Living in De Wallen

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I’d been riding out the acid I took earlier that day, taking in the swirls and swoops of the waters of the Amstel, still reeling from van Gogh’s “Wheatfield with Crows,” which I’d only just seen in person for the first time that day. I’d left my first wife the week before, moved into a hotel in De Wallen with nothing more than a suitcase, and had been tripping pretty much constantly since that moment.

I didn’t plan on it, but I ended up sitting in that museum for five hours or more, staring only at “Wheatfield with Crows,” weeping and trying to cover up my tears so I wouldn’t get kicked out. I’d been kicked out before, and had had to cycle through disguises to keep them off my back. I couldn’t tell if I was weeping because of the painting or because of the fact that I’d just left my wife, was living out of a hotel, and had been riding out a bad trip that seemed like it would last forever. Maybe both. But that’s what I did, until the museum closed, and I was left to my own devices, wandering the streets of my hometown, my melancholy Amsterdam.

I think subconsciously I knew I was going to break up with her then, because I hadn’t taken acid in a while, eliminating my tolerance without consciously planning to, getting myself ready to be fucked up by the acid and the swirls of the Amstel and those fucking crows that were forever flying on a piece of canvas that had been attacked by strokes of paint by a guy perhaps more fucked up than I, or at the very least a whole hell of a lot more talented. I shamelessly cribbed his ideas for the majority of my early work, anyway. Only found my own vision after everything fell apart. It’s funny how things work out like that.

The way the streetlights shone against the nighttime water of the Amstel, I might as well have been looking into a sky below me. I bared my feet slowly, first removing my laces, tossing those into the water, then each shoe. In my mind, I was letting these things go, the same way I dropped my key in my wife’s hand, most of my belongings in the trash. Everyone was about Zen and minimalism back then, so I was able to frame it that way in my mind. If it was my choice, then it wasn’t sad.

Drizzle collected in a sheet on the pavement, and that collected on my bare feet when I eventually left the shores of the Amstel and went walking, collecting stares from those who assumed that I was homeless. They weren’t too far off the mark, but I found myself offended anyway. When they really annoyed me, I pretended to be assailed by voices telling me to kill and maim, shouting at them to leave me alone. Their faces when I said these things were priceless.

The local cinema had a midnight showing of Eraserhead for only a couple of guilders, so I went and saw it for the first time like that, still tripping, somehow getting past the staff without them noticing my lack of shoes. Maybe they noticed and didn’t care. I find that more likely. The film’s industrial soundscape seemed to come from everywhere. The smoke, and the shadows, and the iconic shape of Henry’s hair seared into my brain for future recall. The terrifying family dinner, the hideous mutant child, the deformed lady in the radiator. I let it all wash over me as my still chilly feet gently warmed in the cinema’s heat.

When the film finished, I walked slowly back to the hotel that was now my home, imagining that every wisp of smoke was an effect that David Lynch had meticulously planned. A street corner poet was roomed across the hall from me in the hotel, and he gave me a pair of shoes when I told him what had happened to mine. When I asked him why he had an extra pair, he said for situations like these. He brought out his Smith Corona and clacked at the keys while I painted, both of us trying to approximate my experience that night as I explained it to him. This was prime time for him to be out on the streets, typing up poems to pay for his room that night. But he had some extra cash to spare, and he could sense that I needed the company. So he wrote and I painted, talking about the movie, the Amstel, the crows, the barefoot walk, anything but what was really on my mind. The time to talk would come later. But right then, right at that moment, I needed to paint. And so I did.

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Dangerous Indeed

It started with us slow dancing to “Syrup” by Company of Thieves on your fuzzy rug, my feet bare and yours wearing socks with cute skulls on them. Our steps were as tentative as our hands, not quite sure where to place them. Your hair hung in front of your eyes as you looked down to check where your feet were going, and when you looked back up, your eyes caught mine right as Genevieve crooned, “Your love syrup, so sweet, I feel dangerous indeed.”

It felt like we were teenagers again, flirting, laying our words like playful traps and seeing what we’d catch. I hadn’t done this in years, and neither had you. It’s amazing what you can get used to: the monotony of stale love, the painful acceptance that things will never change. But then they did, and we did, and it was awesome.

We were both veterans of abuse and mistreatment, and we agreed that that sort of stuff builds character, but between us we had enough character to last several lifetimes. It was time to just be happy. Every story needs drama, but sometimes that drama needs to be kept safely in the past. So we danced. YouTube’s autoplay algorithm was on point that night, moving seamlessly from one sweet song to the next. After a while it didn’t matter, though. We could’ve danced to anything.

