Don’t Tell

I’ve never told anyone this before. It’s one of those stories that’s been locked up in of me, tucked into some crevice behind my heart so that nobody can ever get to it. I don’t open up easily. Nobody sees what’s in my insides, and usually I forget to look. It’s much easier that way, if I just pretend that all I have in me is the dark twisting coils of intestines and brains. There’s nothing but blood and guts in there. No truth, no hurt.

When I was thirteen my best friend was Ann who lived three floors up. She was two years older and I followed her around everywhere. I’m sure I was like a little puppy, just tagging along hoping for a rub on the head and an affectionate word. We’d been friends for ages, and it didn’t used to matter as much. That is, she’d been the cool older girl but when she was younger she had played mother, pretended to take care of me and laughingly protected me from the terrors of the swing set or the fire escapes. When we got older she didn’t want a kid to take care of when she was hanging out with her friends. I would tag along, yes, but I sat and tried not to be a bother while she did whatever it was that cool older kids did. She got these new friends in high school, Eric and Jay especially, and she spent a lot of time with them. Something about them made my skin cold and my shoulders hunch.

Eric seemed to have a thing for Ann right away, and she almost but not quite teased him about it. She would give him that sidelong glance and her eyes slid right over to him and her lashes curved in just such a way that they only did for him, but for ages that was all. He pined after her, putting an accidental hand on her waist and absentmindedly playing with a strand of her hair, while she demurred. I think even she got bored of flirting with him like that. Anticipation can run on so long that you’re not tense with it anymore, you’re just tired.

Once she had the boys over, Eric and Jay, just like always, and I left to go downstairs and do some of my homework. I knew she didn’t really want me there because she sent little jabbing glances at me. I stood their pricking for a while and then, stung, I left. When I got into my own apartment my parents were out and my little brother was at a friend’s, so I really had to do homework. I sat and did my math problems, itchy with anger, until I gave up because I couldn’t concentrate. I went back up to Ann’s and her mom let me in and then retreated back to the kitchen. She always did hide from her daughter. I walked down the hall and then I froze.

The hallway was long, with the rooms all branching off to one side. Ann’s room was at the very end, and the door was ajar. Through it I could see a sliver of her bedroom, and in the sliver I could see her and Eric. Jay’s laughter was snaking through the crack in the door so I could tell he was in the room, but I didn’t even think about that until later. I could just see Eric, leaning over Ann where she was against the wall, his hands pressed against the wall on either side of her, his face close to hers. She was smiling in a funny sick way, her mouth in a line. Eric slid his hands down to her shoulders and pressed closer, put his face into her neck. Ann said no, Eric, come on. Look Jay’s right there. Stop it. He didn’t stop. He just pushed closer to her.

I was standing in the hallway, my whole body cold and my face hot. I burned and froze there, unseen, until my mind came crashing back and I turned and ran. I don’t know if they could hear my feet pounding away but I didn’t look back, I just left. I don’t know what happened after that. When I saw Ann the next day she didn’t act like there was anything wrong. Eric and Jay ignored me like usual.

I could have interrupted them, maybe. At least the annoying kid from downstairs might have made them stop, but I didn’t. I stood frozen until I ran like I’d been scalded and I had to get away and never go back, but I could have done something.

A List of the Reasons He Didn’t Go After Her

1. The day before she left, he walked into the bedroom to see May shoving books and clothes into her big overnight bag. She didn’t look up when Brian came into the room, and he didn’t ask what she was doing. He had a lurching feeling in the tangled mass of his gut that if he said anything about what she was doing, she’d have to tell him why, and her words would unravel him completely.

2. The day before that, Brian had mentioned that someday he wanted to move out of the city. It would be nice to live somewhere quieter, or at least to live somewhere and stay awake at night because of owl calls and crickets instead of sirens and car alarms. May loved the city. He said he wanted to live somewhere with more trees than buildings, and she scoffed. She said, “Yeah, and go to bed at 10 pm every night, and have a handful of kids and a minivan. Yeah, right.” He had shrugged. She started to say something, and then she stopped. Finally she shrugged too, but not in the way that meant she couldn’t be bothered to argue about it. He was well versed in her shrugs, in the flow and jerk of her body in all its expressions. She shrugged in the way that meant it really didn’t matter to her what he did with his future.

