You are reading Fiddleblack #17
I am seeing the words come out of her mouth before she ever forms them, and they are like death right now, or what amounts to death, because she’s telling me about how it is that we should stay friends, actually keep to the rules and structures of friendship. Friendship… Friendship. It whispers from a dead black unknown, hissed out of some place I cannot grasp. I keep rolling that word through my head. It tells me there are future smiles and good times and shoulders to lean on for crying. She refuses to trade this set of rules and structures for the other set. The set that tells me I will kiss her or know her on a level of trust that is more than the sharing of bodies, though that be part, but the sharing that is defined by not being anything else but together. It’s the love that says that the right hand never knows what the left hand is doing, but both are being good, servile in their giving, the loss of self so lost there is no anxiety over its vanquishing.
In love, you forget who you are sometimes, but she doesn’t ever want to forget a piece of that broken glass that she is. She refuses to surrender even one shattered remain, and sometimes I think, too gothically, maybe, that I only ever want every shattered piece of her jabbing into me until I go dying. But you look at an opportunity and know it isn’t there anymore. You shouldn’t cut yourself on glass that keeps to itself, bundled up in string, long sharp shards of glass kept like a bouquet of flowers. She keeps herself like that, a quiver, more like, of long and sharp pieces of glass. She holds herself to herself and it hurts to try and grab at the pieces. I have glue and think I can put it all back together.
I have constant visions of peeling off my face, cutting with a shard of her glass from left temple at diagonal toward right side of chin, doing that several times at different spacings and then peeling each slowly, thumb and forefinger peeling, the type of peeling its takes to get slippery strands of bacon out of a greasy package. I peel and peel, and when I am done I don’t get any farther underneath. It’s my face again, exactly the same. I have not come to blood or bone, nothing gushy or red or raw. No gruesome underside that might turn me from a human into a horror. I am the same.
The other vision is that I have a tattoo of an eye on my right hand. It’s a nice sketch of an eye, rough a bit around the edges, a vintage eye, maybe the logo of a private detective firm or a copy of an old advertisement about eye drops. I take that hand with the tattooed eye and cover up my right eye so that if you were to look at me it would look like I had one real eye and another tattooed on the back of my hand covering what could be a real eye underneath but might not be. Perhaps I have no eye underneath. Perhaps I see with half my sight, the other half what I’d imagine I’d like to see.
Your hands flash with tanned skin, the palms whiter, the nails unpainted and slightly gnarled but sturdy. You use your hands well when you talk, precise and definitive. There is no backing away from your hands because of what they help to say. Every word has its own marionette string. You’re just teasing all the words out. I watch. I look, too, at the rings you wear on your fingers. They are silver and tarnished. There’s one that has been pounded into the head of a unicorn. Another looks like the sun and it has squinty eyes, its light being too bright for itself, and it has big lips stretched and smooshed into a smile that also looks like a fish or the squiggly tail of a sperm, I can’t tell which. I am looking in all this for the signs of what you’re saying, even though what you’re saying is actually coming out right then. Which forces me to try my best not to hear the truth.
What your hands pull out of your mouth is the words that I was saying were like death for me, but that were also sweet words because they meant the best of intentions. I tell another friend about me being “friend-zoned,” but she refuses to believe this. She says this is what some men say who can’t handle losing their power. This is what men say when they will only have it one way, all of a woman, and they will not concede to anything else. They never consider the other side. It is, to them, all for them to make the decisions and for them to force the other to unequivocal love. It is fear. Big fears that run back as far in time as when the continents were closer together, when there was only the whisper of us in the wind, when we were still dust being spun up into flesh and bone. Even in the dust there was this tension that some motes would always want to have it their way.
What I can recall is a race to a tree in a long lawn of grass, and that when we raced we tied, and that I didn’t know if, in the midst of running, I had been slowing down for you to catch up, or if really I was trying my best to catch up with you.[/descneder]
We had taken off our shoes and set them next to the picnic table. Removing my socks, I neatly tucked them into my shoes for fear of getting them dirty. For you they were just socks and it was whatever and you threw yours up like confetti and were off running barefoot through the park lawn. Still removing my other shoe, I was about to say, “Wait, wait!” but I let you run ahead. You couldn’t hear what I was saying. It was under the breath, so quiet, that even if I said it out loud, enough to scare the birds, it wouldn’t have hit you. You were too far away across the cold and dirty ground. You had stopped and, looking back, yelled out that you could beat me in a race.