When that was through, we went for a night walk, sky clear and stars shining through. I joked about how back home in Chicago I could hardly see anything because of the light pollution, that you should count yourself lucky you live in North Carolina where the stars are plentiful. We flirted some more as we walked, and I did that thing where I pretended to softly karate chop you. I did it just to have an excuse to touch you, and you knew that. You karate chopped back.

It’s all about timing with these things. You’d just gotten out of a toxic relationship, and I knew you were in no position to commit to anything right away. We danced with our words, too. You needed someone who could accept you “as you are” and do simple things with you like “go on night walks.” I insisted that there was “someone just like that out there” and that “they might be right there in front of you and you don’t even know it.” You needed time, and I was willing to give it to you. You were worth the wait.

Before “Syrup” became our song, I’d listen to it again and again, seeing you in that relationship that was draining the life out of you. I’d wince every time it got to the end of the song, when Genevieve would lament that “it’s a damn shame we couldn’t be.” But dancing with you to that song for the first time, I couldn’t help but smile at those words, almost laugh at them. We were dangerous indeed.

When you needed support, I gave it to you. When you needed to hear that you could do it, I told you you would do it. My words weren’t empty, and you knew that. Years back, I’d been through the same thing, and I’d made it to the other side. And the dances continued, and the karate chops, and the night walks with stars that shifted their position in the sky as the days and weeks passed by.

There’s something to be said for letting something bloom. For watering it, giving it sun, singing to it, and watching it go from nothing to something. Something to be said for letting things take their natural course, for trusting the flow of things. The flow of people, and events, and affection. It flows like syrup, so sweet.

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Open Arms

If you’d have told me two years ago as I was staring at my open arms, open from where I’d cut them, as I was bleeding to death, that two years later I’d be happy, I’d tell you you were a fucking idiot. But you’d be right.

They told me later that if it weren’t for the ice cold water that I jumped into after doing what I did, I would’ve died. That it slowed the blood flow. It was a quick fall from the bridge: first air, then green-blue, almost black. Pure cold. I wonder to this day if I subconsciously did it on purpose. That maybe I’d heard about cold water stopping bleeding before, and had kept that as my backup plan if I decided I actually wanted to live.

There was my body, thrashing in the water, fighting to stay afloat with arms tired from blood loss. There was my blood, already staining my winter jacket, coloring my jeans, dispersing slowly into the Chicago River. There was my baptism, removed from my first baptism by twenty years and some change, but probably representing death and rebirth better than the first one. What could you need to be reborn from as an infant anyway? Original sin always reeked of bullshit to me.

After the rescue, after the ambulance ride, after the placement in the psych ward and the tearful visits from friends and family, I lay supine on my bed, let the clear light come in, and flipped open the David Foster Wallace novel that my friend gave me. The irony of being gifted a book that was written by someone who committed suicide after myself attempting suicide was not lost on me. I read about being a hero of inaction. Of not doing something grand and large, but instead simply not doing the wrong thing. Of making small and unsexy sacrifices each and every day for the good of others. Of putting a box around this day, this hour if you need to. I remember just looking at the cover for what seemed like hours, those perfect white clouds in an untouched blue sky, the title a seeming impossibility. Can anyone really ever reach infinite jest anyway?

I was in a toxic relationship, my job was shit, and I knew I needed a fresh start. So I left the relationship, quit my job, and moved halfway across the country. Every day felt like I was trapped at the bottom of a pitch-black well. The Frankenstein stitches came out of my arms, the wounds healed, days went by, but I couldn’t find a way out of the well. I tried to drink my way out of it, fuck my way out of it, but nothing really helped.

So I wrote. Wrote shit like this, fictionalized just enough so I could work up the nerve to put it out there. If you can slap that “fiction” label onto it, it’s almost as if it didn’t happen to you, no matter how true to life it is. I published. Got brought on as an editor of an online litmag. Reviewed other litmags for a major publication.

The well was still just as deep, but light was starting to seep in.

I went to bars. Going to bars was never my thing, but I assumed that that’s what you were supposed to do in that kind of situation. I met people. Slept with people. Got over that awkward guilt that comes with sleeping with someone new after getting out of a longterm relationship and being accustomed to sleeping with only one person for years. Was reminded of the grand diversity in bodies in the world, the grand diversity in ways to please those bodies. Wrote poems for women I hooked up with when they asked, turned men who reclined on my bed into characters in my stories.

I assembled some of my stories, realized that I was writing a novel without even knowing it. Had enough material for 30 pages, then took over from there. Wrote every day. Covered everything. Growing up poor. Getting bullied. Surviving sexual abuse and not knowing how to express that as a young boy. The works. Even covered that cold day with open arms, the freezing water that kept me alive.

