid monotony.
Today, though, it was a Thursday. Rose stepped outside to wait for the helicopter. She put on her best white skirt, the one she kept tucked in her box. She held a succulent as a gift.
The succulents did alright. They chewed at her loneliness and made the cliffs look less appealing. She’d learned to propagate in college, when her roommate kept flicking leaves in her water mugs, promising free life. Rose used empty EPA cans to grow the succulents. When she wanted new ones, she hunted among the shadowed banks of the dried riverbed. If she got lucky, she might carry one home. She would use extra rations to feed it. They made the brick feel like home. One morning, she’d even found a seed packet buried beneath the trash—clematis like those suburbanites used to tend. Its vines grew up the dark wall, sucking the most water, but it was worth it. On hot days, when Rose lay senseless, she crowded against the plant and let its flowers envelop her.
If anyone ever appeared, she’d be there, wrapped in vines and alone. Tired.
That Thursday, as she waited on the platform, the hundred-degree air baked her skin. She looked up at the blue sky and prayed, but she didn’t think it would make it past the blue ceiling. Her skirt did little to stop the heat from branding her skin, but it made Rose consider something other than the helicopter-free sky. She had promised herself the pilot would come. She had promised herself that he would be there. She needed him. She hoped the pilot needed her. She needed him more.
The air warmed another degree. Rose studied the periwinkle sky. Some Thursdays, the helicopter wouldn’t come. Rose always rationed a couple of cans just in case. This Thursday was one of them. It meant the plants would get no water, but it would be enough, she could collect condensation. If she was really tired, she would let them die.
When her skin reddened under her white sleeves, Rose went back inside. She perched by the window, but the deadening silence remained unbroken. Rose curled among the vines. She wished the EPA had kept delivering morphine. Too many casualties, they announced.
That night, Rose thought about her first college rally. It was twenty years ago. Swarms of students had filled the courtyard. They held signs bathed in red dying sun, screaming. Campus police ringed them, but these were what the police considered True Americans. Blonde, red-bathed, toting guns. They killed those they considered un-American. Those that spoke other languages. Those who drank from the football sprinklers.
Now, the only pure Americans were those with pools and habitable land. They lived in Canada, a global superpower.
Twenty years ago, Rose did not have a sign, but she waved a bullhorn sprayed with so much red her hands looked bloody. The sign next to her spelled “CLIMATE CHANGE IS A CHINESE HOAX.” The one even farther out attempted to spell “GET THE CHINESE OUT.” All Rose could make out was “INE OUT.” Seeing the signs, Rose felt a rush of vindication. All the real talk hosts echoed the statement. People stampeded, their voices red and dripping. They felt exonerated because their voices were echoed on TV.
In the rally, pressed against damp bodies, Rose felt good screaming. Felt good screaming at the straggles of kids staring at her with dry, marble eyes. Water was scarce. She’d seen them sucking at the campus. She’d shouted at them alongside a blonde-haired boy with big muscles and a drenched jersey. They’d locked eyes and shared a passionate, sweat-stained kiss. She believed then fairytales were real. A kid fainted right next to them. They did not move to lift him, even as blood dripped from his temple.
The fairytale boy became her boyfriend. He liked candy corn and sharing nachos with her at football games. The last time Rose saw him, his blue eyes were marbles. He’d collapsed playing soccer with some buddies during a record heatwave, even though he told her he’d be fine, that he’d had his ration. This was when the EPA first gained prominence, when influential CEOs bought land in New Zealand and talk shows gained more capital than the president. Bonds, too. The wealthy bought bonds. Even by then, Rose had started rationing.
“Promise?” she’d asked. She held up a can of water.
“Promise,” her boyfriend said. He kissed her forehead. He stepped out onto the field.
Heatstroke, the pathologist concluded, when they’d brought his white-swathed body into the hospital. A simple answer. Simple enough that Rose almost felt thankful. She hadn’t cried for him. But sometimes, Rose curled into a ball and whimpered. She was angry at herself, and then at God. She was stupid. Those in charge had been denying the climate crises too. They had assured her it was a hoax, that she was alright. Then, at the first sniff of danger, they had fled to Canada.
Sometimes, Rose was terrified that she had killed her boyfriend, that she had killed all those people. How could she have been so stupid?
Now she lived in an uninhabitable desert. Alone.