That was the day I let you talk most of the time because I wanted to listen and because I was tired of talking and didn’t know what to say. We talked about when sometimes you ate weed brownies and stared at your stomach for an hour you imagined a vine grew out of it, right out of the belly button, then it twisted around and grabbed you and held you tighter until you weren’t you anymore but this big viny plant that no one could see into. Try as anyone might, you thought, no one would ever be able to push apart the vines and look inside.
It was spring, then, I think, or some time close to it, because the leaves were just barely budding on the trees and the ground was cold. It had rained the several days before, I remember, and it was getting dark outside and I pointed to the moon, almost all the way covered over, and said that when it was like this they called it “God’s thumbnail.” You couldn’t see it and I had to reposition you and bend down with you and guide your arm and your hand until you saw it. You laughed and told me that if God had a thumbnail like that then what did the other fingers look like. You thought for a moment. You saw them as your friend Myra’s hands, covered in little dots and swirls and lines of tattoos, and with every other nail painted.
We also talked about her, this was on the trail before we ran our race, and we’d been hiking in the woods for several hours and I was snapping pictures of you and you were acting strange about it. You had just turned twenty-one and told me you weren’t doing things like that anymore, like people who weren’t able to get into bars. I asked, “Like what?” but you could only explain that you didn’t want to be seen. Or maybe it wasn’t so much seen, but that you didn’t want to be known by the way you looked in a picture. That you were scared that all pictures ever did for people was define them very quickly, and then they could never get out of the way they looked. I snapped a few more and stopped. Your face was turning doubtful and you looked away from me.
You changed subjects and started talking about Myra instead and recalled the little things she did to surprise you, like showing up at random times, driving an hour from outside of the city to meet you when you got out of classes, driving right up to your dorm and in perfect timing as you were about to go in. She knew your schedule better than you did. She’d beep her car horn and wave, and you’d feel this sense of relief and pleasant shock, a flood-rush of excitement, but also of stress because you had so much work to do. Then you would be up with her all hours of the night and she’d fend off any idea you said about having to study. You’d be with her reading to each other passages from books you’d read since kids or watching television or smoking the pot she got from an ex-boyfriend of hers and watching the tendrils of a vine grow across your stomach. She would always offer to tattoo your arms if you wanted. She had a kit with a gun and needles and ink and other things she used and she carried it around with her at all times in the trunk of her car. You refused. You hadn’t thought of what you’d get for a tattoo and so you didn’t want it, not yet.
I knew Myra only a little. I was over at your dorm once, sometime after all this talk in the woods, sitting near the window between the potted plants you had lined up on the edge, and she showed up in her car outside and beeped several quick successions that were unmistakably Myra. We were in the middle of a conversation about your Russian family, one that I was deep, head-long into, so invested with your family and the way that it was your father, a Russian army man, had one day spotted your mother in a cafe. She worked there but she had been on her break playing the piano in the corner, and when he saw her playing he decided right then that he would marry her. This was sometime in the early 80s, before the Wall fell of course, and he chose her as his bride and never looked back. They were married within six months, but the tragedy was the underbelly of its happening. I was on edge with what occurred after this, something about a ticket, when suddenly a beep-beep, beep-beep-beep, and you were off to the window. I stepped aside. You laughed and knocked on the window and said Myra was here and told me that I would like Myra because she looked like Annie Clark and was the coolest girl you knew, and then you ran out of the room and came out of the building downstairs below and ran to her car and both of you embraced.
Myra did look like Annie Clark, I could see the resemblance, but she did not have the quiet and hidden manner that Annie Clark was said to have had. She was loud and cackled, witch-like, as she came up the stairs, her voice reverberating through the hallway as you both stomped down it, the rolling and bounding wave of your footsteps reaching me like someone tapping against a hollow piece of rotting wood.
She swaggered in with a big leather satchel slung from her side and stuffed with books and notebooks, and released the thing onto the couch. Out tumbled her tobacco and her pipe and her cigarettes and a little doll she said she’d carried since she was a kid and a pack of tarot cards that she kept wrapped in a ‘sacred’ cloth blessed by the Glowing Mother, a fortune-teller on the fringe edges of Leibton, PA, who kept a ‘private operation’ behind a barn.
