Spiraling light fixtures collapse the spectrum of the rainbow into single expressions of color. Mass. You are part of a moving mass. The snow in your veins is made up of each and every one of the lights flashing in front of your eyes. White is not the absence of color. Black is, like the holes in space that haunt your dreams on nights of dark sweats that crawl across the covers in teams of walkie-talkie communicating ants. Dance. Your body is one of a hundred thousand others in a stadium radiating with sweating sound. The screams are as distressed as any single body would be in the presence of such staged magnificence. Sorting out one scream from another is like seeing leaves on trees as individuals when you’re looking at the blotchy rendering three year olds make of the oaks in front of their suburban homes. It is an imaginary, purely self-serving process. Can you do it? Are you good enough? Can you see through the mediocrity into the art? Well. Can you? Hands tighten around your waist. Connection. Is that what it is? Skin on clothing woven by Taiwanese children lying on skin burned by yesterday’s oven mishap. All there is to it is to imagine that this contact is pure melding. The melting of whitened blood snow into your consciousness. Bodies bumping in the night. Carnality made spiritual. Spirituality made carnal. Does it matter which? You are an animal, your pulses tell you this, your sight tells you this. Each of your thoughts is rewarded when put into action, reinforcing the thought – your desire for contact pulses into your nether regions, pushing your back into the depth of a stranger behind you, bringing his arms around your waist. Thought. Action. Reward. Dionysus would be pleased. A spectacle of such end of the world beauty was rarely seen by his maenads.
I only know what they showed me on television. But you don’t know what that is either. It’s sort of like how you, one day, might want to feel what it’s like to fly. When you grow up, you’ll have bird families nesting on you. They’ll build their homes in your branches, and they’ll use the worms and caterpillars climbing down your spine to feed their young. And they’ll fly. They’ll fly around your topmost branches and even though you’ll be intimate with the wind, you won’t know what it will feel like to touch a cloud. But you’ll think about it sometimes. And maybe even wish for it. When you see the birds flying – that’s sort of how I think Christmas is. It’s a joyous thing that I’ve seen from far away. I’ve seen others stretch into it like it’s a habit, like it’s as easy as plunging off a branch and rising high into the blue. It’s not something they need to think about. But you and me, we have our roots in different places and no matter how hard we try to picture what it’s like up there in that space, we won’t be able to.
Someday, maybe you’ll learn the language of the birds. Maybe you’ll manage to talk to them. And you’ll ask them what it’s like to fly. That’s what I did. I asked what Christmas was really like. Not the pretend kind I saw from far away. But I don’t know if I ever asked the right question, not exactly. Because even if you’re speaking the same language as someone else, when your roots are in different places, can you be sure you mean the same thing when you say “always” and “regular” and “just”? Could you explain to the birds what it’s like to draw water from the earth?
“Everything is nanotechnology,” Rae says, trundling down the stairs ahead of me. She is tall, a blond goddess of monumental proportions, fit to be swept into a sculptor’s studio and placed on a pedestal, dressed in a robe, and dunked into a pot of wet, white plaster. She’d emerge pure white and statuesque. Literally.
Of course, that would be an incredible waste of her brains and a shame for humanity and the future of science, probably, but sometimes, when I’m feeling particularly spiteful, I don’t care much about that. It seems unfair that someone as smart as she is gets to be gorgeous as well. Shouldn’t she be small, overweight, horrendously disfigured? At the very least, she should have a big nose.
These are the things I think about while she goes on about how the term “nano” is simply one of the hipper terms used in pop-science, a word that the masses can understand and revere because it evokes in them the idea of iPod Nanos and minuscule robots flying in the air like swarms of bees.
“It’s just pop culture, like everything,” Rae says, jumping down the last three stairs effortlessly.
She takes the stairs with me, because unlike her, my mind isn’t made up of purely logical parts and elevators make me claustrophobic.
“Mhm.” This is my most common form of participation in conversations with people. Rae is better than most, because I’ve known her since she was five and I was six, but when she starts talking to me as if I’m one of her college friends, I revert to my humming agreement.