So I don’t know when it happened. It wasn’t an overnight thing, that’s for sure. But one day, while taking inventory of my life and its debits and credits, I realized that I was happy. Things weren’t perfect. There were still plenty of improvements to be made. But I was happy. Content. Comfortable in my own body, my own head.

The book’s publication was nothing more than the cherry on top, believe it or not. It was the light beyond the well’s top, after I’d climbed my way out over the course of two years, fingers bloody and aching. I took my copy outside and sat on my porch, let the clear light come in, and looked at the cover, at my own name written on it. And then I looked at my arms, no longer open, scars faded. I closed my eyes, opened them again. Breathed. Felt the book’s cover between my fingers and turned to page one.

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Never Had a Home

I don’t know how to tell you I never had a home. We had houses–almost more than I could count, moving from one to the next, but no home. When people asked if my dad was in the military, I eventually just said yes, because that was easier than saying we got evicted again. Never having a friend for longer than six months, parents hanging up phones that I’d stay silent on, trying to think of something to say to the friends I left behind. They wanted me to leave it all, friends included. No reminders of the past.

I got it down to a science. Would get in a big fight with whoever picked on me first, blacken their eyes and bust their lip so I’d be left alone till we inevitably had to move again. Mom would work at gas stations or dollar stores, whatever she could hold down. Dad worked here and there as a driver, which gave him the idea that he could drive home after getting plastered at the bar on his days off. But if you pull the trigger enough times in Russian Roulette, you’re bound to find a bullet.

He went over a guardrail going 70. When the car came to rest at the bottom of the hill, it barely resembled a car. Let’s just say the ambulance didn’t exactly have to rush to the hospital.

After he died, my mom very quickly developed a chronic pain condition. The doctors had all sorts of reasons for it, but we all knew it was from heartbreak. Sometimes the emotional can become physical. She was prescribed painkillers, strong ones, but she never took them. Instead, she took to selling them when she was scheduled to work alone at the gas station, passing them to her customers along with their change. It was the only way she could keep us from being put out on the streets. She could’ve taken some and sold the rest, but she wanted to get the most money she could. She wanted me to be comfortable. So she suffered in great pain all day, every day. The logistics of managing a guilt that great are tricky, I can tell you. Having to sit by as a kid, helpless, as your mom cries in the bathroom, running the water in the hopes that you won’t be able to hear her, saying she was just freshening up when you ask.

Mom had a string of boyfriends, guys who by default went out in sleeveless shirts, made mountains of beer cans that would collect in the corners of the kitchen like some joke of an art installation. Years later, I’d do something similar at my first gallery feature: a pile of all the household items that can be used to destroy a life. Eventually, muttered insults would turn to shouts, and shouts would turn to pushes, and pushes would turn to punches. At 14, 15, 16, I didn’t have much chance of fighting them off of her, but I’d always try. Got a couple of black eyes that I’d cover up with mom’s concealer when she wasn’t around. I didn’t need Mom getting in trouble for something that wasn’t her fault.

I started reading, painting. I’d practice speaking into the mirror, refining the way I spoke. Saved up a summer’s worth of lawn mowing money and bought clothes that belied our poverty. A college roommate put it this way when I eventually let him in on my upbringing: “Man, I just thought you were some white dude from the suburbs.”

Here I am all these years later, settling in in Chicago, Wicker Park to be specific, standing in front of this gleaming white building that I’m meant to inhabit, meant to become the artistic director for this colony of artists. None of them have seen my eyes blackened, smelled the shirts I had to put on, day after day, when the washer would break and we had no money for repairs. They won’t know that I never had a home, and I’m not sure I’d be able to tell them even if I wanted to.

They say secrets keep you sick, but how bad can it be if I’ve been sick all my life? I’ve gotten used to it. So I’ll keep these stories close, hold them in so tight that they’ll never show. The best actors are the ones who don’t know who they really are. They disappear and reappear the way that they’re supposed to.

This will be the first city I’ve settled in my entire life. I have no plans to leave anytime soon, if ever, and it hits me that I don’t quite understand what this means. To plant my feet somewhere and call it home. Is that what this is? Maybe that’s what I’ll make it. And I’ll stay. Stay as long as I can. As long as the concealer stays on. As long as the new clothes hold up. As long as the smile can hide the pain.

