Yield to the serpent and the woman

Carpal tunnel, in its very early stages, sings through my wrist as I lift my hands to type. I make a mental note, for the millionth time, to sit straight, elbows tight against my chest, with my feet planted firmly on the ground. It’s one of many such notes, joining an eclectic, 80’s coming-of-age comedy posse that includes “Stop scrolling mindlessly,” “Eat more complex carbs,” and “Self-flagellation is what you do best, but it’s a talent better wasted.” A many-sided die spinning at high speed in the smoky air, an RPG game in which all outcomes lead to that final, darkly humorous message, written in cursive above my sleeping head: “You’re going to die, someday, and you probably won’t like it.”

Live from Nihilism News, edginess has been out of vogue in your generation for at least ten years. What we want now are the learnings embedded and wisdom conveyed by a 15-second clip of a manicured set of hands tearing the shrink packaging off a tube of luxury lipstick, followed by another clip of the same hand spreading the lipstick—sheep fat colored oxblood-red with chemical wizardry—along a freckled Cupid’s bow. That’s the philosophy we’re committed to now, and we will ride this rollercoaster straight into whatever pulsing, backlit, sponsored fate the future has available for free download.

Outside, the snow has been falling, in fat, fluffy flakes, for hours. Snow coats branches, windowsills, fences, bicycle seats and handlebars. The last time snow fell like this, in this city, the year was 2018. As the sky darkens, the snow banks remain, insulated by the chill of the air, faintly illuminated by the fluorescent lights of the school next door. I have written before about the transformative effect of winter snow: its capacity to shape the landscape, both outside and within. Watching it come down never fails to jolt me out of my current state of mind and shift me, like a gear change, into another one. It reminds me of the personal and creative metamorphosis—the revelation that would make life feel worthwhile—that I always hoped was possible for me. I’m still waiting for it, like a child lost at a theme park, anxiously waiting by the concession stand for Dad to emerge from the crowd of strangers, arms open wide, and scoop her up. In the meantime, the message above my head, proudly portending my demise with all the hyper energy of a “Hot Dogs and Popcorn Here” sign, continues to flicker.

I often have this feeling like all the blood in my body is being drawn inwards, toward a point at the exact center of my chest. There, the blood swirls like a rainstorm before clumping together, congealing stickily into a large, red-black mass like a ball made of scarlet rubber bands, or a wet lump of rose-red bubblegum, or a pound of flesh. It travels, like a roach along a countertop, into my throat. I heave noisily. It moves into my brain, forming an embolism there that immediately cuts me off from the past and present, leaving me stranded in the mutilations of the future. You’re going to die, someday, and you probably won’t like it. You’re going to continue to live, and you don’t know for what purpose. Play another 15-second clip of a girl dancing, slightly off-beat, in a huge, white-walled suburban bedroom.

I am not afraid to grow old, but I am afraid of becoming a missing person, which appears to be the fate of every woman over 40. A woman, in pilly sweaters and sensible sneakers, uneasy but quiet on her dark green velour sofa as her husband and children unhinge their jaws, saliva dripping down, in preparation for devouring her alive. I am afraid of sacrificing my last shreds of authenticity, harbored like a buried secret in a forgotten tract of land, at the altar of expectation. I am afraid to lose the leniency of youth, the charitable excuses made for its excesses. I am afraid because the many uncertainties that have come to characterize my young adulthood show no signs of ceasing.

Meanwhile, time continues its game of knucklebones. I become the victim in a fairytale: My hands wrinkle and contort. My back and neck seize in the middle of the night. My memory loses its grasp on the joys of my past, but retains a powerful, everlasting grip on the shame. The people on who I once relied entirely retreat farther into a maze. I follow, motivated by a flood of desperation stronger than any fear of humiliation, my feet knocking loudly against the cobblestones—but the person I find at the turn of a corner is not someone I recognize. Picking up a fragment of mirror cast onto the stones, the blood in my body reacts in a gory wave, receding from my numb fingers and toes, washing up onto the shores of my teeth and tongue. Holding the mirror up to my face, I don’t even recognize myself.

