Author: admin

Ambulance ride

In a chain coffee shop on a busy street, sitting in booth seats upholstered in wine-colored imitation velvet, the babble of strangers around us like a shield of white noise, Gideon tells me he’s been thinking about suicide. He doesn’t say it in so many words, but he makes his meaning clear. I realize that the next thing I say will be vitally important. The thought is excruciating. He stares at me expectantly—I choose to say nothing. I don’t engage on the topic beyond a sad smile. Now, I replay that tape of the two of us, seated across from one another with mugs of flavorless coffee in our hands. I reexamine the arrangement of my face, reevaluate my performance: did that smile languish, even briefly, into bitterness?

Gideon is perceptive; he notes my discomfort and lets the conversation flow away naturally. But he is still hurting, and it’s only natural to pick at a wound. Eventually he paddles back to circle that point in the murky water. He peers into it, balancing his body against the edge of the canoe, getting the sleeves of his white t-shirt wet, while I watch from the shore. My feet sink into cold, coppery sand. The long, thin reeds that grow along the bank come up to my neck; stripes of amber gone purple in the twilight, their dry touch swiping across my jugular. When Gideon looks up at me, his expression is gentle, apologetic, almost tender; he must suspect this is not easy to witness. I know he is thinking kinder thoughts toward me than toward himself. But he doesn’t know this isn’t my first rodeo. He doesn’t know a more innocent friend would serve him better here.

Eventually Gideon calls to me, asking, in a tone that manages to be both mild and desperate, if I struggle with mental health myself. I take a breath and speak at length, drawing out words like stitches over skin, keeping my voice light, as balmy as a warm summer evening. I talk about the challenges of my childhood, the idiocy of my early twenties, the mistakes made out of insecurity, fear, and, sometimes, love. But I don’t answer the question. I don’t say “yes” or “no.” Gideon, always focused and attentive, nods, but we both understand that I am holding back. The disclosure of vulnerabilities he desired can’t happen. Some small and starry-eyed part of him slips, stumbles, and falls away. I hear the splash he makes as he makes contact with the water.

Later, I Google “what to say when someone wants to kill themselves” and panic at the thought that I did the wrong thing, again. Did I push him into the hole? Did I help him dig it? Did I chuck a shovel at him from the flatbed of a truck, and then drive away? Emotion wells to the surface then, in tiny, painful bursts, like blood through a pinprick-sized hole in the skin. I bury the feeling without looking it in the face. But it returns to uneasy life, waking me up at four in the morning. In the bruised, poisoned violet half-light of this room, I see Gideon standing there, at my bedside. His eyes are ringed in wet-looking shadows, like the circles of condensation left by shot glasses abandoned on a table.

I imagine driving through the night, my hands steady on the wheel, down a road through the wetlands. The puddles on the asphalt shine like mirrors. Parking on a wide shoulder seeded by raggedy weeds, I unfasten my seatbelt and emerge into the kaleidoscope of my life and its million mysteries. I lean back against the car trunk, warming my hands with my breath. Gideon hands me a paper cup of gas station coffee. We watch the pink-and-blue portal of the dawn sky slide open. He laughs at one of my wry jokes, and I can’t help but smile, with huge and unfeigned joy, even though the childishness of my emotion spoils the punchline. The early morning air is a treasure of light. It tastes like a potion of healing. Like something uncomplicated and pure. Something that grants everlasting permission to dream, as though everything is still only beginning.

Beauty secret

She is twenty-three years old. She is sitting on the subway, gaze trained on the smartphone cradled in her hands. Her biggest problem right now is that her preferred hair salon is closed for the next two days, and her bangs need a trim. Fine, feathery strands flutter over her brow and into her dark eyes like hanging vines.

She navigates to Instagram and progresses through a CAPTCHA, shaking her head gently to shift her bangs out of her vision. Her wrists ache with the weight of her bangles, two on each side, each adorned with a series of tiny gold flowers. The CAPTCHA is a three-by-three matrix of blurry, pixelated red chalices in seas of green. Please click on images with a red rose in a garden. 

