It was an apartment — hidden in a tucked corner of the little downtown — hidden from the rest of the city and maybe even the whole world. I’d sometimes wander into that part of town to go to the library or the Lone Ranger Diner and Ice Cream Shoppe, but never suspected the dilapidated, broken blue and gray buildings to belong to anybody but those addicted to candy and brandy. It was a false and prejudicial idea. There were romantic dreams before this too. Lewd visions of Venus and Mars. Scenes of painters creating fleshy masterpieces in empty white museum rooms. Fast film motions of roses blooming on a rainy day, drops falling hard on their delicate petals. Tricking me into thinking everything was art. But I always just awoke to squawking morning birds, chittering squirrels, usual hum of the cicadas. Nothing unordinary, nothing exquisite when I wasn’t in France, 1859.
My dreams began to haunt me -- dancing images of autumn, the false feel of chill that curses skin with goosebumps, the melancholy sentiment that always comes with any changing season. In the morning, I would get up and promise myself it was fall. When I went for the morning piddle, the bathroom tile felt so frigid, it confirmed my prayers. I dreamed of how I’d go outside after lunch for a scenic bike ride to the pond or how I’d listen to slow songs when it got dark early. But when I felt my palm to the window, I assured my foolish imagination it was still summer.
There are more parts to a town that you’d think of. What I mean is that you see a town as just a town or a city as just a city until you become a native to it and realize it’s not just a town or a city. It’s a land. A terrain of different parts. A place that has a personality just like a human. There’s a part of every town where the plain suburban family lives -- two parents, two kids, a dog, a brainwashing television; the cluster of elderly resident homes; small pastel houses for single bachelors and bachelorettes; the barns of cornfield farmers. And there’s two parts of every downtown -- the nice part with movie theaters, art museums, little fancy fashion boutiques, cafes, dance studios, bookstores, photographers. And there’s the part where you can understand the people by what they do in the morning -- people wearing pajamas and eating Cheetos, little kids helping their mamas to haul their dusty twin size mattress to a ramshackle building, those buying their dose of poison and cancer at the Super Liquor Mart and then sitting outside on the smithereened concrete steps to swallow it all in one sitting. For most people, it was hard to not be judgmental when passing through downtown, but it was the only thing they guessed could keep them safe.
Downtown was an hour away by bike. I crossed from the cornfield side of town into the nice side of downtown and rode straight until Auntie’s Antiques, Twice the Spice Taqueria, and Studio 505 Ballet came into view. Sticky Stefano’s Taffy was right across.
It was one of my favorite place to be. Sweet smells of vanilla, chocolate, strawberry, warm sugar, popcorn and fresh potato chips. The floors were checkered in black and white tile, the walls painted in red and white stripes. It was like the movies — the owner knowing me personally and all since I came too often. He was an old Italian-American man with a named Stefano. He had a perfect gray mustache. He never made me pay because he said I reminded him of his daughter except clumsier. Whenever I’d leave the shop, he’d wave a hearty ciao and continue back to petting his mustache and rearranging the orange candies.
I set the taffy into my bike’s basket and began to peddle out of downtown. Owners and cashiers began to pack up for the day and turn the OPEN signs around to CLOSED. Cars parked on corners turned their wheels to go back home. Everybody was ready to put their feet up on the couch, watch some dramatic reality show, eat some hearty casserole, and slumber until the next day. Everybody except them.
They came by in a dashed zoom, like the flash of a journalist running past with a camera. I wanted to reach out and catch them. My hand a net, them butterflies. And like a catcher or a shooting star gazer, I became afraid they were lost forever.
They came flying up the hill again. A rush of giggles, long hair blowing back, the sound of the shopping cart’s whirring wheels. A small blonde girl was sitting inside the Super Liquor Mart’s cart like a little kid. The tall brunette girl pushed her like a mom.
They went up and down the hill five or ten more times until they were panting out of breath. I watched them as they darted right to left like cartoons. I waited with my bike in the doorway of a chapel to avoid getting run over. Wondered what kind of candy gave them this kind of sugar rush.
“Hey what are you watching babygirl?”
It was the brunette. And she was apparently talking to me.
“Yeah you doe eyes. Staring at us?”
“Um I was just waiting to cross the street…It seems kinda busy.”
She laughed and pushed the cart toward the chapel.
“So you’re stalking us?”
“No, I was just watching while I waited.”
