some fall in love. i shatter.

Fish & Bird (#16)

In Stories Volume 1 on June 18, 2012 at 8:34 pm

First there was a hat, then a larger hat, and then a sort of veil was attached, which transformed the entire get-up into something like a beekeeper’s mask.  The inefficiency of this design soon became apparent.  The hat was then refitted with the dismantled remains of two child-sized black umbrellas, ultimately appearing as a misshapen parasol.  To protect his eyes, he tried a welder’s mask, then moved on to a pair of safety goggles with the rubber strap around the back, then a pair that fit more like glasses, until finally settling on various pairs of swimming goggles that he rotated into the weekly lineup.  He liked being able to tuck the goggles into his pocket whenever he went into the office and the way they created that near-perfect seal even as he maneuvered them on while wearing gloves.

And yet for all the layers he draped over himself, for all the lines of defense, for each step taken backwards from the world, the sunlight continued to fall on his shell.  The shell did its job, the shell sheltered, and yet he remained anxious for he knew too well the slow, insidious, destructive nature of sunlight and all that accompanied it out of doors.  It seemed so obvious, months later, when he bought the first compact mirror and sewed the dismantled reflective piece onto his jacket.  He didn’t waste his time with experiments – the moment the first mirror was hung in place, he began on the second and worked the night until the trademark jacket was adorned with nearly thirty of the make-up mirrors.  He used a thick marker to color each of the mirror cases black; the pale pink was not for him.  From the moment he stepped out of his apartment building the next morning until he reached his office, the burden of living in a decaying and imperfect world was partially lifted as each mirror received the sunlight and cast it back into the world.

**********

It was impossible to miss him though she couldn’t say for how long she had missed him in the past.  She put it down to differing schedules or always being buried inside of a book or a newspaper or him being tucked behind a crowd on the subway platform opposite hers, though she couldn’t help but wonder how she had failed to see those beams of light reflecting upwards and outward between the cracks in the crowds.  And that hat, she thought, resembling some poor mangled vulture that he insisted on wearing even while underground.  Ever since she first saw him, since she smoked away the major metropolitan cataracts, her mind had lingered alongside and traveled with him.  Days into weeks into months, her life followed the string lain out straight ahead of her, but her thoughts lost themselves in the refracted false worlds of his mirrors.  Some days she discovered an empty seat on the subway platform and would find herself still there forty minutes later, a dozen trains arriving and departing as she slipped into unseen places, everyone around as oblivious to her as they were to him.  Then one day there were no empty seats.  And the trains were so late that the platform was crowded with nowhere to stand.  And the air was hot, stifling, and thin where she tried to stand on the stairway.  And his mirrors still reflected the overhead lights across the tracks.  She retreated back up the stairs, walked twenty-four feet to the stairs for the other platform, and descended into his starburst.

He was directly in front of her but she couldn’t yet bring herself to speak to him.  Instead, she made her introductions, explained who she was, and why she was bothering a stranger all underneath her breath.  Nobody in the crowd heard a word though in her mind, it was as if she were shouting through a megaphone.  She would have liked to have grabbed him and taken him to some unimagined private place where she could talk to him; she would have liked to have pounded on his chest, shattered his mirrors, and broken through his defenses; she would have loved to have torn the world down.  But she spoke underneath her breath until she ran out of breath to shelter under. And then…

“Can I see your apartment?” she asked.  She stood behind him and spoke quietly but directly so that he could not mistake her speaking to someone else and could not pretend to not hear her.  He continued looking straight ahead.

“I live on the seventh floor.  It’s a walk-up but there’re windows in the stairwell so it’s not so bad.”

“That’s alright, I won’t mind,” she said to the back of his head.  A few moments passed before he turned around and caught her gaze through his thin swimmer’s goggles.

“Okay, we need to head back to the 6 train.  Follow me.”  They walked the long hallways of the Union Square subway station, from the N/W platform to the 4/5/6, hot and dirty gusts of air chasing after them and lifting the hem of his jacket like a cape.  She alternately walked beside and behind him, mutually angling their way through the rush hour crowd. He moved quickly, she noticed, in spite of all the mirrors hanging off his body, the heavy jacket that brushed against the dirty tile and threatened to trip him.  He dropped a step or two now and then to make sure she kept pace and in case she wanted to ask him anything else. He wished she would.  He didn’t know why he had agreed to her coming back to his home, it just sounded so natural coming from her lips.  A strip of sweat was forming along the band of his hat.  It had been years since his body had conditioned itself to the heat and abandoned sweating.  The sudden urge to remove the hat flooded him like adrenaline through a car crash victim.  His right foot hesitated an instant before pressing again against the ground.

