Author: Emma

Nighttime Routine (II)

Her nighttime routine consisted of forty different steps involving fifteen products and five parts of her body. First, she lit a white wax candle. Sweet, pink-petalled freesia swept into the room. Her head swam. Sitting cross-legged on the floor, she meditated for ten minutes using a loving kindness app. “I forgive you,” she intoned, under the Benedictine guidance of a honeyed British voice. It was said with a genuine attempt at feeling, with the overwhelming desire to summon a revelation like the ones promised to her in the ads for therapy, and she waited expectantly, shivering in the center of her room in synthetic fleece pajamas. But when the tundra of her mind refused to react, she gave up easily, unsurprised—but bitter, nonetheless, at the notion that meditation wouldn’t work on her dog of a brain.

With a shiver of fear for what new pimple or freshly mottled patch she might encounter on its rolling hills and pockmarked fields, she moved onto her body. She twisted around in the dirty mirror to examine every hairy, blue-veined scrap of skin. She ran a roller of imitation green jade over pads of fat, lips pressed together tightly, eyes averted. She scrubbed at her elbows with an intricately woven towel imported from Korea. She applied a mud mask, then a sheet mask, and then a UV light mask. She cleansed, exfoliated, and moisturized her face. Balms, liquids, creams, gels. Baby blue, Pepto pink, grass green. She flossed and brushed her teeth with something battery-powered. In the warm yellow light, her bubblegum-flavored gingiva shone in her mouth like the gilded edges of an illuminated manuscript. (A decorative glint of blood along her lip line from overexuberant flossing.) She meticulously conditioned every strand of her dyed hair with animal fat before braiding it into a loop that she pinned into place. The clips she used cost fourteen dollars and were shaped and colored like monarch butterflies.


Break my mood

Currently living in a mood that feels like rapture. The rapture is joyless but the joylessness is a comfort. The light on the water has changed from sequins to scarlet, from foam to dust. But I have released any need for anything to be different than what it is.

I nick a finger with a knife. I nick the blade against a whetstone. The moon is a disc of gold and it gloats at me, but I have learned how to ignore it. I wet my palate with something persimmon-flavored. In the laboratory, standing goggled and gowned, Igor raises a bony hand from the lever and asks me if the job is done. My hands are gory with something that looks like strawberry puree. “No,” I say, enjoying the feeling of the word.

I listen to the outro of White Ferrari over and over until I can feel, simmering underneath my skin, the urge to cry. But I can let it go if that is my desire and today, desires are all that will lead me. I look at satellite images of Tokyo, the bay awash in clouds. “No,” I say again, and my expression clears like the morning after the rain.

Birthday letter

For your birthday this year, you quit your job. You dropped the reins and let the leather lay flaccid on the grass. You spent a cold morning walking the old city, tears seeding your eyes like pearls. You didn’t respond when your body called out your name. You said: I mean, what for? I cannot look back and retrace my steps across the ocean. You cut those veins and let the footprints fill with blood.

You thought of everything you wanted to write but then, sitting at the keyboard after two months of swimming in a hole of darkness, you raised your hands to the uneven light and found them reduced to lumps of lunch meat. To restore their life would required sacrifice. You said: What do I have left to give? The amphora is already broken.

You spent hours in the red-colored badlands, squatting over artifacts of the distant past. You brushed the dust off their faces with a tenderness that felt pained, jagged, filthy. You scratched out messages with a scalpel. Where did you go? On the pieces of the amphora, a reply, long eroded into sand that shone in the air like scattered light. Once upon a time, there was something whole here, in this place where you hoard nothing but shards.

Magnolia petals on the asphalt, April 1994. For your birthday this year, promise that you will pack up your digger’s tools. Promise that you will cross the desert. Promise you will retreat to the forest, where the ruins of the old city are overgrown with moss, and where the insects have made homes in the hollowed-out traffic lights. There, it is possible to stand in the stream, the fish kissing your knees, their movements a map to a future not yet known to us, and feel clean in a new way, one that the water can neither give nor take away.