Star Queen Nebula

On Christmas Day, Strawberry and I watch the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope. We sit on our coffee-stained two-seater couch, on either side of his ancient laptop. The footage from the launch center in French Guiana is grainy and low-resolution; its colors are muted and grayish. A primeval rainforest watches through the windows. Masked technicians in slacks and polos stare intently at their monitors. One grabs a phone from its receiver and cradles it against his ear, brow furrowed intently. The room radiates the same chilly sense of apprehension as a hospital waiting room. A timer in the right-hand corner counts down.

While we wait for launch, I look up images of the telescope. For now, it has been folded and packed away into the rocket but, once it achieves full deployment in space, it will expand and transform into a pink and silver rhombus with a reflective yellow hexagon mounted atop it like a jewel on a tray. I click through similar images, inspecting it from other angles. From the front, the bright yellow hexagon—the telescope’s mirror—is as vivid as neon lettering against the night sky. Its form seems so unlike the archetypal telescope, which I think of as a heavy metal tube with two directionally opposed ends and an obvious function. I could be presented with such an object and know instinctively where to position my eye, how to aim it at the heavens. The James Webb, in contrast, looks lithe, weightless, alien, inscrutable in its purpose. It looks like an artifact of a lost civilization, lodged deep in the Siberian tundra, or a prop from a weird, cryptic film made in someone’s suburban backyard on a shoestring budget, or a device fallen from mythical Eden, originally made for exclusive use by gods and monsters, and never intended for human hands.

The rocket fires. Yellow, orange, and red pixels wash across the screen in a frenzy. Within minutes, the James Webb has zoomed into orbit. It begins circling the planet, hitting checkpoints that are announced with austere regularity at the launch center. In lieu of real-time footage, a 3-D simulation of the telescope hovering over the Earth plays over the live announcements. The only true image comes from a camera attached somewhere to the rocket apparatus, which captures the telescope in sporadic shots during the final segment of the televised launch, when the telescope separates from the relative safety of the rocket and leaves for space. From this angle, in the strange lighting of space, the departing telescope looks like a silvery-white, vaguely squareish object: a shiny foil yogurt lid suspended against a black velvet background, or a dollop of mercury on a dark tabletop. 

“This will be humanity’s last view of the James Webb Space Telescope as it moves to its workplace about a million miles away from Earth,” the broadcaster says. Suddenly, I feel my chest seize with emotion. Bewildered by own reaction, I twist in its grip, removing myself from the feeling so I can observe it clinically, coldly, from a third-person perspective:

She, Emma, feels tears come to her eyes as the hunk of polymer, gold-coated metal, and graphite chugs further and further into the void. She swallows the feelings down to avoid (a) unjustifiably anthropomorphizing a telescope to cope with her own experience of loneliness, and, (b) attracting the attention of her partner, which would be unaccountably embarrassing and might incite a show of comfort on his part.

Emma doesn’t want comfort. She wants to boil in her solitude forever. She needs the shield it provides. She is committed to being radically honest about this need if it means she can cling to it forever. When comfort and love approach her, peaceably, kindly, she steps back immediately, eyes red, and warns them not to touch her. They are giants: huge hands, loud, warm voices. She is bubbling over with a flood of fear that leaves fat blisters on her mind, precluding any possibility of cool-headed temperance.

The blade she carries in her sweaty fist, small though it is, was flattened by an anvil made of her own flesh, cooked at three-thousand degrees, and then sharpened on the whetstone of steel-edged, bitter feelings. She strikes out in panic and the blade sinks in with zero difficulty, cutting meat, bone, and emotion as easily as sponge cake. Comfort and love, divided now into soggy chunks, lie on the sidewalk, and she hovers above them, jittery with adrenaline, still holding the knife. 