“What stop do you live at?”

“Eighty-seventh.  Over on the corner at First.  It’s not much of a walk.  Have you changed your mind?”

“No, not at all.  I was just curious how far we’re going.”  The tunnel breeze picked up and they both looked to see the blinding headlight approaching with the red circle surrounding the red 6.

“It’s not far at all,” she heard him say as they stepped through the marred silver doors.  “It’s worlds away,” is what he said.

The entirety of the ride passed in silence as they sat next to one another on the mostly empty train.  People on his regular route no longer gave him a wide berth, they had observed his gradual transformation and knew that he wasn’t dangerous.  But his route had reversed itself that morning and they had the center of the car to themselves.  Somebody near the conductor’s booth made a comment about ‘Beauty and the Beast,’ but nobody near him laughed and they couldn’t hear him from where they sat.  Only when they were accelerating past Eighty-First did he gently tap her shoulder to indicate that they were next.  She smiled and nodded.

First Avenue confronted them quickly and was the loudest thing spoken between them for over twenty minutes.  “It’s the second building back,” he said.  “The faded green one with the flowerpots along the fire-escape.”  She gazed on the building as they waited for the traffic light to change in their favor.

“You’re the top floor.  Do you have roof access?”

“I haven’t tried in a very long time but back when I last tried, no.  Remember, it’s a walk-up.”

“I’ve been walking my entire life,” she replied.  When he looked at her, she turned her face away but not before he saw the sadness migrate from her lips to her eyes to her cheeks to her ears and then dissipate into the air amongst the wisps of cigarette smoke from the old woman next to her.  He thought about his hand on her shoulder, he thought of a dozen other supportive gestures, and he watched as she crossed First Avenue against the absent traffic.  He crossed only when the white man walking was illuminated on the traffic sign.  She was waiting for him on the other side and they crossed together to the north side of Eighty-Seventh.

They passed the deli on the corner and the laundromat next door before he unzipped a portion of his jacket and pulled loose a thin keychain with three keys on it.  From all of the different angles, she could discern no key scratches on any of the mirrors and found this both surprising and impressive.  The frames had been bouncing against people, walls, train doors, and now the jamb of the entryway and the black plastic appeared to have been heavily scraped and recolored but the mirrors themselves were pristine.  Not a smudge, a fingerprint, a drip of somebody’s errant coffee; if her eyes hadn’t been on him for the past thirty minutes, she would have thought he had cleaned them at some point.  He gestured her inside and she broke away from her reverie to the sounds of them clanking against the door.

The black and white diamond tile floor went dull against the green interior walls as the door shut on the sunlight outside.  They walked the length of the hallway, past the silver mailboxes, towards a backdoor with the wired glass that housed the trash room, and  then turned at the very end where the stairwell waited.  The brown wooden railing led her to begin thinking about ice cream and then a breeze came elbowing its way through the window on the first landing.  She shivered in her icebox thoughts even as the sunlight reflected off three of his mirrors and lit her up like warming spotlights.  They looped up and around time after time, the same sun catching the same mirrors and lighting up the same goose bumps until they stepped onto the seventh floor.  There was a door halfway down the hall and one at the far end.  They proceeded to the far door where he turned one key in the deadbolt and the other in the doorknob lock.

He pushed the door open and leaned to the side, allowing her to enter ahead of him.  As she stepped across the threshold and onto the pale wood floorboards, motion sensors captured her movements and began switching on streams of recessed lighting that ran the length of the long room.  They came on gradually, like someone turning up a dimmer switch, beginning at the front door and continuing to the curtains at the end of the room.  She hesitated in the doorway as the room came alive, her mind and eyes wide open in disbelief.  It was everything she hadn’t expected and was all the more beautiful for the sleight of hand he had pulled by simply being himself.

The walls were painted the cleanest and brightest of whites.  They had become a surrounding, living canvas for him to work on and where he hadn’t worked, the white reflected the emanations from the bulbs shouting approximations of natural light.  But oh, where he worked, she thought, where he worked.  It was as if everything he shunned outside had taken root in his heart and been projected onto this chambered vessel.  Trees painted in broad brown strokes that flared near the baseboards and erupted into cascading waterfalls of green toward the crown molding.  The spiky tips of grass shot upwards around the perimeter of the entire room, left for eternity at a height that almost required trimming.  Myriad flowers rose up from this jungle in sporadic bursts: daffodils near the front door, tulips by the kitchen, snapdragons rising in two different corners, daisies in little groupings all over the place; at least a dozen others that she couldn’t identify.  Small bushes sprang up along two of the walls.