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Here’s Waldo Monologue

Recently, I’ve been wanting to make some dramatic, character piece-type short films. Since they’ll be microbudget, chances are I’ll have to play the lead. So as practice, here’s me acting out a monologue from my novel Here’s Waldo. (It was so exciting to hear it out loud for the first time. 😂😂😂)

Vieve

View of the Flat Iron Arts Building from the Coyote Tower

Coming out of the suburbs and into the city felt, for him, like grabbing his passport and crossing the border. He came from a shitty suburb, sure, but the culture was night and day. So he’d take walks around the block when film classes would let out, listen in on cell phone conversations and jot down good dialogue for possible future use.

Crossing the streets became knuckles turning white, crushed between your mother’s hands as a small child, always told to look both ways. But then as now, he was making his messes, assuming that he could always clean them up later. Weeks of film school in this “foreign land” became episodes of a show he didn’t have the show bible for, no clear course to chart, no lines in the sand.

Other students in his classes obsessed over technique and form, but that all seemed like staring at the glass instead of looking through the window to him. There were more productive things that you could do. So he rented out a Bolex from the film cage, kept it out days after he was supposed to return it, and captured footage from all over the city. Met up with an artist colony in Wicker Park that had bought an entire building, were forming it into their own artistic micronation utopia.

Met an artist there: Vieve. A couple years older than him, she was a Columbia College dropout who worked in multimedia, emphasis on the “multi.” She was working on a project that started out as an autobiography but turned into visual/written alternate realities when reality could no longer keep up with the fiction. In one timeline, a claymation film, she was already married and had kids, the homemaker her parents always wanted her to be. Existing alongside this Vieve was one scripted in a series of short screenplays: the one who graduated, went off to grad school, and accepted a position as an art professor at a prestigious school. A series of miniature paintings you needed a magnifying glass to get the full detail of, paintings that told the story of a globetrotting vagabond who sold art for just enough to buy a plane ticket, then lived off of the generosity of others once she got wherever she was going.

All of that was just what he could see, in between classes and on his days off, when she was in her studio and would let him in while she worked. More than half of her work was under blankets, and no amount of coaxing on his part would make her budge.

The final project for his foundation film class was to shoot a short documentary, subject matter up to him. Naturally, he picked Vieve and her art. She was apprehensive at first, for two reasons. 1. She didn’t like being the focal point of anything. 2. He was shooting this for Columbia College, and there was still bad blood between her and that school. But she caved when she saw how interested he was, how he wasn’t going to be exploitative.

In the second week of pre-production, they kissed. It wasn’t planned at all. It was just one of those things. He’d been standing behind her while she demonstrated a mini Vieve robot she’d constructed from a bunch of junk, when she turned around to say something. Their faces in kissing distance, they both smiled, and she turned away again. She turned the robot on, let it skitter around the enclosure she’d made for it, and turned around again even though she didn’t have to. And that’s how they kissed. When the moment was over, they both turned back to the Vieve-bot and watched her scramble around, not quite knowing which way to go.

The thing about Vieve was that she didn’t want to name any of her pieces. So he’d go around naming them out loud, asking her what she thought of this one, or that one, and she’d just nod and say sure, turn to work on something else while he worried about naming everything. All of his projects started with a title, he’d tell her, something so he could understand where it was headed as he went along. That it gave shape to everything else. But she wouldn’t acquiesce. Everything remained untitled.

After a while, he just couldn’t find her. He’d knock on her locked studio, but she wouldn’t answer. The door’s window was covered up by a blanket, but it had already been like that before. Vieve liked her privacy. He came again and again, day after day, looking for her. He already had enough footage for his documentary, but that didn’t matter.

Weeks passed. He submitted the completed doc, got an A on it. It was hard watching Vieve as he edited, noticing every detail of her smile, the way her eyes wrinkled at the corners, proving that it was genuine. It was hard to hear the smokiness of her voice, how it could go from a whisper to warm excitement when she was explaining one of her pieces. More than any of it, he just felt like a rat in a maze.

He waited a couple more weeks before returning. But for some reason, he couldn’t go inside. So he stood out on the corner, looking at the building, his jacket collecting snowflakes. The snow haloed the light around him, and what was on the ground shushed cars as they drove quietly past. Who knows how long he was out there, silently waiting.

He could’ve sworn he saw her out there in the night, walking off down a long road, scarf coiled tightly around her face, but he couldn’t be sure.

He just couldn’t be sure.

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Karen

Either you were a civilian, or you were a veteran. There was no in between for Karen. Never knew where the next meal was coming from as a kid? Beer bottles made brown explosions on the wall during fights between M & D? Veteran. Got the crusts cut off from the lunches your mom made you every morning? Taken on annual summer vacations that you complained about for being “lame”? Civilian.