Nighttime routine (I)

Clouds were colluding to cover the shyly emergent moon, at a bus stop astride a freshly tarred road, as a bargain was made between the devil and a female millennial. Under the ochre streetlights, she playfully gambled her life away for lack of anything better to do. In that puddle of light, she abandoned her future, gleefully.

They were alone at the bus stop, and the silence of that road took on new dimensions; the air felt specific, hard, and real, as though diamonds had been scattered over the ground. Only the shadows of night were witnesses to the deal, and they made their disapproval clear in how they maneuvered to shade her face in a richly enigmatic, bruise-like blue. Miles away, the ocean—jealous master of mystery—hissed in white and ultramarine, desperate to wield the palette necessary to equal that color. “It’s not possible for you,” the night whispered, half in condolence, half in exultation. “You’re no sinner.”

A calfskin bag was slung over her left shoulder. As she spoke, in sweet, airy tones, she let her manicured hand graze idly over its leather panels. Her fingers, capped with eggshell tips, moved with the rhythm of a rich man enjoying flesh with his eyes. She wanted him to admire her hands, and then to appreciate the brand name emblazoned on her bag. The devil, a willing dance partner, smiled knowingly. She smiled back, lapping up the feeling of him looking at her, drinking in the heady, smoke-tinged air of the city—leisurely, lackadaisically, but nonetheless with a tinge of the anxious enthusiasm particular to the women of her time.


Monday (through Friday) blues

The air smells like wet dog. From across the platform, I hear the screaming of a child I cannot see. I adjust the straps of my backpack and swallow repeatedly, trying to get the taste of something bitter and phlegmy out of my mouth. A bird swoops down low in the slate-colored sky. Its freedom is an intolerable affront. I imagine the fat of its gamey flesh melting over coals.

At work, I try to be closer to myself. In the bathroom mirror, I loosen a few strands of hair from the shellacked crown of my head, out of a desire to retain some part of the lacy, frizzy, misshapen quality of young, dumb identity. I try to protect my small and insignificant interests. I don’t smile back, even tepidly, at the people who have gone out of their way to hurt me. Instead, I sit perfectly still, swallowed up by the pylons of an office chair, and stew in the filthy miasma of my feelings. I stare at the keyboard as though it were within my power to write a prayer that could save me. Pain comes to a roiling boil and blasts my mind apart. What’s left behind is a pillar of cold, dark smoke.

In the desert of a dream, I scavenge for something I have lost in the sand. Fleeing the forest, my face wet with rain, I fall to my knees in the dew-dotted grass. Every passing glance, a sign. Every mark on the land, a symbol. Every rash on my body, a sigil.

We need the document by the end of the day, he says. I trek across a cool blue expanse of light to produce 100,000 words that no one will read and that will eventually decay into digital dust in a distant server-on-a-lake. Still, I persevere. I make the tiny, dead things I do bigger than they are. Responding to an unnecessarily cruel message with the right tone—a balance of frosty imperiousness and fatherly mercy, because I seek to forgive, I always want to forgive—takes on the importance of a holy mission. I close my eyes and dress myself in chainmail. Then I open my eyes to find an email chain dressing me down for a lack of confidence in internal meetings.

These are the rules, he says. I count to five slowly in my mind. This is the way things are, he says, and there are rewards in store for you. But rewarded—for what? If I answer that, I crumble. I truly don’t want the prize of his recognition. What do I want, then? The heights of this profession are not heights I want to reach. Every step is injurious to my self-respect. Every step takes me farther away from myself. From across the platform, I see her standing there, with my crudely made-up face and bloodshot eyes, holding out a trembling hand that I would have to leap across the tracks to reach. But what if I tried? What if I could know what destiny is available to me? What destiny for a determined but misguided paladin of the heartless 2030s, what fragment of fate reserved for an oversensitive career girl with zero ambition but every desire to sacrifice everything, if only it could mean something?

