I remember the first time I smoked, I coughed so hard that I thought my lungs were going to explode. My fingers felt clammy; they were poorly positioned. I kept at it, unwilling to relent until I had it right. I looked at my best friend — she took in that first drag as if she had popped out of the womb with a cigarette clasped between her tiny fingers. I felt stupid and embarrassed, but nobody cared after the first round of laughter faded. Slowly, though, it became easier. A gradual release. A need that made my fingers twitch when conversations dragged on for too long. I used to think that cigarettes were an indulgence, but there is something compelling about a need that is self-created. That first hit and my throat radiates heat forward and backward. My lungs, raw and open, soak in the smoke. Everything feels soluble and less daunting in these moments.
Open spaces are my first preference when I smoke. I like to watch the sky loom bigger, as my thoughts drag farther away. Yesterday, I sat in the cold on an unfinished wall of bricks. The sun melted into the skin of the night, as I drew on my cigarette. I savored the glacial taste in my mouth, waiting for the warmth to hit the back of my throat. I lit up another one (I’m not a heavy smoker, but I allow myself an extra one on particularly awful days). I just wanted to feel a calm, and the cigarette granted me that temporarily. An old lady walked by, thrusting her hand back and forth as she stared at me angrily. “Some of us want to live a long life, you know,” she said. The loudness of her voice surprised me. She was probably in her late sixties. What the heck was she complaining about? Wasn’t she already living “a long life?” Still, I mouthed a soft “sorry” even though I didn’t mean it. Unwanted advice from strangers is pretty common. I just tune it out.
People look slightly different when they are smoking. It alters their faces, flattening out the frustration until the softness spreads across. It takes away the unhappiness and the stress. It’s more than a casual comfort. Still, there’s a dark deception that it carries — the one that can lead to collapsed lungs and an early deathbed. I’m aware of that and everything that comes with it. People glare as they hustle past me, their eyes wide with disdain. I wonder how many of them are closeted smokers, or how many of them have quit and taken it back on again. Everyone’s always judging, but they don’t understand. The smoke in my chest makes sense of the order and chaos around me. I like the smell of tobacco on my fingertips. I like engaging in conversations with friendly strangers — all of us huddled outside like a group of outcasts. I know I’ll have to quit someday. I don’t want it to become more of a habit than it already has. I don’t know when that’ll be, but for now I’ll let it be my temporary escape.
“I don’t want another antique. I feel like we already have so many. I want something different. Something that isn’t so old,” Marion locked her fingers nervously.
“What a stupid thing to say. These things aren’t just old. They have value and meaning,” Jake snorted. He was silent for a moment, and then his lips parted, revealing his large, horse-like teeth. “God, Marion. Don’t you think they are worth preserving?”
Marion shifted uncomfortably. Jake was staring at her, his eyebrows slightly frowning. There was a certain disconcerting earnestness in his eyes, which left her feeling oddly exposed. Still, it didn’t seem to Marion that he realized the weight of his words.
“I just feel like…” she began.
Marion stared at him for a moment, allowing the silence to fall down like a heavy blanket. She shrugged her shoulders and averted her gaze.
Jake walked towards Marion and kissed her cheek. Suddenly, his eyes landed on a pale white vase with pink roses. The ceramic vase was lined with gold trim and its glossy surface gleamed like a bald, white moon. He picked it up carefully and smiled.
“Don’t you think this would be perfect?”
Marion stared at it quietly. It was a pretty vase, but it was simple and unexciting. She had seen variations of its kind, all cheaper of course, but still she felt unsatisfied with the original, pricier one in front of her.
“Yeah, sure,” Marion replied.
Jake smiled triumphantly, completely unaware of the hopelessness in Marion’s voice.
