Breadcrumb #416

MARY MELLON

Her jaw is aching. She grinds her teeth at night. She is thinking of a boy with sky blue eyes and long, nicotine stained fingers. He put those fingers inside her and she opened like a flower. He said the vagina expands when a woman is aroused. She thought of Georgia O’Keefe paintings, of organs, of orchids. 

    They were always drinking when they had sex, like she is doing with the man beside her now. He is older, broader in the neck and shoulders and biceps. He keeps the TV on and drinks beer after beer. She tries to talk about what she is reading, watching, what is in the news. He looks at her, smiles, says, “That’s interesting.” 

    There are moments when he feels lost, like she does, as if he should be further along in life as an adult. They connect in this way. But she is getting restless.

** 

    She met the boy in the Bronx when she was still living in New York. They had been living across the street from each other for months but never seen each other. He was like a beautiful ghost, with his pale eyes, pale skin, and pair hair slicked back with gel. He wore a collared shirt and jeans and sat at the end of the bar cradling a mug of beer. He smelled like American Spirits. 

    She had moved to New York for graduate school and was teaching creative writing at Westchester Correctional Facility, but had picked up a second job working as a professional dominatrix in Manhattan. She needed drugs to perform. He was from the area. His friends, family, and connections were here, but his past hunted him. There was always a packet of cocaine in his back pocket or wallet and he offered to share with her. 

    In her bedroom he told her a secret. She wrapped her arms around him but knew there was little she could do to comfort him. He was so tall she felt as if she were hugging a tree. 
“I never have sex right away,” she said, relieved that he had not made assumptions based on her profession. “It’s not you. It’s just how I am.” 

    “We don’t have to have sex. But can I crash here tonight?” 

    In bed he kissed her, pulling back a moment to gauge her reaction. She looked into the blueness of his eyes. He kissed her again and kept kissing her. She began to giggle, finally pulling him closer. 

    “Do you want to put your head on my chest?” 

    “I’m okay,” she said. But she did wrap her arm around his bicep. The gesture was instinctual, like a baby gripping your finger. 

**

    The following morning, the boy asked her to be his girlfriend. 

    “I think dating is about getting to know someone and how compatible you are. How about we start off as friends?” she said. 

    She was used to men liking her. It was better not to question why. But developing romantic feelings for someone was not in her control. She assumed it would never happen again and fingered pendant around her neck in the shape of a key. 

    He was willing to be her friend. She was still at the dungeon but detoxed from heroin on her own that week. Withdraw left her curled on her side, like a dead thing, her legs unaccountably aching. She wanted to run but did not want to be around people. She did not want to be seen. He texted her and she told him she needed the week. Her eyes were clear when she saw him again. 
They were always around people. He had so many friends. But they concluded each night alone. At first she needed to drink to be close to him. But touching became more reflexive. A hand on his shoulder when he needed comforting. A hug when she was grateful or gleeful. One night, she was raped and he made the hour long trek to Planned Parenthood with her in case she needed an abortion. She agreed to the label finally. But she was still working. She was still wearing the pendant. He claimed to be okay with her second job but left marks on her skin. Love bites that blossomed like warnings. 

   He was always proud when he took her out. She reveled in the feeling of community, in belonging. But she wanted love. She knew what it was like to want one person, for everyone else to fall away.

** 

    She had only had sex with three people in her life unless you counted the rape. She did not. She did not even remember it. Only what she was told after. She had not considered that in giving up her boyfriend, she was giving up her sense of community too. It was the right decision to leave but left her spiraling. She began to experiment. She began to act out. 

    She was not healthy. She came home from work with bruises on her body. Men in the community reacted. There was the man who came up behind her and grabbed both her breasts at a bar. Her friend Mason, who she knew because nobody else would listen to him vent about his ex-girlfriend, pretended not to see. He later admitted he was being a coward. 

    She was at a bar in her neighborhood the night she met Steve. Her cousin had died of anorexia that week. Was she drinking to escape? The man looked so solid, unlike Jeffrey, who had become skeletal, wasted. She had dressed well that night. Sometimes dressing well made her feel safe. 

    “Can I buy you a drink?” he asked, and she accepted, unsurprised when he asked how old she was. Men were always asking her that. 

