On this Mountain

Mountain

“There is nothing a mountain can do to hurt you,” Brian said. We were in the car, heading towards one of his favorite hiking spots, and he could see my chest rise and fall as my breathing quickened and the way my cheeks got hot and my fists clenched. Anxiety, that’s what my doctor said.

Screw my doctor.

“I beg to differ,” I told Brian, except that I didn’t, because what was the point? He was taking me on this trip with an explicit and very obvious reason. A proposal. This wasn’t exposure therapy. This was a romantic gesture.

Screw romantic gestures.

Brian and I had history. Two years of it. And six weeks of dating before that, if it counts. “Meeting through an online dating website does not a forever make,” my mother told me when, in my honeymoon phase glee, called to tell her that I finally had a boyfriend.

Screw my mom too. Except she was right. At least in my case. Still, screw her. Screw her for being right. Screw her for planting that seed of doubt that’s now grown into a weeping willow that I can hide inside and feel safe in.

And then this mountain business.

Brian pulled our backpacks out of the back seats of his SUV, which he called his truck even though it wasn’t, and gave me one. It was lighter than his, almost for sure, but it was heavy enough to reset the disaster reel in my mind. Falling down backwards down the trail, falling sideways off the train and into a chasm, slipping and breaking a leg or an arm or a rib or my head, being attacked by a wild boar or a black bear or a snake or—

“Ready?”

“Yup.”

I followed him towards the base of the trail. I watched his boots thunk down and tried to match his pace. I had always been a devout shoe-watcher. My mom always told me to put my chin up, to be proud, to let others stare at my skin if they had to but to know that I was beautiful. I didn’t know how to explain her that looking down had nothing to do with any of that. Nobody knew where to place me, so everyone put me in a comfortable box and didn’t see me as a thug, because I wasn’t big or a man or dark enough to be a thug. I knew thugs, real ones and ones who just looked it, and they didn’t think I belonged to them either. Mom thought I belonged everywhere. That I was some free-spirited sprite like her, able to jump through environments and homes and societies like an acrobat. Instead, I put my head down and found things that were interesting and similar everywhere. It was easier to move around when I knew that no matter where we went, I’d have shoes to look at. Almost everyone wore shoes. The ones who didn’t, I knew, were even more on the outside than I was.

Brian’s shoes were sturdy yellow Timberlands. I’ll say this for him – they were broken in, not shiny and new. He really was a hiker. He said he was many other things that he wasn’t (tender, intelligent, original) but this one thing was true. He loved the mountains. I used to love that about him.

On the trail, Brian made me go in front of him and kept up a running commentary, so I could never forget where we were.

“Careful of that rock, babe. There’s a tree branch coming up on your left. We’re going to curve here, so don’t look down to the left, okay? It’s not that far but I know it freaks you out so just don’t look. There you go. Good girl.”

Idiot. I wasn’t afraid of heights. I lived in cities all my life. I was afraid of nature. Of this mountain we were on. Of what would happen at its summit.

It was beautiful, I was big enough to admit that, even with my sulky silence. The air smelled different, tasted like cold water when I breathed it in. The trail itself was nothing special, but the views of other mountains was more impressive than the view I was used to: a bunch of identical high rises in what was called, in every city I’d been to, the ghetto.

I was still scared of the mountains. Man made disasters I could understand. I grew up seeing people get into fights that left them bloody. I knew gunshots when I heard them. Sirens were a constant, and the sound of pounding meat as cops beat up on other people was more familiar than any tree. I had no idea what trees were around us. I didn’t know more than a handful of names for tree: birches, furs, weeping willows, regular willows. Apple trees. I knew there were more, but it’s not necessary knowledge for a city-dweller.

An hour in, when Brian told me we were halfway there, I stopped. He bumped into me. We fell. I screamed, even though we were nowhere near an edge. We were firmly in between large rocky bits, on a trail that made a little valley between them. There was dirt in my mouth and Brian was cursing, and he got up and tried to help me, but I only turned over off my stomach and sat there, spitting out dirt and taking swigs from my water bottle and spitting them out too.

“You’re wasting our water,” Brian said.

“I thought you said we had enough for four treks like this,” I told him with a thick tongue, still trying to expel the feeling of dirt from my mouth.

“That still doesn’t mean you should be wasting any. What if something happened?”

“You said nothing could happen.”

He shut up, knowing it was better not to argue with me when I was like this. I would win. My logic was as curving and twisted as a Möbius strip. Those I knew about. I was one of the ones who paid attention at school. Every school I went to, the math or science teacher (sometimes both) did the Möbius strip trick for us, trying to show us how cool it was, how it defied logic or didn’t or something. Once it was an art teacher who showed us how to make one.