You puckered your mouth, blowing out smoke between your full, red lips. I kept my hands on the wheel and my eyes straightforward while you prepared to let go of the fullness that could’ve grown inside of you. “I wish I could just bleed this baby out,” you said. I was startled by the clearness of your voice, but I did not respond. Instead, I focused on the flat road and the unending stretch of the sky. You played with the cross around your neck; the one your mother made you wear since you turned eighteen. It was small and wooden and I remembered watching you pray to its shadow when you thought I was asleep. We didn’t say much during that car ride. I was anxious and worried, but you just stared out the window and watched the large buildings move closer and closer. My lungs expanded like an enormous fish as I exhaled and murmured stupid affirmations that you didn’t want to hear anyway. When I parked the car, you rearranged your face before stepping out into the burning heat. Your body was loose and your face calm. “I’m tired. Lets get this over with,” you sighed.
The Child Bearer
She’s been her husband’s habit for seven years. Tonight he’ll say, “Let’s go to Jerry’s” and she’ll slide her hand into his as they walk out. She wonders if there’s more to living than the slow, wrinkling touch of his skin, and the sweat that drips from his forehead when they lie in bed, each occupied in separate dreams. She bore three children for him; each one stole the ripeness of her skin and left her looking like a weathered dish rag. For a while she forgot what silence felt like. Most mornings she faithfully scrubs down the floors until her nails crawl back into her skin. All day long the house sits uneasily like an ill-mannered child, as she shuffles through rooms, moving briskly up and down the stairs. While folding the laundry or stocking the fridge, she’ll dream of being dead at thirty-four.
The children come rolling in at mid-afternoon and she feeds them while they scribble messily on lined paper. Her face is red with sorrow when she sips her 5 o’clock martini, kicking off her shoes as her thighs press into the soft flesh of the couch. Her thoughts roll back to when she was a lonely kid, awkward in her brand new body which was not yet a woman’s, and how she ran out aimlessly under the yellow heat, and still believed that God could hear the curses she mumbled under her breath. At seven-thirty, when her husband walks in and kisses her cheek, she is reminded again that she is married to this house. When he smiles and binges on the dinner she has slaved over, she watches in silence and wishes him to be crippled, or to disappear, or — even sometimes — dead.
It wasn’t about the desire for thinness or the need to feel the pop and snap of a collarbone — it was the fear of being desired for her curves. Having anything on her body that could be grabbed freaked Chloe out. It was an invitation for an attack, to be violated so openly and crudely without even the slightest of hesitation. Every time someone handed her food, they stared back at her to make sure she was at least eating some of it. Chloe’s eating habits were strange. It was the colors. She couldn’t eat things that were a certain color or that looked a certain way. She was tired of feeling like she was crazy. Something in her head didn’t balance — she wasn’t dead, but she didn’t feel alive either — and she was afraid of doing the wrong thing. She only ate to take up (some) space and give herself assurance that she couldn’t erase her own existence, that she actually had some weight here. I’m going to eat this orange. I’m going to eat this orange. The thought unleashed in her head, spinning round and round until her eyes became wet and blurry. It was exhausting. Hunger hurts and it was easier for Chloe to crawl inside her bone-cage and isolate herself from the chaos and confusion. People screamed at her, but they couldn’t make her eyes work the way theirs’ did. Still, she was tired and couldn’t manage anymore. She stood in the front of the refrigerator for twenty minutes, her eyes plastered on the drawer full of oranges. She shifted her weight onto her right leg and sighed heavily. She couldn’t pick the right one to eat.
When she was home alone, Chloe still felt the nervousness in her belly expanding every time she heard a noise in her bedroom. She walked over to her closet and shoved her hand in the middle, thrusting it from side to side to make sure nobody was inside. Her fingers lingered in the air momentarily, trying to grasp hold of something that wasn’t there. She hated this feeling; it was like being consumed in a black wave that left her feeling unsafe in her own skin. For a moment, the light behind her fell brightly onto her moving hands and she stared at them, her eyes widening in surprise as she turned them over and back, feeling as if they had been replaced with those of a stranger. There were scratches all the way up to her shoulders. Some red lines were light and short, and others were thicker and melded into dark patches where she had dug in the deepest. Chloe sighed. I will be better, I will be better. I will not hate myself. Behind the line of hangers and clothes, the off-white wall was covered in splits and scars from when she had stabbed it repeatedly with her brother’s old jackknife. She did this whenever she became angry because, really, it was easier than stabbing someone. One night, after crying uncontrollably, she kneeled down, placing her hands on the cracked wooden molding and carved a single word: strong.
