The Genesis of Genesis

When I was younger, I wanted to put everything I made into a category, a code, identifying theme and character, plot and arc, never fully immersing myself in the work, or else only in fits and starts before I’d look at the strings again and ruin the illusion. I guess that’s just how you have to start, or at least how I had to start, because it all seemed to work out in the end, but for a while there it was like banging my head against the wall, magic-appreciation-wise, because it didn’t seem as fun to constantly see what you were doing with a story, to not be in it but somewhere apart from it, outside of the action. But that’s the beginning of creation, the genesis of genesis, making every story about the creation of story, pieces populated by characters who know they’re characters, and the only magic you can find then is in look-ma-no-hands writerly showmanship, pointing out to the audience just how much you know about what you’re doing, making your characters just as self aware as you hoped you were appearing then at the time. That’s what I was doing. And it’s fun to go back and look at this work now, to see just how much it’s all changed, replacing sarcasm with honesty, irony with earnestness. Wanting to participate in a radical new sincerity, still, less jaded now than I was then, even though I know publication, know the slog of it, the hours and hours that go into rejection after rejection, until something clicks into place and gives you temporary respite, and you’ve gotten a piece out into the world, just to start the process over again. It’s like that now, and it makes it easier going through this process when I’m doing that for others now too, having to accept and reject and coach and advocate and do all the rest that comes along with editing, and the world seems much smaller than it once did, more accessible, less daunting, when you can read the work of people in countries you’ve never visited and get a piece of that experience for yourself, see the similarities that outweigh the differences, recognize these disparate struggles as the same as your own, and you realize that this is what they mean when they use that oft-tread phrase, coming-of-age, as if it’s something you just stumble upon one day, as if it isn’t something you have to work for, over time, developing your voice even as life develops your character, desperation giving way to something more calm, more sustainable as you develop faith in the process and let it happen the way it’s going to happen. And suddenly you’re back where you were when you started, in a room by yourself, smiling at something you’ve written, something you’ve read, seeing for yourself the magic of the written word, of the stories we can tell as people.

 

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Doctor Manhattan Vision

Rewatching all those old videos that we made as teenagers, those short films, is like having a viewable time capsule. Last weekend, I took the time to rip them from YouTube and Dailymotion, set up a shared Google Drive folder so that Matt and I could watch them whenever, so we could save them for posterity. Mostly I did it because I haven’t talked to Chris in years, and I figure it’s only a matter of time before he takes them all down. He already emptied out his YouTube account, so I had to rip the ones I had on mine and find the duplicates on Dailymotion where possible, come to terms with the ones that are now gone forever.

I realized watching them that it’s possible to miss the times you shared with a person while not missing the person you shared them with. To be nostalgic without being rose-tinted, with the years and the fights and the growing, all of it intervening. To miss the person they used to be. And if I’m being honest, how I used to be too. I make it a point every few months to travel back to Chicago–my home. I live a good 700 miles away now, so it’s an effort, but it’s something I do regularly. And there are those phantoms, those half-forgotten places, and the things I did there, but more than that, there are the people I miss.

When Matt and I meet up, we don’t endlessly turn over the past, although we definitely could. There are moody teenagers younger than our friendship. No, what we do is catch up with the way we’ve changed in a sentence or two, a look maybe, and we get back to the friendship timeline like nothing has changed, because it hasn’t. There’s that realization that I’d take a bullet for him, not a realization so much as a simple acknowledgment, and there’s remembering how we got here. The fact that I didn’t hang out with Matt as much as I would’ve liked to when I was friends with Chris, and that icky feeling that came with being mean, something I’d do when I hung out with Chris, and the fact that I knew it couldn’t last, not much past early adulthood, that I couldn’t let it last.

There’s also that simmer of feeling where once there was a boil, and the way it used to put a knot in my stomach but here, now, it doesn’t make me feel much of anything. Life has a way of moving on, a geologic smoothing away of the peaks and valleys that used to matter so much, the words both said and unsaid that would burn in my throat, now harmless and inert–something to be studied.

