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“What brings you here?” She tells him. She fell down the fucking stairs. Embarrassment creeps up her throat—this is a childish injury. She can’t move her foot, can’t walk. He nods a bit, rubs his hands together and reaches for the foot, purple and swollen. The doctor has long, spidery fingers the color of burnt toast and as they slowly press the ugly lump where something—a bone?—reaches up under the hot skin, she closes her eyes and then quickly reopens them when she realizes how embarrassed she’ll be if he looks up. No one has ever touched her feet before.
She hates him when he is drunk. He’ll call, and there’s loud music and voices and it’s 2:30 am and she will feel her mouth fill with saliva that she has the sudden desire to spit violently (and she’d do it if she knew how to spit properly). He is not obnoxious when he’s drunk, or really any different from when he is sober. She will make some comments vaguely condescending towards he and his friends and create a reason to dramatically hang up. “Ugh, yeah, fine,
then.” Filled with hate, she will mix more gin and water.
The fireworks are downtown the night before July 4th. Every tank-topped motherfucker and his inappropriately-shod girlfriend in Chicago swarm the trains, leaving people just trying to get home from work pressed against hundreds of sweaty bodies for hours at the platform. I sit under a Starbucks awning and wait out the masses. Drunk girls totter by in those neon-glow necklaces, two policemen slam a heavily gesticulating man against their car, and I think of scenes from Godzilla in which hysterical crowds swarm the city away from the monster. I can almost hear his roar. Ha—suckers. I know I’ll live.
, she thinks, but it’s really too late to turn back, and more hair falls into the bathroom sink. The air was sticky this evening and for some reason she had to chop her hair off; when she gets things like that in her head, if she doesn’t follow through it will be a constant jostling, a whine—
You there, you, fucking c’mon!
Reaching into the sink she cups in her palms dark clumps of hair. It’s softer than she’d thought. Something tells her to keep the hair, but the thought immediately disgusts her and she lets it fall.
I am looking at Alan looking at her. “You love her, don’t you,” I say to him. He tricked me into believing he was fifteen when I met him, but he’s twenty. He starts, blinks several times, shakes his head. “Nah. I don’t like anyone.” I persist. He looks at the ground, looks at me with his tiny black eyes. “I don’t like anyone. I’m a robot. I was made in the year 2208 and sent back to save Café Baci from overflowing garbage cans.” He pushes back his cap and heaves the ripe garbage bag over his shoulder.
“What have you done for your soul lately?” Guy’s on the corner in front of the Old Navy on State every day in his all-black suit with his microphone. He talks about Jesus and he talks really goddamn loud. “Miss—miss—when was the last time you spoke with your Father? Miss, what have you done for your
lately?” I feel my jaw clench.
like someone who speaks with my Father?
I then ask myself what have I done for my soul lately. Well, shit, dunno, do I? I light a cigarette. That’ll do for now.
His house is very small on the horizon. His house is very small close up, too, but even smaller from the distance as he walks, brushing with his fingertips cornstalks almost taller than he is. There is dirt all over his body and if you were to see him walking, his gait unchanging, towards his small house from the infinite field of twilit Illinois corn, you would have no idea what he is thinking. Neither do I, but he reaches his house and sits just inside the kitchen window, looking out and the corn is waving in the wind.
Jack doesn’t look so good, and he knows it, too. His clothes are rumpled and his eyelashes are matted together, but dammit, Jack used to be my best friend and today we’re going to the zoo. He’s funny, still, the guy’s a fucking riot. He used to do this thing, when we’d go drinking—anyway, he smokes a lot, now, sucks down cigarettes one after another. And he coughs a lot, too, and he doesn’t talk as much, but Jack was my best friend and today he wants to see a rhinoceros and so we’re gonna see some animals, dammit.
“In Mexico?” Christian opens a Corona with his teeth and I’m ashamed to feel turned on by something so overtly macho. “In Mexico, yes, I paid for first time.” The conversation always turns to sex. He stares at his hands. “In U.S., the problem—girls, they give sex to anyone, free. You have no money, fine, you can get any girl. In Mexico, at least they make man pay for it. That’s problem with girls in U.S.” He gets this look in his eyes whenever he talks about Mexico. I could argue with him, but suddenly I’m just too drunk.
For Elaine it had been an entire month without any significant social interaction. She had been out for drinks with some coworkers once. She’d had a forgettable date with a man she’d met on the train. Now here she was surrounded by a pulsating crowd of thousands pressing toward the stage and throwing themselves into the music. It was, for her, an exhausted last stab into the heart of desolate loneliness as she felt herself being hefted up onto the shoulders of the crowd and carried toward the stage. Never had there been such a flailing, desperate crowd-surf.
Today’s the day I’ve been waiting for. Today’s the day everything changes.
