Her shoe tapped to an invisible rhythm. I looked to see if she had earbuds in. You know, trying to look without making it obvious you’re trying to look. Five silver hoops piercing her left ear, one thin barbell. No earbuds. The music was locked away inside her.
She held a worn volume in her hands. The spine was ragged, pages taped desperately together with the cover torn away. I wanted to lean in and ask her what the book was. Ask her why it made it her smile. Ask her how she could concentrate under the harsh neon lights. Ask her where she found her peace.
I kept quiet. This was not the place to make small talk with a pretty stranger.
The plastic of my chair made me rock from one ass cheek to the other. I wondered why I never brought a book with me. These things always take longer than you expect.
I wondered why the waiting room always smelled so sickly clean.
On the bus ride home, I watched the rain streak like tears down the window. Cars with bright daytime headlights honked and splashed water at one another. The bus creaked with every turn.
“Hey,” said a voice. It was the girl from the waiting room, sitting across from me. She leaned in like we had a secret. “How’d it go?”
“Oh, you know.” I shrugged. “I can’t understand a fucking word that doctor says.”
She laughed. A big laugh where she squeezed her eyes shut and sucked in breath and let it out in short gasps. I could see all her teeth. Other passengers eyed us like we were crazy people.
“There is evidence of increased central lucency, consistent with central necrosis,” I repeated.
“What does that mean?” she said and wiped her eyes.
“I have no idea,” I said. She laughed again and I couldn’t help but laugh with her.
There was glitter on his hands.
“I should punch you in the mouth,” I said. I didn’t know if he would hear me. Television. 3 am. Beer.
Outside rain hit the pavement with a hiss.
“Oh, yeah?” he said. He had beautiful, big eyes. He aimed them at me, but they didn’t quite focus.
“Yeah,” I said. I took a swig of my beer. “Yeah, I should beat you senseless.”
“Yeah?” he said. He let his head loll back against the couch. Those big eyes closed. The couch was the color of puke.
“Yeah. I’ll drag you into that bedroom and I’ll swat your ass til it’s red and covered in welts.”
He shook his head lazily from side to side.
“Why do you want to cover me in welts?” He was having trouble focusing. “There are much better things we could do in the bedroom.”
“It’s my fetish,” I told him.
“Yeah?” he said. I don’t think any of the conversation was registering in his brain.
“And you couldn’t do anything else in that bedroom right now,” I said.
“Probably,” he said. He scratched at his crotch with one hand. The glitter around his fingernails shimmered.
“So who is she?” I asked. I finished my beer and set it on the floor. I slid my foot up his leg and kicked his hand out of the way. I could feel his dick through his jeans, through his boxers. I nudged it with my toes. “Some little slut?”
“Yeah,” he whispered. “Some little slut.”
“Oh?” I ground my heel into his thigh. “And do you like to bone?”
His big eyes opened. He looked around and squinted at the light. I couldn’t tell whether he recognized the place. The television was on too loud so we could hear it over the rain. I wasn’t paying attention to the television. I was thinking about that first night when he held my hand under the table at the diner. Like we were sharing a secret.
“We should go to bed,” he said.
“Yeah,” I said.
He fixed his gaze on me, trying to keep his eyelids up. “I like you,” he said.
“Yeah?” I said.
He closed his eyes. The floor was littered with empty bottles. I turned off the TV. I didn’t know how much I’d remember in the morning.
“Bill,” I said. He made a noise, but I’m sure he was asleep. “I like the magical moments better than the sober ones.”
Rose was slowly taking shape on the canvas. She had a chin, but no nose. She had breasts, but no nipples. She had ears, but they were too, too delicate- mere nubs of color. She had hands and she had fingers, which were splayed like bursts of paint. Her neck had the right arch. Her body the correct line. Her skin its true hue.
Eric’s water was muddy with color. His wine glass was nearly empty. There was red paint smeared on his jeans.
“It’s looking good,” he said, tracing the shadow along Rose’s inner thigh.
“What?” asked Rose- the real Rose, who shifted in her seat and looked up from her text book. “Is it ready?”
“It needs more detail,” said Eric.
“Are you going to finish it?” asked Rose.
“Probably not tonight,” said Eric.
She stood and stretched- balanced on her tip toes, her arms wide, her mouth contorting in a yawn. Eric shaded and her hips had form. Rose pressed herself against his side. Her body was warm against him.
“She doesn’t have eyes or a mouth,” said Rose.
“I’ll get to them,” said Eric.
