meta fiction

note: as thuddingly obvious as this whole thing is, I have written on occasion; this little site only has the scraps and excerpts, and not the bigger things I am working on since then, so it’s not actually quite as literarily literal as that

Maybe the Muses were dead. They had stopped coming a while ago.

Once upon a time, she had used to write stories. The ideas came to her. The Little Muses, for that is what she called them, tapped on her windows. They peeped under the closet door, sallied forth from under the bed, crept in from the hallway when she was trying to sleep. She had used to be annoyed, sometimes, that she would need to get out of bed and pad after one as though she’d been roused by an overactive bladder, pen scritching or keyboard clacking until the Muse was satisfied and she could drift off again. It had been long enough now that she just missed them. They had used to bring her ideas. Some round and pearlized, presented just so that they would catch the light, the sheen dazzle her eyes. Some ragged and jagged and frightening that she was afraid to touch, that they might catch her skin and tear. Some like a breath, a bit of dandelion fluff, a wisp. Once, one of those had been caught in an air current and danced around her head, brushing against her hair, until she had been able to grab it and pin it down, long enough to trace it out on a piece of paper and get it to stop tickling the curve of her neck. She had a couple of those old ideas still, all used up, kept desiccated and pale on the shelf where she could see them. They didn’t do her any good now, of course.

She had used to wonder if the Muses were real. Maybe they were the intrusion of magical into realism, a bit of story in her life. Other times, they could have been a hallucination, an edging of her fevered brain past what was really there. She might have been just a little bit crazy. Later one, sometimes she would wonder if they ever really had been there in the first place, or maybe it was just her frantic imagination needing to describe itself somehow. That would mean, now, that her imagination had abandoned her, but then she already knew that.

They didn’t haunt her. She couldn’t summon even an echo.

At first it had seemed like a blip. They didn’t show up for a few days, which was normal. Then a week, which had happened before. Finally it was clear that this was unprecedented. Perhaps there had been a time once before they had started coming to her, but she couldn’t remember it. In any case, they had stopped now. She imagined for a while that it was an interlude, a period of quiet, and eventually things would get back to normal. For a time it was peaceful, a relief even. Eventually they would come slinking back. Eventually they didn’t, though. The interlude stretched long enough that it was the only real thing now, and she wasn’t sure they had been there. Maybe the husks on her shelf were just objects after all, a wiry leaf she had picked up from the sidewalk, a crooked bit of metal that may have fallen off of something, the cracked edge of a seashell she had brought home and washed of sand.

She goes about the rest of her life just as she always had. Groceries, work, feeding the dog, calling her mom, doing the laundry, drinking one too many beers with her friends, using pen on the crossword and then cursing when she needed to scribble letters out, going on a tentative date that turned tempestuous far too soon, crying in the movie theater surreptitiously when the fictional father finally came home, trying rock climbing for the first time and watching a beautiful young man at the gym propose still in harness, standing at the outskirts of a New Year’s Eve party and feeling content to be listening to the chatter and laughter and joy of others. Events keep unfolding whether you chronicle them or not, after all.

After all that, and still going about the rest of her life, the muses had not come back. The ideas were not coming anymore. She had circled round to the inevitable conclusion that probably they never would. She did not know how to entice them back. The early days of leaving a little saucer of milk at the windowsill as though the muses were fairies hadn’t brought them. Whispering into the corners never tempted them forth. Drinking a coffee before bed, hoping insomnia would summon them. Nothing.

Eventually, the interlude had become her life. Realism with nothing magical about it. That’s how it was. Nothing to expect.