Sometimes I wish I had a chronovisor, a device with which to look into the past, to experience it without disturbing it. I think of time travel tropes in old movies and comics, and then I remember the comic Chris and I started working on that dealt with similar subject matter. But before it gets too wistful, I remember that I wrote several issues and Chris just never did the art for them.

In thinking of time travel, I forget the very real version we already have–the pictures, the videos. The stories both written and remembered. And even then, it’s the things kept out of picture and memory’s frame, the words shared before and after the shot. There’s the dizzying, beautiful, terrifying, wonderful realization that things truly did work out the way they were supposed to. That I’ve done these things and become this person because of, not in spite of, what happened to me. That had it not been for all of those events in that sequence, I wouldn’t be able to have this Doctor Manhattan vision, this way of seeing the future through the past, of understanding that I’m now surrounded by the people who are meant to be in my life. That I’ve made it without knowing I ever left.

Create

It’s summer, and I’m twenty-two years old. That puts us at 2012. I got my BA yesterday. I wanted to enjoy my graduation, and I did, but I couldn’t really focus. My brain was only half there, floating over story concepts and character sketches that I’d been hashing out up until the last day of the last semester. I don’t feel like I earned my degree. I mean, I fulfilled all the prerequisites, passed all my classes and all that, but I don’t feel like I wrote the story I needed to write before I could graduate. Maybe that should be put down as a requirement in the future.

I’ve written so many stories, created so many characters. I’ve written flash fiction, micro, short stories, novels, but I haven’t hit on that one thing yet. I don’t know, maybe I’m being too picky. All I know is that here I am one day after graduating college, and I hardly feel any different.

I want to be understood.

If there’s a point to all of this, I guess it’s to tell lies to get at the truth. Isn’t that what fiction is? But who determines what the truth is? Is it the thing that happened, or the feeling of it? If you come back to it in 20 years’ time, is it still the same truth you remembered?

I’m sitting on the beach, scribbling away in this notebook and trying to keep the sand off the pages. I’ve got to transfer this over to digital at some point, I just don’t know when. I’ve got to do a lot of things. I miss my friends and family, and not just the ones who have died. I miss my home. Maybe I’ll go back. Or maybe I’ll just write about it. Maybe both.

My mentor always got this smile on her face when she handed me her notes on one of my stories. At first I just ignored it because the notes were really good, but eventually I got curious. She told me she could tell I fictionalized things just enough where I could hide from the reader. She said she could see the fear beneath the words. I took it personally and started saying I wasn’t afraid and that she didn’t know what she was talking about, and she told me it’s okay to be afraid. It’s good, actually. Follow the fear, that’s where all the good stories come from. So I calmed down, and composed myself, and apologized, and thanked her, and then I kept turning in the stories that made her smile like that. She kept smiling like that all four years that I was there, kept smiling like that even during my last semester. When graduation was over and she gave me a hug, I looked and saw that same smile on her face. She said she knew I was going to be great, and I could tell she meant it. Even so, I felt like something inside of me had fallen from a great height.

I’m sitting on this beach with my toes in the sand, watching the New York sky shift from pink to purple. The night’s getting away from me, and I feel like I have to do something. I don’t know what, but I have to do something. I pull out another notebook that I have with me, one that’s labeled CNF for creative nonfiction. My mentor gave this to me as a gift years ago. She’s the one who scrawled “CNF” on its cover.

I flip open to the first page, and there’s nothing there. There’s nothing on any of the pages. I close my eyes and I see Des Plaines, IL in all its bittersweet glory, smell the growing spring and setting summer as the cicadas scream in the background. I see my old complex, our apartment in Bay Colony, and the pond at the center of it that I used to go down to when I was a kid. I feel a smooth stone in my hand before I skip it across the pond’s surface, watch the willows’ fronds dip down and reflect themselves over water too tired to move. I see a thousand reflections of myself in a thousand mirrors until I’m right here where I am. It seems like I’ve lived many lifetimes, but I’m still here.