We both blink in the sunlight outside, wishing we’d taken sunglasses. Upstairs, before we’d decided to leave, it looked overcast. The sun came out somewhere between Rae’s fifth floor apartment and where we stand now, on the squeaky clean street she lives on. I think the only reason this apartment complex exists, here behind the heavy gates that guard this pretty housing community, is so that people as rich as Rae’s parents can buy the penthouse floors and create their modernist fantasies in real wood and genuine chrome and titanium. I wonder why anybody would settle on living in apartments here otherwise, unless they’re relatively cheap for the postcode and the status people get from living behind bars of their own choosing.
Rae is oblivious to my derision, as far as I know, but I suppose this is because she’s in a world of particles and dark matter, stardust and what it can tell the world about the origins of the universe. She probably wouldn’t notice the difference in lifestyle if her parents suddenly lost everything and had to move down to the real city slums with me. The only time I visited her at her university, her dorm room was disgusting, full of takeout and pizza boxes and laundry beginning to mold in corners. She forgets to eat half the time anyway. If she ever got poor, she’d manage just fine.
“So what’s up with you?” Rae asks, jogging me with her elbow. It’s pointy, which she never realizes, and it hurts, because I’m a wimp with weak arms.
“I don’t know,” I say. This is always what I do. I need Rae to go farther, to bug me, to ask again, to prove that she really wants to know what’s up with me.
“No, come on, tell me things. The last email you sent me was before my exams and that was three weeks ago. I’m starved for some you-info. How’s work?”
She knows me well. She knows I answer specific questions much better than big, general ones. “Work is okay. This Friday we get to see our Christmas bonuses.”
“Yeah. I guess.”
“No, it is! You’ve been working your ass off, you deserve a fat bonus!”
We walk in silence for a while. I don’t know where we’re heading, and I’m not sure that Rae does either, but we’ve had a long-standing habit of wandering. We’ll find a spot that we like and sit there, eventually. Or we’ll wander far enough to be lost and we’ll laugh at ourselves and figure out how to get home.
“How’s she doing?” Rae asks, stopping underneath a tree. I think she wants to be able to see my face when I answer. There’s only one “she” that is ever asked about in the tone she uses.
I try to smile, and I’m scared when I succeed. I guess I’m a heartless bitch, just like my mom told me I was the other day. It was after we’d gotten home from the hospital and I’d whined about how much I wished I could go to college already. I whined about how I was falling behind everyone else, getting older. When the slap came, I can’t say I was surprised. I was kind of hoping for it, I guess. My father, who’d been taking care of my little brother at home and hadn’t come with my mom and me to the hospital that day, heard the slap and came into the living room.
“She’s almost gone,” I say to Rae now. “It’ll be soon, the doctors say.”
When I married my first fiancee, she and I were only nineteen. We were engaged for the twelve hours it took us to hitchhike from our town all the way to Vegas, where we got married in one of those cheesy wedding chapels. I don’t remember its name, but I’m sure it had the word “Love” in the title, which was apt. We were in love, all right. We were passionately, tremendously, glowingly in love, positive that everybody could see it on our faces. We knew we were going to be together for the rest of our life.
She was also pregnant.
When she first told me, I didn’t even have to think about it. I just asked her to marry me, right there, on the spot, with no ring, no nothing. We were in bed together, and it was dark because we’d shut the heavy curtains in her room so we could sleep late, and because my legs were entangled with hers and her back was to me, I couldn’t even kneel when I proposed. Not my finest moment. But she said “Yes,” anyway, very quietly, and I could hear her smiling.
It was only then, after she’d agreed, that I realized what it actually meant. I’ve heard other people talk about how having babies young means you can’t go to college, but neither of us were heading there, anyway, so I wasn’t worried about that. I actually heard from an old mutual friend a while back that she got a Masters degree in something or other a couple years ago, so maybe she did want to go to school and just never told me about it. When I think about it, there’s a lot I didn’t really know about her. We were nineteen. We didn’t really know how to talk to each other about the big things yet, I guess.