Brian wouldn’t sit. He stayed standing, bouncing on his toes. Everything was going wrong, as far as he was concerned. I wasn’t having fun. It was getting colder than he’d meant it to get. And we weren’t moving, which meant he wouldn’t be able to time his proposal with the pre-sunset colors.

“I want to go back down,” I said. He kicked a pebble around with his foot.

“After all this way?”

“We’re only halfway. You said.”

He didn’t say anything. A gust of wind blew through our clothes and hair. It smelled delicious. I wanted to grab it in handfuls and put it in my pocket and breathe it in every time I had to pass the garbage room and the hallway of my apartment building which smelled like piss.

“I’m going to say no, Brian,” I finally said.

“I know.”

“Then why did–”

“I thought the mountain might change your mind.”

I snorted. “And you say you’re barely Indian.”

He was a half blood like me. No one knew where to place him either. It had been part of what drew us together originally. There was a lot of ground to cover when it came to identity. We had an endless supply of conversational material. Not a day passed when we wouldn’t call or text each other with the latest slur, awkward question, or odd look directed at us.

“Yeah, well.” He was quiet, a shoe-watcher, looking down at his Timberlands and moving them around, back and forth, a tiny dance of discomfort.

“I still love you,” I said.

“You do?”

“I just don’t know how much yet. I don’t know if it’s a forever love.”

“I do,” he said.

“I know you do.”

“Okay, come on, get up,” he said, helping me to my feet.

We began walking down, him in front this time. Either he didn’t want to look at me or he trusted me to walk well enough on my own now. Maybe both. I followed him, keeping an eye on where he placed his feet, and tried to put mine in the same spots he did. His stride was wider than mine. I had to stretch to match it sometimes. I was a game. I was having more fun now. I pointed out birds I’d never seen before, and the shapes I saw in the shadows of trees. Brian answered when I spoke, and I could hear a smile in his voice. Maybe even relief. Maybe I just wanted that part.

We unloaded our backpacks into the backseat of the truck that wasn’t and got into the front. I reached over to kiss him, and he kissed me back. I could feel the lump of a box in the pocket of his flannel shirt when he leaned against me. I put my hand on it.

“Keep it,” I whispered in his ear. “Let’s wait and see.”

He drew away and started the car. “Maybe next time,” he said as he drove us out of the parking lot, which felt more familiar to me than the mountain dust clinging to my clothes and hair. “Maybe we’ll make it to the top, next time.”

 

 

 

The story above got an honorable mention from the judge at Hour of Writes, who was reading the pieces blindly. 

Image / flickr: Doug Wheller

Reading Into Things Too Much; A Study in Impossibly Stupid Reflections

Dear Ilana Masad,

The members of the fiction admissions committee have carefully review your application, and I am sorry to report that we are unable to offer you a place in [REDACTED].  We have a limited number of openings and must turn away many promising applicants.  This year, one thousand and twenty-six people applied for twenty-five spaces.

We wish you well and thank you for your interest in [REDACTED].

Sincerely,


[REDACTED]


Director

[REDACTED DIRECTOR’S INITIALS]/jz

It is 5:37am and I am awake and thinking of the nature of time. Because that’s what writers do. Right? Faulkner did it. I must do it too.

At first I thought the typo in the first line was the missing “ed” from the word “review,” but then it dawned on me that this may not be the case! What if the typo is the word “have” that comes before “carefully?” Strike that word out, and the whole nature of this thing is thrown into question. A 5:40am kind of question. If the members of the fiction admissions committee carefully review my application, that means they are still reviewing it, ad infinitum, and even though they “are unable to offer” me a place, they might totally change their minds, if, you know, they keep reading my application over, and over, and over…
This, at 5:42am, is a hopeful, and far more cheerful, way of looking at this whole situation.
Then again, maybe the missing “ed” is supposed to deprive me of what those two letters are shorthand for – think higher ed, continuing ed, that sort of thing. Maybe they’re just rubbing it in. Assholes.

Or maybe they’re encouraging me to seek the “ed” in other places. Maybe I should get a PhD.

But what’s with the double spacing? Look, REDACTED, I’m an editor myself and I totally notice  when  there  are  two  spaces  between  words, mostly because old people are prone to double-spacing because you used to need to do that on typewriters or something. I think? That’s what someone told me. Maybe it was my mom. The question is, REDACTED, did you actually write these letters on typewriters? I mean, that would be on brand, but then again, maybe it’s actually a message hidden in that double space. Are you going to take me on a treasure hunt? Maybe if I look with a magnifying glass, I’ll find a secret QR code there, betraying the nature of temporality and embedded societal ageism (old people double space, young people QR code). Then if I scan the QR code into my phone, maybe I’ll be directed to a link that says PSYCH! YOU’RE TOTES ACCEPTED!

