Vassar Student Review

Vassar Student Review

VSR Digital Archive

A Sad Breeze Through the Olive Trees

He woke that morning to the smell of coffee.  It wafted in from the gap beneath the door  along with the muted sound of Tchaikovsky on the gramophone.  Sun came through the slates in the shutters; his feet padded against the floor as he ran his hand through his hair and dressed, dismayed to find his jacket oddly loose over his shoulders and the bags under his eyes darker than before.  It had been a restless sleep. When he looked back to the bed—a cot on the floor in the study—he saw the blankets carelessly strewn about, the sheets pulled from their bearings, notebooks and pages scattered on the floor.  A sigh rose from his chest; he almost didn’t want to go into the kitchen, but when an insistent knock on the door rang through the house, he knew the choice was no longer his.

 

They saw him disappear, crying and singing…

into the night that showed its skeleton of tobacco,

into the sorrow full of faces and piercing bone splinters of the moon,

into whips and notched wheels,

into deserted death with one mistaken wanderer.

 

No longer was there the melancholy of the bassoon or the twang of the gramophone as the needle skipped over Benny Goodman and Vladimir Horowitz at Carnegie Hall; the record scratched after seven years of constant repeats.  Instead his ears were filled with the call of the trumpets and the snares, the grumble of the engine as the car drove up the hills, dotted with olive trees and tourists from the United States who shivered when they heard the soldiers pull into the cemetery behind their villa.

He could not see the stars even when he looked up, pulled from his seat by his shoulder, but he blinked beneath the blindfold, as if that would somehow clear his vision.  He knew it was dawn by the scent of the countryside.

His breaths were deep, as measured as he could keep them—but he thought of the looks on his friends’ faces when he’d been pulled from the room, when the teacup dropped from his hands and smashed to the floor.  He heard their mourning as soon as the door was shut behind him, but he had begun long ago, so he looked into the soldiers’ eyes with as much courage as he could muster, sternness painted upon his lips and the darkness of his brows.

 

They searched the cafés and the graveyards and churches,

they opened the wine casks and wardrobes,

 

and behind the altar dressings in the cathedral and amongst acolytes’ robes, and they scattered the shirts and cigarettes and poems from the drawers in his home, and they had finally found him in the embrace of a friend, defiance rather than fear in his eye.  Now here he waited, his knees against the hard ground, the uncut grass brushing against the tweed of his pants.  Their gruff voices scratched against the silence, still muted in his ears—speaking of him, he knew, with words he didn’t dare think of.

Above their sweat and the blood that had dried beneath his eyes lingered the scent of dry summer and chamomile, gunpowder and smoke, the disturbed earth, and the cold headstones that waited at the edge of the cemetery, scarred with pot-marks.  He heard them loading the shots, but focused on the whisper of the breeze.  He could hear it singing:

 

inkwells and the thistle,

the breeze that freezes the heart of all the mothers,

the white ruins of Jupiter where the drunks snack on death.

 

But he, too, kept his whispers to himself.  His hands shook and his heart pounded in his chest, running to the tips of fingers and the backs of his legs, where the heels of his shoes cut into his thighs.  His hands were tied before him, as if in prayer—and he looked up to the sky, where he knew the stars were losing their light,

 

and when the pure forms sank

under the cri cri of the daisies,

he understood they had murdered him.

 

Original text: “Fable and Round of the Three Friends” from Poet in New York by Federico García Lorca, translated by Pablo Medina and Mark Statman

To the Spider I Saw Crawling Across My Desk During the AP American History Test

You know, when I first saw you, I was kind of envious. Your life is so simple, compared to mine. You just, for whatever reason, had to walk across my desk at that moment, and your whole goal is just to do that. No multiple-choice tests, no five-paragraph essays, no memorizing the differences between the Panic of 1857 and the Panic of 1893. Your life boils down to the simplest elements—finding food, shelter, and avoiding predators, like history test-takers.

Speaking of that, I’m so sorry that I flicked you off the desk. I’m sure it hurt, and it disrupted your goal, but you don’t understand—these tests are important, and you were distracting me. I had to focus. And, if it’s any consolation, I spent the next few minutes worrying about you crawling up my leg.

And, when I saw you again, trying to crawl across my desk for the second time, I have to admit—I was surprised. By your resolve or your stupidity—I’m not sure. But I was impressed. It’s the kind of thing us students hear over and over again—try and try until you reach your goal. 

That time, I marveled at you—and not just at your resolve. Your huge head, your tiny abdomen, your eight little legs, your little beady eyes and the structures below them, which I believe are called forceps. I should know. Biology’s my next test.

My heart rate rose every time you turned a little bit towards me—I thought you were going to bite me. I’m not sure that I would know what to do if that happened. Would I try to get the proctor’s attention? Just ignore it and keep writing? What impact would that have on my score?

But, no, you never bit me. It would have been counterproductive to your goal. You were always just readjusting your course, trying to stay on the table, like doing trigonometry. 

And, I’m so sorry I flicked you off the desk again. You just don’t understand—these things are timed, and I couldn’t waste time staring at you. Plus, you should learn to avoid humans. The next one who sees you crawling across their desk might kill you.

I have to admit—I did consider that once. Flicking you off the table and crushing you underneath my heel. But that would be silly. Why would I waste a life—a spider’s life, but still—on just getting a little more time on a test?

So, I made sure to flick you in the direction you were going. That way, we could help each other, sort of. It might save you some time, actually.

I felt so guilty, though, when I raised my pencil, and I saw your whole body tense up. You went from being the spider I’d seen crawling all the way across my desk to being something else entirely, pulling your legs close to your body until you were just a little circle. 

It confirmed what I’d already thought—you were watching me as much as I was watching you. Maybe I was as much of a distraction to you, on your little test of life, as you were to me. 

I flicked you off anyways. These tests are important, and I couldn’t waste any more time with you. 

I have to confess, though—I kept watching you, even after you were already on the floor. I saw you crawl up onto Luis’s chair while he was in the bathroom.

It made me wonder what he’d do if he saw you. He’d probably kill you, or else flick you off his desk, as I had done.  

That’s your whole life, isn’t it? Being flicked off one desk or the other, living in one dark place before moving to another. You can’t be out in the sunlight without people trying to kill you. You don’t have that choice. You are a spider, and people will always want to keep you in the dark. 

I guess my history test isn’t too bad, after all. 

Dollhouse

These days I use my doll house and my smallest dolls, which fit in the house. They all know each other. I told Bruce to put the house in the left hand corner of the living room, by the CD player and the CDs, in case I want to play Dalida for my dolls and make them dance. The room is big and I guess I could use the rest of the space better, but I like to stay out of the way. The adults mostly come down the 3-step, gray, stone staircase in the middle of the room because it connects to the kitchen. Or they come in and out of the glass doors on the other side of the room because that connects to the garden. Or they go up and down the 5-step, brown, wooden staircase right by the glass door because that leads to the bedrooms. Mine is on the second floor. They also like to sit on the parallel couches by the stone fireplace in the center of the room. Adults talk and talk and talk. I usually don’t pay attention. Sometimes I do and learn new words to use with my dolls. Like divorce (Kate and Dan are getting one) and orgasm. Or maybe it’s organism, I’m not really sure. Mostly, I’d rather my mom and Bruce talk to their friends than ask to play with me. They never understand my dolls’ personalities. Or know how to create good stories. I don’t really understand. I give them so many options. For example:

  • The girls can discuss most things, but they prefer topics like periods and jobs.
  • Charlie and Doreen got married last month, and now they have a baby, Ruby. They’re always losing Ruby in the house and have to search for her.
  • Melissa makes a great spy. She goes on missions all over the world.
  • Jackson the doctor sees everyone for check ups. Sometimes they discover rare diseases.