    “What do you do?” she asked, curious to get a sense of his interests. 

    “I’m a firefighter.” 

    She felt apologetic when he drew back from her, apparently defensive. “I went to college!” he said. 

    “What did you study?” she asked encouragingly. 

    “Philosophy.” 

    In high school her Honors English teacher had told her she had a “philosophical mind.” She wondered if she could believe in magical thinking and asked more questions, hoping to draw him out. They drank drink after drink. When Steve kissed her, his tongue felt foreign and odd, but she expected that from a first kiss, even her first kiss with Shane was like that. She got in a cab with him. 

**

    She saw Steve regularly. The first time she was overflowing with anxiety, half expecting to lose her balance and fall. She hugged him. She could feel the hard muscles in his chest and upper arms, the warm fabric of his shirt. She pulled back uncertainly, embarrassed. Her voice was fast and nervous. He kept asking, “What?” 

    Steve made them drinks. They sat on the couch and she put one of the throw pillows on her lap and smiled over at him. The other throw pillow was between their bodies. He moved it out of the way.    

    “Let’s watch something you like!” she suggested encouragingly. She smiled brightly. “Do you like American Horror Story?”     

    He said he did. He changed the channel and stretched his arm across the top of the sofa. When she laughed he laughed. He was sprawled back against the couch, broad shoulders, caged energy. She wanted to sit in his lap. 

    The next time he looked over at her he kissed her. He moved fluidly, his tongue in her mouth, his body pressing hers against the couch. She responded instinctively. She ran her hands up and down his biceps and planted kisses against his neck, surprised that each gesture felt natural.     

    She stopped wearing the pendant after she met Steve. It had been five years. She fingers the naked skin of her breastbone. He peeled back a layer of her skin.

• • •

Breadcrumb #415

T. PABÓN

IT’S A TIME before our own – before 1987, when she labored for 6 hours trying to meet me – and my mother traps me inside our wooden cabin. The cabin, of which I only see the kitchen through a sepia lens, holds strong against the powdery winds of the West. My knowledge of the West in this era spans as far as Hollywood’s depiction of it – women in full, lace-trimmed skirts; cowboy hats kissing moonshine.

    When I remember the dream where my mother kills me in our desert home, I picture her boarding up all the exits. Her mouth curled at the edges, the hem of her dress stirring up dirt as she circles the house scattering coal. I quickly realize the hearth is not the only source of smoke. Grey threads weave through cracks in the paneling, expanding into clouds. They surround me in swirls as the wooden walls pop and crackle sporadically, at first, until they begin to give in to the heat. Pop - I am as good as dead. Crack - my mother is a murderer. My body drops to the floor in an attempt to find breathable air, my hands gather the skirt of my frock and press it against my desperate mouth. No nod or explanation is ever given for why she wants me dead, but it never surprises me that she does.

    She does not always do it with fire. She has also shot me with a polished pistol after taking twenty paces. She has pushed me into the roaring rapids as I wash clothes on the river shoreline. My quick-draw is never quick enough. I don’t know how to swim. The dreams come one at a time, although sometimes they pile behind each other. The scenes are divided by silent movie cards with ornate calligraphy - “Episode I,” “Episode 2,” “Episode 3.” A wagon train of mini-certain-deaths.

My quick-draw is never quick enough. I don’t know how to swim.

    I wake one morning with the lingering image of my mother sitting cross-legged on dirt, watching our home furious and flaming. She waits until the elements absolve her. I enter the kitchen and my mother eyes me from the table as I pour bold brew into a coffee cup. Her middle finger thinks against her ceramic mug, tapping once and twice. She examines my movements, combs my face for something recognizable. With her voice even and nice she says, “Sometimes the child you want is not the child you get.”

    I take a gulp full of coffee and smile a pure, silly smile right at her face. Confronted, she turns quickly toward the window, grimacing at the sunbeams. I cross my legs in my chair, my spine stretching.

    Small death after small death, by now I am immortal.

• • •

Breadcrumb #414

CLAUDINE NASH

To: Phineas@taxbusters.com
From: Caliope604@worldnet.com
Subject: Additional W2s and an apology
Date: 05/01/2914  19:01

Dear Phineas,

As requested, attached please find the additional 1099 forms from my freelance work in Xenon Colony.

