Sometimes there was a girl named Vanessa. She tried very hard to exist. At the moment she lay in her bed, in the early morning darkness of her meticulously decorated room, exhausted. She was trying to get out of bed and start her day. However, existing, living, breathing, and contributing to society, was a very difficult thing to do when her broken mind was telling her it wasn't worth all the trouble. Difficult, but not impossible. She tried very hard to be patient with her own mind. It had been through a lot. She always tried to coax it slowly into doing little things like taking a shower or cooking a meal. Later in the day she would buy some groceries and get some work done. It took an oppressively long time to get anything done. Though some would argue not enough to cry out “false claims” of depression, or even more embarrassing, suicide. But then again most people didn’t think anything was enough to claim depression or suicide. These same people would find their own solutions at the bottom of several bottles of beer or whiskey. Sometimes in a pipe or a metal spoon. Some people found a solution in the pain at back of their throats when they finished yelling at their spouse. Vanessa tried not to do any of these things. She tried to stay at least a little bit sane.
Laying in her bed, staring up at the ceiling, she counted the hours that has past on her fingers, trying to figure out what went wrong this time. Lack of sleep can contribute to depression, which can contribute to a very difficult morning.
She usually tried very hard to get eight hours of sleep, though sometimes she would negotiate with her body and they would settle on six to seven. It was a fairly steep price for a working body, but she would argue that she could not fall asleep until she felt very much alive, or else she might wake up dead. She can’t fall asleep until she can feel her breath in her lungs again. Last night, and now again this morning, she spent her time waiting. She waited, scrolling, the terrifying suspense building in a small corner in the back of her head, while she explored Tumblr, now dead, or Instagram, reviving, or Youtube, now flourishing. Waiting meant hoping that she didn’t have to think too hard about the growing nothingness in her body. She hoped that she could wait long enough for her body to remember it was alive so she wouldn't have to remind it herself. Because if she did, if she had to sit up, clasp her two hands together, and in a puff of silent smoke and a gust of wind, had to use her magic to pull her soul back into her body with her own two hands, then that would mean she had to. She had to collect all the magic she possessed to drag her soul back into its body where it belonged. And that would mean her soul was starting to listen to her broken mind, and it was getting harder to convince her soul that her mind was a liar. She had to try very hard to exist in a world where that looked so easy. But long ago she saw what a lie that was. She had toed the line between life and death, and now that line never left her.
Death itself was more like an estranged aunt to her. Vanessa could always count on her presence every other Sunday morning since she was eleven, so she prepared herbal tea and chunks of fruit. Sometimes she had the strength to go out and buy chocolate croissants. However, since Vanessa’s eighteenth birthday, Death’s visits were becoming less and less frequent. Her aunt never gave an explanation. Vanessa had multiple theories about this. One was that work had gotten in the way.
Death would always be kind to Vanessa but always made sure to distance herself from the girl. She had gifts she didn't share because Vanessa was “Much too young for it right now,” and “Maybe next time on her next visit.” Vanessa’s eyes always followed the star dust that fell from Death’s fingers as she drank the tea Vanessa offered her. The darkness of black holes left swirling shoe prints on the multicolored carpet. Death would look apologetic, but Vanessa never minded. She watched the tiny black holes during the hours when she couldn’t move. It was a comfort to remember space, and that there was more than this out there, and that soon she would be able to experience it too. “Not right now,” her Auntie Death reminded her. “Much later, when you’re much older.” Vanessa had sometimes felt she was ready for it right now, whatever it was. But Vanessa has always been a bit mature for her age.
This morning, Vanessa flung her feet out over the side of her very comfortable bed and, without thinking very hard, told her feet to rush her down the stairs to the kitchen. The old wood in her stairs creaked with every step, the sharp noise cut through the silent morning like a knife. Vanessa smiled. Clutching her phone, she put on a playlist of calming videos she had collected that would help her feel more alive. They were vlogs of hardworking creative women who spoke about their artistic process and the glamorous events they had been to. Vanessa appreciated their creativity and their diligence. Some videos were curly hair routines from soft-voiced young women who tried very hard to make their routine as easy and affordable as possible. Vanessa appreciated their compassion. Other videos were funny recipe videos where a charismatic host guided her through a complicated recipes while acknowledging the effort with a witty joke. Vanessa appreciated the validity.
Turning off the stove, she let her eggs cool while she mixed today's hot potion. Cinnamon for the cold, honey for wellness, lemon for life. Pouring hot water onto it all, mixing clockwise for good luck, she finally breathed a prayer of health over her creation and relaxed. Sipping her tea, she sat at her sturdy oakwood table, watching the rest of her videos.
She glanced at the counter. She thought maybe it was granite. She couldn’t tell. It was a stone with warm brown and red hues that she liked to sit on while she ate ice cream or drank tea. Her eyes flicked to the knives, silver with white plastic handles. The handles were black before. It was always around this time, when Vanessa woke just before her alarm, just before the sun rose, and couldn’t go back to sleep, that Vanessa’s mind wandered toward a memory. That was when she met Death for the first time. When she was eleven years old and felt significantly more alone than she did today.
Death had her hand on the knife Vanessa was holding above her wrists. Gently, but firmly, she wrenched the weapon out of the child’s hand and set it down on the granite countertop. Vanessa stared wide-eyed at the goddess before her, unmoving. Death dried Vanessa’s tears with a bit of cloth from her robes and told her to go upstairs. Vanessa sat in her room in silence. Numb.
One would think that with the power to talk to Death she would have much cooler powers, like the ability to talk to demons and make deals with powerful energies beyond human comprehension. These abilities were attainable but exhausting. It wasn't fair that everything was so damn exhausting.
Vanessa used to be able to talk to a demon she befriended in middle school, but talking to him opened the door to her soul wide open for any other entities she did not invite. She invited one demon who presented itself on a cold wintery day. There was no warmth to go out looking for friends so she was trapped inside. They were trapped with each other. The demon listened to her, all her problems and bitter tales. It never really said anything back. It just absorbed, and ate. Ate up her suffering and lifted a burden off her shoulders, even for just a little while. These other demons were less empathetic. They did not want to discuss boys and bullies or anything going on in her life. They were selfish and needy. They didn't even take off their shoes when they entered her room and they sat on her bed with their outside clothes on, even though she specifically asked them not to. Instead, they brought in things that invited more pain and more suffering, life self-deprecation and guilt. These things put Vanessa in danger and called Death’s attention when Death specifically told her not to bother her because she was away on business and the price for a call would be too high. These other demons that were not invited made Vanessa look like she was being bad like she was going to hurt herself again. As if she were disobeying Death’s direct orders to try to live and she was really trying very hard to be good. She was doing things on her own like talking about her feelings and taking regular showers, and she threw that knife away somewhere even though she never used it. Death would not approve of Vanessa talking to a demon, even if it were a very friendly and a very manageable demon. But the energy of the demon felt so much like her Auntie’s that she had to call it back over and over again. She needed someone, anyone, that felt familiar. Nevertheless, when she had been forced to sit and talk to the high school guidance counselor about her slipping grades, she knew it was time to say goodbye to the demon and wish it away for a very long time. Now she was lonely and alone. But she had most of her health back. That would make Death very happy.
Sometimes it felt like Death didn’t want to see her. Death was always flitting about from one city to the next, always telling Vanessa she couldn’t go with her and she would have to be much older. It got to the point where Death didn’t have to hold her by her shoulders anymore and give her The Talk. That Death was more than a swirling chasm of stars and an infinite number of doorways to worlds unimaginable. Death used to crouch down on her knees, eye level to this tiny witchling who had taken a liking to her, and remind Vanessa that her job was to live. It was as if Death was leaving for some far away war and Vanessa was the unqualified son that had to be the Man of the House. At the time, Vanessa would nod but never understand. Why did she have to stay here on this dying planet with a body and brain that only half worked? Why couldn't she go with Auntie Death and explore the cosmos and have an infinite number of galaxies to choose from? Why was she stuck here? Had she done something wrong? Death never answered. She only smiled and ruffled the curls atop Vanessa’s head. As she left through the door, her black robes billowed around her, she reminded Vanessa that this was her job. Vanessa’s job was to live. Then she clutched her staff, fluttered her wings, and took off. Vanessa used to let her head fall back against her shoulders as she tried to find the exact spot in the clouds where Death disappeared. Maybe, when she learned to fly, she would follow her. She’d burst through the clouds behind her Aunt and find something beyond this world that was worth her time and struggle. Nowadays she didn’t need that talk anymore. More recently, Vanessa simply kissed Death on her skull cheek and wished her well on her travels. She didn't need the talk anymore, but she remembered it.
This morning, through the window of her kitchen, she could see the first winking of light pierce through the sky. Trees were reaching out toward the horizon. The flowers trembled with a renewed hunger for its daily bread. The wind surged through the leaves, the branches, the grasses, filling every corner of her view with Life.
