As artists, we have to find the antidote to this darkness right now, to how everything feels so compressed rather than expanded.
Yavush dressed like a girl who didn’t really love herself—in short, strappy dresses that flashed meaty upper thigh, with a clip-on swoop bang and acrylic fingernails that curved into the future, dripping rhinestones, gold hearts, and glitter. Or else he went shirtless in tight pants and clanking block heels that announced, Yavush is coming! Either way, you smelled him before you saw him, because ever since he’d hit puberty he both trailed and sent forth a heavy blend of old funk and Troop! cologne thinned only slightly by his desperate need to give strangers the impression that he couldn’t be bothered. For a similar reason Yavush presented himself to our tiny world as a truant, orphaned crossdresser who understood the cosmos. Each year he tried out for soprano and was denied, so he went ahead singing his off-key falsetto in the boys’ section anyway. Sometimes he folded his eyelids back so the insides were showing, and if one eyelid fell back into place, he’d leave the other one alone so you were forced to look at ugliness and asymmetry both. He bit his toenails at the dinner table. He talked sassy to teachers and to his auntie who was willing to take anything since her husband passed. Sometimes he wore the murdered uncle’s ascot over his own concave chest and recited Psalm 91, the whole chapter. But he had a style to him that I liked a lot. Yavush wasn’t shy, more like really selective, and I felt dumb and phony and honored that he’d chosen me. This was a better alternative than feeling what I sensed was more accurate, that I just didn’t fit in with anyone else. He pressed his hair and rolled it with rags like the ugly little dolls my mother would sometimes buy out of shops so that nobody would have to look at them and then look at her and dream up a correlation. Occasionally my mother would give Yavush the eye and tell me later on, “Watch how he turns out.” But other times he would do the dishes or teach her a new dance, and forced into her gentle face, she would say, “Well, you can’t just give up on a kid.” Sometimes Yavush would fake like he was going to step in front of a car, just to scare folks. They would reach out a hand to save his young, at-risk life. But once they realized he was faking it, they’d cuss him out because nobody wants to lose their power to some sassy, crazy boy. And he couldn’t help but grin in their faces, because after all that noise, they were just proving his point anyway, that he had the power. Sometimes he talked about how “Don’t Ask My Neighbor” is such a good song that nobody could mess it up and then he coerced me to sing it with him. He hated vibrato and over-enunciating the lyrics, though he was known to do both. He said I had the million-dollar voice and I believed it. Sometimes at night I tried hitting notes I had no business trifling with because Yavush told me it was a good idea. It must be said: he was a good kisser and he kissed me to shame. But at the same time his mouth smelled like a funk-cologne brew, like he’d been desperately guzzling down his own potion, so my heart was confused. Yavush was the first person besides my mother to love me. I never called him my boyfriend, I was too afraid of that. But he was without a doubt my soul mate.
The summer we turned fourteen, Yavush and I nearly got ourselves killed because of a preoccupation he had with astral projection, which he had convinced me to try out as well. We’d spent hours kneeling before the television set watching every possible daytime drama and had become so bored with our own skin that it suddenly seemed like the right time to risk it all. I should mention that a few months prior, Yavush had suspended all hope that his auntie would adopt him and had decided instead to focus on bettering himself. His plan was to send part of his spirit forth and come back with something that would make him beautiful. We just had to find the right place to do it. At first I thought Yavush might have been trying to trick me, to see how much I believed in him. I thought it was a roundabout way of getting me to tell him that I thought he already was beautiful, and I considered confessing my heart if it would save us the trip. But once we started walking and the land of Tudor ranches had disappeared over our shoulders, I realized this was not the case. He was serious. How it all happened was pretty unremarkable. We were walking and then we lost our way. We just wanted to see if we could make it happen before my mother returned from work. Like every grade of trouble I’ve experienced since, this one appeared suddenly.
The heat was dazzling and tough. I pretended I wasn’t scared at first, but when I looked over my shoulder, I could no longer see the roofs of my mother’s neighborhood. The trees shook their heads, but none of that wind seemed to reach us. Everything sort of waved through the heat, like the air was dancing underwater. We continued walking. I tried to take the whine out of my voice when I said, “I’m going to get sunburned.”
