Penelope

Yes, and the way he pronounced Penelope with three syllables like cantaloupe. Fresh fruit that breaks inside your mouth and dribbles down your chin, sticky for days afterwards. She remembers picking seeds and fibers from her teeth at the Orinda Country Club pool with her tongue through dull metal braces.

And the tight white denim jeans he had on were so like Paul Newman’s in the dirt bike racing scene in Sometimes a Great Notion, the movie to which she nightly pawed at herself at twelve, learning, yearning for a man like Hank Stamper. She yearned for a man like that, a man from the North. This man, she would find out later, was from the North but the wrong North: the North of ivy and red-brick walk-ups, not Douglass Fir and slick, dark stones licked by beating waves. But him so like Paul Newman with those blue eyes that flitted about her body devilishly. He was a devil, a rogue, impetuous like a child. Like the young boy who had once mispronounced her name in grade school, erupting the class into wild and cacophonic laughter. So unlike, for he was not a clown, was deadly serious as illness or fathers or ill fathers, so familiar to her. He felt so familiar brushing up against her midsection with a tan arm when passing a drink to someone else, fleshy white underneath like a fish slithering through cold and familiar waters, the water already beginning to break inside her. He could open her waters with a single touch.

Introductions brought them together around a low coffee table strewn with beer cans and ashtrays. Marriage, trying to get marriage out of her brain and coming back up, resurfacing. Trying to get it out like trying to remove a vital organ while still alive.

The laughing, head-thrown-back cackling of mirth and new friends filled the air. The mirth passed from person to person around the strewn coffee table above which the lights shaded low and dark this strange now-not-stranger’s first face for her. For her. For you, his eyes seemed to say without lips moving. They spoke to her in the longing forlorn way he looked up over the cards to some game they were playing that she couldn’t make sense of but he seemed to know innately. Not love, not lust, not curious, not nothing. Beautiful he was in the braided lamplight over the drinks and the smoke and the cards, she remembers, beautiful.

Pass, who’s turn is it? You? No, you? Is it me? It’s you. Who? Penelope pronounced with three syllables like cantaloupe. So daring to mispronounce after proper introduction. It was intoxicating to be forgotten immediately after making herself known to him. Marriage, this now-not-stranger, was he married? He blew smoke across the table in big puffs that obscured the space between them, shaking her resolve to know him. She didn’t want to, didn’t need this, another man, another one, another marriage. Marriage, she remembers.

But the no-winking no-nonsense way he looked at her without saying anything. She loved being there in that moment, held in steely blue cold-crusted eyes like diamonds glinting in the overhead light. Then the game wrapped up and the people sat back talking the no-talk that follows such games when everyone should be an adult and should know what to talk about, but still so young all of them. After all, all after or during their first marriages of which there will be so many. Marriage was repulsive to her then.

But, she remembers, a little thing. When she arrived and the moon hung overhead big and bloated like an egg over the griddle streets, she stood with the true stranger in white denim pants. True, for she had not known him then and had not known that he would be coming inside with her. The two of them the only bodies in the swaying liquid cold of the December evening. Thinking in those moments not of marriage, not of beautiful, not of nothing. Not thinking. Drinking. Drinking in the sight of a pensive man looking up. The way he held his cigarette between thumb and forefinger like pinching a delicate flower. She pictured the gardenias he could one day pick for her. She pictured putting them behind her ear, tucking them up into the blonde waves. She pictured the life above the two of them as the sky turned. He had not seen her, had not met her, but was there for her. For her. And she had only to accept the unwanted, uninvited intrusion of this stranger’s body in her life. She had only to accept it.

Was there a choice? Did she have a choice? Him, making her question these and many other. Him, complicating the delicate balance of her now jaded world with his presence. Him just looking up, pinching his smoke, with no notice of her. Him, making her question marriage being so like a trap and a trial and a procession of days. Him, seeming like a story without end, and an asker of questions with no words. Or with one word. The right word pronounced wrongly. Penelope, like cantaloupe. Yes.

Protest

Published in the Wells Street Journal, Issue 13: “Disruption in the City” (2020)

It was a bright cold day in June and the clocks were striking thirteen. We were two hours in, standing in front of Downing Street when the skies opened up. The rain came first as a sprinkle, then a shower, then receded, cycling through these stages with maddening regularity. Umbrellas sprouted up from the crowd, bristling like legionnaire’s shields into a loose phalanx. Above the bustle, the shouts, and the patter of the rain, an MP was speaking.

“These are our streets,” she said with confidence, standing atop a stage covered by a simple tent. Raindrops rolled off the black canvas and fell to the concrete below. Police officers ambled around the crowd, puffing their chests out and making furtive small talk.

These are our streets. But are they? The MP was referring to the abstract, not the concrete. The path that the narrative will take, not the road that serves as its setting. Her claim was akin to that of protestors worldwide, though my mind leapt to Ferguson, to Sabaah Folayan and Damon Davis’s documentary Whose Streets?. The filmmakers interviewed people on the ground, reclaiming the narrative of the protest from a media that had demonised it, had turned it upside-down and ugly. 

