“See you in September,” he says, pretending it isn’t inevitable that we are going to grow apart just as soon as we have met.
The summer is upon us like a helium pump. Everyone I know is lining up to get their fill and float up to whatever mid-July aspiration they have planned. I have nothing to look forward to other than finally having learned to put my hair up. I had worn my hair down to the party tonight, but I put it up in Katherine’s bathroom. It was a birthday party and everybody brought a bottle of wine except for me. I helped move the sofa into her new place and watched the boys move the furniture around in her bedroom— each one of them has a theory about what would work best. They’re probably still at it right now.
I’m wearing red and I’ve got my hair up and I think that’s why he walked me all the way up to my porch steps but no further. I look good when he can see my collarbones, but I still look only nineteen years old. He said that I could have him if I wanted because the streets were dark and I was leading the way. I didn’t know what to say to that so I pointed him to the lake and explained how I used it to tell south from north.
The first time we had ever spoken, I had told him I was afraid of looking at the lake at night because the big black expanse looks like fear itself. I don’t think he remembers. That’s why when I tell him to have a good summer, he says, “See you in September.” And I don’t know what to make of that other than folding it up like a slip of paper from a fortune cookie and putting it somewhere in my mind where it’ll crumple a little later than everything else that has happened this year.
cracked eggs in the carton before you get a chance to use them
the sound of a neighbour crying very late at night
dishes crashing to the kitchen floor and shattering
kissing your lover and picturing someone else’s face
a hint of your late grandmother’s perfume in the air
saying goodbye in an airport to someone who doesn’t know you love them
the blue in all of the paintings
Goldie’s got a ring on her finger now. She’s buying a white dress with buttons all down the back. Her sister’s asked me to the wedding even though it’s months away. I can’t seem to think straight long enough to tell her that I’ll go.
See, I keep thinking about what kind of pictures Goldie’s going to take for the engagement announcement. I keep thinking about this picture we have of her over the fireplace. She’s smiling all teeth like little kids do when you tell them to say cheese, and she’s got a dress on as pink as the cotton candy in her hand. Whenever I look at it, I’m always surprised that I’m in the picture at all. It’s like I’ve forgotten, and I’m shocked to see myself standing there with schoolboy shorts and a bruised knee every time. It’s a good picture of Goldie, though — everlasting cotton candy in her hand and perpetual colour in her cheeks.
I keep imagining pictures. I keep dreaming up a room spun full of pink cotton candy and Goldie giggling in her wedding dress. And me at the door, opening it just slightly in a tuxedo. You wouldn’t notice me there unless you really looked at the photo for a long time. That’s all I can see whenever anybody talks about Goldie getting married. I’ve really got to stop kidding myself, though. It’s not like she’s going to be carrying cotton candy instead of a bouquet on her wedding day, and I’d bet you that she doesn’t look at the pictures in the old photo albums at her house long enough to see me in them.
I don’t feel that eating halal meat would be an act of ignorance/privilege for a non-religious person to partake in, and although I can’t speak for the entire Muslim community, I’m inclined to feel that many Muslim people would agree.
If it is the meat industry that you are uncomfortable with, I would advise you to be careful in selecting your halal meat. There are a few details that you should look into, and I’d be happy to talk to you about this issue further if you’d like, but I’d just request that you stop being shy and let me know who you are first.
She suddenly gets up and says that she is going outside, leaving her tea cooling on the windowsill. I sit down in the wooden chair where she had been once I hear the front door open. I listen for her footsteps and hear them stop soon enough to let me know that she isn’t going past our porch. I reach for the glass of iced tea at first, but then pick up her teacup instead. I no longer know any way of being close to her other than touching the things that she has already held. I sit there as though I can inhabit whatever ghost of her presence remains and learn what she’s been thinking about. I wonder if her wanting to get rid of the baby’s clothes is really a good sign. When I had sold the crib I had been building, I had only been pushing myself to move on. The couple who had bought it had asked me to paint it a different colour, and I had covered it up really well.
She calls to me from the porch. At first I am surprised to hear her because I haven’t heard her speak any louder than the hum of a radio left on in the background for a very long time. She calls to me again. When I get there, she is standing drenched in our front yard. I walk out from the shelter of our porch and feel the drops crowd the surface of my skin. The rain is warm and not cool like I had expected. I go to stand next to her and wish I could take her hand, but we only stand like that looking back at our leaky, blue house. I’m the one who has left the door open this time. I try to picture all of this hot rain flooding our house, watering it until something can grow there again.
She takes another sip of her tea and tells me, “You didn’t have to stay home from work today. Now you’ll have to work Sunday. I wanted to do the groceries then and you know that I can’t do them without the car.”
“Just make me a list. I’ll pick everything up on my way home.”
