Sadness, like your foot falling asleep: it happens so quickly and when you’re not paying attention, and you’re sure you can reverse it by making loud noises or moving around, shaking and twisting and dancing wildly.
Sadness, like the train you’re running to catch and think you’ll make—right up until the instant it passes you by.
CCCXXX. may flowers
Sunlight returns from its winter in Palm Springs on a Saturday afternoon. By Monday, we have traded wool coats for strange tan lines and strapless dresses. I see my first violets on Tuesday morning and reflexively pick them from the earth, then spend an hour feeling guilty.
“I stole them from nature,” I tell a boy on the bus, and he offers “put them in your hair,” but that feels precious, precious in a way that’s never fit me, like a dress with the waistline three inches too high. Sweetness as a side effect has always embarrassed me; I prefer loud and aggressively sentimental.
The mysteries of the universe lie not in tides but in wedding rings on strangers. The moon controls the tides, the water cycles purposefully, the rhythms never change. How the fuck do people find each other? How did you find me?
Carl Sagan set the contents of our planet free and then fell in love. I wonder which he considered his greatest achievement. I’m afraid of whales and I think the ocean is too large. I cry when anyone mentions Auschwitz. The universe of things I don’t understand is comically vast, but I’ve seen Chicago at least thirty times and I think you might not mind that.
Everything I write now is a love letter I’m too embarrassed to send. One day I’ll press them into your skin, set them free against the crook of your neck. They’re yours, after all, no matter how much I blush when I offer them over.
“I’m not one for writing love poetry,”
but I’d let you put violets in my hair.
CCCXXVIII. for my brother, who does not have cancer
the human body is resilient; in 1997 i slapped you in our living room, your chubby cheek reddening from the force, and i hated the tears in your eyes — blameless. i wanted you to fight back.
i didn’t know i’d one day come across you sleeping, too-long legs slung over the end of the couch, and that i’d stand there, in awe of the stubble along your jaw, and wonder if the skin there remembers the red mark that bloomed beneath my palm.
i am sorry that i disappeared without knowing yet what it meant to be your sister. you’ve understood love the way a body knows to breathe; spilling it over everyone you met, offering to great aunts that same cheek for red lipstick roses where i could only flinch out of their reach.
it took me longer; you have legs too long for the couch, and you could flinch out of my reach, and sometimes you do and that’s okay because i like to think i’d step in front of a moving bus, a bullet, but sometimes i screen our mother’s calls from two hundred miles away, despite knowing that you will have to hold what i refuse to take.
so this is my promise:
i will take her calls
i will plan the funerals
i will always come when you call
and i will always love you
without provisions, without qualifications,
just the way you taught me
i used to know how to talk about my father.
now instead, i sit quietly and imagine that i can put my hands on my brother’s face, kiss his forehead, watch him be okay. but he’s too tall to reach and he flinches from my gaze.
and he is not okay, probably.
(there’s something inherently selfish about thinking that simplicity, that the ease of waking up on a threadsun morning and turning your face to the window, could be what leads to happiness. no, happiness is already there, waiting.
there’s something inherently selfish, too, about being 200 miles away from sadness. but we don’t think about that.)
the first words ever spoken on a telephone were “come here—I want to see you”, and that’s all we’ve said since. alexander graham bell knew: there is no substitute for touch.
i won’t call.
CCCIX. missing persons
“I am afraid that when this is all over, I won’t remember what it felt like, or what my seat looked like, or what it was to live in the city on the eleventh day of October.”
Instead there are habits I’ve picked up that I can’t recall developing, like tying the ends of my hair into knots, and running my hands over each other again and again and again and -
you, slipping away while my head was turned.
An uncle once told me that the hardest part of saying goodbye to his dying wife was knowing that he wouldn’t see her again.
“I believe in heaven,” he said, “and I believe that she’ll go there. But I won’t.”