The younger blonde girl was sucking on a cherry lollipop slowly. She was dressed in a baby pink romper and wore her thin hair up in a half pony. I thought she was fourteen or so, but the heaviness of her dark eyes said she as old as me.
“You guys looked like you were having fun.”
The brunette tossed a smirk to the side. “Yeah we get bored around this time. So wee just come here and cause some troouble.”
There was something about the way she spoke that made me think she wasn’t from here. Her words came out in a lilting cursive. Something more beautiful than the way I spoke. She wasn’t from around here because she didn’t say trouble like it was a chore. She said every word like it was poetry.
“Well I have to get going home. Have fun!” I pushed my bike out of the little space we were crowded in and got on the seat quickly.
“You don’t have to get going babygirl. You can hang with us if you want to. We’re university girls.”
I got shy. “Oh ok. Ummm… yeah that would be cool. You go to the community college here?”
“Yeah. Don’t ask too many questions though, it’s summer vacation. We don’t talk about school.”
“Ha ha yeah!” This was the first time the blonde girl spoke. Each word spilling over like baby babble.
A priest and a crying nun came out of the chapel, leaving us smashed to the brick walls. The girls turned the cart around too and started to head down the hill. I followed like a dog.
We passed the boutiques, sweet shoppes, art studios, and came to the crosswalk that divided the two parts of the downtown. On the other side was a run down laundromat and the beginning of the buildings with the broken glass. We crossed over and came to a little tucked corner where the girls stopped at. It was a gloomy apartment building with red brick so dark it looked black. Curtains obscured all the windows, making it impossible to see anyone or anything inside.
“This is our home.”
They let themselves in first, squeezing the cart through the narrow doorway like thieves. I came in behind them, too conscious of my footsteps now. Dust and light leaks from the small cracks of blinds were the only things that covered the marble foyer floor.
They went upstairs. But they didn’t run like I or other kids usually did. They ascended in slow ballet steps, as if not to make a sound. When they reached the top, they passed a bathroom, a kitchen, a bedroom, and went into the last room at the end of the hallway. The blonde had skipped to the bathroom fix her ponytail. It fell out for the third time since her hair was too slippery. I realized all the lights were off in the entire apartment. Maybe they didn’t want to trap in more heat.
The last room was an empty room. It looked like it was supposed to be a living room, but there was no furniture, decorations, or anything there except a window and the shaggy blue carpet.
“Sit,” said the brunette.
I hesitated and sat crisscross on the floor.
“Leooooooooooo!” the brunette yelled out into the still air, disrupting it and the distant sound of the toilet being flushed.
A boyish groan came from the bedroom. It was the sound of someone being disturbed from their sleep.
Whoever she was calling didn’t come. We sat there, waiting. A slim shadow came into the doorway, a boy of our age with bedraggled curly hair, a heather blue t-shirt, and jeans a size too big.
“What are you screaming for Bernadette?”
“Why are you sleeping all the damn time? This is our new friend.”
“Ello,” he said and saluted me lazily and turned to amble back to his room.
“Do you have any manners? Why don’t you go make us something to eat, sluggard.”
The blonde girl came in too.
“Make something good. I’m sick and tired of your damn cheese sandwiches.”
“I’ll cook something that makes you two fat,” he mumbled and they giggled.
“Your brother is funny,” I laughed.
They rolled their eyes. “He’s not our brother,” said Blondie, “He’s our friend.”
“Oh! I’m sorry, I didn’t mean t-” My cheeks got hot fast.
“Don’t apologize. God, you damn Americans always apologize too much for nothing,” Bernadette rolled her eyes.
While we waited, Bernadette disappeared, and I was left with Blondie.
“Do you want some czhocolat?” Blondie whispered, pulling out a melting candy bar from her romper pocket.
She shook her head up and down.
I nodded, “Sure.”
“I sneak it out and take a bite whenever Leo and Bernadette aren’t looking.” She broke off two small squares of the bar. “It’s a bad habit of mine. Eating sugar. If I don’t eat some everyday, I become bitter.”
Leo and Bernadette came in with a tray of some biscuits. They set it down in front of us and sat down themselves on the floor.
“You couldn’t cook something?” Blondie complained.
“Would you ever shut up and just eat? I warmed them up in the toaster for you. Just how you like them,” Leo retorted.