 

The house is a little small for everyone to fit comfortably. I asked my mom if I could get the house Emily has. It’s actually a castle, and it’s nice. It has towers. Also, it’s made of wood. My mom says maybe I can get it next year, but I think she’s just afraid I’ll break it. The one we have here is a big dark green square house with glass-less windows so I can put my hands inside. I’m thinking of asking Bruce to take it outside so I can do picnics or tea parties. I think that would be really nice. The house would even match the grass. One issue with that is that Bruce could mess it up and break a bed or something.

I don’t know what I’d do if my house broke.

 

My mom is about to call me for lunch from the kitchen. It smells like meat just came out of the oven. I hope we have filet mignon. That’s my favorite type of meat. It might even be my favorite food. I ask for it every year on my birthday.

After I eat, I’ll try to get Rick and Pia to make up. They have been fighting for seven days straight, which is the longest they’ve had. I wish I could just go into the house to help them work it out more easily. I wish I could just close my eyes, take a deep breath and become really really small. Small enough to go inside. Small enough to stay in there forever. After lunch, I’ll try it. I’ll focus hard and disappear into the house.

 

The Stray

Life begins in a nest of plastic bags and stained cardboard. It is dark and cold outside their den, but inside the pile of wriggling bodies is warm and crying and alive.

 

The smallest of them wails hungrily, muffled beneath her siblings, but she is strong enough to push her way through. She is new to the world, and it greets her in the back corner of an alley with the smell of rotting food and the buzzing of flies. Not unkind but not welcoming either. This is okay, because her mother greets her with a rough tongue and watchful eyes. She is loved.

 

When she is old enough, she will open her eyes to a polluted sky the color of ash. It will be the brightest thing she’s ever seen. In the city smog, she’ll look upon her brothers and sisters for the first time and see that some of them lay motionless amongst the debris. She won’t know it yet, but she is one of the lucky ones.

 

Soon, her mother will ween them off of her sweet milk and give them their first taste of fresh meat. A limp, greasy rat will be dropped amongst the mewling kittens, who will skitter nervously around this strange-smelling thing. But the moment when she first sinks her teeth into its flesh she will be able to taste the last of that life which has yet to fully seep from its body. It’s rich blood will soak her little tongue and coat her lips with crimson. Inside her will be planted a seed of bloodlust.

 

When they begin to leave the nest, they will trail obediently behind their mother as they dodge traffic and crawl beneath fences. She will teach them how to hunt, to hide, to hiss. And they will come to understand that their territory is infinite, but it is dangerous. It is the closest thing to freedom that any living thing can have.

 

Slowly and without warning, their numbers will dwindle. Her siblings will reduce from five to two as the world passes indifferent judgment upon them. It will deem her worthy of existing for no reason at all, merely by chance, as it has decided everything before and will decide everything after. She is the smallest, but she will eventually be the last.

 

On an unremarkable summer day when she is lazy from a recent feast, her mother will stalk off down the street and never return. This is okay, because her tongue will be rough against her own paw, an empress surveying her kingdom. She will dance on the edge of invincible.

 

She will travel farther than she ever has before, far away from that alley corner where she took her first polluted breath and find that there are others of her kind whose fur is not matted and scarred, whose bodies are soft and fat with indolence. They will regard her through the glass with a lack of fear that she will never know, a curiosity that she must always cast aside for caution. But in the end they will watch her disappear into the night, a savage, unbroken

Creature.

 

When she is still young, she will catch the eye of a male who knows how to hunt. He will take from her without remorse, as only an animal can, and leave her with something hot and feverish like terror. The sky will be gray as it has always been, but she will be changed.

 

She will seek out the smell of rotting food and the buzzing of flies from a fading memory while the promise of new life expands her belly. When she finally cries out into the night with the pain of labor, the heavy price of such a beautiful thing, six little voices will join in her song. Alongside those deeply rooted instincts to survive and to kill, the softer desires to nurture and to protect will settle. Nature will make a mother out of a predator.

 

The smallest of them will be a girl who, not unlike herself, is far stronger than she at first appears. Only time will tell if chance continues to favor the smallest, but she is undeniably loved, and that must count for something.

 

Like a glittering crown, she will inherit the prestigious title of “Stray”.

 

The gray sky bows before her.

Up!

She ran her hand through her short brown hair one too many times, and I knew exactly what was going to happen. Well, that, and the fact that she had barely touched her plate, and the way she kept putting her hand in the pocket of her blazer, and the way she was looking at me.

“I have to say it again. You l-look absolutely stunning tonight,” she stammered. A gust of wind rattled our table. Except for us, the restaurant’s outdoor deck was empty. 

“Oh,” I looked down at my skin-tight leather dress. “Thank y–” I began. But then she stood up, and I felt like there were four walls closing in on me. As she stepped over to my side of the table, the walls got closer. She got down on one knee, and I could feel them pushing against my skin. She reached into her pocket, and I thought I might explode. 

“Alana,” she started. 

When she opened her mouth again, I was gone. As I ran, the wind blew her words toward me and whispered them in my ear.   

“Marry me.”

I stumbled down the wooden stairs that led to the beach, passing our waiter who was holding a tray with the third glass of wine I’d ordered. I slipped off my high heels and, with them in hand, trudged across the short stretch of cold sand between the restaurant steps and the boardwalk. I listened for frantic footsteps following me, but all I heard were the echoes of those two words. 

“Marry me.”

There was a long stretch of beach to my left and my right, and the ocean water slid on and off the shore, looking dark and grimy in the moonlight. Straight ahead was a long boardwalk over the ocean jutting out forty feet from shore, with a small cabana, a wooden railing, and two chairs at its end. The boardwalk wasn’t too far above the water’s surface; when she and I first arrived at the restaurant just before sunset, there were a few teenagers sitting along the side edge, laughing and swinging their legs inches over the water’s surface. 

I had to do something. I had to move. So I rushed down the boardwalk toward the cabana chairs—my skin tingling from the sharp ocean breeze and the knowledge that she was up there, watching me—I walked down the boardwalk, with my black heels in my hand and a warped tune of “Here Comes the Bride” ringing through my head. 

I slumped on one of the chairs and stared through the railing at the dark mass of ocean water swelling and shrinking. With every wave, the cold sea water splashed against the wooden floor and scattered on my legs. I tried to breathe, but every breath only filled my nose with the burning scent of salt. I’d told her I wasn’t ready. And she asked me anyway. 

I’d told her I wasn’t ready. 

My body stiffened as the walls cornered me again. Footsteps. Among the whistles of the wind and the murmurs of the waves, I heard footsteps. She was walking toward me from behind, getting closer and closer and closer until the sounds of her footsteps were right behind me, right behind me, and then—the steps stopped. 

I waited four seconds then turned my head slowly, expecting to see her soft smile with her thick eyebrows furrowed over her eyes—the face she makes whenever she’s trying to hide that her feelings are hurt. But I turned and saw a hand holding a glass of red wine outstretched toward me. 

