Author: admin

Hypervigilant

In the ruins poking over the horizon—sandy yellow, blurred at the edges, pink marble monuments glazed by the greenish sun—lies everything I have ever wanted. I stand on a distant dune, kitted out in a broad-brimmed hat, khaki overalls, and combat boots. I’m waiting for my opportunity to approach. The air is alive with heat, light, and whorls of dust.

Sand turns to worn cobblestone under my feet. The monoliths are tall and rectangular, providing some shelter from the elements in the form of long, cascading shadows. But they are afraid of my encroaching presence and recede from me as I walk by, no matter how slow and careful my steps. I observe one at its base, noting the irregular pattern of its pink-gray stone. But out of respect for its discomfort, I restrain myself from laying a hand on its cool surface. In response, I feel it release an icy breath of relief onto my retreating back.

I don’t begrudge the monoliths their distrust. They have ample reason to fear my visits. At first there are only a few broken monoliths scattered among them, but, as I press forward, I see they have grown in number. They lie in perfect halves, snapped apart cleanly, like toothpicks. Stepping over them feels profoundly wrong—like committing a crime in paradise. Sweat runs down my spine in thin, snaking lines.

There isn’t a whole monolith to be seen anywhere by the time I make it to the swimming pool at the center of the ruins. The broken monoliths here are nothing but piles of rubble, the dusty rose of the stone reduced to the color of spilled brain matter. The pool, lobular and ordinary, its sides bounded in unfinished concrete, is clear and glassy in the light. Palm fronds litter its surface. I shed my clothes and submerge myself, hissing in pain as my bare skin, scraped raw by sand and wind, makes contact with the water. At first, I swim cautiously, crossing sign posts in my mind as each stroke gets me closer to the deep end of the pool.

I almost have my hand on the concrete edge, terror and exhilaration catching in my throat, when I feel her launch herself from the bottom. A sleeve of bubbles, a torrent of force, churning underneath my shadow. I feel her anger before the grip of her hand, grabbing my wrist with her thumb and forefinger. Her nails dig in, drawing blood. I manage to heave in half a breath before she drags me down.

“Does it help,” she hisses in my ear, “to write out hundreds of words of stilted preamble? Does it delay the inevitable?”

(more…)

Bliss Point (4/5)

The girl has short hair that sticks to her flushed, sweaty cheeks, bracketing her face like a helmet, or like ribs around a heart. She has a lovely smile, but in Sal’s estimation her beauty is a false coin, just a reflection of her youthfulness rather than real allure. At that, she hears Mina’s plaintive voice in her head: Don’t be mean. Sal twists back to contest the Mina in her mind, insisting that she’s critical, not cruel. Value-neutral. A cool blue temperament: righteous, clear-eyed, candid, uncompromising. She knows the limitations of that argument, and how much it relies on Mina’s generous acceptance of Sal’s own opinion of herself. The truth is that the day Mina outgrows her sister, Sal will shatter into a million pieces.

But even Mina would have to admit that, in this case, the evidence is self-evident. Sal is stating the facts. The girl’s amber-green eyes, while striking, are far too large for her face, forcing her other more finely formed features to crowd together, as awkwardly as poorly spaced digits on a clock face. A defective doll, Sal thinks, letting her powers of observations wax poetic. She’ll ask Mina later if that’s too mean. She decides she’ll apologize if Mina says it was.

The girl is not tied to the chair, but the way she holds her body—her arms and knees pressed to her torso tightly, maybe painfully—still suggests confinement. Not material, but psychological. The two men hover at the edge of the backyard, at the intersection of property lines where the grass changes color from well-tended, manicured green to sickly yellow, conversing in hushed tones under the narrow shade of a maple sapling. They’re standing casually, like chaperones at a school dance, but it doesn’t escape Sal’s attention that one still carries a switchblade in his fist, and is repeatedly flicking it open and closed.

“It’s going to be okay,” Sal whispers to the girl, in her usual attempt at comfort. A big sister even to strangers.

At that, the girl shrugs. It’s a bored, noncommittal gesture, but her eyes glitter with playful intelligence, as though egging Sal on.