I also just wanted to apologize for staring so long at you and sobbing a bit like that during our meeting last week. It’s just that when you looked up from my amended earnings form, I suddenly felt a swirling spiral of lifetimes spill between us and it sort of took my breath away in one of those existentially-acute, time-stood-still-moments sort of ways. It was almost as though your eyes reached in and lifted some lost and dormant piece of me. I was quite taken aback.

I really value you as an accountant and don’t want to make you feel awkward or uncomfortable, but I just need to ask whether you experienced anything like that as well?

Thank you, and again, please let me know if you require any additional documentation.

Best wishes,

Caliope Finkelbottom

_________________________________________________________________________________

To:  Caliope604@worldnet.com
From:  Phineas@taxbusters.com
Subject: Re: Additional W2s and an apology
Date: 05/04/2914  09:31

Dear Ms. Finklebottom,

Thank you for providing the forms as requested. We will also need you to supply a 1099 for any dividends earned from your stocks in Graviton Industries.

Regarding the other matter, I have no recollection of the event to which you are referring.

Given my increased responsibilities with our Outer Galaxies office, I regret to inform you that I will no longer be handling your returns. My robotic assistant Ivan will be assuming my Earthly cases and can answer any questions regarding your return should you require any additional assistance going forward.

Sincerely,

Phineas Woodworth, CPA

• • •

 

Breadcrumb #413

RACHEL LYON

Jim has been away from this neck of the river a good while. Back in the day he used to come all the time with Chapa. Chapa had wheels; he’d salvaged a beat-up old Chevy from the impound and spent a summer fixing it up. Half the passenger’s side door was rusted through and the Check Engine light wouldn’t turn off and there was just an empty socket where the E brake should have been, but it was effective. Saturday mornings he’d swing by Jim’s dad’s and lean on the horn until Jim ran outside, and they’d drive like the Mad Boys they were to the bend in the highway where the fence dropped off. You had to park on the shoulder and sort of skid down the sandy incline through the trees, and half the time Jim would come home with bramble scrapes all over his shins, but down here in the gully the river was icy clean, the narrow sky bright blue, the trout fat splashing silver, down here in the gully he and Chapa could dose in peace. If you timed it right, and took enough, and maybe wore the 3D glasses Chapa pinched from the drive-in off USX, by the time you were peaking the noontime sun would just have tipped over the edge of the ravine, flooding every shadow and dazzling the rapids. Chapa would whoop and jump from the bank and tear off his shirt and throw off his shoes and chase the sparkles that floated up off the river, gobbling each one up in turn—beautiful, thrashing wet—Look at me! I’m PacMan, man! I’m eating the sun!

    Today is a mild day at the tail end of winter, sixteen years since. Jim was supposed to have been in the air right now, en route to Florida from the Boston consulting firm where he just made Junior VP of Client Acquisition, to hang out at Spring Training with half a dozen of his most valued clients. But this year he’s postponed the trip a few days to come home. The occasion: yet another funeral. Two weeks ago Chapa’s old girlfriend Amber OD’d. OxyContin. The second in her nuclear family, the twelfth in his high school—that he knows of. Jim heard the news from his stepmom, who heard it from Chapa’s mom, Win. He never knew Amber too well but when he thinks of her the moments he remembers feel good and sad and real. How Chapa pined for her in ninth grade math class. How she once showed up at Jim’s dad’s in tears because she thought Chapa’d gone missing. Her mascara stain never came out of his Grizzlies jersey. How one velvet night they skinny-dipped, all of them—Jim, Chapa, Amber, and that other girl, what’s her name—and the girls slept sweet and quiet under a furniture pad in the bed of the Chevy while Jim and Chapa shared their last cigarette and made big plans in the cracking dawn. How just a year and a half ago, when Jim ran into her in the Hannaford’s near his dad’s, Amber dropped two shrink-wrapped chicken breasts in surprise, and laughed. How, when he invited her out for a beer, she confessed she was ten weeks sober.

