Next of kin

I try, I do try, to forget her, because too much time has elapsed to force a reunion, because the distance is too vast to casually cross, because I am certain her feelings for me oscillate within a narrow range bounded by disdain and hate, because no pretense at rekindling feelings would be sufficient to deceive her, because she has grown into a person so different from the one I knew, because I question if I ever knew her at all. Most uncomfortable is the realization that I likely didn’t ever understand her on the level she deserved. We met during my blue period, when I was insecure, superficial, selfish, and motivated only by insecurity, superficiality, and selfishness. In my current phase of life, at least, I am aware of my deficiencies, even if I can’t fully cure them, and I can curtail them when they threaten to knock out the power to my better impulses. If we met today, I promise I would be a better friend to you. If we met today, I promise I would empathize more honestly, share more fully, and forgive more completely.

“Just forget it,” I think, as thoughts of her approach like a stalker at the window, silhouetted in lamplight, lifting a kitchen knife into my line of eyesight. She stares at me through darkness, through dirty, milky glass. I turn contemptuously from the girl-as-specter, as though the force of my disdain—sometimes so cool, so imperious, so lofty—alone could disarm her. “Just forget it,” when the pain refuses to pass, when it lodges like a gallstone in sticky tissue, when it accumulates like microplastic in fetal blood, when it won’t be evicted by any means.

In the map of our lost relationship, a forest of deepest green circumscribes a lake of clearest blue, and beyond the trees, there’s a grassy hill, bare of any flowers. I leave the lake, the edge of my skirt bunched up in my hand, trailing water onto the rocky shore. The old-growth trees offer imperfect, gentle shelter from the light of the setting sun, which falls through the branches and onto moss and leaves in dark-toned splashes of violet, magenta, yellow, silver, blood. I part from the protection of the forest and find myself at the bottom of the hill, holding my breath. The breeze moves through and heightens every splintered sensation. I don’t know what may come from cresting that hill. I don’t know what I will see from the height offered by that vantage point. It’s so hard to avoid the fear, here. But I do try. So I turn around: back through the trees, back across the shore, back into the cool depths of the lake. A hundred steps back until I feel the water cover me in consolation and return me to my familiar fiefdom of night-blooming flowers, icy sidewalks, incomplete declarations, and yellowed sketches taped to the refrigerator, which feel as painful, as crucial, as close to my heart as the profoundest regret.

Bliss Point (2/3)

Sitting cross-legged on the quilted bed spread, Mina draws out the scene on a fresh page in Sal’s spiral-bound notebook. Sal lies down alongside her, her head propped up by her hand, her feet dangling off the mattress. Outside, visible in the limpid, otherworldly color that streaks through the tiny basement window high above them, the night sky is already slurring into an icy, pinkish dawn. The early light casts them in the touchable, textured chiaroscuro of a painting.

Together, the younger with her hair in her eyes, and the elder with her illegible expression, they communicate with slight changes to posture and diversions of attention rather than words. Sal watches the bobbing of Mina’s bowed head as she carefully recreates the vision, noting her focused, scrunched-up face, the precise movements of her crimped hand. In many ways, Mina behaves like an eternal child—stubborn for the sake of stubbornness—but on the rare occasions when seriousness takes over instead, it transforms her from a girl into something else entirely. Not exactly like a woman, Sal thinks, but like a pendulum finally set into motion.

Mina’s version of the tiger looks less like a beast and more like an oversized house cat, an effect further exaggerated by comically triangular ears and oddly proportioned eyes. Mina’s drawings have always been clumsy, but she never fails to get her point across. The rectangular altar is thrice-outlined in ballpoint pen, ink oozing at its corners, announcing its position as the vision’s imposing emotional center. The heart of the dream. The lumpy oval lies above it, a vaguely humanoid form which Mina is now describing as a sacrifice.

“And, to either side, this guy with a very sharp thing, and an old woman. Like a king and a witch from a story.” Mina draws them rapidly: stick figures with bobble heads and blank faces. After a moment’s thought, she scribbles in a curved dagger in the hand of the first figure, and a hood cloaking the second.

To herself, in her capacity as an interpreter of dreams, Sal thinks: Time, slicing seconds off with a knife. Death, shrouded. That leaves three meanings to elucidate before dream becomes reality: the tiger, the sacrifice, and Mina, the archer.

(more…)

Didn’t mean it when I said it

On a Friday night, on the 100th floor of a glitzy hotel, I am standing in front of an elevator in cheap kitten heels and an ill-fitting black blazer, posed in front of double-doors that open with a chime.

Outside, the June evening is approaching visual perfection, which it will possess for three minutes before the sun sets: the full moon, its face shining as though with perspiration, a mountain range of huge, bulbous pink clouds, the clear sky, depthless, shiny, perfect blue. In a trance, I watch the vista evolve in increments: the clouds shifting from rose to wine, then to deepening gray, as the sun puckers like a kiss and flickers out. Below, Tokyo sighs in relief. Dark magic can begin now, in earnest.

I’m working in hospitality for the day, directing passenger traffic in and out of the elevators and towards the bar lounge, the front desk, the conference rooms, and the outdoor viewing platform. The men are in navy tuxedos and the women in sparkling jewelry and soft, skin-tight dresses in champagne, camel, chocolate, and cherry-red colors. Their eyes skate over me as smoothly as a dropped needle sliding against the grooves of a record. The fact that they don’t spare me a single true glance as I indicate the way to their seats is a comfort. It gives me time to inspect their straight-backed posture, and arching walk, and floral perfume, and sparse, lilting conversation, which I do with all the stealthy ardor of a hard-boiled detective. Tonight, I am one of the millions holding up the walkways that scaffold the lives of the uber-rich; it’s a world I normally see only at a distance, through a gauzy veil. Now, for a few hours, I can observe it through a magnifying glass.

There’s something about this world that feels profoundly childlike—naïve, dumbly sweet—and also malevolent. Like a honeyed dream with a layer of creepy white noise. Something about how a girl holds herself, arms crossed tightly over her chest, her expression both closed and pained, like scabbed over wound. Something about how a man looks out over hundreds of miles of electric lights and jumping taxis and takes a small sip of his forty-dollar drink. I totter on my heels, feeling drunk. A silent television is playing a loop of orange-red NASDAQ tickers; the news anchor makes exaggerated faces as the numbers drop precipitously.

I think of a playground I visited with Strawberry, during an evening of similar weather, but diametrically opposed feelings. I was free to roam, then, and I ran on the sand in worn sneakers, no claims to my time or emotions. I yelped as I slid down the slide. We sat on the swings; the tang of the unvarnished iron cables and railing clung to the skin of my hands, sour and bloody.

Bliss Point (1/3)

Waddling to the toilet at three in the morning, legs clasped as tightly as the latch to a jewelry box, she flings open the door of her bathroom, bare feet bouncing against the shock of the frigid tile. The blurry shape of the sink looms ominously. Groping in the dark, she flips on the switch to her left. Stingingly bright light floods her field of vision—but it’s not the interior of her bathroom she finds, with its dowdy fixtures and seashell wall accents, but a long, winding suburban street. She stands on the smooth tarmac, sandwiched between rows of identical two-story houses and manicured trees, all awash in the pearly, deep purple of summer twilight.

She has changed, too. Instead of polka dotted pajamas, she now wears a fleece hoodie, ripped jean shorts, and dirty off-white sneakers. It’s the outfit of an adolescent with little patience for respectability, and a strong desire to skulk around shopping mall parking lots, hood pulled up, rubbery cord tightened around her neck. Her urge to urinate, which had awoken her from sleep, has disappeared entirely. She breathes in, feeling the youth of her in-dream body as intensely as a drink of cool water. The air smells green, like lawn grass, wet from a parade of sprinklers, and faintly sweet, like fresh fruit.

There’s an arrow on the sidewalk, drawn in baby blue chalk. A few feet away, another, and then another. She follows the trail until it leads her to a house at the far-end and middle of a cul-de-sac, positioned along the street like a keystone in an arch. It is a standard, factory-made two-floor house made of white paneled wood and windows with green shutters. She inspects it from the driveway, feeling the wind play through her long hair. There’s no evidence of movement inside, but she feels antsy, expectant, as though sitting in a movie theater right before previews. She knows something is about to take place. Going around the back, stepping quietly on a path of cobblestones strewn through the grass, she arrives at the yard, where a mise-en-scène is silently unfolding.

(more…)

Time She Stopped

The days are hot and the air, impossibly wet. The tropical humidity feels as encompassing as a full-body slap of churning, green seawater. Retreating indoors to escape the onset of summer weather, she nonetheless feels its attraction acting on her like a physical need. At noon, she looks out with sleepy eyes from her window into the depths of the green and yellow backyard: a quick glance, but long with desire.

The world is a drawer of patterned cherry wood with tidy, detailed carvings etched into its borders. She believes she can reach blindly into it, giggling at the childlike pleasure, and withdraw an endless series of palm-sized prizes, all worthy of her touch and attention, all arriving fortuitously, like symbolic totems suggestive of grander life plans, precisely at the right time for her to capitalize on their message. She is bright and full of potential. She thinks that this fact entitles her to something.