It was the waiter. I looked up at his sunburnt face; it was full of lumpy folds which deepened as he smiled. He looked strangely hazy, and I was only convinced of his reality when the cold glass touched my fingertips as I took the cup from him. 

“I thought you might need this.” His voice was cool and smooth like blue velvet, and he settled into the chair next to me. 

“Is she –”

“No,” he answered. “She left.” We sat there for a while with the waves churning against the boards beneath our feet. The burnt old man leaned forward . “Do you love her?” I looked at him incredulously. 

“Of course I love her!” I cried. The man leaned back into his chair, and I turned my head away from him. “But marriage? It’s too much.” I gazed at the darkness as it all came spilling out. “The job I’ve slaved at for the past six years, my matchbox of an apartment, this fucking dress!” I yelled, squirming against the faux leather. “This island, this planet, this galaxy! There’s no way out!” I screamed. The burnt old man shuffled in his seat, and, embarrassed at my outburst, I lowered my voice as I turned back toward him. “Do you ever feel that way?” I scrambled for the right words. “Suffocated? Like there are walls closing in on you? Like your blood is boiling and gurgling within you, and you just might burst and explode? Like you’re –”

“Trapped in your own skin?” he finished. I stared at him. That’s exactly what I mean. 

The burnt old man nodded sagely. “I used to, but I found the answer.” The edges of his face looked like they were glowing as he looked up at the night sky. “It’s up.”

I had no idea what he was talking about, and, with the mixture of the proposal and the wine and the walls, I didn’t care. It felt like there was a creature in me, scratching the insides of my skin, begging to get out, get out, get out. I wanted to be like this burnt old man who was staring at the sky with liberation in his eyes. I wanted to be like those kids who were sitting along this boardwalk, throwing their heads back in laughter as if they didn’t have a care in the world, as if they never would.  

“You ever feel like you just need to do something?”

The next thing I knew, I was standing on top of the wooden railing of the cabana. The wind whipped my hair around as I held onto the post beside me. “I have to do something!” I yelled against the wind swishing in and out of my ears. “I have to jump in and swim ‘til I can’t anymore.” 

“No!” the burnt old man shouted behind me. “Don’t jump down into the water! You need to go up, up, up!” I paid him no attention—I’d already envisioned it in my mind. I’ll jump in, and, I smiled, I’ll kick my legs and swim up and break through the waves. I’ll break free. And I’ll swim away from this place, swim away from my stupid job, swim away from her. And that’s when my heart broke like glass. I can’t marry her. I don’t think I can ever marry her.

I closed my eyes and jumped. 

 

I never reached the water. As soon as my feet were about to crash into the ocean’s surface, wind swirled around me like a soft vortex. My lungs, full with the freshest air, started floating within me and lifting me up toward the night sky. As I gasped more and more air into my body, sea spray flew into my mouth. The salt tasted like sugar, and I started to weep. My dress tore down its middle seams, and the wind pulled the leather into the whirl until it  disappeared. The breeze swirled closer around me and hugged me, covering my entire body with its cool embrace and whispering sweet, sweet songs into my ear. I felt like I was dying and living. There were no more walls. I was naked. I was free. 

I eased my eyes open and looked down. I was fifteen feet over the surface of the sea, ascending slowly. I glanced at the boardwalk through the blurs of tears and wind. The burnt old man was standing then, with both his arms outstretched toward me. I saw his mouth moving, but I couldn’t make out what he was saying—that is, until the wind blew his voice to me, and I heard the echoes as I drifted away:

“Yes, my friend! Up! Up! Up!”

What He Wants

Arranged marriages and love marriages have the same percentage of working out, she told him. He was confused.

He doesn’t know about rings, white dresses, or joint income. He knows heartbreak. He doesn’t know love but they’ve talked on the phone. Akshay had just been told this anecdote by his therapist, though at first, he thought she was only telling him this because he is Indian and they have a reputation for this kind of thing.

This was Akshay’s first time in the therapy, and his therapist looks exactly as he imagined it on his walk from his dorm to her office: taupe sweater, smooth hair to her shoulders, bracelets that looked expensive. She looked related to the cast of Big Little Lies, a show his high-school girlfriend used to watch and talk about with her friends. Her name was Ella. She had brownish hair with a crooked part and talked a lot without saying much. If private school had prom queens, it would have been her. She was so absorbed with herself, and Akshay always thought she should be more absorbed with him. Ella was at a small college across the country now.

Akshay doesn’t know Ella anymore, they don’t talk on the phone. He knows her mother, and he knew her dead husband. He was an alcoholic who died a tragic death falling off a barstool. Akshay decided he needed therapy because he was undecidedly unhappy all the time. It was when Akshay told his therapist that he was thinking about transferring, that she told him this bit about arranged and love marriages.

Akshay left her office that morning thinking hard about this. The day was cold, bright, blue. His father taught at the college he was now a student at. Akshay had spent the last sixteen years and ten months of his life here. He didn’t know physics. He knew even less about Keats. But he knew his first kiss, underneath a small tree across from the college’s library. He didn’t know where to put his hands, how to touch her lips and not her teeth.

The worst parts of his day are when he’s not in class or in his room. When Akshay walks to class or eats meals—alone or with people—he fantasizes about marriage, about Ella, about the situation he’s found himself in, and the things he could have done differently.

Akshay doesn’t know anything about arranged marriages. His parents got married when their two countries were fighting a war. His dad was born in India. His mom was born in Pakistan. When he tells people this story, it is usually around this time that the image of Cyril Radcliffe comes to mind. Akshay imagines this British lawyer—a man who had never before been east of Paris—tasked with partitioning the subcontinent in five weeks, using only a pencil and out-of-date maps. But when Akshay tells people this story, he doesn’t mention Cyril Radcliffe. Instead, he tells them about how his parents met in New York and fell in love. He doesn’t bring up the different diets, nuclear arsenals, and incompatible gods. Akshay says that it’s actually a pretty funny story—his mom had set up her college friend on a date with my dad but it was my mom that he was actually falling in love with; how years later, they had him, and turned a bloody history into a baby boy and cello lessons, and Quaker school tuitions, and basketball tournaments, and runny noses, lost mittens, bad dreams, gas expended, babysitters, vacations, inside jokes, and please Dad, please let me sleepover!

And after all of this love was poured into him, here Akshay was, hating it all. What’s that about?

Ella had found herself a new boyfriend at college. He was hairy and looked like he smelled like a soccer field. Under the right conditions, he could be called good-looking. Akshay wondered if they did adult, college things. Did he come to her room at night and did she get up from her bed, smiling because she knew exactly what was going to happen when he walked through the door.

To Akshay, it was like Ella was in a love marriage: a foreign, exciting territory made up of beautiful boys and beautiful her. She had successfully tapped into this mysterious current—college life: going out, learning French conjugations, and letting the age-appropriate boy drag his sweaty palm around her pretty knee. This felt so far away from Akshay. In his arranged marriage, he didn’t feel any of this enthusiasm. There were no roses and kisses and restaurant dinners in his marriage. What he really wanted was for the wedding service to be over, and for his wife to flatten out underneath his feet like a kitchen mat.

 

Wintertime, Seattle

The rain fell heavily on the hills and especially on the Lake. There is something especially desolate about watching rain fall on the Lake; if there is already so much water, then what, we must ask, is the need for even more? And even the rain that does not fall into the Lake will flow there over the following hours and days. Truly, there is no end to such things.