We sat and ate the lemon, raspberry, and chocolate biscuits — able to hear each other’s style of chewing because the apartment was silent. The only noises being the loud howl of the wind and the tree branches scratching the windows.
“It’s starting to get too cold for summer,” I murmured. My throat was getting raspy and dry. I was surprised none of them offered me something to drink first — the usual tradition that most people do.
“We’ve noticed too. Fifty-six is a little too breezy for the beginning of July.” Bernadette licked the brown icing romantically with flicks of her tongue.
“Adelie doesn’t care of course. She’s always wearing no clothes. No matter what the weather.” Leo held his yellow biscuit up to the little crack of window light before eating it — as if it were the sun or a holy host.
Blondie rolled her eyes at him and continued pressing the pink icing into a heart shape before peeling it off and eating it before the biscuit itself. “I like the feeling of cold on my skin.”
The crack of light that spilled onto the carpet began to turn cold too, dimming into a darker shade of blue.
There were no clocks in sight. “What time is it?” I asked.
“Oh we don’t have any clocks. We don’t believe in keeping track of time.” Bernadette answered, nonchalant, still busy licking the biscuit.
“It’s our philosophy… or Bernadette’s at least.” Leo said to me. It was strange how none of them looked me in the eyes. Not yet once since the hour or two I spent there. You could sense to whomever they were talking to but no facial expression. Their gazes were glazed and glassy, fixed on the window, or ceiling, or carpet, your foot, the loose thread hanging from your pants, or just empty space.
“Get up,” said Bernadette.
I became hyperaware of my stooped shoulders and melancholy Roman sculpture expression that I was watching the boy with.
“Get up,” she said to the boy. He looked up from smoking his recently lit cigarette and staring out the window relaxedly.
“Dance,” she commanded.
He replied something in native tongue.
“Your foot’s not asleep liar.” She didn’t care and pulled him up hard. “Danse.”
I’m certain she must’ve been watching my eyes.
He rolled his eyes to the side and stood up. The girl took out an old record player hidden in the shadow of the corner and slipped a dusty record out of its sleeve. The air became slow and syrupy. He didn’t half smile or anything, just moved his body to the song like a grotesque masterpiece and gazed off at the window -- cigarette still hanging out of his mouth -- smoke trailing up to the apartment ceiling. He closed his eyes for a certain minute and a half -- still sucking in the blue smoke from the cancer stick like it were pure oxygen.
“Well I kinda gotta get going because it’s getting kinda dark and I don’t wanna like get home late for dinner.” I stood up, sheepish. Their gazes still didn’t move.
“Ok, come back tomorrow,” Adelie replied like a hotel front desk lady.
“Ok, see you guys tomorrow then!” They wanted to be friends with me. I was ecstatic.
I tiptoe ran downstairs, opened the door without trying to make a sound, and biked back home.
We sat around the square kitchen table, loud clamors, clings, dinks, scrape, making the air conditioned air ripple and shake. My brother chewed with his mouth extremely agape, like a fish undergoing a dental procedure. There was cream and butter and sugar and salt and pepper and macaroni and cheese and bread and ranch-drenched salad on the table. Each one of us was assigned our established drinks: fruit punch for brother, cola for father, cranberry cocktail for mother, and water for me. Television, whatdja do today, sports, school, work, news, politics, president, complaints, taste of food, economy, grocery list was our talk. Eight-thirty was our family walk. And we sulked to bed when nine-thirty hit the clock.
I leaned my bike against the brick of the apartment and knocked on the door as polite as I could. Leo opened the door, still with bedraggled hair, still looking like he got up from a nap.
“Shoes off,” he commanded. I was embarrassed that I forgot.
He went up the stairs first. “Bernadette and Adelie are out to the market… shopping. They should be back soon.”
“Oh ok. I can just sit in the living room.”
“The what? You can sit wherever you want. I don’t really care. Don’t make any noise or talk to me. I’m going to sleep.”
He ambled to his room, and I went to sit in the living room. I waited for a few minutes, then had to go pee. When I came back, Leo was sitting cross legged on the floor, smoking a cigarette. I tried not to breathe.
“You woke me up when you knocked on the door. Now I can’t go back to sleep.”
“Sorry, I didn’t know. Sorry.”
“Stop saying sorry all the time.”
The sound of the front door opening echoed to the empty room, and Adelie came running up the stairs with two plastic grocery bags on each Barbie doll arm.