“It’s like she’s made of glass,” said Rose.
Eric set down the brush and wrapped his arms around her. She reached out her hand and carressed the painting’s face, catching the wet colors on the pads of her fingers.
“Any first impressions?” asked Eric. He pressed his lips against the bony part of her shoulder.
Rose was silent. She shrugged and pulled away. She stepped lightly across the room and poured herself a glass of wine. Eventually, she said, “You have such primitive tools.”
“You’re melodramatic,” he said.
“You’re melodramatic,” she said.
“You’re my muse,” he said.
“Don’t call me that,” she said and took a chug of her wine. Eric continued to paint his way along Rose’s ribs. “Such fucking primitive tools.”
Starlings-1 by magnetisch
On Monday, walking to school, a boy Abra didn’t know approached her and complimented her tattoos. She needed to look down to check what they were. On her left bicep was a flock of birds in flight. On her right forearm was the word “explore.” The ink was faded and old. Both could use touching up.
Abra said “thanks” and asked what his name was. She didn’t care, but wanted to avoid questions about the tattoos.
He said, “Aaron,” and asked her what kind of birds they were.
Abra said she didn’t know.
Aaron said, “So you just walked into the tattoo parlor and said you wanted birds?”
Abra didn’t care for his enthusiasm. He had big eyes and drooping shoulders that bobbed up and down as he walked. She said, “Something like that.”
Aaron said, “Ha!” and threw his head back. Abra couldn’t decide whether it was a forced gesture or genuine.
Aaron said, “Did they hurt?”
Abra said, “I expect.”
Aaron asked about the meaning behind the birds.
Abra said, “I don’t know. These are my sister’s tattoos.”
* * *
During science class, Abra couldn’t concentrate. Mr. Dust was explaining chemical bonds, but the words tumbled from his lips and through her head without latching onto anything.
Abra shifted in her seat. Her desk was too small. The air conditioner was too cold. The birds on her arm were too still. She wanted them to fly off her skin and out the door. She flicked their silhouettes and said, “Go!”
Abra eyed the windows. She imagined herself dashing across the classroom with such sudden speed that she could escape her skin and leave it as a discarded husk on the floor. She imagined throwing her bleeding muscles against the window. She imagined a cloud of biting glass, red strings of blood, and the sun, warm against her exposed organs. She would land on all fours. She would race across the soft grass of the courtyard. She would bound over cars in the parking lot. The asphalt would be rough, the metal smooth, but hot. She would climb the brick jungle of the city and escape it in one desperate, skinless charge.
“Abra!” said Mr. Dust and she jumped. The dream curdled. “We’re having class up here today.”
Abra nodded and tried to smile. She was sure her expression looked contemptuous. Mr. Dust returned to his lecture. She shivered. The room was cold and her tattooed birds were trapped in a sky of goose bumps.
* * *
After class, Mr. Dust asked Abra if everything was alright. He said, “You aren’t acting like yourself today.”
Abra shook her head.
Mr. Dust said, “I don’t know if you’re agreeing or disagreeing with me.”
Abra looked at the whiteboard. It was marked with arcane formulae that seemed to depict ripples in the water. She said nothing.
Mr. Dust sighed. He asked, “How are things at home?”
She thought about her father’s magic act. He was working on an illusion in which he wrote down information and sealed it in an envelope, appearing to predict a variety of personal details about an audience member. He had worked out the misdirection, but was still perfecting his left-handed penmanship.
Abra asked Mr. Dust if he could identify her birds. He put on his glasses and leaned down to squint at her arm. Up so close, Abra could see the wrinkles around his eyes and the ruddy blotches around his nose.
He said that they looked like starlings, pointing out the short tail and how the distant ones appeared black, but that you could see speckled green and purple feathers on the birds near her elbow. He explained that the European Starling was introduced to the United States by someone who was attempting to collect all the birds referenced by Shakespeare.
Mr. Dust said, “Someone releases a few dozen birds in Central Park and now there are millions of them in the country.”
Abra traced her fingers over the lines and imagined the starlings as colonists on her body. She said, “So they don’t belong here?”
Mr. Dust said, “No. They’re an old world bird. Here they’re a pest and they’ve displaced a lot of native species.”
Abra asked, “Can we do something about them?”
Mr. Dust shrugged. “What could you do? They don’t have any predators and we couldn’t kill or sterilize them all.”