The image of that doorway, empty of everything but expectation, haunts me too vividly to ever leave the house on this day ever again. It forces me to think of how we had once spent this day in a hospital. I remember it only in irrelevant bits and pieces now, like my mind has tried to hold onto only those shards of the memory that aren’t too sharp. The hospital bracelet had hung too loosely on her skinny wrist. I noticed that only when she was using the payphone to call her mother after it was all over. It surprised me how those frail wrists could support the weight of that big black telephone receiver and the voice coming through it. I still don’t know how she told her mother that her baby was dead — or how her mother could keep from coming to see her after hearing that her daughter had held a lifeless baby in her arms. Weeks later, Maria told me that her mother had said that it didn’t come as a shock, and that she should have expected no more from the kind of union that the child came from.
They kept her at the hospital for many days after. I would fall asleep in the chair by her bed sometimes, but I don’t think she ever slept. I remember eating only soda crackers from the vending machine that was down the hall. I used to rip the packages open and stuff the wrappers in my pockets, always saving half the crackers for Maria, but she never ate them. My pants were filled with crumbs on the day that we finally came back home again. I felt nauseous looking at the house after a very long time as I took Maria’s things out of the car. Inside, the flowers she had been growing on our windowsills had already bloomed and wilted in our absence. It was the last time spring would visit our house and we had missed it.
The phone rings before I can say anything to her. She doesn’t move a muscle because she knows I will answer it. She doesn’t know that the sound plants a cork in my throat. I gag on the thought of today turning into a repeat of this same day three years ago. I had received a phone call from work and had to leave her in this blue house where we were both struggling to hold our breath.
The door was ajar when I came home that night, as though she had been waiting for someone who wouldn’t knock or ring the doorbell. I remember walking into the house and feeling inexplicably as though I had walked into a home that had just been ransacked, but everything was exactly as I had left it. The glass of water I was drinking before I left was still sitting exactly where I had left it on the kitchen table, except now it was joined by something else. There was a cake left out in the very pan it had been baked in as though the baker had been afraid of disfiguring it by lifting it out. It was already frosted on top with the words “Happy Birthday” shakily piped on. I remember not being able to do anything other than slide onto the floor with my back against the wall and my head buried in my hands, one of which still had the key ring around one finger in anticipation of having to open the door. I wanted to be angry with her right up until the moment when I had finally been able to stand up and find Maria sitting on the edge of the bed in our bedroom. All she had said to me then was, “Today would have been her first birthday.”
I breathe a sigh of relief as I hang up the phone almost immediately after picking it up, “Wrong number,” I tell her.
“I think I’m tired of the way it looks outside this window, too,” she goes back to complaining after a silence that is too short to contain what has just happened, “Just sand and water, sand and water. You wouldn’t know it was spring even if it did come.”
She’s right about the view. It hasn’t changed at all and the photographs are proof. There’s one of me standing in front of the window with the same beach backdrop that my father took when I was seven or eight years old. If you compare it to the one I took of Maria a few years ago, the world inside that window frame looks exactly the same. She has a swollen belly in that picture, and I can almost feel the baby kick when I look at it because I’d felt it for the first time just before getting the camera. She looks different, and not just in that glowing way. Her hair has still got a curl in that picture. The pregnancy made her hair grow out thicker and in a different texture, but you can’t tell when you look at how straight it is now, and how it always had been before. I keep the picture in a little wooden box in the hall closet.
So we didn’t marry. We moved to this house by the water that had been here all these years looking to me like a spectrum of seasickness – turquoise with cerulean shutters, azure steps, and a cobalt porch. She loved it right away and started calling it home before I did, watered it with even more shades of blue on the inside. Sometimes I wish she hadn’t done that, but it hadn’t bothered me then. My head was swimming with the joy of just having her there when she was counting out garlic cloves for dinner on her cutting board, or turning over in her Sunday morning sleep under a shared blanket. I could submerge myself in every small movement of hers because there was no other person in our lives back then. With nobody anticipating any grandchildren, we didn’t receive many phone calls or see a face at our doorstep that wasn’t mine or hers. We had finally been allowed our own corner of peace, and I was too happy to notice just how blue the walls were.
Now, our house can make you feel like you’re drowning unless you leave the windows open.
“I’ve been thinking,” she begins again without looking at me, “You should take the baby’s clothes with you tomorrow. There’s a donation box at the community centre for old clothes now.”
I tell her that I will, and run my hand over her head, letting my fingers rest in the cool black hair. I hesitate. I want to congratulate her. I have to be very careful at moments like these when I want to let her know things that I cannot say in words. I kiss the very top of her head and feel relieved that she lets me. I get courageous and press my lips to her temple and the place where her collarbone melts into shoulder, but she shrugs me away. She doesn’t want me to touch her like that anymore. And I’ve had to smash my teeth together, biting nothing, to give myself something to hold on to every time I’m reminded of it.
