Vacation by Ameena Meer

BOMB 22 Winter 1988
022 Winter 1988
​Ellen Phelan

Ellen Phelan, A Star, 1987, gouache on paper, 26¾ × 17 inches. Courtesy of Barbara Toll.

When I looked in the bathroom mirror this morning, a crowd of people looked back. They looked at me intently, with the same pale damp faces (as damp as my own felt, as pale as mine had been for days). The same terrified expression that I must have had. My first thought was that it was the time of day, the shock of the cold tiles on the soles of my feet, perhaps a hallucination of toothpaste flecks. When I opened the medicine cabinet, I expected all the faces to be gone for good. I was tired. I haven’t been sleeping well. Nervous, so nervous my stomach trembles. I feel it trembling through my clothes. I was sure that they were gone. They had to be gone. I took out my hairbrush and shut the door/mirror. But they had only been examining the peeling paint on my wall. They looked back at me with relief, I think, their white eyelashes fluttering and sticky with sleep.

I had been dreaming this morning. I was dreaming that I was lying naked on a glass floor and someone/something was throwing small plastic balls at my chest. They were light, brightly colored balls and they bounced off my sternum and hit the floor with sharp hollow clicks. Soon I was surrounded, half-buried in red, yellow, blue, green, jelly bean colored balls. I was thinking they must have fallen out of a bingo game, that they had numbers on them that I couldn’t see. I thought someone had turned the drum too fast and it had exploded. I don’t remember why I woke up.

There was a time when I used to sit in the park outside my room and brush my hair. I washed my hair every afternoon, and then I sat in the park and brushed it dry. Sometimes, I put lemon juice on it first, to make it shine. With each brush stroke, the tightly foamy curls would break again and again into thick waves. As I brushed it, it grew longer and longer, grew thicker and thicker, until it surrounded my head in a yellow cloud.

I was very beautiful. Very different. People walking by would stop to watch me brush my hair. Some people came every day to watch me brush my hair. They told me how beautiful it was. Not just men either. Women stopped to watch me brush my hair. Women told me how beautiful I was. One woman asked me to marry her. Many men did, of course. That was not as good. One man asked if I would sell my hair to him. Cut it off and sweep it into a plastic bag so he could have it made into a wig or a rug that he would step on every day as he got out of bed and walked barefoot to the bathroom. Of course, it ended up all being cut off anyway, but that was later.

It was not until I walked out of the door this afternoon that I realized I was invisible. No one could see me. No one noticed me at all. I walked down the stairs and popped out into a stream of people on the way home from work. I didn’t feel anything right away. At first, I just felt lonely. Melancholy. As if everyone I had ever known had moved away to New Zealand. As if I was walking around the city alone, remembering the places I used to go with friends but now had to go to alone.

The real reason was that no one saw me. That people passing me didn’t catch my eye and smile. No one winked or asked me directions. No one said, “Hey baby, I like your style.” I was gone.

I was even more nervous than I’ve been at night. My stomach seemed to be tossing itself against the wall of my skin. I tried to stop. I tried to stop and lean against a wall so that my organs would not break through my ribs. I was cold, very, very cold and I couldn’t stop. I was pushed along by the crowds. I think they must have been worried that they wouldn’t be able to catch the trains because of the strikes. The people were pushing against me. Sometimes I felt someone’s wet breath on my ear or my neck. Someone exhaled in my face and I smelled his musty breath as sick as if he hadn’t spoken to anyone all day. If I wasn’t careful, I felt fingers reaching for mine. I put my hands in pockets to keep from touching anyone but it was impossible to avoid the damp fingers from brushing against my hands.

There was a woman walking ahead of me with yellow frizzy hair. She looked familiar, I couldn’t remember from where. I reached forward and to touch her arm, to get her attention. Just as I did she moved into the crowd and I found I was grabbing her sleeve, grasping the black wool so hard my hands ached with the cold. I clung to the sleeve to try to pull her back, to try and get her to talk to me. She stopped. Amazingly she stopped and turned around so slowly and beautifully that I knew it was a miracle. And it was.

