Hidden city break me now
before something else does
Your steel is cold
but I want it
Your concrete is howling
but I need it
These shadows won’t ever be the same
The worst is when the air is so light you cannot feel it around you. Nothing is breathing, and you get disoriented and try not to think of death. This happens to me as soon as I step out on the sidewalk. The neighborhood is quiet and fading today even though it is the ripe, middle part of summer when the greenery intrudes upon everything. I walk down the street alongside the promise of rain.
My plan is to go to a café and look for a job, the kind of job I told my sister I already had. Maybe a receptionist or an assistant of some sort. I don’t really know, but I have a hazy outline of what it will be, and that’s what I described to her when she came to visit yesterday. I told her about meetings and offices and working lunches so she would tell the family I am fine. I told her so everyone would know I am fine.
When I am a block from the bus stop I see it pull away. I watch this happen with no reaction, as if there’s a curtain drawn in my mind and I’m shielded from the reality of the world outside. I do not mind waiting, though, because I am in no rush. I have nowhere to be, and the red brick warehouse across the street from the bus stop is symmetrical and nice to look at. From this angle it appears to have no depth and is just a cut-out prop for paper dolls. I am pretty content with this view of the warehouse and of the cars going by, all peopled by little blurs of humanity. I think I just might be alright for a while until a moment later a girl rides by on a purple bike and I realize again how colorless my hair is.
A man joins me at the bus stop, and I immediately get the impression he is not waiting for the bus. Perhaps it is the duffle bag or the gallon of orange Kool-Aid he has with him. We stand there in silence for some time as a line of semi-trucks and work vans speeds past us on the double-lane road. Most people would have put on headphones, but I lost mine a few weeks ago. Besides, the weight of the sky makes up for the quiet. Will the rain start soon? I wonder if the man with the duffel bag is thinking the same thing. I wonder if anyone is thinking the same thing. When the bus finally comes I get on, but the man with the duffel bag stays behind. Perhaps he has not figured anything out about the rain yet.
On the bus I sit next to the window, towards the back, where I have a good view of the interior should I choose to look at it. A woman with a pink umbrella sits with her legs crossed, looking straight ahead. She is dressed too nicely for this bus and for this life, and I cannot bear the sadness of it so I opt instead to look out the window where a car is on fire amidst the weeds and the black top. The rain has just barely started.
The Mulberry Tree was always the best hiding place, but what was hidden there depended on the year and the strength of the winds. Things were placed there with the utmost care, and sometimes these were pretty things, things that belonged there like gemstones or pages from books, but other times they were ugly things, and you only put them there so you wouldn’t have to look at them anymore. You stowed everything away like the space would never end, like the tree was infinite, which was true, in a way, until it stopped being so.
In ’97 the Mulberry Tree was a place for secret treasures, usually of the geologic sort, that you wanted to hide from your sister. In the hollow on the east side of the tree lay a rock that sparkled like a diamond and some polished stones you found that were so smooth you thought they must be old Indian beads. Your sister would never find them there, and you would get to keep all the magic for yourself. All the powers they held were yours and yours alone, and you would protect them even if it meant climbing too quickly and scraping the inside of your knee. In ’97 with purple berry juice staining your chin you didn’t hear the music yet, only the voices carried over the wind calling you inside for dinner. In ’97 the dark hadn’t set in yet, and there were sunsets eternal and ripe, black berries falling from the sky.
But gold turns gray, as it always does, and five years later the dusk poured in without your noticing. Shadows changed places, but the Mulberry Tree still stood in the corner of the yard, bearing fruit quietly with its limbs outstretched. It waited until dinner was over and you could sneak out for a few minutes and stash your journal filled with impatient musings and notes from friends. In ‘02 it was the perfect hiding place for you and for them, all those restless, happy thoughts about words exchanged with boys and what would happen next with this friend or that. Name after name after name! Everything was on the cusp of happening, and you started to hear the music.
“Turn down the radio!” your mother would say while she pounded on your door.
“It’s not even that loud!” you would say back, knowing full well that it was. Even your ears hurt sometimes, but you needed it so you could ignore your insistent heart. It was a teenage heart, soft and clean and waiting to be knocked around a bit so it could have pretty scars like the ones you saw in the movies. It was a silly heart, but this heart, it was all you knew.
“Take care, take care of it!” your mother would say when she picked you up from school in the afternoon.
“I know!” you would say back, while your sister grinned in the rearview mirror.
They thought restraint was something you would learn and patience was something you would acquire in time, but they were wrong. Oh, they were wrong, and the summer brought outbursts that started with injustice and ended in the Mulberry Tree where you could put your hands on its rough bark and wait for the tears to dry. Bare arms wrapped around bare knees. The mulberries hung all around you and waited for you to lift your head and notice them. Eventually you would, and you would taste one, chewing slowly and being healed bit by bit.
Your scars healed easily because they were surface scars, and they didn’t need much more than a tube of aloe to blend back in with the seamless organ of your skin. Your mother’s scars were different, though. They were buried deep in the tissue and irreparable. As tragic as that sounds, the saddest thing about those scars was that they were invisible. To you, to your father, to the world, and even to your mother when she took the right pills. When you were sixteen, you began to realize this, and the things you hid in the Mulberry Tree got uglier.