That’s what I’ll write about. That’s what I can do. I take the CNF notebook and look at that blank first page. All I need is the title. Once I have the title, I have the story.

I already know what it is. I scribble it down and look at it, and even now I can tell that it’s right.

It says Here’s Waldo.

Breathe

It’s summer, and I’m twenty years old. That puts us at 2010. I’m sitting in the bath, and it’s perfectly cold. The air above my head is different. It’s so hot that I can almost see the heat shimmer in this apartment that has no AC. Reb will go in after I’m done, because if the heat is bad for me it’ll only be worse for a dog. In the meantime, he sits next to the bathtub and smiles as he pants.

My roommate left abruptly about a month ago, breaking the lease and leaving me with no way to cover the rest of the rent. Student loan refunds can only help so much, and I learn quickly that New York City rent is on another planet compared to Des Plaines, IL rent.

I take to sipping cheap beer while sitting in the tub, convincing myself that I’m drinking to fill myself up while at the same time cooling myself down, trying to ignore the fact that my dad used to do the same thing with the same brand of beer. My empties form a mountain in the corner of the bathroom, and I amuse myself by thinking it’s an art installation.

A memory comes from an indeterminate age. All I know is that I was small enough for the bathroom’s door knob to be at eye level, the bathroom where my father called me over. He called me over, and I went, not knowing how drunk he was or even fully understanding the concept of being drunk. I just knew that sometimes Daddy fell over while he was trying to walk to the fridge, and you never knew if he would start laughing or yelling after he got back up. I knew beer bottles being hurled against the wall and my mom telling me that Mommy and Daddy were just kidding, just playing a game. I knew my dad driving us home from a little league game and stopping the car, opening the door to puke. I knew the effect, but the cause eluded me.

But in this memory where I am at door knob height, my father calls me into the bathroom, and I go, and when I open the door he’s soaking in the tub with an open can in his hand. His eyes are glassy, and there’s a vein visible on his forehead. In this memory, he tells me that he’s empty. He tells me that he needs another beer. He asks if I can be a good boy and do that for him. I nod my head and see that all around him there are bubbles like the bubble baths I always insist on having. My father notices and smiles. He tells me he’s having a bubble bath just like I always do. He smiles, and he looks at me, and he says that sometimes he likes the bubbles and sometimes he doesn’t. He puts his hand in the water between his legs and starts swishing the bubbles away, back and forth.

The memory stops.

I’m here in my own bathtub more than a decade removed, in another state, and my chest is tightening. It feels like I am being pulled outside of myself. My shoulders and back start to hurt, and it’s only when they do that I realize my entire body is tensed up. I feel like I’m beneath the surface of a great body of water, splashing and flailing. I don’t know what to do, but then I remember that I do.

I’ve been going to a Zen Buddhist temple for a few months now, and I watch and listen as the techniques and words come back to me. An image of a stream with leaves calmly floating down it. Understanding that thoughts will pass, that they don’t have any more of a hold over you than what you give them. That the breath regulates everything and not the other way around. That memories can’t kill you no matter how painful they might be. That you only need to sit and breathe and be.

I don’t know how long I stay there in that tub, but the pain leaves my shoulders and back, and eventually I can breathe again. I come back into my body and can feel and hear and see things normally again. I just breathe.

Drink

It’s winter, and I’m sixteen years old. That puts us at 2006. It’s Saturday, 2 AM, and I’m off of work at the theater. The buses don’t run this late, but I wouldn’t want to take one even if they did. I’m walking home.

There’s a hole in the bottom of my right shoe, and theater wages make it hard to get a new pair. I’ve been making my pants last, too. Where there should be a button, instead a paper clip is keeping my pants from falling. I’m supposed to wear black dress socks, but those are too expensive, so I wear regular socks instead. I walk so that I can avoid most of the snow that’s on the sidewalk, but it’s impossible to avoid all of it.

