Good Enough

The sponge lying on the floor of the tub is unattractive. It is still relatively new, but its shape is unappealingly squat and it has sooty stains on it, as if someone has been scrubbing rust crumbs off their body.

It is leftover, this sponge, from previous tenants. It is incredibly absorbing, I find, when I get in the shower and begin to use it. Some people would find this disgusting. My roommate would tell me off, like she does when I pee and don’t wash my hands. She is a neat freak, putting ever pin in its place and surrendering her body to the needle over and over again. There are knife scars on the inside of her wrist. She’s exchanged one habit with another when scratching the surface stopped being enough.

She and I have just moved into a new place. We’re getting actual furniture. We listen to music loudly and don’t care about the neighbors. There are children in the apartments all around us and they cry at night. It’s not exactly payback, blasting Led Zeppelin, but it’s close enough to be vindictive somehow.

The windfall that has allowed us to do this comes from my disgusting habits. My frugality knows no bounds. I scrimp and I save for a living. Companies pay me to do this. It’s a handicap that I stumbled through for years until someone told me it was a talent. I get paid nicely now, but I make my roommate pay me back exactly for half of everything. When we move out one day, each of us finding a new home, we will saw our things in half. I can see the gleam in her eyes at that suggestion. She likes playing with knives.

My room is bare of artwork, books, personality of any kind. Like me, it is unadorned. The only items of significance are hidden beneath my bed, in taped-up boxes. The cardboard is old and falling apart, but I wouldn’t let me roommate unpack and repack them when we moved. Their rotting edges remind me that they won’t always stay shut. It’s important to remember that things can burst from their seams.

One day, maybe I’ll open those boxes. And maybe I’ll buy a sponge of my own. But for now, I keep the boxes shut tight, reinforcing the tape and sweeping away the cardboard dust that accumulates under them. And for now, I use the leftover sponge to purify my pores. I shave my legs with my roommate’s old razor. I tie string around my pants instead of a belt. It’s a good enough way to live, for now.

Advertisements

Nanotechnology [Flash Fiction[

“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.”

“Ooh, exciting.”

“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.”

BFFs

“I do mean it!”
“No, you don’t, you’re just saying it to be nice.”
“Would I do that?”
“Yes. You would.”
“Okay, yes, I would. But that doesn’t mean I don’t mean it now.”
Jane and Erin argued all the time. They had known each other since they were both in preschool and knew each other better than they knew anyone else. They knew their friendship was rare, and they appreciated it, but they couldn’t help bickering. It was precisely because they knew each other so well that they couldn’t help this. Jane knew that Erin always tried to soften her criticisms of any artwork that Jane showed her, just as Erin knew that Jane could never be unbiased when it came to her relationship issues, since she always thought that Erin must be right. It meant that, although they could discuss anything and everything, and although they did, there were some subjects that would always be problematic.
They walked down 42nd street toward Grand Central Terminal and continued to disagree, voices getting shriller until a man painting a cartoon portrait of a little girl in pigtails stared at them with such astonishment that they both burst out laughing and changed the subject.
“So did you and Mark go to that thing?”
“Oh, yeah, we did. It was so boring, you have no idea.”
“But then why do you always go to this stuff?”
“I don’t know, cause he wants to, and I’m like whatever.”
“But you don’t enjoy it so what’s the point?”
“I don’t know.”
Grand Central Terminal was teeming with people going home. It was peak time and Jane and Erin complained about the increased price of the train fare as they bought their tickets from the only two machines on the bottom concourse. They saw a pair of twins walking together and talking urgently to each other with violent hand gestures.
“The one on the right is cute.”
“What? They look exactly the same. They’re both cute.”
“No, the one on the right is better dressed.”
“You’re so full of it. That’s blatantly ridiculous.”
“That’s not how you use the word ‘blatantly.'”
“Oh, fine, English major, educate me, why don’t you.”
And they were off, unknowingly mimicking the twins as they talked with their hands on their way to track 106 to the train. They threw themselves down onto empty seats and continued to talk in loud voices as the train filled up with people in suits, leaving their fancy city jobs and going into the small towns on the Harlem line.
“Excuse me, could you be a little quieter?”
“Excuse me?”
“Excuse you, rather. This is a public place-”
“We’ll speak however we want.”
“Yeesh. Can you believe the nerve?”
“I know! I mean, dude, seriously, how can anyone ask anything like that? It’s a loud freaking train, you know?”
“What if one of us had ear problems?”
“Yeah, like, what if we were half deaf or something?”
“Yeah.”
But they both lowered their voices without meaning to, embarrassed that they’d been talking loudly enough to make anyone ask them to be quieter. They often felt like they were too rambunctious when they were together. They knew that their other friends couldn’t stand being around both of them at the same time, because they would end up talking only to each other, or, if they talked to the others, they would still have inside jokes and references that nobody else could understand and that they refused to explain even when asked about them.
The train began to move and they recited the stops with the electronic voice that came on over the PA system. They took the train into the city every weekend, religiously, and they always left and came back at exactly the same times, so they always knew what stops they were going to pass by and in what order.
“I’m concerned about you.”
“Oh, brother.”
“Who says that anymore?”
“What?”
“Oh, brother. No one says that. Have you been watching old movies again?”
“So what if I have?”
“Oh my god, never mind, that’s like so beside the point. How do you always manage to do this? I was saying that I’m worried about you.”
“And then you went on a rant about how no one says ‘oh, brother’ anymore.”
“It wasn’t a rant. It was an observation. Anyway. You need to go out on another date.”
“Ugh, but boys are icky and stupid.”
“If you like girls, just say so now so I can start finding those for you instead.”
“No! No, I don’t like anyone right now.”
“That’s exactly why I’m worried. You need to get out there again! One bad boyfriend doesn’t mean they’re all like that.”
Jane and Erin continued fighting until they got off the train at White Plains and walked home together, still disagreeing on the subject of dating.