The stars blinked. Rose ate half a packet of cashews for dinner. She noted the temperature and her fluid intake. A plane roared over her sauna. She stepped outside and watched its taillights. She stretched out her hand. It was like the one that had flown her into the brick shell. Old, and it shook when cruising.
Her stomach growled, and she crawled back inside. She scrawled in the remaining numbers and put the report away. It wasn’t collected, but she did it anyways.
The EPA program had said she would be an astronaut on Earth. The climate experiment, a program to test habitation in now uninhabitable land, was supposed to be randomly located, but Rose knew it was because the blonde recruitment women hated her. She thought Rose was a hussy. Rose didn’t care that she was actually cut-rate labor. She saw herself in the washed-out blonde talking to the recruits, her eyes so puffy they sagged, and thought she could escape her future stretching two decades before her.
The plane, with the pilot, a handsome man, was supposed to bring her a urine purifier after he dropped her off, but on the way back to the airport, the pilot crashed.
Rose saw the glimpse of orange over the canyon wall. She’d still had a shawl then, and she wore it even though the evening was seventy degrees. She remembered how she had been promised bountiful fame for living in the desert. Glory for becoming an astronaut on Earth. Stupid, she thought now. She watched the wreckage burn. Stupid. But at least she wasn’t dead.
After the crash, Rose survived for five days alone until they remembered that she was abandoned. She didn’t cry, because to cry was to die. She survived by licking the condensation of her pee off the walls. All she could think about, as she was doing so, were the hollow-eyed kids sucking on the campus hoses like horses, and she felt sick. She wondered if the blonde lady was dead. That’s where it had been headed, anyways. To everyone atrophying, and thirsty, and cramped together in apartments the city blocked off for climate refugees.
It was this that made the knot unravel in her stomach. Rose may have been dumb, but at least she was ignorant. She could still dream of breaking out of the brick and seeing lush, idyllic cities in the land beyond the canyons.
Rose woke up in a hundred-degree morning. The sun beat on the rocks. The red canyons glimmered in the distance. Streaks of minerals shone on the hoodoos like fairy dust.
When the helicopter did not come for the second week in a row, Rose decided she would hike to the canyons. She peed on the succulents to give them sustenance, and she used a back-up can to water the clematis. With the rest, Rose had some crackers, now stale, six cans of water, and seven protein bars. She could make it. And who knew. Maybe there were people on the other side. Rose couldn’t remember, fifteen years ago, whether she’d seen other settlements as she’d flown over the rocks. At this point, she didn’t know if she was weary of persisting or if she lied to herself. Life would have been manageable with AC. She thought about this as she peed on the succulents.
When the environment had become intolerable, the technologists had claimed unprecedented innovation would help people reach post-humanity. They would live forever in computers.
The crowds moved from the talk hosts to the technologists and waited for their faith to deliver.
Rose finished up the last cactus. She was too jaded to believe. Others poured in money, waiting for their gods to deliver shiny screens, for their brains to populate the cloud. Believed even as the billionaires backed into their planes. Believed until the sea licked their toes.
By then, Rose had given up on salvation. Liars. If there was a God, He had turned His back on her and delivered hell early, one with no AC.
She picked up her pack and stepped outside. The canyon walls were seven miles away. She could arrive in one day if she was really lucky. Sticking her last cans of water into her rucksack, Rose began to walk. She took one last glance at the empty sky, and then the sand swallowed her feet. Up she went. Up past red rock and skeletons of succulents. Hoping, even though she should have stopped hoping a long time ago, Rose climbed into the sky.
Six miles away, a helicopter roared up to the sauna. An old man, his skin shriveled and hair white, hovered up over the platform. Rose did not see the distant helicopter. Navigating around a hoodoo, she checked for the fairies she used to believe roamed.
A few weeks ago, the pilot had forgotten about Stop 124, and his supervisors had told him the occupant of the car shop was probably dead by now, or had killed themselves. It happened, they said. But the pilot had flown over anyway to check. It felt right.
He dropped the parcel on the red X. Waiting. No one came. Six miles ahead, Rose trudged under the empty sky. She did not look behind her. She kept her hands on the rock, gravel slipping under her feet, the canyon floor a dizzying distance below her.
Rose pressed her head against the rock and prayed. Her whispers filled the air like bees.
The helicopter pilot imagined that a buff, grizzled man lived in the old car shop. He never made out the lonely occupant through the clouds of dust, but today he landed. Straining to see the door, he waited for who he was almost certain was a seasoned man. A man like him, with wrinkled skin and a thick smile. Peering at the closed door, he wished he hadn’t forgotten about the old man. If he hadn’t, maybe they would have been friends. Maybe after some time more than friends. It had been a while since he had someone more than friends.
