To be read with much distrust, as lyrics translated from a dead language. A scene pulled from the depths of a child’s memory.
We were packed in the car, driving to somewhere or away from something. Nausea was just setting in or only beginning to wane. The sky was slate gray, indicating some mysterious hour before sunrise. I might have been reading a book or, more likely, watching the passing street lamps take their final breaths, counting them.
Was it my mother who pointed or my father who gasped? Either way, I saw it. A lone car ablaze. It sat on the opposite side of the highway, pulled neatly to the side of the road, almost apologetically, as if it didn’t wish to bring attention to itself, didn’t wish to ruin the festivity of family travel.
To remember it feels hot, whether from the flames or from the adrenaline. To remember it feels silent, no sirens, no car horns, no sign that someone was coming to quell it. To remember it feels like wide eyes and shaking heads and lips mouthing, “What a shame.”
There were no people. That I remember for sure, neither on the pavement nor the grass. No arms waving for help. No skeleton hidden among the flames, thank goodness. It was a car burning, fire bringing in the sun. My cousin once told me that people could combust, out of the blue, just go up in flames and turn into ash.
II: Apple Picking
To be read like a pair of dueling pianos or, alternatively, like a kazoo interrupting a guitar solo.
It was fall, and the trees in our backyard grew heavy with crabapples. As few families can find a true use for hundreds upon hundreds of small, sour fruits, we left them for the birds, and once they fell, for the ants. When they became a hazard to the lawnmower, when they split open and began to ooze out onto the lawn, it was my task to go and dispose of them.
I approached the process with a scientist’s careful eye, searching for the remnants of apple stem amongst the brown puss. I pinched it with precision and lifted, feeling the decay separating from the earth, the same feeling of a sneaker separating from a sticky floor. I let it dangle in front of me for a moment, so that I could grimace and loathe my life properly, before dropping the apple into the plastic bag. Between the two trees, the task could take upwards of an hour, and I passed the time through muttering to myself and losing myself in the cloud of my own misery.
I was in such a state when they must have first appeared, two squirrels tumbling through the tops of the tree, chattering to each other. By the time the fog lifted and I became aware of them, they were deep into their game, rolling like tumbleweed along the slender top branch.
I watched only for a moment before returning to my unhappy work. As I surveyed the next apple, trying to distinguish stem from apple sewage, I heard a soft thud. I looked up. A squirrel lay dead in front of me, its eyes still open. Lifeless upon impact. I didn’t hear him fall, hear him slip from the branch or tumble through the air, surely afraid. The branches above still bounced with folly, but the other squirrel was nowhere to be seen.
I called for my mother. She put the squirrel in the same plastic bag as the crabapples and laid it to rest in the garbage bin.
To be read like a brand new Billie Holiday vinyl at the mercy of a broken record player.
It was the car ride home. I was in the passenger seat, head between my knees. He was rubbing my back, trying to be supportive. It wasn’t working.
I was eighteen. He was thirty-five. We had an arrangement. We met in a parking lot hidden from the main road, surrounded by trees. He didn’t get out of the car. We went to his house, the house he still shared with his mother. He stuffed damp towels and gym shorts into closets, assuring me that he meant to clean earlier, reminding me that highly creative people were often the most disorganized, so he really couldn’t be blamed for the state of things. We stayed for only a half an hour at a time. We never lingered. Words wasted time so we seldom used them. Shoes came off, and they laced back up. Afterwards, he would sometimes buy me a bagel or a coffee, but more often than not he didn’t have money. More often than not, I would give him money for gas.
He would call his mother on the car ride home, assuring her he was alone, that he was only moments from meeting up with her. I sat in the front seat with my head between my knees, ducking below the windows that might give me away to some neighbor, some acquaintance who knew us. I was told to be quiet, so I breathed through my pores and prayed that a car accident wouldn’t lead to a snapped neck, wouldn’t lead to my skull cracking against the glove compartment. Inevitably, after a few minutes, my back would begin to ache, and he would begin to rub it.
“You feel good. You’ve lost weight,” he said. He was right. I had.
Normally, I could keep it together, but today the pain in my back felt stronger and his hand coarser, grating my bare skin. Normally, I could think of days when I could sit upright, my hand in his as we drove down the street, unashamed, but today that time felt impossibly far, the light at the end of a MC Escher-painted tunnel. I gulped, trying to keep the lump in my throat from rising, but it was useless. My face flushed, my eyes watered and I watched a tear fall onto the floor below. He didn’t notice. How could he have? I told myself in that moment that I would end it.
We dated for another year.