“You’re back!!” She stood beaming in the doorway of the empty room -- beaming at my red pants, not at me.
“Our stalker is here again!” Bernadette came in too, throwing a packet of off brand cheese puffs at Leo.
“Your favorite,” she winked.
He caught it with both hands, dropping little ashes of cigarette dust onto his jeans. “God bless you forever and ever.”
“God bless you never ever,” she stuck her tongue out at him. “Help us in the kitchen,” Bernadette commanded me.
We put away the groceries into the little white cabinets. Some were empty, some stocked with pasta, rice, dried vegetables, biscuits, flour, legumes, chips, rosemary, thyme, cans of cat food for a cat I didn’t see in sight. When Bernadette’s back was turned, Adelie snuck bites of her small squares of chocolate. I smiled at her, but she didn’t notice. We went back to the empty room when we were done.
Leo was still sitting crossed legged and smoking. Gaze still tossed to the side, to the window, which was open today. It made the room even more chilly. Bernadette came in carrying the old record player, and Adelie came in with two packs of cigarettes. The girls sat down, and so did I, always following their lead. Bernadette turned on the player, calling an ancient voice that sang staticky poems of la vie. Adelie unwrapped one pack, took out two cigarettes, struck a match, and lit them.
“Have one,” she offered me.
“No thanks. I don’t smoke.”
“Hmmph,” she shrugged, and handed one over to Bernadette.
They sucked and exhaled vigorously, as if quenching their hungry stomachs. I wondered why they smoked so much. The room smelled too strong at first, and I tried not to cough. But the smoke looked beautiful, entrancing, seductive. It trailed up in the empty blue room, all the way to the ceiling in a long stream of cloudy wisps. Now, I’m not a Sapphic or anything, but the girls were pretty. They were too pretty. Hypnotizingly beautiful. The smell of the smoke dulled and became funny -- it was vanilla flavored tobacco.
“The French don’t brush their hair,” said Bernadette.
“Nor do we smoke cigars,” added Blondie.
“And we never wear bras.”
“Or pop our pimples.”
“Mmhmm,” I replied, tranced. “You guys are French?” I asked, as if I didn’t know the whole time.
“We are. Our parents sent us here for school. For ah good Amereecan eduucation,” Bernadette’s accent was thick and heavy now.
“That’s a funny joke,” I laughed impulsively, impolitely.
“You’re right. We could’ve learned more from just sitting in a library all day.”
“What do you guys study?” I asked.
She pfffted and laughed. “Cloud watching.”
“Hmm?” I said, confused.
“Why do you take everything so seriously?” she sighed. “We don’t go to school anymore.”
“You aren’t in college?”
“We were. Leo still is.” She let out another long sigh. “We all lied to our parents that we were coming to America to study. They wanted us to be chemists like Madam Marie Curie and save the world.”
“Why aren’t you and Adelie in college anymore?” I asked.
“Listen, we tried it. It’s not our fault.” She struck another flame just for fun. “I was studying art history, and Adelie was going for film. Leo here is still going at a dead man’s philosophy degree.”
“It’s more relevant than your half degree anyways,” Leo puffed, blowing his sweet smoke in our direction.
“Then what happened?”
“You don’t shut up, do you? Always asking stupid questions.”
“Now Leo just goes to school, and we take care of the apartment, chores, food. We’re basically his housewives.”
“I told you at least a billion times, I never loved either one of you,” he half chuckled.
“He doesn’t kiss anybody. He’s basically our brother,” Adelie faux enthused.
“All he does when he comes back home is sleep and use his soft girly hands to make pottery late at night. Real annoying. But he sells whatever he makes, and that pays our bills. I hate to admit he’s really good at what he does.”
He wasn’t proud or anything. I tried giving him a soft smile. He didn’t accept it.
“I don’t know why he even stays with us anymore. I tell him to go find a wife or something and runaway with her, but he’s just too blue and lazy…and not to mention, so serious…”
As time passed on, I hung posters and paintings of Brigitte Bardot, the Eiffel Tower, Louvre, lavender fields, hilly countrysides, European seascapes in my room. I took less macaroni and cheese, casserole, ranch, and brownies at dinner. I started saying Madam instead of Mrs. and Monsieur instead of Mister. I began listening to more slow old songs that sent me up into a daydream.