It was mostly her talking and you listening intently and me sort of listening but more concerned with this something about a ticket and how it was that your parents came to be parents of you. But you were obsessed with Myra and everything she had to say so that I became invisible, and so I sat in a chair nearby and looked at one of Myra’s sketchbooks as you two talked for the next hour about everything that was happening in your lives. You sat close and held each other close and she gave you a kiss on the head and you called her ‘Wimpy Bear,’ some nickname from childhood with goofy-bad connotations, and she laughed and told you to stop. Finally, Myra turned and asked me what my deal was and I talked with her about my life, where I worked and what I did for fun, keeping it simple and short and not interesting, and then I said I had to leave because I was thinking we weren’t getting back to the story of your family any time soon. You were floating off into Myra’s world, I could tell. The sandbags had dropped from your hot air balloon, its restraining ropes completely severed.
I’ve since then wished I had Myra’s place. I’ve always had this admiration, or maybe it’s these sudden pangs of jealousy, in the way that I noticed you had such intense and almost sisterly affection for Myra. You kept her close to you, bodies lazily slumped together, even held hands, and then your bodies broke apart, unhinged, as you both came rolling away from each other when you laughed over the dumbest things, the little things that any sister to another sister might laugh over, years after the fact of their passing, and still just as a funny. It was in the eyes or the smile or the way your short hair bounced a little when you were happy and laughing. I could never get your eyes to look the same to me as Myra got them to look at her, nor your smile, nor the bouncing of your bob, and she did it effortlessly, from long years of having grown into it with you. I did not have all the history behind me to make you look or smile in the way I wanted you to for me. I was freshly printed, new to your world. You were not certain of what I was or what I meant, as much as I was uncertain of it.
Never was it more evident than on that hike and in the distances we sometimes found ourselves, like a lingering thought kept stretched and stretched and never said until it might eventually snap and break itself so that it couldn’t be a thought anymore. As if we could forget all our thoughts and everything be okay. You would get far ahead of me and wouldn’t look back even when I called, feigning perhaps that you couldn’t hear me, or maybe I was that quiet, and when you walked it was always too brisk so that I couldn’t catch up, or maybe I didn’t want to catch up, I don’t know, but regardless I liked seeing you from behind, a lone girl walking the woods by herself, free from all inhibitions. I wanted to know what you were like when there was no one else around.
You were very far ahead at one point, I even slowed my steps and gave up, and you hadn’t noticed me slowing down and were walking as if alone. Sometimes you would raise your hands to your head and hold them there like you were about to cry, or hold your arms in such a way that seemed to say you were chilly. Then finally you sat down and I caught up to you and I asked if you were okay but you showed nothing on your face, and you said you were fine and picked up a rock and threw it down the hill, but it didn’t quite make the water of the Wissahickon, thin and snaky in these parts, and instead hit a small shoulder of sand and stuck.
You asked me if I ever wondered about going somewhere, what that meant to be on the move, and that you didn’t want to be seen like someone who didn’t care, and that you had goals for your life, things you believed that you really wanted. But you believed in the unsureness of everything, too, and you weren’t sure that your goals would always stay what they were, even though you were living through them and had set up your life for achievements, degrees earned so you could get to the end and be set up. You believed you had to go through the system in order to defy it, and at that I scrunched my forehead to keep me from smiling the sad smile I’d given to so many people before. I felt I was down there with the rock, stuck in the sand, and wondering how I’d ever get up the hill again to get to you. I didn’t know what to say. I nodded but I had heard these words from so many friends who were now all but passing faces in my mind, and who had went off and done what they wanted, and I was still waiting for the results of their lives and how they’d fare in the end, and I was also waiting for the results of mine too, how I’d fare, but mostly I was in that moment trying to keep my face under control and feeling older than I really looked, and being the listener of a thousand tales about aspirations that all seemed the same, and thinking about how Xeroxed everyone seemed, that we lived by proxy of deep and unknown channels and sources that fed us our constructions. That we propped those constructions like tents around us. Being conscious of what it was we were fed, we always bore a deep guilt in us, sorry for what we weren’t, a sense that our lives were not what they were supposed to be, but that they were shifting sand, a chameleon you couldn’t find no matter how hard you looked. That our lives had this way about them where they’d make you question and question and they wouldn’t let us ever get far enough ahead to get an answer. I wanted to say these things, but they were bitter and cynical, I knew, and I didn’t want to break apart your dreams because I could already tell it’d seemed you were destined to win races that I felt I never could, in ways I never could, and I didn’t want to see you on the wrong foot when the gun went off.
