You’re Tragic (fiction, k?)
I was out walking, trying to muster the sadness I thought was required of me, but the sun and the people going about their daily errands made it impossible. The itching fever I usually suffer in direct sunlight was somehow absent as I went down the sidewalk this afternoon, past mismatched three-flat apartment buildings and abandoned storefronts, some made of brick, some stone, and some cheap beige siding that was slapped on during the hasty renovations that were all the rage a decade ago. Instead, I enjoyed an all-over warmth that I deemed entirely inappropriate for the circumstances. With each step the sun spread a golden, creamy calamine all over my shoulders, arms, and legs. Sick and soothing all at once.
It was spattered across the news today: an American man was beheaded in a desert country overnight. They say he was a journalist and wrote stories that exposed corruption and lawlessness, but I had never heard of him before today when the papers screamed his name at me from every box on every corner. An outrage! A tragedy! Cries for arms and cries for peace filled the ears and the consciousness of every citizen, as if we had a say in what would ultimately be done. We were now a country at implicit war, but you would never know it being out on the streets of the neighborhood today. They hummed with the sounds of midweek: shopping carts rattling across the cement, car engines stopping and starting, and the idle chatter of old men who still cared about the horses at the racetrack. These sounds poured into my ears, and I started to fuse with them, started to lose the sensation in my limbs and extremities one by one. I was becoming amorphous again.
I then turned my mind away from my body—an incredibly difficult thing for me do—and tried to think of other matters. It was July 29th, I realized as I looked at the sign above the Metropolitan Savings Bank. These days in mid-summer are the ones no one remembers because they slip by so quietly, passing sweetly right in front of us while we occupy ourselves with the idle amusements of the season. We do not dwell on them as we do in the winter, staring at calendars and willing them to go quickly, as if our concentrated attention will prod them to march onward. There are no holidays to use as placeholders and no deadlines to reach. No, late July basks in its invisibility, and in a role reversal we are not aware of it watches us, silently taking down our actions and recording our words to read later when the snow locks us indoors and the skies ache with gray.
My birthday passed six days ago. It is for that reason I am always more aware of the days during this season than everyone else is. I know when the 22nd turns into the 23rd and so on. I acknowledge these forgotten middle child dates so that maybe they will become something someday. Maybe they will grow up with aspirations beyond surpassing their star siblings in December and May. I believe in them, but I also let them exist as they are: hot and hazy, watching the world go by through half-closed eyes while they sit on the porch with nowhere important to be.
I also have nowhere to be, and the open time brings back all the summers of my childhood. Then, as now, I walked across steaming blacktop while insects buzzed from uncut grass under the fences. Then, as now, my clothes fit poorly, and the straps of my tank top slid off my shoulders while I hiked my shorts up over bony knees. Then, as now, my hair turned the color of straw in the sun. How had I not changed my hairstyle in all these years? It is conspicuously long, but I will not cut it off because my mother once said she liked it that way. I have not gotten “a good job” or found a husband or had children so I might as well keep my hair long for her. She died years ago, but I might as well keep my hair long for her.
On some of these meandering afternoons when I am tired of my own thoughts I call up my friend Susan because she also does not work a full time job. She teaches piano in the evenings, so sometimes we go see a movie or look around in a clothing store, but mostly we just walk to the park and sit on a bench by the monument. Susan has perfect hair, the color of which can be described by naming almost any decadent dessert, and it shines glass-like when the light hits it. Not like mine. Mine is somehow straight and unruly at the same time. Our skin is different, too. Hers: porcelain no matter the season, and mine: tanned and freckled and usually bandaged from miscellaneous accidents in the yard or on my bike. Never whole.
“Susan, I think I’d like to get one of those cars with the wooden panels on the sides,” I say to her today. She squints through her glasses into the sun before replying.
“But why? You don’t even drive.”
“I realize this, but I could renew my license and then pack the car up and get out of here. I could go anywhere. Maybe to California.”
“What’s in California?”
“I don’t know, but there’s got to be something. Otherwise, why would people go there so often? Why would they write all those songs about it?”
“People write songs about everything. Doesn’t mean anything. There’s songs about restaurants and dirty ponds and kitchen appliances. Nothing magic about those things.”
“What song do you know about a kitchen appliance?”
Susan did not answer, and I did not press the question because a drum circle had started across the park a little ways. A young man walked by us holding several giant rolls of paper towels, and we watched as he dropped them, one by one, and then picked them up again, rearranging them to a new level of satisfaction, and continued on down the path.
“Huh,” I said, and Susan nodded in agreement. Then she launched into a story about her boyfriend, a pale, sniveling guy she had fallen hopelessly in love with despite his lack of any redeeming qualities. That was my assessment, anyway. The story had something to do with an alarm clock that he ordered in the mail. It arrived at the lobby of his apartment, sat for days, and was ultimately stolen. I must have missed the point of the story because my mind started to wander off, hours from now when the evening would be soft and the people would pull chairs to the sidewalk and sit outside, chatting in tongues I didn’t understand.
When it was time for Susan to leave to get ready for her lesson, I started walking back toward my neighborhood. It is a nice walk, and I don’t even mind when the tree-lined streets start turning to concrete. There is something in the sparseness that I like, and I let it wash over me. On the way I considered stopping by an old lover’s apartment because he lives down the block from me, and we maintained a friendship. He might be home now, reading forgotten Henry James stories or chain smoking or doing something else he considers tragic. I think he wanted to be lonely. I think he wanted that more than he wanted me.
I decided against ringing his doorbell because I was in too good a mood. I didn’t want to look around at bare walls, broken coffee mugs, and rolled-up green bills lying incriminatingly on the end table, one of the only pieces of furniture in the entire apartment. No, this evening the sunset was too splendidly orange and air too filled with promise to waste in a seedy apartment. I set off in a new direction.