Or maybe, and just maybe, I realize at 5:45am, this is actually a secret Jay-Z marketing campaign. I mean, it makes sense, sort of, in an alternative and paper-killing kind of way. If one thousand and one people are getting this letter (though there’s probably a waiting list, and maybe it’s also twenty-five people long, just in case none of the people who get into REDACTED want to go, in which case it’s nine hundred and eighty-six people getting this particular letter, but I can’t be sure because it’s too early to do math) – well, that’s a lot of shares right there. Every one of us letter-receivers is going to share it with our friends, families, therapists, cats, and neighborhood sympathetic bartenders. Or baristas, baristas are cooler these days. And let’s not forget hairdressers. People talk to their hairdressers, right? Or is that just something from Legally Blond and Orange is the New Black? Anyway, shares. That’s the point. Maybe Jay-Z is going to rebrand himself as jz and is looking to break into highbrow hipster writer culture, you know, the kind that only reads Anna Karenina and e. e. cummings and cries when rats are smushed by buses while smoking American Spirits.

Not that that’s me or anything. (It’s actually not. American Spirits are too expensive and taste gross.)

But if Jay-Z is rebranding, then hey, it’s his own identity and I totally get that. I respect that. Peace be with you, jz.

It’s 5:56am on a Sunday morning, and I have no decided that I’m over you, REDACTED. Because if you really want me to read so much into your letters, you don’t really want me. That’s what they always say about relationships. Don’t be with someone who doesn’t want to be with you. Right?

Or maybe you do want me and just want to play Sherlock Holmes games. Well, I’m sorry, REDACTED. I’m not that smart. Or have that ready an access to opium. Or use the word “ejaculated” to express a way of speaking. No, wait, that’s John Watson writing about Holmes. Or Sir Arthur Conan Doyle writing as Watson about Holmes.

Things are getting meta over here.

It’s 6am.

The Barista

cafe

See the scene: a table made of real wood; chairs too; a drone of unintelligible conversation punctured by ire and laughter (they make themselves heard above any din); a man, a woman; a beer, a coffee; one tipsy, one too sober for her own good.

See me, behind a counter also made of real wood. Reinforced with metal hinges. The structure must be sound. It has to fulfill health and safety regulations. Our kitchen has no wood, I believe. Wood absorbs moisture, I imagine. There is varnish on the counter, to prevent this very problem.

I watch them. They are no more or less interesting than the others here. But I take turns, and give each table its due. Even the empty ones. Especially the empty ones. Those allow me to think about what I saw, what I heard.

But now, it is this couple’s turn. Theirs, at their wooden table, one tipsy and happy, the other listlessly merry, There are many kinds of happiness in the world. Theirs is momentary.

“Can I tell you a story idea? I’m tipsy.”
“Please!”
“Okay, so-” but the tipsy one is cut off, because I am there, not-so-surreptitiously picking up the empties, mug and bottle alike. He is beautiful, this man, and I want him to notice me. I smile. He says, “Thank you.” I stop smiling. The sober one doesn’t look at me at all. She is checking her phone. She’s one of the workaholics. I’ve seen her here before. Only memorable because of her piercings. She is not interesting. She is only average.

I wait until they leave, and I follow them. The beautiful man, he gets on the subway heading downtown. The same subway I take.

I will look for him now. In every car. On every ride. He is not more or less interesting than the others I see every day. He is only more beautiful. No one is interesting. This I have learned from countless observations of the fourteen wooden tables, three-seat bar, and twelve-seater old slab of concrete where students clack on keyboards and read Kierkegaard with furrowed brows.

No one is interesting.

 

 

 