Now it has been so long that she can’t remember the muses, if they had ever come at all. She can’t remember if they were real or not, imagination or fancy, delusion or dream. She tries not to think about. Because here it is, the reality of it: some people are lucky to have the muses visit them. They are few and far between. For the rest of us, we don’t have the gift of a gleaming idea that materializes out of the gloom. We can find our own beauty: wiry leaf picked up from the sidewalk, a crooked bit of metal that may have fallen off of something, the cracked edge of a seashell brought home and washed of sand. Eventually we have to decide whether to keep waiting, or to watch for the beauty on our own terms. Eventually she sits down, and doesn’t whisper into the corners or check the windowsills. She just takes a breath, and looks at her little shelf of forgotten beauties, and sharpens a pencil



From their little apartment in the south of the city, May and Arthur watched the sunlight slant and gleam across the shambling buildings of brick and stone, like any other day. The shadows grew long over the crisscrossing streets and stretched over the heads of everyone hurrying to and fro and the close of the day. The two watched, sitting together at the window, leaning together as they always did so that their shoulders grazed when they breathed. Arthur reached for May’s hand and brought it to his mouth. He licked the sticky plum juice from her fingers, sending a familiar shiver across her skin. He kissed her fingertips, and twined their hands together, and after a moment their conversation resumed.

A man had come into the building where Arthur worked that afternoon and caused a stir. Because Arthur worked for the city, he often had strange tales of what had gone on that day. Often people would come in when they were lost, and sometimes they had been wandering for days. Once in a while people would come in to complain about the trains, which occasionally went the wrong way for several stops. May’s favorites were those who came in with misdelivered mail. Some of it was decades old, but the city always traced it back and put it where it was meant to go. Arthur had seen scores of people with mouths agape and teary eyes, fondling a creased bit of paper that should have found its way into their hands years before.

The man today had been so raucous that everyone on the floor had come to investigate. He had been shouting — “Raving,” Arthur said, and shook his head. “Totally mad. Raving about things missing. Poor man seems somehow to have misplaced his children. Yes, don’t laugh though,” as May stifled a giggle. “It sounds funny but he was really distraught. I think that was it, anyway, but it wasn’t too clear what he was on about.”

“So what happened?” she said, settling more comfortably against him.

“We all came to see what the noise was and he started to panic. Seemed really paranoid. We called an officer over and he took the man downstairs to a holding room so he could sleep it off. Whatever it was.” Arthur shrugged, shifting May away. “They’ll probably want to talk to him. See if he can get his story straight. I suppose they want to make certain he won’t be trouble.”

May leaned on him again. “Sounds scary.”

“Well, I suppose,” said Arthur. “Nobody could tell why he was practically violent, and nobody could understand him, but he was clearly upset about his children. Anybody would be a bit scary like that. But enough, it doesn’t matter anymore. Tell me about the bakery today. I’m sure it was somewhat less eventful.”

May laughed. “You’d think so, but wait till I tell you. We ran out of half of what we need for sticky buns, and the market only had half of what we were missing.” She told Arthur about the hunt for spices and fine sugar, and the sun shed gold over the city. When the view from their window had grown dim and musty in the evening, they gathered themselves to eat dinner.

When the morning light woke her, May nestled against Arthur for a moment before pulling out of bed. He usually left before she did, so it was a rare treat to find his warmth still beside her in the morning. It made getting out of bed a wrench, because she had to leave such comfort for the cold of early morning.

May leaned against the bricks while she waited for Arthur until they left a dent in her skin. Her feet were aching, so she conceded to sit on a step, arms draped over her knees and hands hanging down. She tried not to think about what was rubbed into the stone of the step beneath her, touching her clothes.

He reached for her hand, and she startled at the touch, looking up to see him. He smiled his familiar smile at her. Today at the fruit stand there were plums again, and peaches. They bought peaches this time and set out to walk the rest of the way home, where their window showed the sun hanging low over the city. Arthur took a bit just when May asked, “So any stories happen at work today?”

Arthur shrugged, his mouth full of peach, and said nothing. When he had swallowed and still did not answer, May said, “What, nothing? What about the fellow from yesterday, any news?”

Arthur looked at her, forehead furrowed. “What? Oh, I suppose not.”