Life looked a lot like her but clear, unseeable and unattainable. She was incredibly old and astoundingly young all at the same time. Sometimes she had crows feet around her eyes, that crinkled like sunbeams through leaves when she scolded Vanessa. She had bright clear, childlike eyes that shone with a thousand rainbows when she wanted to look cool. She was wise and child-like all at the same time. It was very irritating. Mostly because she was always right. Life never explained why she was right or why things happened and for what reason until the very last minute. Life liked the Ah Ha! moments. She thought it was a wonderful invention. Life was always around and yet always right outside Vanessa’s grasp. Life thought she was funny that way. Life thought she was clever that way. Honestly, Vanessa just felt like sometimes Life was just a smart ass. It was hard to connect with someone she didn’t yet understand.
Life is sometimes a lot harder to understand than one thinks. But sometimes Life is very clear, and she’s been staring her in the face for a very long time screaming her the answer, but Vanessa just refused to look because she was mad at Her. Life was so infuriating sometimes Vanessa found it easier to ignore her.
And yet, since Vanessa chose to live, she began to understand Life better. She was lively and vicious and cautious. She put her hands on Vanessa, guiding her, preventing her, hurting her. There was almost always a reason. The hardest part was trying to figure out what that reason was.
Life and Vanessa had a talk too. There was one day, sometime after her nineteenth birthday, that Vanessa was sitting in her room trying not to look for the knife. Tears stained clenched fists that sat upon unshaved legs. Trembling with restraint, she repeated the words in her head don’t do it don’t do it don't do it. It didn’t necessarily matter what was going on in her life that made such restraint a necessity. There was always something. For a long time it only took 1 Thing to make Vanessa break down. But as she learned to live with her broken brain, she was able to bring that number up to 2 Things Wrong, then 3 Things Wrong, and now there were about 5 Things Going Wrong at the Same time and so she broke down.
There came a point where she couldn’t take it. Her body reached out, retched itself forward without her permission and dove toward the desk that might contain the knife. In a panic, Vanessa used this momentum to throw herself out the door of her bedroom and she didn't stop running until she was outside in the garden. There she wept, watering the marigolds as she pushed all her grief out. She pushed out through her eyes, tossing buckets of sadness and fear into the stream of tears to be filtered out of her body. Take it, she thought. She dug her hands into the soil. It was cool and invigorating. She clawed at it, grabbing as much of it as she could with her hands. Then she pushed the raw clumps of Earth she gathered down, pushing her pain and suffering into the ground. Take it!
The marigolds trembled with the weight of her tears. They shivered and shook and absorbed all they could. Whatever was left they gave to the soil. The soil soon flooded and gave to the water table. There was too much, too much, and so it spread, as far as it could. The garden shuddered, as it had before, as her tears fed every flower and herb she grew there.
The sun was setting. There was a stunning golden filter over the whole of the Earth. In their last few hours, rays of sunlight were free to beam brightly, reflecting brightly grasses and leaves. Herbs and flowers reached for the burning yellow star that nourished them so generously. A gentle wind swept over the garden, the way a large fishing net swept through the smallest fraction of the ocean.
“Take it!” She gritted out. Her teeth were bared as she hovered savagely over the marigold. Her eyes were wide as they let go of the tears that held her sadness. There was too much sadness.
“Take it.” she hissed to the marigolds, spit flying out onto its petals. “Take it all. I don't want to be like this anymore. I don't want to be tired anymore. I don’t want this heaviness on my heart anymore. Let me get up. Let me breathe. Let me think. Take this stupid, useless brain and drag it down to hell where it can rot!”
Her arms recoiled, taking clumps of dirt with them. Clods soared through the air as she pelted the side of her house with damp earth. They made an unsatisfying thump. She was hoping for something a little more dramatic.
“Take this pain,” thump “take this hatred,” Thump “take this sadness,” Thump “Take it!” Thump “I can't take it anymore!”
Life let herself take a physical form. She had a long white dress that flowed out from underneath her in all directions. She let the soil stain her dress as it reached for her. The marigolds spit out the extra tears Vanessa had wept in streams. Vanessa cried loudly into Life’s arms as she held her crumpled, heaving form. She wept out all the pain and sadness and hatred and grief that she was holding. Some things would not leave with this cleansing tide. Some scars were too stubborn and old to let themselves be washed away just because the Goddess of Life had shown her lovely face. But Life had forgiven them. Scars are meant to be stubborn.
Vanessa adjusted herself in Life’s lap. The sun was in her eyes. The grass between her feet was scratchy and itchy, and the soil below that was cooling with the setting sun. Her teeth were clenched for so long that they felt loose in her mouth as if she could spit them out if she wanted to. Somewhere in the back of her mind, she remembered to listen for well-meaning neighbors. If any of them peered over the garden wall, she’d gathers any of her remaining strength and run back into the house. She didn't want to explain herself.
The cool watery smell of the evening air rushed past her. She opened her eyes to find the sun setting. Brilliant shades of yellow and amber faded over the horizon. Blue and purples took their place, appearing lazily over the night sky. She climbed out of Life’s lap and lay down in the wet grass. As time went on blue and purples melted into jet black, sprinkled with hundreds of stars and a milky white river of stardust.
Life gently dragged two fingers from her Third Eye to the edge of her hairline, in the same soothing way Vanessa’s mother used to do to get her to stop fussing. She did this until Vanessa had finally calmed down. Vanessa opened her eyes and lifted her head to look up at the Goddess Life.
The Goddess Life flicked her hard on her forehead.
“Ow!” Vanessa whines
“Do you want to win?” Life asked. It was more of a challenge. Vanessa was too exhausted to voice that she really wasn't in the mood for this right now. She just went along with it.
“What? Win what?”
“Win. See another day another minute, another second of this planet. Win, and prove all your enemies wrong. That you can survive their warfare and so much more. Live long enough to see the look on their face when they couldn’t kill you. Long enough to see past this fight, this battle, this war, past all this suffering, so that you may be selfish with your time and fill it with the life you want to live. Give yourself that win, over and over again, as many times as you need.”
A meteor shower began up above them. Vanessa watched as streaks of red crossed the sky, blinking in and out of existence in an instant.
“Or are they allowed to kill you?”
“No.” Vanessa replied.
“So what will you do?”
Life smiled. “That’s my girl.”
Life scrambled out from underneath Vanessa and lay down on the grass next to her. She eagerly started explaining the stars and the planets and what they meant. Vanessa didn’t say much for the rest of the night. Just a couple nods and encouraging noises to keep life talking. Later, when dizziness had overtaken her, Life took Vanessa by the hand and helped guide her toward her bed.
Stuffing that last bit of egg into her mouth, Vanessa went running up the stairs, through the attic, and out onto her roof. Chewing as she climbed, she reached her favorite spot. The sun was rising fast.
Vanessa now sat on her roof gazing at the horizon. The sun was rising. The cool dawn air was quickly dissipating, making room for the thick summer air that would come to smother them all.
Everything around her was waking up. The trees are waving their branches in the air with the wind.. The grasses are glistening in the with dew and starlight. The herbs and flowers are reaching for the sky, petals unfolding one by one to greet the day. Vanessa let her bare arms stretch wide, letting as much sunlight drip onto her skin as possible.
Here there was a girl named Vanessa. She tried very hard to live.
A story to accompany Sabine’s fashion designs focusing on Jamaican flora and fauna as well as Jamaican storytelling. Her pieces will be presented at the Parson’s School of Designs Spring Showcase
The Banana Leaf People
“Tell me a story, Grandma! Tell me a story about Reem!”
“Ok, child, listen up then.
“Once upon a time, a long time ago, there lived a warrior named Reem. Deep in the heart of the banana plants, she took up arms to defend her home and her queen. Reem fought for the freedom of her people, and traveled all over the island, spreading the news that Sollae, the leader of the Sigatokas, and her virus army could be defeated.
“Sollae and the Sigatokas were vicious in their conquests. They were a disease that showed no mercy, no humanity. They wanted the destruction of each and every banana plant on the good Island of Jamaica. They took no prisoners in their conquests. Instead, the army sends in the Cadmi. The Cadmi are a group of yellow sigatoka Sollae send in to infiltrate the leaf. They are older and weak and cannot fight, so they act as spies and start the inflection by attacking the thinnest and weakest of the Leaf People. Those that are captured and brought back to the Sigatoka army are infected with their illness. The fallen Leaf People were forced to mutate before the Sigatoka army and become soldiers for their army. These brave banana plant cells were now crippled, the pain of the transformation numbed their minds into submission. Their bright green skin faded into a crackling dark grey color, devoid of all sunlight and life. They walked across the leaves in a daze, only to be left behind by the army to rot as the banana leaves died.
“Once they got through the healthy banana leaf cells, the Sigatokas attacked the Bananas. The Bananas are treasures to the Leaf People, produced by their beloved Queen Yem, who lived within the corm of the tree. Healthy cells brought Queen Yem the starlight they collected from the Sun. She then can create and give birth to this precious fruit they so adore. Nothing can get in the way of this creation. If the Sigatokas get a hold of the Bananas, they will mutilate them. The Banana’s shape bends and it suffers. It's filled with pockets dark gray fungus shaped like bullet wounds. What once was perfectly created with love has been mangled out of hate. When the Sigatokas arrived on Reem’s leaf Queen Yem was about to give birth to a new bundle of Bananas.
