One-Sided

Mr. Murray Mendels was having a difficult conversation with his father. It was difficult because it was entirely one-sided, and Murray wanted advice. He wasn’t getting any. He could feel the anger hot behind his eyes and tight in his clenched hands, but he tried to keep his frustration under control. Of course, showing that he was angry wouldn’t help a bit. Nothing would, really, but he kept talking anyway. He was very determined about it, and had been having one-sided conversations with his father for quite a long time. He had a lot of practice by now.

He tried again. “Listen, Papa, I just want to know what you think I should do. I’m at my wit’s end here, I really am, and there’s nothing I would love more than to hear your opinion. It’s about to get serious.”

His father stayed silent.

“Oh, for goodness’s sake, Papa, I know this is practically the same problem I’ve had for ages, and it’s probably very dull to hear me talk and talk and talk and talk and talk about it. But all that talking isn’t getting me anywhere, and I’m supposed to pay the rent last Saturday, and it’s a big problem! Big! I just don’t know. That woman at the shop, she must know that I’m not going to do anything about it, but I should. I have to. If she just gave me some of what she owes me, I mean never mind that, if she just gave me the interest I’m owed and I’d have half my rent already, I mean really.”

Still, his father was quiet. He spoke no words of counsel or reassurance.

“But what should I do? That’s the question. I mean, do I write her a letter? A strongly worded one. Dear Madam, To Whom It May Concern, You have owed me seven hundred dollars for the last two years and I need some of it back now, please. If you don’t mind, you see it’s important, in that I’m broke. Flat-out couldn’t-be-broker broke. The brokest of broke. I’m not asking because I’m impatient, really I’m not, I wouldn’t even care, it’s just that I need to pay rent by a week ago and would you please. Oh, God almighty I’m no good at strongly worded, this is the kind of thing you should help me with, Papa. You were always very good at getting people to listen to, your whole life. and I haven’t got that kind of facility with persuasion, I’m more of a wheedle and plead kind of guy. Not very convincing unless you’ve got some extra pity to use up and I’m the closest one around. What should I say, how should I say it?”

Murray’s father did not speak.

“And you know that the landlord’s not going to give me much longer. So what am I going to do, get evicted out of this crappy place because I can’t talk to the pretty girl down the street? I’m a pushover, I really am, she asks me for hundreds of dollars as a quick loan, she’ll get it right back to me, aren’t I a dear. And then nothing! Not for ages. Not a word to me, barely an acknowledgement. Maybe she’s embarrassed. No, that’s silly, because she smiles at me every time she sees me.” Murray stood up, pushing the chair back, where it hit his pile of cleanish laundry. “She knows exactly what she’s doing, the minx! Oh for heaven’s sake. This is ridiculous.”

His father probably agreed, but did not say so.

“Come on, Papa, just tell me. What if I tell the landlord that she owes the money? No, he would never buy that, not for a minute. It’s my responsibility. That’s what you always told me, you do what you gotta do, right? This is what I gotta do. I have to march right in there and say— well, something. What?”

Murray’s father offered no helpful words here either.

“This is the least helpful conversation I think I’ve ever had. I’m trying to talk myself into solving my own problems, for all the good you’re doing me. This is useless. You’re not telling me anything, I’m going to have to figure it out for myself just like I did my whole life, same as always. I mean, I didn’t exactly expect you to be there for me. You’re not here, you know, and you never were there for me at all anyway. Even when you were alive, nothing. Why should I expect any different from you now?”

His father did not answer.

She Paints

She paints people. It is a hard job, because people are so full of light and shadow and color that they cannot fit fully on one canvas. Today she is painting the man who stands behind the counter at the bodega on the corner. She sets herself up on the sidewalk. The easel leans just so, the canvas propped against it, her spurt-stained palette and rags and brushes in a jar all crowded by her feet. She does not sit, because when you paint as much of a person as you can fit on a canvas, you cannot be comfortable. Besides, when she looks so closely at somebody else that she can see the color of the pulse beating in their throat, she tends to forget to feel her own feet.

The man does not see her, but she does not intend him to. The artist has to find out about him when she paints. If he sees her watching him, the awareness of being watched will cloud him over. She needs a clear view, because even when she sees perfectly, her painting will only be a jumble of colors. People don’t look hard at her paintings, hard enough to see everything she’s making with them, as hard as she has to look at people in order to make them. So she angles her easel and watches the man in the bodega for a while. She starts to sketch without looking at her hand or altering its jabs and scratches across the white. She just watches the man and moves, making the shape of his head, adding in the curve of the hollow of his throat, twitching back his hair where his ears stick out. Only after she has darkened the shadows to her satisfaction does she pull a paintbrush from the jar and stand back, studying what she has done.