The doors open with the sound of recorded bell and a stranger sits next to her. He rests his head back against the frigid glass, discretely watching her fingers fly across her screen. With Instagram unlocked, her feed is a ribbon spooling out: multicolored, endless. Her thumb pulls the forward motion of her feed to a stop on a video post called, tantalizingly, HOT GIRL TIPS. The woman presses play and bows her head over her phone, submerging herself in the world conjured by her AirPods; the stranger leans over, as subtly as possible, to read the parade of subtitles moving briskly in the bottom-half of the clip. His glasses slide down the bridge of his nose, coming to rest at its bulbous tip. The wheels of the subway car clatter noisily as it turns a corner.

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Empty mind

New year, new me. New year, new opportunity to stalk my soul down the corridor, across the river, over the mountain, and around my bedroom.

Sliding my pointer finger across my broken phone screen, I feel my skin catch and drag around the point of fracture, like a strip of fabric snagging on a thorn. I pull away from my phone before the jagged edge can draw blood and bring my fingertip in close for inspection. A dirty, gold-tinged half-moon straddling pink flesh, the fingerprint like crop circles or waves in a shallow pool, lazily approaching the shore. The skin remains unbroken, so I return to my scrolling.

I come across job listings littered with words that I recognize and use frequently, and that I still don’t understand, particularly not in this crushingly contemporary context. These are not words in sentences, but hieroglyphs strung alongside each other in a garland. “Best practices” of “brands” that need “cultivation” or “learnings” that pinpoint “space” to “pivot.” I am particularly intrigued by “brand,” because I can’t read the word without its second meaning bubbling up into the froth of my thoughts. To mark, with painful implications.

Living out my small life in a spiraling megacity, I often feel like an 8-bit creature composed mainly of a mouth roaming a spontaneously generated set of white-walled malls, hungrily swallowing products: ordinary products, but also lifestyle-as-product, ethics-as-product, individuality-as-product. Sometimes the marketing is devilishly creative, and the consumption at times satisfying—the equivalent of haute cuisine. But I am pursued by a hangover that seems to locate me no matter where I am, and an incredible, relentless urge to purge my body of the aftereffects of my things, as well as my job, my ambition, my aspirations, my expectations, and to keep only my little and lonely life.

Tow Away Lane

Flying over the nighttime geometry of Tokyo, en route to rejoin my boyfriend across the ocean, I turn my face to the view below, feeling the 20,000-foot chill as intensely as an ice cube in my mouth. My bodily senses are five stallions chomping at the bit, caught in an eternal race across an immense desert under an orange sky, the sand whipping at their legs and eyes—but now, my limbs arranged against the hard cushioned seat, my eyes trained on the moving landscape, I feel them slow from a sprint to a crawl as I redirect my mind toward the splendor of the vista, shrouded in cloud or anointed in light, and the theater of my breath, a three-act show that plays wetly over the cold acrylic airplane windows.

Every thought coursing through my flesh, every belief in my pantheon has been stunned into silence by the sensation of being run off the ground and buoyed into the air, momentarily ceasing their hydraulic crush of me. The end of this pressure is an invitation to abandon, at least for the next eight hours, the threats of the future, and I feel the frisson of a thrill as perfect as a first kiss.

Tokyo Bay is a prism of light. The Atlantic Ocean is a black hole. The snow over Minnesota is a blank page crisscrossed by lines that are indecipherable to my eye though I also harbor the suspicion that they are perfectly legible to those with the right gifts. What meaning is made in the flourishes of a foreign language, the eddies of water, and the flurries of snow, symbols gusting far below me, caught up in the currents that will travel far beyond me?

In Miami, the sky is preternaturally huge and fierce. It exerts a kind of force that communicates intransigence, total command, and the possibility of wildness, like the stare of a monarch framed in the doorway, or a tiger appearing between trees, tail thumping against the bark as it vanishes into the darkness. In the late evening, I sit on the old dock, legs swinging, with the sky looming behind me, its bath of purple tones, scattered clouds, and rays of light dancing over the river. You are not alone here, it seems to be saying, transmitting both comfort and danger. The sky recalls the ancient primacy of the natural gods, the divine personalities of the clouds, the sun, the stars, the firmament, and their roles in birthing, shaping, and consuming the world. “Buildings block the sky in Tokyo,” Strawberry reminds me, when I say that I can’t believe how big the sky is here, and I laugh because he is right, and because his pragmatism presents such advantages versus the blurry fantasy of my sky-as-tiger or sky-as-king. Later, I wonder what else blocks my vision there, at home in Tokyo.