Above, the ceiling was painted the gentlest blue, a sky imagined but rarely seen.  There were clouds painted in differing shades of white and light gray.  And they moved.  After looking away, she realized that each cloud was moving almost imperceptibly on a set of interconnected panels that operated on some fixed track so that nothing remained stationary yet no gaps could be detected in the mirage.  A sun – a giant, resplendent, dominating sun created in aureolin, golden yellow, maize, saffron, orange peel, persimmon, tomato, lava, carnelian – was painted across the three walls of an alcove, a dining nook, that had become all at once an eternally rising and setting sun.  All of the light panels in that room had been painted to match the sun so that instead of white light, a radiant citrus spectrum burst forth.  She shielded her eyes but only for a moment before realizing it was not actually the sun and it was not actually setting.

Thin planks of pale bamboo ran the length of the room and in certain spots there were oblong pieces of rug that looked like a compromise between carpet and Astroturf.  When she stepped on one, her foot felt the give of soil as the scent of crushed grass wafted upwards into her nose.  The furniture was made of unworried wood, lightly varnished and with minimal crafting.  Stout wooden legs supported a couch whose pillows were dyed in various camouflage shades of mossy greens and browns.  Thin, wispy wooden legs supported a coffee table whose top had been painted in spiraling shades of blue that approximated the movements of a rippling lake surface.  A flat-screen television had been mounted into the wall and when those imbedded lights came on, so too did the screen; a waterfall began its natural movements and as she glanced away, it almost seemed that the waterfall was running off into the lake of the coffee table.

At the end of the room hung a mural painted on layers of thin curtains that she surmised were blocking the only windows that would have looked onto the imperfect world outside.  Upon the undulating curtains was the massive painting of a mountain range, detailed in the gray stone veins, the wide swaths of arboreal expansion, the patches of dirt where water color rains must have eroded the soil.  Snowcaps were conspicuously absent but, she surmised, who knows to what height those mountains reach?  She could see the ways that he had painted the different components of the mural on different curtains, creating the false sense of three dimensions and when the air ducts pushed cool air into the room as it was at that moment, it gave the impression that she was viewing the range across some vast, hot plain where the heat shimmered upwards into the atmosphere and played tricks on her vision.

She snapped from the trance that the room had cast upon her and turned to see him still standing back at the doorway, allowing her to take in the room on her own, at her own pace, on her own terms.  He had pulled the hat from his head and was clutching it in both hands like a nervous old woman afraid of the breeze.  The mirrors still hung from his arms and those attached to his shoes and pants were still in place, but instead of reflecting all that he sought to keep away, it now made him more a part of the room than he had ever intended.  The goggles hung on the collar of his shirt; his nervous eyes caught her delighted ones; his nervous tongue fumbled.

“I call it The Harbor.  My place, I mean; I call my place The Harbor.”

“It’s so beautiful.  It’s so tremendously beautiful.”  She continued casting her eyes over the room to take in all the little pieces of the tableau missed on the first pass through.  Her nose detected more – the smell of cedar from a small dish on an end-table like the stump of a tree and from somewhere she noticed the musky, pleasant scent of a wooded pond but she couldn’t place from where it came.  “This is incredible.  How long did all of this take you?”

“I don’t remember anymore.  Years, but I haven’t finished.  I’m always making alterations and additions.  I’m working on other rooms but they aren’t finished yet.”

“What are the other rooms like?”

“It’s only one right now.  The bedroom.  It’s meant to be the night but it hasn’t consumed me like this room has because night’s one of the few times I enjoy being outside.  The urgency, the sense of life-and-death, doesn’t exist in the same way.  Nor does the literalness.”  He paused as her eyes ceased their swimming around the room and resettled on him once again.  “It’s the door on the right.”  It was right next to her.  She reached out, turned the knob, and swung the door inward.

Again, the arc of the door was caught by motion sensors connected to imbedded lights.  These were pinpricks in a black ceiling, like white holiday lights stuffed behind a black bed-sheet in a college dormitory.  Before her eyes dropped to the walls around her, she noticed the lack of moon in the artificial cosmos that swirled above her.  Then she came upon the mural that spanned all four walls of the bedroom.  Just one thing, just one giant painting.  Beginning at the head of the bed and wrapping corner after corner until the beginning met the end.  A whale.  One whale.  One giant whale in meticulous detail.  One light gray whale against the deepest of navy blue backdrops.  One whale with these great, rolling, expression-filled eyes that faced it’s own tail but gazed out the door into a believable eternity, or into herself.  There was nothing else in the room besides the bed, a bedside table, and herself.