3. Three weeks before, she had gotten angry at him. They’d gone to Emily’s party together and sat like a good little couple at the table, commenting on how delicious the food was. He’d had a nice chat with Patricia, who was sitting next to him along because Neil was on a business trip or something like that. Everybody knew that Neil screwed around; he practically bragged about it every time he saw anyone. Brian smiled at her a lot, wishing that she wasn’t dating such an asshole. She was a perfectly nice girl. When they got home, May had rounded on him and accused him of flirting with that pasty-faced simpering little twit all night while she was sitting right there next to him. He had protested, because that really hadn’t been how he thought of it at all. He was just being nice to her. They went back and forth for an hour. She asked him tearfully how he thought it looked to everybody else there. He shouted that he didn’t know what she wanted him to do, just ignore the person sitting next to him for two hours, because he wasn’t about to do that. May walked into the bedroom and slammed the door. He waited seven minutes–he knew this by now, five was too short and ten was too long–and then went in to talk to her. Usually they argued for another few minutes and then they both apologized and had make-up sex. Now he went inside, sat down next to her on the bed, and she turned away from him. He tried to talk to her, and she turned back. “Whatever,” she said. “Let’s go to sleep already.” She seemed tired of the argument, tired of caring, and tired of him.

4. The day she left, May didn’t do anything dramatic. She didn’t write a letter, left on the living room table for him to find later. She just sat down next to him on the couch, where he was reading a magazine. She said, “We have to talk. This isn’t working out, and we both know it. I’m going to go. I hope that eventually we can be friends, you know? I’m really sorry.” Brian had nodded, numb, while she hefted her bag onto her shoulder and walked out of the apartment. In her absence, he melted onto the floor and spread out in wisps, a sprawling puddle. He didn’t know how to pull himself together without her.

5. When she left, she kissed his cheek in a polite sort of way. That’s what undid him the most. Her lips touched his cheek as if they had never been anything other than casual acquaintances. He didn’t know how she could kiss his cheek and walk away from his life as if they weren’t already entwined and impossible to untangle from one another. If he had gotten up and chased her down the stairs, what could he possibly have said? Already he didn’t matter to her. He could tell.

6. He didn’t know that she wanted him to.

A Fairy’s Tale

If I tell you a story, will you go to sleep after? No more snacks or trips to the bathroom. You have to promise. Crossed fingers don’t count, it’s a promise anyway. You can’t fool me.

Okay, listen. Sorry, yes. Once upon a time, in a land far far away, up in the mountains lived a fairy. She wasn’t the kind of fairy that sits around on mushrooms or swoops in to sew for a god-daughter. She’d always been a fairy. You could tell by the wings that rose like stiff lace from her shoulders, and the fact that she was four inches tall. Most fairies lived in forests, not up mountains, and that was exactly the problem for this fairy.

Hush, darling, I’m getting to the important part. Don’t you know that in order to learn the heart of a story, you need patience? You must be able to hear your own breaths if you ever want to find the pulse of a tale. Listen.

And the fairy was very lonely, for she had no friends. She had lived with her mother and father on the mountain, but they had gone and she had lived for a long time by herself. She was still almost a child, because fairies live so very much longer than we do, but for us her lonely childhood would have seemed a very long time. The mountain was cold for a little fairy by herself, and when it snowed she huddled in a crevice between her favorite stones and imagined that the flurries of white were warm. She had no friends, and so she had a very good imagination instead.

Of course, you can have both imagination and friends. It’s just much harder to live if you haven’t got either.

The fairy had enough one day. She was tired of wedging herself in a crack in the rocks and pretending she wasn’t shaking with cold. Living alone and lonely was exhausting, and she wasn’t going to do it anymore. The mountain was very tall and very steep, but the fairy was determined to start flying. Her little lace wings held her up as she hopped and skipped from one crag to another cliff. She took a leap off an edge and beat her wings until they blurred in the thin air, and she drifted until she settled on her tiptoes and jumped off again. Finally, after long days and long nights, the fairy reached the bottom of the mountain.

I don’t know what country the mountain was in. Sweetheart, it’s a story, so probably it’s in a country that doesn’t exist on this planet. While I’m telling the story it exists in your head, and that’s the place you should look to find it.