While most people would consider being adopted as qualifying you for veteran status, Karen felt like she still hadn’t earned it. So she started going on undercover missions. Did shit like mess up her hair, forego makeup, wear her crappiest clothes, and panhandle. On the missions when she was homeless like this, she’d talk with the actual homeless, level with them as one of their own. When her mission was complete, she’d divvy up her earnings amongst the people who actually needed it and head back home. When she did this enough times in her hometown, she’d take the Amtrak to other cities, other states, so as not to arouse suspicion.

She’d watched Titicut Follies. While she assumed that the treatment of those who’d found themselves in the psych ward had no doubt improved since then, she still needed to know what it was like. So she stopped at the 7-Eleven that was a block down from the nearest hospital and bought three of their strongest energy drinks. Chugged them, one after the other, to induce a “manic state.” Left her ID at home so they couldn’t alert M & D. It was during the summer, so Karen was even able to tell her parents that she’d be staying the week at a friend’s. Waited a half hour or so for the energy drinks to take effect. Figured it was time to check in once her vision got hazy and her heart felt like it was going to beat out of her chest.

She’d psyched herself up beforehand, thought she’d need to to make it convincing. Thing is, once she got into that reception area and the lights were too bright and she met the bland indifference of the receptionist and felt like she might pass out, she didn’t need to act. Could barely get out that she’d been having suicidal thoughts, constant panic attacks on top of that. And then she was made to wait, for how long she didn’t know. And then she was led to a concrete hole of a room, a room with nothing more than a metal slab that you were meant to lie on and a smattering of cameras. The kind with a door that locked once it closed.

For some reason, they put her in the wing that housed those who were prone to violence. At least, that’s what Karen assumed once she’d witnessed two fights within a half hour of being there. Most of the people in this wing had done things you’d usually be arrested for, but had done them in a way that freaked out the cops involved to the point where they didn’t want to deal with them. Stuff like resisting arrest by biting. Taking off their shirt before getting in a fight, then dropping their pants too. These people gave the rest of the patients a bad name, Karen decided.

Maybe she’d been placed there because of her high anxiety. Who knows. But they eventually realized their mistake and placed her in a wing with other suicidals, mostly quiet types who either ate too much at meals or not enough. Who had to excuse themselves from groups because of crying spells. Who stayed in bed for days at a time. Who sported thousand yard stares and took a few seconds to respond when you called their name.

These were people who would sit down next to you and strike up a convo if they sensed that you needed one. And that’s the funny thing about veterans of that kind of shit: They could always sense that you needed one. Once you’ve been to the depths and back, you become acutely aware of others’ internal states. Sensitive to their inner sufferings.

They kept her longer than anyone else. It wasn’t because she hammed it up or anything. She ditched the act after day four, but apparently they saw something that she didn’t and decided to keep her there longer.

It’s the silent moments you have to reflect that get to you. One after another, her new friends left, slipping her their number scrawled on the backs of group therapy schedules, scratched in with the nubs of pencils.

She was encouraged to share in group, and she did. She went in with a whole character bio and story ready, but all of that fell away after she made her friends. Making it all up didn’t seem right when they were letting everything out. So she talked. About finding out she was adopted as a kid. About collecting everything she could carry in a backpack and running away. About getting picked up by a cop and brought home three days later. About not being able to talk for another three days after that, memory wiped. All of it.

Karen left with a prescription for an SSRI she’d never take, a hospital wristband she’d keep in a lockbox with the numbers after she’d put them into her phone. They gave her fare for the bus, the card for a therapist who accepted Medicaid. She hadn’t planned on riding the bus till its final destination, but that’s what happened. She got off at the end, caught a bus going back home, and looked out the window. Watched the way that dusk played with the sky, purple segueing into black.

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Into the Labyrinth

tunnel

We wake and stretch and find ourselves together. Lula takes my pages and reads them before I can tell her not to, by buglight, and when she’s done she doesn’t say anything. She puts them away, stands, walks to the far wall, and says Jesus, even though I’m pretty sure she doesn’t believe. I’m pretending I’m more in a stupor than I actually am. She comes over. I get up and hand her a buglamp, grab one for myself too. She takes it and walks down the hallway, past the endless procession of identical concrete cube rooms, lightning bugs blinking spots on the wall to light the way. I reach her and touch her arm. I say:

“I’m sorry.”

“This is kind of like how it was underneath the Center. Maybe a little spookier, but pretty much the same.”

“The Center?”

“We had matches, though. All we could sneak in. The light would go out and you’d get your fingers burned if you weren’t careful. I always was, but some of the other girls weren’t.

