Laddered


You stare out the window from your mattress on the floor. You have been living on this mattress, with this window, for three months. You feel the freezing wind coming through the crack between the window and the floor every day as you wake up and still, you haven’t plugged it up with a towel or a t-shirt. Even that much effort feels like a statement of ownership, of permanence. You haven’t put all your books away yet, and you won’t. You refuse to believe that this is home now.

Across the street, through the grimy glass – the place was filthy when you got here and you barely cleaned it – you can see a face peering out of another window. There is a fire-escape ladder beside their window, not the old New York kind of wrought-iron staircase but an actual ladder. You assume it just leads up to the same boring old roof as the one outside your window does. But wouldn’t it be something – you think this as you finally begin to make yourself vertical – wouldn’t it be just something if that ladder went up to her apartment?

In A Perfect World

In a perfect world, she thought, she would be sitting in the passenger seat of her favorite car, with the top down. There would be loud music coming out of the sound system, and she would singing at the top of her lungs, one hand dangling over the door with a cigarette between her fingers. The person driving the car would be her long-term boyfriend of five years, although perhaps it would be her red-head girlfriend of six months; she couldn’t decide which it would be or which one was the correct choice for the perfect world that was being built in her mind’s eye.

There would, of course, be a destination for this car ride. It would probably be a sweet log cabin with electricity and wi-fi and reading lamps but also be near enough to a lake and a decently mysterious forest, just in case she felt particularly nature-loving. There would be a hammock outside, and a cat flicking its tail stretched out on the porch, meowing in welcome. Maybe, if things could be really crazy in this perfect world, the cat would be a tiger or a jaguar, something large and languorous that would make her feel exotic and dangerous.

In the perfect world, she would also be escaping something, because – she was aware of this, even in her bubble-bath dream – anything worth running to is only as good as it is better than the thing it is replacing. In this world, she thought, maybe she’d be escaping the paparazzi who wanted to interview her about her latest best-seller or her most recent and notorious Broadway performance. Very possibly both.

In the perfect world, her voice was perfect, and thought tears rolled down her face, the wind whipped them away as she sang and smoked simultaneously. Things could be beautiful and challenging in her perfect world, satisfying and ever-changing, shifting and interesting and – most of all – regretless.

In her bubble bath, smoothing one hand over her belly, she wished she could at least get the wind to blow away the tears. But the fan was broken, she couldn’t afford her air conditioning unit, and the heat was oppressive, even in the icy bath water. She cried and waited for the contractions to stop, wishing them away in her perfect world.

Carved Innocence

“Carve my face just like it is, okay?” Juliet turned to see how her hair would look piled up on top of her head in a messy knot. The result was unappealing so she let her long, dark locks tumble back down to cover her back.

When she took her eyes off the riveting image of herself, she was almost surprised by the other presence in the room. She was so used to speaking to herself, that it was hard to remember how to act when she did have company.

“Of course, my lady. I would dare not insult you by creating a lesser image than the one you see before you in the glass.” This courtly nonsense was exactly what any poor artist who lived on the whims of the rich was supposed to say.

Juliet didn’t smile. She wouldn’t smile unless absolutely delighted. The uncles that raised her had taught her that facial expressions could cause lines in older age, and they strictly forbade them. Juliet was their prize, their secret weapon, growing into womanhood in relative secrecy and almost absolute privacy in order to be unleashed upon the world at precisely the right moment. Until she was out of their hands – and, if they had their way, she never would be, not entirely – she would do as they said and would be rewarded and punished accordingly.

The artist was one of her rewards. Juliet knew that she was beautiful. But her uncles didn’t know that she was growing shrewd, locked as she was inside the walls of the estate they’d allocated to her. She asked questions of the servants and bribed or charmed them to answer her despite their fears. She discovered how she could get what she wanted. In time, her intelligence might prove dangerous to her kin, and she might become a force to be reckoned with in quite a different way than her uncles had planned for.

But now, having just celebrated her fourteenth birthday, Juliet was getting a statue carved of her. Her uncles had been surprised. “Not a portrait?” they’d asked. “No,” she’d answered. “A statue. Of me in robes. Like a wise woman of the old days.” When they’d begun to complain about the cost of such an endeavor, she’d pouted, frowned, and wrinkled her brow. They had become alarmed, remembering the tantrums she’d had as a little girl and had quickly agreed. “Alright then,” they’d said. “As a birthday gift. How’s that?” She had let her face slacken, thanked them politely, and had walked away softly, demonstrating her perfect posture and the pleasing way her hair swayed back and forth lightly with every step.

Now the artist was taking some sketches of her. Juliet had been worried, at first, that her uncles had gotten confused or had tried to foist a portrait on her after all, but the artist had reassured her. “Ah, no, fair lady, I need the sketches in order to be able to work even when I am not in your presence. Have you not heard about artists and their muses? We do not always work at the most convenient of times.”