Soon enough, my right sock is cold and wet, and my foot starts going numb. I tell myself this is fine. All of my bandages have come off, and I don’t have to wear a back brace anymore, but I’m still feeling the effects of getting hit and dragged by a car last summer. Still feeling the effects of Tallulah leaving me, too.

I don’t even get to see her at work anymore. I think she switched shifts to avoid me. I said something wrong, and now she’s out of my life for good it seems. It hits me that a single moment can alter the course of a life forever.

In my back pocket is a full bottle of Jim Beam. I found it underneath a seat while I was ushing. I guess whoever snuck it in dropped it without even noticing. They were probably too drunk to notice, to be honest. Company policy is that I’m supposed to turn in all items that I find while cleaning, especially if they’re illicit items like this.  I don’t know why I pocketed it instead. I’m not a drinker. I’ve had a beer here and there (mostly under peer pressure from Drew), but nothing serious. Even so, I open the bottle and start drinking.

I know enough to know that this isn’t the kind of drink you’re supposed to chug, but I do anyway. I’ve never done something like this before, so I don’t know how it’s going to affect me. I just drink.

My throat is burning terribly, but I’m already halfway done, so I decide to keep going. Tallulah thinks that drinking is for people who try too hard to be cool. I never told her about the beers I drank with Drew. I just agreed with her.

I don’t even know if she still works at the theater anymore. I wonder if she’s going to follow through with her plan to go to school at the Art Institute. I wonder how she’s doing.

I feel like I’m swimming through the air. My feet aren’t going where I want them to, and at first I tell myself that it’s because of the hole in my shoe, the numbness in my foot. The first time I fall down onto the snow, I tell myself that it was a long shift and my legs are tired, my balance is off. It takes me puking on the snow to admit that I’m fucked up.

The world is split in two, halved. I have puke on my work shirt. Our washer’s broken, so I don’t know what I’m going to do. We don’t even have detergent. I’ll probably just scrub it with dish soap and hang it in my room to dry.

I decide that I am going to lie in the snow. My brain is telling me that this is okay, that this is preferable to stumbling through the snow. I don’t know where the sidewalk is anymore. I drop to my knees and flip over onto my back. It takes a little while for the cold to come in, but it does come. Slow, like pain that waits. I think that I might fall asleep right where I am.

I lie there for minutes or hours, I can’t tell. Everything is cold. I hear a car squeal on its brakes and slam on its horn. I think there’s going to be a crash, but then there isn’t. The driver rolls down his window and yells over at me. He asks if I’m okay. I manage to stand, and I wave in his direction. I tell him no, I’m not okay, but I think I will be.

He looks at me for a while before deciding that it’s okay to leave. I watch him go until I can no longer see him, and then I turn back toward home. I don’t listen to my brain anymore. I just walk.

Coming of Age

It seemed that in this town you could get by with a couple singles in your pocket and nothing more. He remembered Chicago days, from before he moved to this small town in North Carolina, that he’d ride the el for what seemed like hours, transfer from the red line to the blue and take a bus out to the lake. He did that a lot in those days, when his life was crashing down around him and he felt like he had no way out.

You needed a Ventra card to ride in Chicago, and the monthly pass was outrageously expensive. If you didn’t have a card, you couldn’t ride. But this bus, this bus he stepped onto and out of the North Carolina heat, you could get on with a single.

He sat down, his first bus ride in NC even after living there for two years, and he pulled out his headphones. He took out his phone and put Spotify on shuffle. The first thing that came up was “Coming of Age” by Foster the People. He smiled. “Fitting,” he said. Someone sitting near him looked at him when he said that, but he just kept smiling.

Wake Up

It started with a song, as these things all too often do. “Wake Up” by Arcade Fire. We were seventeen going on eighteen, and we’d jam to it on repeat to celebrate having graduated high school, all of us trying to figure out what it was we were going to do next.