The man whose narrative we were fighting outside Downing Street is a master of the upside-down and the ugly. His disregard for facts goes well beyond simple spin doctoring and into the realm of the pathological liar. From the stage, Richard Burgin quotes James Baldwin, saying, “ignorance, allied with power is the most ferocious enemy to justice”. But this absolves our enemy of too many of his sins. He is not merely ignorant and powerful. His hatred is pointed, maniacal, and intentional. 

In the rain, we were waiting for his version of the narrative, which came in the form of a tweet, as per usual. A spurious claim that we were there to support him. I will reply with the only language he seems to understand, a retweet, as selective as the memory and imagination of the man himself: “It was quite the opposite.” 

Walking among the crowds that had gathered beneath Nelson’s Pillar, the evidence of opposition was everywhere, and not just against him. Signs and placards, pamphlets, chants, and costumes, all advertising our discontent. We were against the Tories, against Boris, against privatisation of the NHS. We were against Brexit and the Israeli government’s treatment of Palestine. We were anti-antisemitism, anti-misogyny, anti-pollution. We were against Islamophobia, homophobia, xenophobia. We were against it all. Especially the hair. 

That ubiquitous hair. Somewhere between orange and gold and recognisable as Mr. Peanut’s monocle. Put the hair on a baby, a dog, a chicken, a toilet, and the analogy holds. We hated that hair. 

But I wondered, is it enough to hate? Can a group of people be united in such disparate and multitudinous antagonisms? Where was the agenda? What was the solution?

The solution remains to be seen, but the effort is all we have. The standing-in-the-rain, shouting, screaming, kicking, dancing, loving struggle is our only weapon against a mounting danger. It is a danger that goes by many names, as many names as there were signs above the crowd. But the danger is real. It is poisoning our rivers, our mouths, our minds. It is stealing from the poor and filling the vaults of the rich. It is in every bullet fired from a police officer’s gun and in the hands of every man who grabs at a woman. And it is in the narratives that protect those bullets, those hands. 

Across the barrier, past the reporters and photographers, I saw a sign: “Rights are won only by those who make their voices heard – Harvey Milk”. A chant of “Stand up fight back!” tore through the crowd and I joined in. I do not know what will fix the problems of the world. But in order to own the narrative we must sing. We must sing, and sing together, for nothing will be won with a solo. It is going to take a chorus. 

Porch Light

Published in Brain Mill Press’s Ab Terra 2020 Story Collection (January 2021)

I start talking to myself. This happens only after I build all the models, read and reread all the books, stare through the porthole at nothing for hours. 

This happens. 

I tell myself it isn’t my fault. It isn’t like I intentionally call my voice forward. It’s a product of the boredom, just like the models and the dog-eared, ink-smudged pages of the books. My voice sounds croaky and raw, at first.

In this conversation with myself, things occur to me that have never occurred to me before. This is strange. I thought I already knew all the things I know but evidently, I don’t.

The first thing that occurs to me is that talking to myself is a better use of my time than building models and reading books. Unlike these activities, there’s no definite end to my speech, no finish line towards which my thoughts are travelling. And it turns out that talking is more exciting than thinking. My thoughts are so insignificant out here that they seem almost non-existent. Words, on the other hand, have a discrete reality. Their presence is evidenced by the fact that I can hear them as they leave my mouth. It’s comforting to be surrounded by something, even if that thing is invisible.  

It then dawns on me that my time isn’t really mine to use. It doesn’t belong to me any more than my current trajectory through space-time does. Working backwards through all the memories that constitute my life, I can’t find any in which it felt like I was really in control of anything. It seems that I was the one being controlled, though by whom or what, I can’t say for sure. 

I see myself boarding this ship, almost a year ago now. Sunlight glares off the polarized visor of my helmet, reflecting up into my squinting eyes. My jaw is firmly set and my right arm holds my helmet pinned against my side. I walk this way because I saw it in a movie once and I need to do something, anything, to distract myself from how afraid I actually am. I pretend that this is a story, that it’s not real, so I don’t have to think about how I may never see another human again.

I see this ship for the very first time. It is smaller than I thought it would be: a runty white egg with a single black porthole in one side, standing with its long side vertical atop three spindly legs. The hatch at the base hisses when it opens to let the ladder down, as if warning me not to enter. Inside, the air is cool and smells of new car. 

It is several years before that and I see cornfields out the window of my eighteen-wheeler. The green stalks and golden ears sway in the late afternoon breeze. As the land dips below the road, I see the point where the fields meet the horizon. The ears will be picked, processed, and packaged before they are loaded onto rigs like the one I’m driving. Then we will deliver them to supermarkets where they will be stickered, sold, then eaten, and eventually turned into waste.

I see myself on a dock in the sun, an even younger me, lying back with the weight of someone else’s head on my stomach. She and I are lovers, each other’s firsts. The fingers of my right hand graze the water lazily. I have assignments to finish for school and jobs to apply for, but I ignore them for the moment. Running my other hand through her blonde hair, I feel comfortable and safe. Her head rolls to face me. “Don’t you just love wasted days like this?” I tell her I do.

I know much more about waste now. Waste is the stuff that leaks from my body. It is the chewed-up, the digested. It is the corn that I once deposited in porcelain bowls and then flushed away with gallons and gallons of water so I wouldn’t have to see or think about it again.