“They’d sneak cigarettes because that’s the only way I’d let them come with me. I knew my way around underneath the Center and they didn’t. We called it the labyrinth. I called it that, anyway. I don’t know what they called it.

“Anyway, after a while I figured I’d smoke the cigs instead of using the matches since the matches always went out. Cigarettes lasted longer.

“They weren’t all cutters. I mean, I was, but some of them were like bulimic or anorexic or something like that. We had this doctor. Dr. Charon, and he’d lead us in what he liked to call Allegorical. He’d tell us to speak our Hurt in one word. He told us it was capital H Hurt. He had a bunch of weird games like that. I don’t think any of it helped. I remember one day he asked for my one word and I just left and went under the Center, into the labyrinth, and I smoked my cig, and pulled out the bobby pin I took from one of the RNs and sharpened it on the concrete and started stabbing it into my ankle. I had thick socks that hid the blood, is why I chose the ankle. In case you’re wondering.

“Anyway, I made like little constellations with the pin, in my ankle. No one knew about it. I’d come up and Charon wouldn’t ask. Just welcomed me back into the group.

“The other girls always talked about boy problems, friends who were dicks to them, that kind of shit. I was there ‘cause my mom had cancer and so I cut myself. There were other reasons, but that was mostly it.

“Anyway, when I’d feel really shitty there was this one girl. Liza. We were roommates. She was there because when she was four and five and six her dad molested her. Had her wear dresses and sit on his lap when her mom wasn’t home and would have to adjust her clothes for her, under her dress. She told me all of this. Well it went on for a few years and then just stopped. For a little while after that she could be a normal kid. Or about as normal as you can be after something like that. Her dad drank for a while, then didn’t, then drank again. Her mom wouldn’t leave him alone with her. She never said anything about it, but she didn’t have to. Liza’s words, mind you. So anyway, it was okay for a few years. Until Liza started developing. Keep in mind, when I knew her she was gorgeous. Liza would never admit it, of course. She’d say she just looked normal. I knew her when I was fourteen and she was fifteen. She started developing around twelve or so. Becoming a woman and all that. Meanwhile her mom and dad’s marriage was pretty much nonexistent. Her dad would ‘work late’ till like ten p.m. At first he’d call and say he’d be late. Then the calls dropped off. Then he didn’t even bother giving excuses. So her mom started ‘working late’ too.

“Anyway, eventually Liza’s mom was out more than her dad was, and she was developing, and he started hanging around the house, after work, reeking of booze. Started conveniently doing the laundry across the hall when Liza was in the shower. Their bathroom door had one of those old timey keyholes you could peek through if you wanted to. When Liza realized this, it’d already been like weeks of this going on, but then she started hanging her towel over the knob to cover up the hole.

“So then her dad said she couldn’t lock the door anymore. Said it was a fire hazard, or that she could pass out, and what would he do then, just let his own daughter die? She left it unlocked.

“She was thirteen the first time her father raped her. Thirteen and in the shower and singing some song by Christina Aguilera and he pushed her against the wall. Stopped her singing. Left the shower running. Got his clothes all wet. And she grabbed at the curtain and pulled half of it down but he wouldn’t stop.

“This went on for a year. Like clockwork. When Liza locked the door, he busted the door open. Fixed the lock before her mom got home. When she stopped showering he went into her room at night and did it while she was sleeping. Woke her up. When she locked her bedroom door he jimmied it open with a screwdriver.

“It got so death was preferable to life. She fantasized about killing herself. Tried a few times. Or at least said she tried. I think that fighter part of her refused to let her do it. No matter how bad it got. Finally, it was either she’d die or she’d tell someone. She was resourceful. She found a hotline. Told them everything. Gave the cops the whole story when they came. Detailed everything. Her dad was arrested. Tried. Convicted. And so she went to the Center and her dad went away.

“When I met her she was doing pretty well. Really well, actually, considering the kind of shit she went through. You couldn’t meet a more positive chick. The whole time her father had been raping her she’d gotten super skinny. Scary skinny. But when she came to the Center she ate healthy, drank a lot of water, went on walks around the grounds and told her Hurt in one word, spoke at every Allegorical. She was like the model resident, but none of us were jealous or anything. She was the kind of person you wanted to see succeed no matter what. No matter who you were. Everyone loved her.

“But she went out on a belt anyway.