The Missing Half
Sitting in this chair and being surrounded by people in black, I feel sick. They are staring at me, their eyes lingering at the empty space next to me, searching for the other half of me that doesn’t exist anymore. They are waiting for me to say something, to cross on over to the podium and finally speak about her death. My hands are shaking and I don’t want to do this, but I get up and walk as if I am braver than I am. People shift in their seats, their tongues fall silent. Sunlight passes through the stained glass windows of the church and falls down in broken angles. I close my eyes. My ears are burning; they feel like a buried tunnel, pushing all noise and life outward until only the lingering stillness of darkness remains. I stand like this for a few minutes, until the distant murmurs of strangers begins to rise higher.
Finally, I open my eyes and see their faces — they are blurred shapes floating towards me, suddenly troubling the quiet inside my head.
“My sister, Lucy, was…” the words fall flat into the air, and my hands tremble from shame and guilt. I begin again, but still nothing comes out.
I can’t speak. The words remain trapped inside my throat, and no matter how hard I try, I can’t get them out. My eyes shift across the sea of faces, and I search for my mother’s familiar eyes. She is sitting towards the corner of the front row, but her head is down. She won’t look up towards me, or respond with her maternal tongue. I can feel the panic rising. People continue to shift and murmur, but still I remain silent.
My eyes slowly drift towards the open casket and for the first time I look at her. The casket is mahogany and inside it Lucy lies patiently, her hair brushed through and her lips the perfect shade of pink. Inside her right palm is a small picture of the Virgin Mary — she is gazing upwards into a light she has not yet reached.
Staring at Lucy, her body so stiff and cold, feels unreal. We have the same eyes, the same nose, the same lips. Except her whiteness, that valuable porcelain, doesn’t match the tanned glow of my skin. She was my twin. My other half. The better half.
I could never entirely piece together what had happened that night. The images of Lucy remain scattered in my memories, as I struggle to properly piece them together. I don’t want to remember her that way: lying on her side, her left had twisted in the wrong direction, and her soft lips split into a heinous, gaping “O.”
These people, they keep staring at me, waiting for something to finally come out of my mouth. I know that nothing will. I hold my breath but I know that I cannot undo myself here. Outside, the sun is shining even brighter now — its bursting yellow-orange hue spreading across the sky like a flaming match. I cringe from the paralyzing heat, which sticks between my fingers like melted glue. Nearby the engine of a beat up truck roars to life, and finally, amidst this unconquerable pain, I find my voice.
“My sister, Lucy, was the bravest person I knew. She was everything that I wish I could be.”
Misery at Dinner Time
Anne’s face, now as calm as a mannered sea, looked on indifferently as she pulled into the parking lot of a Safeway. She parked by the front and then quickly slipped out with Ramona in hand. Inside, they moved listlessly through the aisles of food, not knowing what to pick. Anne stopped pushing the cart at the frozen food section. Instantly, Ramona’s face cringed in recognition of what was inside the cold, packaged boxes. She remembered the pasty taste of the tuna noodle casserole they had the previous night. It had taken her fifteen minutes to brush out the aftertaste. Anne looked down at her daughter and saw her pained expression.
“I guess that’s a no for the spinach and mushroom lasagna?”
Ramona’s shook her vigorously from side to side. “I’m hungry, so definitely not,” she said with wide eyes.
“Well that doesn’t leave us with many options. I could cook something, but we both know how that’ll turn out.” Ramona nodded her head in agreement and smiled at her mother. “I guess we could get take out, but I don’t really fell like it,” said Anne. “I don’t know what to do. This is so hard.” She looked around in confusion, unable to make a decision. Women swerved past her, their carts fully stocked with bags of fresh fruits, soda bottles, milk, and junk food. Anne looked down at hers. It was completely empty. “Are you sure you don’t want the lasagna?” she said to her daughter. “I mean it’s not that bad. Maybe we should just give it a try.” She reached in and grabbed a box, unaware of Ramona’s horrified glare.