Meanwhile, the James Webb Space Telescope, many miles above and away, proceeds onwards with no knowledge of human dramas, individual or collective. It moves gently, a buoy floating in the soapy, star-laden froth of space, but unflaggingly, towards the mysteries of its fate. 

Ode to a continuous series of attempts

I read a new book and feel, in the following days, how its author’s chosen style, their playfulness or their terseness, their pathos or their whimsy, in short, the flavor of their prose, invades my own, like rainwater flooding a woodland. I select characters, develop narratives, construct sentences, play with words the way they do, conscious all the while of my behavior, which feels as obvious as ingratiation, as cheap as bad forgery, and as profane as body snatching. It’s unsettling to observe how profoundly my literary diet can express itself through my writing, how plain my influences are, mostly because this tendency—to imitate—is not particularly flattering to my ego, which craves originality, and which is continually rooting through the messy drawers of my mind in an effort to dig out pure, new gems, hitherto undiscovered and unplundered by any other.

I vary my reading diet of influences in an attempt to strike gold, the way a sorcerer might dump ingredients of a varied nature into a cauldron in the expectation of unexpected magic. There’s always a chance—a strong likelihood, really—that all this diversification results in nothing but green, gray, brownish gruel. A crude flurry of brushstrokes that imitate, in their ardent but misplaced agitation, a million different styles, but fail to synthesize from these disparate elements anything of significance. A keen reader with similar tastes in books could undoubtedly pick out what motivates me as a writer, and I’ve had that happen before. Once, many years ago, a friend told me, sincerely and with no contempt, that they could see clearly what influences we shared. I felt then a satisfying bolt of recognition, and something else—shame?—at failing at authentic originality.

Of course, I’ve heard the rebuttal before, too: “There’s nothing truly original.” Everything in increments. Everything an accretion of prior secretions. Everything built on the legacies of others. A person’s talent is nothing but an aggregate of influences, impressions, and outside ideas, received and cultivated during formative periods. But that doesn’t seem to stop anyone from chasing, through the mazes of the mundane, that flash of flesh that is different, and weird, and raw, unprocessed and unfiltered, but immediately recognizable nonetheless, by its power to demand attention, and interrogate convention, and spit on readily-available assumptions. But there’s also the fact that originality is not always celebrated nor rewarded (you could argue that to fulfill the basic definition, it must eschew both of these, to an extent). Originality requires a creator to run the risk of being too edgy, too weird, too unreadable, in short, to expose their vulnerabilities to a critical public in the hope of obtaining that most fragile of currencies: kinship, acceptance. The alternative is safer by far: to stay pleasant, readable, anodyne.

But I won’t deny that it’s more motivational than anything else to stumble across an author and know, from the first page, that I am about to experience something new, something weird, something summarily rejected by a conventional publisher and then strewn online, like lined pages chucked from a window onto the street below. Something that they wrote for themselves, as an encapsulation of what makes them tick, but that, magically, happens to resonate with me.

I feel then that desire: To cross unknown lands, to scale their mountains, to breathe deeply at their peaks. To predict their weather by way of their cloud patterns, to sight the paths of their swooping birds, to build small, private fires in their luminous valleys in the darkest hours of the night, and to know the explorable world extends farther than you could ever hope to travel, and to feel not forlorn at the limits of your own body and its capacity to know, but overjoyed that such a place, such a time, embalmed in language, could live alongside you, and could be carried in your heart like a talisman of a faith not yet forgotten.

Gambler’s Fallacy

Autumn, again. The screendoor is flecked with sticky, translucent clusters of moth eggs. I discover, in the leg of a pair of work pants as I collect the laundry hanging outside, a suzumebachi (sparrow hornet; sometimes called “Asian giant hornet”). It approaches me full of determination, like a bullet, as though following a straight line forward, carved there by true purpose. Its eyes are dark and almond-shaped, like mine.