She paints in a fury. His skin, his hair, the color of his eyes, the wrinkles in his shirt and around his mouth. Once she has pushed color and form onto the canvas to show what he looks like, she begins to paint who he is. Now the artist studies the lines pressed into his cheeks and the way they jump when he smiles, how they tremble when he frowns. His mouth presses close when he is annoyed, the words caught behind his lips. His hair is smoothed down with a comb because it springs from his head when he gets up in the morning. His hands are small with short fingers and broad palms, and they are cracked and rough with the cold. When he turns his head against the light, the shadows well in his eyes and trace the shapes of bone beneath skin. She paints the blue shadows that deepen when he sighs. She paints the tension corded in his neck when he is startled by a sound. She paints the hope held in his mouth, tucked in the corners, tugging at his smile. On her canvas she shades the sadness he’s accumulated over the years, that he wraps around himself, that makes him shiver. His wistfulness, the ache he pushes away when he watches a stranger smile at someone else. His anger that draws his shoulders into a droop like bone-deep weariness. His bottle of memories, held within, of his children when they were so young that they reached for his hands without thinking. She colors and shades. Her paintbrush rasps and smears, pokes and smudges, carves and feathers across the canvas. She paints his impatience with the customers in the store, his fear and loneliness, his quiet contentment when he watches crime show reruns, his brittle bitterness, his rare fierce joy.

When the painting is finished, it is because no more of him will fit on the flat square of canvas. She can paint no more of him. The artist picks up her paintbrushes in their jar, her rags and her palette, her tubes of paint. She folds up the easel and carries everything, canvas and all, in a jagged unwieldy lump in her arms. When she gets home she lays it all on the sofa, carefully enough that the paint won’t be touched. She goes down to the bodega and buys a carton of eggs to make herself dinner. She eats standing over the sink.

On some days, the artist tries not to paint. It is exhausting work. She leaves her brushes and canvasses leaning in a corner and does something else for the day. Inevitably, always, the turn of someone’s wrist or the flicker of someone’s eyes will pull at her, and she will wish for her colors and brushes again. She will get on the train and go home, where the paints are waiting.

Storyteller

I like to tell stories that shift the world slightly. Good fiction should heal, somehow, it should tuck and twist the lines around everything just enough for it all to fit together a little more easily. The universe should make more sense to people. Humans wander around feeling like everything is out of balance, like chaos reigns, like their lives have no meaning and purpose and sense. I want to banish chaos, to restore meaning, to put the balance right. More than anything, people want to be the protagonists in their own stories. They want everything to flow around them a little bit like it would in a well-written novel, where they are likeable and relatable because the main characters always are. Where what happens to them has some kind of drive behind it, and you know that it’s going to have a satisfying ending. If it doesn’t, at least the tragedy or the drama makes you sigh with real feeling. People don’t want to feel like everything that makes up who they are is false.

This is why people give excuses to teachers and parents, professors, coaches, spouses, and priests. My printer broke. I came down with a fever, suddenly, and couldn’t write the paper. I couldn’t get home in time because the car broke down. My grades are slipping because the teachers are out to get me. I was only talking to her to be nice. I was only sleeping with her because the devil tempted me. Whatever. There has to be a reason to it. A story. If there isn’t a story, it’s too empty, too dull, too flat to be real life.

My story for my college (ex-)boyfriend is that I was falling for him and I was afraid, and we were graduating, and so I veered away in order to avoid all that pain and heartbreak I just knew we would feel for each other. That way, when I told him that, he could feel that razor brush of love, the scrape of sorrow, the wistful nostalgia for something beautiful that could have been true. I don’t think he knew I was sleeping with someone else, but either way, my story lets him believe that we were pure and good and that I loved him. It’s much better to be loved than to be lost.

Last year I told a story to half my family; my friend here was sick, so sick that I couldn’t come home to my parents’ house for Thanksgiving. I had to stay and visit, make soup and bring casserole. The year before that, another friend’s mother died. My parents like to know that I’m a good friend, a caring person, a responsible and compassionate human being. When I don’t go to the dreaded four-hour meal full of my aunt’s tirades and my father’s stoic silence, everything is a little bit better. My world doesn’t have to be miserable for days, and their world is sweeter because they believe in me.