But I knew exactly where I was headed, and that was nowhere. I’d always worked at my parents’ diner, busing tables when I was kid, taking orders when I was in high school, learning how to do the cooking on the longer weekends when the staff had time to teach me. Now that high school was finished, I was working there full time, doing whatever needed doing. My mom was showing me how to do some of the bookkeeping, but I didn’t have the head for the math – “Just like your father,” she’d say, huffing and pushing me half-off my chair with her too-strong arms – so I learned from my father what it meant to be a manager. He taught me how to hire and fire people, how to order the supply we needed, and how to try not to get too cocky, because some days were so busy that he needed to be in the kitchen, peeling potatoes, or out there on he floor, taking orders, and he didn’t get paid any overtime for any of it. “Heck,” he used to say, “I don’t even get a salary, technically. My salary is the profits, and the profits come from good workers, and good workers like working for humble bosses.”
So what was I so afraid of, lying in bed, making plans with my girlfriend-turned-fiancee about how to lie to her folks into giving us the pickup truck for the day so we could go to Vegas and get married? I was afraid of missing out. I couldn’t tell you what I meant, exactly. I just knew, somewhere deep in my bones, that I shouldn’t be getting married when I was still getting pimples on my back that I couldn’t figure out how to get rid of. The thought of holding a baby in a few months threw me into a kind of panic, too. The future stopped for me there. Suddenly, I had no future seven months from that day when I married her. There was white, blank space after that day, space that I couldn’t even imagine.
Later, my second fiancee told me that maybe it was a sign. That maybe I knew what was going to happen, exactly seven months from that day, right on the nose. Then she laughed at herself and said she didn’t believe in things like that. I told her that I did, because I do, but that it wasn’t a sign. If it had been, I would have listened to it. I don’t ignore signs. This was no sign – it was just the terror of a teenager who barely knows what a baby looks like, let alone is ready to hold one and call it his own.
I’ve heard of plenty of people being happy when their baby was born. I’ve never heard anyone admit to feeling what I felt the day my baby was born dead.
“Your voice makes me think of sex,” I told him right after he introduced himself as Thomas, the guy I was supposed to be meeting. It was the year that I’d decided being honest was the best thing to be under all circumstances.
“Oh no, I’m going to kill Vic’… I hate to break it to you, love, but I’m gay.”
“I know, don’t kill Vicky, she’s a sweetheart.”
“But you just-”
“I wasn’t coming onto you. You just have a good voice.”
That was how Thomas and I met. He still says that he’s never been so turned on by another woman as he was by me telling him that his voice made me think of sex. But it did, and it still does. It makes it difficult when he brings guys home and I’m in my room with the lights off and nothing but his dirty talk and my insomnia keeping me company. The walls are too thin in our apartment.
It’s a good thing that Vicky warned me before I met him to watch out for my heart. I would have fallen for him for sure. As it is, I’ve fallen for my boss round the pub, which isn’t a much better choice since he’s married and twenty years older than me. But he’s a flirt, and he’s told me more than once, when he’s had one too many with the lads – “It’s good for business, drinkin’ with the customers, but don’t you ever dare do it,” he always tells me – he’s told me that he’d fancy me in a second if he wasn’t wrapped around his wife’s little finger.
Just look at me. I sound like one of those sad cases on the telly, those girls who are all moaning about the men who don’t fancy them anymore. That’s not what I’m about. My life isn’t about the lads I fancy, nor about the ones I bring round from the pub when I’m feeling lonely and need someone to distract me from Thomas’s voice.
What’s my life about, then? I take pictures. That’s what I do when I’m not working or out having fun with Thomas and the rest of the gang. I photograph people around the city. Just people. Anyone, really. My mum thinks I’m crazy, and dad thinks that I’m wasting everything I learned in art school.
