I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
I see myself in the dark glass of a storefront window. The image is wavering, untrue. I slip a cigarette from my pocket with pinched fingers and stare at it for two or three minutes, perhaps longer. Then place it between my lips and strike a match as if I never hesitated. This is a nervous condition I developed in jail. Time becomes narrow, physical. My perception of self is largely incidental. This allows me to fade, to assume the colors of concrete and sky that surround me. To briefly disappear. I’m detached, untormented by memory. Then a flash of teeth, a smile. I’m exposed. My reflection shimmers in the dark glass and I decide I’m pretty funny. I have been out of jail for six hours and now I stand on a street corner like I’m waiting for a bus. I’m a clown in a borrowed suit. The sleeves are too short and my hands dangle like fish on a string. The tie is singularly ugly. There’s a hole in my shoe and now my toes are wet. My name is Seth Blake and I might as well be a dead body waiting to be cleaned and shoved in a drawer.
I turn to my left and walk until I come to a convenience store. The clerk is pale and unfriendly but I convince him to give me five dollars in change. Now I jingle, faintly. I’m a cat with a bell around its neck and sparrows will veer away from me. I step outside and find a phone booth. Flip through the White Pages and find her smudged name. Emma Waters. It’s hot in the booth and I’m sweating like a madman. I’m nervous and I don’t want to admit it. I take off the brown jacket and tie and leave them wadded on the floor. Now I wear a white shirt and ill-fitting brown pants. If only I had a name tag that said: Hello, my name is Seth! I could be selling religious literature door-to-door. I dial the number and a woman answers. Emma, I say.
I’m on my way to work. Who is this?
Where do you work?
She sucks in a long breath. Oh, shit.
How are you?
Is this Seth? she says.
Where do you work?
At the Three Sisters, she says. But don’t come see me, okay.
Silence. I wait for her to laugh, to scream at me.
But she hangs up and I let the receiver swing on its cord and an automated voice instructs me to hang up if I would like to make a call. The traffic outside shrinks away, it becomes the friendly hum of insects. I feel clammy, terrified. It’s been three years since I received one of her grim, cheerful letters. I didn’t mind so much, when the letters stopped. It’s too difficult to communicate with someone through walls. Everything is a dull reminder. A description of a grocery store or the weather could bring me to tears. I have to see her, though. There’s nothing else for me, no one else. Five minutes. I need five minutes with her. I gather saliva in my mouth and spit. The Three Sisters is a cafe, a gloomy little place near the college. It’s all the way across town. I start walking.
I stop at another pay phone and call Jason. He has been my friend, my enemy since we were ten. I met him in the fifth grade. He promptly hit me in the face with a basketball and my nose has been fucked up ever since. It’s crooked, or something. I can’t breathe properly. But then he gave me his bicycle when mine was stolen. I wrote all of his book reports in the seventh grade because his father died and he was a wreck. He was stealing his mom’s sleeping pills and wetting the bed every night. I slept with his sister four precious times, then casually broke her heart. Jason forgave me, however. He borrowed 300 dollars from me. He told me it was for an abortion but I think it was a drug debt. The brown suit I walked out of jail in was his. He loaned it to me the day I went to court. He said he didn’t want it back and I don’t blame him. It’s an ugly fucking suit. And it itches. Jason’s number is listed but not his address. He answers on the fifth ring.
Don’t blink, I say.
Seth, he says. Jesus.
No, shit. Where are you?
I’ll come pick you up.
No, I say. Not yet.
What are you doing?
I’m going to see Emma.
Unwise, he says.
Maybe so. But I’m going.
Spare yourself, he says. Don’t tell her you love her or anything.
Because you might as well cut your own throat.
Yeah. Maybe I should do that.
The cafe is crowded, buzzing. I take a seat at the counter. Emma is dressed in black, as before. A short skirt and a little sleeveless shirt, stockings and boots. A black apron smeared with grease. She looks tough and efficient and this is not how I remember her. She glances at me and doesn’t smile.
How are you, she says.
Emma nods, chewing the end of her pen. Her hair is pulled back and her skin is unpleasantly shiny. She isn’t so thin as she used to be. She is wearing too much lipstick, I think.