We hung out in the empty room, ate biscuits together, they smoked cigarettes while I watched them -- like they were in a movie. They were all skinny but were slowly developing a soft tummy from all the tobacco and sugar. We played cards together inside and let the last weeks of summer pass by.
When Bernadette and Adelie left one evening a week to go grocery shopping, I came early and waited in Leo’s room while he slept -- watching him dream up ideas -- watching his slow breaths rise and fall, silently being there, tiptoeing to his window to watch the view of downtown, reading thorough the papers he was writing for class, touching the pots he made or was in the process of creating. I helped Bernadette and Adelie in the kitchen to make dinner. I always had to apologize that I had to go home. They always replied me they would bury me alive if I said sorry again. They all started to look at the little dots of freckles or pimples on my face rather than my hands or pants, but still not my eyes quite yet.
It was exactly a week before school was starting, which meant that it was also time for my family’s annual reunion party. After dinners at home that week, I was busy with my assigned tasks: stringing paper lanterns for decorations, painting the chipped spots in our walls, and putting old family pictures in new photo frames. My parents took the Friday off, and prohibited me and my little brother from going anywhere that day.
People started pouring in through the door and into our house and backyard, beer in hand, watermelon in mouth. It was like the Fourth of July except without the fireworks and ‘Merica being shouted all long day. Relatives I barely knew kept kissing me hello’s and you’ve grown so much’s on the cheek.
We started eating dinner -- a feast of corn, meat, potatoes, coleslaw, pasta salad, macaroni, weird dishes with cream and fluff and butter and sugar. I only ate some watermelon and two cobs of corn. The adults were drinking and laughing, telling stories and grilling, and the kids were running around and playing, getting chocolate and ketchup on their faces. I was the first one done eating, so I went back inside to go listen to some more music and draw more pictures of eyes.
“Myr-tle!” My parents called from the kitchen. God, I hated my name. I hated everything about being American.
“Honey, we’re out of ice cream for the ice cream sandwiches. Can you run to the store and get some more?” My mom asked while taking casserole after casserole out of the oven. My aunts crowded around her like locusts. Yattering and yipping celebrity gossip, family gossip, town gossip.
“Two tubs of vanilla and two of chocolate. Don’t get any funky flavors.”
“Ok got it. Can I take the car?”
“Oh no honey. Your uncle took it to take your brother to the fair. You can go there with them afterwards after dropping the ice cream off here.”
“Bike safe honey! And make sure it doesn’t melt!” That was impossible. Right now it was seventy eight.
The sun was vanishing too early for the summer, so I biked fast before the dark set in. The Lone Ranger Diner and Ice Cream Shoppe was empty when I went in. Almost all the lights were off. Was it really closing time? Samuel was the only person working the counter. He was cleaning the top of the ice cream cooler with a wet rag and a look of half sleep on his face.
“Two tubs of vanilla and two chocolate s’il vous plait monsieur.”
He looked up from the counter and nodded slowly. “Yes mam.”
I leaned against the ice cream counter and watched him dig the wet scoop into the hard ice cream buckets.
He chuckled. “When did you start speakin French little missy?” Samuel was only twenty four, but he always talked to me like an aged farmer.
“Since forever ago. Didn’tcha ever notice?”
“Not really.” A scoop of chocolate fell on the floor. “Shit,” he said and looked at the plop. “You always used to say pretty please with cheesy sauce on top.”
“I’m enlightened now.”
He handed me both tubs of the ice cream and shook his head with a smile. I gave him an Abe Lincoln.
“Be careful little missy,” he said, and I went out the door.
I could’ve sworn I heard Leo snoring. No, he couldn’t snore, he was too pretty for that. It was another grocery day because Bernadette’s black flats and Adelie’s red sandals weren’t set in their usual place near the door. The feeling of the carpeted stairs felt luxurious compared to my house’s cold wood. Someone left the windows open again, making the apartment as chilly. How did none of them ever get sick?
A savory smell came from the kitchen, of tomatoes and garlic and pasta bubbling. The girls must’ve made Pasta Puttanesca today. They were good chefs despite them being so young. I set the ice cream there in the freezer for now. I crept to Leo’s room, always being careful not to make any noise or draw attention to my being there. He was sleeping as always. In that same half cradled position with his jeans tucked by the gray blanket. I wanted to tuck his arms and chest in the blanket too, afraid he was always cold from the waist up. I wanted to push his fallen head up onto his pillow more. I wanted to wash the little bits of clay away from his bony hands with their vanilla soap.
