California

This Is Fiction I Swear: Part 16 (or The End)

Part 16: Time Zones

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I couldn’t ignore it if I tried—the lightness of unfettered freedom settling in my soul as I step off the train and onto the pavement. A new city. The air is warm and sweet and all the colors are faded like they’ve been left out in the sun too long.

I don’t recognize anyone except those I’d been in the same train car with for more than twenty-four hours now, and even so I make sure to walk a different direction than they do once we leave the station. I wheel my bike to the curb and adjust the backpack on my shoulders as I look down the road in both directions, deciding which one to take. The roads are bigger here, much bigger, but somehow there’s less space on them and they turn up at the corners like they’re sneering at me, like they’re telling me they’ll swallow me whole if I attempt to ride them.

Good. The sun is on its way to the other side of the world and shadows from thin, twisting palm trees cross my face. I think my sister lives somewhere near here. I put on my sunglasses and walk across the street to a little restaurant with outdoor seating. It says it has coffee for one dollar and that’s all the change I have in my pocket and I want to watch the sun set and to feel the gold.

The people here look happy. I’m thinking this as I put my feet up on the plastic chair across from the one I’ve chosen. The people here are pretty and they have families and cars and they are happy. Why wouldn’t they be? They have California in their skin.

My coffee gets to me via a waiter with dark eyes. His t-shirt is very white and his skin very tan and I thank him for the coffee. I will empty out my backpack to find some more quarters to leave him a tip when I’m finished. I have to.

The coffee is just right: a little burnt, very hot, with substance. And my tongue adores it. A soft breeze brushes past my skin like warm breath before a kiss and I get goosebumps for no reason. It’s not cold but I’m shivering. It’s all perfect but I’m crying. I’m understanding everything in the last folds of light on a coastal evening.

But soon I’m moving, again. Leaving, again. Putting tires to pavement.

And this is where I’m invincible. This is where I can fly. The wind doesn’t catch or snag my body but streams past it in clean lines. Nothing holds me back: not the holes in the road or the dark of the tunnel or the vehicles that think they can do better than this. Watch me take your lead from you. Watch me till I’m out of sight. My lungs feel like they might explode from the air pumping in, and my legs are burning deliciously from the effort. I’m intoxicated from being alive.

And nothing happens! You’d think one day I’ll get what I deserve for being stupid and reckless and overconfident, but I don’t. I’m switching lanes and flying forward at speeds I shouldn’t know, and I have no idea if this is heaven or hell or reality because most days life is one or the other anyway. And they all thought they needed something after this.

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This Is Fiction I Swear: Part 15

Part 15: To Swim

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The last day I ever saw you was the day my Solzhenitsyn came in the mail.

It is the most horrifically ugly book I’ve ever seen: giant and crassly red with typeface that gives away its 1968 reprint year. The jacket is creased and torn and the sallow-faced author himself frowns at me from the safety of his four-by-six bio. He doesn’t look like a decorated war hero in this picture. He doesn’t look like a revolutionary. He doesn’t even look like an author, which is saying a decent lot because what does an author look like anyway? He just looks like the man I see sometimes on the number twelve bus who’s always drinking vodka out of a plastic bottle at 8:00 am.

I set the book on my table and look at it like it’s a newborn with webbed toes. I hate it. I want to destroy it. I don’t even care to open it to see if my old professor was right when she said I would find words so beautifully and deeply written that I would feel my soul jump in my chest when I read them. Instead I leave it sitting on the table like an open wound and go across the street to the café for breakfast. The snow is still falling thickly and steadily and my toes are getting wet through my suede boots but I don’t care because Graham and I have decided to leave tomorrow, Sunday, for California. I shake the snow off my scarf and say hello to the owner before sitting down and ordering a coffee to start. California. Sunday. Tomorrow.

I am the only person in the café this morning and there’s some animal program on the silent television above my head so I’m in a pretty good mood thus far despite the cold still seeping in through the windows. If I knew at this moment that it would be the high point of my day, what would I have done? Would I have thrown myself in front of the traffic on 18th Street and died a frigid death in the gray slush? Would I have crawled back to my apartment and slept until summertime? Or would I have simply bitten into my sourdough egg sandwich and washed it down with black coffee?

Impossible to tell.