Of course, I don’t have a regular porcelain toilet in the ship, only an aluminum can roughly the diameter of a basketball. The waste collects in a tank and ejects automatically every few days. The waste I generate follows me in frozen islands leading all the way back to the place where I took off, like a trail of breadcrumbs leading home. Out here, waste is a noun, not an adjective. Out here, days are in such abundance that they cannot be wasted. I’m moving through space-time faster than the speed of light but I can’t seem to make my days any shorter. 

Days are a terrestrial concept. If you aren’t bound to observe the movement of a single celestial body, then any unit of measurement for time will be arbitrary. But I still mark the passing of every twenty-four hours on Earth with a small tick mark on the July page of a pin-up calendar, tacked above the control panel beneath a small reading lamp. There are 342 tick marks on the page as of today. Pretty soon I’ll have to move on to another page.

The pin-up girl on the July page is pictured in a field, surrounded by daisies. The two-piece bathing suit she wears is electric green with little white polka dots. Hair the color of pinewood falls from her head, which is tilted back. Her mouth is agape, her eyes wide, as if she is laughing or in horrible pain. A flowery script beneath her reads: “Honey.”

Honey was almost certainly not the woman’s real name. Or maybe it was; some things are as they appear to be. The calendar itself cannot be more than a few years old, judging from the smell and feel of the glossy pages, but Honey looks plump and rosy and people just don’t look like that anymore. 

A woman who may or may not have been named Honey opens her mouth and smiles for a photographer sometime in the latter half of the twentieth century. She tilts her head back and sunlight glints in her eyes. In the moment before she closes them, the photographer snaps his picture, capturing that glint, which travels 250 years through space-time to me, here, in this cockpit.

I look up through the porthole. I know it’s impossible for me to see, but somewhere out there, in a wholly unremarkable section of the universe, there’s a planet that I call Earth, orbiting a star that I call Sun. I imagine that I have a telescope that lets me see all the way home. 

The telescope would be more like a tunnel, extending from Earth to my current location. I could travel back through it by following the trail of breadcrumbs I have left. It’s a tunnel of light and the image gets brighter and brighter the closer I get to the planet. As my vision stretches back along this tunnel, I see everything that has ever happened to the Earth.

I see molten rocks spewing from great chasms, burning and letting off acrid smoke and ash. Lava oozing across the surface of the young planet, forming mountains and valleys. Gases mix and mingle atop the solid crust, creating a bubble, an atmosphere, within which, water begins its slow and methodical renovation of the planet. Water adjusts its shape to fill the crevices and cracks left by the lava. Dark pendulous clouds drift in the air, shooting flashes of lightning to the ground. For a long time, the air, the water, the earth, and the fire are all that exist in the light of the Sun.

I see something sprout in one of the oceans. It is a living thing, meaning that it can die. And when it dies, something new arrives to take its place. This process of substitution continues, gradually accelerating. Bacteria begets algae begets everything else. And within this everything else, there are things that move of their own accord, called animals, and things that don’t, called plants and fungi. They spread across the land and water. They change into new things, killing and reproducing and dying.

And within all this chaos, Man arrives. He is born. He decides to order the chaos, to make it purposeful. He creates the illusion of control to prove to himself that his efforts are successful. He tells himself that he can own the light and time that surround him. He kills everything he comes across.

At this point, I’m so far through the tunnel that I’m almost on the ground. I see Man building cities that reach for the clouds, reorganizing Earth’s matter to support his needs. He learns that this reorganization is killing things too quickly. He has ruined this planet. He has turned it into waste. So, Man sends some of his own lightyears away through space-time to look for new planets, new places to call home. And it’s hopeless, as I know all too well, because out here, there is nothing. 

I know that what I see through my tunnel of light is not entirely accurate. It is a reconstruction of events, a figment of my imagination created from some kind of collective memory that is flavored by both history and myth. The appearance of Man occurred so recently – relative to the age of the planet – that if I were to accurately recount the story of Earth, it would probably not be worth mentioning. 

Staring up into the light above the pin-up calendar, I clear my head of all thought, letting words drip from my mouth. The domed reading lamp looks like the porch light that my wife promised she would always leave on for me. 

I see the porch light flickering softly as I pull up in my rig, many years before I leave on this one-way trip to the stars. Gnats and moths orbit the dirty bulb, bashing into it and each other, drunk on light. Through the closed front door, I see the home that the porch light represents. There are coasters on the coffee table and clean towels hanging in the bathroom. The water boiler drones its one-note song from behind a cabinet. The air inside smells of us, like cardamom and chamomile. My wife sleeps alone, hugging a pillow that will soon be replaced by my body.

Returning my gaze to the porthole, I look out at the nothing once more. But this time, I don’t see nothing. I see that porch light, flickering by itself in the vast emptiness of space-time. I see it back at the end of my tunnel, all the way home along my trail of bread crumbs. It is unlikely that I will stand in its light ever again, but I see it. I see it somewhere out there on a planet I call Earth and I know that it is the only home I will ever know. 