I move to stand behind her facing the window after putting the jug of iced tea in the refrigerator. Suddenly, I’m not thirsty anymore, and I can just drink the glass I’ve already poured if my throat tells me any differently later because I know she won’t touch it. I glance at the time on her wristwatch. It’s the same watch she’s worn for years because it’s the only one that seems to fit those delicate wrists of hers. It has her name engraved under the clasp.
Maria. With the stress on the first syllable, not the second.
That’s how she instructed me to pronounce it when we shook hands for the first time in a subway car. She was asking for directions and somehow I made her laugh, and that’s all it took. I started spending much of my time making her laugh after that until somehow the sound of her laughter made it to her mother’s ears, and she did the thing that someone should have warned me about. Her family had me over for dinner and very politely made it clear that their daughter was going to marry an educated boy with a name like Ehsan or Mirza or even Jahanzeb. This meant that it was out of the question that she would spend her life holding the calloused hands of a carpenter boy with unfamiliar skin and the wrong name for God.
I say nothing and slice lemons for the iced tea I’ve been making. I pour her some and set it on the windowsill in front of her, silently insisting on something cold to drink. As I take my hand away from the glass, I think about how it wasn’t always like this. The spring used to be beautiful here. Our house would be teeming with flowers she picked from the garden, and I liked seeing it that way because it had never looked like that when I was a child. Growing up, I spent weekends in this blue clapboard house that we call our home now. My week was divided up by my separated parents, and this house is where I stayed with my father. He lived here alone and kept the place threadbare, and just when I thought it could not have grown any emptier, he died and left it desolate. It didn’t see any life again till we moved here and she lined all of the windowsills with planters that blossomed colours in the springtime.
It wasn’t always like this. There was a time when she would have caught my hand just breaking contact from that glass of iced tea and kissed the back of it where my knuckles are. I love you. Said like a secret to the gaps between my fingers – the only place that can hold her kind of love. With her love, you have to be unafraid of losing your grip on it, prepared to let it fall away, but certain that it will never leave you. Her kind of love sinks itself into the crevices: the lines in your palms and the space behind your ears. Her love is in all of the places where you hold no power to hold it there, but I didn’t know that when I met her.
This is a short story that I finished recently. It’s a bit longer than what I usually post, so I’ll be bringing it to you in parts. I’d really love some feedback on this piece, so please tell me what you think!
She is seething. I can feel the anger rising from her skin like I can see the smoke rippling over the edge of her Japanese tea cup. The breeze from the window blows the steam backwards over the cup’s rim and stirs the otherwise limp hair on her head. She has a peculiar habit of drinking only hot liquids when the air begins to boil in the middle of summer. She says it helps her keep cool more than lemonade or iced tea.
“Why hasn’t it rained?” She asks without taking her eyes away from the view through the window.
I’ve heard her have this fight with the sky more than once. She’s still waiting at the end of May for the spring that never came in April when she had opened all our doors to welcome it. Instead we were greeted by summer in full force prematurely, and the weather has been only sun and sweat since. The disappointment has made her sore. I can see only the back of her head, but I don’t have to find her face to know that she has her eyebrows in a knot and her hands all balled up. Her fists are clenched as they rest on the arms of an old wooden chair that used to sit on our porch. She has the thinnest wrists I’ve ever seen, and I’m always surprised at the strong hands on the ends of them – hands that can make the kind of threatening fists that make me anxious.
I’m pretty terrible at picking favourites, and I’m bound to give a different answer to this question every time, but here’s what comes to mind right now (not ranked in order of preference because that would be too difficult):
-The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides
-Hunger by Lan Samantha Chang (novella)
-The Passion by Jeanette Winterson
-The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger (although I prefer his short stories, I couldn’t bear to leave this out)
-The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
-The Girls by Lori Lansens
-Beloved by Toni Morrison
-Mister God, This Is Anna by Sydney Hopkins (Fynn)
-As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner
-Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami
And a bonus:
-The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson (novella)
The streets smell like marijuana and metal cages. I am trying not to think of poultry hens crammed with their heads poking between bars. The thought of all of those white feathers in a cloudy mass turns me into a six year old girl in the backseat of my father’s car, asking how they kill the chickens so that we can eat them. And just as I would have in the back of that car, I cover my mouth and nose to keep from contact with questions I do not want the answers to.
Put me on like your greatcoat, Jack. Wear me like the missing second skin, like the shell casing that houses a bullet. Be my black pearl and I’ll be your oyster.
Rhyme for me the words I can’t pronounce. My mouth is as good as yours. I’ll be the puppet this time and you can be the voice inside its head.
I am the outer layer — dimensionless without you. I cut and paste myself into pictures. I am a collage, a messy tessellation that will lie flat anywhere unless you put me on. I swear the sleeves are long enough. Just give me a try.