I want to believe it was me that won the race to the tree, and that even if you’d let me win I’d consider that a win. It would mean you’d thought of me in a way that I thought of you—with a little deference, always wanting to please me because you wanted me to like you, because you were saying you wanted to give up a little bit of yourself to me, and saying it without words and every facet of action, down to the morsels.
We were out of breath and laughing when we got to the tree and after a moment, looking between each other and smiling, we walked back across the lawn, through the cold dirt and the newly sprouted grass and the sticks under foot hurting our winter feet, kept too long in socks and pale and delicate. I slapped my socks against my feet to brush off the dirt and silently we put on our socks and shoes and that’s when I saw “God’s thumbnail” and mentioned it to you and then you mentioned Myra and it was only later I would meet her, and then only much later after that, when you were about to leave for Seattle, that I learned about that train ticket I’d forgotten.
Your mother had been in correspondence with a young poet, a boy from her hometown she’d grown up with, and who was earning some sort of specialist degree in another province. They had sent letters to each other for years and it was implied, or at least you thought it was, that she loved him, though it was never stated outright by her, perhaps not wanting to discourage you into thinking that the lack of love for your father was because she had always loved another man, even though it seemed the case. She always called him her ‘deepest friend.’ She would talk, always in private, of the poems he wrote her and the flowers he had sent, squeezed in with the letters, that she still kept pressed between the pages of books that sometimes you watched, from hiding, as she took from the highest shelf and opened to look at.
She had only enough money for one round-trip ticket to go visit him and return. It was to be a three-day trip and she was going under the guise of visiting a friend who lived in the same area. That trip, she had told you, was to be one of the most exciting things to happen in her life. She played piano every day, leading up to the days before her departure, in hopes of crafting a song she could play to one of his poems, and that she planned on showing him if she found a piano where he lived. In any case, she wrote sheet music for the song so that he might be able to play it when she wasn’t there. She had hoped it would be a fond thing for him to remember her by.
The ticket went missing, this was three days before she was to go, and she looked high and low for it, but could not find it anywhere. She was in hysterics, crying, and trying to find enough money from others to get another one, offering ridiculous paybacks with large amounts of interest to friends in order to drum up the money. She was very close to getting the money, and was even willing to delay the trip until she had it, when a call came. It was the army man. She remembered him, his swagger in full uniform through a dim and cold room full of laughing men, and that when he came up to the piano he leaned low next to her and smelled of pine and dirt from a barrack foundation he’d been helping to build. He talked with a greedy smile, that sort of look that made it seem like he was already in love, a look that betrayed any way of him hiding it, the truth of it beaming so brightly in his face, then the truth of it said when he told her he would marry her one day, and that she would not be able to resist.
He’d taken the ticket, he told her on the phone. Apparently someone had known her cousins and he had inquired with them about who she was and where she lived and learned also of her trip, the rumor that it was to see a young poet who’d she’d known. A wild coincidence, but it was a small town. He’d taken the ticket when he’d been to the house, she wasn’t home, and he had introduced himself and told her father that he wanted to marry her. He eyed the ticket on top of the home piano, not even expecting he would find it and not looking that hard either, only hoping for her hand before she met the poet. He swiped it as he left, and this secured his offer more. He told her on the phone about his visit to her father and the blessing of her father and that he had told him to keep silent until he would break the news to her himself. She cried because it was inevitable. She was not able to resist. When a man made an offer as good as this one, her father stated, it was a done deal and she had to do what was best by family and what the church said that God said. Agree, or it was shame, banishment, cold shoulders and ugly remarks.
You told me this the week before you left for Seattle, and I had to call you a week after you were in Seattle because I had questions about the story, though in all reality it was me trying to hear your voice, make out whether you liked being on the West Coast and hoping maybe you had your doubts and you’d come home. I missed you, and I wished that we had ran a hundred races like the one we did, and I wished for a hundred more hikes through the woods, and I wished for time to repeat itself again and again and that we would have never left those moments behind. I had this sudden urge, one time, to fly out to Seattle and to come in where you worked, or whatever it is you do out there, and I’d come in and come right up to you and say everything straight out. You would not cry like your mother did. It would not be by force or without reason, but by truth, me saying to you what I needed to say, and you then knowing it was the choice you needed to make, the odd reality that you had always known but only needed it pointed out to you.