I used to paint, see. I still can do, I suppose, but it doesn’t give me that feeling, you know the one, that oomph down in the pit of your stomach where everything goes when you’re terrified or extra happy. Remember when you first went really high on the swings as a little kid? Your mum or dad or big brother were pushing you and you wanted them to stop, and maybe you even told them so, but they ignored you and kept pushing you higher and higher and your little hands were holding on so tight that later they stank of metal for hours. And then, when you were so high that you were getting dizzy just thinking about it, you came back down and your belly came right up into your heart. Even though you didn’t know anything about biology, you knew that shouldn’t be happening, your stomach shouldn’t be moving up to where it did, and it felt like it was being tugged with a bit of string, yanked really, and it was so weird but also felt good. That’s what I’m talking about. That’s what taking pictures feels like.
Not always, obviously. But when I get one right, it feels just like that.
This morning I got one right, for instance. It was the best thing I photographed all month. It’s a woman feeding a bunch of squirrels in the park. She’s sitting there, not on a bench or anything, just on some of the grass that isn’t wet anymore now that the sun is finally making an appearance, and she’s got this vat of popcorn in her lap. There are squirrels all around her. It’s strange. I still don’t know if she was bonkers or homeless or both or neither because I stayed far away so that I wouldn’t scare the squirrels. They were around her in a circle and they kept running forward, right onto her lap sometimes, to take some popcorn. Then they’d run away and eat it with their back to her.
In the picture I took, though, she’s eating some of it herself. All these squirrels, some stealing the stuff right from that cardboard bucket she was holding, and she takes this fistful of white popcorn and stuffs it into her own mouth. Like she was starving or something. It made my stomach go oomph, all right.
It was the day that he hugged her that he realized that she was in love with him. He’d just finished a gig, and he was sweating, still in the suit he always wore on stage. She ran up to him, smiling, her shoulders hunched forward and inward a little bit because of her lifetime of insecurity and the several years of painful shyness that she’d recently gotten over. She was nice, and he was glad that he’d met her. But when she hugged him, he felt her body melt into his and the embrace was perfect, comfortable, warming. There wasn’t anything suggestive in it, nothing sexual. But it was sensual, and that was worse. It was the sheer warmth and feeling in the embrace that made him realize that things had taken a turn down an alleyway that he wasn’t sure he was ready to enter into.
He wasn’t scared of love, nor was he scared of relationships. He did relationships well, and he’d always been thankful of that, especially when he saw his band members fall prey to their own effed up desires and needs that ended up only hurting them and everyone around them. He’d never been in the same band for more than two years, and every time the bands broke up, or fell apart as was usually the case, it was almost always triggered by one of the members having relationship issues. Of course, the underlying causes were deeper – drinking problems, drug addictions, depressions, inability to deal with the stress of constant touring and little or no money. But the immediate cause had always been a bad girlfriend or boyfriend, a lover posing an ultimatum, or a blowout fight that invited the neighbors to call the police.
He didn’t know why he hugged her the second time. They stood outside, smoking together, and he was glad that she’d come to see the show, like she said she would, even though she’d known that it would be the same set as the show they played two weeks ago, when she’d first seen him. They talked about innocuous things, like movies made by his favorite playwright and the place she’d grown up in. He told her about how he’d heard once that Disney had planned to build a theme park on the moon and call it LunarDisney. She’d told him about the way she knew her parents had done drugs in the 70s. There was nothing too personal in the conversation, nothing telling. She didn’t laugh at the things he said and he didn’t lean forward and tough her all the time. But at some point, almost out of the blue, he leaned forward and hugged her a second time, and the words “I’m glad I met you” seemed to hover between them, almost-but-not-quite-spoken by either or both of them.
He didn’t mean to lead her on and he was determined not to do so. After all, he was leaving soon, moving to another city, and she wasn’t even finished with college yet and wouldn’t be going anywhere for a while. They were going to be leading different lives and they both knew it. But she was in love with him, even though she hardly knew him, and while he wasn’t in love with her, he did feel a closeness that he didn’t know the origins of.