Rat or Pigeon

Published in the Wells Street Journal, Issue 12: Mapping the City (December 2019)

Touchdown at Stansted at 23:20 and he groans, doing the maths, figuring he won’t be on a train until 23:35 at the earliest. Likely not till 23:50, putting him into Liverpool Street at 00:35, at which point Tube services will have closed for the night. He’ll have to take one of those creepy, nauseating buses that he detests and walk the half-mile from King’s Cross to his flat on feet that ache. And the whole way he’ll be snorting like a hog because one sinus keeps dripping down the back of his nasal cavity, and he’s determined not to let the mucus reach his throat and get him sick, though it’s probably too late.

He alights, stands at the top of the mobile stairway for a moment, stunned to see a pair of idling buses rather than the roped-off path into the terminal he’s used to seeing after these short flights across the Channel. Apparently, there’s been some mix-up with air traffic control, and they’ve landed way the hell out there by the blackened model airplane that firefighters use to practise, which looks as though it has been constructed from wine-cask-sized toilet rolls. So now, because they have to bus to the terminal, he amends his schedule, adding twenty minutes to his subsequent ETAs and subtracting twenty minutes from the brief window of sleep he expects to get tonight.

The bus smells of mildew, sweat and unwashed clothes. A man beside him mutters “fucking ridiculous,” and he wants to agree, except that he’s decided he hates this man. The man is well over 200 pounds, is positioned directly in front of him, and will only hold him up further because you just know he can’t move with a purpose on those legs.

He’s furious. The full and crippling indignity of his hour-to-hour existence has finally dawned on him. He feels like a greasy rat in a baroque maze, designed by scientists hell-bent on torturing their subjects. Modern transportation and the time-obsessed mentality that comes with it have turned him and everyone around him into smelly, mindless rodents, shuffling between boxes of various form and function, engaging in the most low-down, dastardly self-centrism in order to get to wherever it is that they are going one or maybe two minutes faster than they thought they would. Like the grandmother with the tiny piercing eyes who elbows him in the groin as they’re getting off the bus so that she can pull her obese, snot-nosed grandson to the front. And the boy is not even paying attention because his eyes are locked on the game system in his hands, which is just too damn important to set down, apparently. But what’s really bothering him is not the sharp pain of this old woman’s bony elbow in his crotch, or the ripe smell of the people, or the fact that everyone, including himself, looks forward with the ashen, droopy-eyed expressions of the undead. What’s really bothering him is quite a bit harder to pin down.

Perhaps it’s the text that comes in when he finally gets service, from her, saying, “Love you,” and the knowledge that if he responds, she won’t get it until the morning, and he’ll be back in the air by then. Perhaps it’s the fatigue and the tendrils of nausea working their way up his oesophagus from the clumps of masticated ALDI sandwich, reduced for quick sale, melting in the turbulent acids of his stomach. Or perhaps it’s the realisation that in this maze in which he is just a tiny, insignificant rat, there is no THEY, no scientists who, sadistic or not, take note of what works and what doesn’t. In truth, he is both rat and scientist. In truth, he has no one to blame but himself.

-OR-

Touchdown and he smiles, feeling lucky to be alive. His head bobs up from between his knees, his ears red and rosy from being nestled up against the soft pleated legs of his trousers. His ears feel warm, but it’s a good warm – a fireside, sweatered, Christmas Eve kind of warm – and he smiles even wider. He looks psychotically happy. Other people have started to notice and make no secret of their displeasure; nothing hates a good mood like a bad one. Doesn’t matter, he decides, they can suffer all they want. He’s going to smile and be happy.

He checks his watch – 23:24. Stansted Express is still running, but maybe he’ll take the regular service to Liverpool Street, so he can watch the people of the night as they get on and off the train. He can decide when he gets to the platform. Either way, he’s on his way back into London. Back to her.

As he steps out into the cold night air, perfumed with the scents of hot rubber and asphalt and jet fuel, he feels like a pigeon released from its loft. The world awaits. He can go anywhere, yet he knows exactly where he wants to go, where he needs to go. This, he thinks, this is true freedom. The sounds and smells of the airstrip speak to him of all the places he could choose to go, if he wished. But Occam’s Razor has cut all the other choices away, leaving only one, only her.

He is funnelled into one of the buses waiting on the tarmac, behind a large man in a tight T-shirt with a florid face, who leans over and says, “fucking ridiculous.” The discrepancy between the colour of this man’s face and arm skin is frankly obscene. He stifles a laugh and nods his head, agreeing with the large man, whose honesty he decides he loves.

He loves the large man because the man reminds him of all the ways in which we try our best. Maybe the man is peeved because he wants to get home to kiss his daughter goodnight and she’s already up way past her bedtime. The bus won’t move any faster than a bus can move, but by voicing his discontent, he’s speaking for the rest of them, for all of them. He’s speaking for the old woman who elbows him in the groin as she hurries her distracted grandson off the bus. Maybe she hurries because she has a grown child, sick in hospital. And now, between the countless meetings and surgeries and consultations, she has to look after her child’s child. She loves him, without question, but maybe can’t relate to him, so she lets him park himself in front of screens all day. This probably suits the grandson just fine, the screen being something of an escape from a reality that gets progressively grimmer by the minute. The look of concentration and focus on his scrunched-up, little face suggests that he might be fully immersed in his game, that he’s not thinking of sickness or hospitals or the smell of 409, all too familiar to this boy. All these things remind him of the ways in which we try our best, but it’s not the only reason why he’s happy on this particular night.