You look good, I say.
She glances at the clock, at a woman with a crying baby. At anything but me. I think of the girl I knew five years ago. Nineteen and scared, her wrists like sticks. She shook when I touched her. But she believed me when I told her she was safe with me.
What can I get you? she says.
I ask for a fried egg sandwich and she sighs.
This is a vegetarian place, she says.
Eggs are not technically meat, I say.
I’m busy, she says.
Okay. A cup of coffee.
She remembers the way I like it and this nearly shatters me. She gives me a pale, apologetic smile and says that she sometimes has disturbing dreams about me.
I’m not sure if that’s good or bad.
Neither, she says. It just is.
I watch her work and soon I’m undressing her in my mind. Not to be rude. But I want to remember her body. She has a tattoo on her shoulder blade, a blue rose without thorns. A scar on her left thigh where a dog bit her as a child. Pubic hair the color of rust and the only truly perfect belly button I have ever seen. She has a heart murmur. She doesn’t charge me for the coffee and she doesn’t ask if she will see me again.
I follow her home after work. She lives just three blocks from the campus and I wonder if she’s going to school now. I imagine her in a psychology class, a poetry workshop. Her hair in a ponytail. She frowns and takes notes in small, spidery handwriting. It’s possible. I stop, my mouth thick and metallic with nausea. I was in school once. I didn’t much like it, but it was something. I have lost bits and pieces of myself. Now my skin is cold and I believe in machinery. I believe. And tomorrow I will be throwing myself at strangers. Emma goes into an apartment building and I wait a few minutes before slipping through the shadows to make a note of her address. She is in apartment 3D and this makes me smile. She is three-dimensional. This is more than I can say for myself. I back away and go to find another phone booth.
Jason answers on the first ring this time.
Did you see her?
Yeah, I say. Briefly.
Fine, he says. Let’s get drunk or something.
She’s still beautiful.
Forget it, he says. That girl doesn’t exist anymore.
She does, I say. She’s real.
Five years ago, he says. You had a nice little thing with her, right. But it was pure fantasy and you almost got her killed.
We were going to Oregon, I say. We were going to get married.
Oregon is for suckers, he says. It rains all the time.
It’s always green there. Always.
I’m coming to get you, he says. Tell me where you are.
I hang up and dial Emma. She picks up on the first ring but doesn’t say anything. She breathes. She waits for me to say the first word. In the background I can hear a television, the shrill theme music for “Jeopardy.” I hate that music. And then a strange woman’s voice, bored and derisive: Who was Margaret Mitchell?
Who is that? I say.
No one, says Emma. My neighbor.
Are you hungry?
I work in a restaurant. I can’t stand to look at food.
Okay, I say. Let’s go to a movie.
Emma sneezes, laughing. I have a cat named Freckle.
You’re allergic to cats.
No, she says. I’m not.
My teeth hurt. Are you going to school? I say.
Memphis State, she says. I’m a psych major.
Good, I say. That’s good.
Do you think so?
I shrug. Are you happy?
Yeah. Where is Madagascar? she says.
I hang up the phone delicately. I control my breathing. I wait for five minutes, ten. I wait until my mind is relatively empty. Then I cross the street to her building.
Her building has no security door and anyone can walk right in. No one will say boo. I’m sure the rent is very attractive. I take the stairs up to 3D . I knock and she opens the door. She smiles brightly, innocently. As if she is surprised to see me.
She wears underpants and a man’s pajama shirt. I stand in the doorway, silent. There is a mirror behind her and I study my own expression, curious to see if it will betray me. I scratch my throat and decide that I look a little too desperate.
Your hair looks terrible, she says.
I nod, helpless. I steal a glance at her bare legs. Emma turns away and I follow her into the living room. A woman sits on the couch and I immediately do not like her. She wears spandex pants and a little Everlast t-shirt cut off at the ribs and when she moves or takes a deep breath I see the pale curve of her breast.
This is Michelle, says Emma.
Michelle shrugs. She barely looks at me but her dark thoughts are visible as smoke. She doesn’t want me there. Emma announces that she is making popcorn. I trail after her, into the kitchen.
Are you enjoying this? I say.