If you pay attention to the stories, you start noticing them everywhere. They laid you off because money was tight in the company. He left you because he had to go find himself. She stopped calling because she got wrapped up in caring for her child, and you know what that must be like with a kid like that. I told my sister that I needed to visit for a bit because I was depressed, and just wanted to feel close to her again. I told my boss that I was so caught up in it that I worked through lunch. I told my dad that I knew everything would be okay. Everything is easier when you can fit it in a story, as small and cramped as that might be. Sometimes they are close to true.

There’s one story that I don’t tell. The purpose of stories is to heal, not to hurt. If there’s pain in a story, you know it’s there for a reason. I don’t tell stories that wound unnecessarily. I don’t see the purpose in it. Pain can be useful, but only when it brings you closer to some kind of resolution. I don’t tell her that I’m half in love with her. Even for a story, half is not enough.

Contradictions

My parents are like children. They are not so old yet that their hands shake when they move and not so young that they have all their memories still neatly ordered. They spend a lot of their time sorting through the supermarket coupons in front of a reality show about cooking or carpentry. When I visit them, I throw out the expired coupons and take out the trash. I make sure they’ve paid all their bills and check that the cat’s still alive. I’ve been living away from them for only two years and already I can’t remember their house feeling like my home. It’s the place where I remember being a child and the place where I am suddenly, wearingly, painfully too adult for my age.

The last time I was at my parents’ house, my mom wanted to make macaroni and cheese for me, to celebrate my being there. It was my old favorite dish when I was young and so she thought it would be special. She left the pot on the stove for half an hour after it boiled and the water had shrunk away while we weren’t watching. She had forgotten to buy extra cheese. She didn’t preheat the oven until eight. I stood in the kitchen and practiced my methodical patience. No, it’s okay, Mom. I got it. Don’t worry, it’ll start cooking while the oven heats up. That dish will be fine, we’re only three people, you can just stick the other half in the fridge and we’ll make it tomorrow. Okay, sure, I’ll grab a container. I’m perfectly calm and using my most tolerant voice so that you won’t accuse me of all the seething that itches under my skin.

My dad sat at the kitchen table and read a magazine for the two hours that this went on. I brought him a beer. He nodded without looking up. When we finally sat down, my mother had to ask him twice before he would look up from the pages and realize, bashful, that we were only waiting for him. While we ate, my parents asked me chipper questions about the job I’d left four months before.

I don’t remember anymore if my parents were grownups when I was small. I couldn’t have noticed, in the same way, if they brought the shopping list to the grocery store or if they ever got back into the car without unhooking the gas pump. Everything was funnier then, anyway. Now I take it seriously and it makes me want to laugh. What else can I do?

I try to visit less and then I worry that they can’t get on without me. If they’d never had a child at all, I wonder if they’d be able to take care of themselves. I wonder how they ever took care of me, or if they did. Now when I go back to the place where I am a child, I take care of my parents.

Disclaimer

I want you to know what you’re signing up for. What you’re getting into, that is. I don’t want you to think that what you know of me is all that I am. I love that you love me, for all that you do, but you don’t know me as well as you will. If you find out who I am, if you know me thoroughly and fully, and you still love me, then that will be true. If not, my heart might break. I want to know as much about you as I can. I want to know what you look like when you’re waking up in the morning with your eyes still half-lidded and dreams clinging to you. I want to know how you sound when you shout and the pitch of your voice when you murmur. I want to know what makes you worry and what makes you laugh. Do you want to know all these things about me? If you don’t, then there can’t be any love that is true. If you want to be with me, here are some things you should know.

I want you to want to know about me, the good and the bad. You will learn the way I tilt my head when I’m listening with all my attention, and the way I nibble on my lip when I’m anxious or distracted. You’ll find out that I love to sing, even though my voice can’t reach all the notes, and that when there’s a song on that I love and I’m alone, or almost alone, I will dance and jump and swing my hips around like a crazy person. You will know my curves and angles, the movement of my shoulders when I crowd close and the way I curl up with my feet folded under me. My moods jump from ordinary to gleeful at unexpected times, and I sometimes surprise myself with my own happiness. When we sit together, I will lean my head into the round of your chest, below your collarbone, and press my skin to yours. I will make ridiculous jokes and let off peals of laughter at myself. Sometimes they will actually be quite funny, because I can be clever when properly fed and rested. When I’m hungry or tired, I’m more silly than witty. I will look at you the way I look at nobody else. I am kind to people as much as I remember to be, and I think about it a lot. I smile at strangers. I hope you will love me for this.