Perhaps it’s the text that comes in from her, saying, “Love you.” Just to know that someone is waiting for him, that someone cares whether he makes it home or not, even if it’s just for one night. Perhaps it’s the feeling of nausea in his throat, reminding him that he’s alive, that his body still responds negatively to the junk he can’t keep himself from putting into it. But he’s doing his best. He feels lucky and wonders who he should thank. If he’s a pigeon, should he thank his breeder for showing him the right path, for showing him what true freedom means? But no, because, in truth, he is both pigeon and breeder. In truth, he has no one to thank but himself

Theseus

Published in Visual Verse Vol. 6 – Chapter 12 (October 2019)

She calls herself Theseus. She’s a fixture in the galleries and museums. She goes to all the openings, drinks wine from long-stemmed glasses, talks knowingly about perspective, layering, composition. Every step she takes in this abstract world is a step taken away from the concrete, away from where she’s been. 

Her stocking-ed calves ache from wearing heels all day. It’s a good pain, far removed from the growing pains of her youth, when Mother rubbed Tiger Balm into her calves and whispered, “Cara mia, va bene, va bene.” She remembers Mother’s strong fingers and the smell of camphor in her nostrils – a sweet sting like a happy memory.

And the first time she wore heels, her sister’s, going to see Rocky Horror Picture Show at the Village Theatre. She was a virgin then, dragged up before the crowd, tottering in the unfamiliar shoes, stripped to her pants. The audience laughed and called out but there was no threat in their voices, no malice. It was the first time in her memory that she did not feel ashamed of her body.

She started going more often. Every Saturday night. She taught herself how to put on makeup. She split herself in two and lived in both bodies, longing to put herself back together into one – the one that wore boas and corsets with pride. This body came with its own family and the feeling of their love was intoxicating.

It was her chosen family that convinced her to sing. She never before realized that she had a beautiful voice. She used to be quiet, still was around Mother, who also had a beautiful voice but rarely sung. In the darkness of the Village Theatre, she sang loud enough for both of them.

Now she lives in a loft. People pay her good money to tell them what she thinks about art, but they don’t want to know, not really. She’s gotten good at lying for money. 

If you buy her a drink, or give her a smoke, or maybe if you just smile at her in the right way, she’ll tell you what she really thinks. She’ll tell you that she’s a work of art. She’ll tell you about her perspective, her layers, how she composes herself. She’ll tell you that she is both a subjective object and the process that creates that object. She’ll tell you why she is Theseus and how you can be too.

The Mirror

Published in the Wells Street Journal, Issue 11: The Liminal Edition (April 2019)

My wife tells me that she can never see herself in my work so I say I will make her a mirror. She doesn’t laugh at my lame attempt at comedy, maybe because we actually do need a mirror. We both take our showers in the morning and I wake up before her most days so by the time she gets to the vanity to do her makeup, our bathroom mirror is one impenetrable blur of grey. 

She is reduced to standing in the hallway where there is a small, rhomboidal mirror by the door. She hangs her makeup bag from one of the coat hooks on the wall and goes through her routine with her free hand planted firmly against the locked door. My wife is terrified of someone breaking into our flat while she is home alone. She keeps the window across from the mirror in the hall perpetually shuttered so that stalkers won’t be able to see which flat she lives in. Her anxiety is higher in the morning because of her compulsion to do her makeup in the nude with her thighs and back lobster-red and steaming. Ripe and ready for a serial killer, she always says. I have offered to move the mirror from the hallway to our windowless bedroom but she told me not to bother. She said she doesn’t mind, but I know she does. 

My wife is the kind of person who refuses to go into stores less than 30 minutes before they close. She is constitutionally incapable of inconveniencing anyone; the only exception being herself. Whenever I remind of her of this fact, she sighs and pats the top of my head, a gesture that I find patronizing in the extreme. I grimace. She smirks. And then I say I dropped something and jog back to the store to buy whatever it is she needs. Other people call this kind of behaviour passive aggressive. 

On those mornings that I sleep in, I awake to see her through the doorway, standing at the end of the hall. In her left hand, she holds an eyeliner pencil; the right holds the door closed. Morning light leaks through the cracks in the closed shutters of the hallway window, casting soft golden bars across my wife’s salmon-coloured body. The light shimmers and throbs, bursting with the potential to mature into the pale ubiquity of day. I like to sculpt in the mornings when the feverish impatience of morning light falls on the marble, iron, and wood in my studio, provoking the raw materials to change into something else.

My wife leans in to the mirror to get a closer look at her eyelid, then lifts her chin, pulling her mouth into a frown. She drags a fingernail a fraction of a centimetre along the corner of her top lip, where the gloss has spilled over. Then she wraps her left arm around her head and finishes drawing on her eyeliner. She became ambidextrous when we moved into this flat, now preferring her left to her right even on those days when I am home, when she doesn’t have to hold the door closed. 