“Reem, a healthy banana leaf cell, saw the savagery first hand as she watched a neighboring banana leaf fall from the tree. If this was to be the fate of her people, Reem refused to accept it. She would not allow this tragedy to befall upon her leaf, her Queen, her Bananas. Reem received a blessing from the Plant itself bestowing upon her the strength and courage to defend her people. She rallied the surrounding cells, assembled an army, and when Sollae and his army stepped foot onto the banana leaf, they were immediately thrust into battle, healthy leaf cells coming at them at all sides. Reem’s army cut off the Sigatokas isolating them to the farthest corner of the leaf, before throwing them off, the disease and it's army fluttering in the wind.”
“Wow… How do you know all of this Grandma?” Sabine’s eyes widened. “Did Reem tell you?”
Grandma laughed. “No child. Look out the window. You see that banana plant over there in the corner? See that one stubborn tip of the leaf that's all brown and grey?”
Sabine peered out into the garden from her seat on her grandma’s couch. “That’s the Sigatoka headquarters isn't Grandma? I’ll get them for you! I’ll save the bananas!”
“Hush, child.” Grandma bit back another laugh. That’s where Meeds lives. The oldest Sigatoka I know. Too old to live, too old to die. She just sits and tells stories. I met her a long time ago when I just bought this house when I just married your Grandfather. She’s been here a long time.”
Her grandma got up, her slippers slid across the floor toward the kitchen. It was time for tea. Before she left, Grandma called out slyly over her shoulder towards Sabine. “Sometimes, if you listen very closely, you can hear the wind whistle soooo high, you’d think it was Reem’s battle cry. She and her army come through from time to time. We have an agreement, you know? She liberates my garden, and she has a place to stay on her travels.”
Sabine stared wide-eyed at her Grandma’s back. When the woman disappeared into the kitchen, the jumped off the couch and quietly slipped on her shoes. Sabine trekked through the muddy garden as she inspected every banana leaf she could reach. She was looking for a fight.
Response to If only I'd Been Born a Kosher Chicken
Mother. I am your daughter. I am a small human thing that came from you. I am your child, made from half of your DNA, and so you have a claim to me and I have a claim to you too. I may even have more of a claim because you could not make me by yourself and yet still I came out whole. I am whole and half of you and half of someone else and yet that immeasurable bit of me that makes me Me and not a hybrid of you both stands higher than anything. So I am here, presented to you out of chaos and undefinable jurisdiction a mess of curls and hands filled with dirt and, knees covered in scabs and a blind pride in my eyes daring anyone, even you, to stop me. I looked up at you and know down at you, because you are shorter than me, and I ask you, please, don’t make me wish I were a kosher chicken.
Please don’t make me wish away, or pluck away, the hair and feathers put there by God for a reason. Don’t make me grow cold in pursuit of the self you want to see in me. And then don’t ask why I shiver so violently. Why my teeth chatter, when I’m late for school but I’m wearing shorts and its day two and someone, some unnamed lover, is going to graze his hand over my shins and test whether or not I am marriageable, loveable, ready for the oven and find out I am not. I am not ready to be dressed up and served for his family. For them to take apart and consume, even though he takes the biggest bits, cuts, and bites of me. Don’t let me be eaten and taken away from you. Don’t want that for me.
Don’t throw me away when I am not even the SALE sign works or the CLEARANCE one either. Don’t throw your hands in the air when I refuse random ignorant customers and don’t get upset when they refuse me too. Do not get upset when you find the tips of my fingers grazing a long the dark spots where my feathers used to be and wonder, “If i let it, will my hair grow back? Will it want to come back?”
Your watchful eye checks the time and temperature and when the guests are coming but not when I throw the razor in dusgust for biting me back. When those special clippers grab hold of not only feathers but skin too. So it must go. I swung first. And I only dig it back up when my underarms get itchy and sweaty, or when I want my skin to feel the whole cool touch of new lotion and fresh pyjamas.
I want to cook with you. But I don't want to be served. I don't want to bow my head and serve others while you watch them consume me happily, the way you were consumed. Just because they wanted something to eat at dinner.
Remember when you said you burned off your barely there mustache for Dad, because he didn't like the hair there? And you said it was equal because he shaved his head so his baldness wouldn’t show up as much. And I said no, equal exchange is when you shave your legs! And you laughed so hard you cried. And then you sat down, opened a beer, and watched soccer all cuddled up with Dad. You were fed then.
Or when you found me changing and said “gross” because I didn’t shave my underarms when I thought I did. And you waved your hand and we walked away from the hallway mirror because “who was gonna see it anyway? It doesn’t matter.” I was fed then.
I am your daughter too and cannot be forgotten or erased. I can see you trying to unerase me. You put down the carving knife and bought a new pencil at the art store, the one that costs $5 each, the audacity but worth it. I can see your brows furrowed and your back hunched over an image of me. The lines you’ve drawn faded and the ones I’ve laid out for you traced over. You try to see what I see, and together, we can write a new, traditional recipe.
The sun set behind the cool cement walls. I could see the lace traces of orange light staining the hardwood floors through cracks in the alarmingly decaying wooden doors. I wondered briefly about our safety. What weight could they hold, if they could hold any weight. Would they crack under pressure? Or would they hold, for just a few moments, filling us with unyielding hope before betraying us. Are they better for keeping out or keeping in? I’m not sure it matters. That kind of need always arises within a fraction of a second. Whether to fight or flight has been trained out of us. It’s by his command that we take any action, if there’s any to take at all.
I studied the wood floors a bit more. Watching spiders and tiny things flit across the brilliantly lit surface, until the last drops of sun was drained from the landscape. A dark grey curtain, bitter with depressing blues and fear of the dark cloaked the remaining insects in their own security. It was almost certain they would survive. No matter how many times we attempted to squish them, we could not. Bill tried, but he could not see. I heard Bill swat at his ankles. He scratched a terrible scratch. The kind of scratch you scratch when you have no one to present your legs to in the evening. When there’s no one to silently let their eyes fall over your body when you're not looking, tracing your outline, making sure you still have all your fingers and toes and pigment and just the right places. He scratched a scratch that drew blood and asked white flakes of skin to dust the hair of his legs, which was plentiful. Bill was not happy. He wasn't happy before the bugs but being defeated by them put him in an even worse mood. He looked longingly at the door. Then so did Bobby. And Carl. And Billie Jean. One by one we looked up towards the door, seconds before he walked through it.
As he rose his hand, I wondered briefly if we’d be keeping out or keeping in today.
Pepsi was content in his new home. He no longer had to fight other animals for rights to food. He could sleep without being threatened throughout the night. He had received treatment for the many illnesses he’d acquired on the streets, and as a result, he could breathe a lot better. Pepsi was content with just being. Sometimes he would jump up onto the couch, find a nice patch of sunlight, and lay there for hours. He didn’t need to play fetch or chew up shoes. He had since stopped following people around the house, trailing and trotting along at our heels, once he knew we weren’t going to leave him. He knew their schedules by heart and knew who to expect to accompany him on his 3rd mid-afternoon nap. He tucked away all this information about his people and stored it behind his giant, ruined, intelligent eyes.
Yet somehow he was still confused by the strange rectangles the people shove in his face almost everyday. He’d sniffed them before and they’re not food. They don’t really taste like anything anyway so there’s really no appeal. But the people he lived with carried them around the way he carries his collar around.
Pepsi decided to ignore it. He dropped his head down to his paw to take another nap. That is until Sarah, the oldest of their litter, draped a scarf over his head and called to him again. He looked up to find the rectangle barking quietly in her hand.
The woman in the painting sat patiently. She waited and drank her coffee, the best she's ever had in this city. Selena closed her eyes and took a deep breath as she brought the cup up to her. Her lipstick smudged, the woman could feel it, but she smiled to herself. She'd already feigned perfection for too long to deny herself this simple pleasure. The dinner had been a success. Her performance of being a prim and proper lady, yet fun and adventurous, New York lady had brought her company to her knees. With just her words and a few glances from up beneath her lashes, held just a bit too long between friends, she was able to secure a building in a beautiful area of Brooklyn. She thanked her mother for her greatest inheritance, her Latin heritage.
Due to countless trips through central and South America, Selina had been able to converse with investors in their native tongues, as well as that of the Colonizer. Throwing in a bit of indigenous language and slang words from the streets of their home country, she the utmost trust of the some of the wealthiest and most connected human beings in New York. For the time being.
Selina took another long sip of her coffee, her ears perked as she heard the twinkling of bells that hung above the door on the other side of the café. Under hooded eyes, Selina winked to the waitress. In a swift fluid movement, she disappeared behind the counter. The waitress flicked her sleek bangs back into place, but not before the newcomer caught her eyes. A dazzling faded green shone despite the damage done to them. The new comer committed that color to memory. She would use that color for a new project. A new palette perhaps or maybe an eyeliner. She'd doubt a lip would sell but she'd still explore her options. Perhaps, she thought, she'd just end up painting her eyes, for hours. She could create a whole gallery playing with the ideas, intentions, and stories that danced behind those eyes. Eyes that spoke volumes now that she was finally silent for once. The artist locked eyes with Selina, sharing a tiny laugh neither could quite stifle.
The artist sat in a flurry of cloth and lavender perfume.
“Don't use your tricks on me mi vida, I know you and your face.”