I sit by the window, face propped up by my fist, elbow against my knee, legs crossed in the swivel chair. There’s something about early November—the hours of moody cloudiness, the damp, chilled air, bare branches, numb toes—that makes it easier than usual to cross that splintered threshold that separates controlled consciousness from sloppy daydream.

My resume-certified qualities—ability to multitask, attention to detail, power of concentration—disappear promptly into a bed of red, brown, and yellow leaves. I slide away from connected, cogent thoughts and fall through a crack in my mind into a frigid, empty room. I can remain there for hours, more object than body but with shades of both, like a pink slab of deli meat on a styrofoam tray. Time passes like water dripping, pus oozing, oil spreading over the limpid surface of the ocean. When I snap back, it’s three in the afternoon and a dog and a crow are locked into an escalating duet, and a woman unknown to me is standing by the plum tree outside.

At five thirty, I collect my backpack, into which I stuff my thoughts and desires, and descend the elevator into a dark evening lit only by passing hazard lights. A couple of men smoke languidly by the convenience store. Fatigue taps me on the shoulder, but I don’t turn around. I cross the road, pulling my orange coat tight against me. Autumn, again.

The Fisher Princess III

The Fisher Princess I / The Fisher Princess II

The stranger lies on their two-seater sofa, a wrinkled cream-colored bed sheet tucked neatly around her body. Her hair, still damp to the touch, has been arranged so that it falls over the edge, pooling on the corded rug. Max kneels down, a plastic comb in her hand. She begins very slowly carding through the fine strands, stopping only to delicately pick through the worst tangles with her fingers. The stranger doesn’t stir.

“How you doing?” Cal asks, bringing a wooden chair over to sit by them. 

“Plummy keen,” Max says, an old inside joke. Cal feels relief then, clear and warm. In the truck headlights, arms wrapped around her chest, in a state of partial undress and shivering furiously, she had looked not fragile, but frighteningly unfamiliar to him: alien, threatening. He’d had to push past the feeling to rush to her, peeling his fleece jacket off as he jumped out of the truck, but still it had lingered—a ripple of fear in an otherwise placid mind.

Now, secure in the cabin, he feels the last of that emotion release him. He eases into the chair, resting his chin in his hands as he examines the stranger’s face, studiously, methodically, as though searching a craggy mountainside for a foothold. Her oval-shaped face is completely, unnervingly still. Every muscle is relaxed, pliant, freed from the burden of expression. A pallid canvas. But underneath purple-veined lids, her eyes move feverishly, unnaturally.

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The Path of Atalanta

I have this feeling of walking through dense gray mist, dimly aware that the cliff’s crumbling edge lies close ahead. If I avoid the fall, it’s only luck that saves me. If I keep walking, it’s only because, try as I might, I can’t configure a different choice. Time is a blazing arrow that moves in a single direction. It won’t bend. It won’t compromise. It drags you forward like a bagged body. What could be mistaken for courage is nothing but inertia. What could be mistaken for strength is nothing but streaks of blood, pooling in the chalky, pockmarked terrain of the cliffside.

I hear the repeated ding of a morning alarm, and then the warning blaring of car horns, the muted shuffling of papers, the gurgle of the water cooler, the unspooling of toilet paper, the uptempo tread of commuters, the notification bell from my cellphone. I put on whatever is trending and let it pass through me like an undigested meal. All the while, the mist from the cliff follows me like a tiny cloud. A gray shroud.

When we go to bed, it’s still there. I reach to feel its texture between my fingers. The mist isn’t inert. It bulges around me with a mind of its own. Its touch on me—cool, indifferent—reminds me of picking up and squeezing a cold peach at the supermarket, probing its flesh for ripeness.