    She didn’t say anything about Chapa then, and he hadn’t wanted to ask. The truth is Jim came down for the funeral not for her sake—if he came for every funeral he’d be here every month, pretty much—but because he thought that for this one Chapa might come too. But Chapa was not among the mourners at the church today. He was not at the wake at Amber’s sister’s. And he is not down here in the gully now. Jim sits, disregarding his nice black pants, and takes off his ill-conceived dress shoes. He regrets wearing them. They pinch his heels, and he looked like a tool at the wake. Amber’s sister was wearing jeans, for God’s sake. When he offered his condolences she looked at him like a stranger. The sandy red soil is so cold it numbs his toes, but it is a relief to let his bare feet come in contact again with this earth he knows so well. He tosses a pebble and watches it disappear into the river’s sputtering folds. What kind of asshole has he become?

    He could have tried harder to get in touch with Chapa, but he left this town when cell phones were still luxury items, uncommon, at least among people like them, and anyway the truth is he’s been shy. He isn’t ashamed of how his life has turned out—he makes good money, has a bright young kid and a smart, no-bullshit wife—but whenever he’s thought of reconnecting with Chapa, when he’s thought of Chapa at all—Chapa with his shirt off, lithe brown body splashing; Chapa yelping, eating the sun—he’s felt a surge of emotion so electric it’s almost erotic. His eagerness embarrasses him. He has tried to explain this to Denise. But how to describe the Mad Boy who still lives so loudly, so colorfully, in Jim’s memory? How to describe the way one single boy—along with enough acid, most weekends, to kill a small bear—rewove the very fabric of his mind?

    The closest he’s come is a drunken confession one night after a boozy fundraising dinner for their kid’s charter school. A teenaged dance troupe had performed, and a couple of them had actually been really good, elastic joints and muscles like springs, and he’d felt her watching him watching them, felt his own sluggish, Jesus-aged body. On the couch afterward with the lights off, as they dutifully drank their water before bed, he buried his head in Denise’s lap and told her: “I loved him.”

    “Loved whom?” she said. Whom. She was a smart-ass like that, but he knew she knew who he meant. He didn’t reply. She put a hand on his forehead. “I know you did,” she said.

    “He opened my eyes,” Jim told her. “He made me see that the world is in our minds. That time is elastic. That space is infinite. That solid is just liquid, but slower, and that there’s infinite space between every atom, and that color’s just a bunch of vibrations.”

    “Uh-huh.”

    From his vantage point in her lap he could see up her nostrils, those twin tunnels that led all the way to her capable brain. “Listen,” he said. “What do you see when you see color?”

    She looked around the bedroom. “As I recall, these walls are Benjamin Moore Canyon Light. In the Pier 1 catalog the couch, I think, was called Sorrel. The curtains in the downstairs bathroom were, oh my god, Lady Slipper.” She made an amused sound through her nose.

    “I don’t mean paint.” He struggled up. “I don’t mean fabric swatches.” He pointed at the lamp in the corner, a cheap Ikea contraption that had never really stood up straight. “What do you see when you look at that light?”

    “I see a lamp. Which is missing a screw.” She patted his head. “Much like you.”

    “I see rainbows.” As if to demonstrate, he looked at the light and turned his gaze slowly toward her, then turned it back again, and the light stretched and unraveled into all its constituent colors, then knit itself back together. That was the grand synthetic beauty that Chapa helped imprint on him. “Even now, light has tails, color trails. I still see rainbows. After all these years.”

That was the grand synthetic beauty that Chapa helped imprint on him.

    A reasonable woman who thinks of color as a material that comes in flat, matte, and satin, a comforting practical woman, a fearless woman, Denise said, “That is because you are an acid casualty. And a goon.” But months later when he told her Amber had died it was she who encouraged him to go home for the funeral. “Don’t you want to see your friend Chapa?”

    The name in her voice was jarring to Jim. It didn’t sound right. “I guess.”

    “The whole time I’ve known you, you’ve never visited the guy. I’m starting to think you made him up. Your magical Indian friend. Which, by the way, are you aware that the way you talk about him, it’s maybe a little bit racist?”

    Jim must have made a face, because she repeated herself, altering her emphasis.

    “Just maybe a little bit racist. How close were the two of you, anyway? Why have I never met him?”

    “I don’t know. We lost touch,” Jim said. “He isn’t on Facebook.”