The fairy was so glad to feel the crunch of gravel and the satiny shush of dust on her feet that she walked after she left the mountain. She walked through a valley and a plain, and she swam across the river. The water was cold and bright against her skin, and she thought in a lovely delirious blur that she’d never felt anything so beautiful and pure. Once across the river she was in a field. She walked through the field and found herself in a meadow. At the edge of the meadow—her breath caught—she saw the furry edges of trees bristling on the horizon. The fairy loved walking. The grasses brushed against her feet like friendly cats. But now she was impatient, for she knew that fairies live in the forest. So what do you think she did next?

No, even if you could guess the answer would be the same. Some stories change shape to fit around you, but this one has its shape already. If you close your eyes you’ll be able to see it better.

She tried to fly. Running wasn’t fast enough. Only wings could take her to where she knew friends were waiting. The fairy leaped upward and felt the air catch under her wings, and then she sank back down to the ground again. Her knees folded under her, and the little fairy crumpled on the grass. She didn’t understand. What was wrong with her wings? Stumbling, she pushed herself to her feet again, and she walked across the meadow. She almost didn’t notice the grass brushing against her feet, because she was so worried about her flying. She entered the forehead with a creased forehead and an anxious stare. She almost tripped over someone, who let out a cry and asked who she was.

“I’m a fairy,” said the fairy.

“Yes,” said the stranger, unfolding wings from her shoulders. “I can see that. In fact, I’m a fairy too. My name is Lianet. You look upset. What’s your name?”

“I don’t know,” said the fairy. “I never needed one before. I used to live on the mountain alone, but now my wings don’t work.”

“Ah,” the stranger smiled. “Wings only work on the mountain, in the cold. When you hop down from on high you have more space to fly in, and the frozen air can keep you aloft. Lacy wings like yours won’t work in the forests or the meadows, the fields or the valleys, over the river or through the plains. Sometimes to fly for a minute you just have to climb a tree and jump.”

I know you’re very tired, and so we’re almost at the end. Do you think our fairy will give up the glory of flight to live in the forest, where the trees crowd one another and the squirrels chatter at everything that moves? Yes, I think so too.

The fairy thought about it for a while, and then she shrugged. Her lacy wings rippled in the air with the movement. There are worse things, she thought, than jumping out of trees with new friends. She could be flying alone. And so the fairy lives in the forest now, with a new name and a new friend. Sometimes she climbs to the very top of the tallest tall tree, and while she’s there she can see the very tip of the mountain where she used to live. Then she jumps into the air and lets her wings carry her down. She knows that there will be somebody to meet her at the bottom.

Good night, love.

The Missing Self

In his eighteenth year, Ben’s self went missing. He didn’t realize for a long time. Perhaps, he realized later, it had been missing for years. One day he woke, stretched from his bed, and realized that it was gone. His shadow on the wall was motionless, crooked across the corner, somehow emptier than he thought it was.

His parents didn’t act like anything was different. They were sitting at the kitchen table. His mother bent over the newspaper sprawling on the table, and his dad was already making Ben a bowl of cereal. They always kept to their morning routine. His dad used to say that it kept them stable. Ben hadn’t understood it for a long time because he thought the word only had something to do with horses. He ate his cornflakes just like he did every day. They crunched in his mouth the same way. The tinny edge of his mother’s hum of interest still bit into his nerves just as they always did. He couldn’t explain why everything was different. It wasn’t even something that he could put into words. It was just that suddenly, with no warning, his self was gone. He barely knew what that meant, but he felt the gape in his chest where his self wasn’t.

School didn’t change. His teachers didn’t care if Ben had his self with him, or if he was conscious. He got through his classes and nodded through lunch just like always. High school was almost over, and nobody really noticed any of the seniors anyway. After school he caught up with Vanessa, his girlfriend. She always waited for him at the next corner. Her face held a worried sort of hope until she saw him. She was relieved he was there, every single day. He still marveled at that.

They held hands and walked down the street, bumping shoulders. Vanessa talked for a little while about her science teacher who was a jerk, and about her best friend, who was also a jerk. She asked him how his day was and then got anxious when he waited to answer. Finally, Ben said, “I don’t know, babe. Something’s weird today. I don’t know. I woke up feeling really funny, like I was all screwed up. I don’t know why though.”