It was December, just above freezing, and the rain was icy, a sort of half-sleet. That is the closest it gets to snowing in December, you see. In Seattle, in the wintertime, these things happen.

Also in Seattle, in this particular wintertime, lived a young, tired woman named Leah L. Knight. She was a writer by trade, or so she claimed, but her bills were paid by a part-time position she’d found at a startup; it was a non-technical position, and so it paid a very non-technical salary. Nevertheless, it had secured for her a damp basement apartment in the neighborhood of Fremont, and Fremont was where she spent most of her days as well.

On this particular rainy morning, we find Leah walking on the canal. Most people do not go for walks in the rain, and it was nearly deserted. A few forlorn cyclists dashed up and down the path, splashing great waves of water whenever they rode through a puddle, but they were few and far between.

It struck her as somehow impetuous on the part of the rain to arrive now, and in a sort of half-sleet. There was a Person she wanted to see, but coming in disheveled from the rain, well…that did no one any favors, did it? Still, there was nothing for it; she had made a Resolution, and today she would finally complete that Resolution.

Leah was always making Resolutions. She had resolved, for example, to finish writing her book, to lose five pounds, and to find a better apartment – all noble things, of course, and very reasonable, and eminently doable, if Leah had not been a young, tired woman with no time to even get started on any of them. The only one she quite managed was her Resolution to call her mother twice a week, but that was rather easy; if she forgot, then her mother would simply call her instead.

It seemed sometimes that all she had was Resolutions.

The purpose of Leah’s excursion was twofold. Firstly, it was to fulfill her Resolution to exercise. A gentle walk was not really exercise, but then she did not really want to fulfill her Resolution either; she hated sweating. Her doctor, however, never ceased to remind her about the benefits of exercise, especially for a young person such as herself, and so she had to be able to convince herself that she was making progress.

The second purpose of the excursion was to find inspiration for what she was about to do. Leah was not the kind of person who could simply wake up and take on the world; she needed to get herself in the right mood first, a mood that suited whatever she felt she had to do. Today she would need to cultivate determination, for which purpose a walk served excellently. Seeing the world and its sights was good for building up one’s feeling of cosmic significance, and if there was rain, well, then she had conquered that rain, had not simply let it chase her into her apartment and back to bed like it had so many others. Actually, she liked rain, despite its tendency to leave her looking like a drowned rat. Precipitation was an old friend of hers.

As she passed the chocolate factory, it occurred to her that the Person might like a gift. It wouldn’t be good to give it to him too soon, of course; she would keep it for when they met a second time, for when the thread of fate had already bound them together. He would be sure to appreciate a bar of chocolate. In general, most everyone enjoys a bar of chocolate every now and then. She stepped into the factory shop, tried a few samples (free samples were one of the few joys of Leah’s life), and then selected and purchased a plain dark bar of South American origin. It was a safe choice – there were no fruits he might not like, nor any nuts he might be allergic to – but a somewhat cowardly one. In fact, it was common for Leah to make the cowardly choice.

But today she would do no such thing. Steeling herself, she stepped back out into the rain.

 

The Old Man and the Chevrolet

 

At the other end of the weary, heavily-trafficked street known as Leary Way, an old, dusty man was getting into his car. The dust that covered him was quite imperceptible to him, and though the rain drummed down onto his shoulders, it did nothing to disturb the thick layer of gray powder that coated the man most thickly on the top of his bald head and on his shoulders.

Here I must turn aside: surely, dear reader, you did not expect that we would remain with Leah forever? She was not the only citizen of Seattle to be doing something of interest on that wet morning. I promise you that we will return to her shortly (very shortly, as this is a very short story), but please know that her narrative and the narratives of the other three figures we will follow are quite connected.

The car, which, you will remember, was the other figure in the vignette just a paragraph ago, was a 1981 Chevrolet Citation. If you have not heard of this car, you are not to blame, but our old man would have blamed you anyway. The old man (Sven Andersson) was of the opinion that the Citation was a fine machine indeed, but that the Mexicans, or possibly the Chinese, had conspired to spoil its sales and to win themselves more market share. The Mexicans, and possibly the Chinese, featured heavily in Sven’s political imagination.

In fact, like many American men of a certain age, Sven’s personality consisted mainly of hating things. He hated the Mexicans, and possibly the Chinese; he hated the Ford Motor Company, even though it was neither Mexican nor even possibly Chinese; he hated hippies, even though there were no hippies anymore; and, most of all, he hated the young people at the coffee shop he frequented. The pancake house where he had gone before for his coffee had closed, no doubt a victim of Mexicans or hippies or unnamed young people, and so now he had to settle for going to the kind of coffee shop he hated, the kind with an espresso machine.

More than any of these things, though, Sven hated his wife. He hated her because she was dead. She had been dead now for thirty years. At the beginning, when she had been freshly buried, he hadn’t hated her at all; he had still loved her, still felt her beside him, still prayed for her to ascend to heaven and from there to gaze lovingly down at him. But then the years had gone by, and Sven had realized just how very alone he was, and just how inconvenient it had been that his wife should have died when by rights they should have had many more years together. And whenever something was inconvenient, Sven got angry.

Thirty or forty years before, things had been different. Then, Sven had called his mother every three days; she had been alive and well. Then, he had had his union job at the Salmon Bay shipyard, and he had come home every night to a fresh casserole and a cold beer. His wife was excellent at making casserole. Whether green bean, tuna noodle, or tater tot, it had always been delicious, had always warmed his soul. He had been in love, deeply in love, and now there was nothing warming his soul.

Nothing, that was, except for the Citation’s sputtering engine. The car had been Sven’s gift to himself on the occasion of his promotion to foreman at the shipyard, and it had served him well in all the years since. It had no CD player, no cup holders, and no air conditioning, but Sven listened to jazz music on cassettes, never drank coffee in the car (that was for those goddamn hipsters), and did not believe in climate change. Love was for young fools; the car was his forever.

The dust on his shoulders was the dust of Time.

 

The Organizer

 

Somewhere in between the two people we visited before (but considerably closer to Leah, especially considering that she was now heading up Phinney Avenue) is a small coffee shop, of the kind despised (but patronized anyway) by Sven. You know the type, dear reader; these coffee shops are beloved by the kind of Seattleite who looks like an artist but works a highly technical job at Amazon, with a highly technical salary to match. It was not Starbucks, and for most of the clientele that was a point of pride. The person working at this particular coffee shop – oh, but we’ll get to him later. For now, let us turn our attention to the personage occupying one of the small tables by the wall.

This personage, as is the custom, had a name: Naomi Walker. Naomi Walker spent most of her days in the coffee shop, having a cup of tea once every four hours and tapping away at her computer as she thought about the Revolution. The Revolution was a powerful presence in Naomi Walker’s mind, as well as in the buttons fastened to her jean jacket. If you had asked her, asked her straight out, what she thought the Revolution was going to be like, she could not have answered you in detail, but she could have told you that it was going to be led by Naomi Walker.

Naomi Walker was looking out at the rain now – actually, it was beginning to clear up – and thinking about the Revolution, and how, in the Revolutionary society, rain wouldn’t be so depressing. It was certainly depressing now, but that was only because the city, not built according to the proper principles of Eco-Socialist Utopianism, recoiled from the rain and failed to accept it as an inevitability. Naomi Walker didn’t mind getting cold and wet; rain only made her sad because it betrayed yet another of society’s shortcomings.