Ryan-ish

Dawn broke, and so did Ryan. He felt his mind splitting, disappearing within a vortex of pain and anguish. He hadn’t thought it was possible to feel this way, but here he was, lying in bed as the sun rose outside his curtained windows, and there was a yawning pit of emptiness sitting within his chest and sucking his internal organs into it. He had yelled, for a while. But then the neighbours from upstairs had pounded on the floor with their chairs and somewhere, Ryan still cared about what they thought, and he shut his mouth, feeling a burning shame come over him.
So for the last couple of hours, Ryan lay in bed silently, barely moving, knowing that the sound of the sheets moving sounded loud only to him and that no one else could hear it, but still too scared to move.
Nothing made sense to him. Nobody had died. Nobody had dumped him, not recently anyway. There was no reason for him to be feeling the way he was feeling. He thought he must be going mad. He wondered whether anyone else in the history of the universe could have felt as much pain as he was feeling at that moment.
There was a part of his brain that was talking sense and that kept telling him that he was merely going through a depressive episode, that it would pass, and that he had a lot of nerve to be assuming that what he was more dramatic or worse than what other people had felt at other times. When he thought of people dying in wars, being tortured and interrogated or gassed, he felt ashamed of himself.
The logical bit of him that was thinking this, the part of him that still had a personality and that hadn’t given everything up to the despair, was also rather intrigued by the whole thing. It was interesting, in a way, to be feeling as deeply about something that was utterly undefinable, unexplainable and unreasonable.
It was that part, that still reliably Ryan-like part, that decided that something had to be done. It forced the languid, limpid body to lean over and grab the phone from the bedside table. It forced the fingers to uncurl from their tight fists and to dial the number of his best friend.
“Ryan? Is that you?”
“Deb?”
“Oh my god, what’s wrong? You sound awful.”
“Yeah…”
“Seriously, Ryan, what is it? Who died?”
“Nobody.” He wanted to say more than this, but he wasn’t managing to articulate the words. His mouth opened but his tongue seemed to dry up almost at once and he gasped for air even though there was a steady breeze coming in from the other room.
“Ryan. Talk to me. Right now. You’re making me talk in cliches, and you know I hate that.”
It was that, more than anything, that somehow made him begin talking. The Ryan-ish part of him couldn’t bear to hear Debra talking in common phrases, so far from her over-stylized and careful vocabulary. Other people asked how you were when they talked to you on the phone; Debra asked you whether your muse was around and whether your lungs felt happy and whether your toes were enjoying the cold. She didn’t say things like “talk to me.”
Ryan explained, haltingly, with many pauses for gasps of air, what was happening. Deb was in London, and he knew even as he was talking that there was absolutely nothing she could do for him. He hoped that talking about it might help, but it wasn’t, not so far. On a normal day, Ryan couldn’t talk to her for five minutes without bursting out laughing, either at something flowery that she’d said or at a witty remark she’d made at his expense.
When she grasped the gravity of the situation, she began to ask him, with utter seriousness, whether he wanted her to come home. He teared up and began to sob, because she was the only person in his life who would do something like that for him. He choked out a resolute “NO” somehow, and made her promise him that she wouldn’t cut her vacation short.
He could almost hear her in his mind’s ear correcting him, as she’d done for the last few months when he’d complained about her going away. “It’s not a vacation,” she would say every time. “It’s a honeymoon. We’re going to dip the moon in honey and eat it and read poetry to each other during the rest of the time.” He’d rolled his eyes and expressed his opinions about how wrong it was for her to get married and she would shove him off whatever chair he was sitting on.
But she didn’t correct him this time, and that was what made him understand. He put down the phone without saying goodbye, and felt a fresh wave of sorrow lap at his feet and steadily rise to high tide. Meanwhile, the Ryan-bit of him was repeating the words “Huh. I didn’t realize that,” over and over again.