The black door didn’t open. The man had probably hung on as much as he could, but he had died because the pilot had forgotten about Stop 124. The pilot had forgotten from pure stupidity.
He hovered, waiting. He hoped for someone living to come out of the hovel. How stupid he had been. But the buff old man did not come from the house and take the parcel. The pilot marked a large X through the stop listing, and then flew away. He left a coating of dust on the brick. He did not look back, but he cried a little as he flew away.
Rose imagined what she would find on the canyon. If she would find a field of smooth little habitats, like an extraterrestrial settlement on Mars. Maybe a city that had been hidden for fifteen years. She’d settle for some abandoned buildings. Anything to make the last fifteen years of survival worth it. Anything to assure her it would not be fifty more years of the same. Rose had packed a succulent just in case.
Her fingers gripped the rim. Rose pulled herself up and lifted her head.
An empty plateau of orange stretched ahead. Rose saw the skeleton of a shrub, hunched over, three miles in the distance.
A roar filled her ears.
Rose watched the helicopter fly over her head. The blades whirled one hundred feet above her. The man, he saw her! Rose screamed, waving her hands, laughter bubbling from her throat. The helicopter seemed to hover like a gift. Rose jumped up and down, so happy she could weep. She even forgot about the empty plateau. The helicopter dipped its nose. Then, horrified, Rose watched the helicopter race away, too fast to be coming back. It swung her bundle of food beneath it, food Rose should have received at home. After five minutes, the man and his helicopter became a speck of dust. Ten more seconds and they disappeared.
There was no more wind. Just silence.
The sun beat her. Rose waited, but the man did not come back.
“The use of color in this painting is pivotal, though. Caravaggio washes the background in blackness so that the viewer’s eye is immediately drawn to Narcissus and then to his wonderfully faded reflection. He’s the central figure of the image, and that is explicitly the point,” I say. I survey the group in front of me, hands gripping inky pens, eyes hazed over, viewing a reproduction of the painting ‘Narcissus’ that we’ve been tasked with analyzing before next class. My hangover is taking a rock to my head and pounding into it every ten seconds, so hard that I can barely hear myself, but as the only one of us who has ever been able to analyze art, I’m left with no choice but to contribute.
We elected to study in our discrete corner of the smallest library on campus, sheltered by towering chestnut bookshelves and dim yellow lighting. This is our personal section of the library, as the eight classics majors at our school. After four years here, it’s become home, a safe haven for us scholars. I know every stain on the ugly navy carpeting, every crack on the wall, every painting hanging above our heads.
The ‘Narcissus’ painting is mounted on the wall opposite me. It’s always been a favorite of mine. Everything is black except for Narcissus and his reflection in the water. He looks so youthful with a beam of light radiating off of his cheek bone. His honey brown hair is nicely groomed, and if it weren’t for his old-fashioned looking puff sleeves, he could almost be at this table alongside us.
It’s the Sunday after Halloween and there’s still alcohol turning our stomachs, but you wouldn’t know it. Chris is dressed in his crisp Tom Ford suit, Sophia in her silk Burberry blouse and black pencil skirt, Alison in her plaid dress and louboutins. They always dress the part, even if their understanding of the classics doesn’t always warrant it. They’re lucky to have me, really. I opted for dress pants and my favorite cashmere sweater, spent time smoothing my hair into polished perfection, and added a berry color to my cheeks for good measure.
It’s electrifying, walking around campus the day after one of those big parties, looking poised and sleek while everyone else is droopy and dazed, practically crawling around campus in survival mode. We’re here to do our work and avoid our professor’s rambling lecture about responsibility, but also because we’re always here, because we were selected (or, in Chris’ case, our mom paid our way in, but that’s just a rumor) and have an image to uphold; never let them see you disheveled, always do the readings and come prepared, toss some Latin into classroom discussions. We soldier on, aware of mystified glances we receive from the rest of the student body, determined to keep the allure alive.
Chris is making a “point,” which means we’re in for five minutes of impassioned run-on sentences that I can barely understand even in my sober moments. He never says anything particularly important anyways, just likes to find a way to disagree with me and ramble about it until the others take his side so he’ll shut up. This time, it’s something about color being too bland to write about and the vantage point of the painting being the better choice.