Emma is pushing buttons on the microwave. Her hair is loose, hanging in fine curls around her throat. I stand against the refrigerator, my hands buried in my pockets. She looks up at me.
So, she says. What will you do now?
You act like we went to high school together. Like this is Christmas break.
Emma presses her lips together. I’m trying to be nice, she says.
Nice, I say.
What did you come here for?
To see you. To tell you things.
I don’t know if I can stand it, she says.
I can’t look at her anymore and I go back into the living room. I sit on the edge of the couch, an arm’s length from Michelle. She tucks her legs beneath her like a nervous dog. Emma comes in with two green bottles of beer and a bowl of popcorn. I take a handful and it’s slimy with butter. Emma isn’t looking so I drop it back in the bowl. I sip a beer. Michelle drinks the other one.
I don’t drink, said Emma. Her voice is too loud.
Okay, I say.
She stares at me. Your hair really looks bad.
That’s how they cut it in jail.
Emma is silent for a moment. Michelle begins flipping channels on the TV, hesitating interminably on each station. I think she’s doing this on purpose, to creep under my skin. I think I could easily kill her.
You know. Michelle cuts hair, says Emma.
Michelle coughs and I glance at her. She looks like she swallowed a razor.
I drink the last of my beer, smiling. Why not, I say.
Emma goes to get a chair from the kitchen. Michelle gazes at the TV and says softly that I should go wet my hair. In the bathroom I stand on a fuzzy green mat and let cold water run in the sink. It would be nice to use this bathroom everyday. To brush my teeth with Emma’s toothpaste, to bathe with her soap. The shower curtain is clear plastic, with three giant fish swimming across it. There is a calendar on the back of the door, stuck on the wrong month. The picture is taken from an old Dick Tracy comic. I flip the months past Little Nemo, The Phantom, Betty Boop. I grind my teeth and shiver. Betty Boop disturbs me. Her eyes are too big for her head and she has no actual mouth. Her figure is freakish. The shrunken waist and big curvy breasts, the thighs of a dwarf. I turn to look in the medicine cabinet. The usual female gear, mysterious and oddly threatening. I swallow several prescription diet pills and hope my world will accelerate. Through the closed door I can hear Emma and Michelle, hissing at each other. I lower my head into the sink and the water is very cold.
I come out of the bathroom and Emma tells me to take my shirt off. She tugs at it, playfully.
You don’t want to get dead hair on it, she says.
I stare into her face. I shove my thoughts at her like a bag of garbage. I want her to tell Michelle to go home so we can talk, so we can comfort each other. But she perhaps doesn’t need comforting, or maybe she can’t hear my thoughts. Her eyes flicker away like wings. I take off my shirt and sit down. Michelle paces the floor, holding scissors and comb.
How do you want it? she says.
I don’t know. Different.
Emma smokes a cigarette, watching us.
Michelle leans over me and her breath is warm. She touches my chin, my throat. She puts her hand flat on my bare chest and tells me to sit up straight. I remember my mother cutting my hair when I was a kid. She always made me look like a geek, like a kid that stuttered. The scissors whisper at my neck.
I know about you, Michelle says.
You don’t know anything, I say.
Oregon, she says. How romantic.
Yeah, I say. Fuck you.
But on the way to Oregon you stopped at a crackhouse. And fell into a world of shit.
It wasn’t exactly a crackhouse, says Emma.
Michelle looks at her. Whatever. You overdosed and he left you in the bathtub to die. A real boyfriend doesn’t do that.
I didn’t die, says Emma.
What is a real boyfriend? I say.
Michelle shrugs. He’s nothing like you.
My hair is falling to the floor in chunks and Emma is silent.
I loved her, I say. I was trying to protect her.
Emma gets up and leaves the room. She walks like a new person. She was unfinished when I knew her, a child. Now she is someone else.
Michelle giggles. Love, she says. What is that?
I close my eyes, weary. I’m not angry at all. I’m lost. Michelle drags the scissors across my throat like a knife and as I pull away the scissors flash and she cuts off a very small piece of my ear. Now I’m missing a tiny piece of skin and it could have been an accident.
What really happened? she says.
It doesn’t matter, does it.