    “Go home, Jimmy! Go see your friend. Take a selfie with the guy. I want to see him with my own eyes.” Denise is amused at best by Jim’s brambly thoughts, but because she urges him to confront his own mind, he knows she will always protect him.

    And because he knows she would be happy to receive a picture of him beside his old friend—he’s pictured the picture many times: both of them grinning, holding beers, Chapa taller and stunning, Jim balder and paler but made handsome by joy—he is all that much more disappointed today that Chapa’s not here. At the brief wake he did see Chapa’s mom, Win. How’s Chapa doing? he asked her, and Win squinted up at him, squeezing her left arm with her right hand, black lashes gray hair, too distracted by grief to be glad to see him. You know Chapa, she said, and Jim nodded and looked down at the ground, because you’re supposed to give people enough silence and space to keep their grief to themselves. Now he regrets not saying, Actually no, I don’t, not anymore, regrets asking how when he could have asked where. Could have asked for his number.

    Could he have asked for his number? Would that have been weird?

    The trouble is, Denise’s interrogation still rings in his mind. How close were the two of you, anyway? He’s not sure he knows. How many times did they get fucked up together in this very gully? Two dozen times? Ten times? Twice? Maybe Denise was right, in a way, and he has made Chapa up—not entirely—just maybe a little bit—just the same sort of way that a kid makes up an idea of his mother before he’s able to understand what kind of woman she actually is, or the way a person who’s never been to, say, India, pieces together his own mental collage out of, let’s say, some crowded street he saw in a film, rock-cut temples from an in-flight travel magazine, Bollywood, tigers, lotuses, the Taj Mahal, and a memorable GQ photo shoot of Priyanka Chopra. The Chapa he thinks he knows is not much more than a collage of teenaged memories, fantasies, the light trails he still sees, and his own dim understanding of history. Let’s not forget that Jim’s ancestors’ hands were stained by Chapa’s ancestors’ blood. Once in this very gully, tripping balls, Chapa told him: Your people massacred my people. If time is a circle, and time is a circle, Jimmy, you massacred me. Teenaged Jim looked at his friend lying there on the red earth, and as he watched, the earth became blood. It seeped out of and pooled around Chapa’s brown body, and Chapa was still, and Jim was dumbstruck by the violence from which he was descended. For hours he was convinced he had lost the ability to speak.

    In his memory the river is a stop-motion rainbow machine, but today it is muddy gray. Jim stands and rolls up his pants and wades into the shallows. The water’s so cold it feels boiling hot. Not only is the river less colorful; it is narrower now. The region has undergone a long drought. He is struck by the absence of life. The trees at the edges of the gully are still winter-bare, their black branches like cracks in the sky. A fish skeleton lies on the shore, in a bed of its own dried-out skin. Amber is dead and her brother’s dead, too, and so are twelve other people Jim once knew. And so is the fish, and so are the shrubs, and so are his toes, which have gone white and stabby, and so, in the end, is his friendship.

    And then, deep inside his memory, something is lifted. Some small corner of memory is peeled up, and he has a clear, true recollection. That day he tripped so hard he thought he was mute? He and Chapa were not alone. Amber was there. She was sitting beside him. She was watching Chapa, too. He remembers her bare ankles, the cigarette between her fingers, he remembers her narrow, love-struck, teenaged face. She loved Chapa as hard as Jim did. She kept him company in that embarrassing love. He wants to tell her so. He wants to thank her. He wants to apologize for leaving her out of the picture for so long.

    But he can’t, of course. So he wades back to shore. Brushes off his feet. Puts on his socks, one by one. He forces back on his two stupid shoes and turns back toward the rental car he left parked on the shoulder. He is numb, he is dumb. He is heading back to the airport.

• • •

Breadcrumb #412

ELIZABETH GAUGHAN

It is only after the 4-hour bus ride, and the 45-minute train ride before that, and the 20-minute walk to the train station before that, that you realize you've woken up in a city that is not the destination you were trying to reach. It was an honest mistake, you think, to comfort yourself, as you look at your surroundings. The Greyhound dropped you off in a strip-mall parking lot, and the stores are identical to the ones at the strip mall you were meant to be meeting your ride. But was that the right color trim on those concrete pillars? Was the parking lot supposed to be one big square like this one, or circular, curving toward the entrance where you were meant to wait?