Topher would storyboard Wallace’s ideas for new short films in between inking his own comics, paying out of pocket to get those first comics printed so that he could see his work on paper. He’d sneak them onto the shelves at all the local comic shops, load each issue with several business cards so that fans could follow him before he got his big break.

Wallace scripted out short films like crazy, relying on guerilla filmmaking to bring them to life. His budgets almost never exceeded $0, and he’d get the lay of a location before sneaking in and getting the shots he needed without getting caught. We snuck into hospital rooms, the back of a bookstore, a small concert venue, even bars so that we could get the shots we needed. It paid off, too–although the scripted dialogue left much to be desired, the locations looked professional and lent the productions an official look.

I kept my stories to myself at first, but soon enough I was showing them to Topher and Wallace, the latter adapting them into screenplays and the former drawing out characters and storyboards. Topher was talking about staying in Chicago to capitalize on the burgeoning art and comics scene, Wallace was serious about moving to LA and pursuing a career in film, and I was considering moving to New York City, the hub of publishing, to try to make it as a writer.

As the months went on, though, we drifted further and further apart. The stress of applying to colleges out of state and committing to our respective artforms was too much for us. The group fell apart, but the song played on:

“If the children don’t grow up,
our bodies get bigger but our hearts get torn up.
We’re just a million little gods causin’ rain storms,
turnin’ every good thing to rust.”

Topher moved into an apartment in the city, Wallace took a road trip to LA that he never came back from, and I flew to NYC. We stayed Facebook friends even though we stopped talking, and so we’d get glimpses here and there of what the others were up to. College was a challenge, but it seemed like we were all rising to the occasion. Every time I got a story read in class or performed at a cafe, every time I saw Wallace casting for a shoot or Topher putting out another issue of his comic all on his own, I wanted to reach out, wanted for us to come together like we used to, to share in our successes together. But the song continued:

“I guess we’ll just have to adjust.”

Years passed. As they did, I imagined just how many times that song came up on shuffle, how many times each of them got its lyrics inexplicably stuck in their heads. I wondered what they thought every time it happened, whether they thought of me or not. I knew they were watching just as I was–I’d occasionally catch Wallace liking one of my posts before realizing his mistake and unliking it, not fast enough where it wouldn’t show in my notifications. More years passed. We graduated. Wallace placed in a film festival. Topher took a junior position as a colorist. I published in a handful of magazines and was brought on board at a separate litmag as a reader. We were all hearing these lines playing in the background on repeat:

“With my lightnin’ bolts a glowin’,
I can see where I am goin’ to be”

We ignored what came after, though:

“when the reaper he reaches and touches my hand.”

Over the years, I’d return to those simpler times. I’d tell coming-of-age stories about what it meant to come into your own artistically at the same time that you were growing up. How these individual growths come to inform each other. Truth be told, if I hadn’t met Topher and Wallace, I might not even have taken writing seriously in the first place. But seeing them sketch and shoot constantly brought something out in me that I didn’t know I had. Now I stood on the cusp of breaking out as a writer, and I wasn’t even on speaking terms with these guys. All I had were the memories of reckless abandon, of being free from the clutches of high school and having our futures open wide in front of us. Now I was happy, I was settled, and I’d found someone to spend my life with, but I needed to write this final chapter. As I thought about how to approach this, the song’s beginning came back to me:

“Somethin’ filled up
my heart with nothin’.
Someone told me not to cry.”

And the song went on in my head, telling me that now that I’m older and my heart’s grown colder, I can see that it’s a lie. I heard the line that told me to wake up, to hold my mistake up. So what did I do? I started a group chat between the three of us. I agonized for ten minutes over what to say, whether I should type out a long message or not, but finally I just sent:

“Hey.”

And there was the end of the song again, instruments building to a crescendo, picking up speed, and the lead singer shouting out:

“You better look out below!”

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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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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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