“But I suppose since we’re writing about Narcissus, we should probably just follow your analysis,” he adds, smirking directly at me. The others laugh, always too afraid to share their opinions, but secretly intrigued by our constant bickering. I purse my lips and refuse to break his eye contact.
“If you’d like to improve your grade from that C, I’d say so. It’s probably too late for an A, but you know I’m always happy to help.” I give him my most genuine smile until he looks away, mumbling something to Sophia under his breath. I’m still looking at him, across the table, when I witness movement above his head. How much did I drink? I wonder.
Narcissus actually seems to be coming out of the painting. He’s hazy, like a ghost in a fog, but slowly the individual particles intersect until he’s crisper than the image behind him. His face looks even more jovial in the flesh, his skin so plump and poreless, his cheeks flushed a healthy red. I’m thinking back to my time at the party because no amount of alcohol could produce this and I’ve never been into hallucinogens, but I had been pretty determined to let loose. Then Alison, who’s sitting next to me, gasps and grabs onto my forearm, and suddenly this all feels very real.
Narcissus merely floats around the table, patting each of our heads like a perverse game of duck duck goose, searching for something. He goes from Chris, to Tony, to Sophia, to Alison. When he gets to me, I duck slightly, determined to prevent him from messing up my carefully manicured curls. He just pushes into my head harder, then floats down beside me so that he is looking directly into my eyes, and, after gripping the sides of my face with his cold hands, he whispers, “You’re the one I’ve been waiting for. My match. Your beauty is captivating. Come with me.”
Warmth bubbles up inside me. For once I’m getting the credit I deserve, outshining all the others. I make direct eye contact with Chris and smirk, hoping he’s experiencing the antagonistic sensations of jealousy rising from his stomach to his head that I’ve so often had to endure. But he just looks panicked. Narcissus takes my hand and pulls me up so that I too am floating. We drift towards the painting, and he steps inside, not releasing my hand until I join him.
Looking around, I see Chris and Alison and all the others out there, but it’s gorgeous here, a landscape all around me that can’t be viewed when looking at the painting. The sun is bright and fierce, the forest a rich true green, and the water so clear it’s hard to look away. It’s hypnotizing, the way my blue eyes’ reflection merges so enchantingly with the water. My hair blows easily in the mild breeze, the movement more calming and glorious than the waves could ever hope to be. I’m free of my headache, and I’m not sure why the color seems to have faded from my peripheral vision, or if I can move my body anymore, but really, why would I want to?
I Would Recommend You Start with Dorain Gray, but I Actually Found It a Rather Bad Book
Chatarina Quinn Etoll
I fell in love with his bookshelves. A strange collection of various Bibles and Qurans and Torahs, Vonnegut and Kierkegaard and Douglas Adams, eight copies of the book he wrote. Two versions of the complete works of Oscar Wilde, one of which he gave me when I sheepishly admitted I wasn’t as well read as people thought. The edition was a hardcover, the pages yellowed with green trim, faded in the sixty years between its publication and him putting it in my hands. 957 pages. The volume smelled like a used bookstore, but all the more concentrated. I could live in that smell. I forgot the gift—to me a piece of this man, perhaps to him just another book—when I left the next morning, perched on the edge of his glossy kitchen table.
We had danced and we had sung and we had spoken. Drinking, me: water, him: beer, at a small wooden table separating us, just enough distance for that first night. I talked about how trees spoke to one another, loved one another, called to one another even when one was cut down, while tracing my fingers along the grain of the wood. We stayed in that bar until they kicked us out. Kissed in the rain that night, at the same bus stop at which I had to wait on the last day. A cliché, really.
But it was when I first entered the apartment, lit in warm light, as I ran my fingers along the spines, memories and lives and worlds within their boned bodies, that I fell in love. Four bookshelves, full, spilling over. Multiple copies of the same works, rare editions. A signed Camus he found at a recycling station. He was proud of his collection. He’d read at least half of it, he answered when I asked. I believed him.
Before I walked up that narrow staircase, stepped onto the wooden floors dotted with candle wax, leaned on his white walls decorated with the spoils of a strange life, I thought he was faking it. A pseudointellectual. Found a few quotes, took on the aesthetic, and ran with it. I told him that and he laughed. “No, I’m not faking it.”
He asked if I was hungry. Could he make me something? Sure.