“Did they let him go home? I hope he gets better.”

“I don’t know,” said Arthur, and frowned. “Tell me about you, I haven’t got anything good to tell today.”

So May told him about the burnt batch of cookies and the head baker’s increasing exasperation with the new boy. The sun slipped behind stone and the sky lost its light, as it did every day. She talked and joked, and it felt as good as ever to make Arthur burst into laughter. May fell asleep, contented and curled against him, and had no dreams.

May woke up the next morning feeling the air stroke cold fingers down her shoulder. Arthur had gone already and the covers were thrown off her. She dressed and went to work, shivering slightly.

She waited for him at their corner, but he never came. As the light began to fade, she left. On the way home, she stopped at the fruit stand, hoping that he would meet her before it was too late. The woman at the fruit stand was almost finished packing everything up for the day, and she called out when she saw May.

“Afternoon, dear! Thought I’d missed you and your husband today. I saved you some peaches in case, left from yesterday. Working late, is he?”

May nodded, and thanked her. As the day waned, she worried her way home. She waited until the window only showed glimmerings of light in the darkness of the city before she ate both peaches. She was full and sticky. She was alone, so she went to bed, aching and sick to her stomach.

At the bakery the next day, May misplaced a basket of pastries and left without saying goodbye. Nobody noticed her ducking out the door, or turned to look as the bell chimed to signal that someone had gone. She walked to the fruit stand and bought a pear. She ate it on the way home, walking the winding streets. When she reached the apartment, she tossed the core on the table and sat in front of the window to watch the city hum and writhe. People scurried and clambered like crawling insects, and she looked at them move with no particular interest. She went to sleep early.

For a week, May walked in a fog. She went to work and she went home, but there was a weight pressing on her mind. When she fell asleep, she felt cold. When she awoke, she scanned the room as if expecting to see someone else there. She scolded herself – there was no need to be paranoid, nobody had invaded her home. When she walked home, she had a wrinkle in her forehead telling her that she had forgotten something. Even when she doubled back, though, finally shook her head and walked all the way back to the bakery, there was nothing there. She had taken everything with her. The house was waiting for her as always, though she had missed the sunset. She shrugged away the shiver and told herself to breathe slow and deep.

The next day at the bakery, and the one after it, were without incident. The new boy did somewhat better, and calm settled into May’s life. She found a pear, all bitten to the core, rotting on her kitchen table, and threw it out, with some contempt for her bad habits. She bought berries on the way home one day, and watched the sunlight melt over the city with sweetness on her tongue and the comfort of a familiar habit wrapped around her like a shawl in the dimming warmth of the day.


Emily had bought the shoes on sale, and was very pleased with herself about it even before she knew they were magic. When she tried them on at the store, nothing had happened. She’d just noticed that they were a bit tight, but the kind that you knew would be fine once broken in, especially for 40% off. So she’d bought them and brought them home and the moment she put them on and twirled to show herself off in the mirror, her twirl had hurled her miles around the country. One half-spin and Emily was in Kansas, Wyoming, Minnesota, and then back home. Not that she knew where she was any of those times, of course, she’d just flashed in and out of a few places and then ended up in Chicago again with her heart pounding against her ribs and her toes beginning to ache.

She took the shoes off very carefully and examined them to make sure that no dirt or dust from the fields had clung to their shiny red surface, and then she put them on the carpet and stepped back in. Emily shuffled forward, just slightly, and inhaled water. She choked and kicked and coughed and spluttered, but her shoes weren’t touching ground so she stayed in the lake. Once she had caught her breath and kept her head above water for long enough to sight the shore, she swam to land where she could take a tiny step back to the city. From there it was an easy walk in socks back home, where she threw the shoes under the bed, took a long shower, and had some dinner.