    The dozen other passengers who descended from the bus with you hug their partners, their parents. They use their cell phones to call Ubers, or duck into the fast food restaurant on the corner. You think about getting back on the bus, but you don't know where the bus is headed next, and you don't have a ticket, and before you can consider this option further the driver is back on the bus, the door is yanked shut, the bus is pulling out of the parking lot, it is headed back toward the Interstate, it is gone. Slowly, the other passengers disperse, the cars disappear from the parking lot, and you are alone. Even the stores, with their blinking OPEN signs and mannequins back-lit by florescent lights, seem deserted. You imagine the sales associates hiding behind the clothing racks, peeking out at you.

Slowly, the other passengers disperse, the cars disappear from the parking lot, and you are alone.

    There is no curve to this parking lot, but you go and wait at the entrance anyway. You look around for any distinct landmarks, but all you can see, no matter how far you squint, is flat roads with cars driving fast, and stubby, square buildings no more than three stories tall. The sky is overcast. It is that miserable non-weather, chilly and humid at the same time. Your hairline is wet with sweat; wild bits of hair stick to your forehead, the back of your neck. Your skin feels oily and slick. Under your wool coat, your bones feel ice-cold; the coat is too hot for this weather, but tomorrow it is supposed to be colder, and the coat wouldn't fit in your suitcase. You shift your backpack on your sore shoulders, switch your rolling suitcase from one hand to the other. Even with no one in sight, you hold your possessions close to you. You think of sitting on the curb, but your ride could come at any minute.

    Maybe you had boarded the wrong bus because you went to the wrong pickup spot.

    The names of two intersecting streets had been printed onto the ticket. You expected there to be a bus stop, a sign, a line when you got there. But the intersection looked like any other intersection, cars blurring past in all directions, no clear place to wait. You asked someone standing nearby, a tall man in a suit, face shadowed by the brim of a fedora, but he only grunted in reply. So you waited, and then the bus came only a few minutes after the scheduled time, and you boarded.

    Or maybe you got the date wrong.

    Maybe your ticket was meant for the day before, or the day after. The driver had barely glanced at it when he collected it from you. It's possible he saw the destination but not the date. And by then you were curled up in the padded blue seat.

    Had the bus driver said something before taking off?

    You think he must have, but you were so tired from waking up early that morning that as soon as you slid into that coveted window seat, you pulled your backpack into your lap, looped your arms through the straps, and closed your eyes. You, who always triple-checks your ticket, your calendar. Arrives at the bus stop early. Asks someone standing nearby if you are in the right place.

    You must have known you were headed in the wrong direction during those first thirty minutes on the bus.

    But after pulling away from that intersection and winding through the busiest parts of the city, the bus had entered a tunnel that seemed to take several minutes to pass through. You knew, because even though your eyes were shut, the bus was drowned in a darkness that seeped through your closed lids. When it finally exited the tunnel, and the sudden brightness forced your eyes open, the flat grassy planes outside the dirty window where you rested your head could have been anywhere.

    You notice that the sidewalk running along the storefronts also runs down the side of the mall. Maybe there is another parking lot around back? You start to follow it only as far as you dare; you don't want to lose sight of the main parking lot. But the sidewalk ends a little way down, concrete disappearing under weeds and brown grass. Behind the mall: only dumpsters and a fence backing a busy road. You return to your original post. Above the sheet of grey clouds, the sky appears to darken. It's hard to tell for sure. You hold your rolling suitcase closer.

    One time, years ago, when you were barely a teenager, you babysat a little boy as a favor to a co-worker of your mother’s. As you sat together on the living room carpet building LEGOs, he asked, "Who are you?"

    "I'm the babysitter," you said.

    "Babysitter?"

    "Yeah, I'm here to babysit you today."

    That was when he frowned. Then a smile crept across his face.

    "But I'm not the boy you're supposed to babysit."

    "You're not? You look just like him."

    The boy shook his head.

    "You're the same age as him. This is his house."

    "No it's not. This is a different house. I'm a different boy."

    "Oh yeah? Then who are you supposed to be?"

    But the boy only smiled wider.

• • •