Image / Beshef

Forthcoming Books From Dead and/or Unconsenting Authors

  1. The unearthed copy of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn: The Reunion, in which the friends are in their 40s and sit in a dive bar and reminisce about old times. Intertwined with their discussions are flashback scenes interspersed throughout involving Jim’s life after the Civil War. Anticipated release date: December 10, 2015.
  2. Emily Dickinson’s poetry cycle, tentatively titled Bees of a Feather, which critics who have had a glimpse at the work say will resolve once and for all Dickinson’s obsession with the flying honeybees she so often examined in her poetry. Dickinson’s estate and her publishers are closely monitoring the manuscript and have only allowed readers to examine the work after going through extensive security clearance and signing several gag orders. Anticipated release date: May 1st, 2015.
  3. An edited version of Franz Kafka’sThe Trial, which, up until now, was believed to have never been completed during the author’s lifetime. Kafka fanboys have unearthed what publishers are promoting as the definitive version which will eliminate timeline confusions and will end with a more satisfying and explanatory final chapter and epilogue. Anticipated release date: late 2015.
  4. An as-yet untitled Jane Austen novel about two sisters, their mother, and the rich next-door neighbor who attempts to seduce each of the three over the course of 20 years. The manuscript was discovered among newly found papers belonging to Austen’s niece who scribbled editorial notes all in the margins. Publishers are still debating whether to publish the manuscript with or without the familial editorial touch. Anticipated release date: TBA
  5. W. E. B. Du Bois’ The Talented Twentieth, in which he rethinks the math regarding The Talented Tenth and is embarrassed about the problematic undertones in that first book and engages in lengthy Socratic dialogue with himself in the prologue. He also envisions the future of the African American experience in the United States and predicts, optimistically, that America will lead the charge in eliminating racism from the world. Anticipated release date: Black History Month 2016.
  6. Emily Bronte’s Withering Heights; or, the Story of Katherine in her Unsullied Youth. A prequel to Wuthering, Withering was found among newly discovered effects stored in a basement in West Riding of Yorkshire, where she lived and died. The manuscript includes diary entries and little doodles of hearts with the word “Heathcliffe” in them, as well as a stern lecture by a mysterious old woman about the dangers of emotionally abusive relationships. Anticipated release date: June, 2015. We anticipate inclusion of the title in Best Beach Read lists.
  7. An untitled Nella Larsen novel in which a blonde woman passes for black and a dark-skinned woman passes for white and both engage in a romantic relationship involving cruel grins and soft fingers passing through each other’s hair. The closest to explicit queerness that Larsen has ever come, it is rumored the novel will be released just prior the New York Gay Pride Week in early summer. Anticipated release date: TBA
  8. During the making of the recent documentary and the accompanying book (Salinger), publishers have now revealed that an unpublished story by J. D. Salinger was found in the archives of The New Yorker magazine (unearthed during the move from Times Square to the World Trade Center). The story, titled “Holden’s Hands,” is apparently a precursor to Catcher in the Rye, and will be published in a coming issue of The New Yorker. Anticipated release date: TBA
  9. Grace Paley’s novel – unknown until recently, when a graduate student at Sarah Lawrence College found it buried in the ground beneath the Teahaus – the novel deals with Paley’s recurring character, Faith, and finally puts to rest the questions of how many husbands she had, which ones she divorced, and what happened to her when her kids grew up. Anticipated release date: International Women’s Day, 2016.
  10. In a startling revelation, the Dickens Fellowship, founded in 1902, has announced that it will release a free e-book by Charles Dickens on the illustrious author’s next birthday. The novella, entitled The Afterdays of Ebenezer Scrooge, is said to be a glib and satirical view of Scrooge’s apparent transformation in A Christmas Carol. The Fellowship recommends a strong stomach and an ironic sense of nostalgia for readers choosing to expose themselves to Afterdays. Anticipated release date: December 1.

 

Overload

There was a max limit to the hoist and it was surpassed and the whole mechanism came crashing down on stage. Actors ran away from the collapsing wooden stage, allowing themselves to feel the thrill of escaping a cracking ground that could have tumbled them right into the hell beneath the stage. It was just like being an extra in a movie, except no one had promised them they would be absolutely fine.

The director came out of his shuttered baseball cap and newspaper shelter and rose from his plush red chair. “Just what exactly is going on here?” he shouted, mildly all things considered, as if two schoolboys were ripping at each others’ shirts and throwing punches.

“There’s been an accident,” a voice called from the heavens. It was a squeaky voice, one that wasn’t used to shouting down, but this was Albert’s first day alone because Thespia (not her given name) had called in sick. He was pretty sure he was going to get sued. He wanted to get out of the theater as quickly as possible and pursue his earlier career goal of being a pet-shop owner.

“Well, someone fix it!” the director called out, even less urgently. He sank back to his seat, lowered his baseball cap, raised his paper, and resumed his nap.

The actors began to creep out of the wings, pecking their way through the debris, tiptoeing around the big hole in the middle of the stage. One, a brave soul, said that they should probably get a carpenter. Or a handyman, another suggested. Or woman, interjected a third. Maybe the set designer, a fourth said logically. The stage was part of the set, in a way, wasn’t it?

Albert sat in the heavens, squirreled into a ball, and waited for someone to decide to do something. His hand still held the rope that had been enough to hoist the thing up but not enough to keep the metal bits from snapping.

He thought of how his mother used to tell him that some days are like this, even in Australia, and still wished he were that many time zones away.