And what did you come back for? she says. To marry her?
To see her, I say.
I stand up. I take the scissors away from her and toss them at the couch. There is blood dripping onto my shoulder. I carefully put my white shirt back on and let it drip.
Michelle laughs out loud. Oh, my god. I butchered you. You look like a mental patient.
Everything has a faintly pink sheen to it. I feel grotesque. I think I should get away from Michelle before I rip her throat out. I walk to the door. There is the mirror again and I glance at it. My hair is uneven, jagged and too short. My ear is bloody and it’s true. I look like a bad suicide attempt. There’s a little table next to the front door with a ceramic bowl that holds keys and gloves and books of matches. I casually take a ring of keys and walk out, twirling them on my finger.
There is a Volkswagen key on the ring. I wonder if these are Emma’s keys, or Michelle’s. I sniff them, press them to my heart. They smell like metal. I look around the parking lot for Volkswagens and count five. I try the key in each of them. The fourth is a little blue Rabbit with a cryptic green bumper sticker that reads Slumberland: 999 miles and I feel a goofy smile twitch across my face. This is her car. The dashboard is lined with dried flowers and seashells. The car smells like her hair, like lemon and smoke. The radio is tuned low to a country station and I drive aimlessly. I can hear my own jaw clicking. The happiness fades so fast. My ear is bleeding and sore and I don’t want to remember that Emma has a weakness for Patsy Cline.
I’m on empty and I pull into a gas station. There are six pumps and a square metal hut. A girl’s face, pale and round behind glass. Moths wheel and spin in the electric light. I count my money: 26 dollars, a lord’s ransom for my needs. I tell the girl I want six dollars worth of premium, thinking I might as well be kind to Emma’s car. It’s the least I can do. I unscrew the gas cap and an ambulance drones past. The nozzle is heavy in my hand, like a gun. I push it in and squeeze. My mind shimmers and the night comes back, with the slow drift of dreams. Emma thrashes on the floor like she’s made of rubber, turning purple. No one knows she’s epileptic. I call 911 and everybody freaks out. They scatter like rats. I carry Emma into the bathroom and lay her down on cool white linoleum. She seems okay and when the cops come I tell them the coke is mine. But the paramedics find Emma in the bathtub and she’s seizing again. She nearly kills herself. The ambulance is gone, the siren still fading and now gasoline spews back at me. On my hands and thighs.
She must have climbed into the tub to hide. But she doesn’t remember.
I stink of gasoline and I’m talking to myself.
There’s a pay phone next to the metal hut and I pull out a handful of change. Three rings and I get his machine. A long beep and I start raving.
Emma has a girlfriend, I say. And she’s a vicious bitch. She gave me a haircut, a very bad haircut. She fucked me up.
He picks up the phone. I told you not to go there.
I’m a fool, I say.
Did you tell her you love her?
This is pathetic, he says.
Then I stole her car.
Interesting tactic, he says.
Yeah. Do you want to get a beer or something?
He laughs. Where are you?
I don’t know. The corner of Southern and Cooper.
Okay, he says. I’ll be there in 20 minutes. Don’t do anything.
I sit down on the pavement beside Emma’s car. I feel faint, like I’m losing blood. The wound on my ear can’t be that bad. My stomach is unpleasantly empty and it’s difficult to concentrate. The detachment is gone. The reptilian cool is but a memory. There is a fucking frenzy in my head. My head feels like it’s stretching, like it may crack apart. The smell of gasoline, the taste. A short, muscular kid is walking toward me. He wears football cleats.
Excuse me, he says. Do you have a jack?
I sniff my hands. There is merciful silence but for the insects burning in the lights above.
My mother’s car, the kid says. His voice cracks and he’s maybe 16.
Across the lot is a long black car. It has suicide doors and a flat tire in back. A fat lady stands there, her hands clutched together. I shake my head. Okay, I say. I have a jack.
I open the trunk. Emma must have done laundry recently. There are two small baskets of fresh, sweet smelling laundry that could break my heart if I’m not careful. I dig around in the dark and pull out a small, slightly rusted jack. The kid takes it from me carefully. Thank you, he says.
