sadness

flash fiction or w/e

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The open road was the second mistake, but it took a while to get there. First came the boxes: cardboard, made for packing and impermanence. You hated for things to be thrown away, and you hated the boxes, but you kept quiet until the yard sale when the girl with the red backpack came and bought my lamp. You went inside to make coffee but there was no coffee maker anymore and I walked in just as the ceramic hit the floor. It was the loudest thing.

The first mistake had to have been the wooden floors. The creaking was so insistent! More than the dark knots and the smell of dust and yellow light in the hall. It all got to my skin before you did, before you took my hand and we danced in the living room while the seasons changed. I never knew what home was. I only wanted to look at the maps.

Inevitably the floors and the lights and the boxes all led to the open road, the one you insisted you would accompany me down, at least until we hit the coast. Through the city we were alright. Across the plains we were alright. Up the mountains (and down the other side) we were alright, but when we hit the water we started to sink, possibly because there weren’t any floors out here. Howdid we not see this coming! Why weren’t we prepared!

It was not until we got out of the car that we realized The Wanting was terrible and The Leaving was worse. It was not until then that we realized that the colors of the maps were not true and you’d have to go back the way we came and I’d have to stay here. But it was never anyone’s fault.

Advertisements

The Mulberry Tree

2827046389_c9af4d6961_o

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.

That Summertime Sadness

9720110325_a8dd003e40_b

originally published on Thought Catalog

It starts innocently enough: you’re at the office with your headphones in or sitting in the living room with the music on shuffle and that song comes on. You know that song, the one that pulls you back kicking and screaming to another place in another year and you can’t fight it. You’re lifted up and sucked through and dropped down somewhere else, somewhere you walked years ago in the summertime. The streets of neighborhoods that held you like arms in the quiet dark have found you again, and they are relentless.

Once more, black top steaming with visible heat thuds against your shoes, and crumbling buildings rise up around you as you walk. Weeds can barely even make it here. Lungs can barely make it here, and you once you thought you might die from all of it, just wilt completely from the heat and the sweat and the sun. Unforgiving! Suffocation took over in a summer you never thought you’d remember, much less return to.

But here you are thanks to that song and you are seeing the parts you never saw back then. This is synesthesia at its best, but it cuts deep, deep. Back porches were sanctuaries from an August storm and now they splinter in your fingers. Porches with a view of the alley and plastic chairs to take it all in were your home. It was there you first knew. It was there you first thought the words that are part of you like a pulse now. There in the thick air and heavy skies, staring at the backs of buildings, wishing for green, getting gray, you knew. With laptop speakers and cold beer for Hail Marys, you knew.

It was terminal then, but now that you’re back everything is dusted in gold. The sunlight is softer, the cool nights come faster, and cramped apartments open up so you can breathe. Streets that once trapped you now let you roam, but where can you go now that everyone is gone? Years and winters have taken friends away and replaced them with ghosts and strangers and ghosts of strangers, but what good are they? Where is the one you bore the heat with? Where is the one you ordered take-out with? Where is the one who never talked during the good parts of songs?

The heat, more tolerable this time, is emptier. Street signs have no meaning anymore. Cafes are vacant. Two cups of coffee still sit on a rickety table, growing cold. The tiny bars are wastelands, and their sticky dance floors soaked through with last night’s whiskey have no charm left, not even the kind that’s more like pity than charm. Sidewalks and restaurants and waiting for the train—it’s all hollow. Friend, we gave it a purpose. Friend, where are you now?

Back then we said words we thought were important. We wrote down words we thought were important. Back then we did what we could to survive in a summer that wanted to choke us: drinking to forget the heat, sleeping to forget the heat, close but not touching. It was too hot to touch but we found ways to feel without touching, like sheets rustling and dishes clattering and ice cubes in a glass. I didn’t know what we had then, but I know now because it all came bursting through the walls just a minute ago when that song came on.

That summertime sadness, I got it.