Cloudbursts in Strawberry’s hometown are like something out of a fairy tale. The tension in the air breaks open and the rain pours down, hotly, wetly, heavily, like blood. The weather wields its powers with the clumsiness of a child, but with the grace of an artist. Gemstones sparkle in the air and glance off the water. Under the gray shadow of clouds, Strawberry’s family car hums nervously on the highway. I try to assist by navigating with my phone, zooming into the knot of roads on the map and getting lost, for a moment, in exploration as my finger undoes the strands and follows it into the fields of New England. I graze there, on distant heather in a land unseen, like a lamb, before I am called back by Strawberry asking me about the next exit. He looks younger than ever behind the wheel, like a boy magician handling levers and buttons behind a velvet curtain that opens onto a vast world. The captain of the ark, he leads us down a path littered in raindrops and flower petals.

Anxieties are sticky. They hold fast to my skin, drying down not just to a stain, but to a tattoo. I am praised for my kindness by the people who know me best but I never feel kind. I have never felt kind once in my life. In fact, I feel my own cruelty all the time. It has its own beating heart, embedded right next to mine. I feel it propelling me forward. I feel it holding me back. What’s more likely—that they have misread me, or that I have misread myself? Which would be more painful?

Bathing in the Styx

Lying on the grass, my hands folded over my chest, I look upwards, the whole of my vision turning green, gold, and baby blue as I look through the irregular sheaf of leaves, branches, and sparkling air overhead. I hold my body still while my eyes dart around, from twisted branch to falling leaf, following the long-lived dance held between the trees and the wind. Every few seconds, a quick-moving bird or insect joins into the choreography, their shadows skittering over the grass.

I try to watch purposefully, with the meticulous, deeply considered attention of an astronomer charting clouds of stars. I try to think of nothing but the wind, the trees, the grass. I reduce them, as though simmering away the water in their bodies, to a slurry of light, matter, and sensation. The wind is a blue-toned and fragrant memory of the seashore and the grass is a kiss on my ankles and wrists. The world is here, in this field. It is contained in the eggshell of the sky, pricked by needles of metallic yellow and olive-green light. I try to keep my mind on a leash, yanking it back when it threatens to dash out of the fenced-in perimeter and onto the road below. This is a task that requires every ounce of my concentration.

Across the field, a young woman, her face obscured by a thick scarf, is bent over her phone. Our gazes never meet. I don’t notice when she leaves but when I next look around, she is already gone. Now, in her place, an older woman is leading a toddler across the patchy grass. She pauses every so often to let him test the sensation of walking on his own; he sinks to his knees, at a loss. His eyes, blinking against the light, move in my direction, but I am too far away for him to truly see: a silhouette bathed in the green blur of the trees. His hands grab at the tufts of grass. When he leans down to inspect the clump in his hand, I notice the roughly circular bald spot on his crown, as obvious as a speckled, pink-and-white carnation pinned to a dark lapel.

Something about very young children has always made me uneasy; with their jerky movements, farsightedness, half-formed limbs, and toothless smiles, they seem especially close to death. Never mind that, in terms of proximity and according to the moral order of things, we should never be farther away from death than we are as children. But even as a young girl myself, I felt that the veil between my life and death was strikingly thin, almost insubstantial. A barrier more like a cobweb than a curtain. I never possessed the sure-footed belief in my own immortality that seemed to characterize the childhoods of others. I was always conscious of fragility, particularly my own. Everything around me and about me seemed weak, insufficient, prone to breakage and failure.

In the photos where I most strongly recognize myself—my real presence, spared from artifice and revealed authentically, in the tepid waters of a drugstore darkroom, before being printed on laminated plastic and handed to my mother in a paper envelope—I am unsmiling, and my eyes are faraway, beholding a fuzzy, nearly invisible figure in the distance. A tiny psychopomp in a black felt hat, cradling a doll with a red satin ribbon woven through the synthetic strands of its hair.