Seven leagues is approximately twenty-four miles. Emily ascertained, after a great deal of careful and methodical testing, that her new shoes only traveled about six and a half leagues. She thought the difference was likely due to the fact that they were not boots, and nobody ever heard of seven-league high-heeled pumps. She spent her weekends traveling now. She visited three cities in California during the month of February, when the Chicago air was so bitter cold that it hurt to breathe. If everything could be a day trip because it was only a few steps to get home, she found, you could save a lot on hotels.

It was a little lonely, sometimes, to explore all on her own. She packed a neat little bag with necessities and an extra pair of shoes so that she could walk once she got where she was going, and she took pictures with her phone. In the photos, Emily is in front of a monument or a skyline or a really good food truck, but her smile is tentative, as if she’s not sure what to look at.

One day, Emily put on an ordinary pair of flats and went to the store where she had bought the shoes, 40% off. They were having another sale. She was idly contemplating a pair of wedges when the shoe salesman walked up to her.

“Those won’t suit you,” he said. Emily raised her eyebrows at him, confused. “I mean, that is, you can’t get that far in heels like that.” He winked.

“I don’t need to,” she said, “I’ve already got good shoes.”

“I know,” he said, “I have a pair just like the ones you bought, last time you were here.”

Emily’s brows ascended yet further. “Red heels?”

“Not what I meant.”

“Oh,” she said, and smiled. “I see. Hi. I’m Emily. Would you like to take a walk with me sometime?”

Broken and Buried

Yvonne left her heart, at last, under the willow tree in the park one night. The park closed at dusk, but she slid over the fence in the dark, pulse thrumming and the cold air stroking shivers across her skin. She had used to do this with someone else. They had helped one another over the fence, landing in one another’s arms. They had laughed as quietly as they could. Now she picked her way through the park alone, toward the tree where they had sat together, backs against the bark. She leaned against it and closed her eyes. For a moment, she could almost imagine skin against her skin, warmth against her warmth. Then it was gone, and she opened her eyes to see the empty park. The streets and cars winked from beyond the fence, but within the trees and grass were still and silent.

Yvonne stood and bent down, splaying fingers out on the grass. The earth was soft, and she burrowed with one hand until she had made a dent in the ground. She placed her heart in the hollow at the willow’s roots, and then she left. The fence was easier to jump on the way out. She felt lighter. The glare of headlights and the glow of windows seemed distant and calm as she walked home.

For a while, she could not even notice a difference in herself. She wondered absently how many people did just the same and wander through the world, heartless. Perhaps nobody could ever tell. The only thing that seemed to have changed was that she did not hurt, and she was glad of that. There was no ache that bloomed when she opened her eyes in the morning, and that she curled around when she fell asleep. She had no bad dreams. Her sleep was smooth and dark, and when she awoke she did not shudder with the memory of the night. She barely dreamed at all anymore.

If anyone else could see that something had shifted in Yvonne, nobody told her so. Her work colleagues treated her with the same mild politeness. Her friends met her and chattered and teased just as they always had, and she was able to smile and tease back. Her life was a comfortable habit, and its touch did not chafe. It was even easier, now that she could follow those rote patterns. Some of it was interesting, some of the time. She observed herself living with detached curiosity. She did not remember what it had been like to live with her heart trembling inside her all the time. When she realized that she had forgotten, she thought she might revisit the park to see if anything had changed. And, after all, she wanted to check that her heart was still there. She didn’t want to carry it around, for it was heavy, but she didn’t want it nibbled by squirrels and buried somewhere unknown, either.

That night she climbed over the fence and into the park, as she had done so many times before. The metal of the fence was cold on her skin and the darkness deepened as she walked, but she was not frightened. The elm tree twined up toward the sky in a familiar shape, and she nodded when she recognized it. There among its roots was the hole she had made, and her heart nestled inside just where she had left it. Old leaves and twigs had cluttered and crowded it, so she moved to brush them away. When she touched her heart, just for an instant, she could see all her ghosts ranged around her. They looked at her with solemn eyes, and she shivered. Her heart beat under her fingers. She closed her eyes against the dark, knowing that the ghosts were there. They moved forward, gathering, and Yvonne snatched her hand up. The pain ebbed and disappeared. The ghosts were gone from her eyes. She shook her head to clear it of cobwebs, and then she turned to leave. The ghosts were left there, watching her go, wishing for her to take back her heart and to bring them with her once more. They called, but she could not hear. They scrabbled at the leaves and could not move them. They tugged on her heart, but she could not feel.