The age of defeat

At a party last night, a woman I don’t know well asked me if I was happy, and I refused, cheerfully, to answer. When she pressed the issue, something rose in me—so defiantly that I felt that reaction internally, like a bruising within my body. My veins twisted into coils of black. I fought to keep a pleasant, neutral expression on my face as her voice lost the rhythm of language and morphed instead into throbbing sound. I walked home, the autumn wind slicing through my clothes, and heard her question ringing repeatedly through the darkness, like an approaching ambulance.

Just a question—Are you happy?—but there was a presumption of intimacy to it that repelled me. That night, trying and failing to sleep, my mind rolled out of bed to void its contents into a bucket, where my feelings surged against the walls, unanchored from artifice, whipping up into clear, bubbling foam. My mind climbed a rockface, its red-and-blue palms slick, and then flung itself off a cliff older than time itself. I woke up jackknifed in the sheets, tear tracks like tattoos, a returnee from a voyage that I couldn’t remember except in shreds of souvenirs. One of these was a child’s hand, with the three-word question from the night before scrawled across the pinkish skin of the tiny palm. I sat down to write about the dream, and found that I couldn’t let myself do it.

Are you happy? Are you happy? Are you happy?

Sometimes I go weeks without writing because something else occupies my thoughts. I mean that literally: When I visit the door to my mind, I find a column of dark stone blocking the entry so entirely that no light and no sound can pass through. The column often takes a specific shape—my shape. I fiddle with the pen, head casting a shadow over the table, and when I look up I see my double standing there, arms crossed tightly over her chest. Her expression, as she stares down at me, is an uncomfortable tangle of conflictive emotion. She understands me better than anyone, but the greater intimacy has afforded her too close a look at my ugliness. I hear her voice as though from a distance, saying, in a tone reserved for iterant daughters: Stop that. Stop pretending. Write what you want to write. Write about your despair.

“My despair?” I say, slowly, trying to buy time.

“Yes, your despair,” she replies, sullenly, knowing everything about my every attempt at charade. “I know you’re afraid to scare people. But I won’t let you write about anything else until you do this.”

My despair. She is light enough for me to carry through the city, cradled in my arms like an infant animal. She is tender to the touch, like a pustule. The setting sun glazes the pavement in apricot and red. She settles in. My despair is warm and soft and smells like blood. I slow my steps so as to not startle her. I fall behind the crowds, letting the comfort of distant voices lapse into silence. When my despair turns her face up to me, she looks at me with eyes I recognize.

“I’m trying to write about my happiness,” I say to my double, in a feeble attempt to extricate myself from this effort.

“Keep going,” she insists.

At the boundary between the city and the forest, I pause to feed my despair. I let her tear at my breast. I don’t relish the pain, but indulge in it as welcome punishment. Angels land there soundlessly, at this place of limits, where feeling frays into air. When they try to separate me from my despair, I resist them. I step back forcefully when they reach for me, telling me in even, reasonable tones that my despair will change me into a person no one will tolerate.

“You don’t get it,” I say, rubbing the tip of my sneaker into the ground as though it were a lit cigarette. “I am that person already.”

“No,” they insist. Their faces are masks of cool, distant indignation. Behind me, my despair cries out for attention. “You’re happy, and everyone loves you.”

“Yes,” I say, “That’s true.” I pause. A flicker of realization. So this is what the double was getting at. “But it’s only one truth,” I continue. “The other truth is that I am happy and I am loved, and I still have my despair. These things are all related. Do you understand?”

“No,” they say, frowning deeply. We stare at each other in the uneasy silence of adversaries who could have been kind to one another in different circumstances. An impasse between the messengers of God and I. They sigh and throw up their luminous hands, casting rings of light over the undernourished grass. I watch them retreat to the heavens, where it is possible to live rapturously, with the perfect knowledge of pure and righteous life. They can’t see that here, in this dominion of the wretched, all feelings must coexist with despair, in the same world, and in the same person. Are you happy? Happiness and despair are connected, like the systems of a body. Are you happy? Do you despair? Both questions tie me to life with sacred thread. Both feelings are proof.