Naomi Walker also had ideas about people. In general, her idea of a given person, anyone that happened to be standing in front of her at the time, was that that person was not Revolutionary enough. Naomi Walker herself had started out as a simple Socialist, but then had moved on to Syndicalism, then to Anarcho-Communism, and now to the Eco-Socialist Utopianism she so loved. But she would have abandoned that, too, in a heartbeat if confronted by someone yet further to the left. Naomi Walker called her mother once a month, but the conversations were always tiresome for her; they usually were, with people who were not Revolutionary enough.

Even those who were not Revolutionary enough, however, could yet be redeemed by what Naomi Walker termed the most Revolutionary of feelings: Love. Unlike many previous Revolutionaries – Mao Zedong, Vladimir Lenin, Frantz Fanon – Naomi Walker believed that love was not simply bourgeois sentimentality, but rather the central feeling of the Revolutionary state, and the one that capital most wished to destroy. It was a bold stance, she knew, but those previous Revolutionaries were easy to contradict; after all, none of them had been Revolutionary enough.

And Naomi Walker had noticed, in her many, many hours at the coffee shop (more indeed than she spent in her damp ground-floor apartment), that a Love of the most Revolutionary nature was brewing, had possibly already brewed, between two of the characters in her life’s daily drama. She followed the action every day with great excitement and today, at last, was hoping to witness the denouement. One of the characters was a tired young woman who came in irregularly during the mornings. The other was…

 

The Person

 

…a young man of extremely middling appearance. Absolutely nothing whatever about his physical form was in any way remarkable or notable, with the exception of the pair of round glasses, the kind with thin wire frames, that he wore each and every day. To the casual observer, he appeared, in fact, to be nothing more than a floating pair of glasses. Sometimes he was a floating pair of glasses running down the street (he made a point of doing so every morning), and sometimes he was a floating pair of glasses at the grocery store, and today he was a floating pair of glasses hovering in space somewhere above the espresso machine at the coffee shop. For this was where he worked.

Today, the floating pair of glasses was speckled with drops of rain. The Person hated the rain because it got on his glasses. Everything he hated, he hated for very simple reasons; he hated sweets because they were a waste of good calories, dogs because they were entirely too noisy, and his job because it was just so

I must confess, dear reader, that I do not see fit to spare the space to express the Person’s full, detailed feelings about his job. This is because to do so would entail making the story longer by half again, and I am afraid that that new section would make for tiresome reading indeed. Complaints are tiresome, as a rule. Suffice it to say that the Person hated his job because of how good he was at it. He had a smile for every customer, was always ready with a joke or a charming compliment; in short, he masked himself, masked himself behind a floating pair of glasses. It was all utterly depressing.

And today was especially so. The Person had been late to work, and now the world sought to torment him further with a flurry of customers who seemed to believe for some reason that the coffee shop, which was not Starbucks, was in fact Starbucks. He had received three orders for Frappuccino in a single morning. These were the kinds of things he complained to his mother about, when he called her on the phone, for which he had no schedule whatsoever. He simply dialed her number whenever he was otherwise unoccupied and feeling agitated; no doubt he would go on to do so that very night.

By around ten, the Starbucks-ers had dissipated, replaced by a new set of people mainly interested in the white chocolate raspberry mocha. The Person also hated making white chocolate raspberry mochas. I am afraid that we are seeing a rather unbalanced view of the Person at the moment; he was not always in such a bad mood. But this is simply how we found him, is it not?

Sven also arrived during this period; he ordered a large black coffee and took a seat by the window. But the unremarkable barely bears noticing when you are angry, and the Person, angry indeed, did not take any particular notice of him.

That same Person also did not take any particular notice of the tired young woman pacing outside the coffee shop window.

 

V. Scherzo

 

Leah was about to enter the coffee shop. She had to; if she did not, she would fail to keep her Resolution, and failing to keep one’s Resolution is a terrible thing indeed, especially in a situation like this one. But the rain had abated now, and its presence, which had emboldened her even as it had put her in a somber mood, would be sorely missed.

At last, rain or no rain, she decided that she had to go in. This was facilitated by the realization that she had been pacing in front of the shop’s windows, in full view of all within, including the Person. To flee would be pure cowardice, and though it was common for Leah to make the cowardly choice, she would not do so today. Pulling open the door, she stepped into the coffee shop.

The atmosphere within was somehow forbidding. Yes, it was the same coffee shop she knew and loved, and loved all the more because it was not Starbucks, but the conversation at the various tables – those occupied by persons other than Sven and Naomi Walker, both of whom were sitting alone – swirled around her, took no notice of her, drowned her out:

“Well – hm –”

“I said just the other day –”

“And…they were out of kombucha –”

Just then the milk steamer shrieked, drowning the whole world in its piercing cry. The sound put Leah on edge, and yet no one else seemed to mind at all.

“The Sounders –”

“– he told me that he had already paid –”

“Hm, well…I said…”

“Sorry, what was that, it’s just…the coffee machine was loud just then…”

“I won’t work for free –”

“An entrepreneur, yes, I have a startup –”

“Oh, it was just…they were out of kombucha…”

It took her a moment to screw up the courage to carry on, but carry on she did. Hesitantly, she strode up to the counter, where a floating pair of glasses, attached somehow to the Person’s body, was awaiting her somewhat impatiently. “What can I do for you?” The words themselves were friendly enough, but the tone was harsh, impersonal. The smiles that he usually had had run out earlier in the day.

Leah felt shy anyway. She always felt shy around the Person. And she was shyer just then than she had ever been. It had all come down to this moment, hadn’t it? “Um, yes, I…just a latte, please…”

“With the normal milk?” The Person had learned that it was better to ask than to be sorry later on – people are very particular about the milk in their coffee, you see.

“Um, I’m sorry, no, with the hemp milk…”

“Well, we’re out of hemp milk today…”

“Oh…” Leah paused. “Almond milk, then…” She thrust her credit card across the counter.

Naomi Walker looked up from her laptop and realized that the Revolution was happening right in front of her. She watched intently as the tired young woman paid, took her card back, and then went to wait at the end of the counter; within the next few minutes, she would see it all unfold. She could hardly wait.

The preparation of the latte took place automatically. The Person did not even need to look down anymore, so practiced was he at his trade, so instead he scanned the room. On a day like that one, he felt more animosity than usual towards the mass of customers. As I said before, he was not usually so irritable, but this was one of his bad days, and for that the tired young woman standing across from him would very soon pay the price. The price she had already paid, $4.65, was high enough for a latte, especially on her non-technical salary. Soon, it would seem a pittance in comparison.

When the drink was finished, the Person placed it on the counter in front of the tired young woman. “Have a nice day.”

“Um, wait…” Leah cast around for the words to express what she felt, but soon found herself failing utterly. “It’s just…would you…ah…I…”

“I don’t…” the glasses hung in the air, pointing towards the tired young woman; the light from the window reflected forbiddingly off of them. Naomi Walker held her breath. Would they?