Abra thought about her sister, Adelaide. When Abra was twelve and Adelaide was fifteen, Adelaide cropped her hair into a short bob and dyed it black. Their father said, “What would your mother think?” and slammed the door to his bedroom. The next day he asked Abra to cut her hair the same way.
Three years later, Adelaide got the tattoos that were now on Abra’s arms. Their father didn’t say anything. He just stopped asking Adelaide to participate in his act. Soon, he stopped talking to her entirely and then one day she was gone.
Abra didn’t know if he’d spoken her name since.
“So what can we do about your concentration?” asked Mr. Dust.
Abra’s right arm said “explore.” She wished it would say something else. She wished she’d woken up that morning with different tattoos. She rubbed her arms and regretted not wearing long sleeves.
* * *
Portrait dans un miroir
At lunch, Abra avoided her classmates’ gazes. She sat in front of the wide cafeteria windows with her earbuds in and her music loud enough to kill the universe. She watched seniors in the parking lot get into their cars. She studied their gaits. They used to seem so old to her, but now they were like overeager children who hadn’t yet mastered the movement of their legs.
The glass reflected someone standing behind her- someone whose bony shoulders shifted up and down nervously.
Abra said, “Hi, Aaron.”
She couldn’t see the reflection’s eyes, but she could see the white of his teeth as he smiled. He set his tray onto the table beside her. On the tray was a book with its spine so creased it looked like its pages were attempting a mutiny. As You Like It. William Shakespeare. Penguin edition.
Abra removed one of her earbuds. Aaron crumpled into a chair.
Aaron said, “Hi, Abra.”
“Hi, Aaron,” Abra said again. She wondered if that was polite enough or if she would need to make small talk.
Aaron clapped his hands over his ears in a dramatic gesture. He said, “Loud enough?”
Abra paused her music. A thousand vacuous voices chattered in the cafeteria and fought for her attention. She clenched her jaw and tried to focus only on Aaron’s voice.
Aaron said, “You’re going to go deaf by 18.”
Abra considered saying, “Who are you, my father?” but it wasn’t actually the sort of thing her father would say. Instead, she said, “That’s the point. I don’t want to have to hear anyone.”
Aaron nodded. Then he shook his head and said, “Yeah.” He gestured to the window. “Aren’t you so jealous that they can leave for lunch?”
Outside, a boy with a varsity jacket and a military haircut had pinned a girl with a dress-code-inappropriate skirt against the passenger door of his SUV. His hands rested stiffly on her breasts. Her hands fluttered at random as if she couldn’t decide what to do with them. Abra could see spit bubbling from their lips.
Abra said, “Why? So I can have a quickie at someone’s house? So I can smoke at the edge of school grounds? So I can go into a diner and have exactly the same insipid conversation I’d be having here?” Abra took a swig of her coffee. Aaron stared at his lunch. The coffee was too bitter. She hated the taste of it. “No. Those assholes have to come back just like everyone else. 45 minutes isn’t exactly an escape.”
Aaron ran his fork across his plate. He said, “I got you all wrong, didn’t I?”
Abra started to say, “Sorry,” but then thought better of it.
Outside, the kissing couple broke apart and drove away. The flurry of activity was over; the rush of bodies was gone, scattered throughout suburbia. The remaining cars looked abandoned.
Aaron straightened his back. He said, “I thought you were lonely, but really you just want to hide from everything…”
Abra said, “Something like that.”
Aaron said, “…including yourself.”
He stood and lifted his tray. Abra looked up at him. His big eyes seemed to shake in his head. Abra said, “Look, I don’t mean to be rude. I just get like this sometimes. I…” She stopped and smiled, trying to make it look sympathetic. “Probably best just to leave me be.”
Aaron said, “Come with me.” Abra tilted her head. “Come with me,” he said again. “We’ll go hide together.”
It was a cheesy thing to say. It was like a line in a movie, where the two mixed up strangers came together to learn about themselves and fall in love. Abra wondered if Aaron saw himself that way- as the protagonist in a bittersweet story about growing up. She said, “No, Aaron.”
Aaron’s chest sank. He reached out his hand and touched her shoulder where her birds looked like nothing but tiny stars. His fingers trembled.
Abra said, “You should probably just leave me alone.” She turned away from him and unpaused her music. The noise drowned the chorus of the other tables. She breathed easier. Aaron’s drooping reflection lingered behind her.
* * *
“And now, good sir, if you would be so kind as to tell me which card it is you want.”
Abra stopped outside her front door. She could hear her father speaking in the kitchen. He was using his booming “Alexander the Great” stage voice. Abra knew he would be alone, practicing.