I left the flight to pictures in my mind, left sifted among those other pictures where I’m always still running and out of breath and the tree is ahead and I’m not quite sure if I’m letting you win or if I’m struggling to keep up. I have not been back on that trail we hiked that time. I have always refused that path. I tried once to see Myra, got her number from you, but she was always busy and anyways she could not replicate the experience without you there. She acted different when she was on the phone, more serious and cold in tone and not at all like the laughing and bungling girl that she was for you. After two or three tries, I stopped calling her. The last time I called, after she said she couldn’t meet me and said maybe some other time, I put my phone back in my pocket and sat on the bumper of my car. I was at the park’s entrance and I was looking at the big tree we had raced to. I went to that tree and felt its bark and even thought about carving my name and yours in the tree with a big heart around it, like we had done it together. But the thought was juvenile and, anyways, I didn’t own a knife. I thought about what you were thinking right at that moment and then what thought you’d be thinking ten years from now. I wondered, so far off into the future, if I’d still have a place in your mind.
I could not have it full and happy. I could not speak, then, on the path because I knew the future. I was your prophetess and the queen of things you didn’t foresee. I was also your king, but I never let it show.
Do you remember the path? It ran parallel and up above the Wissahickon. I have double-images of it below us, a double-snake, an optic failure, the image that is seen if one eye is closed, the image of ripples double-exposed.
You are only a blur and you repeat over and over the same steps up the dirt path, and I tread behind, but we are going up the same path in the same spot, dirt under my feet, oaks to my left, rhododendrons and ferns to my right, and I am always there with gnawing jaw, mouth open, thoughts running the blade of the mind, beauty in the violence of thoughts split, and I am about to say what I wanted to say but the space doesn’t allow it.
Being prophetess, I see ahead of this place we repeat. I see a sigh, shoulders slunked down, and I envision how the word ‘no’ forms on your lips. But this is much later, and we are on a city street, trash strewn around like leaves in the woods and high winds striking through the alleys, and I can barely hear you and you have to speak up to tell me what is the ‘no’ that I was expecting but comes out as you saying we must exist between things, we must not define, must make our lives like gray clouds, opaque and cold, meeting for moments but not for lifetimes.
Do you remember the Wissahickon, the river down below, sun-shocked, the gold shimmer on it like fresh wounds if heaven were a place that hurt, and in its green-gray we saw the catfish, big and slow, sedentary, swimming in small circles and not hungry, looking like they didn’t know what to do next. I pointed them out, but you got lost in a bird on the end of a log. Its head cocked and rolled and fidgeted and it turned and turned, a smooth frantic, chirped out mindlessly and hobbled down the log, indigo sheen across its feathers. Then it darted. Disappeared. You said it had to be your spirit animal, how beautiful it was, and that it spoke into your heart a thousand echoes that made you clench your chest, and you said that made you hurt and that you had to stop.
This occurred some time after that portion of the walk up the hill, but I can only see this in the moment when you, a fuzzy blur of television static, were walking ahead of me, and you take two steps, or maybe four, I can’t remember, then you take them again, again, again, and we never get up the hill where I say what I actually say much later but actually don’t ever say on that hill in the woods but imagine myself saying it. Oak to my left, shrub to my right, you’re walking ahead of me, always.
I am the prophetess. I could not speak because I knew the future. The king never comes out because I don’t know who that is. I would rather be the prophetess. I would rather be the queen. Or rather be your fate coming from the mountain. All this means being anything else than what I am, being the prophetess that in reality I’m probably not because the future maybe I think I made and I’m not sure, and being the queen and the king and being the thing that I say I am but I am not. And I am what I say I’m not, and I am not what you would want me to be.
After the bird, you stopped and laughed and said it was like your heart hurt to see it darting away. You stopped much like you did back in the city when you talked about us being in clouds and that you didn’t know yourself enough to know what it was you were saying, but you could only call it clouds. But I knew as the prophetess what it meant and I knew that your not knowing was a sign that you knew, deep-down, that your decision was in the way the river went, how the Wissa would bend and turn and fall away from sight but how you knew, how anyone knew, that when it went away beyond us it would keep bending and turning, unseen for miles, until one day it would dry up.
Luke Bartolomeo is the editor of the Monongahela Review. He has been previously published in Word Riot, The Driftwood Review, and Mount Hope.