Leah had prepared for being tongue-tied. She drew a scrap of paper out of her pocket, a scrap of paper bearing the ten digits of her phone number, and handed it to the Person, who took it with trepidation. “It’s just…” she said, “I thought…”

Just then, Sven let out a derisive snort. Young people were all the same, head over heels in love, unable to say what they meant. He made a point of always saying what he meant, even when it was completely inappropriate to do so. For example, just the day before, when he had called to order a pizza and learned that the pizza restaurant was out of anchovies, he had drawn attention to the great likelihood that the individual taking his order had to be Mexican, or possibly Chinese. He had not gotten any pizza at all, after that, but he had made his point, and if that silly, tired young woman would do the same…he shook his shoulders, attempting to dislodge the dust of Time, but it didn’t budge. It never did.

But the old man’s snort had sent everything spinning out of balance. The Person, hearing it, felt himself rudely jarred out of his working rhythm, from which the tired young woman in front of him had already tried to pry him. Well, they wouldn’t get to him that easily. If he had been in the mood to respond positively before (hardly a given), he certainly wasn’t after the geezer’s interruption. Grunting in a thoroughly noncommittal fashion, he pocketed the scrap of paper and turned to the next customer.

At that, Naomi Walker gasped. The red star of the Revolution danced before her eyes, but it was just out of reach; the young couple had not achieved the understanding she had so eagerly anticipated. The world was betrayed, and Love was defeated. They had not been Revolutionary enough. Sighing, she turned back to her work.

The gasp was too much for Leah. It is rare that we get signals from the world, which is normally too indifferent and aloof to care much about our hopes and dreams, our successes and failures; the fact that she had received one destroyed the last traces of her resolve. Seizing her drink, she worked a lid onto it and hurried out of the coffee shop.

Once out on the street – the rain had quite ended by now – she wondered what to do next. Her Resolution was in tatters, and the day she had planned for herself was utterly ruined. exercise, the rain on the lake, the Person – all of these had betrayed her. There was only one thing that remained to be done: To seek solace, solace by whatever means necessary. Pulling out the bar of chocolate, she tore off the wrapper and took a large bite, followed by a gulp of boiling latte. Then, nursing her burned mouth, she turned and hurried off down the cold, damp street.

In Seattle, in the wintertime, these things happen.

My Space Behind the Wall

I feel like a ghoul. I sit every day beneath the stairs in the basement of the small house on Eichenweg street. Some days I stand, though I have to crouch in my space behind the wall, and I stretch my legs, stepping on my toes before my calves pull, and bending my neck so as not to hit my head on the low ceiling.

It is dark behind the wall and only once a day do I emerge, to walk around the Leitner family’s basement and to relieve myself in the chamber pot Frau Leitner so kindly cleans for me. It is then that she brings me bread and sometimes some cheese and I can look on the single bulb that lights the basement. Then I return to my space behind the wall.

I lie on the cold ground and listen all day to the Leitner family’s steps. I have come to know Herr Leitner’s work boots that he puts on early in the morning to stomp off to the fields where he must herd and slaughter cows. I recognize Frau Leitner’s soft steps, silent in the midafternoon—when she does her sewing, she has told me. The Leitners have a daughter, Inge. She does not know I live in the space behind the wall but I know her fast, pointed steps. She walks like a young woman with purpose. Sometimes she fights with her parents and then her feet fall heavily when they relegate her to her room. Sometimes she is disrespectful and Herr Leitner hits her. I can hear her soft sobs then.

When I leave the space behind the wall, under the stairs—when the Americans come and pull me from my home of some two years—I thank the Leitners for their bravery and compassion, I move to America, I meet a young girl whom my mother would have liked (who understands the reasons I cannot sleep at night and why I save even the juice of the pickles we buy) and we have a son, a boy we name Otto. He attends a school in Brooklyn where he sits in the sun on hot summer days and sleeps close to the radiator during the coldest of the snowy winter nights. He makes friends and loses them and makes new ones in the way that children should, he plays a game of hiding in closets and beneath beds, under stairs and behind walls, and he likes the feeling of being snug and trapped in a world that is for him so sprawling and free.

This is what I tell myself, the future I contemplate as I sit in my space behind the wall for years. This is what I tell myself when I hear new footsteps and then shouts, cries of alarm and a wrenching of the secret door that leads to my solitary space behind the wall. This is what I tell myself as I am finally brought out into the light that I’ve missed for so long and, as it falls so pleasantly upon my sallow skin, it burns my eyes and I cry tears of joy for the son I must someday get to hold.

Nosebleeds

My eyes burst open in the darkness, and blood drips from my nose. Having bloody noses always makes me feel like I’m in kindergarten. I thought I would grow out of them, but I never did.

It’s the night of my eighteenth birthday, but I don’t feel eighteen. I still feel like the seven year old girl who would run to her parents’ room with tears streaming down her face if her nose started bleeding. I look over at you lying next to me fast asleep and cover my nose with my hand. Your arms take up almost the whole bed. I sit up slowly and tip-toe over the clothes on my floor to the bathroom.

The door creaks as I open it, and the glare of the lights make me squint. Sitting down on the cold tile floor, I press a handful of tissues against my nose, and move closer to the heater. Outside the window, the midnight black sky looks like a velvet curtain behind the trees. Its darkness almost makes me forget the aching that inside my heart — the one I had tried to fill. On the floor, I curl up into a ball, close my eyes, and wish I could just sink into the cold tiles.

A week ago at dinner, Mom and Dad told me they weren’t going to be here today. Dad made pasta, and we were all home at the same time together. He and I started eating pretty fast, but Mom hadn’t picked up her fork. She was staring at the plate of spaghetti, her eyes worried.

“We have something to tell you,” she said, “Promise you won’t be upset.”

Her voice was high pitched and shaky, like mine is sometimes.

“Okay. What is it?” I asked.

“I have to attend a conference in D.C. next Thursday . . with Dad,”

“Next Thursday? But that’s my birthday,” I said, my face hot.

Dad didn’t say a word, so Mom answered again.

“I know, but the conference is really important. Don’t worry, we’ll all celebrate together on Saturday.”

That’s what she always said, but this time her words swirled around me and left me feeling trapped. I got up from the table and stormed up to my room.

Thinking about that conversation creates a painful feeling in my stomach, so instead I fill my mind with memories of us. Two weeks ago was our two year anniversary, but this was the first night I let you sleep in my bed. I didn’t tell my parents I invited you and even though I’m eighteen, I still feel like I did something wrong.

Tonight I had watched you scribbling away in your notebook before we shut out the lights. Your eyes were fastened on the little page, and your pen wouldn’t stop moving. I’ve always wanted to know what you write about in that notebook, but I didn’t ask because I knew you wouldn’t tell me. One time I saw it lying right on my desk, as if you placed it there for me to read. Before I knew it, my hand grabbed it, and I flipped to a random page, glancing at the title of a poem called “used.” I stared at the word in dark blue ink. What could it mean? It stung me for some reason, and I wanted to read more, but that wouldn’t be right. I closed the book, careful not to mess up the fabric cover you made for it, and never looked at it again.

I hug my knees into my chest. A feeling of anger bubbles up deep inside of me. Why didn’t you tell me what you were writing about in that silly notebook? I was hoping you would be like a box I would one day be able to crack open, but I still haven’t gotten to see the inside.

I hate when you act so distant. Like when it was cold outside, and I borrowed your leather gloves that were in your car. I ended up leaving them somewhere and was forced to admit that I lost your “special gloves.” You didn’t talk to me until I bought you a new pair.