Beauty Queen [Flash Fiction]

My name is Gwen. It’s a good, strong name. That’s what my pop always said. He said: Gwen, with a gee and a double-you, you’ve got nothing to be scared of in this world because the hardest thing for you will be learning how to spell your name with those big letters in it. I don’t know what my mama said because she skipped out on me and my pop when I was still real small. My pop always said she was the second prettiest gal in the world, after me. Then he would laugh and say: you had the best looking parents I’ve ever seen.

I guess he was right. I won all the beauty pageants when I was a kid, except for that one year when I was eight when I had to be in the hospital because I tripped and broke my head open. I don’t really remember it but my pop told me that I near broke it in two pieces just like an egg. Like the egg with kings and the horses, only my pop said that because I was the prettiest gal in the world we had the money to fix me up good. I still got a scar under my hair that I can feel. It’s all bumpy, and I kinda like it. I like having this one ugly thing on my head where no one, not even the meanest judges, can see it.

Henry used to tell me that I should be happy that I’m pretty. That was before he and Mick drove into a tree and got their drunk asses killed. I’m still mad at Henry for that, even though it was Mick who drove. I would have told Henry: don’t you get in the car with him, he’s drunk as a skunk. And maybe if it was me then Henry would have listened. But maybe not. My pop told me that there’s nothing I can do now except pray for their souls. But I don’t know if they need me to pray for them because if they died drunk then they must have stayed drunk in the next life too and those two pals had the best time when they were good and sloppy together. They could laugh at anything, even me when I let them and they were the only people who dared do that to my face so I liked it and I let them.

One thing that Henry never told me was that he thought I was pretty. He just said it as if I knew it, like it was the same thing as saying: the sky is blue like the ocean. All the others always kept telling me: do you know how pretty you are? But Henry didn’t because he knew that it didn’t matter to me one way or another if he thought I was pretty, just so the judges kept thinking so. Henry told me sometimes that I was smart, and I liked that best of all.

Kiss Me [Flash fiction]

“Kiss me.

I want you to kiss me.

Do I get a kiss?

So what about a kiss?

How about a kiss?

Goddamn it!”