He moved so fluidly, pressing tortillas, half concentration, half practice. Pulled something from the fridge with chilis. Did I like spice? I love spice, I answered. We ate quickly and I tried to be neat. I told him that someone once told me I chewed very loudly and now I’m very aware of that. He nodded with concern. “That’ll stick with you. I’m sorry.” He tore the last tortilla in half. “You want to split it?”
It was me saying I was insecure. I wanted to be clean and beautiful and perfect and I wasn’t. I dropped the Camus because my hands couldn’t keep a hold. I was just sitting there, seemingly relaxed and I couldn’t keep myself from dropping it.
He later admitted he had waited for me to come out of the bar that first night, hoping he could talk to me. Smoked his cigarette slowly, anxiously, in hopes that the girl who had grabbed his hands to tell him how much she loved his songs would linger with him. I had hoped he would be waiting outside.
I remembered the Oscar Wilde the next time I came by. Maybe I meant to leave it. I read the beginning of a play while I rode home on the bus. A man, drunk, told me I looked like I’d had a rough night. “Morning hair. Still a very pretty girl, though.” I switched buses.
I took the book, the Oscar Wilde, wrapped it in a sweater, and flew home with it in my bag. This massive, colossal book took up so much space I did not have. I brought it to school and placed it on my bookshelf. The book sits there, fat and green, a reminder of a few weeks spent in a city that wasn’t mine. I still go to smell the pages at times, but I can’t bring myself to read it.
The alarms had started going off Sunday morning, but it took me until Monday evening to realize that I was the only one hearing them. I casually mentioned it to Keith as we were eating lunch on Monday. Those days, Keith worked as a telemarketer downtown in a tall glassy building with so many stories that if you looked up and tried to count them all, your eyes got blurry and stingy from looking into the sun for too long, and you had to look away. I usually packed a lunch for Keith to take into work, or on the occasion that I was too busy in the morning to get it done, he’d grab something to eat at a local shop, but that day he had called to tell me that he was going to come home for lunch. We were sitting across from each other at the dining room table, and Keith was chewing on a mouthful of something I had pulled out of the freezer to defrost earlier that morning. Keith had only been home for about fifteen minutes, and he was only a half dozen of bites into his lunch, but he had already begun to rehash his most recent irritation with the office management.
“I mean, Sarah, it’s just so ridiculous, you wouldn’t believe it. There’s no way they keep it at that temperature by accident. It’s the worst kind of feeling. It’s warm enough that I get nervous about leaving sweat stains on my jacket, but as soon as I take it off, I get chilly. I’m telling you, the other day I got goosebumps! I mean, real goosebumps, in September, while inside. I really don’t know how they expect us to make calls in conditions like that, I really don’t.” Keith stopped talking in order to scoop up a couple more mouthfuls of lunch, and I watched him from across the table as he chewed.
During my childhood, I had never understood how my own mother could spend the entire afternoon cooking for my father, and then, when he arrived home hungry from work, she would bring him a plate of dinner to the dining room, and sit across from him, still wearing her apron, and just watch him eat. And before I moved in with Keith, and even for some years after I had, I thought that this was the kind of thing that epitomized the patriarchy. It wasn’t enough that she dedicated a big chunk of her day to preparing this meal for him, but then to sit there and watch him eat, to have to listen to his little critiques about the way that she had seasoned the meat or cooked the vegetables seemed nothing short of humiliating to me. I don’t think this anymore. I have come to understand that feeding someone and watching has its own subtle kind of power.
Keith had begun to speak again, detailing his plan to create a petition demanding that he and his colleagues be allowed control of the thermostats, but I had stopped listening almost entirely, instead focusing on the ringing that seemed to be resonating throughout the entire dining room. I think that I interrupted him mid-sentence.
“That car alarm sure is giving me a headache. I wonder if it would be rude to go over and ask the neighbors if they could turn it off,” I said.
“Hmm?” Keith paused mid-chew and gave me a funny look. He had some lunch smeared on the side of his mouth.
“You hear it, right?” I said, motioning towards the windows that faced the street, “the car alarm, the one that’s been going off since yesterday morning.” Keith’s fork hit his plate with a tinny clang.
“Sarah, honey, what are you talking about? I can’t hear a thing.” He stared at me for a moment or so, tilting his head to the side a little, making himself look like a confused dog, but he soon broke eye contact and pushed his chair back to stand. “I really should get back to the office. I want to get a draft of this petition out to all of the callers on the floor by the end of the day to see what our numbers look like. It’s too soon to say, but I think we’ve got a real shot at elevating this issue, maybe even getting some people from senior management involved.”