The artist smiled beneath her scarf. She unfastened the bit of cloth clipped near her ear and allowed the fabric to settle into her usual hijab. Her lips were painted a soft brown purple, a delicate neutral color to match the lilac petals that graced her long dress and overcoat. A stark contrast of colors to the one she was wearing the previous night.
“What do we have today, beloved?” She replied in a teasing tone.
The waitress brought out two more lattes, a delicious platter of quesadillas, and a Mediterranean style salad. After prayers, both woman dug into their meals, lipstick be damned.
The waitress fell back, listening intently as she bussed the table to their right.
“ We have a home.”
“Yesssssss” the waitress hissed. The two women smiled at the younger girl's antics
“And we have a storefront.“
“All in one?” The artist asked, letting a bit of her Syrian accent slip into her speech. “America is truly a wonderful place.”
The waitress Selena smiled, her toothy grin nearly reflective in the cafe’s low light as she took her bustling tray behind the counter.
“Diana!” her mother called.
Diana whipped her head around, peering over her shoulder. Her little feet carried her to the edge of the staircase. With her back to the wall, she carefully inspected the floor below her. Shadows had not yet appeared at bottom of the stairs, but she had little time to spare.
With a trained grace she sprinted back towards the painting. There nestled between countless others, was the painting of the woman in the automat. The dark hues of green and yellow catching in the early afternoon light is what first attracted her to the woman years ago.
“Diana? It’s time for your lessons.”
Diana waved her hands in front of the painting, “End scene!” she whispered.
The women in the painting looked at her and nodded.
Selena addressed the artist. “We’ll have to do this again.” she said standing up. The artist adjusted her coat and nodded. Selena reached out and shook the artist’s hand. A small slip of paper passed between them.
“There’s a quaint little coffee shop with a yellow awning two blocks from the L train and another two blocks from our new home. Three bedroom, the entire building, across from the bookstore.”
“Let's say seven?” the artist replied, tying the rope of the coat.”
“Hurry!” Diana pleaded. Her mother’s familiar footsteps were loudly being carried up as she ascend the stairs.
“Seven it is.” Selena sat down again as her friend waved her final goodbye and left the cafe, the door in a corner the painting could not portray. By the counter, again not visible, to Diana or anyone else in the house, sat a plate of coffee and quesadillas. The waitress locked the door behind the artist and slipped carefully back into her place behind the counter.
It was too late to slip away, not enough time to hide. So instead, Diana ran, her feet slapping loudly against the floor as she ran head first into her mother.
Surprised, yet all knowing, her mother caught Diana’s head in her hands before she could hurt her in any way.
Diana’s gaze rose to meet her mother’s, “Were you calling me?”
God is a woman with a bad attitude. She's a bitch that takes henny in a red cup instead of shot glasses. She holds you up and tells you you're pretty and her eyes cut like knifes through the next bitch that gets in her way. She's too quick to forgive and she knows bc when she does everything goes slow and theirs no movement or progression. It's cold and blue and a little gray and that's scary. Too scary. So she lets herself get mad and that's how hell was made, when you crossed her. God is the type of bitch to want you to be ok even when she's not. She'll tell you to fuck that guy if you really want to but chastise herself for wanting to hold hands or a kiss on the cheek. She made water when the flood gates opened and she cried out all her shame into creation. When she held her head and bawled into sheets like rushing river water over a cliff. She has Earth in her heart and her bones and under her feet fitted in heavy doc martins and painted eyebrows. She's air when she traces the contours of her face with different colors and fascinations. She laughs like baby and fights like a heavy weight. She'll kick your ass and wear her bruises with pride because she earned them. She'll travel the world and fill her eyes with stars just to come home and tell you all about it. She'll set herself on fire and the wrong times and put herself out too quickly to be healthy. She needs time to breath and think and make decisions and
I thought I had lost. People all around me were telling me that if he was so obsessed with me, maybe he loved me. That if he still wanted me after he already had a girlfriend, maybe there was something behind that hatred in his eyes, something I could coax out of him. But I didn't want to coax him. I didn't want to find the man under the beast. I wanted to be done. I was so ashamed of myself for losing that I shut down.
And what cut me up inside was that I didn't know how to win. I didn't know what I had to do to stop this. For a long time I did nothing. But then I got mad. Like really mad. A gradually building rage that gave way to a blind fury. And it never forgot. It didn't forget how he blamed me, how he pushed me around, how he had his friends follow me everywhere. It didn’t forget that every day I wanted to throw up my every emotion, purge until I was a husk. It didn't forget how he shuffled his new girlfriend around, how he positioned her right in front of me at all times, and how, when she wasn’t around, he believed he was was free to put his hands on me. It didn't forget that though I was his, he wasn't mine.
Eventually that part of me, that anger, burned up every part of him I had in me. Like setting a match to a thin red string, nothing connected us anymore. Our "relationship" went up in flames, and so did my mercy. Fuck him. Fuck his abuse, fuck his stalking, fuck his friends who took pictures of me wherever I went, fuck all of it. Maybe I couldn't win all at once, but maybe I could win a little every day.
I started with his ego. No longer was he allowed to have my attention, the thing he craved. The thing that made him stare at me all hours of the day: during class, and lunch, and gym. No. No more good morning texts or how was your days or cute little compliments about how smart he was. No. You know who could have my attention instead? Everyone else.
I became a cheerleader. I picked up my pompoms and shot out compliments like T-shirts from an air cannon. And it worked. Every day I gained a couple more allies, and even though I felt dead inside I had people who would sit with me at lunch or hang out with me after school and cared about me as much as I grew to cared about them. It drove him nuts. Because I hadn't spoken to him in months but I had spoken to everyone else. When I lifted up a girl for her outfit or lay my hand on the shoulder of some guy, he could hear my voice but he couldn't have me. He was constantly reminded of who he lost. He had to remember me while I was forgetting him.
My favorite place to cheerlead was gym. One early, crisp March morning, my gym class was led out onto the baseball field. The morning dew seeped into our sneakers as we side-stepped goose droppings. We were lining up for the last baseball game of the season. Since I had plenty of friends in this class—both on my team and the other—it wasn't so bad, except for the fact that he was standing directly in front of me. Fifty feet away, daring me to look at him the way he was looking at me. He never stopped staring at me, as if I were the only thing he needed to see. While I had gotten very good at timing and avoiding his gaze, that day I needed something extra. I needed a push. I didn't know in what way, but I needed something, and I needed it right then. That need made me stand up, cross the dusty pathway from our makeshift dugout and offer to take the next swing. If he wanted to look at me, I'd give him something to look at.
I'd never been good at baseball. I never got past second base. But when I stepped up to the plate, all my friends pressed up against the gate to watch me: "Come on Sarah, you got this, you can do this. Get it Sarah!" I swung and missed.
"Walk it off Sarah, don't worry just walk it off." Swung again and punted it.
"Run, Sarah, run! Run!"
“Nah, I don't want it."
"Oh, she don't want it. She don't want it, coach, run it back!"
Two strikes, two outs. I took a deep breath, locked my eyes on the ball. Then I noticed him move to stand right behind the pitcher. He looked at me with his shit-eating grin, an evil glint in his eye as a tangled-up word fell from his lips with the morning breeze. Miss. I wasn't particularly angry that day. But seeing that unadulterated anger and desire, all of it directed at me, I couldn't control myself any more. I let myself slip on a level that I could only describe as divine female fury. My eyes were still locked with his when then the ball cracked against the metal bat. And they never left. Not until he was forced to duck as my ball when flying for the space between his eyes. I took off running before he hit the ground and I got to second base.
Unfortunately, he wasn't harmed and second base was the one he decided to guard next. Not officially, of course, he was too cool to participate. But his friend was at second, and that gave him an excuse to walk over and plant himself right behind me. He kicked up grass and dirt and made a big show trying to get me to look over at him. But I didn't, and I wouldn't because I didn't have to.
Now, when dealing with a predator, you have to remember there is always someone bigger and stronger than them. So my cheerleading was not only to make more friends, but to find someone further up the food chain. The guy after me made it to first, and then the apex of apexes stepped up to the plate. Let's call him “Tyler.” Tyler, who was sexier, stronger, sweeter. Tyler, whose melanin glistened in the mid-morning sun as he held the bat confidently in his hands. Tyler was the best of the best. He usually dominated every sport, but that day wasn’t a good one for him. Foul after foul, strike after strike, he couldn't get a decent hit. And my team liked to decimate the competition, it wasn't a victory until we could smear it in our friends faces like the goose shit that stained our sneakers. And Tyler, my Tyler, was putting our much deserved victory lap on the line.
The bases were loaded, it was bottom of the ninth, and we needed one more point to win. With two strikes in and his last swing coming up, something in the back of my mind took hold of my spine, straightened it, and cupped my hands to my lips.
"Tyler!" I called. Every pair of eyes turned toward me. "Take me home!"
I have never seen a home run go so far . As the crack of the ball hitting the bat filled the air, we took off. The first guy hit home. I stepped on third and looked over my shoulder—they were still looking for the ball. I hit home. The guy behind me hit home. When Tyler finally rounded the corner, he slammed two feet on home base, releasing a cloud of dust into the air, and scooped me up in his arms. As the bell rang, he pressed a grin to my neck, and we walked off the fields still in each other’s arms.