She inspects her work, herself in the mirror. She smiles. She grimaces. Then she tilts her chin up, eyes wide and curious, lips slightly parted. Everyone who knows my wife thinks of this expression when they picture her face. If it were possible, I would want my mirror to capture this moment, to preserve for her not only the image, but also the freedom and self-awareness that she experiences on those mornings when she hasn’t yet felt the familiar weight of my gaze. 

She turns and sees my open eyes. She walks back into the bedroom and opens the closet doors. She clicks her tongue a few times, then speaks to me over her shoulder. She tells me that her clothes are hideous and that she looks fat and ugly. I tell her that’s not true. She says which? I say both and she says yeah, but you’re biased. And then I can’t find anything else to say. This is your classic no-win situation, what my Father called a Kobayashi Maru, and even after a combined total of sixty years of marriage, neither of us have figured out how to get out of one. 

I know that my wife doesn’t actually believe that her clothes are hideous or that she’s fat or ugly, at least, not all the time. She says these things because it triggers the same conversation every time and that kind of consistency can be comforting. I do the same thing when I ask her what she thinks of my work. I will ask her opinion of something and she will say “Oh, D, you know I think all your stuff is marvellous.”  

The only time my wife has ever told me the truth about my art was when I had a piece commissioned by the Seattle Sculpture Garden. I constructed a loose tepee of telephone poles, interspersed with boulders, at the far corner of the garden, where the grass falls away to a rocky beach. I wanted it to look like an abandoned bonfire, like man’s hubris reduced to refuse, destroyed by the tides. I remember showing my wife the design the night before the unveiling. She was sitting on my lap, taking liberal swigs from my beer. She looked at the plans for a long time. 

“What’s it called?” she asked.

“I don’t know yet, thinking about just calling it ‘Untitled’… thoughts?”

“How about… ‘ode to phallus’?”

She looked back at me, and, on her face where I expected to see levity, I saw only that look of calm curiosity. She thought that the title would be appropriate. My wife saw the piece for what it would be: another monument to man’s love for his genitalia. She didn’t seem particularly bothered by the heavy-handedness of my approach, but then again, she had been confronted by the image throughout her life. What was one more sculpture of a penis to a woman who had spent most of her life in cities?

I didn’t tell her that I had intended the piece to express the opposite of virile masculinity. I saw it as an ode to the pull of the moon, that temperamental goddess who can destroy any man she wishes, ripping his structures and statues to shreds with pressure and time. I didn’t tell my wife any of this, but when I spent the evening of the unveiling drinking flute after flute of prosecco and sulking beneath an enormous red Chihuly elsewhere in the garden, she recognized her mistake. She didn’t apologize—my wife never apologizes unless she thinks she’s wrong—but she made the decision to abstain from commenting on my work.

The morning after I tell her that I will make her a mirror, I wake up at sunrise next to my wife. I rise from the bed carefully, trying not to wake her. She moans as my presence leaves the warm enclosure of our sheets. I go to the bathroom, shower, shave, and come back to the bedroom to get dressed. As I button my shirt, I look down at my wife’s troubled brow; she has never been a good sleeper. I lean down and plant a dry kiss on her temple. Her weary arms raise on invisible marionette strings, wrapping themselves around my neck.

“Go make something grand, baby,” she mumbles.

I break out through London’s bitter morning air, heading for Queensway Tube Station. I take Inverness Terrace rather than the more direct route down Queensway because the trees waving above my head make me feel like I could be anywhere else. 

I don’t dislike London but I do feel out of place here. My wife acclimated immediately, inserting herself into her rigorous studies and picking up a gaggle of good-natured friends in the process. The crowd of artists and intellectuals that I continue to meet at galleries and theatres bores me. They wax philosophical about the bourgeois sensibilities of the modern precariat, trying to find the most obscure and esoteric way to express themselves. My wife says I don’t like these people because I see too much of myself in them. She’s probably right. 

While my wife has built a life for herself here, I have occupied myself with my work, which ironically translates to the production of fewer and fewer pieces. My art is becoming increasingly theoretical. For example, my last piece was a discarded Costa Coffee House cup, crushed beneath the wheel of a garbage collector’s truck on a deserted street off Primrose Hill. No one would see the mangled maroon remains of the cup and no one would care. But it was art, and beautiful, nonetheless.

Despite my reduction in output, I still keep a studio. It is a small office beneath a vegan restaurant off Bond Street. The rent is atrocious but I need somewhere other than our flat to keep my materials and tools. 

I reach Queensway and descend to the platform on the crowded lift. A husky, unshaven gentleman peers blearily at the other occupants. His XXXL T-shirt is stained with grease and I can smell the vinegar and bitter on his clothes and breath. Beside me, a young woman taps at her phone in an uninterrupted stream that sounds like small raindrops pattering against a skylight. A boy with a black bowl cut clutches his mother’s hand. He looks up at me with pure curiosity on his face. His green eyes remind me of my wife’s but before I can smile at him, the doors open and we all alight from the lift. 