He walked back to the kitchen, and I could hear his dirty plate being set down on the counter. I closed my eyes and laid my face down on the red and white checkered tablecloth. The usual tablecloth was a simple white linen, but a few days earlier, a mysterious brown stain, about the size of the palm of my hand, had appeared right in the middle of it, and despite my best efforts, which included consulting my own mother about her prized stain removal techniques, the stain’s stubbornness prevailed, and I had to throw out the tablecloth and order a new one. I had spent the days since filled with irritation towards the red and white gingham tablecloth. It wasn’t even really meant to be used indoors. It had that plasticy, water-wicking seal that indicated it was really a picnic blanket, and besides, it looked so loud and ugly in the dining room. But the cool plastic provided a little comfort to my pulsing forehead, and I was grateful for it. I didn’t know what to make of Keith’s response though. The alarms were so loud that I was having trouble focusing on anything else. How was it possible that Keith couldn’t hear them at all?
Keith walked back into the dining room, stopping at my side and resting his hand on my slumped shoulder. “Sarah, honey, you don’t have to get yourself so worked up. It’s probably just a migraine. Why don’t you go back to the bedroom and get some rest? I’m sure we have Tylenol in the medicine cabinet, but I can pick you up something stronger from the drugstore later if you want.” I didn’t reply though, and Keith sighed and gave my shoulder a squeeze before walking towards the front door. When I finally looked up, I saw him grabbing his jacket off of the coat hanger. “See you tonight, okay?” He called out before he left, “Have fun with Alice at dance.”
Keith was right about one thing though, the ringing wasn’t from a neighbor’s car alarm, because as I drove out of our cul-de-sac and towards Alice’s school in the late afternoon, the ringing only grew louder. Those days, Alice went to one of those magnet art schools that had a ridiculous amount of performances and recitals and concerts that parents had to volunteer at. The real kicker though was that the school was located on the other side of town, a forty-five-minute drive in rush-hour traffic.
Alice was waiting for me outside the school gates when I pulled in. It was mid-September then and the air was already starting to get cool in the evenings, but Alice wasn’t even wearing a sweater over her collared uniform top. That morning, she made me French braid her hair three times before finally agreeing that it was adequate, and even after a full day of elementary school, her hair looked immaculate. She had taken her pink polka dot backpack off of her shoulders, and it rested on the sidewalk by her feet. I remember that her little arms were crossed over her chest, posed like that to show me that she was irritated, and I did feel some weird sense of uneasiness seeing her like that, but Alice was so small, even compared to children her own age, and her pose was more cute than intimidating, so it wasn’t that I was actually worried about whatever wrath she was about to bring down on me. I think that my sense of discomfort more came from the pose in and of itself. How had she perfected this disapproving motherly persona already?
Alice used both hands to slide open the minivan door. She climbed into her booster seat and started to pull the seat belt over her chest.
“Mom, you’re seven minutes and twenty-three seconds late today.” Alice thrust her Hello Kitty watch clad wrist towards me, offering up proof of my tardiness. In the rearview mirror, I saw her push her bottom lip out into a pout.
“I’m sorry, Alice, honey. I was just a little distracted today.”
“I really can’t be late to rehearsal again.” She told me. “According to The Ultimate Guide to Becoming a Professional Prima Ballerina, punctuality is key.” She pulled the thick, pink book out of her backpack and held it up to my face, shaking it a little bit for emphasis. I had purchased it for Alice almost two years ago, but it still looked in perfect condition. She never ate or drank around the book, and she took extra care to never wrinkle or doggy-ear any of the pages. She had even spent three months worth of allowance on purchasing a stain-proof, clear cover. It was her bible.
Before I shifted the car into drive, I turned around to face her.
“Alice, are you guys having a fire drill?” She looked up from rereading the chapter on the twenty-two different ways to tie the ribbons on pointe shoes.
“No, Mom.” She squinted her eyes like she wasn’t quite sure what I was getting at. “You can always tell when there’s a fire drill because they have the alarms go off,” she explained to me. “They’re really loud,” she added. I nodded, turned back around, and rolled out of the school’s driveway.