Phil tilts his head forward for a final adjustment of his hair in the window as he walks into the café. There she is. Her hair is shining, her earrings are shining. Melanie. She is more beautiful every day he sees her behind the register, graciously fumbling over change. He breathes deep and walks to her. She tucks her hair behind her ears, smiles.
Hey, you again! Small coffee?
He smiles back, reaches into his pocket, pulls out his grandfather’s revolver.
Give me everything in the register.
I can see his mouth working silently as he walks up to me. Fuck. He squeezes his hands together and I smile at him.
he starts slowly then cuts himself off, laughing softly, ashamed of his broken English.
I don’t know, I don’t know.
I kind of pat his shoulder,
No, it’s fine, tell me.
His mouth moves as he practices in his head.
Can I—take you—to a movie sometime?
I laugh a little because I don’t know what to say. I don’t want to go to a movie, but look at all the effort he put in.
Lisa sets her purse down on the kitchen table where her husband, Eric, who has blonde hair soft as a newborn baby’s, is watching a re-run of The Cosby Show.
Listen, Eric, I’m having an emotional affair
, she says. Her hands flutter about her chest like birds startled from a tree. He turns off the tv.
Okay. Let’s talk about it
, he says, looking her calmly in the eyes. Lisa had planned reactions to the emotions of fury, sadness, desperation, but not stillness. She slams the table.
I’m fucking serious!
He presses his fingers together.
I know you are.
I had a beautiful conversation, once. It started on a couch in the condo of a filthy rich friend and ended outside in the freezing cold looking up at the sky and a few shitty bare trees. It was a cold, unexpected, beautiful conversation and I don’t remember a single word of it because I was drunk out of my mind off mandarin orange vodka. The only bit that stays with me is that I tried to smoke a lighter instead of a cigarette for about thirty seconds before he, laughing hysterically, let me know what I was doing.
She is giving him the perfect opportunity to say something—
I’m sorry—I still want to be with you—You are by far the most beautiful employee at the Park Grill—
anything, and he stands silently hunched over the sink of dishes. She is chopping carrots for about five minutes longer than necessary. If I cut my finger he would notice, and he’d worry and make sure I took care of it, she thinks. She studies the knife. It’s sharp. She lightly fingers the tip until fear overtakes her and she sweeps the carrots into a bowl and leaves the kitchen, deflated.
Crystal’s boy Nando came and he brought his two little brothers, still in high school. They’re tiny, and their baby-gangster outfits—the youngest one’s single diamond earring—make them look even smaller, the opposite of their intentions. We all have our gin and tonics and we’re sitting around watching internet movie trailers and I look at the little brothers and want to kiss them, both of them, hard on the mouths, unlike anything the high school girls have showed them and then I realize no I don’t, I want to hug them strangle-tight to my chest like a mother.
When I first met Joel, there were two milky-white bones sticking out of his right arm. He came into Steven’s apartment casually and said, “I’m going to need a ride to the hospital.” He’s an artist, and right-handed.
Two months later I did a real shitty job of professing my love to him—we were chatting online about music, I was wildly drunk and misspelled everything. He told me very reasonably that it was a bad idea.
It was a car accident—the arm. A woman rear-ended him and his arm smashed the dashboard. Could’ve been worse. Could’ve been worse.
I always wanted a cast. I longed throughout middle school for a nice, clean snap of the left wrist—nothing drastic, no legs, no crutches, I’d still be able to write—frail jagged bones encased in a beautiful colorful plaster shell. Teachers would give me sympathy pouts and cluck their tongues—
—at my suffering and everyone would crowd around to scrawl Get Well Soon in Sharpie at recess. People would feel sorry for me and want to be my friend.
My tastes have matured. I now secretly envy drug addictions, the desperate, murky loveliness that I am positive such a life holds.
Instinctively Derick’s hand skims his backpack cigarette pocket, but then he remembers he doesn’t really want his brother to know he smokes. Then he thinks if there’s one person you should be able to be honest with it’s your own brother, right, and he feels better as he lights up. “You smoke?” Jeremy asks, eyebrows raised skeptically. Derick shrugs. Their food comes, huge plates of pancakes and limp bacon. “I don’t care,” Jeremy says, mouth full. “I’ve smoked before. Last week at this party.” Derick kicks his brother’s shin. “Fuck you, don’t ever fucking smoke.
drink. I’m serious.”
I heard over the music a soft, decisive click. Caitlin had locked her door. I looked over my seat and saw her hand tight on the door handle, like any minute big black men were going to run up and pound on the windows. We had driven to Champaign, where you can get into bars at 19, for Megan’s birthday and we were driving back to my house. Later, back at school, I’d hear her softly tell her boyfriend, “I didn’t know she lived in the
!” and I’d want to punch her in her fat fucking Southern face.