Juliet had spent her morning doing what she always did. She read poetry aloud in front of the mirror, listening to the resonance of her voice and practicing to make the tones more pleasing. She sat at the harp and played it for a while, eyes wide open, not getting lost in the music as she’d read in books that some people did. She couldn’t get lost in anything, not because the artist was there, but because she’d been raised to be aware of herself at every moment. She always thought of the way she held herself, moved, expressed her physicality in all its aspects.

The only time she could get lost was when she gazed in the mirror. Only when she saw that she was doing everything correctly and that there would be no lashes, no punishments, no chastising and shaming words from her masters – only then was she able to relax into herself.

It was when Juliet was gazing in the mirror and the weight came off her shoulders that the artist saw the human being in her. Before that, she had seemed like an automaton, a puppet being moved on strings. The artist began to sketch furiously, terrified of losing the one glimpse of this girl whose innocence was never allowed to flourish.

Next moment, Juliet heard the call from one of her masters and the weight of her uncles, their friends and their enemies seemed to sit back on her so that her posture became once more an act of will.

Can and Cannot

“I can’t.”
“But why? This doesn’t make any sense!”
“I guess not. But I just can’t do this anymore. That sounds so fluffy and cliche and… well, not me. I know. But it’s also true.”
“But what’s changed?”
“Nothing. With me, anyway, nothing has changed. That’s the whole point. With you, though? I don’t know. It seems like nothing, at times. But at others… everything’s changed.”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“I know. I guess I’m sentimental. I also just obsess about things, so I assume everyone else does too.”
“I really don’t know what else I’m supposed to say.”
“Me neither.”
“So what now?
“I guess we don’t see each other for a few years. Or ever. You know. Whichever happens to happen.”
“…”
“So you’re not going to say anything? You’re not even going to make me feel like this is hard for you?”
“It IS hard for me.”
“Right.”
“It is! If you don’t want to believe me-”
“No, fine, I do, I do believe you. I just think you’ve never really appreciated how hard it is for me.”
“I do-”
“No, no, you don’t. Because you’ve forced me to make this step myself. True, in a way it’s been me hurting myself through you but you know how hard it is for me to stop hurting myself and if you really cared in any way close to what you claim, you would have made this step before me. But you didn’t. And now I have to. And you’ll hate me.”
“But I still don’t get it. I thought everything was fine.”
“It’s not.”
“You can’t?”
“You can?”
“Yes.”
“Well, I can’t.”

Memory+

My grandparents’ house has always been, and still is, my greatest place of comfort. Now it is a mere memory, one that I will never get to experience in reality again, and there are days when I feel crippled with grief because of that fact. Today was one of those days. I was standing in the shower, letting the hot water stream over my limbs – I had just gotten back from the gym and was feeling my muscles loosen up pleasantly – when I felt, for a moment, as if I were standing in the shower-stall at my grandparents’ place. They had two bathrooms, but the showers in each were identical. The water stream wasn’t very hard, but there was always hot water, no matter what. Incredibly, the same is true of my dorm.

As I stood there, I let my mind flow back through time and imagined what it would be like if I were transported back into one of my memories. I saw myself, younger, stepping out of the shower and wrapping myself up in one of the fluffy towels that had monograms stitched into them. I would then get dressed while the heater blasted loudly onto me and helped me dry quickly. I’d get a shiver when I came out of the bathroom, because the house was always air-conditioned. I would still have a hair towel resting over my shoulders so that my long hair wouldn’t get my shirt wet. I’d walk through the rooms (in this fantasy, everyone was out doing something) and find wherever I’d left my book. I’d make myself two slices of toast and spread peanut-butter thickly on them, and eat them fast while the peanut-butter was still melting into the bread. I’d then maybe take a piece of Entenmann’s chocolate fudge cake and eat it slowly. All this, you understand, while reading one of the books I’d recently purchased at Barnes & Noble.

I’d take the book into my bedroom and read, with the birds making noise outside. I might let myself fall asleep, wake up and read, fall asleep again. I would wake up to find my mother and my aunt sitting outside, by the pool, smoking and watching the sunset as they talked of everything. I’d settle next to them, maybe with a cup of hot-chocolate in the old sippy-cup that I always drank out of there, and let their words wash over me. Once in a while, I might say something clever and make them laugh.

We might take a walk down the street to see the twinkling lights of the city. Or we might be going out to dinner with my great-uncle and his family. Or perhaps we would simply stay in, play word-games or watch a film. Maybe they would do something else while I would go watch episodes of Roseanne on Nick@Nite.

I opened my eyes. I was at college, in the shower, with a limp yellow curtain instead of a glass-door beside me. I am twenty-one and have gone through five cycles of mourning – perhaps six, since I considered the sale of the house that my imagination took me to as a death in its own right. I am confused, obsessive, anxious and often depressed. These are facts that I cannot alter.

But – and this is an important “but” – I have the comfort of knowing that I will always hold memories sacredly, and will never wish to ignore the past. After all, the past can help the present feel a little bit better. As I smoothed my wet hair back and shut the water off in the shower, I felt a longing open up a hole within me, but it also exuded warmth that has kept my heart thumping all day long.