When I am anxious, I am irritated by everything, and I snap under my breath at what you do; that is, I will, when you know me. When I am tired, sometimes I am wandering in my wits and you will find it funny, but sometimes I am spiky and angry because all I need is to sleep. Occasionally I take offense to what people do or say, and the reasons won’t make sense. I can be thoughtless and selfish. I need reassurance more often than you might want to give it. I will go into long rambles at times about my work or my family or my dreams last night, and I will expect you to listen. Pieces of my body cause me pain and I complain about it, and I’ll expect you to accept that too. I’m embarrassed by my singing voice, but I want you to pretend it’s okay, and when you’re around me a lot you’re going to have to deal with listening to me. Sometimes I don’t bother to shave my legs for stretches of time. I have a gastrointestinal system, and I don’t want to ever talk about it. I am prone to getting sick, and I will demand soup and somewhat unnecessary solicitude. If you don’t love the television and the books and the movies that I love, I’ll be annoyed at you about it. I am defensive when I feel that I’m being criticized, and sometimes critical without thinking. In the mornings I am almost always grumpy. There is nothing you can do about it, but I will want you to try anyway. You should make me tea, but I will probably not have time to drink all of it.

Know, please, that this is an incomplete list. You’re thinking of entering into something that isn’t certain, and I’m not all cataloged. I hope you will spend a long time reading the fine print.
Sign on the dotted line

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Wishes

The poor boy just touched it, just a brush of the pads of his fingertips and the whisper of skin against the brass, and everything stopped. From the spout boiled something red and dark and quivering into a great cloud of bloody air which gathered and pulsed until in the mass of red could be seen the shape of a body.The man folded his arms and peered down at the boy, who quaked and tried not to whimper.

The red man sank to the ground. His body trailed into mist after the waist, but he could have been sitting. He spoke, and his voice was dark and shaking. “Listen, child,” he said, “Three, and that is all. Use them well, for you are a little lamb of a thing.”

The boy thought that perhaps this meant that the demon would take pity on him, and he drew in his breath to speak. “Please, sir,” he said, his voice a thread, “I didn’t mean to. I don’t know what I did. I am small, and, and, like you said, I’m not going to hurt anyone, I don’t know what I did.”

The red man bent closer and with his sharp red teeth showing, he smiled. “Ah,” he said to the boy. “A lost lamb, yes. So lost. I will explain to you, dear one, and then you will understand. You’ve heard stories, you know what I am. I emerge from that metal prison, I grant you three, and then I am suffering inside while you go on with your life, while you humans take what I have given and toss aside this ornament that is of no use to any, not even for light.”

The boy sat back on his heels and fixed his eyes on the red face. At last, he said, “Three? Any three?”

The demon nodded.

“I want a wife, please, Wait, though, I know how this works. I need to explain. I want a wife who the same age that I am, and alive, and well. She must be very beautiful, and she must be here. Please.”

The man nodded, and the woman appeared. She was very beautiful, so lovely that the boy was stricken. He gazed at the bright eyes and full lips and long limbs of his new wife, and he fell to his knees. “I love you,” he said. She spat in his face and walked out of the attic room without looking back.

The boy scrambled to his feet, knees jerking in his eagerness and despair, and followed her. For a week the red demon watched them as he tried to reason with her, tried to tell her how much he loved her, tried to make her understand that his heart beat for her. One morning, the boy came to the demon and said, “I need to use the second. I want my wife to love me. I want her to love me more than anything.” The red man nodded.

Barely had a moment passed when the boy heard footsteps pounding down the hall. The boy’s wife rushed in. She knelt in front of him and turned her lovely face to his. She said, “Oh, my husband, I love you,” and the sound of her voice was sweet and soft to his ears. He pulled her to her feet and kissed her. She drew him out of the room. The red man watched for a day as the boy lived in perfect happiness with his bride. The boy thought of nothing else until they woke the next morning. The boy walked into the kitchen and his wife followed him. He prepared breakfast, brought it to the table, and began to eat. His wife watched. When he offered her a morsel of food, she shook her head. He pushed a glass of water toward her, and gently she slid it back to him. The boy stopped eating and said, “My love, why will you not eat or drink? You must be hungry.”

She looked at him with something like surprise written on her face, and said, “My husband, I love you more than anything. I cannot love anything else more than I love you. I love you more than the wants of my body. I love you more than life itself.”