She asked him a lot of questions, and he struggled to answer her. When it started to get dark he kissed her goodbye and went home. His parents talked about the news at dinner, and he thought dimly about how he would sort of miss tuning them out when he left next year. When he brushed his teeth, he stared at himself in the mirror and wondered what was missing. His eyes were the same brown eyes as always, but he didn’t recognize them. It was like he was looking at a photograph of somebody he didn’t know very well instead of his own reflection.

When he woke up in the morning, his self was still gone. The next morning, too. It came to feel like a little numb patch in his chest where the flesh had healed over until you could barely tell that anything was wrong. Ben was quiet normally, but he was silent now. His parents worried that he was having second thoughts about his future. Vanessa worried that she’d done something wrong. Ben worried that he’d never get his self back.

After a month of missing self, Ben’s grandfather slipped and fell. He was okay, but Ben’s mom freaked out. Both his parents left for a night, and Vanessa took the opportunity to come over and sleep in his bed. She stroked his skin and whispered to him, trying to get him to respond, but he didn’t know what she wanted. She clung to him, so he held her. In the morning when he woke next to her, he didn’t feel anything. His self was still gone and the middle of his chest was numb. He put some of his clothes in a duffel bag and wrote an email to his parents that he was going to go camping with his friend Trevor and they shouldn’t worry. He made breakfast for Vanessa.

His girlfriend came downstairs and kissed his neck. He gave her eggs and toast. They sat and ate, and finally Ben said, “I want to talk to you.” She knew enough to be afraid, and she looked at him with fear. He said, “I don’t think we should, I mean, can we? I want to, we should, break up be friends stop seeing each other.”

She started crying at once, and he got up from the table to grab his duffel bag. “Why?” she said. “What did I do?”

He shook his head. “Nothing. I’m sorry. I’m really sorry. I need to go find my self.” And he left.

Drawing the Figure

It was hard to think of it as anything other than a naked person just sitting in the middle of the room. Then again, it was also hard to see it as that without getting caught up in the twisting curves of her body. Not in a sexy way, even, though it would have been easy to be just a kid about it, to snicker and save jokes up for later. Elaine wished that she didn’t want to make jokes at all, but possibly the urge to giggle would go away. The woman hunched as she took her robe off, and her shoulders were still trying to curve around to cover her body even as she was sitting nude in the midst of a bunch of staring strangers. Elaine felt a stab of empathy for the woman, uncomfortable as she looked despite most people’s seeming indifference. Everybody else was just measuring limbs with charcoal held up before them, squinting and sweeping confident strokes across their paper. Elaine picked up her pencil and held it to the paper, waiting for some idea of what to do. She watched the light cling to the woman’s hip and thigh, studied the shadow reaching down her waist, looked for a long time at the flow of her neck into her shoulder and the jut of her collarbone.

Sarah kept her eyes on the guy by the corner. He was looking at her too, but he wasn’t looking at her face. She felt the blood coloring her cheeks and tried not to wince. So there was a good-looking man staring intently at her naked body. He wasn’t exactly smiling about it. It was a strange and singular experience to have her body be the subject of such an academic way of looking. People had looked at her body in a lot of different ways in her life, and when somebody that handsome looked at her naked it was either with something approaching indifference, or with lust. She’d never felt that detached kind of interest before, and she didn’t think she liked it. Still, it was intriguing. Their job was sort of to find something beautiful in her as she just sat there, more or less, wasn’t it? She didn’t know anything beautiful about her own body most of the time, except for the times when she fit perfectly with somebody else, or the odd moments when the shape of her own face and body in the mirror after a shower startled her like that of a beautiful stranger.

The model was pretty, in a bland kind of way. She was sort of skinny but with a charming swell of the hips and belly, and her face was okay. That wasn’t the point though. Trent was trying to figure out how to draw her, and he was sort of stuck. He had an outline on his paper, her vague shape sketched in, but he didn’t know what to do with it. Was he going to color big blocks of shadow and streaks of highlight in white, or was he going to shade exhaustively until you could almost feel the slopes and hollows in the deepening of black? Maybe he should crosshatch. Maybe it should be very stylized. This was always his problem. He could see her as a person, as a girl, and then she was not very interesting. Trent wasn’t great with people. He didn’t know how to talk to girls unless they talked first, because then he could tell if they wanted to sleep with him or not. Either way it was easy from there. This girl would probably sleep with him. That wasn’t the point. The point was that he was looking at the naked body of this woman in front of him, a stranger, and he couldn’t figure out how best to draw it. As a girl her face was dull and her body predictable, but as art she was altogether too fascinating. The bumps and crevices of her body wanted his pencil to trace them. He had to carve out the shadows and round out the light shining on skin. The problem was that there was too much beauty in one body to put on a piece of paper. His pencil was still and the paper was full of possibilities.