Unable to sleep, my thumbs press against the screen of my phone, bringing it back to alarmingly bright, gold-toned life. Strawberry stirs, so I carefully arrange a pillow between us to shield him. At 2am, the night feels contemptuous, unfriendly. A hostile, imperious guardian with my best interest at heart, but zero tact in communicating its concerns. It glowers through the windows. “You’re doing this, again?” it asks darkly, as I navigate to my browser, resenting every second. But soon enough, I know, it will have come to accept the inevitability of the situation. The bitter night and the choking mist will crowd around my shoulders and dive down, headfirst, into the torrent with me.

I catch up on the latest Twitter drama—banal, petty, a waste of time for everyone involved. Sometimes, it skirts too close to a real pain point, and we all flinch at the near collision of online garbage and authentic emotion. Thankfully, an Internet Samaritan arrives with a hilariously chosen meme to ward off the sting of reality. I check the news—sad, and even sadder when it ends up referencing the Twitter drama. Content, which springs eternal from the font of the fanged Big Five, yanks me into a vortex that manages to both torment and satisfy. Ads pop up. Pleas to subscribe. Wide-open mouths on a clickbait thumbnail. Canned laughter. Trolls in the comments. I scroll and am fed more nutritionally void content.

I reflect, and find that even my reflections on this process have nothing substantive to offer. “The Internet is bad? Cold take,” I think to myself, self-pityingly. It’s too one-note, so I redirect towards the emotionally and artistically fulfilling parts of the Internet, which do exist, and which can be as rewarding as impeccably timed crescendos, perfectly peeled fruit. I read the latest pages of a webcomic, the most recent update from a blog, an ancient entry from a delightfully odd web-only novel. I find a directory of online journals styled after Geocities. Acid green, deep purple, low-res, rotating gifs, blinking HTML marquee. For an instant, the web is an oasis, cherished, fertile, its flowers and insects living in unrestricted abundance.

But I go forward, only to then double-back. Back to social media, where the longer I scroll, the less alive I feel. The night and the mist, sensing my agitation, jostle newly for my attention. Each promises a different remedy. One seeks to triumph over fear through moonlit clarity. Look at the beast in the eyes, the night says, voice like the arc of a sword swung through the air. The mist swirls around the crescent of my ear and mutters, joylessly: The path is easiest to walk when you can’t see where it goes.

“Wait. ‘The path,’ meaning what, exactly?” I whisper. “Like, life? My life, or the concept of it, or what?”

The mist shrugs. These apparitions speak only in riddles.

Time is a blazing arrow that moves in a single direction. It drags you forward like a bagged body. What could be mistaken for courage is nothing but inertia. The mist morphs into foggy memory, tenuous but real, finally resolving into the vision of my mother, at forty-five, kneeling against the floor as she cards through her drawer of silk scarves, a thousand stashed underneath her bed, all heavy with the blended odor of cigarette smoke and Chanel No. 5. I sit on the mattress, legs dangling, watching cool-toned daylight, bracketed by the window blinds, slowly enter the room.

Red Messenger

I dream of you, oddly, profoundly. I dream of you so often I wonder if you’ve hired a master of the occult to open up my head like a music box and fill it to the brim with locks of your hair. Wind the key and my mind plays a slow, sombre version of your favorite tune.

In my dream, you lie with me in a dark field in a country with no name. To be fair: Not precisely you, but the “idea of you.” The idea of you has no hair, no hands, and no eyes that I can remember upon waking. The idea of you is a messily blurred body and a scratched-out face. But the idea of you can take on a shape like a fully grown stallion and easily outcompete all opponents on the track, finishing the race with no ounce of visible effort, gleaming like the reflection of the pale moon. The idea of you is fearless before the Sunday morning derby crowds that rise to celebrate you. From the stands, I sob with terrifying, newly discovered emotion.