I’m chewing heartily when my phone beeps and I expect it to be Graham making arrangements for tomorrow or maybe Angelica telling me again about her birthday party tonight but it’s not. It’s you. You’re on your way back from some god forsaken Midwestern city and are asking what I’m doing later because it would be nice to see me. Oh, cords of dynamite unfurling.

I have every intention of tying them back up and ignoring them but then I get a message from Graham: he has bronchitis. He will be on antibiotics for days and will not be able to leave with me tomorrow, Sunday, for California. He is sorry, and I know he is. He says we’ll go next week, and I believe we will. But my heart, it cannot take this kind of disappointment. It cannot wait. I cannot wait. Maybe the coffee is just hitting my brain but I cannot sit still, cannot sit in this café or this neighborhood or this town for one second longer.

Outside is murky from car exhaust and wet snow, and the dove gray sky is heavy and pressing on my back.  But I am outside. And moving. I don’t know where most of the day goes after that but somehow I am at work, my last shift I thought but now who knows and I have new manager named Jake or Jerry or something and he’s from one of the Carolinas and I hate him for no reason. But I can come up with reasons enough, and so I do and I tell them all to my coworker who agrees with me probably because most people don’t understand what other people are like, and they’ll believe anything you tell them. Really, it’s frighteningly easy to create or destroy someone’s character if you want to.

And after my shift when I have sufficiently severed any hopes of an amicable work relationship with Jake Jerry I walk to the train to go to Angelica’s party at a bar on the north side. I thought it was going to be the last time I would see her and now that it won’t be it feels less significant and I feel less like remembering it. I don’t want to go, but I don’t want to not go because then what? There is no California tomorrow, Sunday.

There is tomorrow, actually, and there is Sunday, because those happen whether we plan for them or not. They arrive whether we order them or not, sort of like that poor Solzhenitsyn bleeding on my table. But what if there weren’t tomorrow or Sunday? I have this thought somewhere between the whiskey shots I bought for Angelica and the sips of bourbon from a friend’s flask. And by the time the music in the back room has changed decades and the floor by the bar feels sticky and the girls in flowered dresses all have partners, I am setting my latest drink on a table and rushing outside to meet you.

Your car is idling by the curb or what I think is the curb because I can’t see it through all the dirty snow and slush. Your headlights are on and I’m frantically putting my arms in the sleeves of my coat because it’s fucking cold out here I think but I’m not sure. I slide into the passenger seat and you barely look at me and I don’t look at you because I’m too busy saying something about how I forgot my gloves at the bar. But you don’t care and I don’t really either and now we’re gliding through the wet side streets heading for Lake Shore Drive. And that’s when it occurs to me.

-What?

-How I might be able to stop Sunday!

-What are you talking about? Tomorrow is—

-I’ll stop it. Sorry, we’ll stop it. Together. What do you say? I think it would be beautiful. What do you say?

You don’t seem to have any clue what I mean so I start to tell you but then change course and tell you instead how different we are and how you never ever know what I mean. You will never understand if you lived a thousand times longer than a thousand generations and…

But it’s no use because the words aren’t getting through to you, probably because I’m not stringing them together right, probably because of the whiskey swirling in my brain. But just that second as I look at the black lake all the alcohol seems to evaporate and my head is clear. So clear and crisp and I swear the snow has even stopped falling for a minute and the radio has stopped playing and the other cars have disappeared from the road. I know what I need to do.

I grab the steering wheel and turn it sharply to the left, towards the lake. There’s a ledge at this point in the drive and if we go over it we’ll fall twenty yards before crashing into the waves. I imagine the icy water peeling off the layers of dust and sweat on my skin. I imagine it numbing my nerves and slowing my heart until everything around me and in me is calm. Unmoving and calm, and I can drift until the end of time, until the cold water turns to sun on my face, until the sound of the waves turns into the sound of my mother’s voice calling me to the kitchen for breakfast and I am five years old.

But the only voice calling is yours and you’re screaming my name and a hundred other things at a pitch I’ve never heard before. Your whole body is somehow in between my arm and the steering wheel, and as you continue to yell I notice that the snow has started to fall again. Or maybe it never stopped. I’m enraptured with the scene out the window: this endless stream of tiny white snowflakes, so silent, against the dark canvas of night. And city lights to the west. And this bridge back to our neighborhood.