“No, I’m serious. What do you want? The ace of diamonds? The three of clubs?… or, and this is just between you and me, are you the kind of man who’s after the queen of hearts?”
Abra opened the door and stepped inside. Something came flying at her face. Instinctively, she ducked and a playing card sailed past her. It bounced off the door and fell neatly into the umbrella stand.
“Ab! My good girl! Sorry about that! I almost took your head off.”
In the center of the kitchen, her father stood stiff and tall in his white tuxedo with its long tails. Cards were scattered across the floor, the table, the countertops, the stove, and each step of the staircase leading up to the bedrooms.
He said, “And I don’t do that anymore.”
Abra set her backpack down and fished the queen of hearts from the umbrella stand. Her father went through at least six decks each night, rehearsing for his show. Every nook and cranny had a card in it. She’d found cards on the tops of cabinets, inside pages of books, stuck to the shower wall. Their house was filled with cards the way most were filled with dust.
Abra said, “No, no you don’t” and held her right hand over her left bicep to cover the tattoos.
Her father said, “So, Ab…” She waited for him to ask how her day was and what was new in her life. They didn’t talk much, except when he was pretending she was an audience member. He said, “So, Ab, what card would you like?” and produced two decks of cards, flourishing them in perfect fans.
She said, “The hanged man?”
He stared blankly. She didn’t know whether he didn’t get her joke or was ignoring it or was trying to figure out a bit of patter in case someone said the same thing during a show.
She said, “The two of spades.”
He said, “Of course!” and flicked a card from the deck at her. “I should’ve known that’s what you’d want.”
She caught it and held it up to show him. She didn’t look at it.
He said, “Yes, the two of swords is more your speed. Best to let the major arcana be…”
His voice trailed off. Abra looked down at the card. Two of spades. Then she realized she had let go of her arm and he could see the ascent of her tattooed birds. She dropped the card.
His expression was blank. He let his stage voice go and said, “I should clean these up. I need to go in an hour.”
Abra nodded. Her father looked around the room like he was seeing it for the first time and didn’t know what to do. There was flawless pallor to his face, broken only by his high, red cheekbones that appeared as if he had carefully applied rouge to look young. Abra knew he had not.
She said, “Dad, where did Adelaide go?”
He stared at the wall. His chest rose and fell evenly. Abra sucked in her breath and held it.
The wallpaper throughout the house was yellowed and peeling. Some rooms contained single walls that were brightly colored from days when Abra had decided she should brighten the place. Once when she was feeling feisty, she decided the upstairs hallway needed a mural. She painted ferns and jungle cats, exotic fruits and waterfalls, but the project was abandoned after a day and half the hall remained a dull off white.
Her father said, “When you’re 18, all your sentences tend to begin with the word ‘I’. She’s doing what she needs to.”
Abra said, “Do you have an email address?”
Upstairs, Adelaide’s room was covered by a thick layer of cobwebs. Abra had never forced the rusty lock, but she had peered through the keyhole many times.
Abra said, “Or do you know what city she’s in?”
Abra’s father said, “She’s doing what she needs to.” Abra couldn’t decide whether he heard her questions.
* * *
Jack pried open the door with the “no access” sign. That part had gotten easy with practice. Kara was full of giggles beside him and clung to his wrist with both her hands. When the wood cracked, she whispered “shhh” and looked over her shoulder.
“Uh oh,” said Jack, “did the police catch us?”
“Nooo,” said Kara as if the question required a serious response. “But the people in 4B could come out.”
Jack said, “We’ll just tell them that you’re the new janitor.”
Kara screwed up her face. Her nose turned up at him and twitched once. He had the sudden urge to reach down and take the tip of it between his teeth. It was something he used to do with Ella.
Jack held the door open. “Roof. Final destination.”
Kara took the steps two at a time. Jack was out of breath when he reached the top. He wondered what good three years without cigarettes had done him.
The sky was blushing a deep red. Jack could smell the ocean. Dozens of gulls called out “caw” and “caw caw” from every direction.
“Look!” yelled Kara. She stood at the edge of the roof. Her thin flip-flops dangled off her toes and Jack wondered if one was about to go sailing down four flights. He checked the rooftop for broken glass.
“It’s cracking a crab!” said Kara and she waved her arms. Jack joined her at the edge and put his arm around her hips.
On the pavement below, just before the sidewalks gave way to sandy beach, a gull carried a crab in its bill. The pincers and legs dangled. The gull shook its head and beat its gray wings.