“I don’t understand,” her husband said. “You love me, and I am glad. You need to eat.”

She shook her head. Finally, he shrugged and finished his own food. They repeated this scene at midday and in the evening. They sat on a terrace before the lightless sky and he begged her to eat, but she only shook her head. “I cannot,” she told him, “for that would change things. I cannot.”

On the third day, the boy’s wife could not get out of bed. He lay next to her and put his arms around her, and her answering smile was week. On the fourth day, he tried to pour water into her mouth, but she choked and spat. On the fifth day, when he awoke, she wasn’t breathing.

The red demon smiled at the boy, whose eyes were swollen and sore with tears. His voice was ragged and he said, “I need to use my third. I know better than to wake the dead, so you won’t have me that way. I want to go back to before any of this. I want to go back to before I touched your lamp, before you appeared, before any of this happened. Please.”

The man nodded, and the world shifted. The boy was alone, with no horrors clouding his mind. He was trying to clean out the attic room at the top of the stairs, but it was so cluttered with the shiny forgotten pieces of somebody else’s life that he was struggling to find anything. He reached into the box in front of him, and his fingers brushed the smooth brass of an old lamp.

Castle in the Sky

The castle in the sky where Annie lived wasn’t made of pink cotton candy or gumdrops. It wasn’t spun out of wistful fairy tales or princesses with impractical hairstyles. That’s not what a castle in the sky is. It’s simply a dream, or a wish, or a hope that’s been held close for too long. Annie’s castle wasn’t made of anything but longing, and so it was a frail and brittle castle, stretched too thin as it braced against the whipping wind above the clouds. She stayed inside, mostly, and didn’t venture too close to the windows for fear of heights. Looking out through the glass to the dizzying pinpricks that were houses below always made her sway and clutch at the wall.

People didn’t often come to visit Annie in her castle where she lived most of the time. It was a long and lonely trek to get there. It always is, to reach somebody else’s hope. Her very best friends would brave it, and they would huddle with her inside her castle built of longing, because they wanted to be with her there. They spoke in whispers, as though they were afraid that their voices would echo against the slender walls. They spoke to Annie as though they were afraid to injure the silence that reigned in her castle. She was always glad to see them there, because it meant she didn’t have to be alone for a while. They left eventually.

Annie had to leave the castle in the sky at times too. She liked going out, most of the time, for a short time anyway. Dropping backdown to earth meant that there were no heights to pull her brain to bits of vertigo. It wasn’t as lonely back on the earth as it was in her castle. She could see people’s faces there, and hear their careless voices. Eventually, though, the faces started to seem strange to her, and she had to go back up. The castle was always waiting. She returned with a twinge that now everybody real was too far away to touch. There was relief in it too, though. Her castle was cold and it was empty, but it was familiar. The rooms fit her like a shawl she could wrap around herself, its touch cold on her skin but comforting and soft. The castle is beautiful, because it is built of longing. Wist makes for lovely decorations. The rooms are narrow and stretch forward before her, and the hallways wind in a maze. It is made for wandering.

For now, Annie spends a lot of time in her castle in the sky. She doesn’t like to, exactly. The chill in the air and the distance from the ground brings a shiver of foreboding to clasp at her. She does not like to be lonely. The emptiness does not make her happy. But she needs the castle right now. It’s like a drug, and it fills her veins with an ache that she craves. She comes back to it, makes the ascent, settles into the rooms of thin frigid air and sinks away behind the gossamer weave of stone walls that veil her from the clouds and the world. Someday, the castle might not be enough for Annie. It might no longer pull at her. Perhaps she’ll simply stop coming, because she will gaze up at the sky and realize that she doesn’t need to leave the earth anymore for longing. The rooms will get dusty and birds will perch on the sills of the little windows until the castle crumbles and falls from the sky.

Annie might also come back to the castle and stay there until she knows that she has to leave. If she does not know on the ground that she isn’t able to live in longing anymore, she might realize it while she’s still there. It’s possible that she’ll walk closer to the wall and put her hand to the stone, feeling the pits and cracks that threaten to break the whole place apart. She might look down and see the world far below, her castle sitting on a cloud, and the two homes of hers so far away that she can never live in both at once. Annie could realize that she can’t live in the sky anymore in a castle made of longing. She may not be able to let it collect dust in the sky while she lives in the world and forgets she was ever there. Maybe she’ll jump.