My mother emails me a study on the correlation between rain and depression. I email back and promise to be alert, hand over heart. I stay wary of it. I kill every cloud I see. In winter a storm lets itself in anyways, petulant, sticking to the roof of my mouth for nights on nights, wet hair permanently plastered to my forehead.
I dream about the girl in my Chinese class, how she looks at me, like autopsy. Picture her fingers coiling around a pencil. The armature of her frame, an unspoken spine, a cross necklace. Picture me picturing this.
It is 80 degrees and the girl comes to class wearing shorts and a knit beanie. If my mouth could ever open I’d tell her what a stupid outfit that is. So stupid. I tamp down the urge to scream at the coexistence of shorts and knit beanies, at the body’s inconsistencies, at how my vocabulary recently just consists of the word “but.” Example: but no one knows, but there is nothing to know.
Later, I catch my reflection in the bathroom mirror and mistake myself for my mother. Roadside, paralyzed. I google if you are allowed to wear beanies with shorts and bite my tongue as the buffering icon stutters – give me a plain yes, a sincere no, and tell it with a poker face, spin it like a myth, like the one about the garden and the girl and the original sin of being human. And us, aching and alive.
A few weeks later, the sky is warning-red (a sign of wildfire) and distorted with the weight of so many birds. The wind, all spring and metal, sours my skin green. On the parking lot
curb next to me, the girl is hunched over a calculus worksheet, head folded into her elbows, a rainbow ribbon pinned to her slouched tote bag.
“Hi,” I say, and lean in, plucking the pencil out of her hand to attempt the problem, a move I hope looks supremely cool. Her fingers soften automatically like something unblooming. “Hey.” She peers at my work. “Sorry, I think that’s wrong,” she says, sounding genuinely sorry.
“Oh shit, sorry.”
“No, sorry, it’s good,” she tells me. I am struck by a memory of my mother, standing before the oven, mitt-less, horrified at the smoke, saying sorry, sorry, sorry to no one. Wrestling with the mitts, then lurching forward into the graveyard of our dinner. How she scraped the blackened baked pasta into the garbage. Mostly, I am struck by the way she would say sorry; never once, never in Mandarin, always a flood of apology, an exorcism of all bad, failed things.
In the silence, she stretches, and I watch her limbs unfurl towards the sun. The sky, mimicking her yawn with its blue mouth. How permanent she is, how unending: knob after knob of spine. I wish I was her. I wish I was hers.
White flowers fall in blazes, and it would be romantic if they didn’t smell like fish: like us, the flowers are perfect, terrible, cosmically small.
“Can you tell me something? About you?” I say, though I already know everything there is to know: the headache of wind in my teeth, her hair. That familiar geology of comfort. The empty parking lot, like a beach at low tide. Tomorrow it’ll be choking with cars. “Okay,” she says. “Okay, only if you do too.”
I forget what I say next. It’s probably not special but she laughs, volcanically. Sometimes she is a category of natural disaster. How many bones there must be on the ocean floor.
She opens her mouth and presses it shut again, smaller.
“What is it?”
“Nothing, I think.” She clears her throat. “Okay, but one thing. ”
“I don’t know, I don’t think I believe in God.” Each syllable is soft, bruise-like. Enough mythology in her voice for a life.
Last week, in the city, there was a Christian band playing under the dome in Golden Gate Park. We had stopped for the free donut holes and stayed for the pastor/guitar player, who waved a pride flag and spoke into the wounds of the audience and told us, You are my beloved children. The guitar sounded like a reckoning, like something primal, screaming. We held our heads high
and let the sound engulf us.
“Oh.” My instinct is to say I’m sorry, a response to the nebulous sympathy for something ruined, like the strawberries that went bad last month, how I followed the smell and discovered them in a cabinet one day, slick with rot. Apology for apology. If only it was as easy. If only the stench hadn’t stayed. Instead, I say, “Have you told your mom?”
“No, I mean, I might. It’s just funny, like, one day he was here, and then the next day he fucked off,” she says.
I wonder why there is no such thing as a declaration of loss, which is to say I wonder how you realize strangerhood, which is to say I wonder how the empire of the heart talks about succession. In order to prepare I need to know if it is ever soft.
I say, “I’m sorry. Did you, er, did something happen?” There it is, the sorry like a spore. Like an infestation that might, eventually, spread into everything unsaid.
About the strawberries: I almost didn’t move them. How could I, when they were so undemanding, cocooned in that gauzy whiteness, mouths still warm and sticky. “Nah, not really. I was a little tired of everything, you know?”
I do. I say, “Yeah,” and offer a small smile, thinking of how the pink guts, amid the trash can sludge, looked like lips.
Let me tell you a story. Once upon a time there was a girl who looked good in a suit. Once upon a time the language I spoke was my mother’s shame.
Let me start again. My favorite word is blue-ing because you could mistake it for bloom-ing, booming, bruising. You’d walk right into a room of it and never know. The same way you’d walk into an impending winter: body first, god-less, all knees and wilderness.
As the sun sets, all the ghosts crawl out of the parking lot stripes, grasping at the solar paneled sky, the gusts of white flowers, what’s left of day on our blue-ing bodies. We ignore them, shrug off their pale hands. We eat and eat out of her magically replenishing tote bag. We hold the torch like it weighs nothing. In the land of the living, we do, and do, and do.
Mackenzie Duan is a high schooler from the Bay. Her writing has been recognized by the Alliance for Young Artists & Writers and she serves as an editor for Polyphony Lit.