I stood in my usual spot by the window first, looking out at the view of the downtown from his window -- from his eyes. I touched the drying pots and trinkets on the windowsill that he sculpted, being careful not to leave a dent or scratch.
Adelie came thumping up the stairs. They were done shopping.
“LEOOOOOOOOOO!” she called, the sound of the grocery bags scratching against the wall echoed. “I BOUGHT YOUR FAVORITE CRISPS!!!”
He began to turn his back forward. I slid out of the room before he could open his eyes.
“Stay with us,” Bernadette said, putting away the groceries into the cabinets.
“I really have to get going home…”
“C’monnn. We thought you were our friend.”
“I am, but it’s just that I have to get this ice cream to my mom.” I opened the freezer to show.
“Oh I thought that was for us,” Adelie chimed out of nowhere. She was sitting on the counter, pouting.
“I thought you loved us first.” Bernadette was guilting me.
I stopped. “The ice cream is for you.” They both smiled too wide at my hands. Doll smiles. “I was just joking! I brought it just for you.”
“Weeeeeeeeeeeee!” Adelie jumped off the counter and pushed me aside to get to the freezer. She opened up the chocolate tub and started to scoop it out with her finger.
It was just before sunset. The rain poured. Too hard.
The windows were still open. Nobody bothered to close them. We were sitting in the empty room again, them smoking and eating. Me staring. The hard wind blew the rain through the window and onto the blue carpet. Some drops landing on our cold skin like some sort of twisted blessing.
My mother was either wondering angry at where at I was, or she didn’t even notice that I was gone this long. Everybody was probably still outside too. It never rained in my neighborhood. But even if it did rain, they would all crowd inside the house and continue clinking their beer bottles and telling old stories.
Bernadette came back from the kitchen with the silver tray that she always used to carry the biscuits and chips on. I think it was their only piece of fancy serving ware, and they got it out just for me whenever I came over.
But this time there were no raspberry or lemon or chocolate biscuits or bowl of Leo’s favorite cheesy chips or Adelie’s tiny strawberry cakes. There were four crystal glasses, each ornately created — did Leo make these? No, they were too beautiful for his clumsy hands to have made them. Four spades sat on top of each glass and on top of them was one perfect sugar cube each. In her other hand, Bernadette carried a wonky tea-pot fountain and a green bottle with fancy gold writing, a skull, and a fairy on the label.
She sat down and crossed her legs, then unscrewed the cap with her big teeth.
“Tonight?” Leo questioned her doing.
“Is special,” she smiled. There was something wicked about it.
“Shhhhh. Can you ever be quiet?” She was pouring small pools of the green liquid into the bottom of each one of the four glasses. “It hasn’t rained like this for months.”
We all looked out to the window. The sky was that menacing summer green and violet storm color.
“I don’t drink,” I told her. She darted a look to me.
“I thought you were our friend.”
“I am, but I don’t think drinking underage is a goo-”
“I thought you loved us,”
“I do but it’s just tha-“
“But I thought you wanted to be French.”
“I know and-”
“Fine. Don’t drink. But if you don’t …you’ll never be French like us.” And then she smiled that devious smile that made me want to believe every word that came out of her mouth. Never, never, never.
We held our glasses under the spouts of the four lips of the teapot, letting the ice cold water drip slowly onto the disintegrating sugar cube, then down down down into the green puddle. When it was full, they put out their cigarettes on the cottage cheese walls. It was so beautiful I didn’t want to drink it. It smelled like sugar and magic and something wicked.
It was like toxic licorice. Nothing ever burned this bad. My head began to throb hard and I felt dizzy and numbed. We started laughing. A lot. And then we had more and more and more until the room started spinning and all the smoke started to rise up into bigger and bigger gray clouds until there was no more blank blue empty space or silent noise. There was a thick heavy fog and sounds of the thunderstorm outside, birds chirping, and a piano playing something sinister but lovely.
Last night when my pysche’s subcommittee
Sang to me in its scary voice
You slowly dropped your eyelids
The leader of the free world
Reminds you of a wrestler wearing tight golden trunks
He’s got himself a theme tune
They play it for him as he makes his way to the ring
In the daytime
Bendable figures with a fresh new pack of lies
Summat else to publicise
I’m sure you’ve heard about enough
Sometimes I fantasize
When Bernadette and Adelie left, Leo lifted his head to finish the last drops of potion from his glass with a bitter smile. Running his tongue around the inside of the glass to make sure nothing was left. He ran his fingers through his shabbed hair and let out a long relieved sigh. Relaxed. Blissed. Up in a daydream.