(more…)

The shores of memory

We half-walk, half-shuffle through brown sand littered with shell fragments, on a clean but otherwise unremarkable beach bracketed on one side by the churning gray waters of the ocean and on the other by a geometric mass of steel, concrete, and weather-worn plastic that, in the pink-purple clarity of the sunset, looks less like a charming coastal town and more like a recently unearthed, life-size time capsule from the 80’s. Gold and aquamarine Ozymandias. I finger the rust on the fence as I wait to cross the road.

The convenience store, the perfect site for data collection on types of local demand, sells rice crackers, cooler-sized blocks of ice, baggies of pineapple chunks bobbing in their juice, and five kinds of flavored vodka. I wander the aisles in flip-flops and a khaki dress, my salt-encrusted hair escaping from its clam-shell clasp to swim down my back in a wave vaguely redolent of seaweed, potato chips, and canned beer. Outside, trucks roll past, down the seaside road that connects us to Tokyo, and Tokyo to the distant, isolated, snow-covered north.

I return to the shore empty-handed. I pretend to nap, my head in Strawberry’s lap and my eyes facing the froth of the tide, as he makes conversation with our friends and acquaintances. We will spend six hours idle here, traveling from the tent on the beach to the tidy Seven-Eleven fifty meters away only to relieve ourselves, or to replenish our stock of ice and chips. The day moves forward, not dully, but with no feeling behind its ticking seconds, like a bloated episode of television. The crash of the waves is methodical, meditative, and evokes nothing but itself. Perfect to drown out any persistent thought, or to soften the burn of any blistering memory. The temperature of the air is neither warm nor cool, but still not entirely comfortable. I keep awkwardly shifting my position, fracturing any possibility of real rest. My mouth tastes like the artificial vanilla of cheap soft-serve. My thighs are wet, cold, and clammy to the touch, like refrigerated meat in its Styrofoam package, sitting in a shallow bath of blood.

The older I get, the more closely I parody the paranoia of my father, the melancholia of my mother. I say “parody” because it feels intentional and ironic, and sometimes gratifying and clever. But, to be honest, it can also feel uncontrolled, inevitable, and painful. Less like performance and more like fate. Regardless, it is one thing above all else to slowly transform into one’s parents, and that is “annoyingly self-inflicted,” the way continuing a nicotine addiction is both a choice and not a choice. I cannot help but to grow into my mother’s hands and my father’s legs, which sit on me oddly, like parts cobbled together in the style of Frankenstein. I cannot help but manifest their bad habits, absorbed during the porous days of childhood and released now like ancient volcanic vapors. The marks of genetic destiny are obvious even in baby photos in which I lie, swaddled in white linen, already in possession of the family frown. Sometimes I think I own nothing of my own. Even lying on the beach, sand between my toes, Strawberry’s hand on my head, his thumb weeding pebbles from my hair, feels like a borrowed dream, an echo from a past that I didn’t live.

I feel the shadows of my family most acutely at the beach, where I spent so many summers with them in my pampered infancy, and frenetic childhood, and grumpy, scary adolescence, and frightened adulthood. It means I am always dying to visit the ocean and then, once there, totally unable to understand its appeal. Nostalgia exerts a special kind of pressure, strong enough to compel the strangest behavior—I’ve seen it induce people to even bear children, as though shaping and clay-firing a vessel of innocence could restore to life the memory of their own.

But I feel no comfort from nostalgia; its most immediate side-effect, once satiated, is only sadness, felt as the prickly chill of lost time, escaping from the mind as inexorably as air-conditioned inhalation from a cracked-open car window rushing down the highway. (I remember my pimply arms piled parallel to the sticky rubber gap between window and seat, like a spectator to my own life.) This—nostalgia’s brew of sadness—means I am a moody beach-goer. I get up, pad a few steps away from the tent, away from the water, to stare at the concrete blocks that divide the sand from the road. I can see a row of flowers, buried up to their necks in the strip of soil around the Seven-Eleven. The heat is vanishing, from terror to shimmer to nothing. I hold my hand over my eyes like a visor as I scan the clouds for a reason to leave, or a reason to stay.

Bliss Point (3/5)

“The tiger,” Sal yells back at Mina, as they run through the stubbly grass of the neighborhood backyards. “That’s what you shot, right?”