I took band for six years. I can never forget the high you get when the natural push and pull of the piece sets the whole band adrift and off anchor. When everything starts setting into place, no one’s late or sharp, and that weird turn in the wind section is smoothened out. Or when a particularly loud jump piece in the brass section is clear and sturdy. The whole room starts churning. Every individual kid has their tick, and in that moment, it’s set in motion. Whether it’s the Stevey Wonder, leg shaking, or flailing elbows, they move in that way that only starts up when everything is ok. Everything is perfect and no mistakes are made. One person is one section is one group is one band.
The frizzy conductor is trying hard to keep her excitement to herself. To orchestrate our pride into notes and phrases, each properly in its place to create something chaotic. As we look up to keep our place, we can see her try to hide her smile behind professionalism and hope for the best. We smile against our instruments and press on. Hoping to fill her with as much pride as we have filled ourselves with. As each rough patch is evened out, and each sharp is no longer flat but tuned, awe grows in our throats as we just might finish a piece perfectly. When the last few notes trickle into the last bang, we stop. And look up. And cheer for the most amazing thing we have ever heard. The most amazing set things we have ever made. Nothingness and every-thingness collide in the 5 minutes of 45 minutes of class time that was just insanely perfect.
We know in the backs of our hearts we’ll never be able to pull that off on stage. But it isn’t totally about the stage. It’s about us and what we did. A random mishmash of kids slapped together in a room, whose only reason to be there at all is because our parents didn’t let us quit band. But it was worth it. It was all worth it. The headaches and anger and buses and performances. For a moment we were able to bear witness and swim with euphoria. In the purest form of the word, we were free. All of us. Free from everything. Work, money, class, grades, home, friends, enemies, past, future. It was all present. Every second was now and we watched the seconds passed flit by our head. Disappeared but not forgotten. Look back but not yet, when we’re done. We’re almost there. We’ve almost made it.
That’s how I feel when I write. When I draw even, it’s all connected in my head. When I write, I can feel the ocean in thin air. My head bobs with the rhythm of the current as I write, and write, and write. When it’s good, I can feel that high. I can feel chaos and order collide. Random words snatched from the air and placed into neat little sentences. I can see the feeling of pink and the red and the blue bleed into each other as I type words on the page. I can feel more than I had and more than yesterday. On a good day. On a bad day I know it’s not coming and to try again later, next time, or tomorrow. But it’s that try again that gets me. Try again. For the high.
The words are just as important as the high itself. Without meaning there’s no reason, without reason there’s no drive. No drive no elevation, no elevation no high. There’s a point to all this. There’s some significance to the madness. Mostly it’s about me. As I’ve been told, most aspiring writers write about their own experience, so I’m not a complete narcissist. Something that’s happening or has happened that is just so great for my tiny human body that it doesn’t fit in such a state. Reds have scribbled with blues and black scratch at the grays and I can’t think straight without a scribble scribbling in my way. Writing it down makes it intelligible, readable. And apparently remarkable. Apparently what I have to say is important, and apparently I’m an important person. In the most general sense of the word. Knowing that is important to me. Knowing that what I write down is what I feel is valid. And validated, eventually. Writing what I say is important, because I often don’t know if it’s important or not. And if it is, by how much? Enough to keep going? Is it enough to keep trying? Sometimes it’s enough for a good day. Enough to practice with the band, and enough to swim with euphoria.
“Come on Raven. You know you want to. Take it, and you can take it all back.”
The red smoke caught the reflection of the glowing gem. Every shade between pitch black and scarlet flickered around the room. The temple walls to dripping in a surreal landscape, only to solidify when she looked dead at it. It confused her more. She held her hands to her heart clasped together in hopes to make her feel strong. She was scared. More than scared. What it offered was much too powerful to consider, and yet, she did.
“Raven don’t!” Michael’s desperate cry was muffled by the thick glass-like wall that separated him from her. The rest of the team was stuck behind similar glass walls, but she could barely here them either. Michael ran the fastest, so he was stuck closest to her.
Raven knew the glass had to be a result of some form of magic. However with everything going on around her, she lumped it with the rest of what that tried to unhinge her.
Whatever unholy spirit that they releases upon finding the temple circled around her. It had a mask on, something dating the age of the temple, or older. It was mostly air, but could solidify at will. It now used its hands to push her closer to the floating amulet. “Come on Raven. You know you want to forget. You want to let it all go.” Its tail wrapped around her in a sickeningly sharp trail of smoke. Her eyes widened, the temptation gripping at her heart. Something pathetic in her twisted. The spirit had been feeding on her fear the moment she stepped into the temple. It had been searching and prying for something it could use. The biggest something it could find. It clawed its way into the deepest, most buried part of her psyche and dragged it to the surface world. She knew what it was a second before it spoke, but it was not enough time to act.
“You want to forget all about that first kiss...” It chuckled. As tears stained her eyes, the spirit laughed menacingly under its breath and smiled wickedly, holding its hands together in front of it. “And every moment after.”
She tried to shake her head, she tried to push away, step back, show in any way, shape, or form that she wouldn’t give in. But it was all too tempting.
The team stopped pounding on the glass when they heard the bait. Raven winced as she heard four sharp intakes of breath. It had been nearly a year since the incident with Valdin. They knew Raven was hurt, but they didn’t pry. They couldn’t. They saw her play ball with the boys. She made an effort to stay for movie night. She was more social, if it was a couple minutes more than usual. She smiled. She was alone. Never did they think that she hadn’t fully healed.
Michael put his bare hand on the glass, holding his glove in the other hand. “Raven.”
She looked up and locked eyes with him. She felt vulnerable. She felt as if she would shatter into a million pieces and still feel the shame drip off her like the sin it was. She had to turn away.
The air shifted around her slowly, indicating the spirit was moving. “You want the pain to go away. You want the anger and the frustration and the shame to disappear. You want that feeling of betrayal carved into a knife to stop twisting in your back!” Her eyes shot open and her body expanded with a shock of pain as the feeling came rushing back into her heart. It had manifested the cold, burning sensation of the memory and plunged it back into her until it was very, very real again. Michael screamed as he saw the electric blue knife twist in her back. “NO!” David and Michael’s efforts redoubled on their respective glass in vain, only to be in vain. Richard and Mariana’s couldn’t recover, however. They just stared, Richard hunched over, looking as if he were going to heave at any moment. Mari put her weight into the glass and cried, tears falling down her red puffy cheeks while she desperately tried to think of something to save her friend from this agony. Raven’s head rose up and fell back, irises flashing between sharp purple and a dull gray. The knife twisted further, each cut brought back more and more painful memories. And shame. She missed them. They were almost happy memories. It held on to her shoulder and pushed her down, using the knife to push her into the temple ground an twisted one more time with a smile. She couldn’t stop crying, and she clawed desperately into the stone ground, trying to find a hold on something.
It laughed, and with its free hand. It shoved the amulet into her vision with quickly splintering apathy. “TAKE IT.” It said with disgust. “You are pathetic and weak and you need it. Stop the pain! Take back that day.” It pushed her forward, her nose nearly touching the tip of the gem. It was mad, almost jealous of her attachment to it.
It was offering her to take back the day she first met him. Literally. The amulet would give her time to go back and rewrite her memory. She would have the chance to stop herself before she fell in too deep. She could destroy the book cursed with his spirit and never have to bother with it again. She could use it to erase that awful memory forever.
But that wasn’t what they were there for. They were assigned to bury the gem not use it. To protect it, not abuse its power. She couldn’t disrespect someone’s culture like that. Not when hers was ripped from her hands as a child.
So why offer it? It didn’t mean much to her besides the potential it gave. It was temptation wrapped up in a little bow and thrust in her face like coke to an addict. The empath needed release, and relief. But the spirit’s need to make it personal didn’t make sense. Why did sound as if it was taking her greatest mistake to its twisted, mangled excuse for a heart?
Turning so swiftly the tears fell from her eyes, she waved away the smoke around her and looked into the eyes of the mask. It stared back, its eyes glowed implosively, and the spell broke. It was him. Valdin. Dressed in robes of the temple that must have been his so many years ago. This was how he got his power when he whispered to her as a book on her shelf. How he invaded her dreams long after the fight and tried to convince her again. This was how he was able to try and break her again into letting him free, before she tossed the book into the nearest black hole in tears. For months it has nagged at her, drained her, ate at her patience and wore her out until she nearly cracked. And now he looked down at her with what little power he had left and angrily yelled, “DO IT!
“Take that day Raven back. Stop it from happening.” He fell to his knees beside her harshly. His voice just barely trembled with tears that reflected his anger. Spit flew from his lips as he spoke, in a desperate attempt to get his point across. “But where you go. I go.”
They both turned to the gem. It glowed with a light that no longer seemed to come from within. It was feeding of something, and it didn’t even know it. It just hung, dumbly, inches above the ground. Waiting for the command to take her and Valdin back to that day for just a couple minutes to ruin every second that came after that. She would have a second chance at saving herself but he would have a second chance at ending her. It was too much, too much around her. The floor crumbled and wind from God knows where spun the ancient everything around the temple, flowing even through the glass that still held the other titans in place. It stung and it hurt and it scraped at her and she just wanted it all to stop.
