There is nothing in the world quite as cold as death, she thinks. Ice crackles, current tugs, life peters to a trickle in her veins. She is freezing, she is suffering and shivering and resigned, and soon she will be no more. Turns out, there is nothing in the world quite as cold as returning from death’s embrace.
In and of
You flex your fingers around the hilt of the blade, cuticles encrusted with rust red and nails rimmed dark, and stab down. Once, twice, again and again. Blood spatters and tendons loosen and fiber rips and it’s still not enough, never will be enough. Metal squelches against raw flesh, the squeal of a brutalized animal, torn apart by unflinching hands. Metal shudders against bone, a vibration that peals down your arm like a morbid church bell. Metal cuts deep and dives deeper and doesn’t relinquish its hold.
You force your fingers to drop the blade, leaving it embedded in the chunk of muscle that continues its steady thumps, like nothing has happened. You force yourself to take a step back and wipe your hands off on the fabric of your jeans. You force yourself to squeeze your eyes shut so hard that electricity flashes behind your lids like demonic fireflies, like UFOs in the dead of night, like a million tunnels leading to a million lights that you’ll never reach. You force yourself to look away from the figure in the mirror, the one who dares to stand there unscathed and unharmed, pale and drawn and creased and still very much alive.
You can’t, because then they’ll know. They’ll know, and then they’ll judge, and then they’ll hate you,
The way you hate yourself.
You can’t, because you’re a coward and you can’t face the consequences of your actions when the jury isn’t yourself.
You can’t, because you deserve the punishment but no one knows to inflict it upon you, the guilty, but you, the enemy run free.
Paris is most beautiful at its most extraordinary; drenched in sunrise or shrouded in fog, or today, when dusted with snow that falls from the sky like powdered sugar through a sifter. From sugar-whipped clouds the flakes fall, each no bigger than the tip of a finger or the ballpoint of a pen, disappearing into the ground as individuals but coating the cobblestone in a frosting of white together.
No one is out, not when the lovers of this city of love prefer more mild weathers, served with healthy dosages of sun and warmth, but I am. I’ve made it a point to catch Paris at its most unexpected, its most vulnerable.
I’ve been here so long that I’ve glimpsed this city from most angle of its kaleidoscopic binoculars; it’s the exotic aunt, fluttering lashes behind feathered fans and then turning around to drown in liquor, it’s the quiet girl next door, subtly beautiful and charmingly quirky, it’s the deviant behind the bar, trifling coins from pockets and lighting cigars just to watch the smoke curl into the air. I’m certain there are still corners and crannies that even I have not yet found. Paris doesn’t want to be known.
And truth be told?
Neither do its occupants.
I think of you when it rains.
I think of the third time I called you
And the first time you confessed to me,
That you didn’t call people often.
I felt honored,
A little bit hopeful.
I think of the way you’d fill all the awkward silences with comments about the rain,
As if rain doesn’t chance upon our town as often as it does.
You would murmur about the weather,
And even through the static
And the tip-tap of watery drops,
I could hear your love for the rain.
And for that,
I loved the rain a little bit more
Than I ever knew I could.
Tonight, I think of you
Even while your voice isn’t on the other end of the line.
It’s raining again tonight,
And I can’t help but wonder
If you think of me too.
Fight or Flight or Freeze
What do you do when you are faced with a bear?
When you stumble and trip and scrape your knee, when you look up after a few muttered curses directly into the dark, fathomless eyes of a wildlands creature, close enough that its sweetgrass smell tickles the hais within nose, close enough that you fear it will sneeze on you if your breathe too heavily, what do you do?
For some, the answer is flight. Some will bite back a scream, hunch their shoulders forwards as if warding against some invisible chill, drop eye contact as if participating in an awkward blind date, and carefully inch backwards. When the space between them and the bear has been deemed far enough, they will carefully rise. First, onto their knees, and then onto their feet. Watching, waiting, terrified. When the bear tilts his head, ever so slightly to the side, and for just a second, it seems as if this wild creature is asking you what you are doing out here, so far from where you belong, they will bolt. They will leave behind the bag they’d brought out into the wilderness, filled with dried berries and nuts and granola, and they will run for their lives. Some will chance one last glimpse at their perilous brush with the unknown and loosen in relief. Some will never look back.
For others, the answer is fight. Perhaps it is the proximity with a beast so native and unchained, or perhaps it is simply the way they are, but instinct will take over and they will lash out. A fist will fly, a knee will jerk. Delicate human skin connecting with thick brown fur. It’s fruitless, stupid, irresponsible. But it’s the only way they know how to interact with their environment. In the presence of fear, they deny the fear so entirely they forget it, and they attack, instead. A muffled shout, a desperate gambit, an impossible stand. They won’t know when to stop. They will keep throwing themselves into near-inevitable doom, with only pure brawn and primal instinct and ragged shreds of hope to hold them aloft.