For over five years now, Alice has danced downtown, at the same studio I used to dance at, almost 15 years ago now. The studio is where I met Keith. Keith’s father was on the board of directors for the studio, so Keith was always hanging around. He would sit on the reception desk, untied sneakers dangling in the air, and blow bright pink bubble gum bubbles. He liked to stay in the lobby so that he could wave at the girls as they walked into the studio. By the time I turned 16, I was moved up to the senior company and Keith would wait for me after late rehearsals and walk me across the dark parking lot to my car, always offering to carry my dance bag for me. That December, I remember looking up to see him watching me from the windows as I pirouetted my way into being a swing for the lead in the holiday show for the third year in a row. Six months later, I began to skip late classes to meet Keith in the alley adjacent to the studio, his sweaty teenage boy hands pulling down the spaghetti straps of my leotard as we kissed.
When Alice and I walked through the studio doors, Katie and Becca, a couple of the other moms, were already waiting in the lobby. Katie had her elbows propped up on the reception desk, and she was yapping about her day to Becca, but I could tell by the way her eyes occasionally flitted around the room, glancing at the other waiting parents, and by how unnecessarily loud she was talking, that she hoped other people were listening too. Katie used to work three days a week as an art appreciation teacher at a local elementary school, and for a period of time, she had acted like it was her only personality trait. She had always talked about how rewarding it was for her, how she was learning so much from her students, and how she was becoming such a better person.
“Oh, Sarah! Over here!” Katie flagged me down from across the lobby when she saw me walk in. “We were beginning to think that you weren’t coming.” Next to her, Becca nodded so vigorously that the pom poms on her sweater bobbed up and down.
“We just got a little caught up at school, that’s all.”
“Oh, Sarah, I completely understand. I know how hectic it can get at school during pick-up time. I’m a teacher myself, after all,” Katie said, smiling. “Come on, we were about to head up to the observation deck.” The observation deck was a room with floor to ceiling windows above the rehearsal studios that let us watch the girls as they danced. The three of us walked up the stairs, and we settled into the benches to watch our daughters as they warmed up.
Of the girls in that class, Alice was easily the most talented, and even then, all of the other mothers knew it. You could tell by the way they watched class. They always tried to keep their attention on their own children, but inevitably, when the girls moved away from the barre and started their center exercises, all eyes shifted to Alice. Those days, Alice was just starting to get noticed by people who mattered in the dance world, and I still thought that I could glean some kind of shared glory from Alice’s talent, that we were a team, a neat little unit of two, and that the glow of her perfection could encompass me too, but now I’m not so sure. Alice’s success awakened some weird, relentless tug of war dynamic in me: sometimes, I feel this uncontainable pride, but other times, I’m filled with a wild jealousy that makes me want to sneak into Alice’s bedroom while she’s sleeping and break her baby ballerina legs in two.
I turned from my place on the bench to face Katie and Becca.
“Did someone accidentally leave through the emergency exit earlier?” I asked them. “It sounds like the alarms are coming from the back of the studio.” Katie and Becca looked up from watching class to stare at me.
“I don’t hear any alarms, Sarah,” Katie said, scrunching up her forehead in confusion. Beside her, Becca frowned.
“Have you been stressed out lately?” Becca asked. “I’ve heard that you can start hearing noises when you don’t relax enough.” She told me.
“You know what, you should try yoga. I go to a place not too far from here, and the experience has just been so transformative. It’s great for stress relief.” Katie piped up.
“Or a juice cleanse!” Becca exclaimed. “I’ve heard those really clear all of the toxins out of your body. You’ll be as good as new.” I opened my mouth to respond, but Katie reached over to put her hand on my shoulder. “Don’t worry so much Sarah.” She said, “You just need to get out of your head.”
That day, after Alice’s class, she dragged me back up to the observation deck to watch the senior company rehearse. Alice splayed her hands on the window, pressing her little nose up so close that her breath appeared on the glass. She walked alongside the windows, keeping step with the dancers as they crossed the floor, her baby eyes stretched wide. She mimicked the girls below, each of her movements showcasing her natural gracefulness. Through the glass, it was difficult to make out exactly what was being said, everything came back with a sort of distorted warble, but I’m sure I could hear the harsh edge of the teacher’s tone each time she snapped at one of the dancers for poor posture or sloppy technique. And when I looked closely, I could see the girls wince as their instructor hurled these insults at them. I remember how bad I felt for them. They looked so stressed, each of their foreheads wrinkled in concentration. And as I continued to watch them dance, I could almost remember my own pain from my days as a member of the senior company, all of the broken blisters and bloody feet, the constant corrections from the teachers, the resounding feeling of defeat after not being chosen in an audition. Thinking about it then almost made me have to turn away from the windows, but when I looked at Alice, she seemed so enthralled, as if she didn’t even notice their pain. Her baby eyes held nothing but wonder and admiration.