He turns and walks toward his mother. I drift behind him, as if drawn into his wake. The woman is old, her face gray and mashed. She is wrapped in scarves and shawls, muddied shapeless colors. She glares at me, furious with shame. I feel numb, helpless before her. The tire is shredded, as if they drove on it for blocks. The boy crouches in the dark, the jack between his legs. He wedges it under the fender. The jack was intended for a much smaller car, and it cranks slowly with a groan of metal. A screeching noise as the car begins to sway.
Help him, the mother says.
I don’t want to touch the jack. My skin is too cold and fragile and I can see the teeth slipping. My hand, caught between jack and fender. Two fingers cut off at the knuckle, dropping to the ground like the guts of a chicken. I clench my fists and resist the urge to count my fingers. I’m such a fool. I’m speeding from those diet pills.
I kneel beside the boy. I’ll crank it, I say.
The car rises unsteadily, like a horse with broken legs. The boy puts his weight against the car to stop the sway. If it falls he will not be able to stop it. There will be blood and drama. My world has certainly accelerated and I stop myself from laughing out loud. The boy loosens the bad tire and drags it aside. His mother is talking or praying softly to herself, to no one. I rest my hands lightly on either side of the jack, watching the boy. The spare tire is bald, with pale swellings in the sides. It will not last two days. The boy sighs and I look away, at the bugs crashing and dying in the lights.
Keep the jack, I say.
I walk across the street, the noise in my head like a riot. I try to relax, to let the silence come. My hands are loose at my sides. The air is thick with heat. White steam drifts from a sewer opening. I have 20 dollars and half a tank of gas. I turn to look back at the little Rabbit and my eyes burn. I think I’m getting misty over a car. Emma is a psych major, right. I wonder if she would call this emotional displacement. Now I breathe softly and eye the liquor store that has appeared before me. I go inside and walk to the back. There is Irish music in the air and the store is empty. A little old man sits on a stool behind the counter. I point over his shoulder.
Vodka. Something cheap.
The old man grunts, smacking his lips.
His face is relaxed and boneless and as he turns with a pint bottle, our hands touch and there is a rush of silence. Without hesitating, I lunge at him. I shove the bottle into the man’s sunken face but it doesn’t break. It’s plastic, the bottle is plastic between hand and cheekbone. The old man’s shirt is white and he wears suspenders. His eye is bleeding but not bad. He falls backward, shocked on his stool. His hands come up with a shotgun. It’s a relic, though. It’s covered in dust. The old guy pulls the trigger and nothing happens.
I open my eyes. I love this music, I say.
The old man stares as I hop on one foot in a wretched jig. I grab two bottles of champagne and drop 20 dollars on the counter.
I don’t want to rob you, I say. Really. I don’t know what I want.
Outside. I walk back across the street where Emma’s car waits for me. My heart is like a hammer but otherwise I feel fine. I pop one bottle of champagne and foam runs white to my elbow. I drink and let the bubbles tickle my spine. It’s pretty good stuff and now there are sirens in the distance. Twenty dollars is maybe not enough for two bottles of champagne and a broken jaw.
A motorcycle rolls up and Jason gets off. He walks toward the car.
Get away from me, I say. I robbed a liquor store.
Jason wears a leather jacket and jeans. He shakes his head in disgust and comes around to the passenger door. He climbs in and I catch a glimpse of his face in the dome light. He’s handsome, muscular. He’s lost a little hair, maybe. He smells like tobacco and expensive aftershave.
You weren’t kidding, he says.
That is a ridiculous haircut.
I sigh. It’s been a long day.
Was there a video camera in the store?
I didn’t notice.
Maybe you will get lucky. For once.
Thanks for coming, I say.
You’re shaking like a twig, he says.
Yeah. I’m glad to see you.
He touches my cheek with a cool, hardened hand.
Five years, he says.
I know. It’s killing me.
Come on, he says. I want to meet this girl who cut your hair.
You can’t protect me, I say.
He smiles. Let’s just take the car back, okay.