“I found her first. Her toes were purple and she was swaying, back and forth. Like she was on a swing or something. She wasn’t on restriction, which is why they let her have a belt. In case you’re wondering. ‘Cause I was wondering. I was wondering how come they didn’t take away her belt and her laces and her sheets and tie her hands behind her back if this is what she was capable of. If this is what she’d do to herself. I hit Charon in the face and I punched a window out and I clawed the wallpaper and knocked over everything I could knock over and I cried till I couldn’t cry anymore and could only sleep, right where I was crying, on the floor. I’ve never cried like that in my life. I don’t cry.

“I didn’t know why she did it. Still don’t. But nothing will change what happened. Nothing will bring her back. And I was hurt for a long time after that. I couldn’t deal. And I hated Liza, wished I’d never met her, all that.

“But then I stopped hating her. I stopped trying to blot out the memories we had and I saw her how she was, before she went out on a belt. In her stories and her smile and the way her eyes lit up when the sun came in just right and it looked like they went from green to blue, just like that.

“Okay.

“Okay, I’m done.”

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You’ll Have to Save Me

Alone

It’s going to be a Harry Potter party. I get my costume ready in the bathroom: hike up my skirt, get my makeup right, tousle my hair to look like Hermione’s. You’re watching Netflix in the other room, trying to make it seem like you don’t care. You’re still mad about me flirting with my coworker last week. I don’t know why I did it, but that didn’t stop me from calling you a baby. I don’t know why I’m doing the things I’m doing anymore.

I thought of inviting you, of introducing you to my new work friends, maybe trying to mend what’s been broken. But I didn’t. What I did was accept the invite, order the pieces I was missing from my costume, and hide the Amazon boxes once they got here. What I did was change my mind, wait till you got home, and try the costume on where I knew you’d see me. And the way you tried to be nonchalant about hanging up your coat, but how your eyes trailed over me as you walked over to the closet. And when you didn’t say anything, when you started to walk away, how I asked you what you thought. How I looked. How your eyes showed your hurt, but you said I looked good. How you opened your mouth to say something, to ask something, but stopped yourself.

It’s gotten so I’ll stay at work till 7 or 8, tell myself I need to stay late to prepare for the next day, but I know that isn’t true. I know that I just want to walk past my coworker one last time and imagine what he’d smell like on top of me. I know that he’s staying late on purpose too, that we’re moving past each other over and over, closer and closer, waiting for one of us to bump into the other. He’s single, and I think about this as I fiddle with my engagement ring, as I pee one last time before heading home, staying in the stall so long that the lights automatically go off.

We haven’t fucked in weeks. I find an excuse every time, and when you remind me how long it’s been, I go to the bathroom and use my vibrator. The last time I did this, I walked back in the room to find you jerking off, not bothering to hide it under the covers. You left yourself out for a while even after I walked in, and I acted like I’d seen nothing. I got into bed and under the covers, and when your foot touched mine, I told you to move over.

When we do touch, it’s in the form of a play fight, and we grapple and vie for control because to hug and to hold would be too much at this point. But by the end of these play fights, we’re sweaty and tired, leaning up against each other like spent boxers, and you’ll try to sneak a kiss. I’ll jerk my head away and tell you how sweaty you are. If you’re lucky, I’ll pretend to be dead weight, and you’ll have to grab me and pull me back up. You’ll have to save me.

I think of all the ways I could end it. I could sit you down over dinner, or call you when I’m at my mom’s, or text you after work. I could pack up all my things and leave without saying a word. I could do these things, any of them, without hesitation. Don’t think I couldn’t.

When it’s time to go to the party, I rush to get my shoes on before you can get up and go to the door. I just say, “bye,” and I leave. I sneak out the bottle of Jim Beam I’ve stashed in my purse and nurse it for courage before getting on the CTA bus.

When I get there, I do that thing where I hug the wall, near my friends, and smile and nod when someone I know walks by and acknowledges me. My coworker spots me eventually, pours something I can’t see into a cup and brings it to me. He challenges my HP knowledge with some trivia, which I ace, but I smile anyway. He refills my cup and challenges me to a duel. Produces two wands and hands one to me. My cheeks burn as I smile and shake my head, but he challenges me loud enough that everyone hears. Gets everyone to clear out of the way and form a circle around us. It’s over in seconds: one shout of “Expelliarmus” and he tosses his wand high in the air. I send out my Patronus for good measure, but he surrenders.

An hour goes by, maybe two. My coworker and I stop drinking and just talk. When the party starts to thin out, he offers to give me a ride home. No sense in taking the CTA and dealing with weirdos, he says. I say yes.

When I tell him the address, he says he’s just a couple blocks away. That we’re practically neighbors. There’s silence for a while, and he says something about stopping by his place for coffee. So we can wake up. I say yes.