He pulled back her hair, and the whole world went black, and waited, as he whispered, “Take me with you, Raven.”
Take him back to that day.
She held her hand up, palm facing them gem. Her voice filled the room yet she never moved her lips. A bright blue orb encased the gem like a bubble and popped, falling into whatever dimension she threw them both in. With one more, hard, drawn out twist, he blew away, tied to the amulet to follow it where ever it went.
Most of the temple disappeared with it, leaving them in the lower levels to look up at the blue sky above them. It looked so close yet so far away. Not that she was looking. She was on the ground, her legs drawn up under her, hugging her arms to tightly you could call it a clutch. Her eyes were drawn to one fixed point on the stone floor as she tried to stop the tears from flowing and the knife from twisting on its own. Grateful that her hair shielded her face, she heard her friends slowly walk up to her with caution.
“Raven...,” Richard tried.
“Why’d you stop us?” Michael asked. Curt, but filled with grief. He couldn’t bear to see her this way.
Her throat caught, the tears were held back, and she took a shaky breath in an attempt to save face. Then, she pulled back a hand, reaching for the knife sticking out of her back.
He turned to me, with a heart so heavy you could see it in his eyes. He was so full of sorrow he could barely look at me, peeking through his lashes instead, trying not to let me see the tears that were building up behind “
“What do you mean let it burn? This is important to you! You can’t just let it burn u-“
“Yes I can and yes I will.” I felt like a general, ordering him around. I hated when I did that. When the feelings flow out of my body and into the ground and I’m devoid of any emotion. The residue it leaves under my skin stings when he talks and I have to ignore the burning sensation. I have to.
“But what about you? You need this you can’t let them take this from you!”
“They need me.”
My eyes slid from the horizon to rest on him, traveling up his body in a quick fluid motion. First on his chest, his shirt dirty with travel. Then his neck, bandaged and bruised. Then up his chin, along the line of his jaw, jumped to his nose and finally the space between his eyes before I was ready to look at him. He wouldn’t notice.
Whatever he was about to say caught in his throat with an audible crack. Ashamed, he looked away, throwing his hands in the air and then into his hair. Sparks of energy danced over his fingers. He was so beautiful when he’s mad. I tried to ignore that, but ignoring hurt too. It ignited the rest of the residue left inside like a match to a flame. I took the opportunity to wipe away a tear, tossing it to the ground, flicking it off the tip of my finger.
I put one hand on his shoulder. He turned to me with his eyes widened and wild.
“None of it will be worth it if you don’t get home.” He said
“Yes it will.”
“No it won’t! You can’t keep sacrificing yourself for everyone!” This time he held onto both my arms, pressing them against the sides of my body.
I smiled lightly and pathetically. Stepping away from him I lifted my hands up in front of me. “Didn’t I tell you? There is no home.”
His eyes went wide. He stammered and stared, trying to piece it all together.
A soft chuckle escaped from the back of my throat. “They’re all gone. Lands claimed, cultures destroyed. Only a few of us remember. That,” I motion to the necklace, “won’t lead anyone anywhere. It’s gone now.”
“For now.” He says, as if his word were law.
I nod. “For now. They have no more fight left. They’re tired. They’ve tried.”
“But why is it your responsibility? You’re not even blood!” He cups my cheeks in his hands, using his thumb to trace the salty trail from the tear that stained it.
“You can’t get me out of this. We have a plan. It affects too many to stop now. We need to end this.”
“Yes and it’s a good plan! But everyone is safe except you! You’re the one sticking your neck out for everyone out there! For the whole world! We could come up with something different. Something that won’t risk your life.”
“I won’t die.”
“But you’re willing to!”
I smile again. The tears are running freely along his face, but to his credit, he’s kept his voice from cracking again. He can do that. It’ll be alright if he cries. I’ll be strong for him. For both of us. I’ll be strong for everyone. I place my hands over his and step a little closer. “Just let ‘em try.”
It filled up again. He was trying to push it down but it filled up again. He stood up taller, either to make some room or assert some dominance, maybe both. But it spilled out of him. He held onto me before it crashed over his head, his chin digging into my shoulder, his arms wrapping around the small of my back. He held me tighter than he’s ever held me before. He noticed.
I wrapped my arms around his neck and stroked the nape of his neck. His hair was inviting, yet the color challenged the night sky above us.
I allowed myself to slip into the crevices of his body saved for me. I felt like water. Taking in the warmth of him, I let myself relax into his hold. I let everything go, let everything fall away. Let myself become vulnerable, I could be here, I was safe here.
“They will.” He cracked
Those words sent shockwaves from the center of my chest out. Emotions cut under my skin and swirled violently inside until they found what they wanted and broke me. I choked back a sob, and then I wept into his shoulder, loudly and shamelessly. He answered me with his own desperate cries and we held onto each other as filled the night sky with tears of anguish. Winds pushed against and around us until we were buried within the center of a funnel. No one would notice. No one would notice a windstorm powered by anger and magic. Of love lost but never forgotten. Of families displaced and killed. Of the power we held, passed down from the ones we loved in death rather than in life.
It was hard. So, so hard to be strong. But that doesn’t mean I won’t be.
When we finally calmed down, I found myself staring up stars. The desert air was dry and cold. The plateau we lay on seemed to push up against us, little pebbles found their way into my shirt, in my hair. He laid next to me, with is arms around me. His nose buried in my neck. He fell asleep with words on his lips, they dribbled down, trying to escape as he slept. For a second, I let myself wish I could catch them. I’d hold them from the cord my necklace was held from. If we hadn’t thrown it in.
That map on a cord led nowhere now. With this I’ll make it somewhere. I already know the way.
I let myself to what I came up here to do in the first place. Placing my hands on the ground, I closed my eyes and looked up to the night sky using the space between my eyes. I threw up a silent prayer, and allowed the gift to be received.
Energy flowed from the ground like ribbons. Snakelike, like is inhabitants, it bit into my back gently and firmly, creating a tether. I took a deep breath, and strengthened the anchor. It filled me up with a bright blue light. Then the winds held onto my nose and gave up their gift readily, a bright blue tinting my skin. In almost celebration, the air picked up and the wind pushed and pulled itself around me. It screamed with triumph and impending victory. A promise. I heard it as the last gift was received. A shining purple vine dove from the sky and gently presses against my third eye. My soul greeted every gift with relief and welcome. The gifts came with power and responsibility.
I looked like I’d just stepped off the battle field. Ice cream that looked too much like blood stained my supposedly blue tee shirt. With the back of my wrist, I pushed my once shiny hair back haphazardly towards what would have once been a pony tail. It was maybe the only clean surface I had left. There’s only so much sweet one can take before the sticky starts to seep in the very membrane of your soul. One foot lifts to scratch at the never ending plethora of fly bites. The plastic screen door crashes into place as I walk away from the fridge. Each step sends a dull ache deep within my feet and I wonder how I’ll bear the walk here to the bus stop.
Customers start to fill the old fashioned ice crème shoppe. The sun sets over the ocean, and I bet they think this is romantic. A wonderful way to end the evening. It is, admittedly, and they can’t be rude to me when they think they’re gonna make a scrapbook worthy memory, so I serve them their ice-cream and assorted beverages with a smile.
It would have been perfect if it were one or two people. I could even deal with an array of families, that’s cool. But suddenly the half the beach decides at five in the evening that it’s so unbearably hot that they should trek three and a half miles to the top of this ridiculous castle structure for ice cream. The line starts to stretch towards the door, half naked and fairly drenched beach goer’s shuffle uncomfortably in the cool artificial breeze of the overhead air-conditioning. What was a quiet afternoon of mind-numbing nothingness quickly turned into an anxiety driven rush to get out orders. At my call, the burger guy rushed out to grab a scoop as I took orders. Whiny brats shoved their sand-ridden appendages over my nice clean counter. Even whiney-er adults filled half drawled orders once, twice, three times over, simultaneously disciplining and spoiling their kids in public. One little girl actually throws a dime my way, expecting me to dive after it in all my underpaid glory. Jokes on her. I still get a dime.
Soon it begins to be just a bit too much. A bit too much starts to be way too much. Burger Guy disappears to wake the boss.
There’s a just and undeniable fact that this guy looks like a walrus. His beady little eyes, his lazy sleeping habits, the way his mustache forces its presence on his face. I bet he thinks it’s attractive. He tries to use it to smile at pretty moms on the off chance any show up. He lifts it up over his mouth to allow his toothy smile to just barely peek through. It twitches back and forth over the crowded expanse of his face as he tries out some base form of mating ritual on the totally suspecting mom. She almost always places a hand, the one with the ring, on the back of her child’s head and leads them away towards the ketchup station with an uneasy smile. His chin hits his chest, and rueful mutterings can just barely be heard over his shuffling feet. I almost feel sorry for him. Then I remember he’s going to sleep in the back while two fifteen year olds do all the dirty work of maintaining a crumbling establishment. He also has this air about him I can’t place. Later, I learn that’s called “entitlement.”
He lumbered out the back room grumpy and mean. He swept his hands over his face over and over again, and I wondered if he ever planned on washing them. He took one look at the ever growing line and clapped his hands together.
