email: yumiyoshi [ at] livejournal dot com
The microwave is humming with a frozen meal, and my cat is curled around my feet happily meowing, when my cell phone rings.
"Hey. It's me. Can I come over?"
It's my ex. We broke up last summer, and neither of us has really made up her mind about what that should mean for us going forward. She works as a travel writer and sometimes covers food and wine as well. I'm an engineer at a small firm that makes parts for medical equipment. You can guess which of us brought the good life to the relationship. That's why I never say no if she wants to come over: my tongue will always be pleased no matter what the rest of me feels, and I'm sure she knows it. She always was smarter than I was.
"Sure. What's the occasion?"
She hesitates. "I need a place to crash. My building had a fire in the basement, something about old wiring. Can you believe that crap, with the rent I have to pay? Anyway ... the tenants are being kicked out for the next 48 hours."
"Shit. Yeah, of course you can come over."
She takes a while and doesn't arrive empty-handed. I have to open the door because she's holding two armfuls of takeout and there's a bottle of wine dangling from a black plastic bag on her left arm.
I set the table while she arranges piles of Korean food. She's got all my favorites, including a soft tofu stew that by some miracle didn't spill on the way. I get out the wine glasses, too. She gets free stuff through her work sometimes, and since she had a pretty good set already, she gave them to me. They're basically the nicest things that I own.
"This is too much," I say with a sigh. There's glass noodles with veggies, braised chicken, raw beef, and more. "I gotta comp you for some of this."
"Are we back to that already?" Her grin is actually not that bitter. "Sit. Eat. Where's your bottle opener?"
"Same drawer as the can opener. You know, they make good boxed wine these days. And the plastic bag mechanism, you know, it keeps the wine fresh much better than corks can."
"But you can't make a weapon out of a paper box," she says pleasantly, and hands me a blue bowl with a pair of ivory chopsticks.
We eat like it's a mission. Everything is delicious and most of it is spicy, and we wash the food down with several glasses of excellent red wine. Finally we are mostly full. I excuse myself to convert my IKEA futon to a bed while she puts leftovers in my refrigerator (so she is planning to stay tomorrow too?) and I can hear her rummaging around.
She comes over with a second bottle while I'm digging in my tiny closet for extra linens. "Hey, didn't I give you this last year?"
I examine the bottle. "Probably."
"Then I won't feel bad making an executive decision to open it and drink it with you."
She opens the second bottle while I finish making the bed, throw a couple of pillows down, and call it finished. We sit down, barefoot, and she hands me a glass of wine.
The scene suddenly hits me with familiarity, and the weight of it throws me. Where do I know this feeling from? I flash back to an afternoon a long time ago.
I was much younger, in junior high, lying in a bed of leaves in my best friend's backyard, but I think at that moment I had a similar feeling, that something big was happening. I could sense the tremors of the change, but couldn't see through the ground to the way the plates were shifting underneath.
I had gone to sleep over at my friend's house the night before. It was near the end of summer, and neither of us wanted to go back to school. Her house was one of those really pretty ones that you wonder who lives in. Her mother had been some kind of super gardener, and their plot of land looked like a real secret garden, with bushes, flowers, paths of vine wound around trellises, and a stone fountain in the back yard. It looked mysterious, like their already large acre of land was secretly much larger. Like you knew there was something beautiful and mysterious going on close by, so that if you could only find the right corner to turn around, you'd find the secret door leading to another dimension.
That day it was just me, her, and her boyfriend that she'd known since kindergarten. They were that one in a million kind of couple that makes you simultaneously glad for life and sad that it can only end in death. I didn't know why they had me over. For them it was perfectly natural, they were already two halves of one body, and even though gossip and malice dominated every other high school who's-fucking-who conversation, they were beyond that kind of thing. It was as if everyone at school knew they weren't a part of that world. At least, that's how I remember it.
My friend had had a rough summer. Her mother had died of cancer the year before, and her father was in a mourning so deep it was as if he'd fallen down a well and you could only hear the echoes. She had more or less dropped out of school, and her father didn't seem to care. Her boyfriend had supported her through everything that had happened, and I didn't know what to say to any of it. My questions about how she was doing all fell flat, as if we both knew I couldn't possibly understand what she was going through. But she had her boyfriend with her, and while I never saw or heard what he did for her, I could see that they were still absolutely devoted to each other.
Not long after that, however, he was dead.
But on that day, what were we talking about?
"So," My ex says, "I had a thing last month."
I swallow a whole lot of wine. "And?"
"Didn't work out. Why are there so many assholes in the world?"
"I don't know. But that's why you should get a cat. Cats are better than people. You feed them, they love you."
"I feed you."
I roll my eyes and make sure that she sees. "That's my point."
"So you don't love me."
I take a deep breath. "You broke it off, remember?"
"Shit. I'm sorry, that's not what I meant."
Schroedinger chooses this moment to pad into the room. He's half Scottish fold, half unknown, and has the cutest white socked paws. He always did like my ex, too, and he crawls into her lap.
"It's fine," I say. "As breakups go, it wasn't that bad. How did your fling end?"
"Oh, she was a poet. Had a different beret for every day of the week. She had a different personality for every day of the week, too. I dare you to imagine the letter she wrote me after the breakup. It went something like, you might as well take the sun out of the sky, you will take all the goodness out of love, my world will go cold as dead stars."
"That's almost lovely. Maybe you should save it."