At home, Anne mindlessly skimmed through the directions on the back of the box, and then shoved the open tray into the oven. She stood in the kitchen for a while, her hands, shapeless as flung gloves, pressed against the cool of the granite counters. Before walking out of the kitchen, she reached out and turned off the light. Their bodies gently tucked into the couch, both mother and daughter stared at the TV. Anne flipped through the channels, until Ramona asked her to stop. They watched reruns of The Suite Life of Zack and Cody on the Disney Channel, until their heavy eyelids gave into sleep. They lay in peace, fragile and undisturbed, until smoke rose out from the oven. The deafening, cryof the fire alarm thrust them out of their dreams. Anne quickly fumbled to the kitchen, her face contorted into a panicked expression. She yanked open the windows and the oven door, trying to let out the blooming black smoke. Taking a magazine from the counter, she swung it close to the fire alarm, trying to quiet its bursting screams. It roared relentlessly, until finally, out of sheer frustration, Anne smacked her hand against it and, pulled the top off with both hands. She reached in for the battery and threw it across the kitchen.
Slowly, her body shrunk to the floor like a double ended knot. The fear of drowning, the fear of being that alone rose up again, and she tried to make deals with God, as if she could buy her way out of it. The tears strung out of her eyes — they were the constant reaction to the misery that had left her caged in like an unwilling nun. That fall when Jake had died, the sky had been the same ominous grey. He had left them behind unintentionally — it was a mistake too difficult to comprehend.
Anne lifted herself up and saw Ramona staring at her with widened eyes. She walked over to her daughter and clutched her into her arms. Slowly, the responsibilities of motherhood weighed in, and Anne remembered that Ramona was still hungry. She threw out the burnt lasagna dish, and scanned the kitchen to see what else was there. Ten minutes later, they sat side by side eating Cocoa Puffs.
I Hate Cleaning Up After You
Someone said this chaos of experience would serve me well, but I’m tired of watching you stumble through bars and asking strange men to buy you cheap drinks. I cannot catalog and carry you like the others. You are restless and uneasy and on the days when you bother to come home, I wish you wouldn’t. The house is cleaner when you aren’t around and there is no one to scream at. There is no vomit on the bathroom floor or any hair to pull back. There is no body, banged out by the high, shoved messily to the ground in a dumpy heap. I want to detach you from my hip, unhinge you like a shadow. Nothing changes. You flick your hands in the air, making quick half turns and marking your face with a rumpled expression. Won’t you let me interject in your effortless descent, so you won’t cut off like a broken film in a projector? Definitiveness makes you flea and you are terrible, lying shamelessly at your own foothill every night, looking wrinkled and blue. You will never make the first step and I am no longer garbed in the belief that you will change.
This heaviness is born up to burst, and when your eyelids droop down like heavy blankets, the strange men will stop buying you whiskey sours. They will see through the thickness of your lashes and take in the mined-out, doped up expressions you usually reserve for me. Their faces will flint and when your agony spills out onto the bar, they will not bother to soak it in with their hands like I do. Instead, they will fold in their wallets and lean into the arms of another girl, one who isn’t so unaccessible and bleeding out. Can’t you see that the carelessness is no longer endearing? Still, you stumble and sink to sleep near the same field where, the previous day, you were wrapped in a torn a shawl and the unabashed, hairy hands of a stranger. On your face I see images of blackness and childhood tragedies that were taken as they came. I wish you could starve out the pain, or purge it like the alcohol that floats in your belly every night. I want you to feast on yourself, stand up leaning on no shoulder. I can no longer drink in your mess because you are an ache that nothing can satisfy.
My sleeping capsules — my red and blue night candy — knock me into a black sack. They spread inside me like spiderwebs, and then drop me from an altitude that weakens my breathing. There are holes in my dreams and even when I’m awake, I cannot remember where the burning cigarettes on my nightstand came from. My head is smashed, my hair stiffened flat like an ironing board. My ribs are showing, they glisten like armor. I cannot remember if I’ve eaten. This fever has left me hooked, hung, and starved. I dream of being someone else entirely because I am myself, and that is not enough.