It was winter when you saw your father go off to church alone in the car. The snow was mostly still white because you lived in the country, and gnarled branches protruded from every which way as you watched him back out of the driveway—slowly, slowly. Nothing about this was unusual, for your father always went to church alone, the one with the red brick on Route 1, and the winter had looked like this for as long as you can remember. But today your head had a heavy feeling. It was the feeling of disorientation you got whenever you became aware of existing, when you thought too hard about being alive and being human and being here, now. You would start to feel it in the back of your head, just above the base of your neck, and then the dizzying circles would begin, and the words “This is real This is now This is being alive You are alive” started swimming furious laps in your brain. You would have to tear yourself away from those ideas, pull yourself back into the present, and wait for the disgusting tides to recede.
When that was done you found yourself back in the once-removed world you usually inhabited. The beige carpet was still beige, the walls were a forgettable color, and your mother was sitting at the kitchen table not doing much besides staring at the centerpiece. Your sister had been talking to her and not looking at the centerpiece because the centerpiece was just a plastic holder for napkins.
“Mom!” your sister yelled, interrupting herself.
“What?” asked your mother.
“You’re staring into space. Are you listening?”
“Yes, I am.”
But you knew she wasn’t because you could see the storm clouds gathering in her brain. It was this talent you had, allegedly bestowed upon you by the god your father was driving over to see at the church on Route 1. You backed away from the window and put on a sweatshirt and boots so you could go out to the Mulberry Tree to hide what you saw. You grabbed a book, one by Melville that you had to read for school, and opened the back door.
“Won’t you be cold like that?” asked your mother.
“I’ll be fine,” you replied, while your sister crossed her legs on the kitchen chair.
But you were not fine! And the Mulberry Tree held your shivering limbs for four-and-a-half minutes before you got cold and walked around. You read one page of Melville but mostly watched over the snowy backyard and the fences that kept it from spilling out. Nothing moved, and you were satisfied. As your boots crunched the snow on your way back to the house, you decided what you would do next and forever so that the storm clouds in your mother’s head would disappear for good.
And so it happened that at age sixteen while your father was talking to his god on Route 1 and your sister was sharpening her pencils, you began to work on your annihilation. You did it because you knew that creating a storm of your own was the only way your mother would forget hers. It was genius! And it started with cigarettes after school.
After that you quit some extracurriculars and learned how to dye your hair ice blue with blonde underneath. It didn’t take long for you to figure out who had the best drugs and where to go to take them. Warehouses at the edge of the suburbs looked dead to most people, but to you they pulsated life in the form of music and warm bodies and colors you’d never seen before. Sure, there was sadness here, but at least everyone knew it and was trying to transform it. Sure, there was yearning here, but at least everyone acknowledged it and made it loud. The worst was the quiet yearning and the ignored sadness that most people have. The stifling of those things—that’s how people die, you were certain. That’s how people die while still being technically alive.
But the warehouse nights were for being alive. You participated in it all, threw yourself into the mix without a second thought, but knew you were not like the others because you were doing it for noble reasons, and they were all selfish. They danced and touched and took pills because they were weak and they didn’t give a damn about anyone else. Not you, though. You did it for your mother because she had to be saved! You would use your darkness to make her forget her own because she was your mother and she raised you and held you when you were sick or screaming. This mission meant that you had to stay out late almost every night. You danced with boys and took pictures with girls, all of you covered in glitter and laughing about things that were forgotten by dawn.
Your school called often, asking where you were when you failed to show for days at a time, but even when you were there you weren’t there. You squeaked out answers to your teachers’ questions from underneath the heavy sweaters you wore to hide the way your collarbone stuck out now. Your eyes were rimmed in red, and you drank coffee before any of your classmates started to like it, cupping your hands around its warmth and taking pictures of it to post online for thousands of people to see and like. You didn’t know what they thought of you, but you didn’t care because this was all for a good cause.
“Where have you been?” your mother would shout when you walked in the house just before the sun came up.
“With my friends!” you would answer as you kicked off the shoes that made you almost as tall as the girls on the runways in Japan. She yelled for a while but you saw no storm clouds anywhere near her and nothing else that would take her away. It was working. Your father said nothing but kept going to see the god on Route 1, and your sister watched from the stairway.
Once she asked you, “Why are you doing this to them?” Them, meaning your parents. You looked at her and shook your head because she would never understand what you were fighting for. She couldn’t see the storm clouds that tormented your mother. Before walking away she told you that you looked like a wreck, but you were fine with that because you could be left alone to make tea in the kitchen in your bare feet, just how you liked it.
Inevitably you ran away because that’s just what people do. It was only for a day and it was only because you lost yourself a little more than usual, and there was a boy with no name who looked like the son of the god on Route 1. A policeman came across the two of you sitting on a bench outside an all-night diner and asked why you weren’t in school. You had no answer, but it didn’t matter because the tights you were wearing said enough. The policeman took you with him but left the boy with no name because he was over eighteen. Your mother drove out to get you, and on the way home you wanted there to be silence because it would be so forceful, but you cried instead.
Finally she pulled the car over on a side street and got out. The sun was strong in the mid-morning sky and came down unevenly through the trees that flanked the road. You waited for her to get back in the car, but she didn’t, and the plastic dashboard grew hot from the light. You looked out the window and saw her standing on the sidewalk with her hands on her hips, staring upward. You got out, too, and found that she was looking at a mulberry tree. Purple berries, almost black, covered the branches with such determination that you thought it couldn’t have been accidental. More were smashed and dried on the sidewalk beneath your feet, and you looked at them while you leaned your head against your mother’s shoulder, the cotton of her t-shirt soft on your skin.
“Everything is going to be ok,” you told her.
“I know,” she said, and you held each other while the birds came and went, feasting on fruit from the Mulberry Tree.