I saw a girl in the underground train station with a bouquet of flowers who would not stop kissing her lover and I could not figure out if I was the girl or the flowers or all three. But I am more the kiss than anything else when you haven’t got me wrapped around you — in between people without ever having been there at all.
It was the summer when you had red in your hair, and your brother was off being trained at the military base. You used to write him letters and I would ask you to send him my love, but you said you would do nothing as archaic as that. I had read too many war novels to be able to help myself from romanticizing the thought of a young soldier at war. But there was no war, of course. And I knew enough to be ashamed of myself for thinking of him the way I did.
He brought us chocolates the only time he visited that summer. They were in square pink boxes with white ribbon holding them closed. You had teased him about how daintily they were tied even though he swore that the girl at the shop had done it for him. I was the one he had sent to his suitcase to get them, and I remember feeling a strange terror when I unzipped the bag. Suddenly I was privy to details he didn’t imagine I would care for. I took in how he folded his shirts and where he left the tickets for the trip back, trying to imagine the reasons behind these decisions.
Just having the chance to know how he packed his things would have been enough for me to daydream the summer away had it not been for the third box. Next to the two pink ones he had described to me, there was a black box in his suitcase. And the red ribbon around it said it all. I could feel that there was something much more heavy inside that box than anything in the other two without picking it up. Inside that little black box with its red ribbon was the proof that your brother was in love, just as the red in your hair was the hint that you soon would be too. And I would carry around that pink chocolate box all summer wishing for it to blossom red because my fourteen-year-old heart did not yet understand that the world cannot be read in symbols like a novel.
In China he is eating dinner in a restaurant that the Zagat Guide picked out for him, and I am here arranging shirts in his closet. Beijing is a light map glowing underneath the glass of the many screens I have seen it on. He sends a picture of the view from his hotel room every night. He likes to joke that the buildings are multiplying and asks me to track the sprouting skyline until he comes home.
I have never had the right mind for sorting things by colour or texture, so this is just an excuse to feel familiar fabric between my fingers — to feel it enough to convince myself that it is the skin underneath and not the cotton. This is what it’s like when he is a dot on another continent, like the black circles that mark capital cities in atlases, and I am the page number in the corner, counting the days till his return.
I dig receipts out of his shirt pockets and keep the ones that were printed when we were together: coke bottles from the convenience store on a Sunday two months ago, his mother’s favourite novel bought impulsively (and the wrapping paper that went along with it) in May, and band-aids from almost a year ago when I cut my ankle walking home barefoot after dancing in the park behind his high school.
Tomorrow, I will ask him if he remembers.
But tomorrow is now a word with its meaning stretched twelve hours apart, with him pulling on one end as I tug on the other — like sharing a blanket in the winter. And that is the thought that keeps him close like the body I know is there on the other side of the bed even when we do not touch.
His voice is like butter melting in a pan over the stove. It pours over a room like hot oil lacing a honeycomb, and you want to stand under it like you stand under a cold shower on a hot day. He falls over you like a good rhythm, drilled into your scalp and shoulder blades like heavy rain. And every time he speaks, he’s drawing you a golden bath. You can see your face in the bathtub shining back at you and the light is warm. Listen for a moment and he’ll have you dipped in the colour of leaves before they turn red. Then he’ll set you out to dry into a bronze figurine for the top of his bookshelf only to talk you into a puddle again.
Some people buy easy-chairs, Jack, but all I’ve got is you. I’m ringing the doorbell at your apartment again in every dream I have after midnight. I haven’t been sleeping at all, but I have been dreaming of you. You look good in the moonlight.
I don’t live in the house by the lake anymore. I think you are cross with me about moving to a well-lit street where you cannot pin your shadow to mine. I’ll have someone stitch them together like in Peter Pan, and then you can haunt my step forever.
Are you spending your summer in Neverland? I cannot tell from the postcard. You burned the first side black and left the other blank.
The boy who sings happy birthday at your party is never the one who stays till all the balloons are breathless and crawling along the floor. He is never the one you’re in love with, and always the one you wish you had — had like a string of pearls in a box on the shelf in your closet.
The person who waits to watch the city lights relinquish their glow to the sun rising outside your window is exactly who you expect. An old friend, a cemented lover, someone you cannot shake. He bows his head to another year of you.
But you wanted a raised glass like the one in the hands of your birthday singer. It’s someone different every year, and exciting only because of his newness. He fills the night with possibility because he has no pages that he has worn out with you. He tells only unheard stories and has never seen you wear the same outfit twice.
Passing entertainment seems always better than satisfaction amidst birthday candles. The cake is iced evenly from one side to the next, so the chaos has to be in the cutting. The years will play out on repeat from one end to the next, so the chaos has to be in the interruptions — like the chiming of cutlery against drinking glasses when you are mid-sentence just before he sings you happy birthday.