Halfway through the senior company’s rehearsal, I had to pull her away from the windows to go home, and as we walked across the dark parking lot to our car, Alice kept looking up at me, her face a glowy orange in the parking lot lights. She had a searching look in her eyes as she scanned me, but I couldn’t figure out what she was looking for.
When we got home, after hanging up her backpack and placing her folded sweater on the bench in the foyer, Alice grabbed my hand and tugged me towards her basement dance studio. When Alice started getting serious about the whole ballerina thing, Keith’s brother converted a section of our basement into a rehearsal space, complete with a full mirrored wall and a ballet barre. It was where Alice spent all of her free time after school and on the weekends.
I had always known that Alice was talented, I had enough experience as a dancer to be able to recognize that, but the thing that was really impressive about Alice was that anyone could tell that she knew what she was doing. When Alice was younger, during her winter and summer holidays, she and I would occasionally join Keith for lunch downtown. We’d get there early and sit on the edge of the fountain in the big business pavilion where Keith’s building was. As we waited for him to come down from his desk on the 33rd floor and find us, Alice would begin to get fidgety. First she would stand, pacing in little circles near me, and then she would start to jump a bit, as if she were playing her own imaginary game of hopscotch. Alice didn’t continue this habit for long (she soon grew so obsessive about protecting her feet that there was no way she would even walk barefoot on concrete), but those days, she’d take off her shoes and dance, right there, in the big open pavilion. She used to have an exceptional liking for grand jetes, and people would always stop and watch, I’m talking people who knew nothing about ballet: middle-aged business men on their lunch breaks, hot dog cart operators, au pairs pushing strollers of toddlers towards the park. It really didn’t seem to matter. Everybody would come to a stand still and stare as Alice leaped over neatly manicured seasonal shrubs. It was so apparent that she knew exactly what she was doing. It was impossible to not want to witness it.
When Alice finally let me leave the basement and I walked upstairs to the living room, I saw Keith slumped on the couch, his khakis rolled up and his bare feet resting on the ottoman. He was watching a recording of the football game from the previous night, and his pale face was washed in bright TV light. Keith only liked to watch the game a day late, after he had a chance to see the highlight reel and read the online synopsis. He used to say that watching live was too much excitement for him. I sat beside him and leaned my head back against the couch cushion.
“Are you still hearing the ringing?” He asked, not looking away from the TV. The sound of the alarms had grown so loud by then and they had been ringing for so long that I don’t think I would have been able to tell if they had stopped.
I smiled up at him.
“You were right.” I said, “It was just a migraine.”
In the Studio, Maybe Magic Occurs
As I stand amongst my paintings with my socks that have a hole in them, I wonder how this will end – both the paintings and this friendship. Will we be able to hug? Will we be able to kiss? Will I feel your hand on my bare back after I take off my shirt and paint “naked” like I was told was better? Will the sawdust from your woodwork get in my nose, eyes, mouth, full of you. I wonder too much and not enough. I wonder if you like me, even a little. I wonder if this will end in flames like it always does. Will you ever see me like this? Like the people I paint and you call amazing, like the day you called me stunning and I almost cried. I don’t know why. I think… I think because we’re so similar, but more than that – I think because you get me. You get the way family sucks, the ways our moms make it up to us through small gifts. The ways we fought our siblings in a fury. The way we don’t talk about our dads, except I brought him up today and I felt fine, because I trust you. I feel dumb for that, but I can’t really explain it. This feels different. Everyone has mentioned that. It feels different: I don’t think you’re less cute with different hair, your talent is unparalleled, I like the way you lean against the table to talk to me, lie on the floor with me, make me feel better. I don’t believe people are meant to make us feel better, but it works and I won’t argue that you help. When these paintings are done, maybe I’ll say something. Maybe the night before the gallery, twenty-two days before we graduate, maybe I’ll have the courage to tell you. My professor, Tavi, always says this is courageous, to write about my feelings, to be vulnerable. I want to be vulnerable with you. I want to be with you, in a way I don’t think I ever would have thought. I want to believe things will change, because patterns can be broken. I believe in the darkness having a light somewhere, and I want that for us.
But I value this friendship too much to ruin it. And I guess that’s all there is to it.