Yavush glanced up from the booklet he was holding, either disgusted by the remark or my already blue complexion. He told me I’d have to cut my celestial chord and hook it to some white girl’s body for that to happen. “And even then,” said Yavush, “you have to think. Do you really want to do all of that just to get a sunburn?”
Yavush had been talking like that since his auntie found love on the computer and reneged on her familial obligations. In response, he purchased this dog-eared pamphlet that promised to explain how to overcome his circumstances supernaturally. The author, a portly brunette wearing cool reds and turquoise jewelry, had all the answers. She’d convinced Yavush to send his soul throughout the worlds, even if it burned. I didn’t trust her. She looked like she was going to stay single.
Yavush swept his bangs from his nose and said, “It’s in a woman’s nature to be jealous of another woman.” Then he told me what his fat brunette had promised him: that all he had to do was raise his vibration and channel a protective entity. This individual was going to guide him to an invisible plane that intersected with ours, and that was where he’d find what he was looking for.
The sun was trifling with the clouds, squandering its brilliance in waves. It was starting to go down, and I kept looking to make it stay in place. “How do you raise your vibration?” I said.
Yavush looked embarrassed at the question. Then he scraped a crust island out of his ear and sniffed it. “With my voice, obviously.”
My heart lifted a little, buoyed by the heat that swelled between us, and then it sankled down. Singing it off was one of our dumb rituals, like kissing and doing nothing else. We would sit Indian style, forehead to forehead, and sing to trigger a change in life. Together our voices had the power to buckle the wallpaper, warp the floorboards, and rattle the windows, though of course, there was never any evidence this had happened. But when Yavush and I were alone, I always felt like our voices could do amazing things, so it hurt to know that he had conspired with himself to do it without me.
To conceal my busted feelings, I decided to climb a tree. I felt like I had to try and get away from Yavush and where he’d taken me. But I wasn’t very good at climbing. I kept hugging and falling and scrapping up my thighs. Plus, my mouth was dry. I finally got up to the lowest, easiest branch, but it could barely support my weight and rocked me uncaringly above the forest. Yavush stood back scratching his head and picking his dirty nails. I told him that I was not afraid of falling to my death, but the moment after I said that I became very nervous. As I tried to climb down again, I lost my footing and fell. It was not a clean fall, and the tree cut up my hands and legs.
Yavush laughed so hard I thought this might actually be funny. But at the same time it was getting dark, and my body was telling me it wanted to cry. Yavush thought it was a good idea to keep walking, so we did and he kept laughing. When it seemed like he was done laughing, he’d laugh again. I couldn’t bear myself, the thoughts I kept stuffing in my head. I kept thinking how vulgar it feels to know when you’re about to die, that you lived through your death date all those other days but not on this day. I wanted to talk about that with Yavush, to see what he and his pamphlet writer thought of the matter, but he wouldn’t look at me. I wanted Yavush to tell me how relieved he was that I didn’t break my neck messing with that tree. I wanted him to say he’d never be the same if I died.
When I said that, Yavush let his head to the side, at an angle that must have hurt his neck. That’s how gross I was to him. “You know what?” he said almost sadly. “Your energy is going to destroy my trip.”
But my thing was, we were lost. And we were in danger of dying lost. I wanted to talk about possibly dying behind my mother’s house, but my ears burned at the thought of it. I didn’t want to be the kind of girl who died behind her mother’s house, but the truth is I’d always known deep down who I was. I started to tell Yavush some of this, in the most poetic kind of way. When I looked up, he was digging a thumbnail between his teeth, loosening plaque off a molar.
Seeing that made me feel bad. The entire atemporal world was all around me, but the only things to look at were pine trees and sky. And nasty Yavush. He leaned in to kiss me, so I let him.
“I guess you could do it too,” Yavush said. He kept trying to look me in the eye as though that would fix things. “Let’s sing it off together,” he said. Yavush’s face was live with the unmistakable gloss of a vision, and I knew I’d be committing a sin if I said anything contrary. When he tried it, I let him kiss me again.