When he’s inside of me, all I can think of is our first date, sneaking into the mall with you after watching a movie, getting into the playplace that was meant to be a forest and lying on the grass carpet as Snow Patrol’s “Chasing Cars” piped out of the mall speakers. How we were silent. How we had smiles, matching, unaware of the future. How we followed the song’s advice and just lay there, our fingers intertwined.

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Maya

DelhiSunrise

Madhan called last night and told me he needed to see me, called late at night so that I had to pull the phone’s cord as far as it would go away from Mama and Baba’s room, so they wouldn’t hear us talk. They thought I’d stopped talking to him after they told me to, but they were wrong.

I haven’t gotten any sleep since I hung up the phone. I got back home from night school, slipped in quiet so Mama and Baba wouldn’t hear, hid my books, and Madhan called right after, as if he knew. Maybe he did. I don’t know. That boy seems to know so much.

The night moves into morning, and I spend it by sitting on the grass, in a field near my home, watching the way the purple of the sky turns to pink, the stars disappearing into nothing. This place I’ve been to with Madhan so many times before, lying on the grass and looking up at the sky, far enough from New Delhi’s center that it’s quiet, close enough that the city’s lights erase some of the starlight.

Madhan said he’d be here by sunrise, like the times before, when we’d shield our eyes from the light and watch the city come to life, the stray dogs rising up from the ground like steam to wind their way through the city and find another meal. But Madhan isn’t here. I told myself I wouldn’t cry, but my eyes are clouding, letting the light take over everything. I’m standing up, the dew on the grass clinging to my feet, and I’m putting my sandals back on, trying to figure out which way to go.

I get to the bus stop, this bus that will take me to Madhan, that will get me the answers that he suddenly doesn’t want to give. I sit on the bench and wait, but after a minute I’m back up, pacing, waiting for the bus as the sun rises into my eyes and blinds me. Finally, I’m not even pacing, just standing, and this old dog comes up to me with his tail between his legs, big eyes looking at me, begging for food.

I put my hands out to show him I have nothing, but he persists. He sniffs both hands to make sure that I’m not hiding something, then walks behind me and sits next to the bench. I take it as a sign and take a seat, reach out and pet his head, scratch his nose, his gray whiskers moving as he smiles at me. I can see the dog’s ribcage, and he limps on one of his hind legs, but this old dog doesn’t seem to mind. He just sits there next to me with his tail wagging, brushing the dirt from the ground like a child who doesn’t know how to use a broom. I pet him so we can both forget for a while.

When the bus is in sight, I want to leave this stop and this old dog and go back to the field, back home. Somewhere else. But I don’t. I get on the bus, and I pay my fare, and I take a seat, and I wait for the stop that will take me to Madhan.

The beggar children try to stop me everywhere I go once I get off the bus. They cup their hands into little ponds that are waiting to be filled. When they reach out their hands, I hold them briefly and apologize. I have nothing to give.

I get to Madhan’s door and knock. It takes a few minutes, but finally he comes to the door and asks who’s there. When I tell him it’s me, he waits a while before opening up, peeks through the crack between the door and the frame to make sure it’s actually me. Opens it up the rest of the way and says nothing, only looks at me.

He puts on some tea and offers me a seat. We don’t talk until the tea is done, and he pours my tea with shaking hands. He starts by saying, “You know how I feel about you.” When he says this, my stomach drops. He sips his tea so he won’t have to say anything more, and I do the same. Finally, he says, “I have to do it.”

It’s his parents, he says. They’ll never forgive him, never let this go. They hadn’t approved of me, and they never would. Anyway, it’d be better for me. This way, we wouldn’t strain things with our parents. He could marry who they wanted him to marry, and I could marry Suddho. And when I tell him I don’t want to marry Suddho, I want to marry him, how Madhan takes my hands in his and kisses them both, first the left, then the right, then the left again. How he tells me we can still see each other, how he can visit me in America if Suddho is still to take me there. And when I ask him why we can’t run away together like we’d planned, how he looks away so I can’t see the tears clinging to his eyes. How he kisses me, deeply, and holds me to him.

We spend what feels like hours there, ignoring our tea, holding each other, barely separating, wanting this moment to never end. And when we finally separate, how he tells me he’ll call, he’ll see me. How I cry because I know this isn’t true. We both know it isn’t.

And how he takes me to the door, unwilling, and opens it to the bright sunlight shining in. How we kiss and we kiss and we kiss, and he moves me past the door, looks into my eyes and says nothing. How he closes the door. How I knock, and cry, and call his name over and over again. Madhan. Madhan. Madhan.

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