You pull up to my apartment and wait for me to get all my things out of the car and then drive off. It is just then when I’m inside my door and I see Solzhenitsyn staring at me from my table in the dark that the monstrous, cavernous hole opens its jaws and sets to work ripping apart my chest. An hour or so of this until I’ve worn myself out. I make some tea and look at the clock. Eleven minutes to sunrise.

This is Fiction I Swear: Part 11

Part 11: The Fox

Houses in the Hills

My sister’s package came in the mail today. She sent me this bronze fox figurine that stands about half as tall as the mufg of coffee I set it next to. I don’t know where she got it or how much she spent or anything but it’s so perfect it makes me sad, standing there on all petite fours looking at me with its little fox eyes.

When we were kids staying at our uncle’s place in the country we saw a fox in the woods and that’s the first time I decided I loved them. The fox wasn’t red like in movies. It was more brownish and was so busy digging a hole in the dirt and dry leaves that it didn’t see us standing there watching it. When it finally looked up it stared at me for a full thirty seconds before turning abruptly and scampering into the woods.

But this one can’t go anywhere. It’ll look at me forever from whatever shelf or table I put it on. I pick it up and turn it over in my hands. It’s heavy. It’s solid. It’s meant for staying. How different it seems from human beings! Always in motion, always in the process of leaving somewhere and arriving somewhere else, and no one ever puts their feet down on the ground somewhere and says I’ll think I’ll stay, I think I’ll be here tomorrow.

But people are not things and we must move or our bones will fuse with the walls of a place and we’ll be stuck forever, looking more and more like the place each day till they start building bricks around us and over us and sealing us in. The image of such a fate takes shape in my mind and I start making arrangements. I know how I’ll get out of this, all of it: I’ll go to California. Like so many before me I’ll head to a coast and brush the sand off my feet and find the fresh start I’m looking for.

I’ll take Graham with me. He’s still scared of this shooting nonsense so he’ll go, right? We’ll stay together in a cheap room until we can find jobs and get a real place. Somewhere where I can smell the brine in the sea and where I can keep the windows open all the time and walk around in bare feet. Yes, that’s what we’ll do. And Graham will be there by my side looking fresh and we’ll wake up each morning and drink coffee together until the cool haze evaporates and the sun comes out to tell us it’s time to start the day’s work.

And I won’t be scared of the sun anymore. I won’t be scared of anything. I’ll forget about my landlord with his truck and the alley where a man lay in his own blood and the girl with the medium-length hair, and I won’t miss you anymore. The sun will set late and rise early and we’ll be its children, warm and happy and we won’t tread water every day, we’ll float.

I’ve got to tell Graham about this. I rush out of my apartment and the gate shuts behind me louder than I intended and I’ll tell my neighbors I’m sorry if I see them later. The walk to his apartment isn’t long and I realize when I get there I forgot my phone to call him so I just knock several times on the door. Twenty seconds. I bounce up and down a few times to keep warm in the crisp air. Where is he? At work? What day is it? I knock a few more times and still nothing and now I’m concerned because my nerves are so excited and I’ve no outlet for them if he doesn’t answer and I can’t tell him my plan right away.

I look down the sidewalk and see that old guy who always stands outside of bars in our neighborhood and talks about weird Japanese stuff to all the smokers. He’s ambling my way and I just cannot talk to him right now or I’ll go crazy or my organs will rupture or something. I turn and duck into the nearest restaurant for shelter. It’s a little Mexican place where they always have hot peppers and spicy pickled carrots on the table. The waitress asks if it’s just me and I tell her yes and order a horchata and some tacos. I can see the sidewalk clearly from my booth by the window so I’ll be able to tell if Graham gets home.

Suddenly I notice the song playing on the speakers and my throat closes up. It’s a pop song, top 40, and the DJ’s played it all the time last summer. Why is it only the pop songs that make me want to cry? Only the stupid ones I hear on the radio a million times. They dig in somehow, grind their heels into my sternum and twist and twist until I’m gasping for breath.

It’s the same thing you did to me, did you know? The very same thing! You were always so innocent, always said it was me who wasn’t ready, that it was me who fucked things up and played games, but friend: I see more clearly now and you are not faultless. You are co-conspirator, co-contributor, co-author. We did this together. See what we’ve made? Isn’t it grand? Isn’t it beautiful and wonderful and perfect as it stands crumbling right before our very eyes?