Transmuted

He caught convo snatches as they rode the red line: her on the phone with a friend, or so he hoped, every day, and him on his home screen, catching her reflection on the glass past carved-in gang signs, telling himself his good intentions made him not a creep. Her hair was a fireworks show blooming from the bottom of her winter hat: sparks of orange and red and green and blue. Her hair was: trouble. The way her tongue cupped her top teeth when she smiled was: trouble. Her catching him staring and the way she’d puff out her cheeks, cross her eyes was: trouble. She started leaving things behind–newspapers at first, magazines, library books. As the season wore on, resorting to gloves. Scarves. He collected them all till he had the courage, getting off one day, at her stop, a backpack filled with her things and a phone she could put her number into.

A storming of the city, block by block, their siege overtaking record shops, dusty bookstores, alleys where Banksy left his mark. Boots plodding through Icee slush, steam claiming glasses as they’d huddle in museums for warmth. Love like a statement against the bastard that time can be, the old friend it can become. Catching seagulls as they’d perch on the periscope of a half-sunken ship, through the lens, on vacation somewhere all the pictures seem photoshopped. Snapping shots of fanny packs, opened guide books, leashed children. Plans made in half-whisper, under sheets, faint light of daybreak making it through. That there are moments woven into the fabric of a universal destiny.

Je mange une baguette avec beurre, yelled through the bathroom door: shared lessons. Learning how to hold a saber. Throwing tomatoes at a Renaissance Faire cast member. Games played multiplayer on the couch till the sun came in and they’d need blackout curtains to get to sleep. Backpacks overloaded, marching over English highlands, fog erasing horizon, practicing British accents on grazing cows. Graduating, and the world like a childhood gumball, endlessly turned over and chewed.

Sleeping on the floor, cornflakes in Solo cups, reading by el train light, marathoning some show on stolen Wi-Fi. Meeting in the morning and night, scooting past each other to brush teeth, to ease blankets out from under cold bodies. Reading self-help. Eating Halloween candy. Laughing too loud at texts from other people. Swiping through their feeds.

A lesson in thermodynamics: cold isn’t something intrinsic, of itself. It’s the absence of something else. Of heat. The inevitable endpoint of our sun. Of all stars. Energy always transmuted into something else. Always repurposed.

Of standing in an empty field, not Instagramming, not Snapchatting, not sketching, not talking. Of inhaling snowflakes and trekking over permafrost, kicking at the snow to get through to grass but finding only more snow, dirt beneath that. Of digging with his hands, taking gloves off to feel the earth under his nails, absence of heat spider-webbing through his fingers. Of going back home and finding half the apartment amputated. Half surgically removed.

Of whole days sleeping. Of whole days sketching. Of eating and drinking because these are things he needed to do. Of covering walls in paint and giving away what he didn’t need.

Of going to the museum and looking at what came before. At sketching all he saw. Of studying brushstroke and style and application. Of taking notes. Of looking down the bench he sat on. Of seeing a woman as she saw him, and the way her eyes caught his, only briefly, blink-and-you’d-miss-it, before she looked away.

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Before Thought Comes

They could see the lake shimmering a mirage of far below moon out the window of the common room on the locked ward. On their plates filets of chicken, perfect domes of rice, salads with halved cherry tomatoes, salt and condiments on the side. Dwayne was a street man, twenty years, collecting meals like these when he was too tired of the cold, of the bottles he’d empty and let roll down the floorboards of the foreclosed he found that night: an empty rolling down an empty. Of nights crawling into windowless rooms so police flashlights wouldn’t find him, boots clacking mud on stoops as they rattled door knobs. And Elyse, still in the gown they gave her, blue eyes going gray but still piercing, trailing now over Scrabble letters not yet placed, on her wrist the watch she wore when it happened, hands ticking nothing, its face half gone from where it made contact with pavement, stuck forever on 2:32, and the way her words came out in a whisper, lips pursed after her story, of what they did to her, nodding and looking back to the letters, tallying her score on the backside of a sheet on coping mechanisms, the pencil short enough to be deemed safe for use. The way they’d sit at the heads of the table at mealtime like some rich couple, cold and distant, and the kids just passing through, ODing on heroin or sleeping pills or memories, they’d populate the side seats, so young these kids, thinking their lives were over at 23, withdrawing hands shaking as they’d drain milks like the ones you’d get in grade school, the juices they’d trade for the milks, cups of ice they’d chew just to have something to focus on, something tactile and real. Or the pre-packaged pumpkin pie they’d pass at Thanksgiving, and filling out the next day’s menu “just in case,” those three words a gentle way of saying you’re not ready yet, Dwayne and Elyse past even this formality, just being handed the things instead, memorizing the entrees, side options, both of them circling the same thing, like the birds outside, out the window, orbiting the park bench where the man drops the bread, every morning, at 8:40, and the way Dwayne and Elyse will prolong their breakfasts, never speaking, just to see this man again, the passing-through kids always rushing off to group, or their rooms, or shaving in the hallway, supervised. Practicing what they’ll tell the doctor, reciting, writing it down so he’ll see they must be let go, Elyse dictating to Dwayne when her hand shakes too bad to write, Dwayne’s coffee bean eyes steamed over, seeing loopy alphabeticals on dashed paper, learning to start his letters from the bottom up, to build on what he put down before. Taking their pages to the trash, confettied and clinging to plastic lining, bits of words only, Elyse coughing out a laugh when Dwayne does this, taking off her watch, tossing it in with the paper, then her socks, and his, and their clothes, and sprawling out on the table in the common room, fingers on bodies as the mirage of far below moon comes in, before the RNs notice, before the doctor’s called, before thought comes and clings too deeply to the moment.

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What They Say

They say she was born in the mossy overgrowth of a cabin given to the elements, during the monsoon season so the tide was way up when she came into the world: a blanket of water not yet tucked in. They say she muddied walls into murals and sang so the birds couldn’t tell if she was one of their own or not. They say her pulse traveled the lines of the vines and hummed on the roots so even the burrowing beetles knew the way she was feeling. They say she sharpened sticks with her teeth and set fire to what she spat. They say she never hunted, but cooed the animals to the traps, that she pet their furs into muddy clumps as they cried and let out breath. They say she leapt from cliffs without a sound and entered the water in silence too, like a call and response that was all in your head. They say she broke the bones into shards of dust and projected them into the night, when the wolves were out but not quite howling, only half-crying so she wouldn’t find them. They say she’s the vein in every leaf and the slush that gathers in the toes of your boots; the chill that the fire can’t banish. They say she collapsed trains to their sides like wounded horses, wheels blinking light into her eyes as they spun and her bare feet eased themselves into dirt; the way her teeth shaped the night.

They say the day she found him in the ditch the sun didn’t rise for fear of blinding her; she collected him onto her shoulders and glided through filmy water so his arm trailing waking waves looked to be connected to its underworld self, and she had no reflection to speak of. They say she fed him sweet seeds and burrs that stuck in his stomach for years till his body eclipsed hers, the nest she crafted for him. They say she let his blood into the water, on the rocks she brought for him, shaped to hearts. They say they took turns splintering the rocks for fire, first him then her. They say the rain dipped low to grass and swam away back and past clouds, thunder erasing itself and putting something else in its place. They say the night blanketed them for forty years or more, with the stars inside winking away and the rumble of the ground coming from everywhere, till the roar was all you could hear. They say when the day finally broke neither of them could be found, only felt, in the way you might dip toes into water, distorted under there, larger, and the way water makes you feel bigger than yourself. Like a soul’s puppet made real.

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