Mina nods mutely. Gone is her desire to deny. The scream rings through her mind like a struck gong.

“I get it,” says Sal as gently as their mother, and Mina reels back on the line, hooked and stung, both encouraged and profoundly dismayed by the show of empathy.

It feels good to be understood, but bad to be understandable. She wants desperately to be like Sal: an enigma, a mystery of cold gaze and muscular arms and strawberry blonde bobbed hair. She wants that steely light in her eyes, a torch that never dims, to fall into her possession.

“You’ve never liked cats,” Sal continues, and Mina smiles grimly at the accuracy of that explanation.

She keeps her eyes forward, gaze bobbing jerkily as she tries to match Sal’s pace. Mina had started out like a race horse, flush with adrenaline, but that chemical is quickly receding, leaving her hot and panicked in its wake. But Sal is immune to tiredness, gliding forward with no sign of exertion, her legs pumping with raw, fluid, impossible strength.

“Sal, I have to stop,” Mina pants, her hands coming down heavily onto her knees as she sinks to the grass of a neighbor’s backyard. Sal doesn’t say anything. A twisted magnolia watches as she immediately slides her arms under her sister’s armpits and hoists her back up to a standing position.

“Come on, Mina,” Sal says evenly, “you know you don’t have a choice.”

(more…)

Wait and see

As children, we beg for attention, fight to be the favorite, scream at every injustice, and generally lead a daily existence that doubles as a constant plea for love. As adults, we feel the same needs, but shame precludes us from petitioning freely. Instead, we brush down our hair, choke down emotions, and play mind games. We read between the lines, scanning faces and phrases as though interpreting runes, and silently, bitterly pick at every hurt feeling with all the teenage pathos of a sad guitar coaxed into tears.

I have always been a little wary of keenly intelligent, emotionally mature people, a prejudicial tendency I have continued to dutifully preserve even if it embarrasses me deeply. First, I envy them. Second, I fear their probable skill at masking and shaping feelings, which I assume must be some part of success in adulthood. I don’t like to be honest with an avatar of sharply-dressed, polite, smart ambition, as I cannot hide adequately in front of one. They are infinitely better than me at the purposeful dance of adult conversation, and I know that, when I miss a step, they will see through the veil, into the big, sad eyes of a girl who didn’t quite grow up, who never got past the need to plea for love.

When you carry a fully developed cerebral cortex, but not an entirely matured heart, the most serious consequence is you make bad choices at bad times. As reliably as the chosen victim of a storybook prophecy, I choose all the wrong times to be unsympathetic, unkind, unforgiving. Other times, when I should be cutting, biting, on the attack rather than the defensive, I lapse instead into unwitting obedience. I never realize the mistake immediately. Weeks, months, or years later, something will trigger, realization will strike, an alarm will go off in my mind, and the noise will radiate backward into the past, bouncing off the walls of the house of Mnemosyne. In an inner chamber, a younger Emma will wake up in a cold sweat, sheets pooled around her like ripples from a stone chucked into water by a hand from the faraway future. A lesson in the form of a sermon and a prayer, sung in our twinned voices and forgotten immediately.

It’s dangerous to attribute the actions of others to malice, and those of your own to righteousness. It’s dangerous to spend too long intellectualizing your choices. A fallen angel at the center of my own vision of the cosmos, but unavoidably, an unfriendly demon, a non-playable character, a gaping maw, or a puddle of fetid blood, from another’s point of view. Come on now, Emma. I’m throwing a pebble at you. Listen to yourself—an angel, a demon. How could it be that black and white? How could it be that theatrical, that biblical? The truth is much less complex, and so much more boring. You will never be the best, nor the worst. Never totally pure nor totally filthy.

Bury the instinct to think of the world as a stage, and you as its protagonist. To want both love and power. To constantly succumb to self-pity for having neither in the condition that you desire. To punish yourself so harshly for the wrongdoings you forgive readily in others. To want to love and to hate yourself, both at once. To be unable to do either. Open your eyes. In the house of Mnemosyne, a little girl runs through the hall, a heart-shaped barrette nestled in her curls, and disappears around the corner.

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 (2/5)

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 (1/5)

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…)