On the tube, the darkened tunnels darting past the curved Plexiglass windows create a funhouse mirror that morphs my fellow passengers into grotesque amalgamations of limbs and features. The large man sits next to me. His cranium has disappeared, replaced by a shrunken, inverted reflection of his whole body, which sprouts from the crest of his Cro-Magnon brow. Two sets of eyes, divided by one set of eyebrows, gaze into the middle distance. The woman, standing between the row of seats, has been reduced to a pair of double sided-legs, leopard-print designer heels on all four feet. The boy with the bowl cut and green eyes giggles as he elongates his features one at a time by exposing them to the curve in the glass. His nose bulges out, then his mouth, then his chin. 

I notice that from where I am sitting, my eyes are invisible in the reflective glass. They have been consumed by a second pair of cheeks, resting comfortably atop their clones. I try to sit perfectly still and merge myself with the thing that I see in the glass. Like an embarrassing memory from childhood, what I see is both an image of me and not an image of me. I shudder because, in some other world, I could look like this. 

My wife and I share the same fear that maybe we are hideously deformed in some way. She tends to think in terms of mental disabilities whereas I can only picture the physical. I think about how life would look to someone who looks like I do in the reflective window of the Tube. I don’t think it would be too bad if you knew that that was how you looked. The crux of our fear is that the whole world has created a conspiracy, complete with doctored mirrors, in order to keep us in the dark about our deformities. We are terrified that we are the only people who can’t see how hideous we truly are. 

I think about my wife waking up and going to stand at the door to do her makeup. I think about how she teases me for taking myself too seriously, for being too self-important. I love how she can tease me for this and then tell me with a straight face that none of her friends like her and that they’re all just pretending. 

My wife and I always come to the same conclusion about our fear—that it is unwarranted. We tell each other that we are normal in looks and intelligence. We remind each other of our faults and our virtues because we draw no difference between the importance of these things. We decide that we can trust each other because we can be honest with each other, even when we can’t be honest with ourselves, even when being honest means never telling someone what you really think. Ruth and I are two mirrors, facing one another. When I look past her, past the two of us, I can see my face repeated ad infinitum. And each repetition is both an image of me and not an image of me. 

As the train screeches to a halt at Bond Street, I take one last look at myself in the reflective glass. I smile because I look ridiculous, vertically doubled into a misshapen hourglass of a human being. I smile because I can never see myself as well as I do when I am with my wife. And I smile because she makes a better mirror than I ever could.

The Midland Railroad Hotel

Published in Wordsmith_HQ’s The Purple Breakfast Review: ‘Nightmares and Daydreams’ (June 2019)

Sasha awoke to the sound of a bell.

The hotel room was uncanny, the darkened furniture seeming both familiar and unfamiliar. Slowly, the details of the past day began to assemble in Sasha’s brain, falling into place with each deep clang of the bell: the hours they had spent driving through the flat arid landscape, arriving well after midnight in this town, Wilson; the palm-sized iron key that the receptionist handed them across the counter, a wide smile frozen onto his pale young face; holding the bannisters as they ascended floor after floor – the hotel had no elevator; fitting that key into the lock and turning it to hear the firm crunch as the bolt slid back; the door opening and a crack of light falling on the bed; falling onto that bed.

Maybe we overslept, Sasha thought. Maybe it’s Sunday morning already and the congregation is gathering across the road. 

Darkness visible through the crack between the curtains confirmed that it was still night. Sasha rolled over, twisting a pillow around her head for a pair of makeshift earmuffs. The LCD screen on John’s wristwatch was turned down into the covers, his splayed arms and legs immobile in unconsciousness. Sasha didn’t bother trying to turn him over. His wet, hiccupping snores tore through the room’s interior, momentarily overpowering the sound of the bells. They had spent enough nights together for John’s snoring to recede to the outskirts of Sasha’s mind, only noticeable under direct scrutiny. The bells did not cease. 

The curtains billowed and flapped, prodded by the prairie wind that brought the faint smells of hay and manure and warm asphalt into the room. Sasha rose and went to the window, remembering that it had been sealed shut earlier.  Operator error, most likely. Maybe John managed to pry it open to let the air in

Sasha passed through the slit between the curtains and stood at the windowsill, gazing out into the dark night. The window wasn’t just open but missing, removed from its hinges and frame and squirreled away. The warm air circulating around Sasha’s lithe, naked body felt like a river of tepid water; the sensation was pleasant and – for a moment – her eyes closed in rapturous, wilful ignorance of everything outside of the feeling of night air on bare skin. 

But the tolling bells forced Sasha’s eyes back open. They were drawn to a sign, which read “DRUNKEN BRETHREN CHURCH” in bold black capitals against a whitewashed board. Behind the sign, the building was a silhouette, considerably darker than the charcoal farmland stretching out under the black horizon. The sky was a pool of crude oil and the church was but a drop, clinging to this pool by the thin trickle of its bell-tower.

A faint prick of light appeared at the door of the church. It glowed like the flame of a tea candle, emitting a soft halation and swaying in the gentle breeze. It began to grow and move, widening every second. As it streaked around its predetermined course, Sasha recognised that a general shape began to form: a rather tall man with what appeared to be a cane in one hand and a bottle in the other. 