Then, there are those who will freeze. While their minds race and adrenaline streams through their bloodstream in acidic plumes, their bodies will forgo all direction and lock up. Fear knows no superior. The bear will stare them down, will blink once and then twice, and they will sit there, knee bleeding freely now, as they look their fate directly in the eyes and play no part in its unravelling. They will accept the outcome handed to them, rather than march into the kitchen and declare themselves chef. They will exist, and be, and remain.
But what of the bear? You can choose any action you wish, any prayer you know, any Boy Scout trick you remember, but ultimately, the bear gets a turn, too.
So here’s another question.
What will the bear do when faced with you?
Center of the Universe
I suppose it shouldn’t surprise me that out of every city in the world (this world, that is), it’s New York City that overlaps. I still haven’t quite figured out why. I’ve wandered the streets of windy Chicago, strolled along the spotless streets of Shanghai, shielded my eyes from the chill of London rain, but those cities rest solely in our world. This world. The one that you and I reside in and call him, the one that you think is the only one.
You’re wrong, by the way. Not that I have the greatest frame of reference- points of overlap between our world and that one are few and far between- but if you could see the Big Apple, the Center of the Universe, the City that Never Sleeps through my eyes, you would understand.
You see, New York City, the version that you can see, is crowded enough as it is. You can’t walk five feet without nearly crashing into another human being, and just try making it another five without having to dodge a tourist excitedly holding up a camera. There’s people everywhere. People filling up every spare inch of the place. People drawn here to this hubbub of character and life and cultural interchange and the best damn pizza in the world.
Now, what if I were to tell you that there are even more people in NYC than you think? It’s hard to tell, but there’s a teenage girl standing in between that infatuated couple right over there, their interlaced hands poking through her rib cage as she licks a lollipop and mutters into a headset. And to your three o’ clock, that circle of children sitting on the ground, rolling spiky silver balls between their hands and moving their lips to the lyrics of a song I can’t hear either, all while men in business suits and hotdog costumes alike walk straight through them. And to your immediate right, see that woman in her tin foil dress as she storms through a mob of college kids laughing over coffee? Of course you don’t.
These people, the ones you don’t see, they’re here but they’re not.
They’re in New York City, but they’re not.
They exist, but they don’t.
Not in our world. Not in our dimension.
But somewhere out there, there’s another New York City, much like ours, filled with people just like ours. Somewhere out there, there’s another world filled with cities like Chicago and Shanghai and London, but not, that overlaps with ours right here. Right in New York City.
Right in the Center of the Universe.
You Killed Her
1: You killed her because you loved her.
You killed her because every time the skin around her eyes crinkled and her chin tilted up, you felt your heart skip a beat like a faulty break, and you feared that you would crash and burn unless you fixed it. You killed her because talking to her into the early hours of the morning muddled your mind and your senses and your sense of self and even in the rejuvenating brights of morning, you couldn’t disengantle your thoughts from the poetry of her voice. You killed her because she allowed you into the stained glass cavern of her mind and you saw her for all she was, each piece spectacular and unique and too good for someone like you.
2: You killed her because you hated her.
You killed her because everytime she introduced you to one of her friends, they would look you up and down with pursed lips and sucked in cheeks and disdainful brows, and she would leave you for them even though she’d seen their responses to you. You killed her because she tried too often and too hard to fix you, your hair and your clothes and your mannerisms, as if you were her good deed. You killed her because she didn't want to meet your parents and danced around your questions and blew you a kiss before slipping out the door in a breeze of rose.
3: You killed her because you were told to.
You killed her because when the email arrived and the order was set, you closed your eyes and mouthed a prayer and let your mind wander to all the possibilities and let yourself think about the future and yourself, for once. You killed her because the incentive was enough. You killed her because you had been told and you didn’t disobey orders.
Two truths, one lie.
Which is which?
Do you hear them? That faint laughter, like the burble of water over rocks. That beckoning whisper, like the rustle of leaves as the slightest wind stirs them into an improvised dance. That conspiratorial murmur, like the coo of a mother bird.
Take a step - careful - watch where you put your weight. You’ll scare them away if you breathe too loudly. They are scared of you, you see. You aren’t like them and they aren’t like you. Here - try inhaling through your nose, exhaling through your mouth, expanding your chest with each breath like you are allowing the world a brief moment of respite in the warmth of your ribcage. Breathe as if you were standing in the roiling stomach of a blue whale, as if the slightest dissonance in your lungs is enough to dash you away in a whirlpool of half-eaten fishes and ocean salt.
Now, listen. Listen as if you are not you, but one with that bubble of laughter, that whispered sigh, that lilted murmur.