Yavush dragged his teeth over the curve of his mouth kicking up a film of dead skin, glancing at me while he did it. Maybe I didn’t find him attractive. He cried a lot and made himself puke for the spectacle of another person’s reaction. He didn’t have a chest and his knuckles were so ashy. I didn’t know how else I could get through it, all the days ahead, repulsed but in love with this boy. But I knew then that one day I was going to hurt him bad.
We sang in just the right pitch, the one that was almost impossible for our bodies to produce. Our noses and jaws shimmied under this unison sound, and a cool, dizzying feeling tumbled into us. In the realest sense of the term, it was a shared moment. You could feel with one-hundred-percent accuracy what the other person was feeling. I could feel what it was to be Yavush, and I bet he could feel the careful ugliness it took to be me too. As we sang our song, I could see it with my voice, it was terrifying to be him. Even Yavush was terrified of being Yavush.
Anyway, I felt it. Sometimes I still do. It felt like our own national anthem, like a password. We sounded that good. That careful harmony let loose from our bodies was so smooth and precise, I wondered how it could ever get very far, how it could ever bring anything back to us.
The sun smeared itself into streaking colors that glided into one another, over and over, until the sky turned black. Then the moon showed up, round and bright as a hub cap. Wild animals chatted without fear. Sometimes a breeze hummed a little menacing warning, and sometimes it just felt like a breeze. But the second a breeze was only a breeze, it started to hum the warning again. I didn’t want to believe what you believe when you’re alone. Some folks like to imagine a space daddy gazing back through the screen of clouds. That someone of psychic relation is there, their face a living reminder that anything can come back to you if you beg enough. But it was hard for me to see things this way. It scared me that on the last day I couldn’t see what other folks had. I told Yavush this without looking in his direction. I was too scared he’d glance at me and sigh.
“It won’t happen today,” he said, grinning so wickedly that I wondered how anybody can even stand anybody else. “Even the weakest person is hard to kill, and you ain’t weak. Give yourself some credit.” Once he found the right tree he took off his heels, but he still had on everything else.
Not long after we fell asleep, and when we woke up, it was to the sound of my mother stomping through the forest to save our lives. She’d brought along the inconvenient weapons of a house shoe and a spatula, which she lowered, disappointedly, as if the sight of us sleeping under a tree in the dark had made her forget why she’d even brought them. Yavush’s arm was still around me. With his eyes on my mother, he edged away. I said nothing, which might have been a mistake. All I could think of was my poor virginity. I didn’t want her to think I’d risked my life to give it up to Yavush in the woods. But that was almost how it looked.
From the back seat of my mother’s car, Yavush said, “I guess she’s our hero.” He didn’t seem too upset that we’d failed at raising our vibration.
When my mother dropped him off at his auntie’s house, Yavush didn’t wave goodbye. He left his book on the seat and, his witch spinster girlfriend smiling mystically into yellow dome lights. I wanted to throw that girl out the window, but I also wanted her to teach me things. So I picked up the book, sat on top of it, and put my hands together.
At the kitchen table, my mother wanted to have a serious conversation, so I listened closely until I almost understood a mother’s resentment. Your mother wants the best for you, but even if you try hard to do what she says, your mother will think less of you because she knows you could be doing something bigger in life than attempting to please her. Every so often I have to remind myself not to take it personally and that this is just her point of view.
To change the subject, I asked my mother how she’d found us. “How did you know where I’d be?” I said. “Why did you know?”
She leaned back, eyeing hard, like she hadn’t known her child to be that dumb up until that moment. “Because you’re mine,” she said. “And where you are concerned, I know everything.”
Selena Anderson’s stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Fence, the Georgia Review, and Callaloo. She is currently working on a novel.
Originally published in
In the process of putting together each new issue of BOMB, we often come across distinct resonances between interviews—shared themes, creative preoccupations, and even specific phrases crop up time and again within otherwise disparate features. In these pages, artists discuss their expansive notions on collaboration. Their practices tend to split, reapportion, or redefine authorship, privileging process over individual intention and encouraging unique partnerships with spectators, local communities, film subjects, and one another. These willful acts of reaching out and beyond are as vital as ever, and worth emphasizing here.
As artists, we have to find the antidote to this darkness right now, to how everything feels so compressed rather than expanded.