In the moments after the woman-and-baby duo exit the park, a gray-haired gardener, shears in hand, a rubber apron over her midsection, walks assiduously through the field. She vanishes under the cover of the distant trees. I wonder what the world may be trying to tell me with this parade of women entering and exiting the field, while I lay under the cool shade of the largest maple. Will I ever grow old enough to appreciate the passage of days, to enjoy them, to indulge in their small, varied pleasures like the gem-like stars, the star-shaped leaves, the trees like angels, the wind like God? Will I ever lose the perverse urge to siphon away the value of my own time via the vice, the maw, of melancholia, its grip tightening around me like a cuff strapped around my torso, numbing me before the blood draw that reduces me to nothing but matter and sensation, nothing but cells oriented toward despondency, nothing but the shells of thoughts configured for fragility, toward failure?

I don’t want to be “productive”. I don’t want to be “pessimistic”. I don’t want the self-help manual, the uplifting conversation, the sun-bleached afternoon, the tender poem, the TV show produced by a crowd of web-savvy millennials, the gimmick, the joke, the cry in the dark. I want to never cause harm. I want to take back all the pain. I want to forgive. I want to choose right. I sit up, leaves in my hair, suddenly overwhelmed by a feeling I can’t name and will later be unable to describe, to give life beyond where it lives, sick to its stomach, within me. I want to never fear death. I want to meet its eyes across the field.

Bliss Point (Full Story)

Writing this was an experiment (on some level, though, I suppose writing anything is an experiment). I didn’t have an end in mind, or even a beginning or a middle, when I started writing. Instead, what I had was a series of images. A larger-than-life tiger, a blue chalk arrow, a suburban backyard. The threat of death, the complication of sacrifice. I had a vague notion that I wanted to recreate Iphigenia at Aulis. That didn’t end up happening, but it will someday.

In the end, I think all I wanted was to capture the sensation of listening to a bedtime story as it is being made up in real-time. I have compiled all part of “Bliss Point” together below and lightly edited it where needed.

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“SOMETHING TRUE”

I am sitting at the desk, patiently enduring the chill coming from the single-pane window, blinking away the fog of tiredness that saps my strength like a deer tick squatting on my brain, like a sea sponge, expunged from its natural environment and sold by Amazon as a dyed pink loofah, soaking up water from the shower drain. One foot is tucked underneath me—ankle strangled by thigh, bereft of blood—and is rapidly losing sensation. I am sitting in silence with the sole goal of writing something true, but I think it may, unfortunately, not be as easy as I initially hoped.

I must admit that I think of the “something true” as something that lives perennially inside me, well-nourished and lucid as genius, luminous as moonstone, appraising conditions outside my body for the right opportunity to emerge, resplendent in the last dregs of milky afternoon light. But “something true” is not a “something” that I am knowingly carrying. I do not feel it inside me as I do the digestion of a meal, or a thorn in my shoe, or a wound in my memory. If I carry anything true, it resides in me as noise indistinguishable from the plaintive chorus of cells, tissues, thoughts, organs, feelings, joys, tragedies. I cannot pluck its face from the crowd. I probe my stomach, my limbs, my heart, every part of me more meat than spirit, looking for the “something true” in the blue night, but no reply is forthcoming.

I know “something true” was here, once—I knew it as a child, as many children do, playing by myself in a corner of the sandlot, living out a tiny life rich with alien roots sprouting from dark earth. I knew I could create, even if what I made was never good enough. But the certainty of that seems to have faded as I have grown and and become accustomed to trading authenticity for commercial viability and passion for (limited-to-nonexistent) career advancement. When I write now in pursuit of “something true,” I find myself lost, more often that not, in a labyrinth wallpapered in endlessly scrolling feeds. Blinking open wetly from the ceiling, the gaze of my father, and his father, and his father’s father, falls on me like a cascade of cinder blocks. I become possessed by the fear that I should be doing something else, anything else. I forget to feed the white rabbit. Its red eyes flutter closed. Could I have already killed the possibility of my “something true” through neglect? But in its absence I finally understand how tenderly the act of creation once held me, how my day was structured around it like paradise around the apple, like flesh around the parasite, like sound around meaning, and how my life continues to take the shape of an asymptote reaching for it, for something that is missing.

The Fisher Princess VI

He licks his upper teeth, tongue bulging from under the pink skin above his mouth. He shuffles a stack of papers over the tabletop, dull gaze tracking the motion of his hands as blandly as a crossing guard monitoring traffic. He smacks the edges of the paper against the dark green linoleum. Only then—the task completed, its tedium radiating through the room and holding them in bored, expectant thrall—does he look up at Cal and Max, sitting silently on the other side of the table.