He leaned forward at me and leaned very close as if he were studying my face like a tough exam or map.
“Maravilloso,” he whispered -- the green smoke fumes piling out of his mouth in sweet anise and bitter liquor like a bewitched spell.
He looked me in the eye with his silver brown ones -- the ones that were like two distant stars. His eyes were even grayer and cloudier than ever -- like a foggy forest in the middle of nowhere on a cold autumn afternoon. He grabbed my hand and then held it to his heart.
“Oh mon dieu…” he said and closed his eyes, brushing each poisoned word into my psyche like a madman.
The clumsy smile, the way he smelled of clay and smoke and vanilla, the quiet way he carried his blue body, the bad evening sleeping habit. I adored it all in the green fog and held the image of him in front of me in the sacred place of my mind -- right next to the sound of the rain, the smell of fire, statues of Virgin Mary, and poetry. Most of all, I was ecstatic that one of them had finally looked me in the eye.
Adelie and Bernadette came back in.
“Do you see those big bubbles!” he was blowing hard through the slotted spoon.
“Where? Where?!” Adelie perked up from her daze, returning to her childish state of mind.
“Right there!” He laughed and gestured with his delicate eyes to the ceiling. “Look at that giant pink one! Look Myrtle!”
“I see it now!” Adelie was trying to pop it with her little finger.
I wished I could’ve seen what they were seeing. “I see it! It’s as big as Bernadette’s butt!”
Bernadette didn’t respond. What was going on inside of her? She seemed too happy when she brought out the bottle, but with every sip, she receded and began to stare at the wall or window. I think the inside of Bernadette was a swamp or a forest -- her lungs two pools filled with green water, her heart the wind that kept everything flowing, little frogs, alligators, butterflies, moths, dragonflies, crickets, cicadas, turtles, fish, grasshoppers, swans settling on the vines of vessels, her rib cage being the only treed shelter that could distill the massive amounts of green water that came down during a storm. Moths and butterflies rattling against the rib cage trying to escape, but so delicate that they only drowned with the small flowers that grew on the lily pads on the pond.
It was then that I realized why they were always staring off into that empty space they loved so much. They were silently homeless -- far from their families, friends, native land -- far from feeling and thinking -- belonging to no one and nothing else than that apartment.
Leo and Adelie played over the bubbles -- her jumping around and popping all of them, Leo shaking all the breath out of his lungs to blow. He was going to be really tired tonight.
I forced myself to chew on a chocolate biscuit to bring my dulled brain to reality. No matter how slow I chewed, it still tasted like poison and sugar.
“I think I should be going home,” I said, trying to peer out of the mess of fog and smoke and bubbles. It seemed as if the time were never passing. Having no clocks or watches or computers or phones made it even worse.
“Stay with us! Have din-ner. Tonight I’ll make something special for you.” Leo was smiling very lopsided.
I looked out at the tinges of the cold evening blue that overlined the window. I wondered what everybody was doing back home.
It was surprising to see Leo come out of the kitchen this time. He carried a heavy dish of mushroom risotto. He set it down on the carpet in front of us and rushed back to the kitchen. I realized for the first time they didn’t have a proper dining table. He came back in with plates and spoons. We each began to shovel it onto our plates and into our impatient stomachs.
Once I finished my last spoon, I got up quick. “Goodbye, I must be going now.”
“Where are you going deeeeeear?” Bernadette spoke. “It’s midnight.”
“No it’s not,” I replied. I questioned her, “How do you know?”
“Listen,” she said.
The chapel bells chimed twelve times.
“You can stay hereeeee,” Adelie was laying down on the floor as if it were her bed. Her face next to her dirty plate.
“But my family is probably wondering me.”
“Gonna, hafta, woulda, shoulda, coulda… They don’t care about you.”
I stopped from interjecting again. I wanted to believe her no matter what she said.
“Yeah…whatever. It’ll just be like a sleepover. I’m going to call them from the payphone outside.”