“Proof of what?” My despair asks, licking her wounded paw in the shadow of the trees. Her human tongue comes away with traces of human blood.

I am not afraid. I squint up at the sky, where the doors have closed against me. My despair sidles up to me, her claws leaving imprints on the soil shaped like a child’s hand.

“Proof of a heart,” I say.

Deathbed baptism

In the moody, saturated, purple-hued world of my dream, I come across his presence. A cross-legged figure, hand resting over a deer’s bowed head, in a glen filled with fragrant, twilight-blooming flowers. He may be one of the lesser stars, but, as he turns his attention toward me, I am reminded that he is a star nonetheless. If I recognize him immediately it’s not because I remember his face, but because I will never forget how he made me feel.

I apologize for my mind, too malformed to attach healthily. I apologize for both wanting and fearing closure. I apologize for a stream-of-consciousness that sought to drown you in its waters, and seeks you still. I know I fixated on every accidental glance and stray word. I know I overinterpreted runes, panting in the crowded hallways with terror and heady exhilaration, as though every encounter between us were executed by a horned deity to whom I would soon owe everything. I know I changed like the tides. I know I left without saying goodbye. I know I cannot possibly have the temerity now to expect you to have stayed in the same place that I left you, your feet buried in black sand, your hands awash in chilly saltwater. I didn’t cultivate these grounds but still somehow want them to have stayed holy in my absence.

In my dream, you have the cool distance of a saint depicted in a pebbled mosaic. You are wary of me. Eyes of pewter, you raise one hand above the head of the penitent. You are someone distant and unknowable but fundamental to the faith. There was a time I followed you everywhere, do you remember? Like a child, or a dog, or a disciple. For years, you spoke to me as though via cipher. Your thoughts were as inaccessible as a drop of rain suspended in the cloudy air above a forest. Foolishly, I took you and your secrecy as a challenge. I thought I could learn you through intensive study and with concerted effort, the way one learns a language. I thought another person’s vulnerability was something you could work for and eventually earn. It took me years to understand that you weren’t particularly secretive or unknowable. You just weren’t interested in sharing anything with me.

It disturbs me to dream so often of you, a man who I only knew as a boy. There’s something profane about it. There’s something about it that fills me with so much shame. I can hardly bear to even write about it. Only the strength of the immediate feelings after I wake propels me forward, toward the cool glow of the computer, toward the dislocation of my heart. The dream fills me as though I were a pitcher, and I pour out over the dusty keyboard, my mind streaming in red and irregular ribbons over the keys. But when the swell of that emotion recedes, leaving only its watery imprint on the sand, the shame remains. Why do I long so strongly? Why do I revisit the memory like it owes me something? Is it a violation of some kind to be changed, to be unable to forget, to dream so much—of someone who was never mine?

Scripture of the cynic

She doesn’t believe in God anymore, she tells me. We sit in cracked plastic chairs, hard as diamond-face, on a dusky summer evening, torrid as the tropics, my frizzy hair escaping the ponytail, my attitude chomping at the bit, my attention on the leash with my willpower at the other end, digging in its heels, shame on the brain. God? I’m as godless as they get.

Conversation takes everything out of me; I put impossible pressure on myself to deliver not just a good response, but the best response. The optimized response for this woman, this situation. But my success rate is low, and the despair resultant from failure, great. The daylight long having circled the drain, our conversation has yielded easily to the darkness. Do I have it in me to answer this? I hold my breath. It’s the weekend, and anything can be said. I keep my eyes on her face. I get it, I tell her, though I don’t. I have never understood what it means to believe in God.