Now, look. Look as if your eyes were made of glass and your eyelids gauze and your eyelashes ferns. Search for the glyphs in the dapplings of sunlight. Seek out the murals of tattooed history inked into the worn skin of the oak trees. Gaze into the shallow puddle of dew at your feet, and do not look away, even when a ripple paddles through its glassy surface, even as the woods remain still around you.
Now inhale and exhale. Allow the musk of the forest to fall away. Allow the delicate, probing hairs inside your nose to pursue that wisp of perfume beneath the cloying veil of woods. Do you smell that? The rich mushroom stew. The airy buttery croissant. The tang of salt and iron and fire in a pheasant’s leg.
Now, stop listening and looking and sniffing. Just wait. Keep your ears and eyes and nose open, flex your fingers to remind yourself that you haven’t fallen away into the ether between worlds, and wait.
And if you are lucky, if you are patient, if you are willing to believe the senses that lie beyond your five physical biases, perhaps they will allow you a glimpse of them and theirs.
but it kind of is
“It’s not like this is goodbye,” she says, pulling away from me at last. “I’ll be back to visit you and my family and everyone. And hey,” she continues, a chirrup in her voice, “Maybe you can come visit me too.”
“Maybe I can,” I say back, forcing my best smile to match hers. I guess a lifetime of ballet lessons and plastic smiles through bruised tones and sprained ankles and scalp-tearing buns has its positives, because she doesn’t notice anything amiss as she scans the flight arrival screen above our heads. “I’ll still miss you though.”
“Aww,” she says, but her gaze is still stuck skywards. “I’ll miss you too. Promise you’ll text me?”
“I promise-” I begin to say, but then her eyes light up and her phone buzzes at the exact same time, and my heart sinks down into my toes like a paper boat going under.
“That’s me,” she squeals, before scooping me up in one last tight hug and stepping away. “Well, I’ll see ya.”
“See ya,” I murmur, but she’s already gone. Her suitcase wobbles on one wheel, nearly sending the whole pink ordeal crashing down onto the polished airport floors, but she doesn’t notice. Her eyes are on the security terminal up ahead, and her mind is already aboard the plane.
I watch her until I can’t see her head bobbing through the crowd anymore. Even after she’s gone, swept up by the bustle of passengers on their way to their next great adventure, I strain my eyes in her direction, hoping for just one last glimpse.
She may say it’s not goodbye, and we probably will see one another again, when she comes back to celebrate Thanksgiving or Hanukkah with her family, but I know without a doubt that this is our last real goodbye. That after today, every other goodbye will be a half-hearted echo of the days when we were best friends and platonic soul mates, blotted out by the saturated future she’s left me to chase.
and I wish I had
We were six the first time I realized how good you were at jump-rope. While I struggled to get even one good hop in before hopelessly entangling the rope in my legs, you would swing it back and forth and side to side, your feet drumming an even beat into the pavement. I’d laugh and yell, “faster, faster,” sure that you would trip if you went any faster, wanting to see you land in a sprawl on the ground like I’d done so many times, but you would oblige with a smile and go faster, faster. You never faltered, never hesitated, never even got tired, it seemed.
By the time you got sick of skipping rope and I got sick of counting and the sun was getting sick of the both of us, our parents were yelling at us to leave.
You looked at me then, smiling through crooked teeth and a smattering of dust freckles.
I should’ve kissed you then, but I didn’t.
We were nine years old the first time you defended my honor to a roomful of judgmental kids. I’d been drawing one of my many imaginary friends, a hybrid tiger-peacock I’d fondly named Fancy, and you had been spurting off fun facts about tigers and peacocks without specifying which fact matched up to which animal when we were approached by a pack of hyenas.
By “we”, I mean me. They always left you alone. And by “pack of hyenas”, I mean the group of purple-clad K’s in our fourth-grade class, each one named the same name but spelled differently. One of them- Kaylee- poked fun at the tiger half of Fancy, the other- Kalie- at the peacock half of Fancy. The tallest girl- Kaely- promptly plucked my drawing away from me, and ripped it right in half. The shredding sound of paper echoed in my ears like a bad dream.
But while I sat there, frozen to the ground and a gentle poke away from bursting into tears, you had no such reservations. The first time you defended my honor was also the first time you punched three girls in the face in the span of a minute.
You were my hero in shining armor, a knight sworn to protect me and my menagerie of imaginary friends.
I should’ve kissed you then, but I didn’t.
We were twelve the first time you told me I was pretty.
You didn’t mean to say it, I don’t think, but it came out anyway while we were having lunch with friends. They were all in the lunch line, waiting with plastic trays for a scoop of Wednesday pasta and a cup of sherbet, but you were allergic to nearly everything our cafeteria had to offer and my mom was on a vegan diet at the time, which meant I was on a vegan diet at the time, so it was just the two of us.