Or when you refused to swim in the ocean last summer when I invited you to the beach with my family. You usually swam everywhere, lakes with leeches, hotel pools that smelled weird. But on that clear warm day, you just sat in the sand letting the sun burn your pale skin.

A lump in my throat appears, and tears well up in my eyes. I throw the stained tissues in the garbage and reach for a new one. Mom always makes sure there’s light blue plastic covers over the tissue boxes. She cares so much about things like that. Stupidly, I slam my hand into the blue cover, and it crashes against the floor.

Then I hear your footsteps coming down the hallway. You quietly knock on the door, but I stay silent, so you open it. You smell like orange peels but in a good way, and your eyes widen when you see me crouched down next to the heater with dried blood and tears on my cheeks.

“It’ll be okay,” you say, looking first at me and then at the tissues surrounding me.

You turn on the cold water and splash it on my face. It slips down my cheeks and onto my old T-shirt. With your hands, you push my tangled hair behind my ears and look at me. In your brown eyes, I can see my reflection, a small silhouette. A forced smile spreads across my cheeks. You smile back, pick the tissue box up off the floor, and place it in the cabinet neatly. Hopefully you think I’m happy.

Together we escape the bathroom, quietly shuffle down the hallway, and walk into my room. We’re alone. You sit on the edge of the bed, and open your mouth to say something, but I place my finger against your lips. I lie down on my pillow and sink into my mattress, and then you lie down right next to me. I pretend to fall asleep, so you do too. As your breathing slows, I stare at the ceiling and listen to the whoosh of cars driving by like a little girl.

 

Spring

Maria was sitting on Roy’s bed, watching Roy strip apart a USB wire. He cut off part of the top and then separated the black and red lines from the white and green. Maria told him not to get electrocuted.

“It’s not plugged in,” Roy said.

“Oh.”

Roy and Maria used to go to school together. They had not seen each other since graduation eight months ago, until Roy ran into Maria at the Finest Deli on Bleecker Street buying a pack of gum and asked her if she was on spring break.

“This week and next,” Maria told him.

“Me too. We should get together sometime.”

“Okay, sure. Maybe.”

Maria did not know what Roy meant by “get together,” but it entailed cutting open USB wires in his bedroom and eating plantain chips out of a greasy yellow bag. She had only been to Roy’s house once before, at a party in tenth grade when she still had braces. She had thrown up in the bathroom. She hoped Roy didn’t remember that.

“Have I ever had you over before?” Roy asked.

Maria shook her head in relief. “No. We didn’t hang out much in high school.”

“Why didn’t we?”

“I don’t know.” Maria had always liked Roy. They had been lab partners in biology, Roy always turned everything in on time. And, when Geraldine Wesley told the entire class that Maria had girl-on-girl pornography on her computer, Roy told Geraldine to fuck off, which was nice.

Roy’s phone rang. He picked it up. “I’ve got to go answer the door,” he said to Maria.

“Who’s here?” Maria asked.

“Couple of my buddies from college. You’ll like them, they’re cool.”

“Are they going to like me?”

Roy laughed and left the room. Maria looked out the window, which faced a brick building with a silver awning in front of it. Maria wondered how many times Roy had looked out this window and wished he could tear the building out of the ground so he could see the sky.

Roy returned with three or four boys. They were all wearing sweatpants and talking very loudly.

One of the boys pointed to Maria. “Who’s this?”

“That’s Maria.” Roy said. Maria waved and then immediately regretted it. The boy sauntered over to the bed and sat down next to her.

“It’s really nice to meet you.”

“Brian, she’s a fucking lesbian,” Roy said. The other boys giggled.

“You’re a lesbian?” The first boy, apparently Brian, asked. Maria nodded. “You got a girlfriend or something?”

“Her name is Mica.”

“Mica and Maria. That’s nice,” Brian said. “Has a nice ring to it.”

“Thanks,” Maria said.

“I think it’s the double Ms.”

“Right.”

“Is she in the city? You could invite her over,” Roy said.

“No, she lives in Connecticut,” Maria paused. “I think she’s cheating on me.” Maria had never said it out loud before, but she had been suspecting for a while. Mica was very secretive about her text messages. Maria would never go through her phone, she was not that type of person. But she wanted to.

“She’s cheating on you?” Roy asked.

“Yeah. I mean, probably.”

“You should break up with her,” he said.

Maria shrugged. “We’ll split before summer anyway.”

“You shouldn’t stay with someone who’s cheating on you,” Roy said.

 

Maria was not going to break up with Mica, even though she knew that was what she was supposed to do. Maria never understood all the weird rules about fidelity; like when her mom divorced her dad after she found out he was sleeping with his assistant. Maria knew that her dad still loved her mom, even if he also loved Dorothy O’Reilly. Mica still wanted to be with Maria, even though she was kissing other girls. If she didn’t, Mica would dump her. That was enough.

One of the boys who was not Brian said, “let’s smoke.” Maria wondered if she was going to learn the names of the other boys, or if she was going to have to tell them apart by their t-shirt colors.

“We have to wire it,” Roy said.

“You’re kidding,” green shirt said. “You got one?”

Roy nodded to the USB wire on the floor.

“Let’s do it,” blue shirt said. Roy took a cartridge out of his pocket and stuck the black wire through the hole in the bottom. He pressed the red wire to the outside. The cartridge began heating up between his fingers.

“You smoke?” Roy asked Maria. Maria did not.

“Yes,” she said. Roy waved her over. She squat down next to him and he raised the mouthpiece to her lips. She breathed in and immediately started coughing.

“Didn’t you used to play the flute?” Roy asked, readjusting the wires.

“I don’t really do that anymore,” Maria said. Roy asked why not. “I tried out for the orchestra earlier this year, but I didn’t make the cut.”

“So that’s just it, then?”

“Pretty much.”

“That sucks. I thought you were good.”

Maria thought she was good, too. She had been playing the flute since she was eleven years old. She had a private tutor. She performed at local events and even got paid sometimes.

“Why do you ask about the flute?” Maria asked.

Roy said, “I was just thinking about school. You seem different now.”

“What do you mean?”

“Maybe different is the wrong word. You seem more comfortable with yourself. It’s a good thing.” Maria did not think she had changed at all since the beginning of college, except that she now owned a tube of lipstick and stopped wearing velcro shoes.

Maria could feel herself getting, presumably, high. She sat down on the ground and closed her eyes. The group of boys started discussing who would win in a fight, one modern-day tank or the entire Roman army.

“Definitely the tank,” one of them said.

“The entire Roman army. Do you know how many people that is?”

“It doesn’t matter. It’s a tank. It can just shoot them down.”

“How many people are in the tank?”

“I don’t know. It doesn’t matter.”

“It matters.”

“Why?”

“Because if there’s only one, the Roman army could totally take him down. I mean, there’d be casualties, but they’d eventually win.”

“I don’t believe you.”

Maria was thinking about the last time she and Mica had seen each other. It was the final day of midterms. The two of them were watching a nature documentary in Mica’s room. Squid babies were hatching from a cluster of eggs, and Maria said they looked like those oozy yogurt tubes at the organic supermarket.

“It would be so much easier if we just laid eggs,” Mica said. “Do you want kids?”

“I don’t know,” Maria said. “I don’t really think about that kind of stuff.” Mica asked her what she meant. “The future. It’s hard to keep track of everything in my brain. I have to do it in small doses. I can only think about, like, next week.”