He stood silently in the doorway behind her.  She reached for the black and white bag that she wore across her shoulder and from it, she pulled a small black and white ceramic bird no larger than her index and middle fingers put together.  He said nothing and she placed the bird on the bedside table.  They both remained silent as they left the room, the stars extinguishing themselves as they had done for years and would do for millions more.  He gestured toward the couch and she nodded, sitting on one side as he lowered himself onto the other, a pile of moss between them.

“Why?” she asked.  He looked down and crossed his right hand over his left, laying them both on the just-created lap.  She just continued looking at where his eyes should have been, waiting for an answer without pressuring him into creating something disingenuous.  Near eleven minutes passed during which she thought he may have been crying, sleeping, thinking, regretting, or receding.  Just as suddenly as she had released her question into the world, he picked his head up and cleared his throat.

“It’s just that there’s so much potential for things to go wrong outside,” he said.  “Everything has a flaw, even you and I are full of them to the point that it’s a miracle we hang together.  As beautiful as everything is, it all has two sides out there.  Everything is killing us in one way or another.  There’s no true harmony, only a harmonious balance between all of the things that would like to get under our skin.  We’re continuously getting lucky when all of these things cancel each other out.”

“Do you believe in true love?  Because that’s something that exists out there.”

“It also exists here and it’s the only thing from out there that I allow to enter.  True love will kill you just as gradually and steadily as anything else out there.  True love cannot repel all evil – it can strive but it allows insidious forms to enter; the kind we never expect and never see until it’s far too late.”

“But you let it inside?”

“I never have, but I would.”

“Do you believe in God?”

“No, but I believe in waiting for God.”

“Are you waiting for God then?”

“Maybe.”

“Maybe I am too, though this place makes me think that maybe God is a place.  Would you let God inside?  Or if God is a place, would you abandon all of this for wherever God is?”

“I’ll decide if the opportunity arises.  It would be nice if it involved an elevator – I can’t imagine God as a walk-up.”  He laughed for, as far as she knew, the first time ever.  She thought about her hand on his leg, she thought of a dozen other gestures, then watched as he crossed the moment back to calmness.  Neither one of them knew what to say but nor were they afraid of the silence that joined them on the couch.  “I’ve been feeling nostalgic recently,” he finally said, “but I don’t know what for.”

“I’ve felt the same way,” she whispered.  “How long is recently?”

“Years…”

“Yeah.  It’s funny though, I could never place what for either but the moment I stepped inside here, something settled inside me.  I don’t know how I could be missing something I’ve never seen before.”

“I think that we can miss what we love even if we don’t know that we love it, even if we’ve never seen the thing that we’re loving and missing.”

“Do your lights change with the apparent motion of the sun?  Do they become brighter or darker?”

“No.  I’m not particularly interested in the authenticity of the passage of time.  The flowers don’t grow taller, the trees don’t lose their leaves, the – “

“Grass never needs to be cut.”

“ – grass never needs to be cut.”

“What is it you’re trying to preserve here?  No, don’t tell me.  Let me guess.”

“So guess.”

“Let me whisper it into your ear.”  She planted a hand on a pillow and leaned with her lips forward.  He planted another hand on another pillow and leaned with his left ear forward.  She spoke a few words hesitantly before finding her footing and releasing herself into his expectant and yearning ear.  His eyes went wide staring into the waterfall where he almost lost himself before she shot a hand through the cascades and pulled him back.  His eyes fluttered as her lips barely grazed the soft skin of his ear, his brain warmed with her words and her breath.  The ceiling panels silently crept along overhead, detaching themselves from expectations and forming a map that led to heaven, to the heart, and to everywhere believed and disbelieved in-between.  The ripples of the lake finally found the shore and dissipated amongst the stones and silt.  She closed her lips and he closed his eyes; she closed her eyes and he opened his lips and though nothing came out, he spoke volumes and she understood everything.  She heard everything she had wanted to hear for all of those long, long years as he became unhinged on the poetry that had bound his tongue in verse.

After awhile, the flowers on the wall began to grow taller and the first tree lost the first leaf.  Their eyes closed, the sun tracked its way across the wall and set behind the mountain.  Hours later, the whale blinked and swam away as the bird took flight and maintained the occasionally cresting gray blur.

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