“There it goes again,” said Kara.
The bird rose up into the air and, flapping hard, hovered by the second floor windows. It opened its bill and the crab plummeted into the earth. The gull circled once and landed. It hurried over to the crab and started picking through smashed bits of shell.
“Isn’t it cute?” asked Kara.
Jack cocked his head and considered the bird. There was something captivating about watching it eat, but cute? It looked more like an angry, old man to him.
“We should have brought bread to throw,” said Kara.
“No,” he said, “it’s bad for them.”
“Screw that,” said Kara, “Everything fun is no good for you. They would have come to us. We’d be surrounded.”
Jack didn’t say anything. He watched cranes unload cargo from a ship at the harbor.
“Look at that,” said Kara. “It looks like the sun is sitting on the ocean.”
Jack looked at her. She wore earrings like little stars. Her eyes were very blue. She glanced at him and screwed up her face. Her nostrils flared. The tip of her nose twitched.
“We should have brought beer,” she said.
“Goddamn,” he said and looked out across the water towards the sunset. The sky was sheathed in pinks, purples, and reds. It looked garish to Jack now, as if it were trying to show off every color the world could produce.
Alcohol used to be a staple when he brought dates onto rooftops to watch the sunset. When he was 21 like Kara, there was always an excitement at being legal that made it a necessity. Four years with Ella and they all but stopped drinking. Then they all but stopped making love. Then he said, “It’s dead. We’ve killed it.” And he left.
He looked down now as the gull dug through crab guts with its beak. He wondered how much meat the bird could get from a single crab. Other gulls landed nearby and cawed threats at the eater.
Jack said, “That bird needs to go through that goddamn routine every day, doesn’t he?”
“Ugh,” said Rose. “Can’t you say you hate me instead?”
“What?” I asked. Her body was suddenly tense under mine.
“Don’t do that. Don’t you goddamn lie to yourself like that,” she said.
I brushed the hair away from her eyes, wanting to recapture the mood. “Well, then,” I said, gently, “I hate you so much.”
Rose didn’t say anything, but her upper lip twitched. Wrinkles formed around her nose. She went into the bathroom and slammed the door.
Rose had been wrapped around me all evening. During the movie, she’d pulled up my shirt and toyed with my nipple, saying “My god! I just love touching you.” I blushed in the dark of the theater and put my arm around her.
When she emerged from the bathroom, she looked annoyed to see me still there. I asked about the teddy bear on her dresser.
She said, “Do you really care about the crap my grandmother made me when I was little?”
“Well,” I said, “I’m curious.” And I was curious, but mostly I was afraid if we didn’t start talking that we’d be cast into uncomfortable silence.
“I should get some sleep,” she said.
We lay on opposite sides of the bed. I wondered if Rose would mind me curling up beside her, but I didn’t want to disturb her when she was upset with me. So I listened to her breathing and stared at the teddy bear on the dresser. The button eyes were blank and the stitching down the sides looked fragile. It was the sort of present a child might be given and then told to never touch.
* * *
I awoke to Rose straddling me. Her hair hung down in her eyes. I could see the freckles on her naked shoulders. She ground her pelvis against mine.
“Sex?” she said and ran her fingernails across my chest.
I nodded and yawned. I was exhausted. My sleep had been patchy. Mostly, I’d tried to figure out what I should say to Rose in the morning. I imagined us playfully saying “I hate you” back and forth. It would be adorable. Someday, we’d be an old couple sitting in rocking chairs, sweetly saying “I hate you so much” back and forth.
Rose unzipped my fly and tugged at my pants.
“I meant it,” I said.
From between my legs, she looked up at me and cocked her head to one side like she didn’t understand what I was talking about.
“Last night,” I said, prompting her.
Bitter recognition crossed her face. “God fucking dammit,” she said. She shook her head and clenched her hands.
“Rose,” I said.
“You don’t fucking get it, do you?” she said. “It’s like you’re a fucking wind-up robot. It’s…”
She trailed off. “This was a mistake.”
I left. I walked out into the street. My mind raced. I tried to figure out what had happened, what I could do to make things better.
That night I told my roommate the story. She said, “Fuck it. I don’t care how hot she is- it isn’t worth it.”
“But I think I’m in love with Rose,” I said.
She didn’t say anything else. I wanted to keep talking, but I felt ashamed. I felt annoyed at Rose, angry even, but, try as I might, I couldn’t feel hate.