Off the Edge

Before the bridge, Jesse had not thought much about the solidity of air. In his high school physics class, he had pictured it as a fluid that filled up the atmosphere, moving in and out of bodies and leaves and air conditioning units with ease. It didn’t get stuck and it was heavy enough that it didn’t reach the tops of mountains enough to puff up lungs all the way. When he found the bridge, he didn’t believe it was air at all that stretched out above the river.

He’d been exploring with his friend Nina one sticky hot afternoon in the summer. They walked out to the bridge, where cool floated up from the water and lightened the air amidst the suffocating heat, and they climbed over the fence. They laughed at each other and their shared bravado. Nina grabbed his hand and wound her fingers around his. The two friends sat on the concrete ledge, legs swinging over the emptiness, hands entwined, and watched the water. Their hearts slowed from their foolish gallop, and they leaned toward each other enough to feel the warmth between their bodies.

After a while, Jesse stood up and walked with arms outstretched across the ledge. He wobbled a bit, exaggerating for Nina, and she shrieked and scolded him, laughing and breathy with fear. When he stopped, he reached a foot out over the edge as if about to step off and tapped it against the air. Nina called after him, but he paused and reached back and threaded his fingers through the wire of the fence. He stretched a cautious foot before him again and pressed it down against the air, which didn’t move out of the way. Nina stood, shaky, and walked over to her friend as he stepped off the bridge and into thin air. He didn’t fall.

They stood there for a long silent minute, she on the concrete edge of the bridge and he standing a foot away from it on solid air. They gaped at each other. Jesse bounced up and down on the balls of his feet –“Don’t!” Nina burst out when he moved– but the air held firm beneath him. He traced his toe against the air under him, trying to find its edges. It was a narrow outcropping from the bridge, but it extended out past where he was standing in a strip of solid air. When he reached the end on either side he swayed, and fumbled for Nina’s hand again. He shuffled back to the bridge and the friends walked home, shivering and quiet.

The next week, Nina called Jesse. She had been doing research, she said. “There aren’t any stories about the bridge. I mean, like about it being haunted or anything. Which is kind of weird, because it’s super old and even if there weren’t anything strange about it, there should be a story or two by now about something that has lasted that long, you know, over a river, where people jump off and stuff. There are a bunch more suicides there than most places, though.”

Jesse didn’t answer for a minute, and then he said, “I guess they fell off.”

“Of the bridge?”


He went back without her the next time. She was afraid. Jesse didn’t let himself be afraid. He was excited instead. His heart drummed as he walked to the bridge, and he barely hesitated to step over the fence and off the ledge. He tested the air and found it there, supporting his feet. He followed the corridor of air for a few more feet away from the bridge, until he looked down and was dizzy at the water glittering so far below him. He backed up, slowly, and sat on the bridge again with his feet propped up on the air for a while before he left the river.

He told Nina about it.

“Don’t go back,” she said.

He didn’t answer.

The next week, Nina called him and he didn’t pick up. She took a long shuddering breath, listening to his voicemail message, and then hung up without speaking. She knows where he went, because when she climbed over the fence she saw the note he left her. It read, “N, went to see where it goes. I’ll be back. Love, J”

She can’t follow him. When she stepped tentatively off the edge, the air wouldn’t take her weight. She fell back against the fence and wondered how far he had gotten.

Bad Timing

What he saw was so out of place that for a moment he questioned whether he had jumped through time. There somebody was, right in front of him, talking on a cellphone! It was pressed to her face hard enough to leave lines on her face, if she ever peeled it off. He definitely was not in 1814 anymore. What was happening?