My Mother Makes Me Wanna Die
Dinner in my house is always a sit down meal. You have to drop everything you are doing, no matter how important it is, because my mother thinks it’s essential to keep the family “close.”
Don’t ask me what that means.
The food is always good because she is a great cook, and apparently with some practice and hard work, I too can become one. My mother doesn’t think I fully commit to things. She thinks I’m too flighty. She nearly lost it the day I decided to dye my hair for the first time. Naturally, my hair is a chocolate brown, but I was feeling the power of Ariel calling to me, so I decided to turn it into a deep reddish auburn.
All through dinner, she stared at me like I was some stranger sitting in her daughter’s chair. We talked about everything except my hair. My father kept staring at the both of us, trying desperately to keep his own calm. The way he was smiling so forcedly, made me wonder if his lips were hurting.
“So, how was school?” he said, in between bites of cornbread and lasagna.
My parents asked me this question almost everyday as if they were expecting me to respond in any other way but “fine.” What did they want me to say? It was just school. I’d be lucky to just get out alive.
My plate was half empty — the green peas had been pushed off to the side because I didn’t like them very much. When I looked up, I saw that my mother was staring at the peas on my plate. She motioned towards them with her own fork, letting me know that I still needed to eat them. I don’t know why, but I never could get myself to eat a balanced meal in front of my mother. It seemed to mean so much to her, which was precisely why I didn’t want to do it.
“How’s Brandon?” my mother said slowly. She was staring at me still, her fork now pointing straight at me.
“What?” I said, my cheeks flushing three shades of red. Sometimes someone says something so small, so insignificant on the surface, but to you, it feels as if the weight of the world is crashing down. That’s how I felt. As if my mother was drowning me with her words.
“That boy Brandon,” she repeated. “The one who came over last week for your history project. You like him don’t you?”
I think people can actually die of embarrassment. I bet if doctors took the time to look into it, they would see that it was true. Although, I’m sure it’s most common in adolescents, caused directly by their parents behavior.
“Oh my god, mom. Can we, like, not?” I said, pushing my newly dyed hair behind my ear. I turned to see my younger sister giggling and making kissy faces at me. I felt like I was thirteen again, which is when my mother gave me my first and only sex talk. I don’t think either one of us has fully gotten over that; still, this moment somehow felt worse. She continued looking at me, waiting for a response, but all I wanted to do was reach out, grab that fork out of her hand, and stick it in my eye.
“I just wanted to know if things were moving along for you guys. That’s it.” She stared at me, her eyes slightly glazing over the shape of my hair. I knew she was still trying to recover from the initial shock of what I had done. For a moment, it seemed as if the ridges of her eyes were brimming with tears. Was she upset or something? It was so hard for me to look at my mother as, like, another human with feelings. I always just thought of her as my mother, as if she was a separate entity on her own. Maybe I was wrong.
“Nothing. Nothing’s going on. We’re only working on that project for our class, and that’s the only reason he was here. So…” I let my voice drift into silence and went back to pushing the peas on my plate off to the side.
My dad tried to make a joke, but it fell flat. He was the only one laughing. I looked up at him. The sides of his hair were beginning to gray, and there were wrinkles at the corners of his eyes. He seemed so desperate to please us. I guess that’s what happens when you live in a house with three women.
My mother looked at me and smiled. She, too, was looking at him with puzzled, anxious eyes. The poor guy. I smiled. It’s so weird when you feel connected with someone without even saying anything. There isn’t really a word to describe that feeling. I smiled back at my mom and took a bite of my peas.
Then she opened her mouth, “So are you really going to keep your hair that color?”
I had been working out over the summer to lose the extra five pounds I couldn’t shake off since the holidays. Everyday, I hit the gym for an hour and then went running in the evening. So far things were going really well.
I stood in front of the dairy section, contemplating which brand and flavor of yogurt to buy. I kept going back and forth between the original and vanilla. I nodded my head at my mother when I saw her approaching me.