In the real world, the world of the living, you move around like a blood cell. Fast, energetic, determined, accomplished, self-assured. A vessel of purpose. I wish I had your single-mindedness. I wish I had your verve. You swim so easily through the crowded channels of the green, gray, blue world. I watch you from faraway, from my vantage point in a high tower. I see you refracted through social media; a professional face, front-lit, with an ironed collar beneath. I see you in the colorful stories that come back to me from our mutual friends. I read your turn-of-phrase in a thick book on the library shelf. I heed the advice you gave me years ago. Your eyes roll at me from the big screen of a matinee showing of your favorite film. I go through my inbox and find a years-old email from your old address. I see your features on a stranger’s face. I look at the sky at dusk—purple, pink, black, rose-red—and think that only you would have known the word to describe this color. I click through photographs on a forgotten hard drive and notice you smiling shyly in the background. I have to avert my eyes. Do you ever see me, in memory, in mood-altering dream? We understand each other, you and I. Don’t we? Didn’t we?

What a joy companionship is; what a liability, when it is lost. A bonfire dwindling to nothing, rendering the dark of the forest full and all-encompassing. A delicately crafted glass vial of poison, imbibed at the tragic end of a play. When I tell the story of my life, I can’t bear to completely omit you, but I am careful to limit the extent of your role. I don’t think I could take questions without releasing a torrent of intolerable feelings. Fossilized in a previous stage of life, I am a scarab, legs folded underneath me, buried deep in sand, and the moon, red and full, rises with no knowledge of me.

Coalsack Nebula

Dear Tokyo in the rain, お久しぶりです。(It’s been a while.) Here you are: your veiled blue of a sky papered in clouds and smog. The slight chill of the air feels as restorative, as I step off the crowded bus, as a cool drink of water. Silently, my fellow commuters and I pop open our clear plastic umbrellas. I feel it then: that druggy, half-present feeling of being halfway between work and home. As resonant and resolute as rain itself. You know the feeling. The mind wanders somewhere secret, while the body is securely in transit. Stasis of the physical form, while the mind parachutes out from 20,000 feet. It’s how I imagine comets: swinging around a corner of space with periodic cosmic regularity, their rocky bodies tearing through space on a prescribed route, while their hearts dream of the void beyond.

The walk from the bus stop to my doorstep takes fifteen minutes and cuts through a tunnel, into a shopping street, up a hill, down a hill, and past a ludicrously pricy dentist. I hear the call and response of the station announcements and the answering thunder of footsteps boarding a train. I hear a cheery, high-pitched supermarket jingle. I hear a deliveryman call out good evening in a loud, spirited voice. I hear a neighbor cough throatily from beyond a mossy wall. Meanwhile, the current of my own thoughts blooms and fades in a constant cycle.

The sky darkens to a deep lilac. Rainwater seeps through the sole of my right shoe. Last month, I superglued these old sneakers in a final attempt to prolong their usability, but I must face the reality that they are at the end of their lives. When I flipped them over to apply the glue, I saw, for the first time, that the chevron indents that patterned the bottoms had almost entirely rubbed off, leaving behind a smooth, frictionless surface. After nearly two years of living in the shadow of c-19, I notice that something similar has happened to my feelings about the future. Even when circumstances were dire and hopes burning at their lowest, my future used to feel patterned, textured, nuanced, possible. Now, I think of the future as something like the flat, imposing line of the horizon of each night, followed by day, followed by night. A perpetual rainy walk in which I approach home, but never reach it.

I described a similar sensation in March 2020 like so: “The future immediately twisted into nothing as the present eats itself.” Those were the early days of c-19. Not much in my life has changed in this time, but something fundamental about that sentence rings less true in 2021. Now, I feel that I have to flip the terms. The present has twisted into nothing, as the future eats itself.

Wayfinding

The day after receiving my first dose of the Pfizer vaccine, I lay in bed, body weight pressed against the white sheets, finishing up an ethnography set in Egypt and India. Even with all the shades drawn, the heat still manages to enter; it muscles in, hungrily sharing the bed with me.