Losing Light

The sun was singing on the bricks the last day of Malcolm Trench’s life. He had always liked to sit and watch as the sun went down. The day aged and the light yellowed until it faded and left altogether. Something in it enchanted him.

When he was younger, he had used to sit with Eva, his arm around her shoulder, and watch together as the sun went down. He worked odd hours as an engineer, so he was home around sunset. She was an accountant and she got out of work just after five, usually, so she would meet him at his apartment at six and they would sit in the living room by the big window. They used to just be friends, because she had been the younger sister of his childhood buddy. He had loved her forever. Even when they were friends she often came to his apartment to watch the sunlight disappear. There wasn’t a very good view from the living room window. The buildings leered at them, dirty windows and chipped paint, and they could barely see the sky. Instead they watched the sunlight shift colors, briefly making beauty skim the cracked and crumbling buildings. The white inside of the apartment cooled to eerie blue-gray as if the apartment was closing off to the rest of the world, dipped in shadow, and it was just them inside with the blue-gray walls around them.

One day Eva brought a pizza over and they ate and talked in low voices as the sun went down. She made a joke and he grinned. They were quiet for a moment. Malcolm remembered, later, how she looked then with the light cast in a glow down the line of her face and the hair curling free to her shoulders. She leaned forward, as if it was a casual calm motion and not one that sent shivers through him, and she pressed her mouth to his for the first time. Her lips were slippery with grease and soft. They didn’t notice the sun slip past the horizon or the dimming of the world to darkness.

After that Eva came over every evening and they watched the sunlight sidle away across the sky together until they were too distracted by the press of his arm on her back, the warmth of her thigh against his, and they scrambled and pushed at each other on the living room sofa. He could still remember what her sweat smelled like.

When she got pregnant he knew they had to get married. It was the right thing to do. She cried, tears trapped between her cheek and his shoulder, and he held her. They were too young, but they didn’t know that until later. They sat together, her with her growing belly, in his living room looking out the window. He rubbed her feet while the sun retreated. They got married in a courthouse ceremony. Malcolm’s mother came, and Eva’s parents sent them a letter of congratulations. The baby was born three months later. They named it Henry. Malcolm wanted to love the little red monkey as much as he loved his wife. He tried very hard.

Two years after they got married, he left. Perhaps she left. Probably neither of them really knows anymore. There wasn’t any reason to stay together any longer. Technically, they never got divorced. It comforted Malcolm for a while to know that there was still a piece of paper somewhere tying his name to hers. Eva sends him postcards sometimes with updates on Henry, who recently turned fourteen and has so far obstinately refused to discover girls. They both visited Malcolm last year. It was a short and awkward visit, except for the last night they were there. The three of them, the disjointed family, had sat in Malcolm’s new living room in the chairs he picked up for cheap down the street. There were two windows without curtains. The family sat with their dinners on their laps, waiting for the sun to go away. The light stretched thin and the shadows invaded. Henry was calm and quiet, not in the sullen teenage way he was growing into but in a peaceful way. Eva smiled unconvincingly at Malcolm and there was a kind of recognition in her smile. For one moment, they were together again in the onset of evening.

Earlier this evening, Malcolm left work. His boss had finally handed out the Christmas bonuses, apologizing grudgingly that it had taken him all the way into the new year. Malcolm cashed the check and waited too long to tuck the money into his wallet. A teenager shoved into him and yanked a gun out of his shorts. Malcolm looked into the trembling barrel of the gun and the kid told him to hand over the money, now. Malcolm backed away, tried to look around. The teenager whipped the gun into Malcolm’s head. It bounced off his skull with a thud, and Malcolm collapsed back onto the bricks. The kid grabbed his wallet and took off without looking back.