“Good! Look like you’ve both got it under control.” And turned to walk away.
Out of the corner of my eye, I catch the customer’s questioning irritation. He wants his ice cream. Him and his kids. Him and his bratty, spoiled kids that are currently running around the place like a couple of brats. Their sandy sticky fingers touch absolutely everything. Everything I have to clean. Their father and his spoiled arrogance, so sure that he deserved this ice cream that he waggles his credit card in the air. Random people in the line decide on ice cream flavors we don’t have or refuse to serve because it’s spoiled. The boss’s back is presented to me and Burger Guy’s face flips from relaxed indifference to shocked exhaustion. My brows push together. Suddenly I’ve abandoned my spot at the cash register.
“No!” I place one hand on his arm. His eyes hold contempt but he’s too shocked to let it all the way through. “We need someone on orders and he,” I throw one arm out towards Burger Guy “can’t read them.”
He picked up a scoop. “Fine.” Burger Guy was quick to fall into place as he threw me a grateful half smile. Taking up my place back at the register, I enjoy at least 18 unadulterated minutes of pure working class bliss. The customers were nice, the orders were done, and the line was moving. Everything was clean, efficient, and easy going.
Until it became clear that the Walrus spent 18 minutes making one milkshake. One glance over and I could tell Burger Guy had filled and re-filled out all seven orders by himself and was struggling with his eighth. What I thought was a forth milkshake being mixed was actually Walrus’s fourth try on getting the exact milk to ice cream ratio it takes get the blender to actually work. And what I thought was going to be my 19th unadulterated minute of efficiently earned bliss, was actually the minute Walrus threw his hands in the air and demanded that I, new name “Girl,” let him onto the register and to put myself on ice cream.
He soon realized if he couldn’t read the abbreviations on the order ticket, there was no way he could place them on the touch screen register. So he did what any level headed manager would do. He guessed. As gracefully has he could with a long, loud series of uummm’s and ahhhh’s as possible.
And soon enough, some regular douchebag came along to challenge his title. Apparently the line was too long for his liking, the food too pricey, and the cashier too off-putting. At some point in their deep philosophical conversation they started fighting. It was a real pissing contest. So big they had to let everyone know. What were tight, ignorable remarks, turned into giant arm-flailing shouts. Burger Guy and I stood hunched over ice cream with wide eyes. There was a silent exchange of glances in which we asked ourselves how much this job is really worth.
Walrus shoved the customer’s finger out of his face and walked briskly away. “You asshole!” they both shouted. “You asshole I don’t need this! I don’t need this treatment! You know what you can do with that ice cream-!”
We watched them both depart, bystanders parted like the Red Sea to allow them both to leave their respective exits. Slowly, very slowly, as to not upset anyone else, I tip-toed over towards the register. A blonde woman with parted lips, someone the angered customer left behind, stared blankly at me, unable to speak. I flicked between her, the lit screen, and the stunned crowd behind her, and with a hushed tone I asked, “Would you like whipped cream on that?”
Climbing on to the 1 train, I thought nothing of the other passengers. They were just part of the setting at this point, supporting characters I came across on my way home. The major plot would begin again in Baldwin, where I would see my friends and family and continue on with my day. The trains were limbo. Not real. Time stopped and started, the only difference between the two being the emotion held in the passengers eyes’. Calm and bored when it stopped. Wide and alert when it started. His eyes were wider than they should have been. They never stopped being wide. Wide and alert and… uneasy. I watched him to determine if his danger could be my own.
Two boys had made it on seconds before the shiny gray doors closed behind them. The first one resumed the conversation they must’ve had on the platform. They spoke in a dialect too close to my own to ignore. The patois was slurred and messy, it sounded like home. But it wasn’t enough to pick out Spanish Town or Kingston. They had messy mops of hair and yellow-brown skin that shone under the harsh lighting. Their white, easy smiled matched their relaxed posture as they held on to their respective railing. I retreated back into my head to figure out where they were from, only to be drawn out again by the man’s sudden retreat. The same wide eyed man that was wearing a dull brown over coat and carried a leather briefcase. He was old and well dressed, his wrinkles betraying his age. He looked as if he were being hunted. He looked terrified, but as I looked around, I found no immediate threat. No knife, no gun, no angry guy wielding both. So I relaxed and let my head hit the metal doors behind me.
The boys looked like brothers. They paid no mind to the other passengers around them, only lowering their voices when someone in the story cursed. Which never would have been understood amongst all the Yankees around them, but it was the thought that count. They were practically singing their words. I smiled to myself and tried to listen carefully. But the wide-eyed man wasn’t done. He moved to the middle of the car, then back half way. He kept his eyes on the boys the whole time, ready to make his move, whatever that was. He clutched the strap of his leather bag in his fist and waited impatiently for his stop to open up in front of him. Once or twice, the boy speaking would lock eyes with wide-eyed man. He shook his head and gathered up all his brother’s attention, the way big brother’s do to protect their little siblings.
I smiled at the part where big brother and his absent friend didn’t know what to do with a random drunkard in their way, when wide-eyed man stepped between us. I looked at him. Now he had an air of self-righteousness. His chin in the air and his back straight. He had a purpose. What that was I still don’t know but it was obviously very important to him. He placed his body between mine and theirs’ taking up the free breathing room in the car. I rolled my eyes. It was as if there was something he knew that I didn’t. Something truthful and omnipresent. That there was something about twenty-something year-old brown guys with accents that was reason enough to shift from relaxed to alert.
I got off at the next stop. Stepping through the space the two boys had made for departing passengers, I step onto the platform and swung back into my normal hurried pace. One shoe clacking in front of the other, I scrolled through my music and I tried my very best to ignore the smell of piss.
Later, I stared out the window at the soft pink clouds, bobbing my head to familiar reggae music.
His shoulder shoved roughly into mine as we made our way off the wall.
The rusty orange hue of the public high school gym yawned open as struggled to look like I wasn’t struggling. I placed one foot in front of the other, over and over again, a steady pace designed to look natural. I tried to remember how to breathe. Autopilot guided me toward the dark blue mat we were supposed to preform our midterm fitness test on. It was disgusting. But I couldn’t help but notice the streaks of cleaner that stained the mat, and I appreciated the effort. Dasia held down my feet, while I tried to hold down my lunch. He knelt down next to her, his body facing his friend. His name is Dallas. He wanted to look me in the eye. Well, he wants me to look him in the eye. He’s already looking at my eyes. I didn’t give him the pleasure.
From the moment he followed me to the mat I knew what this was. It was another challenge, another test. Another poke and another prod tmy every movement. He was analyzing and deconstructing everything I did, trying to guess if this was the day I’d crack. If this was the day I’d forgive him.
My shoulders connected with the sickeningly sticky mat. Every movement would result in the disgusting sound of skin being ripped from worn plastic. My shoulders tensed and shot up to my ears as I tried to avoid the inevitable. I allowed only the cloth of my tank top to touch its surface.
Their voices taunted me. I tried to drown them out, talking to Dasia in the most light-hearted tone I could manage. She joked about friendly competition, how she’d beat my record because she was in better shape than I was. Track-star legs aren’t wash board abs I countered. She poked at my stomach and we laughed. But not loud enough to drown out the ugly words slipped from his friend’s mouth.
“Damn this floor is hard. I’d hate to be in the female’s position.”
I just barely registered his words through the fuzzy haze of anger that flooded my vision. They cackled in my ear. Not only was Dallas hurting me, but so was his friend. All his friends. He had an army. I was alone. Facing me as I didn’t them, they projected their sickening voices at me. Bows taunt with the arrows of today’s harsh words and half-hearted apologies. They let them fly without a second thought, only to regroup and reexamine when I didn’t flinch. I don’t think they’ll ever truly know the pain I never let cross my features. I had to take it. I didn’t know what else to do. I didn’t know what this was called yet. That this kind of thing had a name. All I knew was they wanted me to hurt. This was today’s dose of hurt.
Today’s daily dose of hurt was at the very least consistent, and consisted of the following traits; dehumanization, subordination, sexism, and sensory overload. I was attacked at all angles, eight hours a day, five days a week, for six months. I walked the battle field disguised as a school building blind, not knowing what was happening or why it was happening. It was a war I never signed up for and yet I was fighting for my life. The rights to my life, I should say. He wanted to own me.
I guess his problem was he never really had me. He picked one girl over the other and never really ended up on top. But I guess that’s what happens when you want a wifey, a mistress, and girlfriend. He thought very big of himself. He thought he was above feeling and heartbreak and intimacy.
At 17, he was livid when I made him realize he wasn’t the big baller shot caller he thought he was. And that made him angry. Very angry. You see, as I walked down the streets of my hometown and up the hallways of my high school, I knew I didn’t need him. I just needed him to get the fuck away from me. He felt as if there were no need to ignore him. He’s admitted serval times that this whole thing was my fault and claimed no responsibility. This wasn’t his fault and his word was law so I should just accept that. But I didn’t. And he knew that. And he hurt me for it.
Living this way is like waking through a minefield. Watch your step. Watch your every movement. One wrong move could blow up in your face. Don’t be at the wrong place at the wrong time. Don’t look up. Don’t laugh here. Don’t cry there. Every setting had a list of rules. Every class room had a strict secondary code of conduct. This romantic falling out has created a nuclear subculture. A cult that dragged me in by my ankles as I clawed my way out with my fingernails. I am kicking but not screaming. I have a half plan and no way out. I just want to be safe. I just want to be ok.