Her face was white and bloodless as marble staircases in the rain. She looked at me and I wanted her dry blue lips to crack open, to smile, to recognize me. Her face was empty. I think she was waiting for me to tell her why I stopped her. So I told her I was lost. I asked for directions. She told me but I had never heard of any of the places she was describing. I didn’t even know where I was. I was, we were standing in a field, a thick green field, the shrubs and grass seemed to grow in clumps like pillows, below us was a pond with a thin layer of ice on it. I didn’t know what to say. I looked at her brown shoes, at the ice breaking and the mud squeezing up and sticking to her shoes. I didn’t know whether she meant that I should walk into the woods behind her, I would have to follow her.

I looked at her white-blue eyes, tried to understand what she was saying. She blinked and a yellow eyelash fell out on her cheek. I noticed that she had hair on her cheeks. Scruffy razor stubble and I realized that she must be a man or an adolescent boy. He seemed young.

Then I thought maybe this wasn’t the same person at all. Maybe while I was staring at the mud, she walked away into the woods. I can’t remember how long I stared at the mud. I don’t think it was impossible. I think the boy came out of the pond. Or maybe he was there all along. He looked away from me, at someone who was walking towards us. It was another blond person, I can’t be sure if it was a man or woman, wearing a long coat and asking directions or maybe asking something else.

All of us were standing on the sidewalk, and more people were walking around us. I had to notice, now I was forced to notice that they were all wearing almost the same clothes, the same long black coats. I like coats like that. I even have one. I wear it all the time. It’s not that I don’t like them.

As we stood on the sidewalk asking directions, it became more and more crowded. People kept walking by or stopping and listening, looking at each other, looking at us with blank faces, blank empty faces as if they were waiting for someone to ask them questions or directions. The people who wanted to keep walking could barely get by. They had to force their bodies through the crowds of people that grew tighter and tighter. It was starting to get dark. The electricity had been cut off again. There were no lights. Even the shops were dark, their windows reflecting huddled shapes, as if we were all moving beneath a wool blanket. Hooded, moving shrouds.

When I could barely see the face of the person beside me, I decided to go home. I walked fast because it was so cold. The wind blew clumps of hair into my eyes and mouth and nose. My nose was running and the hair stuck to my cheeks. I thought my ears would be frozen off by the time I got inside. I thought about cutting off the hard frozen cartillage. I had a knife. I had scissors, everyone else had ears.

The floor of my room was glass. With every step, I thought it might break. It could suddenly crack like a sheet of ice. I tried to see if there was anything holding it up. But when I looked down, all I could see was darkness. Muddy darkness as if I was standing on an iced-over well in Iowa.

My ears were not frozen enough to cut off. They were still pink and soft. They ached. I put the knife away, but I still had the scissors. I decided to cut my hair instead. It was too dark to look in the mirror. I didn’t want to look in the mirror. I cut off my hair in chunks. With each thick slice the scissor blades clamped shut in metallic satisfaction. I kept feeding them, kept giving in to the clean sound of the scissors until the blades scraped my scalp. My hair floated to the floor, fell in curls and then spread out and blew away.

I looked down at the hair on the floor, relieved. I kicked away the piles with my shoes and then I realized that there was no floor at all. It was not glass, it was nothing. A vast black empty space and I was falling. I was falling so fast my coat ballooned up about me. I hoped it would be like a parachute. It might soften my fall, let me drift gently to the ground.

But there was no ground. I just kept falling. I just keep falling. As I fall, I see faces around me. More people falling. More people falling by with white terrified faces. Sometimes, I am standing on the sidewalk and I am lost. I am surrounded by people and I don’t know where I am. No one knows where I am. Or I am falling through my glass floor which is not a floor which was never glass before.

Ameena Meer is a short story writer who lives and works in New York.

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The first thing of Mary Gaitskill’s I ever read was a short statement she made at the back of The Best American Short Stories, 1993 about her story “The Girl on the Plane,” in which a man tells a woman in the airplane seat next to his that he once participated in a gang rape.

Originally published in

BOMB 22, Winter 1988

Robert Mapplethorpe by Gary Indiana, Nancy Lemann, Mike Kelley, Gary Stevens, Gleb Panfilov, Brice Marden by Saul Ostrow, and Rose English.

Read the issue
022 Winter 1988