“You’ve never thought about yourself with a family?”

“I guess not.” Maria thought for a moment. “If I get married, and my wife wants kids, then I’d want them, too.”

“Only if your wife wants kids,” Mica repeated.

“I think so, yeah.”

Maria wasn’t sure how the conversation got sidetracked. Mica told Maria that she shouldn’t make major life decisions based on pleasing other people. “You’ve got to stop overanalyzing everything,” Maria said.

“It’s in my blood,” Mica insisted. Mica’s father was a psychoanalyst and her mother was a psychiatrist. Mica went on a lot of psychology tangents, particularly about Maria. She would suggest that Maria’s participation in class discussions was in overcompensation of patriarchal societal standards; that Maria’s awkwardness around public displays of affection was because her parents got divorced before she hit puberty; that Maria’s preference for pencils over pens meant she was afraid of making mistakes. Maria found these theories stupid.

“Do you want kids?” Maria asked.

“Yes. At least four,” Mica said. She pressed the spacebar on her laptop to pause the documentary. “I guess you and I could never get married. I mean, I’d never want to pressure you into having kids.”

Maria thought it was obvious that the two of them would never be married.

“You’ve never pictured us married?” Mica asked.

“You’re the first girlfriend I’ve ever had. It’s not very realistic to think we’d be together forever.”

“It could happen,” Mica said. “What are we even doing here if we’re not going to stay together?”

“Having experiences,” Maria said. “We’re young. That’s what we’re supposed to do.” Maria unpaused the documentary. A couple of minutes passed in silence. “I love you,” Maria said, kissing Mica on the cheek. Mica did not say it back.

 

Roy was shaking Maria awake. Maria opened her eyes. The room was empty. “Where’d your friends go?”

Roy said they left a little while ago. “You fell asleep.”

“Sorry.”

“Nothing to apologize for,” Roy said. “Do you want a popsicle?”

Roy and Maria went into the kitchen. Roy’s mother was putting dishes into the dishwasher.

“Mom, this is Maria,” Roy said. He opened the freezer. “We have strawberry, lime, and grape.”

“Lime, please,” Maria said. “Do you want any help with that?” She asked Roy’s mother.

“I’m almost done,” Roy’s mother said. She popped a detergent pod into the latched container and slammed the door shut. The dishwasher started with a growl.

“Mom, Maria’s the one who played the flute at graduation,” Roy said.

“Oh my god, you did a wonderful job,” Roy’s mother smiled. “I cried.”

“Really?” Maria asked.

“And mom never cries at stuff. That’s how you know it was good,” Roy said. Maria didn’t know what to say. She bit into her popsicle.

Roy’s mother left to watch television in the living room. Roy leaned against the refrigerator and studied Maria for a moment. He asked if she was still high.

“What? No. I mean, I don’t think so.”

“You’re staring into space.”

Maria laughed. “I do that sometimes.”

“What are you thinking about?” Roy asked. Maria suddenly started crying. “Jesus,” he said, pulling her into an embrace. “Shit. Are you okay?”

“I’m sorry. I don’t know what’s happening to me.”

“Stop saying sorry,” Roy said, patting Maria’s head. Maria shook him away and wiped her face with the back of her hand.

“I’m fine. That was weird. I’m sorry,” she said. Tears were still leaking out of the corners of her eyes.

“Do you want to talk about it?”

“I’m okay.” Maria took the last bite of her popsicle, wincing as the cold sank into her gums. She wasn’t sure what she was doing in Roy’s apartment. Roy had texted her earlier this morning to ask if she was free. She didn’t think Roy would follow through with the whole “let’s hang out sometime” shtick. She assumed he was only being polite. “We really weren’t friends in high school,” Maria said.

“No, we weren’t.” Roy agreed.

“I almost didn’t come today,” she admitted. On the subway ride uptown, Maria felt anxious, like she was going to the doctor’s office for a shot. Once she passed seventieth street, she wanted to turn back.

“Why did you?”

Maria looked up at Roy. “I don’t know. Why’d you invite me?”

“I don’t know,” Roy said. They looked at each other in silence for a moment. “I feel like we’re similar people. And I don’t feel similar to most people.”

“You don’t?”

“I don’t. I have a hard time getting close to people.”

Maria frowned. “You have so many friends, though. I mean, what about all those guys that were just here? Brian and the others?”

“I love those guys, they’re great. But I don’t think we have very much in common. We experience the world super differently. It doesn’t make them wrong or right, or me wrong or right—but it’s isolating.”

“I also have a hard time getting close to people,” Maria said. She patted Roy’s arm. “I think that’s why I’m not going to break up with Mica. I was so surprised that someone could love me. I don’t want to let it go, in case it never happens again.”

“Someone will love you again,” Roy said. “Do you want some water?”

“Sure,” Maria nodded. “I didn’t mean to sound all pathetic just then.” Roy took two cups out of the pantry and stuck them under the faucet. Maria liked the sound the faucet made, like she was being shushed. “I meant that I don’t feel real a lot of the time. I see kids my age living their lives, and it’s like everything they do is unreachable for me.”

Roy handed Maria her cup of water. “What do you mean?”

“Like going out, having friends, relationships. I never thought that stuff would happen to me—not that I didn’t want it—but because I felt like kind of a background character.” She sipped her water.

“I think I know what you mean,” Roy said. “I definitely know what you mean.”

“Do you think you’re depressed?” Maria asked.

“Yeah.”

“Me too.”

They sat quietly for a minute. Then Roy asked, “how did you meet Mica?”

“Mutual friend,” Maria said. The day they met, they were eating dinner in the dining hall with a big group of freshmen crowded at one table. Maria had never met anyone as smart as Mica before. She was so confident in everything she said. She talked in elaborate sentences and dropped fancy words like slang, as if she had a built-in thesaurus in her brain. Mica was always debating, always quoting some renowned, underground journalist or ancient theory or Sigmund Freud, and Maria liked that about her at first. It was funny to Maria, how admiration can become disgust—she thought of Mica now as a know-it- all, someone who cannot ever let things simply be, but must search for the deeper meaning. Sometimes there is no deeper meaning, Maria thought.

“She didn’t tell me she loved me the last time we saw each other,” Maria said. “I said that I loved her, and she was just quiet.”

“Yikes,” Roy mumbled.

“I don’t even know if I love her,” Maria confessed. “Isn’t that weird?” It was something Maria had been turning over in her mind for the entirety of spring break. Her relationship with Mica had been very by-the-book. Like they were crossing things off of a checklist. They kissed goodnight on their first date, exchanged flowers on Valentine’s day, added a one-month anniversary reminder to their respective google calendars. They bought wine with fake IDs and kicked out their roommates to have sex. When it came time to say I love you, Maria thought nothing of it. Of course, she must feel it. It was a no-brainer.

“You need to break up with her,” Roy said.

“I know,” Maria said. “I don’t want to talk about Mica anymore.”

“Okay.”

And so the two of them stood there in the kitchen, not saying anything. They could hear the noise of the television seeping through the bottom of the door of the living room. Maria knew that she and Roy wouldn’t speak once they both went back to school. So did Roy. But maybe when the summer comes, they both thought to themselves, they could see each other again. Maria threw her popsicle stick in the garbage can and wished everything was as simple as it was right in this moment.

 

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