Sasha was so engaged with the emergence of this one man that the appearance of other pricks of light nearby almost escaped her notice. They sprang up around the entrance to the church, swaying and spinning in the same manner as the one that had produced the man, who was now nearly complete as a deathly pale gentleman in a smart, white tailored suit with tails and a white top hat on his head. Sasha could even make out the wisps of a silver moustache above his top lip, curling outward like the last few sparks off a dying ember. 

The other figures that emerged around the gentleman – all of whom were equally pale and equally elegant – formed a tight crowd around the door to the church, which was now sufficiently illuminated for Sasha to see the ornate carvings in the old, varnished wood. As a crowd, the individuals were hard to make out; standing together, they overlapped to form a miasmic mass of white and silver and grey. But around the outside of the crowd, a few were visible, dressed in slightly less formal attire, rumpled suits and frayed collars unclosed by ties. They shuffled in place, looking bored and aimless as they looked down at their boot-clad feet. 

Then, the crowd by the door began moving more vigorously, cheering and dancing and clasping pallid hands high above their heads. The bells increased in volume, clanging metallic thunderclaps out across the deserted landscape. Sasha wondered whether the sound would rouse John, but the familiar hiccups and gasping snores continued. 

The bride and groom arrived in style, bursting forth from the church doors as a couple. Little grains of white rice and a fine mist of sprayed champagne rained down upon them. His suit shimmered like velvet, but seemed to grow brighter in the folds rather than darker. It was made of a different material than the ones worn by those who surged forth to clap him on the back and tussle his silver hair. The overall impression was of a man clothed in moonstone. 

Compared to the majesty of the bride’s dress though, his suit looked like a cheap rental. Every square inch of the flowing, floor-length, gown contained a supernatural glow. Like a round brilliant diamond, the dress both reflected and refracted the surrounding light of the crowd. The strapless sweetheart cut attracted Sasha’s eyes to a small, teardrop necklace resting against her sternum. Her smile was wide, and though her lips and cheeks had not the slightest hint of color, she looked happy and healthy, as every young bride should.

The couple walked on through the hail of rice and silent cheers. The bells, having reached their zenith, receded. Stillness and silence overtook the night. As the newlyweds crossed the street into the village green, they were followed first by the gentlemen and ladies who had gathered around the door, then by the few who had lurked on the church lawn, casting forlorn glances at the crowd. 

They all assembled around a gazebo, where the beautiful couple took the floor and began a slow dance. The silence was total, but the visible rhythm of the first dance provided the beat and Sasha’s memories of past waltzes were enough to supply a melody; she couldn’t help but hum the inaudible tune. As the two dancers spun, the bottom of the bride’s gown twirled and rode up slightly, revealing a pair of glass stilettos. They looked impossibly fragile, yet her movements were fluid and carefree. She seemed to float in his capable hands, round and round and round.

As they came to the conclusion of their dance, he spun her outward on one arm. Her body pirouetted with the effortless grace of a professional ballerina, one arm extended up toward the starless sky, the other sliding along her companion’s sleeve. As her upraised arm fell, so too did her body and the body of her companion into a deep bow. The crowd around the gazebo erupted into silent applause. When the couple stood straight once again, they made a sweeping gesture of invitation. 

In a moment, everyone around the gazebo had paired off and commenced a wild dance. The shabby men who had previously kept their distance were indiscriminately mixing with their social betters. Powder-faced women wearing large semi-spherical hoop skirts joined hands with bare-chested men with bald bandanas encircling their necks. They paraded around the gazebo. Men danced with men, women with women, and all their heads were thrown back in noiseless laughter. 

Up at the window set into the oxidised copper roof of the Midland Railroad Hotel, Sasha felt a sense of melancholy rising with the revelry of the celebrants in the village green. She had, until this point, given no thought as to who or what these figures were, but began to feel as though the whole charade was an invitation addressed to the lonely person in the window. But the lonely person in the window will not budge, Sasha decided. The lonely person in the window will remain lonely because loneliness is a feeling and feelings are only palpable to the living. 

The smiles and laughter of the happy couple and their party were a facsimile of happiness—an imitation of the feeling. They smiled because they were stuck in this empty, isolated place. They smiled because if they didn’t, they would cry and the image of a crying bride is too cliché, even for a ghost town. They smiled because they had forgotten the pain and the pleasure of living and so had no reason to do anything else with their faces. They smiled for the same reason that the receptionist at the front desk of the hotel smiled: because it was inoffensive and polite and welcoming. 

There’s nothing like standing at an open window several floors up, thought Sasha, to make you question mortality.

Sasha turned from the window without another glance at the wedding party. The room was hot and heavy with the stench of human sweat, the rasping breaths that escaped from John’s cavernous mouth seeming to perfume the muggy air. Sasha sighed and slipped into bed behind him. Their two bodies fit together like a lock into a key. Though which one was the lock and which one was the key was never clear to Sasha. Maybe John is the lock because he keeps me grounded, providing a view of the world as one solid, unremarkable entity. Maybe John is the key because he opens all the doors I never could. Maybe we’re both locks, fastened to each other through the best and worst of life’s fortunes. Or maybe we’re both keys, unlocking the secrets of this world together

Whatever they were, they were together. They were alive and they were together.