Starting the day is probably the most stressful part of the day. We both know we’re there. We know where we are, what buildings we should be in, what classes we have first. I know he’s looking for me. He’s followed me around for so long, he knows my schedule like the back of his hand. I know he’ll try his damnest to find me. And I have to be prepared for it.
First thing of the day, find more friends. The more friends I’m around, the safer I am. The safer I am the more likely I am not to throw up. And that’s a good thing! Let’s try not to throw up today. Ok, friends. Find my friends.
My best friend and I both strut through the doorway, heels hitting the ground first, chins in the air. Her face settles into a relaxed smirk and I appreciate it. I set my face into the standard Bitch Face with a side of I’m Stronger Than You And I Can Prove It Just Try Me. I’ve had to use a lot of that lately. It’s usually reserved for a heavy game of football or a feminist rant that may end up with my life in danger, there by provoking These Hands. I guess there is no difference.
He is of course, right there, right on time. This is where I haphazardly throw all my willpower into keeping a steady face. He finds me instantly. I made the mistake of accidentally making eye contact with him. A freezing strike pierces through my spine. It’s worse than anything outside. Worse than any snow or sleet or chilled rain. Darkness floods the corners of my eyes before I can force them back into submission. I work hard at not falling over. If he sees me upset, he’ll try to fight. He’ll try to win. And we can’t have that. That’s not an option. So I force myself to walk upright, to see clearly, to still my quivering lip, and finish the ten seconds of time before I can safely walk past and away from him. He sneaks and scoots closer to my side of the hallway, trying to get just a little closer this time. But nothing disturbs the sea of students, so diverse and colorful that it reminds me of wild fish pushing up stream. They keep walking collectively to their own lockers, classes, friends. Pushing him and me farther away from each other. Keeping him trapped in the social etiquette rules that prevents him from throwing me against a wall, or harshly grabbing my arm forcing me to look up into his eyes, or anything else I was afraid of. But I’m not afraid. My chin is in the air.
It takes me a couple more seconds to remember how to breathe again. And a couple more to replace the soft rapid half breathes with full even healthy ones. That one hurt a lot. I erase his face from my memory, though unable to wipe away the eyes, as usual. The rest of my friends greet me with a smile I can only hope is genuine. Anyway, that was the hardest part for now. The next hard part is in an hour when he finds me again, and a need to spend that hour building myself back up before the next hard part. So I try. I try to be as strong as possible. I try to cover up the cracks in the armor. To fill them up with cement and scrape it over for a seamless finish, like it was never there. Like this didn’t mean anything. Like I wasn’t hurt. Like I’m better than this. I am better than this. I am, or at least I try to be, strong. Because otherwise, I’d be very weak. And that is very, very dangerous.
Danger was everywhere. It never stopped being dangerous. There was always a threat, always an attack, always somewhere that hurt. I was, quite simply, just never safe. Danger in her world meant being watched, monitored, and assessed. Whispers of command and orders flooded my mind for weeks. He had spies everywhere that followed me everywhere. They never stopped staring either. They had phones in hand, taking pictures and sending detailed messages about my movements, who I was with, what we were talking about.
But they never hurt as bad as the way he looked at me. It wasn’t a longing kind of look. Not an “I’m sorry” or a “please forgive me.” Not a “let’s be friends,” or a “can I borrow a pencil?” No. It was closer to an “I know where you live.” Mostly an “I could kill you I’m that angry.” And at times it was “Why are you talking to him? Why can he talk to you and I can’t? Look at me. Look at me dammit look at me. I’m looking at you. You have to look at me.” Those were the petrifying kinds. Those were the kinds that got me fucked up. The kind that make me look over my shoulder in a city hundreds of miles away from him. It was the kind of look that made my hands shake and my body tremble. The kind that made me choke back vomit every time he tried out a new friend request.
But mostly, it made me angry. And I good with anger. Anger was fire to an Aries. It was power.
I couldn’t tell you when I started getting angry, or why specifically or how. Maybe it was around the time his friends started taking pictures of me. Or maybe it was the fact that this wasn’t wrapped up in a little bow and thrown the fuck away yet. I mean, what was stopping him? What the fuck was stopping him? Why him? Why me? Why was I so important that I took up more of his day than anything else? It didn’t make any sense. And though I was still trying to make sense of it, I didn’t want to take it. So I wasn’t going to.
It was never a direct attack. That would lead back to me and I’d get in trouble because they always pick a boy over a girl just to save the school drama. I knew how this worked. So I had to find a new way to hurt him. A way around the situation. This situation was already delicate. Too fragile to tap at directly. Too hard of a blow and I’d hurt myself in the process. So not there. I won’t touch there. I won’t use my pain to hurt him. I’ll use my strength. I’ll use my versatility.
See, Dallas’s biggest slip was making it very clear that he was the jealous type. He didn’t like to share and he didn’t like to be left out. It made him furious. Furious is what I needed. The more emotional he got, the more confused he was. The more hurt he was. Maybe if I’d hurt him enough, he’d cut his losses and walk away. Maybe if I chose someone else, he’d get it. It was cliché and predictable. It was my best shot at him letting go. He had to learn to let that shit go.
Being a heart breaker never really worked out though. The shaking never went away and I always lost my nerve when it crawled up my throat. Even when guys wanted me I kept my distance from them. I’d never commit. I’d never fold. I’d never give in. My heart had hardened and my guard was up. Psychologically I didn’t know how to take it down. I was stuck. I was stunted.
It was easier to act like a heart breaker. To fake it until I made it. A few winks here and a few arm touches here and suddenly my attention was very, very important to other boys. Not many, but just enough. Just enough to get him fuming. Just enough attention to get them to reach for me, to stop me in the hallways, just to hear my voice for a second. They wanted me but they couldn’t have me. Really couldn’t, I wasn’t ready for that. They just didn’t know that. To them I was a tease, a good girl that fun flirt with. I was reachable but to a certain extent. I was faking it. But I faked it good.
The duality, the switch of me wanting him to him wanting me is mind boggling. I understand now why, I think. He couldn’t not be wanted. Now everyone wants to be wanted, he just has an obsession with it. And then that obsession was attached to me.
Dallas became desperate, but not desperate enough. Not until he asked for me again. An 8:24pm text to make sure he caught me up. Jokes on him, I’d be up until 2 am staring at a wall, I just ignored his late night texts. He came back. He wanted to be friends, he wanted to put the whole thing behind us. He didn’t want to live without me, and he was ready to be human. I didn’t know if I was ready for this, but I was too tired. I was tired of fighting him. So we laughed, and we talked, and we didn’t make plans. He came crawling back, and then I left him hanging. One day I stopped answering.
I guess in a sense I won. I was the asshole that left him hanging. I had him needing me, I had him in the palm of my hand, and let him fall. He was mine. But I guess I was never satisfied with that. I didn’t like that he was so sure of himself. Maybe I caved. Maybe he came crawling, and I’m not ok with the fact that he still wore a smirk on the lips that kissed and lied to me. I’m not ok that he never let go. I don’t know. We never did have closure. We just kept moving forward, and then away.
He needed me. He didn’t need to need me, but he did. He chose to. He asked me to need him too. He demanded me to. He still takes the time to ask. Every once and a while he’ll ask permission to track my life again. To monitor and watch and plan. It’s always a no. I never let him in. But then I feel like a have to prove something. I scramble to find my latest accomplishment. Pump my latest project. The latest boy to flaunt.
I miss Dallas like I miss a good villain. A villain kept me focused, driven, waiting. I spent so much time trying to figure it out, then and now, that when he pops back up, I feel like it’s not over. Tomorrow I’m going to go to school and he’s going to be there and I’m going to fight him again, the way we always do. Like bad lovers. We were bad lovers. But I’m still broken, and he’s still whole. I bet he doesn’t think of me anymore. But I still look over my shoulder.
She smiled gleefully as she buried her face into his fur and squealed with delight. She couldn’t have been happier in the two years she walked the earth. Dorje clutched clumps of her fur in tiny fists and shook her fists back and forth, trying to dive deeper into the warm cloud of fur she had discovered.
The giant Tibetan mastiff lifted its head as it heard the squeal, and looked over its shoulder to find the child still laughing as it buried its head deeper into its back. With a motherly growl, she chomped on the child’s loose shirt and gingerly lifted the baby off her feet. With Dorje in her jaws, Jigme lowered the child to rest onto her chest and wrapped its furry forelegs around her.
Dorje cooed at her new surroundings, yet grew bored of them quickly. She tried to stumble out of her grasp, only allowing Jigme to pull her closer. The dog soon rested its large head on the floor below it and began to snore. Dorje found the doggy snores irresistible. She started to imitate them, laughing quietly when she heard Jigme respond. After hours of previous playtime, she was finally spent, and Dorje rested her tiny head rested against the giant’s shoulder. The weight of it slowly brought her down to nuzzle the base of its neck, and she sighed as she fell into a peaceful sleep. One Jigme did not allow anyone wake her from, even her parents.