“Harold,” he said to himself, “Don’t be ridiculous. Take a breath.” He took a long, steadying breath. He blew out, lips pursed, and shook himself. Of course he had jumped through time. He couldn’t very well have stayed in 1814 forever. It was simply too difficult, tripping over ladies’ hoop skirts all day and having to worry about tuberculosis and such. Not to mention the cows. Centuries ago, there were entirely too many cows all over the place. And then there were horses, too. It was just not to be borne, and so Harold would be very glad to be back, once he got over the shock.

It was always a jolt to his system every time that the time changed. The jump wasn’t a choice, exactly. Once, he had been able to control it. With just a squint of his eyes and a moment of concentration, he could skip back to the Jurassic Period and run from some dinosaurs until he got bored and decided to come back. He had done that, and some other epochs as well, until once in the early Middle Ages he had gotten stuck. He had lived among the filthiest people for a full year before he was able to pull himself back to the present. That seemed like a good time for a break, and several hot baths in a row. Eight of them, actually. Luckily, nothing bubonic had happened yet when he had been, or anything else that came back with him. It was, in a manner of speaking, a clean break.

Eventually the skips had just started happening, dragging him along without his doing anything and certainly without his consent. There really is only so much time one person can spend in the past. Before too long, you get bogged down, held back, tied up, and entirely irritated. All in all, Harold was relieved to see a cell phone, though he’d been in the nineteenth century for such a time that it took him a full ten minutes for figure out what had happened.

“Well, I supposed I’d better get out of these clothes,” he muttered, tugging at the cravat. Once he had untucked his blouse from his pants and disposed of the frock coat, he felt almost normal. At least when he traveled, he stayed in approximately the same place. This had been awkward for a while until he figured out that he’d better make sure the heights matched. He’d gotten quite good at doing research on past architecture and geology. This meant that he wasn’t far from home, now that he was back to his time. He could walk, and he did.

When he got home, the door was locked. Nineteenth-century gentlemen don’t carry around twenty-first-century house keys, so of course he didn’t have one with him. There should have been one under the frog statue, but he couldn’t even find the frog. “Bloody hell,” he said to himself, and pounded on the door in frustration. He sagged.

“Yes?” Harold almost fell into the hallway when the door swung open. A young woman was looking at him, a phone in one hand and a sponge in the other. Her eyes narrowed to see a disheveled man in a blouse with sideburns falling down. He looked up at her.

“Cecilia?” He was flabbergasted. His mouth hung open.

“Yes, Harold?” She was impatient, and fit herself into the crack between the door and the frame so that he couldn’t see past her.

“What on earth are you doing here? You, um, you died. You died in 1813. A year ago. I mean, two hundred and two years ago. What? What.”

She rolled her eyes. “You’re such a man. My goodness. You think you’re the only person in the universe, the only person like you, and the rest of the humans are all just little ants or something, don’t you?”

“What. What? What?”

She slapped him across the face. Gently. “Well, you couldn’t expect everyone to live like that forever, right? I was quite fond of you, but my God, embroidery gets very boring. And I didn’t know you could time travel too. I’d just gone on little trips before, ones that I could get away with.”

“What?” Harold scrunched up his face and opened his eyes wide. He was definitely awake. “You’re a, I mean, you time traveled?”

Cecilia sighed. “Yes, I did. And do. And I came here because I thought two hundred years would make a nice change. I looked up your last name, on a whim, and was very surprised when I found you. There can’t be that many Harold Edgartonvilles in the world, so I lied to a locksmith and got into your house. I’ve been living here ever since. I didn’t expect you back, honestly.”

Harold stared at her. It was like a fairy story. “It’s like a fairy story,” he said.


Suddenly he was nervous. “I mean, because I liked you. Um, I loved you. And then you died? But now you’re here.”