When the gun hit Malcolm’s skull, a blood vessel burst in his brain. He died at once. The kid would probably have been horrified to know that. His name was Brian and he carried a gun without bullets because he wanted to look threatening but didn’t want to go to jail. He thought he had just knocked out the guy outside the ATM. He ran and congratulated himself on making so much easy money. Brian had a long and convoluted life that led him to this moment, that thud, and the pieces of his life fit together in interestingly intricate ways. However, this is not Brian’s story. It is Malcolm’s and it ends here, with the setting sun singing on the bricks.

Messy

Mashed potatoes were all over the ceiling and the boots were making the table muddy. She knew she should never have let Harry look after the kid. As Emma stood in the doorway of the kitchen, she watched a clump of potato detach and fall, with a wet thunk, to the floor. There was a scuffling sound in the hallway and Harry appeared with a spray bottle of cleaner, a sponge, and a dawning look of guilt.

She watched him approach without saying a word, her mouth tight, her fingernails engraving lines on her palms. Harry shuffled past her, into the kitchen, and applied himself to the table. She didn’t move as he scraped the mud off of the wood with a rag and then sprayed the table with surface cleaner. He scrubbed until the sponge had removed all the mud, and then it seemed to occur to him to take the boots off. He dropped them, and they thudded on the tiles. She signed at the spray of dirt from the soles.

“Mama, what is Daddy doing?” Great, Emma thought. Angie was up again. She turned and picked up her daughter.

“Don’t worry, baby, he’s just cleaning up the mess you two made. It’s okay. Go back to sleep, okay?” She bounced Angie on her hip, gently.

The child clung to her neck. “It’s dark in my room. I don’t want to sleep. I’m not tired.”

Emma disentangled her daughter and held her hand, pulling her down the hall. “I know. I’ll put the nightlight in, honey, but you’ve got to sleep. Can you try?”

Angie nodded. Her eyes were round and trusting. Her daughter’s face sent a wave of warmth through Emma, edged with irritation. She lifted Angie into bed and dragged the blanket over her, kissed her forehead, and plugged in the nightlight. Motherly duties dispensed with, she returned to the kitchen to check on her husband’s progress. He had found a mop and upended it to wash the ceiling. The stringy bits of the mop scraped against the ceiling, wiggling at the end of the handle, while Harry dodged the ends.

Emma walked into the kitchen and sat down at the table. She had left the house so neat that morning when she’d left. She had known it wouldn’t stay that way. Harry had a magnetic power to him, a charisma that charmed grease and grime to creep shyly over surfaces. He persuaded everything to get a little crooked, just for him. He was very convincing about it. He liked things a bit messy.

Emma was neat, usually. She tidied and dusted. Harry used to tease her about her domestic tendencies, but she’d been hurt, despite the affection in his voice. He’d tugged at her apron and called her Mrs. Clean. She’d spritzed him with water and they’d ended up getting very messy. She smiled, remembering.

Now Harry had somehow managed to spread the mashed potato in a thin smear from the refrigerator to the space over the stove. Emma wondered if it would dry that way, making a bumpy crust on their kitchen ceiling. It had been a long day, and she couldn’t bring herself to care very much. She would fix it tomorrow. Sometimes it felt to her as if she spent more time cleaning up after her husband than she did after her child.

Harry paused in his efforts, his lips pursed and his gaze resting on her face. He propped the mop against the counter and leaned toward her. Emma’s husband put his dirty hands on her shoulders and he kissed her. She didn’t respond, didn’t move, for a moment. He was soft, but she was annoyed. Harry moved back and looked at her. “Hello,” he said. “I’m sorry, babe, long day.”

“Mine too,” she said, her tone forbidding.

“I know,” said Harry. “I’ll fix it.”

“The kitchen, or my day?”

He smiled, hopeful. “Both?” He held steady, looking at her, waiting for her reaction.

“No,” she said. “I don’t think you will.” His eyes flickered, and she could see him holding his smile in place.

“Okay,” he said. “I won’t. I will try anyway, though. Come here one second.”

“Okay.” This time she kissed him back, letting him pull her face to his.

They looked at each other, his shoulders hunched and her brow furrowed. A chunk of potato that had been awaiting its moment freed itself from the ceiling and fell with a splat to the tiles between them. They couldn’t help but laugh.