Throughout the phases of my life, multiple moons of friendship have waxed and waned. I will take the blame for the deterioration of conditions, for the dozen eclipses. But can anyone inflict pain and not live to regret it, in some form? I have mourned, more deeply than I can convey, the loss of the spirited, affectionate relationships of my adolescence, and, in particular, the soft-hearted, girlish blessing who eventually matured into a woman who wanted nothing to do with me.

I do try to be less hard on myself. I try to think about the circumstances outside my control. I try to be at least as compassionate toward myself as I am toward others. It doesn’t escape me that self-inflicted punishment is fruitless, and just one shade off the purpling hues of narcissism. Nevertheless, I am determined not to lose another friend the way I lost her. I am determined not to cut off the blood to any more plummeting stars.

[The cynic in me, reclining on a velvet divan placed, improbably, in the delectable maze of a fruit garden, rolls her eyes. You would have tired of each other eventually, she says. She separates a sour pebble of a grape from the vine and drops it into her mouth. Eyes closed, chewing slowly, the cynic says: She just pulled the trigger before you could. You just wish you’d been first to leave.]

I squirm in the chair. I keep the muscles of my face locked in place. I am:

Trying too hard!

Caring too little!

Being too much!

Refusing to let anything go!

I’m sorry you’re experiencing this, I say. In choosing my words, in directing the amateur theater of my expressions, I am laboring at the bench, carving, out of an ordinary block of olive wood, the version of me that I want her to see across the table. Poised, but human. Articulate, but approachable. Enviable, but not envied.

[The cynic, head lolling, looks up at me through her eyelashes. You can’t expect vulnerability and then be unprepared to offer it yourself, she says, lightly enough, though she means it, as she means everything, as a rebuke. The tragedy of your relationships is you want to be revered like the main character of a movie. You want your flaws rewritten into virtues. She sits up and, selects a fruit from a bowl without looking. The skin of the apple is glossy with spit where she bites into it. You want to be everyone’s therapist, and then complain about it. You have the temerity to be disappointed in everyone. Don’t you know nothing kills a relationship like judgment?]

I am:

Giving up!

Forgiving nothing!

Forgiving everything!

Cruel to myself, and cruel to everyone!

Judge, verb: Balancing the shining scales. Standing over the penitents who kneel deeply, foreheads pressed to the wine-colored stone. When they look up, faces ochre-yellow in the flame, their eyes brim with tears. Judgment, noun: Something generally under God’s command and in God’s province but that I have always claimed for my own, as a protective amulet, as a particular talent. I’m a good judge of character, I like to say, though this is based purely on my own estimation of myself and not any third-party verification. True to the scripture of the cynic, an ability to judge has won me nothing but enemies. I’ve even made a true enemy of myself.

I don’t say this to many people, she says. Uh, I reply, scrambling for a response. In overthinking how to make a friend, I have spent too much time trawling the swamp of my emotions, trying to fish out the appropriate reaction. I am ignoring, in direct contradiction of my mission, that someone waits, hands folded over her stomach, on the other side. Her expression is obscured by the dark, dense boughs of foliage that the wind has not strength to shake. I stare at her shape, already ready to surrender, to renounce any claim I have to friendship, to launch myself into the churning, gray waters around me and let them drag me into the shadows of fate. But some red-eyed pearl of expectation inside me refuses; it cries out in hope that she might step out into the light, might extend her hand, might call out my name—and then I could finally let go of everything I carry and weep from relief.

The Vow

As I exit my twenties, I am becoming more aware of my body and its constituent elements. Its constraints, its habits. Its fires, its fluids. Its voids, its veins that newly throb, ocean-blue. When I sleep poorly, I wake up to dim, watery light, feeling, at the center of my hand, a faint, inconstant twinge, as though my body were a chord being played from a far distance.