I am not here to talk about sadness. This story reminds me of you; I can’t shake the feeling that, cigarette in one hand, the other closing around my wrist, you’d understand.
We haven’t found a word yet, have we, for the way the light reflects off of the wet street after dark on a rainy-cold fall night. For waiting at a bus stop and knowing that home is warm and well-lit and waiting, that voices will call to you from open doors, how was your day?, and care to hear the answer.
The last year of my life has been about making plans, then saying, “fuck it,” and taking an abrupt left turn. And it’s been fine, it’s been great, it’s been absolutely batshit crazy wonderful, only—only you can only go without a map for so long before you hit an ocean, and it might not be the one you were looking for.
“The way the math works out, I’m only halfway done,” I say to her, and she laughs at me.
“Do you remember, when you were a math major, you came home one day and told us you’d learned in class that there were multiple infinities. Infinities come in different sizes, different shapes, you can add them together or multiply them and get another infinity.”
“So what the math works out to doesn’t really mean anything. Don’t count the days. You’ll be back soon.”
Home is warm and well-lit and waiting.
Deja vu — like your mother scolding you, holding a vase you didn’t wash. Like looking out the window of a moving car at a rusting water tower and wondering whether the water inside’s gone red. These are things I can shake off.
But there are days that I could feel moving as they happened, sliding into the black hole of time before I’d even woken up. Watching an old movie, sock feet tucked against the arm of the couch, head in your lap. “It gets dark out so quickly this time of year.” You sliding a hand into my hair without looking, softly and habitually.
I walk around now holding onto the fear that the light will catch a store window at a certain angle, and I’ll feel your palm warm against my cheek, and the loss of that will bring me to my knees at the corner of Michigan and Grand.
Some things we can’t repeat.
CCLXXXVII. oh you had to rush, didn’t you
I don’t cry on buses, anymore. Mornings I read quietly and let myself be warm, let myself be awake, let myself be alive. Evenings I read quietly and wonder if the mother across from me is worried about me, or if I’ve fooled us both into thinking I’ve got something figured out.
The universe is playing me a love song. Or the universe is playing me elevator music, and I’m misinterpreting. It doesn’t matter.
I don’t know how to dance, but I would learn to for you.
On the broad back of a chimera, the summons come, between the wings of a snout-nosed dragon, in the claws of a great beast. It breathes fire. It snaps great teeth and lets loose a terrifying growl.
Whatever it is, it is wearing a golden badge, and it calls my mother, who is wearing an apron, ma’am.
Oh no, we will tell the judge. We couldn’t read the notice, you see, because it’d been burnt to char-black coils. We didn’t even recognize what it was.
In what should be a poignant coincidence, I spend the day cleaning out my closet, unpacking bags of mismatched shoes that haven’t been touched since I graduated high school on a hot June morning. I replace the bags with cardboard boxes, like a sacrifice to the deity of dust. My mother pauses sadly in the doorway like she wants to know why I bothered. She’s drinking a Diet Coke, and she apologizes for the vice. I’ve never wanted a cigarette more.
The minotaur on the front stoop brings the whole house crumbling down, then walks away, and later we’ll only mention how he was so, so polite.
“What about the cat?”
“You can visit him at your father’s apartment, can’t you?”
When I was young, we’d play a game where he’d dare me to tug at his hair, and I’d refuse, and he’d dare me again, and I’d tug lightly, then harder, and harder yet. I didn’t want to hurt him, and he’d promise that I couldn’t.
These are the things we do to feel better: We drink things that fizz. We take showers. We take pills. We sit quietly at kitchen tables early in the morning and wait for things to get easy enough to consider leaving the apartment.
It’s silly, but I am angry at you both. I am angry that you both have turned me into every character from every indie movie, the disillusioned college student who comes home on break to find that the plates have moved cupboards and the sheets have changed color.
We wear sweaters, we write stories. We do not make phone calls that we know will not be answered.
I haven’t slept in six days.