She’s not picky; she’ll settle for success, joy, or love. She needs only one of these to justify the roiling boil of days lived at high-speed, at high tempo, at high cost. She just needs to pass one exam, to run one race, to finish one creative project, to get one chance to hold her head high, to feel the blood-red, rushing pulse of trust in herself, radiating from her body in the resonant wave that could finally still the anxious, anticipatory trembling she’s been feeling—somewhere between her skin and muscle, somewhere between her eyes and brain—ever since her earliest memories as an ocean-sized dream cocooned in the protoplasmic shape of a quiet and flighty child.

Turning back to her desk, she flips idly to the end of the chapter she’s reading, trying to gauge how many pages are left before she can allow herself to abandon the book for the day and wander outside. Even her hobbies now are dogged by pressures of completion, of success measured in achievements like “read Thomas Pynchon”. Her heart circumnavigates the globe as she reads. Outside, the shadows lengthen, and she watches as darkness descends like something winged and betaloned: a lengthy glance, but short on patience.

Cult of Hecate

It feels like the first day of real summer weather. The sky is cloudless, luminous, and impenetrable. A shell of forget-me-not blue sheltering me from the shards of glass threatening my mind. On darker days, the shards dig in, like cloves embedded in an orange, but now, my face upturned to the leaves trembling in the breeze, I have a feeling that sunshine could purify me of any poison, even if only for about fifteen minutes. Not a cure-all, mind you, but a brief holiday from my own pessimism, vanity, selfishness, and the various terrors that parasite my heart like fuzzy mold on soapy bathroom tile.

The light feels both healthy and decadent to experience, both impossibly sweet and nutritionally whole, like angel food cake with the properties of boiled spinach. Gold crystals of nectar and ambrosia littering the ground. I forget to be annoyed at minor things, to hate the way I look, to complain internally in a long-running monologue that spools out behind me, dragging my step and stooping my shoulders like a spurned witch’s spell. I forget to live life in the obsessive first-person.

Can I get over myself long enough to care about anything else? In this economy? In this society? The fear is, if I stop keeping myself in hyperfocus, I’ll lose my footing. I’ll fall into a bog. There, I will be slowly preserved in acid, emerging forty years later as a saggy, pickled apparition, eyes half-lidded as I flip through the same three Netflix categories in a room crowded with stained and out-of-fashion box-store furniture. I’ll have let the world swallow me whole, with nothing to show for it. Another cog in the machine. Another brick in the wall. Another chord in a forgotten song. Another view on a video. Another poster on an endless feed. I won’t even have been happy.

Around me, the breath of life. The sunlight like an arrow. The greens look greener than usual; the blues, bluer. Earthly vegetation has an alien quality to me: its veiny undersides, its gooey resin, its mottled textures. I am only at home in a city environment: its hot concrete, its predictable signage, its belching vehicles. Even when I fantasize about a quiet life in the mountains, I can’t go longer than a minute before cutting off the dream at the head without a gasp of compassion. I trawl for a piercing, poisonous canned line: Where will you get Claritin, in your cottagecore fantasy?

So I resign myself to the inevitable, in which I reply to emails and spend thirty minutes trying to copy text from a hardcoded PDF from a plastic desk chair, every day until I die. I insulate myself in nihilism like a tottering old woman in a huge fur coat, and then enjoy the indulgent pain of self-awareness like a pack of cigarettes hidden in a deep pocket. Take a long drag and bemoan your privileged life. Get addicted to Internet doomscrolling, just like your ancestors wanted. Fight the impulse to feel better. Go for a walk, observe plant life growing magnificently in polluted air, achieving that radical, unthinking hopefulness that you deny yourself with all the bleak glee of a deprived parishioner, and then return home, draw all the curtains, and wait, bitterly, darkly, for the end of all things.

What’s in my Bag (OF HORRORS)?

Hey, it’s me again.

[Eyes are shaded, poorly, in navy blue. Muddy puddles up to her brow bone when she blinks.]

By popular request, I’m sharing the contents of my bag today.

[Big smile is unshakeable. A cheery, four-note tune plays. Her intro is an animated fairy choppily waving a wand.]

A scarlet iPhone. Can’t live without this!

[Now replete with oxides from a Chinese mine. She taps on the screen.]

Here’s the last video I watched. The title is “Daughter of the House of Illusion.”

[The thumbnail image is a lush illustration of a female archer against a dreamy background, nocking an arrow made of purple flame. Her oil-painted irises are a light, cloudy gray. The description reads: Manifesting power, grace, femininity, a perfect heart-shaped face, and a hair-free body.]