Sitting at our usual lunch spot, your leg pressed against mine as you threw a grape in the air and I leaned forward to catch it in my mouth. Bless grapes for being vegan-friendly, because the meal my mom prepared for me looked like rabbit-food.
I missed the grape. It bounced off the tip of my nose and I watched as it rolled underneath a neighboring table, just barely avoiding a tragic end at the basketball soles of a boy in our grade. When I looked away, sighing a breath of relief for our fallen grape friend, soiled but nevertheless defiant of death, you were looking at me.
“Is there corn stuck in my teeth?” I’d asked with a laugh.
You didn’t look away, like other boys our age would have. Instead, “you’re really pretty,” slipped out like the last line of a poem told over a campfire.
I should’ve kissed you then, but I didn’t.
We were fifteen the first time you told me you loved me.
This time, I think you did actually mean to say it, but I didn’t respond the way I should have. I never seem to do the right thing when it comes to you, do I?
It was in the middle of summer, on the longest day of the year, when the sun didn't go to bed until nine and we refused to part until even later. We’d just spent the last of my birthday money on milkshakes from Mike’s, and after exchanging a few too many awkward pleasantries with other kids in our grade, loitering around Mike’s blue benches, we went for a walk.
We ended up, as we so often did that summer and many afterwards, at the edge of the rolling golf greens of that rich neighborhood a few blocks from your house, where you worked every weekend. When you told me your job was to make small talk with senior citizens, compliment their skills in a way that made them feel like they actually had skill, and flash at least ten thumbs-ups per minute, I laughed at you. Then, I’d shown up once, as a Girl Scout volunteer, and witnessed you hard at work. I don’t remember ever laughing that hard.
But that day, after I’d slurped down the last of my strawberry milkshake and you’d finished your chocolate one as if you had all the time in the world, you’d turned to me. Your eyes were uncharacteristically serious, and I knew exactly what you were going to say before you even said it. And still, despite my foresight, I couldn’t come up with a good way to respond.
“I love you,” you said. Your cheeks were flushed, red as the eavesdropping sun.
I was red too, redder than you, redder than the sun. But I didn’t know how to be transparent like you. I think I was too scared to.
“Aww, you dork,” I said, and pushed your face away. I was laughing, forced, but you were too embarrassed to notice. Your skin was warm underneath my fingers, and I wish I had been brave enough to keep my hand there.
When you leaned back against your arms, eyes studiously directed away from me, I swallowed a lump in my throat and jumped into another anecdote about the new pup next door, heart straining every time I came upon a spot in my story where you should have laughed, or teased me, or smiled, but didn’t.
I should’ve kissed you then, but I didn’t.
We were eighteen the last time I hugged you.
It was the last day we would both live in the same neighborhood, mere minutes away from each other physically, mere seconds away from each other in every other way that mattered. You were leaving for the east coast, to start a whole new life. I think a part of me knew that today would be my last chance.
You finished stacking the last of your boxes in your mom’s silver minivan while I clapped the dust from my hands, making some inane joke. Your parents were still inside, weeping not-so-discreetly about the departure of their eldest child before your ten-hour road trip even began, as I had come to expect of Meghan and Bob.
“So that’s it, huh?” You said. I could have sworn there were tears in your eyes.
“I guess it is.”
“Well, I’ll miss you.”
“I’ll miss you too,” I said. “So, so much. You’ll visit?”
“Of course I will,” you smiled. “But you have to come visit me, too. You’d love it in Vermont.”
“I’d love it better if you stayed in state,” I said, but of course I didn’t mean it. You were in love with Vermont, and I’d come to accept that we’d part ways after high school. I just didn’t expect the day would come so soon. “I love you,” I said.
“I-” you began, but didn’t finish before you pulled me into a hug. You smelled like sweat and citrus, and I still wish you had finished that sentence. You were warm and comfortable and felt like home, and I wished you would never let go.
But you did. And when you did, I looked at you and I thought about all the things I could say to keep you tethered to me forever. “I’m in love with you.” “You’re my best friend in the whole world and I couldn’t live without you.” “I want to be with you, and not just as friends.”
I could tell from the way your eyes searched from my eyes that you wanted me to put my thoughts into words, into a physical reason for us to stay together. But I didn’t. And you didn’t prod. And then once Meghan and Bob stepped out of the house to gather you up and spirit you away into adulthood, you were gone.
I should’ve kissed you then, but I didn’t. I should have kissed you. I should have.
And now I’m here, done up in my nicest dress and my shiniest pearls and my most expensive pair of shoes.
And there you are, your suit pressed to perfection, your tie neatly knotted, your watch gleaming against your wrist. There you are, marrying a woman you introduced to me few months ago over FaceTime, saying your vows and promising the rest of your life, in sickness and in health, to someone who has known you for a third of the time I have.
I should’ve kissed you.
I wish I had kissed you.