She smiled. He had missed that dimple in her cheek, and the way she glanced down when she was happy about something. “So my parents said I’d died, huh? Of course they did. They probably assumed I’d run away or something. Can’t have that. How weird.”

“Cee, uh, what about me though? You’re living in my house. I need to live here. And you could, you know, say something back about how I feel. How you feel. We’re not in the nineteenth century anymore.”

“Oh,” she said, her dimple deepening. “I can answer you.” She tilted her face up and looked him in the eyes.

He blinked and the world wrenched itself around his body. When his eyes opened again, he was in the countryside. In a field, far off, he could see a peasant girl bent to the ground. He was surrounded. He sighed. Cows again. So many cows.

On Seeing

“You just have to have faith,” she told me. “It’s all there right in front of you if you would just open your eyes.”
My eyes were open. I could see everything in front of me. “My eyes are open,” I said.
“No,” she shook her head, hair swinging, lips pressed together. “They’re not. You’re refusing to see. Why?”
I shrugged. “There’s nothing to see.” I didn’t see anything. We were walking down the street. The sidewalk was gray. It was always gray, spotted and pitted and stained like it always was. The buildings were brick and concrete and steel just like usual. The men sitting on the steps hooted at us as we walked past, as they did every day. I didn’t see anything whatsoever out of the ordinary.
She closed her eyes. Her steps didn’t waver. Her hand reached mine, fingers entwining. “I can see,” she said.
“Your eyes are closed.”
She nodded. A smile puffed up her cheeks. She pulled my hand up and against her chest, hard. I heard a whistle, but as if it were far away. I saw.

The air moved. The stumpy trees, crowded between street and sidewalk, breathed. The man eyeing us from the corner made a small noise in the back of his throat. I saw it. I reached up to my face, but it hadn’t changed. My eyes were the same, wide open and staring but no bigger. They felt hot, but my fingers felt no heat through my eyelids. Everything was vibrating, shimmering, wrapped in silver and ringing. I blinked, and watched the slow motion movement of my vision shrinking as the bodies in front of me shifted, like walking through sand, running through water, held in place by time and the gleaming shattering air all around them.

When I opened my eyes again, she had dropped my hand. The world was normal again. The man on the corner was now looking at us with undisguised curiosity, his mouth twisted. Somebody’s dropped bottle of soda rolled across the sidewalk. She was looking at me, her eyes wide now, her lips tucked in.
“What?” I said, pushing hair back from my face, shaking my head.
“You stopped,” she said. “Did you see something? What happened?”
“I don’t know,” I said, closing my eyes tight for a moment. “Everything went funny for a second. What am I supposed to’ve seen?”
“Magic? Please.”
She raised her shoulders, hands outspread, mouth still crinkled. “Maybe.”
I grabbed her hand again, and we started walking. My legs felt weak, shaking, as though I’d just climbed the longest stairway. “No,” I said, not looking at her. “Come on, be real. There’s no such thing.”
She was quiet.

Sometimes I still see it out of the corner of my eyes. Once you see like that, I guess, it’s learned. You can’t really unsee. Your eyes already know the shapes and patterns, the light that fills everything. The shuddering of the shadows and the way the brightness shakes, presses, bursts. The contrasts are overwhelming. It gives me a headache. I can’t wish I’d never seen. I just pretend that I didn’t, though. I press my fingers to my temples and take a breath and then go on as though nothing has happened at all.
She looks at me oddly when that happens, when she notices. It happens more around her, I think. It makes it hard to be around her, but of course I do anyway. I can’t stop loving her just because I see magic when I’m with her. She’s worth the pain in my head and that brief, disconcerting feeling that the world has shifted just an inch or so in between each shuttering of my eyelids. When she looks at the world, there is wonder written in the lines of her face. I understand why, I suppose, even though when I look at the world it’s ordinary at best. At worst, the beauty and the terror fleeting across my vision make me want to crouch down, eyes closed, head safely inside my arms and nothing before me.
Either way, we keep going, together. There isn’t much else to do, is there? Not for me, anyway. This is just how it always is. Her beauty, my pain. At the end of the day when we curl around each other, it’s night. The room is dark. The lights are off. We press our bodies together, skin to skin, touch over sight. Neither of us can see anything at all.


On 145th Street, there’s a building full of rain. I don’t mean that it’s flooded or anything. It’s not like when you open the door, the jangly glass kind at the front of a store, there’s water that rushes out and pushes you across the sidewalk in its hurry. There’s only perhaps an inch of water on the floor. It must leak out somewhere, and you can see the stain as it bleeds into the pavement at your feet when you’re right outside. You don’t get hit with a wave when you open the door. You just hear it; ppt ptt ppt ppt tpp prt. Thrumming against the concrete floor.

I found the rain room by accident. I was trying to get away from a thunderstorm, if you can believe that. I was running down the street with my coat over my head and my slippery-wet hand in my girlfriend’s hand, our fingers jamming together. We were laughing like mad. It had just started raining, out of the blue. Really, the sky had looked clear as any day when all the sun wants to do is wrap you in light, but then the clouds had come. They just sort of showed up, uninvited, and then they spilled all over us. Mel and I stopped strolling when we felt the first few drops, and our steps quickened. Then, right away, the rain sped up too and it began beating down on us. We ducked under our jackets and sprinted. Thinking back on it, I’m not sure why we were running. We were a bit far from anything, and we would’ve gotten wet by the time we reached a subway or a bus anyway. We just ran, hands clinging and feet slapping sprays of water onto each other. We ducked into a building with a half-cracked door and took a breath of relief before we realized that we hadn’t stopped getting wet.

Mel tipped her face right up to the ceiling and watched the drops fall toward her. I just watched her for a moment, too dumbfounded to talk. When I found my voice, I said, “Just our luck. The ceiling must be leaky. I bet this place is abandoned. Don’t do that, sweetie, the water’s probably all dirty.” In response, of course, she stuck out her tongue. She tasted the water that down the corners of her mouth.

“No,” she said. “The water, it’s just rainwater.”

“Of course it’s rainwater! It’s raining out. And it’s leaking.”

“Not out,” Mel smiled. She always was faster to catch on to things than I was. “It’s raining in here. Don’t you see?”

I looked up too. “Shit,” I said. “No it’s not.”

“Yes. It is.”

The ceiling was dropping water on us. Or at least I think it was the ceiling. I couldn’t really see any plaster or paint through the fog. Well, clouds, I suppose it was. The clouds covered the ceiling of the building and huddled in the corners in sulky gray masses. Mel smiled into the corners, the rain running down her face and twisting her hair into tendrils that streamed down her back. I started to laugh. She laughed too, until the both of us sank down and sat in the puddle that was the floor. We leaned against each other and laughed ourselves helpless at the escape we’d found from the rain outside. At the sheer absurdity of the building that rained on the inside.

We’d had a fight earlier that day, another one about her work that was taking all her time from me. She always answered that by saying, rather cattily, that if I only found something to do then it wouldn’t be a problem. I’d been sullen ever since, but now I laughed and when we paused to catch our breath I pulled her toward me. We kissed, sloppy and soaking, in the room that rained on us. I’m not sure there was a moment before or since that I felt us breathe and beat together like that as the rain trembled to the floor around us.

When we finally went home, we were so drenched with rain that a pool of water spread on our seats on the bus and poured itself down into the grooves on the floor. We were both shivering, still wracked with giggles, drawing stares from the three old ladies who were the only other people on the bus. We got home and took a long hot shower. We broke into laughter again the moment the water began to spray.

Everything’s a little different now. With me, with Mel, everything. I think it can be better, though. I haven’t seen her in a week, but we’re going to meet up on 145th Street. I won’t bring an umbrella, just in case.


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.