He worried that he would hurt her, especially after that second hug. They finished their cigarettes and discussed what each of them would be doing that night. Neither one suggested that they spend the night together, but he felt a vivid image tugging at his mind in which they woke up together and he smiled at her, knowing that she didn’t mind that his teeth were crooked and that she thought his smile was nice despite them.
She didn’t have any such visions. She didn’t even think he remembered her outside of their brief meetings. That was alright, because love, for her, wasn’t what it was for him. She loved many people, all at once, and felt deeply towards them all. She believed that people were good, and that there was something beautiful in everyone. She was naive in some ways, even though she’d been hurt enough in her life to know better. But she wasn’t expecting anything of him, not of him, and although she sometimes succumbed to wish fulfillment and painted an abstract in which the swirls of color represented her and another whom she loved, she still never verbally expressed that love to anyone.
They didn’t hug when they parted. They bade each other good night, and went their separate ways.
The day was brisk and revenge was in the air. Trevor was looking forward to the end of it all. He wanted to reach the point at which he would feel vindicated and satisfied. But he didn’t know when that would be, and even though the wind blowing the strands of damp hair away from his face was cool, he still felt too warm and continued sweating profusely. He contemplated taking off his coat, but that wouldn’t be quite right. Revenge required a certain style, there were standards to be met, and those included the long, black leather overcoat he was wearing.
He knew he looked the part, but he wasn’t feeling it anymore. When he’d woken up in the morning, everything had felt right – the stars were aligned in his favor and his muscles were loose and pliant as he conducted his daily exercises. Everything matched his expectations, right up to the fine spread of grayness that filled the sky in a perfectly foreboding way.
The clothes were already prepared from the night before and they lay draped over the chair beside his bed, inviting him to put them on. He put music on first so that he could pretend he was in a movie. When he dressed, he made sure to pull his sleeves taut in time with the bass line and to knot the tie when the drums started up again after the bridge.
Trevor lived with a soundtrack. Although he worked in a job that he enjoyed – he was a studio musician – he wanted to work at something different. He wanted to be the person who chooses the music to go with each bit of a movie. When his friends described their lives to him, he constantly thought of which song should go with each instance. In his own life he kept meticulous playlists on his iPod and was ready for any situation he might fall into.
Today he was listening to his revenge playlist, but he only kept one earphone in because he also needed to hear the door opening. When it opened, he would be ready for her.
He tried to make his hand stop shaking. It looked distinctly unprofessional. The only thing he could hope for was that when she came in everything would suddenly work on instinct, just like in the movies. That’s what should happen.
But the door slammed open and she rushed out, clearly in a hurry. She was putting her earrings on as she jogged to her car. His hand kept shaking, and the metal didn’t glint, and it was all wrong now. Somehow she was already in the car, and the car was starting and then she was gone, and Trevor was left there, hunched behind the rose bush, the sweat finally growing cold on his face and his hand finally beginning to steady.
Too late. He was too late. He wanted to scream. His music stopped and he looked at his iPod and saw that it had died. He must not have charged it for long enough. This was awful.
“This is awful,” he said aloud. “This isn’t how it should go.” He wanted to ask someone what his next line was, or maybe ask to do the whole scene from the beginning, but life didn’t work like that and there was no director waiting to say “cut!”
It started raining as Trevor walked home and he wondered whether this was a turning point. Was this when the hero of the story was supposed to learn something? Was he supposed to take this as a sign or should he just try again tomorrow? Maybe he needed a sunny day, something less obvious than a gloomy day. Or perhaps he needed to just break into her house at night and do it then.
When he got home he put another playlist on. This one was called “Disappointment.” After a moment he changed it to the one he’d named “Failure.” It sat better with him. Stretched out on the bed, on his back, he struggled out of his clothing, trying not to lift his body very much because he was suddenly exhausted. He wondered whether he was coming down with something. He was drenched from the rain, after all.
The phone rang. He didn’t pick it up for a while, but finally, when it didn’t stop ringing, he decided to answer. It was her. She was asking him if he was ready to be friends yet. He said “Yeah, okay,” and made plans to meet her for dinner that evening.
Maybe there had been a reason for his failure after all.