Otherness

The words came slowly. So slowly that they got stuck in his throat multiple times. It shouldn’t be so hard to say it, he kept thinking. It didn’t make sense. The body doesn’t work that way. There’s no mechanism for keeping words inside because they’re painful. The vocal chords work on command and don’t go on strike because of what they’re forced to say. The difficulty lay in the mind, in the heart, in whatever otherness lay deep in his chest and swelled painfully.
He couldn’t say it. He could. He couldn’t. He had to. He wouldn’t. It was too hard.
“I…”
But one word wasn’t enough.
“I think… I think I-”
Three words in the first sentence of a long paragraph that he’d practiced in his mind over and over again. Maybe it was all wrong, really. Maybe, in the end, when it came right down to it, he’d been kidding himself. He could never do this sort of thing. He didn’t know how. Other people did it every day, sure, but they must have something that he didn’t, something sick and unhealthy, or maybe he was the unhealthy one.
“I…”
He tried again, but it wasn’t working. It wasn’t happening. He was going to give up. He had to give up. There weren’t many choices left, if any. A part of him sighed in relief, admitting defeat. He’d known all along he couldn’t do it. Why had he tried at all? There was absolutely no point.
At the moment of giving up the otherness that weighed him down panicked, suffocating. In a gush of air and a burst of passion, it shoved the words out of his mouth.
“I think I don’t love you anymore.”
He stared at the face across from him, watched as it crumpled slowly, and could almost see the otherness that lay in the chest that belonged to that face. That otherness, which moments before had been cushioned comfortably in the knowledge of safety, was crying out in pain, its shrieks not heard but felt. Even as he felt every conscious part of his mind collapse in on itself in the shock and horror of what he’d said, the otherness in him breathed two words into him, words that only years later he’d be able to appreciate and agree with: “About time.”

A Crucial Fireplace

Some say that Fate guides them through life. Others believe that it is God who grasps their hand and tugs them, gently but insistently, into the future. Whether one or the other is true, or whether life is just a series of random happenstances, I am certain that things might have turned out very differently if Amanda had known the the room had a fireplace. Circumstances, then, be they under divine control or not, have the utmost impact on people, and Amanda would always look back at that dratted fireplace as the start of the whole sorry tale.

Amanda, the reader might want to know, wasn’t religious in the proper sense of the word. She believed in God, although she characterized Him with the sense of humor of a rather crotchety, bored old man, but she often forgot about Him in the fun and flurry of the holidays. It was hard to remember, when hanging up cheap silvery-colored ribbons on the Christmas tree and laughing uproariously with her two roommates over wine-coolers, that the celebration on December 25th owed anything to religion at all. It was all a big pageant to her, full of red, white and green, golden stars winking from shop windows, snowmen standing in backyards and children carrying little ice-skates over their shoulders. The magic of Christmas was to Amanda the same now, at the ripe old age of twenty-six, as it had been when she was four years old and wearing a full pajama suit that made her look rather like a koala bear.

But we are straying from our story. The moment of the fireplace, as we must call Amanda’s first glimpse of it, happened on Christmas Eve, but was not directly connected to the birth of the Son, nor to Amanda’s remembrance – or rather, lack thereof – of the meaning of the holiday. The fireplace lay in the room where she was to have her interview for the position of copy-editor in the Local Post, a weekly newspaper that was distributed for free around town and was filled with advertisements and coupons. The room where the fireplace lay was on the ground floor of the tallest office-building in the small city, and Amanda had been working in the self-same building since she’d gotten her M.A. in journalism. Because of her familiarity with the rather old high-rise, she dressed warmly to work every day during the winter, since the heating never worked properly. Naturally, she assumed that her interview for the lowly position in the Local Post – which was, nevertheless, better than her current job as a secretary – would take place in a cold room that had a crack or two in the window.

But, alas, as Amanda discovered when she walked in and saw the figure of Mr. Charles Forthright, the old fireplace that was in the editor’s office was ablaze, and warmth washed over her. She was much too embarrassed and tense to begin pulling off her two sweaters and one of her undershirts, and so she sweltered, face growing redder and forehead sweatier, answering the questions Mr. Forthright posed with liveliness and enthusiasm but what seemed to be extreme guilt or discomfort. It is a sad fact that sweat and redness often are products of liars, and Mr. Forthright was a rather supposing man, in the sense that he supposed things he thought were true without bothering to check them too deeply – he had fact-checkers on staff to do that dreary work for him. And so, although he thought that Amanda looked like a lovely young girl, he supposed that she was hiding something, such as an unwanted pregnancy that would lead to taking time off, or perhaps a health concern that would lead to the same, and as a calculating man, he decided not to give her the job.

Amanda conveniently forgot that she could have asked for a moment to remove her sweaters and get more comfortable. Throughout the changes that she would go through in coming years, she still insisted obstinately that if it weren’t for that fireplace, she would have gotten the job at the Local Post, and her life would have turned out entirely differently.