“Why?” Bernadette’s hair swiveled around and formed a raven on top of her head. I wiped my eyes hard. “You’re an adult, aren’t yoo? You can do whatever you want!”
“Of course, of course. How could I be so stew-pid.”
Bernadette and Adelie hogged the only bathroom the apartment had. They left the door open, but they had a whole nighttime routine of putting milk and honey on their faces and showering for half an hour until the steam cleansed them pure. It was amazing how they were like sisters even though they weren’t related.
I waited in Leo’s room. He sat on the floor in the corner, trying to finish sculpting the lip of a vase. I looked out the window, down at the quiet streets and yellow lamplights. I wanted to shove all three of them into one of those creepy white minivans and drive them to my house so I could lock them up with me in my room to play cards with me while my mom and dad danced to rock n roll while eating salsa and chips with my aunts and uncles. I wanted to take them to the fair so we could ride the neon-lighted rides late at night, eat cotton candy, drink lemonade, and scare the goats. I wanted to wander across the fields with them early in the morning before all the people of this town woke up, naked feet grazing across the dewy grass, and share the sunrise with them and the cows. He let out a frustrated grunt. I sat down next to him and rested my head in my hands.
“That’s why I bathe right after school.”
“They take forever.” I nodded in sighed agreement. “Can I help?”
“You can’t sculpt as good as me.”
“Yes I can!”
He smiled a little devilish and shook his head no. He continued sculpting with his delicate hands, careful to nurse a crack with a little of his spit or smooth a bump with soft touches. When he was done, he set it up on the windowsill to dry, then sat back down. He cradled his knees with his dirty hands and smiled lopsided again.
“I see une feé verte.”
“She’s fluttering on your shoulder.”
“Shoo shoo! Please tell me it’s not a fly.”
He chuckled. “No it’s only une feé verte.”
“Where? I don’t see any feé verte.” I looked around the room feeling stupid and sleepy. Where was this damn bug?
“That’s because you are her.”
We all slept on the floor like drunk peasants. I was the first one up. It was dawn, and I didn’t know what to do. The three of them were sprawled across the carpet like three snow angels still deep in sleep. I tiptoed downstairs and out the door.
The downtown of the small town was empty. I sat in the doorway of the apartment and looked across at the intersection where the two parts of the downtown met. There was only one other person out here. He was an old burnt sienna man with a cowboy hat and boots who looked like a golden ghost in the morning sun and haze. I looked down at my hands to make sure I was real and looked back up at him to make sure he was too. He sat in the doorway of the Super Liquor Mart and stared at me like I stared at him. He puffed away at his fat pipe, and I watched the cold wind carry away his sunlit fumes.
I reached for my bike and started back home.
When I got back home, everybody was sleeping. My cousins were sprawled across the living room like spiders. I stepped over the maze of their hands and legs and peeked into each of the bedrooms. The house reeked of snoring and drool.
I grabbed a wad of cash from my mom’s purse, my sketch notebook, the clock off my bedroom wall and went back downtown.
I crept back upstairs and to the empty room. Nobody was there.
“Hey guys where are you?” I called out. My voice echoed for the first time.
I checked the bathroom. Empty. The kitchen. Empty. Bernadette’s and Adelie’s room. Empty. Leo’s room. Empty.
There was nothing left in the apartment. Not one spoon, mattress, can of tomatoes, or bar of soap. They were gone.
I ran downstairs and outside and called their names. I shouted into the left side of downtown and the right. I shouted down at the sidewalk and up at the clear sky. I was out of breath from running and sat in the doorway of the chapel to rest.
Why would they leave? Where did they go? Why didn’t they tell me?
I buried my face into my hands and cried. I wanted to pray for them so I tried going inside the chapel but the door was locked. So I ran back to the only place I knew.
I walked up the stairs slowly, clinging to the railing like a miserable ballerina. I looked into the empty room once again and found the record player and a Dirty Dancing record with clay fingerprints all over resting inside. I let it play.
Just a fool to believe
She’s like the wind
Just a fool
She’s like the wind
Just a fool
I sighed and stood up to go look out of the window. The three of them sat squished in the Super Liquor Mart shopping cart, an American flag flying behind them like a sail to a boat, and rolled down the hill.
Arja Kumar is a human, poet, and nineteen year old college student at Loyola University Chicago. She spends her days studying science and literature but enjoys cooking and dreaming at night. Her favorite things include plants, music, spending time with her family, and sunshine.