One summer I worked at my dad’s printing company. I mostly painted walls, moved boxes. Sometimes I helped Marino and two old Mexican women on the bindery, stitching the spines of brochures. Almost every day, Marino would bring me a freakish specimen from his garden—eggplants, cucumbers and zucchini bigger than any I’d ever seen. For hours he’d tell me about his daughters, now married, sometimes tearing up, telling me to stay in school. Years later when I heard Marino got fired, I wondered if he was only nice to me because of my dad, although I don’t think so.
It was late April, meaning I’d been at that piece of shit school for too long and I was liable to start crying over the stupidest bullshit. I started crying in the art building bathroom and called my mom. Perching on the toilet I told her I slept all the time and I didn’t have enough money to finish my final design project. “We both had bad days today,” she said. Her hospital roommate had a gigantic Puerto Rican family whose shouts filled the stagnant room constantly and the noise was so much that she just started crying.
She said she’d send some money to finish my project. I heard another voice and she said she had to go, the nurse was there. I hung up. I thought about my mom lying there in her hospital bed and I thought about myself lying in my unwashed sheets through my morning Italian class. I thought about how I used to think about the attention I would probably get if I were suddenly orphaned or even if just one parent died. I thought
You’re a monster, you’re a fucking monster and you don’t deserve the tears you’re crying now.
I file every summer I’ve had under where I worked at the time, except for that one summer I don’t talk about because although I still technically worked at the pool, I basically never showed up because I was in the hospital until four every day and besides, I don’t talk about that summer anyway. When my closest friend at the time asked me why I never called that summer, I surprised myself by telling the truth. She gave me a sort of hug. We kind of fell out of touch that year which was almost entirely my fault.
I don’t remember a lot about that summer. I remember a few things clearly. The milk. One blonde girl younger than me used to hide her food inside her empty milk carton. It worked. The doctor had to use the child-sized arm thing to take my blood pressure the first day. Sometimes I would think I made friends. I lied a lot. I remember sitting in a circle of chairs talking about emotions and the whole time I was clenching my ass-cheeks obsessively together—secret exercise. I remember a seven-year-old’s mom crying—her daughter hated her body and was fasting.
If you couldn’t tell, I tried to force myself to strictly fiction this month and by the end of the second week I slipped once again into the essentially autobiographical. I like fiction better but I just can’t help it. I guess I am obsessed with myself.
I would like to finish this wasteful reflection by amending last month’s June 17 entry.
To feel such devastating passion that privacy is an afterthought!
Slightly Older Meaghan to Younger Meaghan: It is not passion that allows this. It is liquor. But don’t listen so closely, you will confuse these two again.
Cara is too stubborn to admit to herself she loves him—it’s all laughs, just making hours pass at work and besides, she’s leaving next month. But she is standing slightly obscured by a streetlight and staring at the corner she knows he’ll pass on his way to his bus, and even she cannot rationalize this as neutral behavior.
Last night Cara cried herself to sleep because she realized she’d be happier if she stayed here and let herself love him and she’d learn Spanish and he, English, and it’d be as beautiful as she knows it could be.
Her little sister is everything Johanna wishes she could’ve been at her age. She plays sports—multiple. She makes small talk, with everyone, with the people Johanna smiles at and then walks away with her head down. She has friends, tons of friends, of both sexes and she isn’t awkward with the boys, and her friends invite her on vacations with their families. She knows all the people on the block, and they pay her good money to watch their house when they go out of town. Johanna studies her sister and feels the stings of both pride and envy.
I love him I love him He plays his songs and I cry His fingers so light just brushing strings of the guitar he can’t afford here His voice cracks sometimes but it’s the most beautiful No one’s ever sung for me No One I can’t understand the words but I still can He says he has dreams He knows we all do His baby three years old back home I see him holding her and shining I have dreams You have dreams I can’t stop crying I don’t know why I love him How Fuck I love him
Would I like to go shopping today? Oh would I? I just got paid, I have money—listen, I don’t want any more SHIT, I don’t NEED any more SHIT (wrong, but that’s for another time)—I just want—I just want—here, this: a dim porch, there are some fireflies, a few people, we are in a bad neighborhood, there are long-necks of Blue Moon with orange slices in their long-necks, and you are doing that thing where when you smoke you just let it float out in a thick slow cloud with your mouth open a little like that.
Which is better? Two things. Which is better? I don’t know. My head hurts but… I know. I’m probably wrong. It’s better to have everything, right? Is it unfair to want to have everything? Is it fair that I can’t have everything? Probably.
“Why me?” I don’t know.
“Why me?” Because… everything.
Why can’t I stop crying all the time? At the Indian lunch buffet. It was obvious. On the train. Unnoticed (sunglasses). At night. I’m not sad all the time, I swear.
If I’m sure of anything it’s this: People are brimming with secrets. TELL ME
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