My face has settled into the granite mask of a total stranger. I look in the mirror and don’t understand who is staring back. But though the whole refuses to coalesce into something that feels mine, I can nonetheless pick out shards of features bearing familial resemblance, borrowed from reservoirs of blood from my mother, my father, and my brother. I don’t feel like a self but like an amalgam of ancient metals that ooze and pool over my expression like banks of clouds occluding the light. Depending on my mood and the hour, the composition changes, like the riddle of the Sphinx; in some variations, I favor one dark-eyed relative more strongly than the others and then, in an instant, the allegiances change. Bent over the laptop, hair in my eyes, I am my brother’s twin. Smiling wanly at myself over fuzzy online conferencing, I see my father lurking in my face. But I expect I will age, despite all vows to the contrary, into a poor imitation of my mother.

The sky opens like a wound. I sit by the windows and watch rain dribble down. The world outside is a growing splatter of darkness. Wilderness served on a platter, and I pick at it distractedly. When lightning flowers, unexpectedly, in my field of vision, I feel myself clench like a fist. So distant from the dominion of nature, in this sterile cloister of millennial life, I forget regularly about the very existence of lightning and thunder. Buried in work, consumed by its million little agonies, I have felt time pass not naturally, but as one colossal, suffocating mass. Not even the wide-eyed face of nature, panting at my window, can shake me from this dream.

I feel my heart seize at the thought that I am twenty-nine and still don’t have any idea what I’m doing, still don’t have a face or life or character that is fully mine. I imagine, across the rooftops, past the telephone lines, that lightning strikes and a thousand ships with billowing sails cast off, content to leave me behind to weep inconsolably, face in my hands, the skin of my knees cut up by the sharp and algae-mottled rocks of the bay. One captain takes pity and yells back, before the ships disappear into the clouds, a final admonition: You court the sublime but must settle for the conventional.

The storm closes up. The sky stitches over its wounds with rays of light. I think of the cold air outside, which stings but is also a respite. I court the sublime but must settle for the conventional. In doing this, I break the most sacred promise, which is the one I made to myself at age seven on a playground on a sunny day, hands scratching at the sand, back during a time when it was possible for me to look out onto the waters of the future and not fear their depths. But this isn’t quite the truth. What holds me back is not imperfect knowledge of what is to come, but imperfect knowledge of myself. What holds me back is fear of what I can do, and fear of what I can’t. I talk too much. I achieve too little. I am still trying to trust myself with more than almost nothing. Forgive me, and then forgive me again.


Is this a good world? The question comes upon me like an unwelcome visitor on a day as clear as unblemished glass. My mood thrashes like a fish in a bucket. Is this a healthy world? To grant myself the opportunity to ponder this question in the fullness it deserves, I pause what I am doing, which is watching an endlessly looping video of a delicate, blue-veined hand with cream-tipped nails spreading green jelly polymer over a broad ceramic tabletop. Is this a good world? Is this is a healthy world? Is this a good—

The shadows of our time speak volubly to the crowds, standing in puddles of light with microphones close enough to kiss. They talk truth; they talk lies. Either way, it doesn’t matter. In the audience, I try to drown out the speech by turning up the chunky dial labeled “white noise” in my mind. I do this more and more, these days. I zone out and find it harder and harder to return.

Is this a good world? Is this the world prior to doomsday? How long can we live here—living too well, at too outrageous a cost—before something reacts? Is this a healthy world? What if it isn’t, and what if we can’t get better? What if we don’t want to? We know there will be no mercy for our behavior in the future. How long can I ignore the signs of the ritual about to take place?

The more I think about current conditions, the more I feel myself come apart. Zoning out feels like wedging my body into a crack in the wall while a storm voids itself above me. Zoning out feels like a safe haven. I struggle, in plain sight, to keep all parts of me connected and, when I fail at that, I retreat into that gap in the wall where I can’t hear the thunder anymore, where I don’t have to negotiate to keep my body together. Looking back now, I realize I have favored this response for far longer than I should have. The zone lives somewhere in me now.

Is this a healthy world? To heal it, I’d crawl into the blood-splattered center of a pentagram. But I’m not the medic. I’m not even the victim. I’m a symptom of the disease.