The cicadas, thumb-sized green gems that hang in the trees like ornaments, buzz unceasingly. At this point in the summer, their cries are not an unwelcome distraction, but part of the background noise of a season I proclaim to hate every year, but that I always come to earnestly love. A three-month period of cloudless blue skies and bright red moods. As I read, the flourescent bars that illuminate the neighborhood school grounds begin to flicker intermittently. Their amber-yellow light bleeds in through the folds where my blue curtains nearly converge, but fail to touch.

On the last page, the story takes a dark turn; the author narrates how a friend is lost, presumably forever, in a country at war. I can’t help but feel that this conclusion is left somewhat ambiguous. Not open to interpretation, necessarily, but unresolved. After contemplating for a few moments, silent in my room filled with warmth, light, and insect sounds, a greenhouse of sensation, I roll over, slip off the bed, and flip open my laptop. I navigate to Google and plug in the friend’s name repeatedly, in combination with a grab bag of search terms, on my way to discovering his true fate. “Author,” “friend,” “death,” “what happened” “?”

The search turns up nothing. Another search yields nothing. My immediate confusion at this is derived, not from the lack of obtainable information, but from the search engine’s inability to find what I assume must exist. A daughter of the World Wide Web, my first impulse is to trust that anything can be found by carefully selecting search terms, rearranging their order in the sequence, and clicking through web pages diligently, like a pilgrim organizing relics, in wait of a miracle.

I retreat from the keyboard. I open the curtains and find that the sun has set; the evening sky splashes onto my eyes like a gentle wave. I spot the bicycle belonging to the child next door: seafoam green wheels, a white basket. Its wheel is positioned in the direction of my window, inclining the frame towards me as though in greeting.

There’s mountains of information inaccessible to me. There’s kingdoms of knowledge locked away. Maybe it’s better like that. Not all information benefits from availability. A young man died suddenly, and it’s not possible to learn how, or when, or where, or why. A stranger, I think of him on his last day, threading the needle of his final hours. Walking forward until the path twisted, and then closed off before him.

Ur-Girl

Twenty-nine and rapidly losing her battle with self-disgust, the oracle takes the complicated step of formally rejecting her birthright. It’s a big deal, but, as with most of her decisions, the enormity of it is inversely proportional to her confidence about it. When she meets her sisters at a bar downtown, she is cagey, leery about questions, and secretive about her motives. She meanders from point to point. A hummingbird in a sea of carnivorous flowers.

She tries to soften the blow of her departure even as she formalizes it. She tries to play it off casually, but winds up defending her desire to leave with more passion than she truly feels. An actor in a play, in an ill-fitting costume lined in pink seed pearls, stumbling over her overwrought lines, she chatters like a parrot at the table. Cigarette smoke fills her vision. Three pairs of unfeeling green eyes stare at her through the gray haze, but she can’t seem to stop talking. There isn’t any money in prophecy anymore. Truth isn’t a commodity worth selling.

“It’s my choice,” she says. Inside her starchy, rigid white blouse, her flesh recedes with horror at the sound of her voice, which wobbles, cracks, and then fades into nothing but noise. The hummingbird, which at least possessed its beauty even when it was lost, transmutes into a blood-soaked mosquito.

Her sisters listen in dutiful, but sullen, silence. Identical oval-shaped faces hovering above thin necks and clasped hands, symmetrical as gems set in a choker. They don’t say it, but she understands what they want her to do. She takes a deep breath and focuses on their eyes, turning the key in her mind that exposes her to the current of their true feelings. The hard pebble of honesty, lost in the dirty waters, retrieved by her hand. Swirling around her sister’s irises as monotonously as stock tickers along a marquee, she reads the dull, soapy froth of feelings that collect there like tea leaves: condescension, apathy, and, naturally, glee. The unabashed and unconcealed joy of lesser members watching the scion fail.

Even more than this sisterly contempt, which she expected even as she implored them to consider her feelings, she hates the shame of unfulfilled potential, a dagger which she aims at herself and which rises in her throat as she walks home, bilious, chunky, aggressive as heckling after a poor performance. Standing naked in the shower, she punishes herself with the image of their eyes.

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