“I don’t know which one to get. Do you think the fat-free one is better than the non-fat?” I looked at her, my hands tucked inside my jacket, as if she had all the answers.
“I don’t know. What’s the difference between fat-free and nonfat?”
I shrugged my shoulders. She reached forward and grabbed the nonfat vanilla yogurt and put it in our cart. I followed her down the isle glad that she had done all the hard thinking. Being indecisive was a skill I had mastered at a very young age.
As I looked around, I realized that Edna Lebrun was also grocery shopping with her mother. Immediately, a panic crept inside of me. It was the kind of feeling you got upon seeing someone you used to be friends with. It was a mixture of happiness and sadness, as if you knew but didn’t really know this person anymore.
“Oh, look there’s Patty and Edna,” my mother said excitedly. My mother was good friends with Patty Lebrun, mostly because she was our neighbor. Up until a few months ago, Edna was my best friend too, but then I dyed my hair auburn and started hanging out with kids who wore actual leather boots.
I tried to hide behind the stacks of baked goods, but my mother pushed me forward. She wasn’t entirely certain about why Edna and I had stopped talking, but then again, I wasn’t either. All I knew was that she was the girl who was in charge of the yearbook and that she had an actual boyfriend; while I was the girl who had just dyed her hair and, still, no one had really noticed or even cared.
“You know, I think we forgot the milk,” I said in a desperate voice. “I’ll get it.”
“No, I got it already,” my mother said. “Oh, hey there, Patty. I seem to be running into you everywhere this week!”
They both smiled at each other, while Edna and I just nodded in each other’s direction. This was so uncomfortable. I began playing with my knit sweater, slowly unrolling the thread at the end. Immediately, my mother reached out to stop me. She hated when I did that — it was a nervous habit. My mother thought it was important to always be confident. She was always telling me to just be myself, as if it was something so easy. What does that even mean? Be yourself.
“Why don’t you come over to our house for dinner sometime, Edna?” my mother’s voice suddenly slapped me back to reality.
What was she doing? Didn’t she know that Edna and I weren’t really friends anymore? I turned to give my mother a pleading look, but she was too excited at this point. Her hands were flailing everywhere and she her cheeks were a light pink.
“Oh, it’ll be like old times. Come on!”
Edna shifted uncomfortably and looked at her mom. Being pushy was another thing my mother was good at. Clearly, neither Edna nor I wanted this to happen, but my mother was excited enough for the both of us.
“Yeah, maybe next week,” Edna finally said
I knew she didn’t mean it, but that was fine with me.
“So how’s your boyfriend, Edna? He’s a football player I’ve heard,” my mom said.
“Mom, please…” I said, clearly embarrassed by her intrusiveness.
“He’s good. He’s been practicing a lot for the game on Friday,” Edna didn’t seem to mind my mother’s curiosity. In fact, she seemed happy talking about her boyfriend.
“Oh, that’s great. That’s wonderful, sweetheart.” Then my mother turned towards me and smiled. “Maybe sometime you and Brandon can go on a date with Edna and her boyfriend.”
“MOM!” My voiced echoed in the isle. I couldn’t believe her. I wanted to throw myself in front of a moving bus, jump off a cliff, anything, really, that would produce the most instantaneous death.
“I didn’t know you and Brandon were dating,” Edna suddenly looked more interested. She was smiling even.
“We’re not,” I stammered. “We’re not,” I turned towards my mother and shook my head. “I told you, we only worked on that one history project together. God!” My face turned a deep red and I just wanted to shove something down my throat. I looked at the chocolate cake near our grocery cart, hoping desperately that the conversation would turn elsewhere. This was one of those moments when I actually wished I was invisible. It’s so funny because that’s how I felt most of the time in school, but now I felt so oddly exposed, like people could finally see me for once. I hated it.
Everyone else remained silent for a while, until Patty and Edna remembered they had forgotten to get some milk. My mother smiled and said goodbye, and I nodded quietly, keeping my eyes still on the two gallons of milk in their cart.