Michelle opens the door and her mouth is black with lipstick. She smiles at me, her face shiny with sweat. She laughs at me. I stand in the doorway, Jason beside me. My hands are heavy and I still stink of gasoline. I feel a thousand times better, though. Jason is stronger than me. Michelle leans against the door, a curve of hard skin and muscle. She eyes Jason with the flat, curious gaze of a cat. I can feel him breathing beside me, ticking like a clock. Michelle now wears a white dress, sheer across the belly. Her hair is dark red and falls to her shoulders. I touch my own hair and look down. She wears army boots, the leather bright and polished.
This is Jason, I say.
The door widens. Come in, she says.
There’s no sign of Emma. I tell myself we should just go, we should just walk outside and disappear. But Jason is looking at Michelle with a tiny glitter in his eyes, a barely visible twist to his lips.
We have champagne, I say.
Michelle flashes her bitter mouth. She slips a cigarette between her teeth, smiling. Jason sits beside her on the couch. He lights her cigarette for her and his face is furious and calm at once.
I like your friend, she says.
Are you Emma’s lover, I say. Or what.
Now isn’t that charming, she says.
You see two women and you can’t wait to see them in bed together.
No, I say. That’s not true.
What is the truth? she says.
The truth, says Jason. He laughs softly, his eyes on Michelle.
I grind my teeth, back and forth. I force myself to pour three glasses of champagne. Michelle drinks hers greedily. I can’t even touch mine. My hands feel like they’re made of wire and I run them through my jagged hair. Michelle leans on her cocked elbow, her fingers stroking and pulling at her own hair. She pretends to ignore me. I stare at her pale shaved armpit and I want to choke her. I want to sleep with her. Jason puts his arm around her and she doesn’t resist. She pats his leg patiently.
Michelle, he says. Do you like Seth’s hair?
She smiles and moves her hand up his thigh.
I don’t like it, he says.
Let’s go somewhere, she says. You and me.
Are you trying to protect Emma from me? I say.
She glances at me, annoyed. Maybe.
Because I’m not dangerous, I say.
She shrugs and leans to nibble on Jason’s ear.
Jason stares at me, smiling. Look at his hair, he says. He looks like some kind of retard.
Retard, she says. Retard.
Maybe it was imaginary but I loved her once, I say.
Michelle is bored with me. She blows on her fingernails as if they are wet.
You should have turned the water on, she says. Her voice is mild, humorless.
If you wanted to kill her, says Michelle. You should have turned the water on in that bathtub.
Michelle smiles at me and Jason grabs her like he’s snatching a fly out of the air. He pulls her close and locks his arm under her throat. She struggles and kicks, pulling at his arm. Michelle can’t breathe and I realize from a great distance that he’s crushing her windpipe.
Jason, I say.
It’s okay, he says. He relaxes his grip and she can breathe.
How would you like it, he says. If someone cut your hair like that.
He reaches into his pocket with his free hand. He pulls out a pocketknife and thumbs open the long blade, then gives it to me.
Cut it, he says. Cut off a handful.
Michelles eyes are horrified and I’m tempted in a cruel, childish way. I shake my head and Jason releases her immediately. She slumps against the couch.
Where is Emma? I say.
Michelle glares at me. In her room, she says.
The knife is cool and weightless in my hand. The diet pills are fading and I feel almost normal. I feel a warm draft of air on the back of my neck. I try to harden my skin, to feel nothing at all. But it’s useless, isn’t it. I walk down the hallway and find Emma’s door open. There’s a lamp on, a soft yellow light. Emma sleeps on top of the sheets, fully dressed. There’s a paperback book on her chest, something she might have grabbed at the grocery store. Her hands are in fists at her sides, her face flushed as if with fever. I sit on the bed and she doesn’t wake. Her mouth is open. She wears a short skirt, dark suede with brass buttons up the front. A blue t-shirt that barely covers her stomach. Her arms and thighs look cold. She has a fresh cut on one knee. I reach for a blanket to cover her.
I brought back your car, I say.
She sleeps and I wonder if she’s dreaming, if she feels safe. I touch her lips with the back of my hand and her kiss is but a reflex. Finally, I lean over her with the knife and cut away a lock of her black hair.
—Will Christopher Baer lives in California. His first novel, Kiss Me Judas, was published by Viking in September. He is currently working on a sequel, entitled Penny Dreadful.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee