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.”
“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.

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A Moment of Everything

Dan stopped to stand still on his way to the grocery store because he was enraptured by everything. He’d been walking quickly, but then he’d glanced up and his feet had slowed. Now he held still and watched the world. The buildings stood there on either side of the street just as they always did, but did he always notice the way the crack in the paint on the side of the old restaurant swooped and wiggled across the wall? People walked on the sidewalks, ignoring him, but he usually ignored them too. Now he saw.

Look at the woman following her husband, chasing him before her with words! She talked without thinking about the miraculous movement of her lips, the sound issuing forth, the little wrinkle that she was carving into the space between her husband’s eyebrows. Look! The two men sitting outside the convenience store leaned ever so slightly toward each other, and their whole faces crinkled up when they laughed. They were in the path of the sun, so it painted a shadow on the wall beside them with crisp edges, the shape of their heads and the intricate little wiggles of their ears and collars skewed on the surface behind them. The little girl across the street was dragging behind her mother. Her hair was working to escape its ponytail and she looked around her, mouth pursed and eyes unblinking. She was like Dan. They were trying to see the whole world at once.

The tree that grew in the space between the sidewalk and the road had noticed the breeze skulking through the street, and was dancing in it with a timid flutter, as though it was afraid somebody would notice. The middle-aged man with the bushy mustache was leering at a girl passing, and she kept her eyes fixed straight ahead. His face was red like the paper underside of an autumn leaf. Her straight-ahead eyes were ringed with smeared eyeliner, but in between the black smudges they glittered. She bit her lip, he could tell from the dip in her mouth right then, just a little. She was annoyed, or trying not to smile. She held enough of the expression out of her face that Dan couldn’t tell what it could have been. He watched her pass and he looked down the street.

An old woman pushed a cart full up with laundry. The wheels squeaked a little bit. She was furrowed in concentration, navigating the sidewalk, fitting herself around the man smoking a cigarette. He stepped back, not even looking at her, just automatic, letting his body move without asking it to. Somehow Dan wondered that he could move without thinking about it, that he could move his whole body on his unthinking feet without listening to the signals run from his head down the fibers of his muscles and through the building of his bones, until the whole mess of a body in its scrambled complexity just shifted over half a step like it was nothing.

There was music coming from inside the convenience store, and the plump lady behind the counter was singing along. Her voice was thin, as though she wasn’t entirely sure what it was going, but she was following it along anyway. It was not a beautiful sound, except for that it was sound being made. Dan listened to her as if it was beautiful. How amazing that she could make sound! It was something beautiful just that she could open up her mouth and a song would come out, that the elaborate scroll of notes and tones and pitches and melody that is written out in black symbols on white paper with lines and curves and circles across pages and pages and pages could just spill out of her mouth while she wasn’t paying attention, as though it didn’t matter a bit. So Dan listened.

Behind her song there was the music of the street. A siren whistled and bellowed in the distance, its voice soaring and dipping, soaring and dipping. The cars grumbled and wheezed as they passed by. People’s voices blended and lifted, tangled and burst, wheeled and murmured together. The tree had stopped dancing with the wind now, the breeze gone away to wander somewhere else. Its leaves were trembling to stillness. A car blared its horn.

Dan started, blinking. He couldn’t waste the whole day just standing and looking at things like this. He’d never get anything done if he didn’t move, anything at all.

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.

In the Magic Place

Joe was staring, his mouth hanging open, his heart beating a rhythm of staccato awe. The woman in front of him was juggling colors. She flung one hand up, the fingers outstretched toward the sky, and a spinning clump of blue whirled in a neat round arc. The red sank into her other hand, which clasped it comfortably, and the yellow and purple flew in between. That all happened in the space of a second, and then she did it again. Her hands, moving up and down, framed a spinning circle of color that smeared pink and green and turquoise between the pieces of color she was throwing and catching.

Arielle tugged on Joe’s hand, and he started. “Come on,” she said, “We don’t have that much time left here, and before I bring you home I want to show you some other stuff.” She was pulling him toward the corner of the block. There was a living statue there. A man was standing next to it, motionless until Arielle plucked a coin from Joe’s shirt pocket and tossed it to him. Then his hand snapped up to catch the coin and he twirled, bowing to them and touching a gentle hand to the lump of silver towering over him. It was softly rounded and droopy, like a piece of metal that was interrupted halfway through melting.

When he touched it, though, it began to come to life. The shapes gathered themselves and their edges shrank into being, lines carving themselves on its surface. Suddenly the lump of silver had lengthened and was a gleaming tiger, tail flicking and head swinging from side to side to watch them with cold metal eyes. The man clicked a finger against it again, and it began to shift once more. It drew itself up and then folded, and then it was a rather old man, shining wrinkles wobbling on his chin and a dapper cap drawn low over his head. He was sitting and reading a silver newspaper on a bench that wasn’t there. One more tap, and the man melted to re-form as a statue, a lovely young woman with blank eyes and perfect proportions, her mouth a round O and her hands clutching a silver sheet around her. Joe and Arielle looked at the statue in its lovely still splendor for a moment, and then the statue smoothed and dropped into nothingness again. They thanked the man, who gave an almost imperceptible nod from his resumed position next to his magic treasure.

There was a candy stall on the next block, just across the street. Joe began to walk toward it, but Arielle caught him by the shoulder. He protested, “No, wait, I just want – ” She shook her head at him, and pulled the other way. He craned his neck to look as he stepped toward her. The second person had just bought a candy and popped it into his mouth. After a moment, he began to float – at first, just a few inches about the sidewalk, but he circled higher and higher until he was several heights above everyone in the street, at the same level as the first floater-eater. The table was piled high with jars and boxes  – Joe read “Fireballs – very hot!” and “Jawbreakers CAUTION” on one corner, while “Rescue Candy” and “Bubbly gum” were stacked on the other. He said, “Listen, Arielle, can’t we just – ”

“No,” she interrupted him. “We can’t. I’m sorry, but I have another tour coming up, and you know you can’t do magics here, not even borrowed or bought-for-a-quarter.”

Joe slumped and followed her, forlorn. The tours were expensive, and he couldn’t afford another for a while. “Chin up,” said Arielle, smiling at him. “We had to get you back to the real world eventually, after all.”

On the other side of the glass

Snow Globe

Photo credit: David Hepworth

Lila lives an odd existence, but she finds ways to like it. When her world is upended, shaken with such force that she can feel her bones slamming into her flesh, she huddles into the little house. When she clings to the windowsill and peers out, though, everything is suddenly beautiful. The tin trees are swaying, and the air that is normally so viscous and choking is swirling, and through it falls the most beautiful tinsel.

She almost loves when this happens, despite the ache it nearly always leaves in her head. There’s something magical about pressing her face against the glass and letting her eyes drift over the bits of silver as they tumble through the air, gleaming like sparks that won’t light.

When the world is calm she can wander, sitting pressed against the tree (though the metal cuts her back) or sifting through the sparkles collected on the ground. She can almost see outside sometimes, though the world there seems large and frightening. It’s all in huge curved shapes, blurred and distant. Mostly she finds the beauty where she is, making snow angels that stay until the next quake or trying to climb a tree without slicing her skin.

Her world is sparse, with long stretches that surround her. It’s lonely being the only person there, and it’s boring when nothing happens for too long. When it’s been a while and she feels she might go mad from the monotony, she finds herself wishing for the jarring pain of a shake, to feel her spine snapping to and fro, because she knows that then she can gaze out the window and watch the snow fall.

Today

How entirely lovely it was, to be caught up in the small things again. She had made oatmeal that morning, and luxuriated in waiting for the steam to touch her face and the heat to creep up the spoon into her hand. Watching the brown sugar melt and feeling the sweet and the rough on her tongue – oatmeal had never been quite so transcendent before. She thought that, very possibly, breakfast would always be this bright. Even the sun blazing through the windows seemed to agree, stroking the room with pallid warmth and gilding the snow to almost-gold.

After what felt like so much darkness, after shivering and knowing that light would not come, the gleam of her oatmeal under the sun’s rays felt like absolution. Scrubbing the bowl in the sink made her skin tingle and her nose itch with the strength of the detergent, and the sponge rasping against her dry skin crinkled her eyes with delight. It was so perfect, to feel a moment so simple as that. She stood in her small kitchen, the dingy walls huddling over checked linoleum and blue counters, and she wanted to sing as she dried the bowl. Had she ever enjoyed washing a dish, before? She couldn’t remember. It seemed very long ago already.

She was so filled with the hope the sun pushed through the windows that she took a walk. She dragged the lazy dog with her, fixing the leash to his collar as he whined and ruffling his short grey fur. It prickled against her fingers, and as she smiled the poor dog looked up at her, puzzled. He didn’t want to go out in the cold. She took him anyway, and smiled as the air stung her cheeks and hurt the inside of her throat. It was cold and delicious, that winter air, and she tromped through the snow with her clunky boots as if she were remembering how. The dog trundled after her, sniffing pointedly. It was so beautiful, the buildings crusted with white and the sidewalk patched with stubborn snow. The ice where a puddle had frozen was gleaming in the light, and she stopped to look at it as the dog sniffed at a fenced-in tree.

When she got back to the apartment, the warmth rushed into her like soft pain, making her fingers ache as the feeling soaked back into them and her nose drip. She watched the dog curl into his little bed, giving her a reproachful look and burying his nose in his paws. The clock only read 1:33, so it was still early in the afternoon.

The whole day passed like that – reheating lunch and watching mesmerized as the microwave hummed, reading with her back against the smoothness of the wall. When the phone rang it made her jump, breaking the concentration she was focusing on the small things with something big and loud. When she’d thanked the telemarketer politely and hung up, it took her minutes to settle back to that level of attention, where the crack in the ceiling could busy her eyes for a while. It felt so wonderfully familiar and new to be so completely in herself, in the moment, in the place where she was. She had missed it, even though she’d never really noticed it before, like the absence of a clock or picture that becomes part of the background until its absence is suddenly glaring.

When it was nearly 5:00, the room began to dim and the light through the windows edged away. The sun was hiding behind some building she couldn’t see, and once she turned on the lamps the apartment glowed with its own light. It would get dark again, she knew. Eventually her own lights would flicker off as well. For now, she gazed at the cheery bulbs blurred through lampshades with curiosity. She settled a blanket around her shoulders and picked up her book again. The light poured onto the pages and wrapped around her, and she closed her eyes to feel the weak false heat from the lightbulb. Probably eventually the light wouldn’t be there – or she wouldn’t notice it. Probably eventually she would flick on the lamps without seeing them, and barely notice when the sun slipped away. Eventually making breakfast would be a chore again and she would wish for something bigger, something to save her, something to pull her out of her darkness. For the moment, though, she lost herself in the small things instead, so she bent her head over her book and shivered in the yellow light.

Beauty

I take the subway to work every morning, and back home every evening. Yesterday on the subway ride home, there was a girl sitting down a couple steps from where I clung to the silver pole, swaying.

She wasn’t anything much. Her face was round, eyes lidded and downcast, with a long straight nose and thin lips. Hair swept in wispy strands around her face, escaping from a ponytail. She was sitting next to an old woman in a bright orange hat, who’d fallen asleep and was gently collapsed on the hard plastic seat. The darkness of each tunnel flushed over the car, until it emerged again into the stolid bustling light of a station. I wasn’t getting off until 28th.

The girl was reading something. It was buried in the coat she held in her lap – hardly necessary in the sudden burst of heat that had overtaken us – and the purse clutched close to it. I couldn’t tell what it was, among the folds and edges. Perhaps a book, or a pamphlet, or a magazine. Whatever it was, she was reading it intently, her eyes steady and fixed and her mouth tight with concentration.

I was looking at her idly, and as she bent over the words in her lap she struck me suddenly. She was not pretty, and nothing about her was extraordinary. Still, as she read so carefully, she inclined her head toward what she was reading. It was simply that which was striking. The angle and shadow of her collarbones, and the little hollow made by her tension, and the graceful sloping curve of her neck until it disappeared into that feathery hair.

My stop came up quickly, as it wasn’t a very long subway ride. I got off and walked home, marveling. Even now I cannot forget that ordinary girl, and the very beautiful way she bent so still and quiet. The loveliness, the stark beauty, hasn’t faded. The line of her neck sinking into her shoulder still traces through my mind, and I am awed.