Max can’t stop shivering. The room is small, box-like, windowless, and tiled along both floor and ceiling. Only a wilting fern tucked in a corner, its leaves edged in the yellow of old parchment, serves as decoration. She has the distinct impression that the space is kept purposefully cold. All warmth—bodily warmth, emotional warm—that enters is immediately quelled by the chill in the air, the silent devastation of the fern, the cultivated disinterest of the officer.

“I’ve had a chance to look at your testimony,” the officer now says. He is expressionless in a way that is obviously practiced. Nothing in his face betrays his thoughts—not their content, nor their existence. Nothing emerges from the waters of his tone—not even the shadow of a living thing with a beating heart beneath its surface. A man like him serves as an obstacle.

Max shifts in her seat. She’s almost offended at his lack of reaction, no matter how studiously affected. Overwhelmed by a silence that stretches uneasily into its tenth, blistering second, she breaks. “And?”

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Bliss Point (5/5)

Sal swallows hard and squeezes her eyes shut. She pictures her sister’s cool hand on her shoulder, steadying her, helping her first to her knees, and then to her feet. She thinks of all the times she has yanked Mina up from a fallen position: Mina’s tiny feet flailing as Sal hoists her from out of the sandpit, or into the family sedan, or onto a high chair, ignoring mewls of protest. All force of authority, in which a preteen Sal had perversely indulged. She puts one hand on her chest, fingers digging into the fabric. Remorse threatens to topple her and she has to bite back, not for the first time, the impossible desire to re-do their childhood, this time with an adult’s understanding of emotional tenderness, of duty of care, of sacrifice.

The void fizzes out, as naturally and as unceremoniously as the sun vanishing under the gray line of the horizon. The girl’s face returns. Her pride, playfulness, and spirit are gone. In their place is the dun-yellow gaze of a cornered animal. Sal steadies herself on the back of the chair.

When next the girl-tiger speaks, her voice comes out in a whisper. “Do you remember game day, when we were kids?”

Sal freezes. Blood rings in a low, wet tone, in the cavern of her head. The two men immediately turn to look at them. The charade is now over, and they begin their approach with even, measured footsteps.

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Namesake

True to its namesake, this Sunday was bursting at the seams with light. I looked up at the sky and the clarity of its color—clarity as a pure and as vivid as the pinprick of a needle—took my breath away.

Not true to my namesake (Emma, from ermen, meaning “whole”), today my attention is being pulled in a hundred different directions. Work, play, friends, partner. Family. Sad, bad, happy. Regretful.

The way my attention divides is like cells multiplying: each instance of division represents continuation, forward momentum, the progression of linear time, but, also, by those same gilded tokens, decay, inertia, and eventual collapse of being. You cannot be in many places at once without the quality of your presence diminishing. My eyes scatter out, profligate propagation, through the textured skin of tough calls, ruinous moods, and pits of anxiety. Each time my mind moves out to seek another task, another problem, another email, another text, the quality of my focus suffers as a result. It splinters, then fractures. It flushes, then reddens, then bleeds. I lose my train of thought. I become unable to name the right word, to follow the flow of a conversation, to keep myself from wandering off into the thorns of the next thing To-Do. I listen less intently, and respond less intentionally, and behave less thoughtfully. This, I know, puts me directly on the path of becoming a woman I am not and don’t want to be.

But life demands a fractured being. Staying in touch requires ten different apps bearing pastel-colored logos with soft, curved edges, elegantly curated feeds with custom typefaces, and consequences to my psyche that feel like being emotionally pulverized with a hammer. Keeping up with work trends means five subscriptions to magazines and trade papers, all eager to costume the truth in whatever disguise best suits the cause of sensationalism. A healthy body deserves rest, food, and exercise, but I cannot consistently provide all three, or even two. I have now been trained to seek distraction, to fear introspection, to submit to the transformation of hours of my life into ad revenue, to split my presence into forms that are “real” and “digital,” that are “personal” and “public-facing,” that are “work” and “life”.

My mind, flattened until it disintegrates, floats through the digital meadows of Asphodel. The day shifts shape. My mind returns to my body, filling out its contours like water crowding a bay. I come home and drop my bag onto the hardwood floors. I roll my tired shoulders, turn on the light, and fall onto the couch. Momentarily whole, momentarily true, momentarily at peace.