I’m a spiritual girl. I really believe in manifestation. I’ve got my own sigil, too.

[She holds up a brooch to the camera. It’s shaped like a fist with a protruding middle finger, made of overwrought gold metal.]

Now we move onto my face. Of course! Can’t go anywhere without this.

[She slides two fingernails underneath, applies a bit of pressure, and removes it cleanly. Underneath, her flesh is not bloody, but flat, smooth and milky white.]

It feels really good to take it off at the end of the day.

[The mouth on the face in her hands continue to move and speak. She adjusts her grip, dangling her face from one finger like a piece of costume jewelry.]

Sometimes I do a Korean sheet mask with fifteen different kinds of ceramides. I feed my face Vitamin B2, and also this pink pill here, which is for

[screaming siren noise; REDACTED?]

Now I’d like to share my snacks—everyone should carry a high-protein snack to nibble on throughout the day. Lately I’ve been loving this 8-ounce block of American sharp cheddar cheese. I take this thing everywhere with me, plus my Japanese Santoku knife for easy slicing. I got my name laser-printed on the handle. See?

[The blade is as long as her forearm. It catches the light as she lifts it up to the camera, one hand held behind so the lens can zoom in on the finer details.]

Finally, my house keys! I have three keys, one for each door at the entrance of each concentric chamber within my house. But I obviously never go into the last chamber. Not since the incident—long-time subscribers know what I am talking about!

[She giggles. Her teeth, in the garish ring light, look yellow and uneven.]

I got this cute keyring as a free add-on with my most recent 300-dollar purchase at Nasty Gal. It’s got a fun quote on it.

[In miniscule type, the plastic rectangle attached to the keyring reads: Imagine the amazing good fortune of the generation that gets to see the end of the world. This is as marvelous as being there in the beginning.]

Flood the Zone (2/2)

She gets the sense the raft build is from an early edition of the game. While its component pieces are generic items that are readily available on the map, the crafting instructions feel unintuitive and clunky, like a relic of a time before a UX professional was paid the big bucks to iron out the user experience. She even notes, with abject horror, a typo: 12 wod logs.

She places the crafting blueprint on the ground: a rectangular grid divided into twelve strips, with interlacing lines where the ropes are meant to wrap and bind. She has to position the logs exactly on the gridlines before they slot into place with a wet-sounding click, requiring considerable finesse with the arrow keys. A recommended step includes flax thread for a makeshift sail, but there’s no flax to be found in the game. Pouring over a fan archive of Apocalyptica press releases, she finds stray mention of iridescent flax flower in an Apocalyptica beta test that was patched out by the mid 2000s.

Tying the ropes is a million times more maddening that wrangling the logs. A wrong knot and the rope wiggles out of her grasp, like a snake; too many of these abortive maneuvers and it disintegrates in her hands entirely. She considers giving up, but there’s something charming about the challenge, and anyway she already has a purpose in mind for the raft. She’s going to position it next to the FLOOD THE ZONE graffiti, as a kind of ironic art display. She hasn’t been able to figure out how to remove the graffiti, which is unusual in a sandbox game that prizes user freedom like Apocalyptica. Even the wall itself seems rooted in place now, invulnerable to her trusty pickaxe. Hey, if you can’t beat them, join them, right?

(more…)

Flood the Zone (1/2)

She boots up Dreams of Apocalyptica, clipping her fingernails on the couch while she waits for the game to load. Yellow crescent-shaped slivers catch between the blades, and then fall onto her dark pink sweatpants.

Just glancing at her laptop on the coffee table, its screen cocked, dust motes playing visibly across its face, makes her heart squirm and glisten with a slippery jolt of dopamine. After a day of work, tiring and emotionally void, the rush is better than anything. Dopamine feels so good moving through her body that she often fantasizes it will heal her many ailments; a miracle hormone like a string of pearls sleeved into her bloodstream, clearing the path of chronic cholesterol build-up and the molecular memories of her anxiety, disordered eating, and many latent childhood fears.

In Dreams of Apocalyptica, she plays as a vaguely humanoid blob with purple elfin ears, fuzzy green hair, and huge, glittering red eyes. She wields a sword with a golden tassel, though she uses it only on the poison-spitting skeletons that live in the procedurally generated forests. Her task is to rebuild the kingdom after a cataclysmic event, in coalition with a hundred-thousand other casual players, a responsibility she takes more seriously than anything, including her 9-5 and her handful of decaying friendships. In Dreams of Apocalyptica, she has something nothing else can provide: purpose.

(more…)