She sets her glass down on my hardwood floors and stretches on her side, turning to look at me. My heart skips a beat; I've always loved the curve of her cheeks when light washes over her face. She is wearing a white blouse, the first two buttons undone, and I can see that her skin, under the silk fabric, is illuminated.
"Didn't you used to write? I thought you said that one time, when I'd gotten you good and drunk."
"I've said a lot of things while drunk. But yes, I did write when I was a teenager. Come on, everyone writes shitty things at that age. My friends did too."
"Are any of the other people writers now?"
"No," I said.
"Gave up on the dream?"
"Not exactly," I said. Actually, those friends are all dead now, but I don't know how to explain it.
It was autumn. School had just started, and I was complaining about homework. My friend hadn't been doing any kind of homework, since she had stopped going to school. But recently I'd had an assignment to write a short piece of fiction, and she had decided to do it too.
"I wrote a fairy tale for your class," my friend said.
We were in the yard, taking a break from raking up the fallen autumn leaves in shades of gold and red. Sticks, too, caught in our rakes. We didn't mind; we were planning to stuff all of it into a big stone pot that had once held flowers, set the whole thing on fire, and watch it burn. In hindsight, considering how small a town we grew up in, I don't know how we didn't get in trouble with the police or the fire marshal.
"Tell us about it," the boyfriend encouraged, as we took a break by sitting on the pile of leaves, getting our clothes muddy and damp. So she told us:
There was a village, and birds lived on the outskirts of this village. But they were no ordinary birds. They were a species that hunted, or more properly, scavenged at night. They snuck into the houses of people and perched by their heads as if to eat them. But instead of feeding on the people, they lived by devouring the nightmares and sadness and misery in their minds, leaving holes that filled in with more sadness.
But the people of the village did not realize this, and because times were so hard and food was so scarce, they trapped the birds inside their houses to eat later. In so doing they collected more and more darkness inside and, one by one, became more and more mired in despair. And the birds feasted on them, night after night. The people fell into catatonic despair.
A young woman had special powers that allowed her to divine what was happening. She set out to rescue her village. She wove a piece of cloth that, when she wrapped herself in it, changed her into a bird; in that form she hunted down the birds that plagued the village and absorbed them into herself.
"But by the time she killed the birds, it was too late," my friend said. "The people had built up misery in themselves to the point that they had nothing but darkness in their souls. It crowded out everything else. And after the birds ate up their darkness, there was nothing left of the villagers."
"And the woman?"
"She was overcome by all the darkness that she took in, and it destroyed her. She disintegrated into the air."
"And then?" I asked, stunned at her story.
"That's the end." My friend said.
We raked the leaves into a big pile and burned them. I remember the smell, still. There's a strange sweetness when the remnants of rain mixes with smoke and ashes.
Then we went in to eat dinner. Afterwards we went upstairs and my friend read her story aloud. Then she asked us what we thought about it. Her boyfriend said something meaningless and encouraging and they began having a long conversation.
I excused myself and went to the kitchen, where I snuck some whiskey for us from her dad's liquor cabinet. Her father was in the basement, asleep on the floor, with a bottle next to him that I did not touch.
I waited half an hour for their conversation to be finished, then I went upstairs to find them still talking. Whatever it was they were discussing, it stopped when I brought in the alcohol.
That night it rained. We sat up with flashlights under the covers, talking about lots of nothing until dawn. I still remember her princess-like bed, the huge brass frame worked into curves and the frilly coverlet.
In the morning, ashes swam in a pool of rainwater outside. My friend's story, ten pages of handwriting on notebook paper, was in a crumpled ball on her windowsill, where I imagined birds perching during the night.
"Thanks for letting me crash," my ex-girlfriend says.
I don't say anything. Her head is in my lap and I'm twirling her soft hair around my fingers, just the way she likes it. She's smiling, and soon she is asleep in one of my old shirts. In her sleep, she tugs the blanket around her shoulders. I turn off the lights, draw the drapes shut, and go to my bedroom to sleep.
By now it is 3 AM, and I am tired. But I can't sleep. The city bothers me. For hours, I toss and turn in my apartment on the 36th floor of a skyscraper.
Nights make me sad. Not because I am afraid of the dark, or because I associate darkness with any number of sad facts of life. No, it is because at night, the activity of the day falls away, and we are left alone with ourselves and our thoughts.
Finally I get up. I stand at my bedroom window and stare out at the night. Glittering buildings fill my view, crowding out the stars in the sky. I see apartments, thousands of glass-and-steel compartments stacked atop one another, and inside, people backlit as they walk back and forth holding a book, a glass of wine, an electronic device; people asleep under the cover of darkness; people making love in many numbers and ways.
None of them will ever know each other. They walk on and lean against and make love next to the floors and windows and concrete-reinforced walls that separate people into the jail cells called life. At night you can see the transparent divisions between everyone; you can see people living like so many embryos floating in embalming fluid inside glass jars.
Closing my eyes, I press my hands against the windowpane and then I think of my dead friend's birds, circling overhead, waiting for everyone. I didn't say anything then, but I should have. Anything might have been enough. But in particular, if I could go back in time, I would have said that it was still heroic of the woman in her story to try to save all those people, even if they were beyond saving. It would have still meant something.
I walk back to the living room, where my ex-girlfriend is sleeping peacefully. Blankets pool around her body and I sit next to her. I set a hand on her shoulder and my fingers brush her bare skin.
"Jessie, wake up," I say. "There's something I want to tell you."