Shannon’s face screwed up and she put her fists over her eyes, blocking the view of her rapidly reddening face in the mirror. She breathed deeply, trying to calm down. She felt the blush recede slowly, and took her hands away, although her eyes were still closed. Puckering her mouth, she made a soft kissing noise and then uttered a loud “yech!” Turning away from the mirror she grabbed the phone off her bedside table and scrolled through the texts she’d received from Peter. They weren’t many of them, but they all seemed to indicate that he enjoyed the two evenings they’d spent together.

So why won’t you kiss me? she thought fiercely, trying to telepathically send him the question burned across the coils of her thoughts. She wasn’t obsessing. She’d been warned not to obsess again, not over another one. The past three men had been nothing, bodies that she remembered stretched naked in her bed, unappealing in the morning when the alcohol and excitement had worn off. But Peter was different. He and she had known each other for years, had worked together companionably at the factory. There was that one week when she’d been transferred to make up for a lack of employees in some other section, and it had been horrible, full of men trying to hit on her and women who looked at her tank top and low-slung jeans derisively.

Peter saw past that. He told her about his troubles at home and how his wife’s last miscarriage had been the final blow for them. He was a widower, and three dead babies hadn’t helped him emotionally. But Shannon thought that she might be helping. She wanted to see him in her bed from the first time they’d met, but, uncharacteristically, she’d never made a move, even when he and his wife were separated. She waited until the divorce papers went through, and still never hinted at her interest in him. Instead, she continued to date others, pretending that everything in her life was just the same as it had been.

But then, finally, he’d asked her out. And now he wouldn’t kiss her. Tonight was the third date, and she didn’t know if she should kiss him or not. She didn’t want to, though. After years of being the initiator, she thought that it was someone else’s turn this time. She threw her phone back on her narrow bed and strode over to the closet. The door creaked as she opened it. She pulled down one of the blankets from the top shelf, a blue and purple afghan, and flung it over the mirror. Then she picked up her toiletry bag and went to the shared bathroom in order to get ready for her date.

But all night, the two words that kept going around and around her mind, looping like a broken record, were ‘kiss me.’

A Train Waits at a Station

A train has pulled into the station, and waits, humming gently with the still-working engine. It has been at the station for a while, because of a delay on the track further on. The passengers are in no hurry, though. They walk along the platform, from this side to that, strolling arm in arm or alone. They’ve come from a great many places. Some of them have been on the train for a long time and are only too glad to stretch their legs, while others got on only one or two stops ago, and walk along curiously, as if unsure whether or not their journey has actually begun at all.

The cars of the train are all empty, except for the driver who sits in his cabin, idly smoking a cigarette out his small window, and the conductor who walks down the train to inspect each compartment. She reaches the last car, which is always empty of travelers.

The last car is quite odd and unlike all the others. It’s decorated: frames hang on the wall, holding canvases painted with people, landscapes, abstract shapes and sometimes only a few words. But the conductor is used to these, and focuses only on the other things that litter the floor. In the very middle of the carpeted floor lies an orb of many colors. The conductor is one of the rare people who see words in colors, and the gem shines to her in the earthy-brown of deep-rooted friendship, the blood-red of family and parenthood, the bright yellow of childhood and the misty lilac of memories. The orb, made of finely spun glass, glows brightly so that the walls and picture-frames are all lit with stripes of this color or that.

The conductor takes the orb in her hands and carefully wraps it in tissue paper. The light still comes through the paper, and she puts the orb in a small straw box that closes. Through the cracks in the woven straw glints still the light of the colored orb. She puts the straw box in a bigger metal lock-box and clasps it tightly. There, the light now isn’t visible. As an extra precaution, though, she puts the box in a briefcase and locks it. Around her, there are still a suitcase big enough to hold the briefcase, and a steamer-trunk big enough to hold the suitcase. The car itself has a lock on its door, although it’s usually left open.

The conductor leaves, hoping the metal box will be enough to keep the tender orb safe and sound. She walks back up the train, her thoughts dwelling on a strange question – if the orb shines in the box, then is it really shining or could it go out without anyone being the wiser? The thought of the light disappearing brings her incomparable, unexplainable grief. But, as she glances at her watch, she realizes that it will be time soon to call the passengers aboard and keep going, and so she forces herself to get on with her duties.